Here Lord Dawdle lays bare his remarkable past, taking us on a thrilling roller coaster ride from life on a humble houseboat to master of the seas and all he surveys from the steps of his ancestral pile.
My earliest childhood memory is watching snowflakes landing on the deck of our houseboat. I recall seeing them through the porthole window of my cosy little cabin and marvelling at the way they transformed the bleak winter world from grey to dazzling white.
The good ship Santosha (apparently it means contentment in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit – more anon) was moored just a stone’s throw away from one of Henry VIII’s favourite riverside watering holes – Ye Olde Swan in delightfully named Summer Road, Thames Ditton, Surrey.
Hot from the chase, be it ladies, deer or both, the tubby old tyrant liked popping in for the odd ale and haunch of roast venison so much he gave the 13th Century pub his official seal of Royal approval, which is now housed in the British Museum. Having old “coppernose”, as he was nicknamed, as a regular was a mixed blessing.
When he took over nearby Hampton Court Palace from the unfortunate Cardinal Wolsey he included Thames Ditton into his great deer park, effectively mothballing the village. There is a little island in the middle of the Thames just across from the Swan and it was a main crossing point before Hampton Court Bridge was built in the 1750s.
An elegant iron suspension footbridge, built in 1939, now arcs over to the island from beside the pub and is used by the residents. There are 47 homes, most built on stilts to guard against flooding. One of our favourite childhood games of dare was to clamber across the span at night holding onto the outside of the metal lattice work.
Nigh on impossible these days due to security measures, this required, if you pardon the pun, nerves of steel. The river can be treacherous at this point and many have died simply crossing by boat in the murky, fast flowing water. It has to be said I can probably trace my taste for adventure back to this sort of wild youthful escapade.
Maybe I was influenced by the tales of derring do swirling about the seemingly innocent village. Being so close to London and the route to Portsmouth the haunt of the rich and famous quickly attracted a more unsavoury crowd. In the 18th Century the roads around were so plagued by highwaymen the locals set up their own police force.
My father, Lancelot, Perseus, Arthur, Odysseus, Dawdle (Percy to his pals) was the scion of a notable family descended, it is said, from the mighty House of Plantagenet which produced no less than 14 English kings. However quite where and when our particular offshoot appeared is lost in the mists of antiquity and much disputed.
Suffice it to say the dynasty owes its current standing, such as it is, to canny marriages, sound investments and the fertile acres surrounding stately Dawdle Hall. Growing up surrounded by nature and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of raw materials pater’s flair for inventing things – and getting into trouble – blossomed.
Unfortunately Percy’s parents and teachers didn’t share his enthusiasm for loud bangs, mechanisms that regularly caught fire and other alarming flights of fancy. Undaunted father pressed on through his teens and early 20s with a succession of spectacular mechanical failures straight out of the pages of Professor Branestawm.
When the family eventually turned its collective back on this errant ‘bete noir’ he headed for India and spent several years down by the sea in Kerala, the southern land of coconuts and spice, finding himself. This he did quite successfully through lots of meditation, yoga, fishing and traditional Ayurvedic health treatments.
Eventually the money ran out and he was forced to return to the land of his birth and the bosom of the Dawdle clan. Unable to settle on terra firma father opted for the life of a ‘river rat’ cruising the waterways of England with his new Indian bride, my mother Surupa (or beautiful), aboard an ancient houseboat he called Santosha.
Their many adventures included an ill-fated animal-free towpath circus, invaded by a herd of cows let loose by a disgruntled farmer, and the notorious home made self-steering device which guided the boat into very troubled waters indeed. While the skipper went below to make a cup of tea, HMS Dawdle sank an entire rowing regatta.
Surupa was a demon juggler who taught me the secret of fire breathing. India has an ancient circus tradition and she came from a long line of star performers. My father met her while attending a show in Kerala and it was love at the first flight of her clubs. She was also a dab hand at spinning knives – so cutting the wedding cake was eye popping.
