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.
The next key recruit was a real Viking. A true daughter of the sea, Ingrid Pettersen, hailed from the ancient fishing settlement of Reine in the Lofoten Islands. Voted Norway’s “most beautiful village” it boasts stunning mountain scenery and some of the most challenging waters in the world. A series of wicked giant whirlpools known as the Moskstraumen or Maelstrom are so infamous they even made it into a book by horror writer Edgar Allan Poe.
A friend of my mother’s, she had a tough upbringing. From mid-February to the end of April the seas around her home teem with migrating cod. Not only did the young, blonde, blue eyed, six footer develop a phenomenal physique hauling nets for her father, she then spent the rest of the year acquiring incredible stamina helping to build the famous Nordland fishing boats and larger Jekt cargo vessels. When it came to swinging an axe Ingrid was truly a cut above the rest!
In fact that’s how she became a close family friend. Like a lot of Scandinavians the mother of four got fed up with the long, dark Northern winter nights and would escape to the sun. While enjoying the tropical delights of Kerala, on India’s Malabar Coast, she took in a circus performance starring my mother Surupa. When a volunteer was called for to brave the infamous ‘walk of death’ Ingrid’s hand shot up.
To those uninitiated this particular stunt is not for the faint hearted. First the ‘victim’ is invited to lie on the ground in front of the audience. As anyone will know it is virtually impossible to see what’s going on behind you from a prone position. Then, standing behind the volunteer’s head, the juggler produces a large scimitar – cue gasps from the audience – throws an apple in the air and chops it in half with one blow.
Two more knives appear out of a bag and the danger becomes all too apparent. The first thing the victim sees as the juggler walks slowly over them is a blur of flashing steel. Naturally there is a stumble half way – more gasps – for theatrical effect. The relieved volunteer is then allowed to return to their seat none the worse for wear. However, mum had bitten off more than she could chew with Ingrid.
Instead of heading back to the audience the volunteer leapt to her feet and challenged Surupa to face the same test. Rather than lose face and ruin the show my mother agreed. Lying on the ground she waited nervously while Ingrid rummaged around in her rucksack. With a loud whoop she produced four hand axes and a towel. Thus the stage was set for one hell of a performance…. or complete carnage.
What was the towel for I hear you ask – mopping up the blood? No – worse. Standing behind my mother’s head the fearsome Norsewoman simply wrapped it round her head as a blindfold. There was a collective gasp from the stunned crowd as the hatchets began to revolve and Ingrid walked slowly forward, pausing occasionally as her feet brushed against the body below. It was a real show stopper.
The open air performance was held in the shade of a mighty teak tree. Having shaken loose the towel and caught the axes, Ingrid rounded off her display by sending the razor sharp choppers spinning through the air, one by one, into the wide trunk. Grinning from ear to ear the Viking invader took a bow… while the crowd went completely nuts.
Apparently there wasn’t much for youngsters to do during the long Arctic nights so Ingrid and her brothers would fool around with their father’s hatchets from the boat yard. Despite Surupa’s pleadings her new found friend couldn’t be persuaded to join the circus as she was already a grandmother and had too many family commitments back in Norway. However, they parted best pals and vowed to keep in touch.
Thus, by good fortune, there was a rap on the houseboat hatch as my father and Ajit, whiskeys in hand, were poring over plans. Into the cabin stepped Ingrid, closely followed by two of her sons Erik and Johannes. Surupa was overjoyed and the next few hours went by in a blur of alcohol fuelled nostalgia, family news and raucous laughter. By the end of the night the Vikings were all on board. Erik and Johannes even offered to bring over some extra Lofoten muscle power during the summer holidays.
Slowly but surely Project Longship was taking shape. By now Dad could call on at least 10 willing “slaves,” some of whom were skilled craftsmen and women. All he needed to get things moving was a regular supply of wood. It was then that mother nature joined in sending a massive storm roaring across the land for two days and nights ripping up trees and causing havoc. Santosha just about stayed afloat as the sleepy Thames became a raging torrent.
As luck would have it one of The Swan regulars was a tree surgeon called Ian Barry. He and his crew certainly had their work cut out, so as to speak, for weeks. While snatching a swift pint or two one night he revealed they had so much fallen timber they didn’t know what to do with it. Two large whiskies later my father had killed two birds with one stone. Ian would provide the oak and Dale from The Ferry Works a low loader.
