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pond skaters and kingfishers – 24th to 29th July 2019

Written Monday 29th July (but only posted on Wednesday 15 January 2020 at Rindio in Bishops Stortford.. after finally accepting I’m not going to be able to Hotspot with my current set up on the boat, and instead resorting to finding a friendly cafe with Wi-Fi where I can drink a hot chocolate and finally post the first blog I did back in Summer about our epic boat trip! More to follow – but don’t expect it to be a deluge, more dribs and drabs as I get snatches of time and access to internet at random intervals!)


I’m sat in the front of our new boat home (we are quite excited about this new state of affairs..!) 

Having got all supplies (and crew-mates!), on board we set off from Caen Hill Marina about a week ago, and – many, many locks later – we are now on the River Kennet at Wootton Rivers (a pretty little place full of thatched cottages). A train just whooshed past close to the right, drowning out the sound of Ryan’s guitar and the buzz of an overly inquisitive wasp. 

The water is rippling quietly towards Bridge number 109 in the wake of another boat which has just glided in. We pulled up here on Friday to drop Joe and Ellie off, and because we couldn’t go any further. One of the pumps at Crofton is out of order and there isn’t enough water to see anything other than essential traffic through.

We are essential traffic, because our final destination in around three weeks’ time is Bishops Stortford.

They – the Canal & River Trust (C&RT) – have limited boats to only coming through this section only between the times of 10am and 12pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to help manage the lack of water/broken pump issues.

So there is now a run of us boaters, lined up next to the canalised river edge, waiting to go. Well, some (like the boat with the massive colourful garden on top of it) don’t seem like they are going to be off anywhere fast. But there are probably already half a dozen of us, who will be vying to get in there at 10am prompt tomorrow morning. Could be interesting.

Caen Hill Marina

We were lucky at Caen Hill, a couple of miles back from this point (in fact Caen Hill Marina itself – pictured above – which was our starting point, is a good 5 locks away from the bottom of the Caen Hill flight. At least we managed to get some practice in with the ‘easier flight’ of locks, before the real thing!)

One of the local residents at the marina where we had left our trusty water-stead, recommended that we do the first six or seven locks which stood between there and the bottom of the flight, the day before:

“If you’re lucky you’ll be the first in the queue. They set them so you can go straight in. There’s a cafe half way up where you can have a cup of tea and a bacon buttie and then you can stop for lunch and a pint at The Black Horse at the top.”

We weren’t the first as it transpired. One uber-keen chappie had arrived before us (later zoomed past in the opposite direction saying he was 10 mins short of the record!). But it didn’t matter, thanks to a pile of C&RT volunteers who set the gates in his wake so we could make our way straight into the next one, without having to wait. We got into quite a rhythm in the end; Joe running ahead to open the gates and the paddles, while Ellie and I closed the ones we’d just come through. Here’s us right at the start…

Onwards and upwards… (leaving the poor dead rabbit behind)…

That is, until Ellie threw the windlass across, and it bounced off and into the river (video evidence below.. well the build up and the ripples that remained, anyway).

But thanks to the fact that so many of them are lost over the years, the nice C&RT lot sold us another for a £5 donation. Back to it!  Ryan has become quite the expert at navigating our 50×10 foot vessel into the lock chamber, revving the engine against the flow coming from the gates above and readjusting into reverse when the incoming slow starts to shunt her back, a bit too close to the back paddles.

The difference now is that Joe and Ellie have left. My friend Nicky came and departed in the space of an hour on Friday (before they left in fact), after coming via us on her cycle into the Gin & Prosecco Festival in Devizies from her home in All Cannings.  On Sunday afternoon we said goodbye to Jim who stayed over on Saturday night (having cycled 60 miles from Bristol – mental).

So now… now, it’s just me and Ryan; in for the long haul. With our fellow ship-mates of two inaugural days – Joe and Ellie – gone, we now have to make all our own food and morning coffee (seriously, they spoilt us and now we don’t know how to cope).

The major issue however is that now Ryan has to be on permanent captain duty and I have to be on permanent (solo) lock duty – yeap I’m gonna be knackered. But I shall embrace the challenge (for now anyway. There is a chance I may go on strike later).  

Tomorrow we need to set off at 10am and get through the entire restricted section (about 10 locks) as quickly as possible, otherwise we are marooned again until Thursday, which does not fit in with our schedule. Ho hum. We shall see.

It’s been nice to stop and chill for a bit here. Yesterday we wondered up towards Crofton, to see what the deal was with the lock and the pumps and the beam engine. To be honest I’m still not 100% on whether the three things are connected or not, but maybe this will be clear when we come through tomorrow. As we set off on today’s adventure, Ryan (who usually isn’t too keen on a walk) said he was pleased to be walking after being stood still for the whole of the previous day. Although this wore off quite quickly and the teenager in him declared that he was bored and that this was (and I quote) “a boring bit of the river”.

So we had a little lunch stop after Bruce’s tunnel.  The tunnel will be fun on the boat.  You look in from one side and the far end is just a pencil-sized circumference of light.

