#6 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

ROYALTYIMG_1608You’ll just have to read on to find out. But just in case you’re worried, she didn’t die. They cut her down in time.

Windsor: a day of rest

IMG_1562We had a hugely expensive cup of tea on the Eton side of the river watching the tidal wave of tourists engulf the shops successfully designed to relieve them of their hard-earned.

It must be one of the few schools in the world to be a tourist attraction. It might be worth remembering that while Princes William and Harry, David Cameron and 18 other British Prime Ministers were educated there, so were George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Eddy Redmayne.

All boys; all boarders. Two conditions which would influence outcomes. Base fees of AUD70,000 per year. That’s another condition that may have already determined outcomes, although the school and its apologists are quick to emphasise that one-third of the boys receive some amount of financial assistance. But, of course, if you have to ask how much, it’s too expensive for you and yours. The chap at left is in school uniform. Must be a lot of work keeping that white bow tie clean.IMG_1557 

The day after we arrived in Windsor Prince Charles opened the school’s new £18million Bekynton Field development which includes a debating hall modelled on the House of Commons so that the kids will feel at home on graduation. And that’s great. A proper transition program. Education at its most considered.MK17792_Eton_College_Chapel At right, the school’s modest chapel.

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Eton is on one side of the river and Windsor and its castle are on the other. It’s more homely on the right bank. We ambled up over the hill (yes a hill, that will be one of the reasons why the castle is there) and down bustling Peascod St to our destination. <These boys absolutely bopped. We found a Moroccan restaurant at the top of the street near our hotel. Meimo: ★★★★★. Have the lamb shank tagine, the chicken wings and green beans. At least.

That night I wrote in my journal that I was missing what I described as the previous simplicity of the walk: look at the map, read the notes, eat, walk, sleep, then do it again. Myrna and I have often talked about the meditative quality of long walks. There may be some empirical basis for a belief that such a great deal of repetitive motion (in this case about 300,000 steps) reduces anxiety, or as I prefer to think, clears the crap out of your head. That certainly happens for me. The entry might have been about the increasing proximity of London and its urban tentacles, although I was looking forward very much to seeing our friends there. It might just have been closing in on the end. I don’t know whether I’ve got this across, but this was all pretty good fun. Whatever, it was a twinge of sadness.

IMG_1569Was the castle enough to hold my interest? With the addition of a visit to a laundrette and some good coffee, for a time, certainly. It’s a big one, and a going concern. About [insert huge number] people visit it every year and each of them spends [insert huge number] pounds which enables the whole show to be in very good condition.

The Queen wasn’t there — she texted to say she was gearing up for her big day at Runnymede a couple of days later — but her presence, of course, was everywhere. We struggled personfully with ideas about lineage and succession but realised that we had no idea. How did a Greek and a German come to be regents of England again? Take me through it slowly.

The castle was a vision in grey and gold, and as mentioned was beautifully kept.IMG_1571 The chapel (below left) had all the celestial exuberance and elegance one expects from late Gothic architecture. Not as good as Ste. Chapelle, but this is just a bit of a castle, not a free-standing miracle.

IMG_1587The state rooms were stately: full of stuff. Lots of portraits — Van Eyk’s multiple views of Charles I, clearly a bad lot, being a standout —  lots of sumptuary, lots of muskets, lots of swords, lots of bayonets.

We were poking round in the book shop trying to work out who was who and why when the band struck up for the changing of the guard. I didn’t think I had to be interested but a band is a band and when you’re in the grounds of Windsor Castle with the opportunity to hear the theme from ‘Star Wars’ played by guys with either highly polished things or bits of animal coming down over their noses you go along.IMG_1573 When this is followed by the late M. Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ you stay. In both cases flawless and riveting renditions.

You could never fault the English on their capacity to put on a show, like Dr Brian May (CBE, musician (Queen), songwriter (‘We will Rock You’) and astrophysicist) playing his guitar on the ramparts of Buckingham Palace. Or to acknowledge those who can put on a show: like, for example, Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE.

It’s this capacity to be a good sport and to make use of everything you’ve got including your historical and cultural heritage that seems to be crucial in maintaining contact across the screamingly evident social divisions. The agreeable impact of this sort of entertainment seems to be smeared right across the population like a good spread of Vegemite on toast. [Finalist: Inapposite Metaphor of the Year Award]

That’s one thing. But as well it seems to generate widely-shared pride. It’s up to date and often effortlessly cool. Unknown-1(Footnote: It was not Angry Anderson in a Batmobile (at right, tragic. I was there that day) or an overcooked Meatloaf.) The Regimental band could have played ‘Colonel Bogey’ say, or a snatch of Pomp and Circumstance — that’s English — or even the Radetzky March; but they didn’t. The band master went for smart choices, guided by refined and very capable populism. Well-judged, intelligent, even artistic.

Whatever this style/ movement/ public choice and expectation is, it also understands precisely the vein it’s looking to tap into. Getting with it is, for now at least, not something you have to argue about. And certainly not when it might turn a quid. I remember this from the Olympics. Even if you don’t like the product you can be proud that someone else is putting on a show, a show in which you may claim a proprietorial stake.

And it’s not too distant, an odd combination of both c’est moi and c’est pour moi.

