No-one will forget the summer of 2018. We were lucky to enjoy three very different boats as the end of the summer passed.
Ginger Bear’s summer cruise was short. Heat curtails cruising ambitions so August was a month of very slow travel on the Thames and Wey watching the world enjoy the best summer for decades. We had been down the Wey in a short, cold and wet week in June 2012; six years later it felt brighter and sparkled in the sun. On our way up the Thames young people were rowing and sailing.
Older people were enjoying parties too.
While others look for somewhere new to moor – constantly on the move, sometimes in unorthodox craft.
Gloriana was relaxing on a mooring at Thames Ditton.
We moored at Shepperton and Wendy headed for the blackberries.
Then into the Wey. The navigation took us back to the century before most English canals: it was opened in 1653.
The Wey in the sunshine is a delight. Expensive Weybridge gives way to a fine nineteenth century mill before deep countryside takes over.
We got to Guildford in slow time and moored at Dapdune Wharf. This was the base of the main boatyard of the Wey in the hands of the Stevens family who built and operated the local barges until 1936. In its day the navigation was an important commercial route. Immediately after the Fire of London in 1666 large quantities of timber were hauled along the canal to London. The National Trust now owns the wharf and describes its history well. One of the remaining barges is on the site to the right of Ginger Bear.
A sadder relic is in the corner of the yard.
On the Sunday morning I went off to look at Guildford Cathedral while Wendy headed for Waitrose. The cathedral stands on the top of a hill surrounded by the buildings of the University of Surrey. It was started in 1936 and completed in 1961, partially funded by the public buying individual bricks for half a crown. There are a lot of bricks and it is a large and monumental building, but I thought the outside uninspiring.
I found the interior simple and more appealing. It was the middle of sung matins so I joined the congregation, making the number up to twenty. A competent choir sang its part well. The congregation struggled with hymns set to abstruse tunes. The priest was a man with a thin and reedy voice so he struggled too. It all felt like a metaphor for the decline of the Church of England. Admittedly sung matins on the first Sunday of August is probably the least popular service of the year; nevertheless it felt limp. I guess any student entering the cathedral for the first time would have left quickly and never returned.
We were on the move in the afternoon but only to find a tree and some shade in the country.
But Wendy set to with a cloth in spite of her intolerance of high temperatures.
On the way back we had a stop at Papercourt Meadow and then at Byfleet Boat Club. From here we set off to visit the Brooklands Museum. It was an enjoyable visit which included a slightly hair raising trip up to and along part of the banked track. The track was built in less than a year in 1907 and the joints between the concrete sections were apparently pretty rough even when new. Driving the 24 litre Napier-Railton round the track at 143 mph in 1935 must have been both exciting and terrifying.
Just after the junction with the Basingstoke Canal we saw swarms of waterboatmen. Their skiffing skills are extraordinary: with one well timed push they can make a foot of progress, enviable agility. Back on the Thames we headed for Hampton Court so that I could drive the club umpire launch and we could meet Claudia and granddaughter Eliza.
Eliza was to spend nearly a week with us. We loved having her on the boat and she enjoyed it more than the previous year. She had brought her bike so she and I made riverside trips in Runnymede and then in Windsor.
In between an ice cream and a bit of history
In Windsor she was keen to avoid the castle but wanted to talk to the ducks, so we kept the kiosk’s sale of duck food at an all-time high. Our week flew by and it was time to take her back to meet Claudia, Anna, Joel and Ethan at the London Wetland Centre. I went with Ru to see Joel’s final day of a football week where he was awarded the prize for best all-rounder by a Chelsea coach. Family smiles all round.
Bereft of grandchildren we set off from Windsor and had a slow cruise to Henley. On the way we stopped at Ferry Quay in Bourne End. From there we took a slow and short train to the best launderette ever encountered. It was at Furze Platt and called Fresh and Clean. It lived up to its name. Boaters become expert at finding launderettes while cruising, but they are often dispiriting and scruffy. But here was one run with pride by its owner, Janet Ella. It was a surprise and pleasure to find someone so committed to a really high quality service.
