Monday, June 19, 2017

The busy life of coots

I have a fascination for water birds. I love watching the swans, ducks and coots in the harbour as they go about their busy lives. They live in a community like us only in their own parallel world and the moment I stop to just watch and stare (a bit like the watery version of smelling the roses) I become transfixed by their activities. Watching the mums teaching their chicks to feed; seeing group conflicts being resolved; laughing as they dash across the harbour after some titbit; being amazed by their swift and graceful diving skills when they disappear below the surface after a submarinated snack.

A swan family on the Canal de L'Escaut in France

At the moment, I have a coot couple as tenants on my rowing boat - or maybe I should say squatters as they didn't ask if they could occupy my property, they just moved on, built a nest and proceeded to multiply. But I love them and find them a constant source of entertainment when I'm cleaning on board.

They're pretty smart, actually. The nest is positioned in the corner at the stern of the boat, which happens to sit under the stern of my barge. They've clearly chosen this spot as it's nicely protected. When it rains, they are under cover and when it's very hot, they have some shade. The nest itself is a masterpiece of recycling, compiled as it is of bits of plastic, old packets and twigs to keep it all together.  Mr Coot spends days selecting suitable decor to bring back to his wife, often to have her reject his offerings as unsatisfactory or not in keeping with her design plan.

The Vereeniging's stern; my rowing boat's stern sits under it
The only problem arising from all this is that Ma and Pa Coot have become singularly (or maybe doubly, seeing as there are two of them) attached to their home and woe betide anyone who comes near. Mostly, it's only me, and I'm sure their possessiveness is just as much about protecting their developing family as it is about defending their nest.

The thing is I have no intention of disturbing them. It is of course very inconvenient as I can't use the boat until they've finished with it; neither can I empty it of rain water. Fortunately, it hasn't rained much in recent weeks, so it's not been a major issue yet, but I've been missing out on some fun spuddling, which has made me sigh once or twice. But despite my good intentions, Mr Coot is determined I am evil incarnate; an intruder of ill-intent and he treats me accordingly.

Whenever I am outside, cleaning the exterior, he charges over from wherever he's been in the habour, his wings beating an angry tattoo on the water. He is all aggression, mean eyed and menacing; ready to attack my evil broom as I dip it into the water. It's too funny. He follows me around the barge and pecks at the brush fiercely when I lower it for a rinse. As for my water bucket, that is an obscenity up with which he will not put. I'm just glad I don't need to get down into the water too. I think I'd be mincemeat if I tried.

Mrs Coot is more docile, thank heavens. When she is taking a break from her nursing duties, she also follows me around, but as long as I stay away from her nest, she just observes me with mild interest. I'm sorry I will miss the babies when we go faring, but I'm sure there will be plenty of birdlife to observe along the way. Ducks, coots and water birds are part of life on rivers and canals and I can rest safe in the assumption they will be living equally fascinating lives wherever we go. I'd love to know if they quack with a different accent, though! Have a good week everyone!

Baby coot, nothing more cute!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Preparing to go

In the coming two weeks although I'm not exactly sure when, Koos and I will be setting off on another adventure. The reason I'm not certain of the departure date is that much will depend on the weather. Our aim is to head north and from there, into Germany. But that will mean crossing the mighty Westerschelde, the tidal estuary that leads from the Channel (or Het Kanaal, or La Manche, depending on who's talking) to the huge harbours of Antwerp. I will admit to being terrified of this prospect and Koos has promised me that we won't do it until it is like a millpond, which could mean waiting a while. 

Terneuzen is under the sattelite icon. We have to
head for Hanweert, a distance of about 25kms

You might well ask why I am terrified. Well, there are several reasons: one is that it is essentially the sea, with waves and currents that inevitably make me sea-sick; the second is that the last time the Hennie Ha did this crossing, the steering broke - I really dread this happening again as you might imagine; the third is that it is a very busy shipping lane and if anything, but anything, happens to Koos, I am neither licensed nor equipped to deal with such an emergency. That said, I have a deal with myself that every year I do something that scares me, so I guess this is it for this year. And it's a biggie. The photos below are of barges and ships that come from the Westerschelde through the locks at Terneuzen on their way to Ghent.

A barge entering the harbour and locks at Terneuzen from
the Westerschelde

The Westerschelde - otherwise known as the sea

Sea-going ship on the Terneuzen-Gent Canal

Tugs needed to guide the ship safely through

I love these tugs!

