Dulcibella on the Thames

Up the Stripling Thames: Pinkhill to Tadpole Bridge

One Monday evening in 2008, I punted Dulcibella out of the Oxford Cruisers boatyard basin and back on to her willow-hung mooring, accompanied by the at that moment substantial Nutwood household (nephew Adam Talib, fanatic rower Felicity Hawksley, god-daughter Holly Scutt). Graeme has done a wonderful job: she gleams like a chestnut. The 1.25 inch aluminium tube, sent with great dispatch by metals4UK, and with its ends plugged with short sections of banister posts is a great success: the hand can grip on the curve of the wood tips very satisfactorily, and the extra length (5 metres rather than the usual 14 ft) means you get extra impetus at the end of each stroke. The double-ended racing pole from Collars feels heavy in comparison, although it is infinitely lighter than the usual pole.

Pinkhilllock dry; he was just poling over in a tender with a bike and a rucksack.   I made better time than I had expected to, led for almost the entire length of the way to Bablockhythe by a swan. Coffee and a swim, then on again. Friendly Barnaby passed me, but I caught her up at Northmoor Lock; shortly afterwards I caught her up again as she had stopped for lunch - and called out an invitation. Realised I was ravenous after four hours of poling (note to self: always bring more food than you think you will need) and accepted enthusiastically. All very trim below decks with a stove and fire-irons: Karen and Keith Sutcliffe have been living on her for five years now, having expected only to do so for two. I can see the attraction: they seem to have been on every inch of navigable water. Wolfed two large sandwiches, cider and a cup of tea, then off again. Ingeniously, they tracked me down on the web and sent what I rarely get: a photo of Dulcie and her mistress and owner.

DulciefromBarnabyAfter an hour or so, I was feeling rather sleepy, and the wind was rising, so when a passing narrow boat offered me a tow, I accepted gratefully. In no time at all, Newbridge came into sight, and I thanked them and was set free to pole in under my own steam. Barnaby passed me as I did so - I expect they guessed that I had cheated.

Noted the enticing entrance to the Windrush, then moored by the Maybush, much less frantic than the Rose Revived. Ellie had very kindly offered to pick me up, and brought Sam and Olivia with her. Every one is very friendly on the river: caravanners interested, and an ex-Cherwell boathouse man admired her. So back home for Bridge at Abingdon and then an extremely well-earned sleep. Up at 5.30 and had cast off from Newbridge at 6.20, with lots of stores on board. Wind was forecast, and soon the glassy calm of dawn began to ruffle. I saw a kingfisher: heavenly flash of blue. Also brushing close to a huge reed bank found myself nose to beak with a  tiny and very surprised reed warbler. A heron lifted off on lazy wings, two sets of swans and cygnets. July is a lovely time for flowers: yellow water lilies, many different flowering rushes, and banks brazen with purple (loosestrife?), yellow and pink. Am keeping going upstream, noticing places to explore further on the way down. Fred Thacker's The Stripling Thames is a sterling guide. Passed the entrance to the old river course to Duxford, the Roman ford, through Shifford Lock, again self-service, and so on around the huge loop around Chimneys Nature Reserve, punctuated by Martello towers. Wind rising, but the trees were so tall and the banks so hedged that not much was getting through - I remember this being very slow going sailing Gipsy down two years ago. A punt is indeed perfect up here. Noticed a lovely shallow beach for swimming/overnighting just before pylon wires crossed the river. Got to The Trout at Tadpole Bridge at 11 o'clock, and had to wait half an hour for a much needed coffee - even considered begging biscuits from a party of picknickers, but luckily found I'd packed a jar of cashew nuts. Tucked Dulcie up in her cover, and booked in for lunch the next day [mooring is an eye-watering £25 a night unless you eat there]. Back home in time to buy lunch for Daisy James and Fox, which we had in the garden. Fox delightful, wreathed in smiles. Olivia's birthday party in the afternoon and a lovely family evening. After a morning of gardening, off again to the river. After lunch, I punted Daisy James & Fox halfway to Rushey Lock, where we found a fine mooring under a willow, and all swam. Weather said (wrongly) to be about to change, so tucked her up again and so home.

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After much discussion and struck by fact that 23 million Brits have signed up to it, I have joined facebook, though unsure of what will be gained from it. I am interested in the secret of its fascination. Company? Distraction? The ultimate global village?

Tadpole to Radcot

DSC02179Just for the record: left idyllic under willow berth (above) for a very peaceful punt in windless conditions around the innumerable bends between Rushey Lock and Radcot Lock. Excellent lunch of baked potato and coronation chicken at The Swan at Radcot; then a swim and Martin arrived to take me to collect my car. We went on upstream in search of a safe place to leave her, as the next few days inclement and busy, and luckily met a man who offered the hospitality of his lagoon - so she is now tucked up safely there.

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Radcot to Lechlade and Inglesham

Apologies - photos yet to come and text is, like all entries so far, hurried and unpolished, trivial rather than truly interesting: a log for the record rather than real  account, which will, I hope, come later, once I've been There and Back Again and can reflect.

DSC022861Watching the weather like a hawk in search of a favourable slot, I identified Sunday 18 July late afternoon into evening and Monday morning as promising: nearly a week later, but even such a fine seaworthy vessels as Weatherbird had to sit out the storms in Cherbourg. So after a fine house-warming Sunday lunch with friends in Hatford, near Pusey, I drove to Radcot with victuals and pyjamas. Dulcibella was snug and dry, and Triton, the lagoon's owner had found the note I tied to her when I checked her out on Thursday. Blessings on his head. I set off (pic right) at 5.40 pm, while other boaters were tying up, and made excellent progress. There were still a few sharp gusts, but when they passed, it was easy-going. Grafton Lock was not far, and the keeper still on duty. Apparently an otter had been sighted further up: maybe I would see him on a future overnight.

Kelmscott, where I had planned to overnight, turned up at 7.40, sooner than I expected and was crowded with boats: crews tramping to The Plough, just 300 yards up the road. I was tempted, but there was still so much light that I decided to keep going. Passed a bay full of swallows swooping and some fine moorings at Eaton Hastings footbridge: this was where my collapsing mast arrangement on Gipsy collapsed during my Gipsy on the Thames adventure a couple of years ago.

Coots and herons brought to mind the first poem I ever recited: Tennyson's 'The Brook'. I realised that I had never really understood what 'I come from haunts of coot and hern' meant. Encountered a buxom inflatable, almost spinning in circles as one man paddled ineffectually and his companion laughed at him but still making good progress with wind and current. 'I was there an hour and a half ago, I said, which cheered them. My own plan was a jar in the pub I presumed I would find at Buscot, but walkers who told me it was only five minutes on warned that there wasn't one. Lovely weir and backwater as I approached - which would in truth be the last good overnight place, but I was tempted to go through that lock too.

Considered tying up at Buscot and walking to the village, but if it was all closed, it struck me that it would be better to explore on the way down, when a National trust tea-rooms promised light lunches as well as coffees and teas. This attitude rules my upstream progress: my plan is to make lots of diversions on the way down. After Buscot, the river, for the first time since Swinford Bridge, runs in hearing of the road, a great disincentive to stop. Hoping that it would veer away, I went on and on, water still as glass now. A huge hairpin, then one back again, on which I startled two silver-haired love-birds in the cockpit of their little cruiser. Dulcibella is so silent: maybe I should start gondolierish singing as I curl around corners. Quite a few people simply don't notice her passing at all. The flowers are many and various; it is perhaps the best time of year for them. I must identify them from my book: predominantly purple loosestrife, vetches, rosebay willowherb and a splendid fat pink thing a little like a snapdragon on steroids.

Dusk falling, and I began to eye up moorings. Had just decided to go a little further than a welcoming willow cage when I saw the transom of what was evidently the first of many - and the edge of a blue LOCK notice. I poled back to a bay out of sight of them, and tied bow to an ash sapling and stern to a willow bush. A swan hove to hopefully, then veered away.

