Val Poore, that most elusive of authors, at least to me on her home territory, proved impossible to find on our return after five years to Rotterdam’s Oude Haven. Not knowing when we might arrive in Rotterdam (for time for trans-European car travel is notoriously difficult to estimate) and the fact that Valerie was almost certainly at work (it was a Friday), made it unfair to alert her to a visit we might not have been able to make. As it was, we discovered that the parking meters I wrote about those five years ago had all been made credit-card-friendly (maybe someone on the city council read my blog post!) and we could relatively easily pay for our stay. (If you are out there still, council person, to have various languages – as do ATMs – on your meters would make them even friendlier!)
Anyway, we were interested to find that, aside from the meters, not a huge amount had changed. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising for a museum of vintage barges, but there seemed to be more of them, so no doubt Valerie’s two memoirs recounting her experiences of restoring and living aboard her Vereeniging have encouraged others to do likewise. The boatyard was much busier, too, as you will see from the photographs, with more going on than the repair of one raised barge.
Vereeniging looked very well, too, with her gangplank effectively repaired (Valerie blogged about its vandalised damage) so that we momentarily wondered if we dared a quick stand on the foredeck! I’m sure if we had, the neighbours would have made us walk the plank in a rather different way! We met one of them, briefly (he had just arrived by bicycle), and asked him to say hello to Valerie and Koos for us.
I can safely aver that Rotterdam continues to thrive and the vibrancy we noted on our previous short exploration is still very much in evidence, even though the weather last Friday was gustily post-stormy and chilly. Anyway, enough from me now, except to say that Valerie has been a huge supporter of DI Yates and I’d very much have liked to meet her in person. I think that she has another memoir in the making and I’m sure it will be as warm and colourful as the others. Buy one and you’ll see what I mean. If you like canals and barges and narrowboats as I do, then her wanderings (‘farings’) along Dutch, Belgian and French waterways will hold you spellbound.
[Click on pictures to enlarge them.]
Though I’m not a travel writer, I’d like to share a recent visit to a place I had previously never considered exploring, but, having read a book by a Facebook and Twitter friend and seen pictures of it on her pages, I resolved to stop and have a look at her world. I occasionally pass close to this location, but am always en route to somewhere else (Aren’t we all?), with deadlines and people to meet, and it had never before spoken to me with seductive siren tones nor even given me a glimpse of its hidden beauties and charms.
This time, I wasn’t even sure if we would manage the detour, but my husband and I started out early from Germany and covered the intervening kilometres without delay, aided by what he had always previously eschewed but which now proved absolutely essential, sat nav. Negotiating foreign cities, especially those with road systems apparently designed to doom motorists to madness, is always fraught with tension; navigating Rotterdam’s streets may be a piece of coffee and walnut to its residents, but without help or prior knowledge, the new visitor might as well be in the wilderness.
We were heading for Oude Haven, the ‘Old Port’, or the oldest harbour in the city, now home to a collection of historic Dutch barges which Valerie Poore, @vallypee, not only writes about in her books, but has lived on and restored here, for Oude Haven is a working museum with a team of enthusiastic owners, metal- and wood-working skills and the heavy gear to lift huge vessels out of the water to repair and return them to their original state.
I can tell a nightmare story of parking in Amsterdam, which perhaps I’ll relate here some other time, so we were prepared with plenty of small change to feed the greedy meters and defy the wardens, when we eventually turned into Haringvliet, which we had strolled down on Google Maps and determined as our best stopover point for the harbour; however, our research had not been thorough enough, as we discovered that the meters are not fed with money, but with prepaid cards to be got from a range of locations (however, it was a Sunday and we had no means of finding them easily). Then we discovered, by dint of guessing at the truly double Dutch meter instructions that some meters could be accessed by credit card, but we couldn’t immediately see one of those. The masts of the barges and the gorgeous array of moored boats just in front of us seemed to float off into the mists of meter mania.
Rescue came in the form of a bluff but very personable gentleman who had just been buying flowers from the stall at one end of Haringvliet, where, he said, was a credit card meter. Not only did he walk us to it, but used his own card to meet our two-hour stay and accepted our cash payment only very reluctantly. How’s that for hospitality?
The way was now open to explore, albeit quite briefly, the harbour and to locate Vereeniging, the elegant barge belonging to Valerie. The place is a marvel of architecture, considering that most of the area was flattened in WWII. Perhaps most striking is Het Witte Huis, The White House, an art-nouveau skyscraper building designed by architect Willem Molenbroek and erected in 1897-1898, which miraculously escaped destruction in 1940 and which still towers over the port, though it has long since lost its original place as the tallest multi-storey structure; the eye is then ineluctably drawn to the astonishing ‘Kubuswoningen’ or ‘Cube Houses’, the 1984 brainchild of architect Piet Blom, just along the wharf.