While we were moored at Ferry Quay a couple of families turned up in their 4x4s and set off on paddle boards. All very nonchalant and relaxed they had clearly done it many times before.
On then towards Henley in the company of two catamaran canoes with amateur but enthusiastic crews.
Then past Quarry Wood, said to be the inspiration for the Wild Wood in the Wind and the Willows.
As we came near Henley we passed a large festival being taken down. It was Rewind, a celebration of eighties’ music.
We moored in the Mill Meadow in Henley. There were fewer boats around than expected. The next day we set off for a circular walk to include Greys Court, a small but pleasant National Trust house. On the way we walked through a large golf course that had been part of Wendy’s godmother’s house at Badgemoor. Wendy went into reminiscent mode about the house, its eccentric family and their horses. It was a world quite unlike the one we inhabit today.
Greys Court is delightful and has an attractive garden split into a lot of different sections. One of them looked to me just like a view of Mr McGregor’s garden in Peter Rabbit’
Henley was the furthest point of our modest summer cruise and on 23 August we were off down the Thames again. Paddle boarding is a growing vogue but it was nevertheless a surprise to see a large group doing pilates on boards outside the RAF Water Sports centre.
We settled on the moorings below Marlow and took another 7 mile walk up to Temple Lock and back down the river. The next morning we admired a lone swimmer pounding up the river for his cardio-vascular fix.
On our way down to Windsor we saw an example of what these locks were really designed for. The barge coming out of Bray Lock fitted the dimensions very neatly, but there was no room for anyone else.
We were back in Windsor on our favourite spot later in the day. We were welcomed by the very talkative river bailiff who lived on “The Toad” on the Eton bank. She was a fund of wisdom and gossip and worth knowing.
A walk along the Windsor bank and then across to the Eton side gave us a good view of the castle and a classic English Saturday afternoon.
Getting back to the town the wedding photography business was in full gear.
On Sunday 26 August it poured with rain all day, not the first rain to end the dry period, but certainly some of the heaviest. The next day as we went past the Windsor Home Farm the grass which had been parched two weeks before was beginning to green up again. Ensconced in our favourite Runnymede mooring again we set off for a walk that took us back towards Windsor Great Park. Passing Cumberland Lodge we went up the hill to the huge equestrian statue of George III. He looked as though he was plane-spotting, but perhaps his gesture was one of defiance towards his despised son, George IV. It is said that the design of the plinth is deliberately ramshackle as an illustration of how shaky the dead king’s hold on everything was.
After a seven mile circuit we were back and ready to travel again the next morning. At Penton Hook a large barge came out of the marina below the lock and was proceeding down the river very carefully. The owners had spent all summer painting her and this was their first outing. She looked wonderful and we could see why they did not want to scratch any of their handiwork. We followed her into Chertsey Lock.
Coming out of the lock there was a lot of competition going the other way.
We moored at Sunbury that evening and met Peter and Emelda for a meal in the village. It was not as good as in the past, but the company and conversation were good. On 29th August we set off from Sunbury for Brentford. A quick stop at Kingston so that we could visit the amazing games shop called Fun Learning in the Bentall Centre to buy a present for Joel and entertainment for our French cruise. We were back in Brentford in the early evening. The basin was being dredged so that we can all float.
Our 2018 cruises have been very modest, no more than 200 miles and 90+ locks. But we had one more outing for the year two weeks later, taking Ginger Bear up to the yard in Laleham for blacking while we were away. FourAll is a great yard and looks after her well.
In September we were off for something completely different. My sister Kay and brother Hugh had arranged to hire a large cruiser on the Canal du Midi and kindly invited us along to help them handle her. Our expertise, such as it is, might be useful. We were secretly rather apprehensive about this: the boat concerned, a LeBoat Magnifique, also features in hires on the Thames often proceeding in a rather erratic way. An experienced offshore skipper who was hiring one and talked to Wendy at one of the Thames locks told her he found it pretty well uncontrollable. Not a reassuring start.
