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.