You know the Queen didn’t go skydiving with Daniel Craig, but she probably really was with him in the room when they were getting that shot in the Palace. She can, within limits, muck around. When I think of the Queen, well I don’t really. But if I did it is of this very remote and buffered figure, not someone whose humanity and ‘lovability’ is quite regularly on display. The reality of this accessibility might be nonsense but English celebrities seem to understand connectedness. You can have a picnic in the grounds of Hampton Court, if fact you’re encouraged to. Graham Norton is just so cute, and he is your friend.

This sort of stuff won’t make you any richer, but it might make you think twice about dynamiting the ramparts. In other times it might have been called the free distribution of cake perhaps.

images-1I suppose that’s what the Queen is for. Colour and movement. A living embodiment of post-modernism: a clutch of paradoxes stitched up into a pastel twin set by a string of pearls and crowned by England’s finest milliners. God bless her.

• • • • •

Got sick of the castle and its implications and went for a swim. I left a trail of blood but there were no sharks in the pool.

Windsor to Shepparton — 23 km

Is that all? It seemed a lot longer. Apart from anything else we crossed the M25 and returned to something more like ummm … other versions of the real world. 

We got up an hour early by mistake and saw Peascod St just about empty. That’s like getting a jump on the day, in this case a very worthwhile activity.IMG_1567

We hauled our way round ‘The Home Park’, encountering this genuinely regal site. Click the pic to see the relevance of the bathroom offerings.IMG_1590

IMG_1595Walkers get choofed across the Albert Bridge for security reasons a little further on. Conditions on our side were as illustrated. We had seen a lot of nettles but nothing like the acreage of this section. They were everywhere. These enormous rhubarby weedy things were everywhere too. On the other bank I’ll swear I saw one off the Princes in this trap racing along the Home Park’s tow path.

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IMG_1600Two very elegant cottages designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, OM KCIE PRA FRIBA (we’re on regal honours just now) signalled our arrival at Runnymede. 

There are three memorials overlooking the Thames at Runnymede. The oldest is on the modest hill overlooking the meadow and is dedicated to the memory of the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died during the Second World War.

A second is dedicated to the memory of JFK. The inscription reads: ‘This acre of ground was given to the United States of America by the people of Britain in memory of John F Kennedy, born 19th May 1917: President of the United States 1961-63: died by an assassin’s hand 22nd November 1963. “Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty”: from the inaugural address of President Kennedy, January 1961.’

IMG_1601Only the third relates to the Magna Carta and it’s not even British. The Magna Carta Memorial was built by the American Bar Association funded by donations from 9,000 American lawyers. IMG_1599

When we walked past it was exactly 800 years less six days since the Grand Charter had been signed there by King John and 25 Barons. Eminent historian Christopher Pyne and his acquaintance Dr Kevin Donnelly have announced this experience as the foundation of all aspects of Australian life deemed to be civilised. They may have been supported by the American Bar Association in this, but the workers appeared unmoved. They were getting ready for a big party. Headline act: Elizabeth Windsor.

A related blog post: ‘Meanwhile, half a mile up the hill, a gathering of musicians, speakers and gentle people looking to engage with the issues around democracy have their gathering surrounded by police and shut down, under the false allegation of it being an ‘illegal rave’. This is the truth of democracy. It doesn’t matter if the Queen or the government have sovereignty = the robber barons are still calling the shots, and democracy is just a game they play to keep things how they want. All the pageantry is a smokescreen, a comforting fop. We are surfs [sic], and always have been.’

Elsewhere Beer Day Britain ran a ‘Cheers to Magna Carta’ national event.

Just round the corner I decided to flout an explicit direction and pursue a shortcut across some public park — Runnymede Pleasure Ground now I look — where we encountered the events which provided the photo which began this blog: the installation of a new sculptural memorial to Her Maj.

Its installation was interesting. I’ve never seen a statue installed on its plinth before and these boys were good at it.

But we found ourselves standing next to a Royalophiliac, whose disease she made every effort to communicate. The statue and its installation was going to cost £756,000 of which at that time there was a £280,000 shortfall. (Grand Designs all over again!) She intended to increase her already substantial contribution. It would possibly be renowned British sculptor James Butler’s final work, he’s 83 now, but certainly his finest. The statue was derived from Pietro Annigoni’s 1969 portrait which we chased down later in the National Portrait Gallery. Annigoni also painted the Queen in 1956 to vast acclaim and probably got her about right and this is why Annigoni got another go.  Unknown-2<1956. 1969 below.

by Pietro Annigoni, oil on panel, 1969

But 1969? Way off. Slightly hircine (a polite way of saying ‘goat-like’), and what on earth is going on with the hair? She’s quite a good-looking gal — good bone structure, attractive figure — but if her stretched neck allows it, this one bleats. And James Butler had been quite faithful. The bronze was almost equally astray. If anything slightly worse. Is there a new dash of the equine in there as well? Anne rather than Elizabeth say? Scroll up and have a look.

Bad luck guys. Those are big bucks to pay for a dud. We did enjoy the installation though. Excellent. And a lovely plinth.

We could hear the M25 roaring about a kilometre away from where we were. My friends from Leigh-on-Sea defined that as the entry to London. Somewhere near here too is the outlier ‘coal post’ from 1831 warning merchants that as they were now entering London they are required to pay the coal levy. But what there really was there was, dah dah, