On the Thames after a long sleep

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Over the winter of 2017-18 Ginger Bear slumbered longer than ever before. She arrived back on 15 October and only left Brentford again on 26 May  – over 7 months. Not all of this was down to Wendy’s view that cruises of the future should be relaxed affairs without specific objectives. Some of it was down to Wendy being in the tender and competent care of the NHS at the end of April. On 16 May we had a test run on the Thames with a short trip to Teddington and back with old work colleagues – Tony, Juliet and Audrey – enjoyed by all but in very low temperatures, a biting wind and some rain.

On 26 May we were ready for a real cruise and set off down the Brent to the Thames Lock.

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As we passed the MSO yard we could see the bow of our near neighbour Saumur sticking out of the dry dock.

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If Ginger Bear was feeling nervous about her first big trip of 2018 she had good reason for doing so. Out of Thames Lock on the stretch past Sion Park we met an Idiot (First Class with bar) coming down the river at high speed. The speed limit on the tidal river is 8 knots and although large twin engined plastic cruisers exceed this, they are generally fairly restrained. Not so the idiot in the Moonraker 36 who was certainly doing 12 knots and probably more. Shouting and gesticulating did nothing to slow him down – and for the avoidance of doubt he was male – and the impact was striking. Not so much on the boats – our propeller grunted as it dealt with the disturbed water – but on the bank: we could see the huge wash on the bank and almost feel the damage.

Unfortunately we did not get the boat’s name. We reported the incident to the Port of London Authority later on and they said mildly they had had to speak to a number of people that day. Being now in one of the seriously grumpy decades of life we felt being spoken to was much too modest a penalty for this selfish oaf.

But even grumpies eventually calm down. Richmond looked in full bank holiday swing with the White Cross packed to the gunnels.  Getting to Hampton Court and Molesey Lock we saw there are now four of the ramshackle accommodation boats all moored by the bridge, all of them a risk to the people renting space on them.

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As we went into the lock we were in the company of a hard drinking hired dayboat. Chaos shouting and confusion followed, punctuated by the assurance that “Owen knows what he’s doing”. Very clear to everyone watching that Owen hadn’t a clue but miraculously no-one was hurt.

Mooring in Sunbury was easy. It’s a good spot and not many people know about it, so we were on our own. But Art Deco, a smart broadbeam we’ve seen elsewhere on the Thames, does and she arrived shortly afterwards. That was the night of the legendary London thunder storm and torrents of rain fell as the sky was constantly lit up.

It was a good time to be going up the river with all the riverside gardens looking fresh and at their best.

 

 

Going up and down the river quite regularly it’s striking how new houses are growing out of old sites. Just above Shepperton Lock a very large new house is complete and the garden has moved from building site to trim beds. Wendy who has an aversion to garden grasses managed to admit they looked rather good in this case.

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In other places the decay continues in preparation for the next renewal.

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The same is true of the boats. Leaving the handsome waterworks building above Bell Weir Lock we passed the beautiful shape of an old MFV which is being allowed to rot slowly.

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The river is littered with boats which are dying or preparing for death in spite of the Environment Agency’s best efforts to get them removed.

A more cheerful sight was presented by the mooring at Cookham which we reached on the Thursday of half term week. The weather was good, although nothing like as hot as our later heatwave, and half term sailing was in full swing. Fleets of Optimists with young and enthusiastic crews were towed up the river and released in swarms. Lots of noise and laughter.

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The  next day we walked along the river to Bourne End where more young sailors were learning their trade while parents fussed around them.

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Leaving the river we went in search of one of the (many) houses Wendy lived in as a child. In the days of a very large Royal Navy naval officers moved around the country and the world and so did their children. Wendy’s hunch about where the Forester’s House could be found was right and we paused for a short drink at the adjacent pub, the Crooked Billet.

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Wendy remembers very well being fiercely reprimanded in her school for writing that the way home meant turning right at the “pub the Cooked Billet”. “Pub” was not in the permitted lexicon of High March School, Beaconsfield.

Walking through the woods we went on to Marlow to complete an eight mile walk, fortunately with a train to get us back. The mooring at Cookham was a busy place. Every morning a major dog walking exercise took place in the meadow with dogs of all shapes and sizes.

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Cookham and Bourne End are good places to observe the Thames property market. Opposite us was a compact little house whose owners obviously felt the need for a little more space. Easy to sympathise with their dilemma as swarms of builders scurried around fulfilling the order.

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We managed to ground the boat at an uncomfortable angle as a result of lock keepers trying to manage down the flow after the earlier heavy rain and were lucky to be pulled off the ledge by an old style Dutch barge. No hands available for pictures during this operation! Setting off down river we were quickly stopped by a red board and the lock keeper at Cookham Lock. He allowed us down the lock to moor in a delightful and quiet spot below the lock. A new discovery and a nice spot. Cormorants cannot read.

