I first fell for boats, sailing boats, when I was about 10. Before that it was horses. My yearnings were for big things, animate or otherwise, which could carry me places and give me an exhilarating ride on the way; dolphins and magic carpets also swam and floated around the borders of my imagination.
I had riding lessons, for a year or two, which were OK; I'd cheerfully get up early on Sunday, and my dad and I drove through the bright or misty or frosty edges of Ashridge forest - I still dream of those roads and woods, I think. He'd read, come and watch me ride for a bit, wander round the stables, chat with the rather posh stable owners. Thinking back, they were rather pleasant times we had together, though neither of us made much of it. He kept a bit of the countryman in his heart, and like his father, who had left the land on account of his family's poverty and his own fecklessness, since he prefered to head on down to Priddy horse fair, appraise the stock and chew the fat with the gypsies, so the story goes, than mind the sheep on Mendip, my dad liked to be around horses.
However, though the hacks through the forest on fine mornings were great, plodding round the indoor school on fed-up and stubborn ponies, their mouths hardened by the clumsy hands of learner riders, grew uninspiring. When the instructor, who was, I think, as fed up with her job as the ponies, hauled me off a bigger horse who I couldn't get to do anything, and got on him saying 'This horse is deaf to the leg, this is what you have to do...', thrashing him with her crop until he shook and stumbled, I decided that it was time for me and horsiness to go our separate ways. Yet horses still have a place in my heart, horsy people rather less so.
Then I read 'Swallows and Amazons' and most of the Arthur Ransome canon, and my inner narrative switched and coalesced into that vision of independence and escape, to an island or a further shore, propelled by the wind and one's own gumption, of sheltering and feeding oneself, of cutting loose from the adult-ordered world, while still, of course, maintaining safe links to it. I know Arthur Ransome is a terrible cliche of the English middle class childhood, that whole scathing critiques could be written about this from every psychological, sociological and historical persective, and that probably no child would even look at them now, but they were meat and drink to me then. I wanted to live them out, and I wanted to sail.
Practically this was difficult; even if such adventures had been possible in the Lake District of the 1920s they weren't in the Home Counties conurbations of the 1970s. There weren't the 'Outward Bound' opportunities for kids then that there are now, so I had little chance to get on the water. But they nourished further games and fantasies, and we did get a small inflatable dinghy (without a sail), which in summer Ruthie and I used to paddle about on a quiet stretch of the Grand Union canal, our parents steeling themselves presuambly against fears of our drowning, being poisoned by canal water (more likely than drowning) or being abducted, and in the winter we sometimes inflated it in our dining room and played 'Swallows and Amazons' around the gateleg table. My parents were quite accommodating when I come to think.
About this time, my second brother came back from a stint working in Bermuda, where he had taken up sailing. He climbed the box elder tree and slung up the rope ladder I had had for Christmas, and though, as I've remarked before, box elders are not well-designed for climbing, tree houses or other three-dimensional adjuncts to childhood fantasy, in a pair of red rope-soled shoes I'd found in a chandlers in Falmouth, I made believe I was climbing the rigging. I can still make a reasonable fist of climbing a rope ladder, though I don't often get the opportunity. He also gave me a couple of sailboat recognition books, which I loved; with the youngster's (particularly perhaps the boy's or tomboy's) fascination with typology which I was only just beginning to apply to birdbooks, I studied them until I could recognise and give chapter and verse on any dinghy or small yacht by its sail insignia, and identify any rig or mast configuration going. Most of this has left me now.
Despite living in landlocked Herefordshire, my brother bought a small blue fibreglass Moth dinghy, and sailed it on Llangorse lake in Mid-Wales. I was fairly impressed, but the Moth was purely and simply a ride, a light flat craft with a single sail for one person to scoot around the surface of the water on at speed - no room for a pudgy little sister on board - little more than a sailing surfboard, the forerunners to the as yet unknown windsurfers. It wasn't quite what I was looking for, I wanted something to travel in, not just sit on.
Well, painted wings and giants' rings ... the craze dwindled and passed, and I never really got to sail. By the time I was old enough to take up the offer of a PGL holiday I shrank from the idea of spending a fortnight in a crowd of other teenagers being energetic, preferring to stay with the familiarity of holidaying with my parents in the caravan with Scrabble and bird books and solitary exploration. The nearest I came was a few years later with my 6th form sailing club, a couple of the younger male teachers and a handful of students, pottering round a Sussex gravel pit in some old Mirror dinghies during the evening after school. Looking back though, those sessions, the laughter, the relaxed chat and friendliness, the trips in the minibus to and fro stopping at the bakers, being wet, windblown and scruffy and somewhat outside of my usual orbit - I was never sporty in any way and the other students and teachers were not people I saw much otherwise- the clunky little wooden boats and their bright red sails, and the occasional pleasure of achieving a satisfactory manoeuvre in a gust of breeze, are very good memories from a time, my later teens, which on the whole I don't look back on with much rosiness.
The stories and dreams of childhood, the books, films, games and activities that create and feed them, don't all have to be lived out and fulfilled. They don't all have to be a source of sorrow and failure and disappointent either. If we are allowed to hold to them as dreams on our own terms for as long as necessary, and not have them stripped brutally away, so we can weave and smooth and inlay them into our growing realities, they can be there for us always, revisiting and enriching our lives with surprising joy and intimacy.
Now I live in a place where I can quite easily go and meander and dream around ports and harbours, and the sturdy old-style boats, like the sturdy old-style horses, are preserved and cherished, and that's really rather fine. Since I never came to know and understand larger sailing boats from the floating, moving, in fact rather frightening, inside, seeing them in boatyards, up out of water, is like being able to wander among and look closely at awe-inspiring great creatures, tethered and docile and able to be approached, stroked and studied. They fill me with wonder, but not with any great longing.
Though I may yet take a trip across the bay in La Pauline...