 I just hope there will be another smally like us doing the same crossing. It would be great to have some company of the same size! After that, we will go through the locks at Hansweert, into the Kanaal door Zuid Beverland and then into the Oosterschelde. This too is a wide water, but it is only semi-tidal as it is protected by the amazing Delta Works project, meaning that it is not a sea lane. The Oosterschelde is actually my favourite place in Zeeland. I love its mud flats, oyster beds and sea birds. It is home to wonderful wildlife and it has a feeling of remote wilderness that appeals to me immensely. We will enter it at Wemeldinge and cross over to the lock next to the name Reimerswaal. We will then follow the canal up between Brabant and Zeeland.

The Oosterschelde

Koos at the end of a jetty on the Oosterschelde

The Zeelandbrug, a five and a half kilometre bridge
over the Oosterschelde

After this will come my nemesis in the form of the Hollandsch Diep (you see where I'm going with this), the third of the wide waters and the one on which the Vereeniging broke down in 2003 and before that, Koos' Luxor was nearly driven into the rocks during my first ever trip with him. After that, I can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief as we'll be back on normal rivers and canals as we head towards Utrecht and the north.

The Hollandsch Diep - we will enter it from the canal
at the bottom left hand corner and leave it at Willemsdorp
As you might imagine, there is a part of me that would much prefer to be going south to France, and indeed, if the weather turns bad, we might do that anyway, but I love the idea of going through Utrecht, a truly beautiful Dutch city, and travelling north to Groningen, which is where the Hennie Ha, a Goningen Snik, comes from. We will then head east into Germany and see what to do then when we get there.

Much of this plan is flexible and who knows, we might end up in France anyway, but that's the beauty of living in this part of the world. The whole of  Europe is just a canal or river away. Whichever way we go, there's still a lot to prepare for and I'll be sure to keep posting! The Hennie Ha will doubtless produce a few more stories for you all!

The Hennie Ha in Belgium last summer
Have a lovely week, allemaal

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Terry Tyler Book Reviews: FARING TO FRANCE ON A SHOE by Val Poore @vallypee

Absolutely thrilled by this wonderful review of my Shoe..

Many many thanks to Terry Tyler!

Terry Tyler Book Reviews: FARING TO FRANCE ON A SHOE by Val Poore @vallypee: 5 out of 5 stars On Amazon UK HERE On HERE On Goodreads HERE How I discovered this book : I got to know Val Poore on Twi...

Volunteers for the summer

The first months of this year have been tough for all sorts of reasons that there's no need to go into here. Then quite apart from losing friends and seeing changes that we'd rather not have in the Oude Haven, there have also been international events that have shocked and saddened us all. I think it's enough to say I am looking forward to faring forth in a couple of weeks for a good long break. This year we aren't going to France (although a part of me wishes we could do that too); this year we are heading north and east. The original idea was to go to Poland, but I have just three months in total, more than I can really afford but less than we need (as we've now discovered). However, not long ago, we watched a film about a young couple who cruised from Poland to Amsterdam and back. It took them seven we gulped, re-grouped and made a new decision. We would still head that way, but probably stop in Germany...somewhere. In truth I'd love to go to Belgium and France again, but sometimes it's good to 'ship' out of my comfort zone!

Anyhow, what will happen at home while we are so long gone? Thankfully, I never tell anyone where the crumbly cottage is, so I hope all will be well, and I hope that my daughters will make use of it while I'm away too. That said, my garden is likely to get neglected for much of the time, so I decided not to plant my usual array of annuals this year: no begonias, no geraniums, no bizzy-lizzies (or whatever they are called). I've let my garden do its own thing this year, and guess what? It's as if it's decided to put on its own show. This climber, the name of which I've never known, has bloomed properly for the first time ever. Isn't it lovely?

And then the foxgloves are putting on a wonderful show of their own. I never know when or where they will pop up, but this year, they are adding colour to my little patch at just the right time.

When they have gone, hopefully the hollyhocks will be in bloom. Being my favourite flowers of all, I'll be sad to miss them, but I know they'll be a gorgeously colourful display - as always. 

Anyway, in anticipation of our departure, we did a test run today in lovely warm sunshine. The Hennie Ha ran well, although there are a couple of niggles that need to be sorted out before we go. Next weekend I will start preparing and stocking up ready for the journey. We'll still have to improvise with showers and washing, but that's okay. I just loved our pared-down lifestyle last year, and now I'm really looking forward to faring forth to the north. Hey, maybe that's the title of a new travelogue? Now there's a thought - perhaps not going to France won't be so bad after all :)

Have a good week everyone.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


I think it's quite possible that by now most of my blog pals know I have a special fondness for sheep. I've loved them ever since I kept a small flock of Jacob sheep centuries ago (well it was in the last century) in my life prior to leaving the UK in my youth. Jacob sheep are highly intelligent and very canny. They like nothing better than outwitting their owners - well at least, that was my experience. Mine had great personalities as well, especially my grande dame of the flock, Emily. She was a very special character and led me a merry dance on many an occasion.

Jacob ram, courtesy of David Merrett, picture sourced from

As a result, I love the fact that at the crumbly cottage, we often have sheep in the field at the back of the house. I don't have to care for this flock, so I don't know if they are naughty at all, but they too have real personalities and Koos and I love 'chatting' to them in 'baar' language. What saddens me is that we never see any lambs. I can see when the ewes have been covered, because they have coloured patches on their backs, but where they go to have their babies remains a mystery. I don't even know who they belong to; I never see the farmer tending to them, but they come and go and I miss them when they aren't there. Some of you might remember that last year, we had a solitary ram in the field of which (whom?) we became particularly fond. To my shame, I've forgotten what we called him now, but he loved having his head scratched and whenever he saw us, he would dash over to the fence for some good communing. Then he too disappeared, presumably to mix duty with pleasure by getting lusty with a flock of ewes (maybe that's where the word lewd comes from...haha).

This year's sheeple have been in the field for a while now, and a couple of weeks ago, there were visitors at the house next door who brought three children with them. It was delightful to see the youngsters interacting with the sheeple. I thought how good it was for them to have this opportunity and time to see that sheep, and all other farm animals too, are not just dumb creatures with no intelligence put there for our convenience; they are sentient beings with likes, dislikes and obvious emotions.  Here are a few photos I took of the kids feeding our ovine friends with 'snacks', most of which were weeds and grasses they'd gathered, but it didn't matter to the sheep. They enjoyed the attention anyway!

And sorry for the plug, so if you don't want to see it, look away now, but if you happen to be interested in my own and very real adventures with sheep, especially Emily, they are all here in my semi-autobiographical novel, How to breed Sheep, Geese and English Eccentrics. While the story itself is fiction, the setting and all the animal incidents are true! Oh I had so much fun, I did...

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Better late than never : Four days in Faro

Lat weekend I didn't get round to writing a post, but I think I can be forgiven as I was in lovely Faro in the south of Portugal. I went with a very good friend of mine, Marion. We have known each other for as long as I have been here in the Netherlands but this is the first time we have been away together.

Back streets of Faro

A cosy corner in the old city

We had a lot of fun exploring and walking the city and then taking trips out of town. On one day, we headed east to Olhao and Tavira. Olhao wasn't all that exciting (for that read disappointing), but Tavira was gorgeous with a wide river running through it, a castle on the hill and plenty of white-painted charm. I loved it and had to lurk round the river of course.


The church on the hill in Tavira. I was standing on the remains
of the castle walls

City walls and urban homes are indelibly welded together
Looking across the Gilao River

Looking downstream on the Gilao River
We had two more days after this on one of which we went to Estoi, a village just inland from Faro, where we found this lovely old palace which has now been converted into a hotel. The rest of the village was rather clearly shut except for one café occupied by a group of English people having lunch. They told us they lived in Estoi and could thankfully tell us how to reach the palace as there didn't seem to be any clues left for Joe Public. Even the bus stops were a learning experience as the bus companies only have a sign on one side of the road. You have to know that you need to stand opposite it on the other side and we were ticked off by the driver for waiting a few metres too far from the spot.

The Palace of Estoi

Palace grounds and buildings
The following day, we took the bus to the beach and walked to a point beyond which there were no tourists or sunbathers at all (always a good goal). We both paddled in the sea, pleased to know we were treading the waters of the Atlantic - I can't even remember the last time I had my toes in such western waters. It was a glorious day; hot with a brisk breeze and much to my shock, my feet and legs caught the sun. I had a rather uncomfortable night coping with sunburn on my shins, toes and ankles. I can hear you saying 'that'll learn you," can't I?

On our last day, we did a boat trip around the islands off the coast. Faro is bounded by an area of natural beauty with a lagoon, mudflats and sandbanks. The boat toured the islands and the skipper, Claudio, pointed out which birds, waders and crabs it was home to. It was great to see all the birdlife, and I must say that Claudio was pretty easy on the eye too, so we didn't mind looking at him either...haha. One island is completely uninhabited with the exception of an old man (in his eighties) and his dog (said by Claudio to be about two hundred years old), the only humans and animals permitted to live there. There was also a lighthouse island where we stopped for a look around. The whole tour was a lovely end to our trip and a very welcome dose of sunshine despite my fried toes.

Old huts on Desert Island

The one and only lighthouse

Faro castle seen from the water

Our charming and rather dashing skipper,

Monday, May 08, 2017

A state of flux

When I look back on what I wrote in my first harbour memoir, Watery Ways, I realise how much our community has changed since those days. From my perspective, it is less cohesive than it was, but maybe that's because so many of those I started life in the harbour with have gone; such is the nature of a restoration harbour.

There were many more barges in the harbour in 2002

Trees and cars on the quay...unheard of now!
This is Koos next to our old renault

Sadly, some have gone with more permanence too. This last week we buried the second of our liggers this year: the first was a mere 52 when his heart just stopped while at work in Kazakhstan of all places; the second was a close neighbour of mine who has been struggling with cancer these past four years. At 74, he'd had his three score years and ten, but it still felt too early. George and I had been neighbours in the line-up of barges many times and even when separated by other boats, ours were never far apart. He'd done a beautiful job of restoration and it is sad that he will never get to go faring in it. I liked him very much.

Other things have changed recently too. The helling (slipway) and working yard where I have spent so many hours closed on April the 30th. Its future is uncertain, but the Maritime Museum say they cannot afford to keep funding it as it doesn't make enough money to cover the costs. The keys were handed to the council on May the 1st and we now await negotiations to see if it will be kept going, perhaps on a more commercial basis. I have a lift-out booked for October, so I hope there will be a workable plan.

My first liveaboard, the Hoop, on the helling (slipway)

I think this event, more than any other, defines how things are changing. For the younger generation of liggers, it is probably less dramatic as they have formed their own core community and will arrange things their own way, but for those of us who are older, it feels like the end of an era.

Sorry for the poignant post today, folks. I'm feeling a bit sad, but I hope you all have a great week.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Various whatnots

I'm having one of those spells when I really don't know what to write about on my blog. I feel life is on hold until it gets warmer. It's been so cold lately I really haven't felt like doing anything much, so let me do what I usually do in these situations...just ramble. You are free to leave anytime you feel you've read enough inconsequential burble.

My brain is all over the place with all the unfinished projects that I want to get on with, but you know how it is...'I want' somehow 'doesn't get' (or that's what my mother used to say). For a start, there's the floor in the back cabin of the Vereeniging. No, I still haven't finished it. Awful, aren't I? It all stopped in the autumn when I'd got the sheets of plywood to make it up, but then the temperature plummeted and I've just been looking at it for the past four months (or is it five?) sort of projecting the end result in the hopes it would miraculously finish itself. This week my intentions are good, but I really don't want to go to hell because of them, so I'm not promising myself anything.

The floor before I cleaned it up

Then there's the butterfly or pigeon hatches on the Hennie H (known here as 'koekoek'). I finished one of them before the new year. It needed stripping down, strengthening and revarnishing. It also needed new windows. The other one is just the same except it's taking me much longer to complete. Still, I really am making progress with it because I can do it indoors. In case you're wondering, I made temporary hatches to cover the openings while I repaired the real ones, so no, the HH is not filling up with rainwater as I write. Last weekend, Number 2 looked like this.

It's now received a few more coats of varnish, so it looks much better and richer, but I still need to put some more varnish on it and cut the windows from the perspex we bought - or rather Koos will probably do that as his hand is steadier. Maybe next week I can show you all the finished article...but what was that I said about good intentions?

As for this year's faring, our plan has been to leave on the Hennie H for a long trip east in June...somewhere around the 15th...with the eventual goal being Poland, but I'm applying the intentions rule to that too as I don't know yet if we'll be ready to go by then. Whatever the case, we'll be meandering our way through Germany for much of the summer (I hope) and we'll just see how far we get.

Then there's my writing projects. They are about as tenuous as everything else. I've had this novel set on an African farm as a WIP for ages now, but for some reason I've lost interest in it, which is very unlike me. I hope it (my interest) returns; I'd hate not to finish something I've already written so much of. In the meantime, I've started writing down my memories of the next phase in our African life after African Ways; the part when we moved to a village in the valley...down the mountain, in fact. I'm having some fun with that and I'm writing it on a blog, so if anyone would like to read it while it's in the individual posts phase, just let me know here. I can invite you to the blog. Who knows? It might end up as another memoir, but I'm not risking that fiendish path to Hades again by proclaiming any specific, no.

Have a good week everyone!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The English Writing Festival: can anyone write a memoir?