Each Sunday for a month we would arrive at Ian’s yard in nearby Claygate, crane the longest trunks we could find onto the long, flat lorry and head slowly back to base, amber lights flashing. Pretty soon a veritable forest was stacked roof high inside the riverside buildings and many of those businesses who agreed to “budge up a bit” to accomodate the project were beginning to have second thoughts.
However my father turned on the charm and, thanks to his energetic team, quickly transformed the timber into the skeleton of a longship. Once shaved of their bark, split into planks and given a new lease of life the ancient trees became a source of wonder rather than irritation in the Works, the village and bit by bit the world in general. As word spread people came from far and wide to marvel at the craftsmanship and offer their help.
Ever the showman father revelled in the attention and used the publicity to drum up sponsorship money for things like custom made tools, large iron rivets, tar and horsehair to make the ship watertight, reels of stout rope for the rigging and yards and yards of cloth to make the huge sail. He even managed to convince the more gullible to pay a handsome sum to join the crew as oarsmen and women. He single handedly created a new fitness craze. Yes, shape up and ship out at Viking Bootcamp. Helmets and battleaxes optional.
By the time the longship was ready for its maiden voyage Thames Ditton was firmly on the tourist map, much to the delight of the once sceptical local publicans and shopkeepers who were doing a roaring trade. Thanks to all the publicity even the businesses that ‘budged up a bit’ for dad at the Ferry Works were booming. His cuckoo in their nest had laid a golden egg and they were only too happy to polish it. Punters were even laying bets on whether or not it would sink like a stone!
However, before the keel could kiss the Thames the mighty craft needed to be given a suitable name. In days of old the task would involve a long consultation with the Norse gods accompanied, of course, by much feasting, drinking and raucous merriment. With funds low and time pressing Dad had to make do with a long chat down the Swan with our own Viking Queen and expert on the relevant mythology – Ingrid.
Naturally the solemn process involved toasting each and every name that was suggested. Dad passed out long before the Pettersen clan, yes the sons were there too, chose Freyja the golden haired goddess of love, beauty, fertility and soothsaying. Not only was she the owner of the fabled necklace Brisingamen, a chariot pulled by two cats and a flying cloak made of falcon feathers, she also cried tears of red gold and possessed the magical longboat Skidbladnir which always found good weather, reached port safely and was so finely made it could be folded up like cloth and carried in a pocket.
While beautifully made, our magnificent vessel was not exactly handkerchief sized. Weighing a little shy of 11 tons, it would have ripped a huge hole in the trousers of a giant. Getting it out of the workshop and into the water was a herculean task. There was another slight hitch too. Although the Ferry Works had a quayside the nearest sloping slipway was the other side of the pub. Far from being a problem my father saw it as another golden opportunity. After all he already had over 30 fighting fit men and women signed up as crew.
On the face of it the idea was simple. Close the road, roll the ship out of the workshop on left over tree trunks, pull it along past the pub and ease it down into the water. However, by the time the big event was due to happen my parents had turned it into a spectacle to rival the Up Hally Aa, Scotland’s famous Viking Fire Festivals on the Shetland Islands . They mounted a major publicity campaign and quickly dragooned the whole village into taking part.
What would have been a few anxious hours of blood, sweat and toil soon mushroomed into a weekend extravaganza of feasting, drinking and merry making. The streets and pubs were jam packed with visitors, many dressed in traditional Norse outfits especially for the occasion. Thanks to Ingrid there was also a large Scandinavian contingent to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings as well as plenty of brawn. As darkness fell on the Saturday evening the atmosphere was electric.
Any wooden offcuts in the workshop had been whittled into torches which were lit and handed out to the crowd. Standing in the prow of the ship dad looked every inch a Viking chieftain in full regalia, complete with helmet, battleaxe, shield and cloak. Three loud blasts on a ceremonial bull’s horn hushed the assembled masses and heralded the start of the show. As the huge workshop doors swung open the sound of pounding drums could be heard from within.
First to emerge was my mum dressed as a mythical Norse dragon, breathing great jets of fire into the night sky. Then came the first of an army of volunteers. Walking five abreast, wearing traditional garb and chanting in time to the rhythm of the beat they were hauling on thick ropes slung over padded shoulders. Behind them row upon row of “warriors” slowly emerged onto the street dragging Freyja behind them. Out of sight another legion were pushing from behind or moving the log rollers from the back to the front.