Lunch is tomato soup; butter on bread …with a little bit of added penicilin which Ryan didn’t spot until too late and a chocolate Wacko (courtesy of Aldi) each… then on we go. We stopped to make friends with some horses – and actually did.  Well I did. There was a little Thelwell type pony and a proper horse too and the latter had somehow peeled it’s eye mask off on the barbed wire fence.   I climbed under and after a couple of attempts she eventually dipped her ears down to my height so I could hook it back on for her.

On we wandered, discussing the important matter of whether there might be a little village shop in Crofton, selling eggs or cigarettes (Ryan had run out of tobacco by this point. And we had a run out of eggs. A sad state of affairs all round). In the distance, a tall brick chimney pokes out above the trees lining the river: Crofton!  And, it’s muffled but there it is – the distinctive crackle of a n outdoor PA system. We get a bit closer and spy some bodies on the opposite side, gathered around, looking very much like they’ve stepped out of the 1880s or the 1920s (depending which person you chose to look at).

“Ryan, I think we may have just found the party… in the middle of nowhere”.

Sure enough, we had stumbled, bleary eyed, into Crofton Steampunk festival taking place for the first time ever, on that particular Sunday, in the grounds of Crofton Beam Engine. Drawn in, we scoot across the lock and make our way through the underground tunnel, using our charm and cheek to negotiate a lesser entry fee (just an hour left after all).

We made our way past a beautifully crafted VW with a detachable sleeping car, a stall touting leather and steel handmade pistols, another with beautifully tailored bags and hip flasks, as well as steampunk clothing for sale (think welding glasses and corsets). The scene makes you feel just a little bit like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and stumbled across an Alice in Wonderland ++ style tea party. ‘Professor Elemental’ (apparently he’s quite well known) was on stage, sort of rapping, but it was the steam engines which were the real pull. Even I have to admit that those gargantuan steam pumps were seriously impressive.

For all accounts this is the world’s oldest working steam engine. You can tell how powerful and unstoppable it is, just from the sound in the well and the inescapable hot smell of heat and oil. As an over-excited Ryan pointed out (now embracing his inner 9 year old) “it’s like stepping back into the human mind of engineering”. The pumping arms (don’t ask me their proper name) are huge and fierce and the furnace that powers them… well, lets just say Hansel and Grettle would have run a mile, witch or not.

This bizarre little interlude certainly made the 9 mile walk there worthwhile, especially for him indoors (mesmerized by all the pumps). So that was lucky.. Given the walk and all. On top of that, luck would have it that a lovely local gentleman – who happened to turn out to own and drive a very beautiful ‘Tibetan blue’ Triumph Stag – offered to drive us to a petrol station so Ryan could top up on baccy. Serendipity.

We made our way back home and then, as if the world knew that I also needed my fix, I spotted a bright flash. I thought, at first that it was a robin’s red breast.. only it was more orange. Quick as a flash the bright circle took off and a flash of luminescent blue feathers announced a kingfisher, soaring above the mirrored surface of the water. Stunning.

That has been the high point (so far) of the beautiful fauna on this section of the river. We had a moment yesterday: Ellie and I have both been to the Amazon in different corners of the world and when we came to some of the shallower narrower sections of the green murky river before Pewsey, it was as if you could have been there (minus monkeys and crocodiles). “English Amazon..” Ellie uttered and I agreed with a nod, half way through thinking the same thing.

We’ve encountered at least half a dozen herons so far, a handful of swan families (with goslings) who had a taste for left-over puttenesca (put possibly didn’t want tomato-sauced-red feathers to prove it). We had a tiny baby lizard on board at one point and scores of mayflies, white, purple and orange butterflies have flitted past.

There have been gazillions of pondskaters gliding across the water’s surface and blue and green dragonflies skitting around our heads… and even something I had to look up (with a blue body and tiny black butterly-like wigs) which appears to be called – quite poetically – an ebony jewelwing. There also seems to be a multitude of wrens living in the hedgerows: we saw clutches of them yesterday darting into the briars. Their tiny fluffy fledgings too – all of them with their tails stood up brightly to attention.

There are these huge burdocks that edge the banks, whilst delicate pink bell-shaped flowers scatter here and there along the path (I discovered on my run today that these are called Bog Pimpernels; the only reason I now remember this is because as kids we always used to watch ‘The Scarlet Pimpenel’: “They seek him here, they seek him there…” etc).

I now really want to get some kind of reference and identification book about foraging the waterways of England. Wouldn’t it be great to know what you can actually eat (without poisoning yourself), so you could gather and eat as you go. First on the list (which we might actually have a chance at identifying) wild garlic… that would feel like some small personal victory somehow.

It’s odd but I’ve been in a funny mood since we started out on our journey. Like I’m here but I’m not quite fully here. Something to do with winding down perhaps. I had to take myself off for a run this afternoon to try to reset. I feel like it’s partially worked… and writing on my little floating bow of a balcony is helping too. I remember that it always used to take my Dad about two weeks to switch off from working. Maybe it’s an inherited over-hang from that.

I feel like I need to connect better, meditate, breathe it all in. It’s like its all too fleeting and not permanent enough, so I can’t quite get under its skin. If I could just breathe everything in. Eat it. Get it all safely inside me, where it can’t escape. Maybe that would do the trick.

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