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  • Down by the river I

    PICT0542.jpgI've been swimming again at tumbling bay. Not some exotic Carribbean destination, or even a disused swimming place in Oxford, but the weir pool near here. My nieces had some canoeing practice and I swam down to where the local swimming club used to have its hut. When I was a child I used to wonder what the mysterious abandoned building was, lost in trees close to the river. Then I was given an account of an annual swimming race which used to be held from here to the next village, about 3 miles downstream.

    Before foreign holidays, the river was the place for energetic recreation. In Edwardian times the village had its own annual rowing regatta, and for many years boats were for hire at Mr Light's refreshment stall.

    Rivers gave life, providing water for drinking by both humans and livestock, and they also carried away the dead. A local mill-owner is still remembered for having punted his wife's body the same 3 miles from the house where she died to her burial place in the family plot in a churchyard close to the river.

    The Thames was for work as well as play. Besides the corn ground at the watermill, which was listed in the Domesday book, the damp water meadows round here were perfect for growing willow osiers for the basket-making industry, which had their bark removed (stripping the willow) after soaking in the ponds which several houses still have in their gardens. More than one 18th century local listed his occupation as fisherman - presumably trapping eels in basketwork traps made from osiers taken from the same local withy beds.

    As I swam in the fast-moving water I remembered a solitary swim I took years ago when a pair of kingfishers swooped low over the water down at tumbling bay - held in tight formation by the same short stick they both gripped tightly as they flew. So landscape joins our lives with the lives of others, like ours, but lived no more.

  • So farewell then, Cuthbert…

    a14d5956dcf3bc2e156b9b97f9e3bedb.jpgThe Thames at night. Dark outlines of tall trees on the bank side. It is a magical summer evening. In the moonlight, the engine of the little boat putt-putts gently, its prow pushing through a layer of eerily beautiful river mist that rests on the water, but does not obscure our view ahead. We are on our way home after a good pub dinner. On the walk back to the boat we passed Shiplake church, where tiny glow-worms shone brightly in the darkness. We met a retired schoolmaster who was conducting a glow-worm census. He described the few weeks when the females "recline as if on a deck-chair" in the long grass, illuminating their tails in the hope of attracting a mate.

    For 12 years I've had a share in a wooden boat, chosen in the yard at Peter Freebody's where the consummate salesman told his daughter 'these two nice young men are deciding which of these two lovely boats they are going to buy'. We named him Cuthbert, not after the Lindisfarne saint called the "wonder-worker of England" but because the name jumped out of a list at random. Just 13' long, built by Freebody's in the fifties. An inboard 1.5hp Stuart Turner R3M engine, made in Henley like the thousands ordered by Butlins for their hire boats, with glamorous teak Riva decking and a dark blue hull set off with a line of fine gold.

    f09de5d7aaa5babf27b901379c11951f.pngCuthbert always turns heads, often in admiration, but sometimes in sympathy, since the Stuart Turner has a reputation for cantankerousness. Before shelling out for a professional re-build we even attempted an engine overhaul ourselves, hand-cutting seals, and cleaning out decades of gunk, referring to the original manual with its alarmingly complex diagrams and wonderfully mysterious line 'a spare jet is always a convenience'. From being a complete novice I have been initiated into the frequently infuriating idiosyncracies of Stuart Turner engines. We have uncovered a world of specialist experts, beavering away in their intriguing workshops: engine restorers, cover cutters, tiller turners and master boat-builders for whom 20 coats of varnish is the norm.

    b919c85cb28400a7f77a84efffe98300.jpgThe adventures we've had! Admittedly most because the engine failed, or we set out too late on a trip that took longer than expected, or because we simply forgot to put petrol in. The locks we've worked by hand late at night, the weirs we've drifted perilously close to and the money we've spent! Trips to the regatta, hanging on to the boom in mid-river as fireworks exploded all around us, the water a mass of dazzling reflections. The rudder we somehow lost in a lock. I was bereft. I even contemplated sending down a diver, but someone was found who could make a replacement, even better than the original. Twice vandals loosed Cuthbert from his mooring, scattering cushions (we found them being looked after by a bemused swan) and leaving him drifting. He (or was it she? - I could never decide, as boats are always female) was even in a car accident, after his trailer bearing failed.

    6ab56183932beb28722e4ef318343532.jpgA complete professional re-build of the entire engine, extensive work on the hull, much re-painting and re-fettling inside and out. Family picnics and late-night trystings, an epic journey to the tidal Thames, and even a wedding, when the newly married couple travelled to their reception beneath a flower-bedecked bower. A Sun-trained photographer bawled 'over here darling!' as the bride boarded. Toffs on gin-palaces toasted them in champagne and swimming boys spontaneously roared their approval.

    At least three relationships bloomed because of trips on Cuthbert. Two friends were introduced to each other and taken out for evening trips on Cuthbert several times before one of them shyly confessed 'we thought we might go out together - only without you, this time, I hope you don't mind!'.

    But now, after all the excitement, the traumas and the adventures, we are finally selling.

    On our last trip I caught sight of a sudden flash of brilliant blue. I watched as a kingfisher dipped and rose through the air just ahead of us, leading us back to the mooring and to four lives without one very special boat called Cuthbert.

    Offers anyone?

  • Flood blog 4

    50264a554dc6274dacbc33466fa065b6.jpgIt seems to have stopped rising. It has been so much worse in other places. So far the Environment Agency's prediction seems right: the peak was reached around midnight last night. The level is now at least 15" lower than the peak in the bad flood in January 2003 when around 10 houses locally took some water in.

    The meejah really have a field day. Both local radio and the nationals have exaggerated the difficulties here. They have been obsessed with river 'surges', when thanks to the flood-plain we have had just a steady rise. They have confused expected peak levels with the vital point at which the Thames 'breaks its banks' – essential if the flood-plains are to protect us from flooding. More building on the flood-plain – no thanks.

    The reporting really worried a lot of locals, several of whom have come back early from holiday. Sandbags are in places a raging torrent couldn't reach. One lady, whose house is at least 3' above the peak of 2003, filled her bath with water in case she was cut off. I'm reasonably confident it won't be needed.f3a68e7b25a74a5b0437c854f993e3d1.jpg