They eventually washed up in Thames Ditton. Percy decided to drop anchor for good because of the wharf and Ferry Works alongside the Swan. It had long been home to important factories like the bronze foundry that made the statues of Eros in London’s Picadilly, the Victoria Memorial and the giant four horse chariot on top of the Wellington arch in Hyde Park Corner.
For a time it also hosted Rola Celestion, makers of the world’s first dedicated guitar loudspeaker used in Marshall, Orange and Vox amplifiers – beloved of rock stars the world over – and AC Cars, who spawned the legendary Cobra supercar that took America and the racing world by storm and is still a revered marque. What better place for a mad inventor to set up shop?
Apart from mother and crazy contraptions my father’s other passion was music, particularly singing. He quickly graduated from boozy carol sessions round the many pubs in the village to the choir of St Nicholas, the local church with it’s pretty white clapboard spire. His booming baritone then took him on and up to the Chapel Royal at nearby Hampton Court Palace.
Legend has it Henry VIII was told of his fifth wife Catherine Howard’s adultery while attending Mass there. Apparently she briefly escaped her guards, ran through the Haunted Gallery and pounded on the door of The King’s Pew, his private balcony, to beg for her life. It remained locked. Since then, it is said, the ghostly figure of a lady in white can often be seen and heard shrieking along the corridor.
I was born just outside the palace gates in the then Bearstead Maternity Hospital. The Victorian building by the river Thames was once owned by the Crown Estate and over the years has been a pub, a hotel, a motor yacht club, a military hospital, a maternity hospital and a retirement home. It’s last incarnation was a block of luxury flats. Thanks to my father’s connections I was christened in the Chapel Royal. So close, yet so far from the throne!
Surprisingly a stroll to or from school along the village high street could, on occasion, be quite exhilarating. If you were lucky the sleepy calm would be shattered by a mighty deep throated roar coming from behind two old wooden garage doors. They would sometimes swing open to unleash the mighty beast within. At a time when the average British car was on the tame side the sight of a full blooded AC Cobra made the hairs on the back of your neck stand stiffly to attention.
Burbling contentedly the V8 powered monster would nose gently out of its lair onto the road then, with a blip of the throttle, be off, silencers bellowing, in the direction of an odd collection of roundabouts affectionately known as the Scilly Isles on the A3, the main drag from London to Portsmouth. The noise was deafening…and we loved it! In a trice the supercar had blasted all the way up to the Toby Jug roundabout at Tolworth and back again barely getting out of second gear.
My father was drawn like a moth to a flame and thanks to a quiet word in the right ear managed to hitch us both a ride on one of these terrifying test runs. Holding on for dear life, the whole journey in the spartan, open aired cockpit tore by in an ear-splitting blur. Just to give you an idea of the adrenaline rush, back in 1964 a Cobra reached 185mph on the M1! One apocryphal tale is that the 70mph speed limit on motorways was brought in because the police just couldn’t catch these road rockets.
Itching for adventure I found school a bit of a bore and looked elsewhere for my kicks…literally. The idea of martial arts seemed exotic and, being of mixed parentage, quite handy when dealing with excessive peer pressure. I first got to grips with Judo under, nearly always, Stan the man. A person’s girth is no guide to their fitness or ability, just think of Sumo wrestlers. Despite his size he was formidable, especially when you were on the ground. He taught me the round the clock system of hold downs. As you wriggled out of one he put just put you into another, circling the body. Stan was a master of the arm lock and stranglehold too.
When it came to catching people off balance I was lucky enough to learn the art of throws from a series of experts. There was Dominic from Hong Kong whose long blond curls and cherubic face belied his lethal prowess. He had the elegance of a ballet dancer while putting together a lightning fast series of combinations. His victims could only plod helplessly along in his wake before scraping the ceiling with their feet. A joy to behold. Another of my teacher’s, Steve, had appeared in several films as a stuntman and knew every trick in the book.
