Seven tennis balls, a float, a mop and an alligator – part one

Scene setting – To go home by kayak – that was our inspiration. The tantalizing knowledge that it was possible to connect Hardwick on the Thames and Bristol by boat, padding over the chalk hills betwixt, had fascinated me for years. We left from the Chestnut Field at Hardwick, after the EECC summer gathering, after Supernormal festival at Braziers Park, after the storm. We camped one night alone before setting out. Titus is my son, he was eleven years old at the time.


That night’s moon was a treat. Looking out from a promontory of river bank, bats flitted across the shone path of moonlight reflected on the fast and flushed water. The river, swollen by the storm and drunk in the aftermath, had reclaimed the little beach that was a feature of our bay, with its lapping tongues.

We had delayed to see the storm over, but the squalls and gusts seemed never to end and we had waited long enough; tomorrow we would set sail.


The morning was bright and ambitious. Titus and I woke earlyish and feasted on biscuits in bed while the Trangia sang itself to the boil. The moans of turtle doves and raucous calls of distant geese hovered on the air whilst the sounds of passing trains bound for London cut the pseudo-silence like unseen cleavers. A lacing chill that held the  promise of a fine morning kept us in our cozy bags, each enjoying our morning tipple.


There’s a strange pleasure in being thrust into the undiluted company of one’s children. Sleeping closely, paddling together, forced into a reality of functional consciousness undiluted by chores or screens or any diversion grown-up or childish. Rapidly I conclude that Titus’s work ethic lacks, I will be the dog’s body of this ship despite my ‘Captain’ title. Titus can do nothing without playfulness, diversion, what ifs! Oh well!


Breakfasted, dipped in the cold river and packed, Titus reined from log-hopping, we are ready to launch from the shady bay into the sun-dappled swell of old father Thames. One hundred meters, some rearrangement and launch take two, we settle into a pattern of paddling and make fair time to Mapledurham watched by lazy flocks of preening geese, gaggling on the bank and routing the occasional heron. We approach the first lock with some doubt of our reception; our open cockpit, double kayak (by name of Marvin), laden to the gunnels, built for stability, posed us a problem rather akin to landing a whale with a fishing net. Titus and I simply could not wrestle it from the water loaded; portage was not an option, we would have to use the locks.


However, with the merest passing glance at our B.C.U. membership tags (of our fishes as Titus dubbed  them, as they confer official-ness) the lock keeper saw us through without derogatory murmur. We need not have worried that a kayak, even one of whale-like proportions called Marvin, would be considered too lowly.


We made good and happy progress into Tilehurst. Shopped for a windlass, an additional drybag, a buoyancy aid for Titus in a colour scheme he thought preferable to the perfectly serviceable one he’s had for years, but now eschewed, and two free useful bags from the chandlers there, which is good value and stocks canoeing stuff – I recommend it. Here we had elevenses. Titus stopped for a wee and a wander on a feather-dotted goose island a while further along, the trains and preparations for the Reading Festival entertained us as we passed into Caversham. Another cheerful lock keeper, past Tesco’s warm riverfront welcome (we didn’t need to stop tho’) and whilst Titus was agitating for his lunch, we happened upon the Kennet. Personally I thought it rather understated in an unmissable kind of way; I’d expected a large sign of motorway ilk, but no. Anyway, having reached our turn off, I figured we ought to travel a little along it and stop when we could. The change in effort required was instantaneous once we’d turned against the flow; Marvin lumbered.


I’ve never seen anything quite like the first lock on the Kennet. Forests of vegetation grew from it and it looked so derelict I searched for another way; lock, passage, by-pass, whatever, because that can’t be it. Poor little lock, the least of the Thames Authority’s ; not actually a K&A lock, unloved, neglected, an appalling, inhuman no man’s land. We ate our lunch on the mooring and wondered if we would ever get any further.


Neither Titus nor I had ever operated a lock. In my mind, there would always be other boats busying too and fro to which we would tag ourselves, never needing to wield our windlass, but although Reading went about its business around us, we sat alone on our island, lingering over our peanut butter sandwiches, wondering. When it came to it, we coped. There were big wheely things to turn that didn’t need a winder and with a fairly logical approach to trial and error Marvin and we passed through.


We sort of pootled along before being hailed by a lady from the bank. “My son’s dropped his scooter in the water, can you reach it for him?” But alas, it was to deep to fathom and we couldn’t help. Then we came to the traffic lights. A passing cyclist offered to push the button for us, though Titus would have quite liked to have done it; we waited on the green light. There was Dinosaur Crazy Golf and a fast food place called Mission Burrito that took T’s fancy as we paddled into the relentless wind that was blowing away the sun, threatening rain and stirring up the water. A line of brilliance crossed the river and baffled us somewhat. It turned out to be a weir beside the tiny 1’ 8” lock. It looked almost surmountable till you were close, when the two foot wall of water was clearly as daunting as Niagara in its way. Here we needed our trusty windlass and just as we were in and about to close the gate, a light, white riverboat came into view and we waited as it was tossed about by the crosswind and slid unsteadily into the lock behind us. This was our fist encounter with a crew of grandparents and their grandsons who we came to know as our ‘motor friends’ for a while, sharing locks and learning from their seasoned operation. Aquarius V, their boat was called, a small valiant craft with a blue hood and matching rubbery, balloony things that dangle down the side of boats to stop them rubbing against things.


The rain started in that lock and peppered the river with raindrops so hard it resembled pebbledash. Paddling into the lashing, Titus was stoic and the storm blew over, but left us cold. We stopped for a brew by the nicest of fields, in a little shallow cove – a river feature that canals, we found, lack. We would have liked to have stayed, but three in the afternoon was too soon to stop with nothing to do but get cold till bedtime and so we paddled on.


At Fobney lock Titus discovered that if you stand sideways to a weir and wave your far finger around your ear it makes a strange noise, a tinny whoop. Not very useful, but it pleased us and we repeated the trick at several locations in the following days. Fobney lock was picturesque and countrified. The presence of some hooded youths reminded us that we were less that a mile from Calcot, though it felt worlds away.


We caught up the motor friends at the next lock and Titus’s expertise increased as he assumed a windlass waving chic that was to exasperate me in its complacency around deep locks and churning water in the days to come. Longer pounds meant the motor friends pulled away from us till we passed Aquarius V again moored at a pub a while later. After another lock and a pitiless rain shower we ground to a halt before Burghfield lock in need of rest and sustenance. For the first time we pitched our tent on a small triangle of mown grass betwixt canal and tow-path, rationalizing that we would not mysteriously end up in the canal overnight, despite a temptation to think we might.



Tuesday I woke to the still cool sun shining directly into our tent, climbing and warming. We had finished yesterday with three inches of water in the bottom of the kayak, rain water, water guttered from waterproofs and dripped from paddles. Soon I would rise and begin to sort wet stuff to dry in the morning sun. Despite the tail of the hurricane sporting regular dousings, the sun was tropical when it came and the air still warm from the previous month’s heat wave.


The little lawn in front of our tent faced east; Titus sat on our barrel and fried pancakes while the washing dried and we tarried, passing the time with dog walkers. The dogs were inquisitive for pancakes and their walkers inquisitive about us. Cyclists made us a rapid hello and were gone again. The pancakes were delicious. I swam, for the last time as the weather turned chill the next day and thereafter I was content with a wash.


Some ducks watched us. (Titus writes… One duck was white though the other was brown. White duck got pissed off and left, so brown duck got her other brown friend.) The pancakes, by the way, were delicious with toffee sauce.


We had just slipped Marvin back into the canal and were stowing the last of our things when our motor friends came along, so we shared the next few locks with them. They were quicker, but with the locks set against them, we had time to catch up on the short pounds and they always let us paddle on while they reset the locks.


We had a goal to make Aldermaston by lunch. Well lunch is a moveable feast and we arrived about three. The motor friends had moored for lunch a while back. We needed to get a key to the taps etc. which we got at Aldermaston along with short shift from the lady in the chandlery, who was actually pretty foul.