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While waiting for the river to calm down we took another walk along the river and up over the chalk bluff of Winter Hill. At one point the path turned sharply up a chalk slope for a steep climb. At the bottom was a picnicking family and about 15 feet up the path three or four children of the party. One of them was a small boy of three (?) in dungarees and yellow boots who was immediately worried about our safety. He stepped into the path and said “It’s very steep and you need to take VERY small steps”; and he then gave us a convincing demonstration of the technique. He had surely been told the same thing by his parents, but his caring concern for us was hilarious and memorable.

The next day we were on the way down the river with a fast stream to carry us. The old bridge at Maidenhead is exciting in a fast stream and protected against boaters with poor judgement.

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At Bray Lock we met enthusiastic and hot Windsor Half Marathon Runners. They may not have been fast but they had a lot of spirit.

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After Windsor we were queuing for Romney Lock with a lot of other boats. A great scene, but missed by the young on all the boats who were all studying their phones with an intensity that cut out everything around them. Leaving the lock as we turned onto the main river there was an attractive old house we have seen many times before – but now deserted  and boarded up. Alongside it an old wooden barn looks doomed too.

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A few minutes online reveals that there is permission to demolish it and replace it with a new build. The house has an almost fairy tale quality about it. Demolishing it may not be wrong – but it feels sad.

At Old Windsor Lock Wendy was organising the lock with lots of boats in it. As we left a small hire boat jumped the queue provoking lots of chuntering from me. But as they left the lock and the crew fanned Grandpa while calling for an ambulance, it became clear their need was indeed greater than ours. A helpful riverside house called them in and we can only hope that Grandpa got the help he needed. Moored at Runnymede we watched the last episode of “A Very English Scandal” and forty years fell away with the memories. It is hard to believe that the outcome would have been the same in 2018.

The “Glorious Fourth” was miserable and cold with a cutting breeze. The river was completely deserted. Stopping for milk in Staines Wendy discovered that Waitrose had closed down there: we are still trying to work out what this means. As we approached Kingston Wendy noticed the bank was covered in colourful flowering broom, giving out a glorious intense scent. Somehow we’d never noticed it before.

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The next morning we left Teddington Lock at 7.30 to catch the tide and were tied up in Brentford at 9.20. As so often in the past the sights of the Thames seem surprising and new – even if we’ve seen them before. We hope to go back soon.

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Bath, Bristol, Brunel and back – the last of 2017

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This is a restrospective – as before history rather than a current story. But just as narrowboats go about their business very slowly so too do their narrators. If you need speed the solution is a car + social media. If you can afford slower contemplation – here it is.

At the end of August 2017 Ginger Bear was settled in Caen Hill Marina to rest for the period of John and Mackenzie’s wedding. Alastair came to see us for dinner. He was in Brentford before being exiled to Devizes.

Monday was the start of a week of wedding celebrations that were frenetic, joyful and memorable.

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We arrived back at the marina the following Monday exhausted and with a trailer load of rubbish, bamboo flares and other wedding paraphernalia. We got odd looks as we parked the trailer. Small wonder. The terms and conditions of the marina outlawed trailers. But we had not got a copy of the Ts and Cs. Serious error.

After a severe wigging from Sarah we recovered our trailer and completed our wedding tasks. We had a further discussion about the Ts and Cs before leaving prematurely in a very high wind the following day. Caen Hill is a great marina. We respect their rules, but make sure you ask for the Ts and Cs if you berth there.

On the way to Bath we stopped at Avoncliff, close to where I lived as a child, a beautiful spot with spectacular scenery.

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Passing some of the local fauna at very close quarters….

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.. we were off to Bath where we moored in a good spot above the last locks into the Avon.

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Then on 17 September we were back on a proper river after going through the 19’ deep lock on the way.

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Ginger Bear was happy to be on a river again without the shallow water dragging her.

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At Bitton Railway Bridge there was a large group of about 20 boats on a so called picnic spot. 4 or 5 deep they frustrated the efforts of conventional boaters to moor. There was quite a lot shouting going on as we wound through the traffic jam.

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Leaving Hanham Lock we were soon in rowing territory with a lot of novice rowers and a great deal of starting and stopping. As in some other places the coaches have got used to the idea that they own the river and that other craft are verminous. A bit of mutual tolerance would be good.

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By early afternoon we were turning into Netham Lock at the start of Bristol’s floating harbour. The lock keeper was helpful in giving guidance on the harbour and an hour later we were moored outside the Arnolfini in the city centre.

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We enjoyed walking round the basin and then had a meal with John and Mackenzie.

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The next day we took a ferry to the SS Great Britain and spent a fascinating time there with John. It is wonderfully laid out and explained.