DSC022941About to phone Ellie to reassure her that mother was safe and well [how roles reverse] when I saw a message from brother John, who lives near Cirencester: I'd emailed him to ask if he would like to join me for the Conquest of Cricklade, and he was very keen: he also has acquaintances who live on or near the river above Lechlade, where I could perhaps leave Dulcie securely. Put most of the hood up; very cosy, discovered that there was still a little cider to drink a toast to myself, and chomped bread and cheese and fruit until comfortably full. Bats wheeling, a half moon rising, fine cloud effects. Found torch and suspended it from the centre hoop: I have all mod cons, including a useful small bucket, aboard. Slept very well; then saw light through small mousehole in the cover.

Interiorpunt1Five am. Drank cold tea, rolled up cover, and poled off at 5.30. St John's Lock was just around the corner, Lechlade's lance of a church spire framed in its bridge very beautifully. My way, hurray - as they all have been so far. Somewhere here is the entrance to the Colne: I must see how far up it I can go on the way down. So into the wide waters meandering up to Lechlade. No hurry at all, I realised, so at about 6 I tied up under a dead hawthorn, and fired up the Kelly Kettle with a few pages from my notebook and twigs broken off the tree DSC02303Boiled in two minutes; and although tea slightly strange tasting [carbonated water? use of coffee pot for tea?], it was hot and wet. On to the peacefully slumbering town, following a welcoming flotilla of eighteen swans and a very bossy Aylesbury duck that seemed to be in charge. Under bridge, past pub where Gipsy entered the water, past boatyards and up to the Round House, as I had sailed in her. But this time I went under its little wooden bridge, and peeped into the beginning of the long-disused Thames/Severn canal, then on in tranquility [though a small cruiser with fishermen aboard was also up there]. Passed point where Thames Path veers away to the road and Inglesham Church, and found where John's connection lived: no signal for mobiles, but they kindly let me phone him. He was a bit poorly, but so keen to come later that I decided to moor under a vast poplar and start again on Friday, when weather looks once more promising. Had a thorough boat-turnout: a remarkable amount of foliage gets in; I also needed to scoop water from below the bottom boards. She is evidently still taking up slightly, Very satisfying to clean her all up: I left cushions standing at attention to dry damp underneath. Watch over her, river gods.

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Inglesham to Cricklade - and back via Bablockhythe to Pinkhill

Punting20100021No, not all at once by any means, but on returns I have been disinclined to raise a finger to type. Spending days on end and the occasional night in the open air makes you feel both bursting with energy and deeply content; it also brings on sleep almost as soon as I subside onto sofa or bed. I've been keeping a handwritten log and taking photos which I will write up more fully and add pictures once I've moored [hopefully this morning] back in my homeport at Oxford Cruisers, Pinkhill.

DSC02334I reached Inglesham at 8.30 on Friday 23th July, where a girl was getting out of a dormobile van - she turned out to be  restoring the paintings in its ancient church. Checked out the punt in its poplar tree cave, then drove off to meet my brother John and his golden retrievers Lulu and Mimi [younger relatives and hauntingly evocative of dear Angus] at Hannington Bridge so we could inspect it - we'd been warned that lumps of crumbling concrete  might make it impassable. We could see the shallows and chunks of stone, but there was a deeper central channel - very fast flowing, but sills on the side of the central arch offered places to stand on to pull her through, so we decided that it was doable. So to Inglesham, where we went into the ancient church, full of scaffolding but still arresting: box pews grey with age, delicate screen, a low relief of Madonna and child, Radio 4 sounding from the restorer's eyrie in the rafters, then got aboard Dulcibella and started upstream at 9.30. We decided to take half hour shifts - calloo callay he is an excellent punter as well wonderful company - most relaxing to share the poling; I read extracts from Fred Thacker out as we progressed. We stopped for thermos coffee at 11 tied to tall rushes. John, a long term Gloucestershire gent,  knew who the neighbouring landowners were, and indeed had phoned up several of them and gained much helpful information. High banks and open meadows: the river was clearly a lot lower than it could have been. A glass of cider in a little bay by a fallen tree - cue leopard style photo to parallel my one from Iran.

DSC02345Soon after this the lilies and rushes and overhead willows closed in steadily. After endless bends we reached the white water challenge of Hannington Bridge. John got out and hauled her from ahead, Father Thames style, I steadied her from the side, stumbling and twice nearly losing sandal, dogs sat nobly calm inside. Amazingly, John Eade's My Thames site actually shows a NARROW BOAT going under Hannington Bridge. Must have been a wet year - though not enough to make water too high for bridge arch. Fascinating!

DSC023591And so on and on and on - harder work now. Met canoeists coming down stream - discovered later that David Orrie of Lechlade Angling and Outdoor pursuits hires them out, taking them up to the Red Lion at Castle Eaton so that folk can come downstream, then transporting people back to their cars. The way would have been impassable by now, but freshly sawn off fallen branches and a channel through the now cross-stream thickets of reeds signalled what we also learnt later: ten days or so ago the Environment Agency had come up and cleared the route to Cricklade - in a punt, apparently. Probably shorter than ours and maybe powered??  Still arduous punting however, sometimes needing help in narrow passages where downstream flow severe. Climbed a bank for lunch at 2 pm where we had a distant view of Kempsford church - Thacker has a splendid passage on the fugue of churches that begins with Lechlade, then Kempsford, then Fairford, then Cricklade, rising to a climax with Cirencester. Excellent bacon sarnies, cheese, dark chocolate, bananas, all washed down with cider.

Punting20100091Off again, and unexpectedly soon we were passing Kempsford itself; lovely ancient wall with 'master gunner's window - early Lancastrian fortification apparently; now some beautiful old houses. After a short straight flanked by rolling lawns, it was back into battle again, but at last Castle Eaton church appeared: we tied up at what looked like a common, but turned out to be garden of the Crown Prince of Croatia's country pad, and climbed a haha to visit the church. Unusual sanctus bell tower, dazzling array of tapestried kneelers. And so just minutes later,   the welcome sight of the Red Lion, where we we tied up [c 7.15!] and were made very welcome by Melody, its landlady. Plan was to leave the punt there for the night, so covered her in, collected my car and hurtling by ancient byroads to Miserden, where John and Emma live: I joined them and nephew Archie [who offered his muscle on teh next Saturday] and niece Aelf [with her friend Johnnie] for supper at Tatyans, the excellent Chinese restaurant in Cirencester which mother was so fond of. Stayed night with John and Emma

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24 July [happy birthday Susie]: We set off at 8.30, courage high and hearts aglow - it was after all only three miles now to Cricklade - even planned to meet Emma for lunch in Ciren.

DSC023951Ha ha. We left a car in Thames Lane, Cricklade, noting that the river still looked passable there, although much too low under the bridge under the High Street. Got back to Castle Eaton and set off at 9.30. First challenge was Castle Eaton bridge - wider but shallower, and much wading, even by dogs, required. Some fine stretches, but much overhanging willow and the current ever stronger against us as the river shallowed and narrowed. The Thames Path returns to the water's edge from Castle Eaton to Cricklade, and it was embarrassing to note that a party of elderly walkers - one using a zimmer frame - were outpacing us. We decided to deload by one of us walking with dogs - John took first solo punt - only to come up against impassably low willow branch - he took the hoops out, but one fell overboard - stripped nobly off to the buff and deck shoes, and probed mud with feet [me: 'Is it hoopless?', ho ho, watched with interest by friendly Antipodean walkers.

DSC023991Luckily located it, and tied them on safely. Shift followed shift; river shielded from view by wide banks of nettles, reeds and inaccessible thanks to high banks [due to very low water] and barbed wire stock fences. Dulcie looking rather sleek, but getting laded with snapped twigs and leaves. Insects thickening [memo:jungle formula]. We were averaging 0.5 mph. Decided to call it a day when successive shoals of gravel led to constant groundings; thick mats of weed impeded each punt stroke. But we were past both footbridges and in easy hearing of the bells of Cricklade church, and in sight of the A417. Tucked her up  again, and walked on. Some parts of the river looked fine, but it was now 3.30 pm! A canoe could do it with perseverance, but we needed another three inches of water. Maybe I should have deloaded her entirely, but John needed to get back to his weekend guests. he took me back to my car at Castle Eaton, and waved farewell- I rested there - too late for lunch - over a glass of cider and perusal of Amy Woolcott's interesting Crossing Places of the Upper Thames [Melody said she had stayed there while researching and given her the book]. Nice format [Tempus] Tempting to do something similar, a modern Stripling Thames, perhaps.

26th July. Drizzly Monday  am, but fearing the river was getting ever lower, I thought I must get her downstream a bit. I got to Cricklade at 6.45, gave her a through clean and bale out, ate breakfast under half the cover like a baby in her pram, covered everything with covers, and intrepidly [foolhardily?]set off downstream alone.  It was much easier going downstream, but the shallows definitely shallower. Glad of sailing shoes. I pushed from the back, then leapt aboard as the water deepened. Think moguls almost covered with water.  River could have been a full five feet higher, judging from detritus caught in the tree branches. Lots of reed warblers/buntings, cygnets - there will be a bumper flock of swans on the Thames if all survive] . Discovered that was best to paddle from the stern under overhanging branches now I was going downstream. I am becoming a connoisseur of rushes - great variety of colour, form and flowers.

After spending some time extricating myself from an under water post that jammed against the hull and having rather a struggle in the fast flowing water under the bridge - entailing deloading her onto two slabs of rock and then reloading when she floated again - I reached the Red Lion at 10.30 for a well earned coffee, gingerbread and cigarillo [I know, I know, but I hardly ever have them, and only on the water - somehow the scent of the smoke makes for timeless relaxation]. On again to Kempsford, where I  trespassed [with gardener's permission] to gain access to the handsome church; nave roof like school at Ewelme, amazing C15 heraldic vaulting in the  transept. Paused  for lunch on a wonky riverside platform [another of John's friend's eyrie] - pork pie and d.white then dozed off over Guardian. Off again at 2 pm. 

On and on - wind gusty, thrown from scylla of hawthorn to charybdis of rushes and willows; more under water branches than before, so definitely shallower: I was right to get down fast. Got to Inglesham, greeted by a swimmer from Lechlade, at 4.30; tied up opposite my previous mooring, and cleaned out the punt properly. She gleamed with pride. The swimmer came downstream as I was putting up the cover against a sudden shower, and admired her: 'Quite a little cruiser'. But the sun came out again, and decided to have a swim myself - as did two local residents. The river water feels warm and almost silken against your skin. So on to Lechlade,  where the white duck was still in charge of her brood, where I tied up at the end of the New Inn's long lawn, next to a friendly narrow boat with a New Zealand couple on it.  Enjoyed a glass of red from the wine locker, then had excellent steak and ale pie at the New Inn. Noted bus times to Swindon [plan was to collect car from Cricklade in the morning] slept like a log - looked out c 2 to see full moon and oily clack water reflecting a gliding swan and the bridge - so warm that I kept the cover looped up.

DSCF00071Tuesday 27 July. I woke with a rather numb arm and brewed up tea in the Kelly Kettle,  and set off to catch the bus, admiring lovely gargoyles ont eh church and Shelley's Walk while waiting. Went very well - 30 mins to Swindon, then time for tea and excellent toast in the bus station's Octagon café, then another bus to Cricklade. Church sadly closed, even at 9.15, so into car and back home  to charge phone, check on Ellie, who has just had her hand operated on, and REST.

Drove over later on Tuesday to explore Buscot and Lechlade by car and make sure New Inn didn't mind punt for another night. 

Wednesday 28 July: Ian dropped me at 6 am in a very misty Lechlade on his way west.  Now making splendid speed in the dawn; through St John's lock - saw mouth of the Cole - progress rather slowed by experiments with new camera on exquisite doll's house of Buscot Rectory. Through the very deep Buscot lock, I tied up to make coffee then realised I was out of water - returned to lock, but no tap - but saviours in shape of a narrow boat who provided plenty of water. Brewed the Kelly, made strong coffee and gobbled marmite sandwich, banana and dark chocolate: the ideal punting breakfast. Was feeling rather solitary; I am at the edge of everybody's life at the moment, but just then nephew Archie phoned, keen to join me on Saturday. Much cheered - and Peter G to accompany tomorrow. On; noting courtesy of approaching boats: one called out 'We've heard about you'. Clearly one of the many good Samaritans who've helped has ordered general slowdown on the sight of the GP Dulcibella. Eaton Hastings moorings: nb sign which ways 300 yards to Kelmscott: Next Mooring should insert the word 'from' where I put a colon. Eventually arrived, greeted by Northern Pride, the narrow boat moored next to me at Lechlade; quite a community feel to the river.

DSCF00481Tied up in perfect spot; even a crumbling stone stair to get on the bank with, covered Dulcie up and stepped out the genuine 300 yards to Kelmscott. It was exactly 11 am and manor had just opened for its weekly Wednesday: long queue of enthusiasts from all over the world; lady let me wander in just to see garden and browse tempting shop: limited myself to a few cards but got lots of good ideas.

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DSCF00601Too shy to beg a lift, so walked along to the Plough, where I phoned a taxi - there is NO public transport: settled for £15 to Carterton, where I could get an S1 bus complete with free wi-fi to my door rather than £40 all the way home. Experimented with my ipod touch and did in fact download emails. Off at Tilbury Lane; very good to be home. Helped Ellie out in the afternoon; work has gone utterly by the board at the minute; too full of summer delights.

Thursday 29 July Peter arrived wonderfully punctually at 9 am and we did the two car trick - one at Tadole Bridge and other at Kelmscott. He was great company; enjoying map reading and navigating, and appreciating the little ship aspect of the voyage. Brewed up the Kelly kettle c. 11 am after Grafton lock, and arrived in Radcot by 12. Saw Tom Freeman again, and he offered aluminum poles and said D welcome any time. Cider and a glass of white for Peter, then on again, lunch after Radcot lock at 1.15.

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After lunch Peter punted - very impressively too since the first time since Oxford. Lovely to be chauffeured; I fell fast asleep in the sunshine. Through Rushey lock by 3.30 and tied up just before Tadpole Bridge at 4.00 - perfect day.

DSCF01161Saturday 30 July. Archie arrived 8.30, bless him, and we left a car at Bablockhythe then went on to Tadpole. Off by 9.15, at hectic pace, thanks to Archie's strong arms [he reinvented the P Davison horizontal technique] and a favourable wind: I have sewn a seam in Isfahan [plastic] picnic rug so that it can be pulled over the hoop - on Peter's advice, the front one - as a sail. At times so fast that no poling possible: all strength into the steering!

We also saw the Environment Agency's Reliant, a narrow boat evidently engaged on tidying up the willows and banks - way down much clearer than it had been. They are also doing works on several of the lock weirs. Good for them.

DSCF0093Shifford Lock by 11.15, my kingfisher foot bridge c 12, lunch 12.30 Maybush at Newbridge, which we reached faster than the rather neat two man inflatable 'Colorado' canoe which we had seen getting ready to go on the river as we left Tadpole. Archie took some excellent photos of Dulcibella going under Newbridge - nice comparison with Gipsy's voyage of two years before.

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On again, arriving at Bablockhythe at 3 pm: perfect timing to collect my car and wave Archie off, lion suit and all, to his fancy dress ball in Wiltshire.

Sunday 1 August: Jamie followed my car to Oxford Cruisers, then drove me to Bablockhythe. Took me about two hours going very leisurely, rather tired in truth.

At last the welcome outline of the boatyard with Wytham Woods behind: Graeme was on his barge and welcomed me back with a cup of tea. Cleaned Dulcie up and brought everything home to wash. Great sense of triumph.