Sunday, July 29, 2012

Home Again

 The weather has not been kind to punts - even last week's heatwave found the stream scarily fast, especially when cross winds flung me into the trees. But this weekend the floods had abated; I turned tail, tired of long and unrewarding odysseys to check the punt without being able to continue upstream. Three hours yesterday and three hours today brought me back from Tadpole Bridge, a thunderstorm on my tail.
Timing almost perfect: just a few fat drops of rain before I tied up at lunchtime today on my now much improved and entirely nettle-free [thank you, Environmental Agency] mooring at Oxford Cruisers, got the cover up and tucked into pork pie and fruitcake. Ellie kindly picked me up, and drove me to Newbridge to collect my car.
The Upper Thames is ill-served for creature comforts. A fortune could be made by a small electric or steam bus-boat with licensed bar and tea-urn  that operated a regular service between Oxford and Lechlade.
What next? Short trips downstream, which is much more accessible by car from Wytham, Wolvercote, Binsey and Osney. Down a sidestream to the Talbot? The infant Evenlode to Cartington? I will explore Oxford's backwaters, perhaps even picking up the grandchildren up from North Hinksey School on the Seacourt Stream . . .

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Dulcie in the woods above Ten Foot Bridge
Lucky I was not planning to get anywhere soon: so far the summer has not been kind to punters. But I was encouraged to see the use of a punt in a more static way by reading Barbara at Oxford (1907), a delightful light read that has much fascinating detail of town and gown life at that time. Punts are repeatedly resorted too simply to sit and dream in, shaded by boaters and puffing pipes. Dulcibella has now reached a save haven just downstream of The Trout at Tadpole Bridge – much easier to reach across a pleasant flowery rabbit-mown meadow which Leo thoroughly enjoys racing across to get to her. She's out of the swell of the still racing river, and bulwarked from passing craft [not that any are passing at the minute] by clumps of rushes that indicate just how shallow her mooring is. I explored Chimney on foot yesterday, then, Barbara at Oxford style, had tea, fruitcake and a leisurely read in a blissful drop of warm sunshine.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Slow Punting I

It seems appropriate to start recording my leisurely progress upstream in Dulcibella on the day of the magnificent Jubilee river pageant, when a vanguard of over 250 little boats paddled and rowed five miles against wind and weather - not that I have any intention of inflicting such punishment upon myself. If you read of the punt's previous voyage to Cricklade [under Adventures], you will realise that that journey was fraught with the challenge of Getting There. This year I have no ambitions at all. I am merely travelling hopefully. I will go There and Back Again, but where There is does not matter at all. Short stints on the pole, much walking (with the noble hound Leo) from and to the car; much relaxing in the punt and exploring of the highways and byways to nearby villages and hamlets; following the example of the erudite author of The Stripling Thames Fred Thacker, I am going to explore and enjoy the setting of the river, not just use it as a highway.

Dulcie's new summer home
Intertuffing the hull


I careened Dulcie's bottom and painted her sides during that wonderfully summery March, but April and most of May was a write-off; a series of anxious visits to check her moorings as the river rose inexorably. The Environment Agency had decided to repair the towpath beside her old mooring, but the new one a hundred yards further downstream, embowered in a fallen willow, and with a little greensward beside her, is even better: still visible from Oxford Cruisers, her kindly guardian, and catching both dawn and evening sunshine.


23 May: After five days away with Daisy and James and Fox to welcome my seventh grandchild (Woody Griffith Hodge, b.18 May) into the world, I was only planning to pole up to the boatyard to put the cushions on board, but it was such a beautiful afternoon that I couldn't resist heading upstream. It was, after all, Leo's birthday. Pinkhill Lock beckoned; I poled in, and the keeper nodded. 'The wife was wondering when you'd be along'. Nice to feel the river folk notice us, and would arrest any pirate who presumed to capture Dulcie. Leo posed in the bow, and behaved beautifully, very different from last year when, as a puppy, he frequently attempted to walk on water. Now he swims confidently, having learnt from his aged aunts while staying with brother John. I let him run along the bank for a while, and he kept pace beautifully. I moored close to the Farmoor reservoir pumping station, chained up to a fence, then walked back to the car over a little hill near the reservoir. We were off.

24 May: Late afternoon:  I parked at Bablockhythe, and walked back along the Farmoor side of the river to the punt. Scorching hot day, and several bathers were enjoying themselves. A family of four in a red canoe passed me heading downstream. I knew that I needed to leave the punt on the Stanton Harcourt side of the river, where the towpath and road were, but sadly there is no longer a ferry at Bablockhythe. So when I reached it, cheered on by the denizens of its long waterside city of statics and cabins and the topers in (Not) The Ferry Inn,  I tied up by the car to enjoy a glass of red and cashew nuts, then put Leo, phone, keys etc in the car and got back into the punt with a lifejacket to aid me in my swim across. I chained Dulcie to a post, and covered her up, then headed for the crossing, watched with interest by the Ferry's customers. Lo and Behold: there was the red canoe, not yet put on the roof the large estate waiting to take it up. I hailed the family - the brawny father kindly put the canoe back in the water and got in - only. to my horror, to turn turtle. Rising Neptune like, he asked if I was sure I wanted a lift. Topers fascinated. We made it in safety, and many thanks to my kindly Charon.