This last Sunday, and for the third time since April 2016, we held a mini festival at the American Book Center in Den Haag dedicated to writing in English. It always amazes me how many people of different nationalities attend this event and do so because they like or want to write in English.

This April's event included attendees from India, China, French-speaking Africa, South Africa and eastern Europe, and the subject? Well, one after my own heart of course: memoir writing.

The panel of speakers
 I was not speaking at the event myself, but I acted as organiser, host and time keeper and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the experiences and tips that the terrific panel of speakers contributed to the afternoon. The main question being dealt with was 'can anyone write a memoir?'

Jo Parfitt answering questions
We started off with Jo Parfitt, who is a writing coach, editor and publisher. Jo gives workshops on non-fiction writing and with the main question in mind, she presented some valuable tips for those embarking on writing their life stories. She had fifteen points altogether, but those that struck me most were the questions: will your story a. inspire, b. support, c. inform and d. entertain? These are critical elements for a good memoir and it made me examine my own in this light. I shall certainly keep them consciously in mind for any future memoirs I may write, whether travelogues or life stories.

She also stressed the need for demonstrating your vulnerability when writing, a pertinent point if memoir writers hope to gain the empathy of their readers. For me this translates into self-deprecating humour; others might use candid honesty about fears and failings, but whatever technique we use, being vulnerable is an important aspect of memoir writing. Jo's presentation was a great start to the afternoon as she talked about the how to approach a memoir, as well as what to include (or not) and I have a feeling many of the participants will follow up her books and courses later on. Click here for her website and publishing and editing services.

Our next speaker was Carolyn Vines, whose memoir, Black and Abroad tells of her experiences and challenges in moving from the deep south in the US to the land of windmills and clogs. She spoke with eloquence on why not only can everyone (in principle) write their own life story, but should do so. By sharing the pain, feelings and experiences of traumatic, difficult and (conversely) inspiring periods in one's own life, we can find healing, hope and a positive way forward. However, she stressed, as did Jo, that not everything we do and feel should be included in the memoir; only that which is relevant to the story in question. This was the most important point for me: know your story, and be sure you have a focus.  As a life coach too, she suggested that writing is not the only medium with which to relate our stories; both art and photography can be valid media as well.

Carolyn answering the audience's questions
following her talk
After a short break with refreshments and some good interaction between speakers and participants, we started again with a talk by Niamh Ni Bhroin, whose memoir The Singing Warrior is published by Springtime Books and covers Niamh's transition from abused child and wife to a free, vibrant and independent woman following a meeting with a Masai warrior.

Niamh's talk began with a reading from the opening chapters of her book. It was a dramatic extract revealing the first emotional and physical abuse she suffered as a child and she used this to explain how important it is to be open and honest in revealing feelings and pain when writing such a personal memoir. For me, her use of dialogue and the visual descriptions were an arresting way to begin her story and emphasised the need for developing character, depth and even humour in what must have been a litany of horrific events. The dialogue involved the reader immediately in her experiences and showed us all how, whether completely authentic or not, it is such an important device in a personal memoir. There were, of course, questions from the audience regarding authenticity, but all the speakers agreed that a memoir is a personal truth and that is what matters more than complete accuracy of detail.

The last speaker of the day was Darya Danesh, a Canadian who has also transplanted herself by moving to the Netherlands. The link to her blog where she writes about her life in her new country is here.

Darya's cheerful personality showing through

Darya is in the process of collating thoughts, extracts and articles, and above all, a focus for writing her memoir. Her presentation showed us all how difficult it is to take that first step towards writing rather than thinking, reading and recording; in other words, procrastinating. Since this is a stage nearly all writers surely go through, it was a great way to move into the question and answer session which completed the afternoon. The panel of speakers, which included Olga Mecking, a former speaker on creative non-fiction, and myself, all shared our experiences on how to get started. Suggestions included making decisions on the story, writing blog stories focused on the eventual memoir, beginning with a trigger sentence, and taking part in a writing challenge (e.g. NaNoWriMo). It was an incredibly useful session and despite my own experience as a memoir writer, I learnt a great deal from listening to all the speakers and members of the audience.

Finally, at the end of the afternoon, we held a draw and three of the participants won a memoir to take home with them, a fitting close to an inspiring and rich event.

Other links readers might like to follow for the speakers are below:

The American Book Center events page with short biographies of each speaker
Carolyn Vines' Life Coach page
An interview with Niamh Ni Bhroin on the I am Expat page.
An overview webpage for Jo Parfitt

Now, of course I am looking forward to the next English Writing Festival!