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We looked at the replica propeller, the original being the first ocean going one. There is a wonderful sign advising that when leaving port the revs must not exceed 2rpm without the agreement of the pilot – caution indeed.

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That evening we walked through the magnificent Queen Square on the way to a farewell drink with Sue, Mackenzie’s mother, before her return to Australia. John and Mackenzie live in Bristol and it’s a great city.

The next day we were on our way back.

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In the early afternoon we came up to Saltford Lock. On the lock standing there were lots of beautiful varnished skiffs similar to those at Dittons Skiff and Punting Club. The lock was open and the skiffers beckoned us in with enthusiasm. The problem was that the flow from the weir across the lock entrance is very strong and one mistake would reduce the skiffs to matchsticks.

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Hard to make this clear, the more so as these skiffers were from Berlin, so the only answer was lots of speed to offset the weir flow and then a very rapid stop once we were in the lock. The Berlin skiffers smiled and waved and we were grateful we had done them no harm! By the evening we were back in Bath after an interesting passage through the deep lock. I was helming and the whole boat throbbed as the water came into this – the deepest lock we have been through.

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From Bath we had a slow and easy trip back up the K and A with much shorter day trips than in the past.

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At Hilperton the Boatyard gave great customer service from a family business. We stopped at Semington Bridge and Alastair and Gabi picked us up and swept us off for a welcome dinner in Devizes.

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The next day we moved to pole position for the flight. On 22nd we set off at 7.00 in thick fog and a cold morning.

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After a short coffee break we started up the main flight. We were blessed with a brilliant volunteer, Alan Gladman, who saw us all the way up the flight.

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By 2.25 we were out of lock 50 and ready to moor, after 29 locks in seven and a half hours. Lunch was eventually at 4.15.

We headed slowly East. Our progress was punctuated by Dugald making trips back to London for school meetings. Fortunately the GWR is close to the canal for most of its length.

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Julie and Mike joined us at Kintbury for a good lunch at the Dundas Arms.

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We then set off behind the horse drawn trip boat and watched it winding very skilfully at Dreweat’s Lock.

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The crew watched the placid Monty carefully because he is apparently prone to deciding enough is enough and setting off at a smart pace for home.  He reminded both of us of horses we had known in our youth.

Autumn was beginning and we still had not done lots of the painting we planned to do. As she headed East Ginger Bear began to look like a patchwork quilt. On 7th October we arrived in Reading in time to meet Joel and Ethan for a weekend sleepover while Anna and Ru went to a 40th. We tried winding in the Reading Gaol loop and just about got round before settling on the moorings of the Bel and the Dragon. Recommendation – go straight to the Bel and Dragon moorings. We had a memorable breakfast in front of an open fire, and lunch wasn’t long afterwards.

 

 

We managed to set off in spite of the lunch and moored at the Lynch just above Shiplake College. The island was explored with the boys as in Swallows and Amazons, but Ethan decided I had to carry him past the wasps’ nest in the large log across the path.

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There was more exploration the following morning before we set off for Henley.

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There was lots of space in Henley which is unusual.  The boys enjoyed the play area between the mooring and the town, especially the zip wire. After a while Dugald had become the referee/manager for an increasing number of children competing on the wire to register a record or personal best. A lot of fun that kept them going until their exhausted mother turned up to pick them up at 5.00 in the evening.

The next day we were on the way again, past the Llanthony which was still in the same spot on the bank. We moored below Brunel’s wonderful brick railway bridge opposite a large house in which a wake was clearly going on. Intimations of mortality.

A school meeting held up our departure from Maidenhead. Dugald reminisced about driving one of the umpire launches for the punting championships here at the beginning of August – strange what excites him. Then we were off to Windsor, Runnymede and Shepperton. There we were due to meet Sara and her inimitable children, Elena, Tom and Rosie. Once they were on board for a trip around Desborough Island the split of duties became clear. I was there to field the incredibly energetic children – where do they get it from? – while Dugald and Sara nattered non-stop about education, funding, universal credit and a host of other things. But we landed everyone safely and they all waved energetically as we set off again.

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Then on to Sunbury to meet up with John and Mackenzie for a short trip to Kingston. Mackenzie had never experienced the boat in motion, but he passed the test pretty well. An agreeable dinner in Kingston celebrated John’s 33rd. Life is moving on: with our oldest being 40 and our youngest 33, time seems to be passing. But spending it on a cruising boat does not seem a bad answer.

15th October was the last day of our 2017 cruising, exactly seven months after we set off in March. As we went down to Teddington we passed a large gathering of Thames A raters preparing for a race. Timeless and elegant – and exhausting to crew.

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We went through Teddington Lock at 11.00 and were back on our mooring at 13.00.

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Another great cruising year in which we headed North and West and covered 950 miles and went through 570 locks. Next year it’s going to be more relaxed – I’m going to be in charge.