While training I worked as a labourer to keep fit and honed my skills with punishing visits to the big London dojos. My shoulders ache as I recall the “chain gang” sessions against the police. Three minutes standing, three minutes groundwork…move on. Amid the pain there were some lighter moments and even a bit of glamour. On one occasion I, along with the rest of the club, was dragooned by an Olympic champion into being a Miss World Contest bodyguard at the Albert Hall. My pass number for the evening? 007.
I also tried my hand at karate and ju jitsu. An ex-soldier took over a local meat market after close of business, hung punch bags on the meat hooks and taught us to punch, kick and gouge our way out of trouble. He was old school. When it came to the throws there were no fancy padded mats just an old carpet spread out on the concrete floor. It was one way of making sure we fought to stay upright. Tough love indeed.
Having grown up on the Thames, messing about in boats was second nature. Living alongside fast flowing murky water my parents made sure I could swim as soon as I could crawl. This involved frequent trips to the municipal baths in nearby Kingston where the price of diving in too often was temporary blindness caused by the industrial strength chlorine used to guard against the great unwashed!
I remember sipping hot bovril or hot blackcurrant from a plastic cup in the pool cafe while waiting for the white mist to clear from my eyes. Next came rowing – a doddle downstream, but a real physical challenge going the other way. The positive results of long days out in the dinghy were stronger shoulders, tougher hands and a trim waist. From oars to sails was a natural progression. A family friend had a 16ft long Wayfarer, one of the all time best small boats, and was only too happy to show me the ropes.
Amazingly versatile, the cruiser and racer enabled us to range far and wide. I quickly got to grips with the different types of sails, knots, hitches and rudimentary navigation. Dad came along on a lot of these adventures and, realising I was getting hooked, suggested we set to and build a sailing craft of our own. I jumped at the chance. It was perfect for father and son bonding in more ways than one and right up his creek. Pretty soon the houseboat galley was full of technical drawings rolled up and stuffed into every free space.
While I had envisioned a simple dinghy my father had other plans entirely. He had his heart set on a Viking longship. When it came to beer, wine, spirits or anything else dad never settled for half measures so this was going to be of truly epic proportions. His imagination had been fired by the sight of the mighty Oseberg at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. It had been discovered almost intact in a burial mound on a farm.
We are talking about a vessel some 20 metres long and over 5 metres wide with a 10 metre tall mast! In the bad old days it would have been crewed by 30 very fit, blood thirsty Viking warriors rowing for all they were worth in pursuit of riches plundered from lands across the sea. By anybody’s standards it was a skyscraper of a tall order. For a start it would mean the wood from at least 14 sturdy oak trees and a really big workshop.
Then there was the question of people to help build this Leviathan. To get the job done in a respectable six months we would need a 35 strong construction crew including 10 skilled shipwrights, 5 labourers and some 20 others to chop down the trees, split the trunks and cleave the timber into serviceable planks. Naturally, with dad in charge, it all had to be done the traditional way by hand, with no shortcuts. A daunting task indeed.
Moored, as we were, close to the Ferry Works the problem of where to construct such a craft was quickly solved. Following some marathon “unofficial talks” with the more amenable folk who ran businesses in the cavernous warehouse complex, a deal was struck. This involved large amounts of “refreshment” in the public bar of The Swan and a gentleman’s agreement to “budge up a bit” to make room for our “ship of fools!”
Having dealt with the where, the who and how proved more of a challenge. Naturally offers of help from the Ferry Works crew flowed thick and fast along with the ale, but tended to evaporate in the cold light of day. As luck would have it my mother’s brother Ajit (which, appropriately enough, translates as victorious, invincible or unconquerable) had just arrived for a long awaited family visit. Tall, handsome and sporting the ubiquitous lustrous Keralean moustache he proved to be a godsend.
Having grown up helping to build wooden ships on the banks of the Valapattanam River, a cool calm backwater set back away from the sea in Kannur, he was uniquely qualified to assist. They have, after all, been hand making craft of all shapes and sizes there for over 500 years. His initial resistance to the idea of a ‘busman’s holiday’ was quickly overcome by my father’s boundless enthusiasm and a rare bottle of 30 Year Old Balvenie whisky.