We joined the boat on the Monday of the third week of September. The hot summer had not given up its hold on the South of France and temperatures hovered around 30 degrees for most of our week. Our planned trip was from Homps, about 40 km East of Carcassonne to Port Cassafieres 80km away and within a kilometre of the Mediterranean. This seemed a modest objective for a week’s trip, but it gave a perfect mix of cruising, exploring, eating and drinking well and lounging under the bimini. The boat was large and spacious with four double cabins, a good saloon and galley and a very spacious sundeck.
We were well victualled by Kay and George who brought a car load of supplies from their house in Indre which was then enhanced by a raid on the local supermarket. We were not going to starve – or indeed go thirsty. We cruised at a leisurely pace. The handling proved challenging although there is a sweet spot where the boat settles and steers more easily. Great when you managed to hit it, but a lot of the time it was like dealing with an undamped phugoid. The eternal trick is to avoid overreacting, but that is easily said. However, we all established a modus vivendi with the boat and avoided constantly steering her with the bowthruster which was the solution lots of other boats adopted.
The canal is a seventeenth century engineering masterpiece. Just over ten years after a short stretch of the River Wey was opened up as the first English navigation, the Canal royal en Languedoc was commissioned and was finished fifteen years later in 1681. The designer and engineer of the project was Pierre-Paul Riquet who managed a workforce of 12,000 in the construction of the 240 kilometre canal. He also financed the project himself. Born near Beziers he remains a hero of the region.
A famous features of the canal is its continuous avenue of plane trees, planted in the 1830s to reduce evaporation and bind the banks of the canal. Sadly disease has gradually destroyed them and it is expected that all 42,000 trees will eventually have to be removed. This has changed the aspect of the canal so that there are some parts where there is a panoramic view where trees blocked it before. But seeing the work of felling going on is a sad sight.
As with all canals the locks provide much of the fun and drama, albeit under the strict control of the lock keepers. The oval locks of this canal are no exception. The most dramatic example on this stretch was the flight of seven locks above Beziers.
The leisurely progress needed to complete the trip left plenty of time for other things.
As we cruised slowly along, delightful places came and went, often populated by good restaurants, quirky town squares and characteristic fortified churches – Argens Minervois, Somail, Capestaing, Beziers and Villeneuve-les-Beziers.
We got to Port Cassafieres with enough time to give us a morning on the beach. The sea was very warm and gentle – a good end to a relaxed week.
Then it was time for a crew photo before all setting off back to the UK.
We carried with us good memories of a wonderful waterway.
We returned to pick Ginger Bear up from FourAll. She looked good and had needed nothing other than her coats of blacking – no anodes or anything else, what a blessing. We hurried back to Brentford passing the largest leisure barge we have seen on the Thames at Isleworth.
Ginger Bear was back in her winter quarters earlier than usual. But we had another outing before the summer was over. The next weekend we were in the Isle of Wight staying with Wendy’s cousin Sarah. She and her daughter Hattie race an X at Yarmouth and I was invited to crew for Hattie along with Gary for the last Sunday race in September. This was an important race because a cup hung on it. In practice my real role was as animate ballast which, given my weight, is at least useful. My father had an X called Satu in the Solent in the early 1950s. She is still around and winning races in the Hamble. As we waited for the club launch I told Hattie this was my first outing in an X for 64 years. We had a very successful race and our second place secured the September series cup. It was a warm day with a good breeze, ideal for a good sail. I was unnerved by not having any toe straps so the only way of staying in the boat was by clinging on to the bottom of the coaming. Falling overboard would be undignified and cold but would also lose the race – unthinkable and luckily did not happen.
When we got back I looked up the old black and white photos. Sure enough there was Satu sailing well. But the image I remembered of me as a small boy was not in the X but a bit later in Satu’s successor, Dorothy May a 16 foot Dolphin. Sadly my memory was fake news – perhaps I never did sail in Satu. Too late to ask anyone now!