There used to be a time when you could get lost on a boat – well, not exactly lost … but, maybe you might experience that nagging sensation of being not quite where you thought you should be.
Of course, this didn’t matter too much in the middle of an ocean – the sun would come out tomorrow and all that…
Then along came GPS and we all knew precisely where we were every moment of every day – right down to the last decimal place on the LCD screen.
So how is that in this age of digital navigation I found myself in the middle of a ploughed field, staring at Google Maps by moonlight and wondering where I’d left the boat?
Well, actually that’s not a fair question. I knew exactly where I’d left the boat – anchored comfortably at the south end of Kirby Creek in Walton Backwaters on England’s East Coast. Anyway, if I wasn’t sure, I could always use the Shipfinder app on my phone because I had taken the precaution of switching on the AIS for five minutes before I left (a little trick I picked up when coming back to the dinghy and finding Swanage Bay had gone opaque}. No, the difficulty was navigating the Essex countryside – particularly the myriad farm tracks which don’t feature on Maps.
It had all looked so easy in daylight. I had anchored in my favourite spot and left Samsara in the care of the seals and geese while I took the dinghy up to the little jetty on the edge of the saltings. Then, manhandling the folding bicycle up the sea wall, all I had to do was pedal along it for quarter of a mile without riding into the mud on one side or over the 10ft drop on the other, before turning left at an isolated barn – the only feature in this fabulously wild landscape – and start on the best part of a mile up a cart track through the sugar beet fields to the farm where the track turned into a concrete lane. Half a mile up this and I would come to the road. All I had to do was turn left to Kirby-le-Soken (two pubs, two churches, one shop).
This, I should add, is currently my commute to work – yes, I’ve gone back to work for a bit: You can read all about it on my Facebook page The Network Marketing Blog. It means that for a couple of weeks, the dinghy ride, the muddy ascent of the wobbly staging and the ride along the sea wall is going to become just as much a routine as the District Line used to be from Chiswich Park to Kensington High Street.
It was just that Google Maps’ version of Deans Hall Farm, Kents Hall Farm and Hall Farm itself was not a patch on Transport For London’s version.
With sunset somewhere in the middle of the afteroon, I was well aware that it would be dark by the time I made the return journey. I had two tail lights (one on the top of my high-viz cycle helmet) and three front lights – two of them flashing, no less). I was a bit like a two-wheeled Christmas tree.
And, so I progressed – highly visibly – past the first farm track: That couldn’t be the one because it smelled strongly of farm and I didn’t remember that.
The second turning seemed much more familiar. It progressed from concrete lane to muddy track. There was a farmhouse with cosily-lit windows. I imagined the ruddy-faced farmer presiding over a table with a picture-book farmer’s wife and half a dozen rosy-cheeked children tucking into home-slaughtered crackling and cider.
By the time I ended up in the ploughed field, I hoped they choked on it.
Hauling the bike out of the mire (have you ever manhandled a folling bicycle? It keeps on folding on you) I set off back up the lane – only to find that much of the ploughed field was now wedged firmly under the rear mudguard so that it was only with the greatest effort that the wheel could be made to turn at all.
How do you get a clod of mud out from under your mudguard in the dark, in the middle of nowhere and, certainly, miles from any useful implement? Well, why do you think it’s called a mud-guard?
In the end, I had to use one of only two biros I had with me – and still the wheel only rotated under protest. By the time I regained what passed for the “main road” I felt I had competed in the alpine section of the Tour de France.
So where now? Google Maps offered three farm tracks – none of which went anywhere near where I estimated the jetty to be (should have stuck an electronic pin in it). I had dismissed the first – but on the other hand, the third appeared to be miles away.
I turned left and investigated the first again. Sure enough there was a farm down there – and a pond, which I remembered. But no unpaved track going any further…
Back to option three – which was another two miles back in the opposite direction. There were some familiar features down that one – speed bumps, a high hedge… sugarbeet… a pond…
And then, of course, another muddy field.
I’d had enough of this. I’d been peddling up and down getting nowhere for an hour. I was covered in mud. I had the other half of last night’s spaghetti putanesca waiting for me (made with sardines for extra zizz).
I would ask at the farmhouse (I’m not proud).
Given that there is plenty of spare land in North Essex, the farmhouse was at the end of a long, sweeping, crunching drive. The farmer was at the door long before I reached it – which might have had something to do with the fact that I was still flashing like the Regents Street decorations.
“Ah,” he said. “I know exactly where you want to be.” And he did too – in fact it was his mooring I had borrowed for the adventures described on November 16th last year under the short but apt title of “Mud” (yes, more of it).
So where did I need to go? You guessed it, back to the first turning – the one I had dismissed right at the start of this shambles.Sure enough, there was the dinghy waiting obediently at the jetty – and, in the distance, Samsara’s automatic anchor light shining like a welcome-home beacon.