But we were here, as lovers of English canal boats and boating, to look at what was on the water (or, in the case of barge Luna, raised out of it to the dockside repair cradle and undergoing some heavy metal treatment – welding was well under way, if the boat wasn’t!). The barges are remarkable, with their sheer size, huge masts and characteristic leeboards (for they are sailing cargo vessels), and we should have loved to have been able to look inside them.
Vereeniging, just about the smallest of them all, nestled in her elegant green and red livery amongst the others… and I could see at a glance what had captured Valerie’s heart about her. She seemed so much more of a living presence, thanks to my reading of ‘Watery Ways’, and her character was buoyant and bubbly, with all the sprightliness and effervescence of a gig compared to the barouche landau sedateness of most of the other boats. I can’t wait to read the next instalment of her history, ‘Harbour Ways’, now in the making! An old bicycle stood to attention on the deck; theft of about eight others has made the owner chary of leaving a valuable machine on board.
We walked around the harbour, ate and drank local beer at one of the cafés (probably not the best one!) and captured a picture of Vereeniging’s stern from across the water. Strolling back along the other side of Haringvliet, we came upon the corpse of a once-yellow bicycle rescued from the muddy depths (but unlikely to be restored like the barges!) and said hello to a ship’s cat, a ginger pirate with the capacity to leap eight feet from deck to harbour steps and to take his ease in the sun.
But time had sadly run out for further sightseeing. We had avoided the parking police, thank goodness, and sailed away to Europoort with the powerful sensation of having travelled to somewhere very special indeed. The homeward ferry was a terribly disappointing contrast to what we had just been seeing.
Valerie Poore’s Watery Ways is a book of three love affairs. Each has its highs and lows, pleasures and pains. The human one seems to be the least anguished and captures well a true meeting of minds and hearts; the others are much more fraught with complete cargoes of crises, one being the development of the author’s passion for life on the water, with its close-knit harbour community, and the other her embarkation upon an emotional journey to her own live-aboard barge.
Having enjoyed narrow-boating on canals and rivers in the UK and sailed around the Western Isles of Scotland, I knew that this book would have much to interest me. I came upon Val and her books during my own voyages of discovery into social networking. She is active on Twitter and Facebook and I quickly realised that, in addition to being a generous supporter of other authors and an astute literary commentator, she has the ability to write captivatingly of her wide-ranging experiences and many practical skills.
Watery Ways charts her experiences as a new member of the nautical family of Oude Haven, the oldest harbour in Rotterdam and home now to a collection of vintage boats, lovingly restored by their owners to standards established by a commission of experts set up by the harbour’s special Foundation. As a tenant aboard one of these barges, Val found her personal background of self-sufficiency and expertise in the restoration of wooden artefacts well-suited to the task of refurbishing and maintaining her ‘new’ accommodation.
Using a present tense narrative and both factual and imaginative description, Val enables the reader to enjoy the immediacy of the moment and presents a graphic picture of places, people and events. The atmosphere of the harbour and the characters of its quirky inhabitants are evoked in unfussy but very personal prose. The technical detail, essential for an autobiographical account such as this, is explained in terms that present no problems to the lay reader: Val’s style is precise and lucid. Though there is sentiment, her matter-of-fact manner never allows it to become cloying; we are able to empathise easily with her feelings. Her capacity to interest a non-boating audience is considerable, not least because of her self-depreciating sense of humour and her willingness to share her many discomforts and mistakes, and the occasional success. For me, she doesn’t create an over-romanticised idyll that might seduce the reader into wanting to buy a boat, but does provide insight into the delights of ‘faring’ along urban, industrial and completely rural canals. She succeeds in transmitting the strange time-warp sensation that voyagers on such waterways experience as they move along at a pace of life that belongs to ages gone by, taking days to cover distances that modern road and rail transport completes in hours. There is a magic here, for the relationship of bargee to barge is very real and just as much of an affair as one between human lover and human lover. The boats themselves seem to have individual temperaments and eccentricities.
Watery Ways provides a very reassuring and positive image of human nature, a contrast to the violence of international events such as the 9/11 atrocity, which took place during Val’s first long boat trip with her partner Koos to Lille and to which she refers with great sensitivity.
I very much enjoyed reading this book. I know that Val is working on a sequel, telling of the next instalment of her life afloat and of the complete renovation of her own pakschuit (local delivery barge), the Vereeniging. The present book concludes by describing how she acquired this vesseI and I am very much looking forward to her account of her work to make it habitable and to meet Oude Haven’s rigorous historic criteria.
Watery Ways is published by Boathooks Books, ISBN 978-1-907984-12-9