Water – an antidote to Corona

We had lots of plans for cruising in Ginger Bear in 2020, but like everyone else’s plans, they fell by the wayside. For a few heady days before lockdown we were going to escape to the country and drift around away from it all. I quickly serviced the engine and managed to set fire to the bilge pump in the process. Then at the same moment we both realised that two older people overwhelmed by Covid, running out of water and needing to sort out other domestics might be regarded with some irritation by those who had to rescue us. Back to square one.

Instead we did some of the things we had been meaning to do for a long time on the boat, including replacing the scruffy and faded orange tape decorating the topsides. This took a long time. On the weather side of the boat the tape had magically incorporated itself with the paintwork and was very difficult to remove. On the other side it still behaved like tape and mostly peeled off. This was a long job.

Two coats of paint on each side above the blacking and revarnishing the front doors partially restored Ginger Bear’s self respect. By the middle of June the locks were beginning to open up and we interpreted the rules as meaning it was OK for us to go. Time for us to take our Corona mitigation.

We first took Ginger Bear up the Thames in 2008, so this would be our thirteenth season on the river. But this year was different in so many ways. The most obvious difference in the hot days towards the end of June was that the river had become everyone’s playground. Paddle boards were out in regiments and inflatable kayaks were booming too. Although there was no formal rowing and our skiffs were off the river, it still felt pretty crowded.

There were lots of novices who were developing their steering skills, so navigating a course through them was a challenge.

One unexpected obstacle just above Runnymede was a waterpolo match in the river. Not much social distancing going on there, but a lot of fun.

Whatever the risks of river swimming there were dozens doing it, some of them not aware of how small and invisible they were. A few felt it was hot enough to abandon their clothes.

This view was opposite the bottom of Eynsham Lock where we were filling with water. A couple of about our age were sitting watching the scene. I said to the woman “Brave young man” to which she replied in disgust “Not a nice sight!”. I thought this was an over-reaction, discriminatory even, but decided not to argue the point. The object of the discussion was perfectly happy and sat down legs akimbo to enjoy the sun.

There were new forms of entertainment on the banks too with a variety of glamping sites along the river.

At the end of June before the first unlocking took effect, Bourne End had given up on social distancing.

But other symptoms of lockdown were clear. Fleets of hire boats lay unused as we went up the river. Oxford felt like a ghost town with no rowers and no trip boats.

From the first weekend in July more boats were coming out on the river with the easing of lockdown. Our near monopoly of the river was over. By then we had got to Lechlade and enjoyed mooring below Halfpenny Bridge alongside two hundred heifers.

After a few days in their company we were on our way down the river again. One wet evening while trying to moor on an unpromising bit of bank Wendy slipped and cut her leg badly on a lug on the side of the hull. We ended up on the mooring of the Trout at Tadpole Bridge. Tom, the leading barman, was very helpful in arranging a taxi to Witney Hospital. This was the first of four visits Wendy had to make to this hospital and later to A and E at Banbury. Lockdown meant they were almost empty, so she got quick and effective treatment. It took about four weeks for her leg to heal so walking was restricted and she had to give up on PE with Joe Wicks for a time. Joe had been her daily companion since the start of lockdown so she missed him.

Turning off the Thames up Duke’s Cut we were going onto narrow canals for the first time since 2017.

The Oxford Canal is a gem with some disadvantages. The scenery and the tranquillity are a delight; the shallowness of most of the canal is an irritant. A lot it feels like crawling along a rather muddy ditch. At Wigram’s Turn we headed for Braunston.

The Oxford Canal has one new shock for its visitors.

In the middle of its remotest part work on HS2 suddenly intrudes. It is a shock, mitigated by the fact it is lost quite quickly as you pass. But some scenes have changed forever.

But in the main boat life continues from year to year.

Braunston was at the heart of the canal system. But it was also on the stage coach route built by Telford from Holyhead to London. Before the railways the now quiet high street saw sixty stage coaches coming through a day. The noise and bustle of the coaches above the busy working canal below must have given a sense of excitement and energy.

It’s an attractive scene today. Opposite our mooring was a seventy foot trad style boat moored alongside a well kept garden. The owner was a professional gardener. She thought she had secured a perfect lifestyle. We could not disagree.

But if she personified the good life, there was someone else who seemed to be the most relaxed person in England. This is Kate in her hanging chair.

Our original plan was to complete the circuit down the Grand Union but damage to lock gates at King’s Langley made the circuit seem risky, so we ended up coming down the Oxford again. We spent a month on the Oxford and the Grand Union. When Ginger Bear got back on the Thames on 12 August you could feel her bite into some real water again and shake off the memory of mud crawling.

Going down the Thames the magnificent houses are always impressive.

This year, with the effect of the virus on our minds, the contrast with people with less is more striking than usual.

Wherever we are, the birds and animals by the water are always a source of pleasure.

For me, less so for Wendy, the sight of some beautiful boats is a pleasure. They were out in force towards the end of July to help their owners shake off the gloom.

Boat names provide interest and entertainment too. The names Carpe Diem, Narrow Escape and Dreamcatcher are common. Less so the boat named Sexy Beast which also carries flags for Essex and Marbella. I am not sure if this was self-deprecating. But the prize for the owner who has really succumbed to fantasy goes to Aurora.

Throughout our ten weeks on the water our family kept a wary eye on us and visited in different places.

We got back to Brentford at the end of August. We had enjoyed some good summer weather and great views of English countryside. It was a tonic to counteract Corona. Next year, if we are still hosting this malign virus, we will set off for a much longer taste of England from the water.