25 May: Another scorcher. This time my brother-in-law Hugh came too; we parked at the Ferry, and took Dulcie as far as Northmoor lock - struggling against the wind, and picnicking on the way. Just before the lock itself we got into perilous straits when two narrowboats waved us towards the tying up pontoon, then one revved its engine to control its vast bulk, filling the end of the punt with water, at which point Leo tried to jump onto the pontoon and fell into the water, horribly near the narrow boat. He did the very sensible thing of ducking under the iron pontoon, and we got an exceptionally wet dog aboard. Once the narrowboats had gone on their way, we got through the lock safely, tied up near the footpath from Appleton,   and walked across the amazing Northmoor Weir - the only paddle and rymer weir remaining in England, I believe, to the towpath, and so, with astonishing speed considering how long it had taken us to punt upstream, got back to the Ferry Inn for a very welcome iced Guiness/pint of bitter.

Sundowner at Newbridge
26 May: Paul and Caroline Johnston joined Leo and me for a late afternoon session, both doing very well considering the again adverse conditions. Heartened by Buck's Fizz, we reached Moreton, and tied up in a quiet nook, then walked to Newbridge, where we had left one car. An evening bite to eat at the Plough in Appleton, and home. I'm gaining confidence at leaving Dulcie; no-one seems to meddle with her - though bathers were using her as a platform at Northmoor, when we arrived. I moved her up to Newbridge next day, tying her up by the sadly closed Maybush.

The kelly kettle does its stuff
30 May: Harriet Bretherton joined  me and Leo and we made a brave attempt at the Windrush ['No Paddles No Electric Motors' - and I would add 'No Punts], which was living up to its name, flowing far faster than the Thames, The hairy bit was shooting back down it, and having to aim for the right point to shoot Newbridge without touching. Phew. Then round about and upstream again, accompanied by a jolly gaggle of 11 year olds from Tetbury school who were learning to paddle and indeed spin turn canoes. Well done their mentors. Leo had great fun with them. Coffee in the Kelly kettle and swiss roll.
Left Dulcie about half an hour's walk upstream.

2 June: I walked from Duxford, charmingly en fete for the Jubilee, towards the punt, admiring the Roman Ford across the old course of the river - the modern course now goes through Shifford Lock and Cut - and imagining King Canute encamped there. I had hoped to punt to the ford, but, as with the Windrush, the stream is far too fast. I walked along the old  stream through thick vegetation, them emerged to walk along fields of flowering broad beans. When I reached the footbridge from the weir and lock, two Leo-lookalikes appeared and behind them, like a miraculous vision, my brother John: he had parked at Radcot and was walking to meet Emma at Newbridge, part of his project to walk the Thames Path. We had not compared notes on our activities, and five minutes either way and we would have been utterly unaware of each other's presence. Leo delighted to meet his aged aunts, and I to have such a good companion. Waved him goodbye at my mooring, then headed back. Whitebait and Guinness at the excellent Greyhound, Besselsleigh, was the perfect end to the afternoon.

Dulcie dressed over all
Secret Arbour
4 June, the finest day of the Jubilee Weekend: walked again from Duxford for a picnic on the punt shaded by patriotic jubilee awning, and then good upstream progress, occasionally passed by cruisers dressed overall and driving with drunken vigour.  My companion suggested an underwater sail for the return to Oxford. Glorious vision of Dulcie planing. Managed to get her very close to Shefford, on the opposite bank: must explore both its and Duxford's interesting little churches on the next excursion.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Making up for lost time

High time I got writing my notebook again, since I will be going to Norway again in a couple of weeks, and I see that my last post was about going there last April. Rather chaotic, and needs editing . . . 

Leo's sire Haddeo Snipe 
2011 was a hectic year for Hardyment nuptials, with three nephews, all sons of Peter, tying the knot: Tom and Camilla in Bibury, Richard and Katherine in Aldeburgh and Thorpeness, and Christopher and Maria in Syon House, near Kew. And in June 2012, John and Emma’s daughter Aelf will be married from their new Waverley Farm, Miserden.

I had a week tramping in the Dolomites in June, then a lovely dawdly summer, only working on my new book (for Frances Lincoln) about Arthur Ransome, which will appear in Autumn 2012, and getting to know my new puppy, Leo, one of 12 puppies fathered by a Shooting Times cover dog, was born 23 May and came to Nutwood at the end of July 2011

Leo's dam Rillo

Leo (on the left) is related to Angus

I made lots of Ransome related expeditions, and acquired a fine Vintage Mirror dinghy for the growing crews of grandchildren. She has only been launched into the garden so far, and is now in the boatshed, as we can proudly call the garage these days, awaiting a new coat of varnish on her topsides to equal the bright red hull. Hopefully we will launch her on the Thames in the coming summer.

The garden provided plenty of amusement, and we now have a suitably dangerous campfire site next to the Baba Yaga house. Looking out at it in the last days of February, it is hard to believe that it will be as green and bushy as this before long.

In September my leisurely work life came to the end, when I took on the challenge of writing the book for the British Library summer 2012 exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands and Wonderlands, and found myself working morning noon and night - not my normal habit.
 But the best news of the year was the birth on 5th October of Leonard (Lenny) Billings, son of Susie and Joe. Having them living just a ten minute pram-push away means that I can see him wonderfully often. In fact, with Ellie, Jamie, Sam and Olivia living opposite Susie, Joe and Lenny, life often feels rather like a soap, as we meet each other in the co-op or Homebase.
Lenny is growing fast, and is quite a water baby - he loves his bath and has already had a session in the swimming pool. I'll have him punting in no time.

In December I went for what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to Surfside, a little dune-edge shack at the far north end of St Ives Bay. Wonderful weather and water effects, and one again I timed my visit to coincide with the full moon. Leo revelled in the beach and the waves; hopefully he'll be as good a sailing dog as Angus before long.
Gillian and Phil came again for Christmas, which was a wonderful family affair, and stretched the full twelve days, one way and another. IT was made the better because by then I had delivered both books. The last few weeks have involved a lot of mopping up of loose ends for their respective publishers, but the future spreads wide and hopeful ahead