A huge roar erupted from the crowd as the ornately carved prow of the ship hove into view. My father took a bow from the bow and waved his axe in approval. I was on roller duty and making the turn out onto Summer Road was a bit tricky considering the vessel was 20 metres long and five metres wide. Luckily we managed to scrape by with only the odd gouge out of the timber planking. It was certainly a bizarre sight – a Viking longship ‘sailing’ majestically through an English village.
Another anxious moment loomed as Freyja had to negotiate a second bend at the end of Summer Road where it joins The High Street and then be reversed down the slipway. With so much man and woman power at our disposal we could control the whole operation with a fair amount of precision. The only question now was whether or not dad, who had switched to the stern, would take a bath – both literally and financially? We held our breath as all that hard work slid into the Thames.
There was a huge collective sigh of relief when, instead of sinking into the murky depths, it floated. The crowd were ecstatic and, fuelled by plenty of booze, keen to mark the occasion in the traditional Scottish way – namely throwing their flaming torches into the longboat! However, father was very much alive and not ready to enter the gates of Valhalla in, quite literally, a blaze of glory. Ingrid and my mother Surupa quickly martialled the Viking troops who formed a defensive line along the bottom of the slipway, shields at the ready.
What can be best described as a ‘hairy’ half hour followed with firebrands raining down from all sides. Luckily the line held and the few that managed to reach the ship were quickly doused by dad with baling buckets. The rest either bounced off the raised bucklers and into the water or fizzled out on the slipway. With Freyja moored safely out of sight of revellers alongside the Ferry Works wharf we were free to join the party. It’s fair to say the next 24 hours went by in a haze and try as I will I can’t for the life of me remember the who, what and wherefore’s. Just as well judging by the state of the crew that turned up for rowing practice on the Monday night. Me included!
Staggering up the gangplank we looked more like the forced oarsmen of the apocalypse than willing viking warriors. Little did I know, as I took my place on one of the traditional wooden sea chests that doubled as seats, that some of the ashen faces around me would play such important roles in my later life. Adventure, romance, danger and all manner of derring do were just over the horizon. However, back then it was a challenge just to keep our lunches down as we churned our way up the Thames, scull blades flailing.
My father had the unenviable task of trying to steer a straightish course using the primitive rudder lashed to the side of the longboat. While we certainly struck fear into the hearts of all and sundry, it wasn’t down to our warlike demeanour, but our sloppy seamanship. How we didn’t sink anything on that first evening out I will never know. We just about scraped home, literally. Many hairs of a very shaggy dog down at the Swan put the colour back into our cheeks and the courage to carry on regardless. More Pirates of Penzance than Pirates of the Caribbean, but a spirited start.
Sitting opposite me on that maiden voyage was fellow oarsman Logan ‘Mack’ McDowell, a wiry bearded scotsman. He first appeared on the scene offering his services as a skilled carpenter. Father was so impressed with his speed and craftmanship he quickly turned him loose on the prized prow of the ship. In no time at all the flame haired descendant of Fergus, mighty King of Galloway, had turned the anonymous curved stump into a work of art. Having adorned both sides with intricate norse knotwork and celtic symbols post haste, he turned his attention to the top.
Fellow boat builders downed tools and gathered at the bottom of a rickety old ladder to marvel at Mack ‘The Knife’ in action. Perched precariously on high, his long red locks swinging wildly in time to the heavy rock music pumping out of oversized headphones, he chiseled away at the wood like a man possessed. What emerged from the blizzard of oak chippings raining down on the crowd below was remarkable. As he slid down the ladder rails and stood back to admire the fierce dragon’s head glaring down at him he was rewarded with a spontaneous round of applause. The fine detail was truly astonishing.
As indeed was the man himself. When not regaling regulars of The Swan with gory tales of the Scottish clan chiefs he could be found of a lunchtime tucked away in a quiet corner seat reading a book and nursing a pint of his beloved Guinness. Unremarkable you might say were it not for his extraordinary choice of literature… in a variety of different languages! At any one time he might have four volumes on the go ranging from astro-physics to the metaphysical poets via philosophy and Harry Potter.