We’d passed a cycling family some while back, also destined for Bristol. We met them again at Aldermaston and compared travel notes. They watched us work out how the taps worked, then the motor friends caught up and directed us to the public convenience.


Alone again, we finally lunched by the tow path and by the time we had finished and were ready to set off, we were a lock behind the motor friends, so we lost them. It was lucky that we had the key as the lift bridge at Aldermaston was the one and only low bridge that we couldn’t slide under. Some were tight, but all were possible save that one. It was rush hour, though I was oblivious to the disruption caused as I followed the instructed steps through the bridge swing; alarms and barriers, bells, knobs and all.


We paddled on through some uneventful pounds and tricky locks; Titus was splendid at the locks, coping determinably with heavy paddles and stiff mechanisms, slippy windlasses and poorly-balanced gates. The motor friends had taught him well; taught him to wait for the last remnant of up-surging to settle before putting his weight to the balance beam. In the last deep lock the rain beset us cruelly. Caught in the lock we got drenched and stopped as soon as we were in the top pound, taking refuge in the umbrella of a big tree, warm dry clothes, tent up to dry and noodles simmering. I was shivery and Titus was kind.


Our site for that night felt entirely surrounded by water, between a sluice, that might have intrigued me as a caving venture on a warm afternoon, and the stream-like vestige of the Kennet, not subverted into the canal. The perpetual rush of hurrying water and the intermittent rush of hurrying trains punctuated our night.


Not on the tow path side, our interaction with the morning’s walkers was more distant, cyclists whooshed by with a wave, but joggers were too self consumed to acknowledge us. I hung our wet stuff on the balance beam of the opposite lock gate in the sun, Titus  sat there too looking chilled (in the cool not cold sense) and very much at home till a passing fly of reportedly enormous proportions (nicknamed a ‘pig-fly’) sent him, complainingly, back to camp.


Pig-flies haunted us for the morning and Titus decided that today we would meet a friend call Giuseppe. On the river by ten thirty, six locks till Newbury and shopping, we made a shopping list.


The promised Giuseppe turned up in the guise of a tennis ball, the first of seven collected en-route. A boater gave us water and directions to Tesco where we dragged ourselves from the flow like life from the primordial soup, feeling damp, primitive and anachronistic in the superstore. As we were returning to our craft, considering packing and lunch, our motor friends passed going down stream. We call ‘goodbye’, they heard us and returned the greeting. Goodbye motor friends.


Newbury is possibly at its best from the water; the river threading its way between timber-framed buildings dividing into intriguing creeks and channels, which we deigned to explore keeping to the straight and broad. Signs for delicious ice-creams and play parks called to Titus yet we paddled on, denying their attraction. Progress was counted in locks. Canalized sections were easier, river sections more likely to catch the wind and we hugged the inside of bends to find the slower water in the storm heavy stream-way. It was undisputedly hard work and made me impatient of Titus grabbing at passing weeds and being too tired to paddle. Periodically he sulked and I slogged against the current and the wind. We found a glass fishing float caught in a tree and rescued it. We chose a small triangle of green below a lock as our night’s resting place, spotted a tiny speckled frog who sat (deluded that we couldn’t we see it) by our washing-up wall for a comfortingly long time. Titus spotted two deer.


Up to this point we had met surprisingly few other craft, even on the Thames; after Newbury it became a bit busier, a few hire craft but mostly owner-occupied boats crewed with certainty, greeting us with smiles and “How far are you going?”

“Bristol” we called to replies of encouragement.


There’s an anarchy to canal life, a way of life that escapes the mores of normality existing within that thin strip of canal and towpath carving an improbable course over the chalk hill. Repeatedly my mind ponders how it escapes regulation or interference from the powers that be and the nanny state, with its nineteenth century H&S, slippy winders and escaping paddles threatening trapped fingers on the locks, the long drops from the narrow lock gate walkways, the churning water. No wonder boat children grow up capable and responsible, it’s a fast learning curve of unfettered education. Repeatedly I wonder how it continues to exist and am glad that it does.



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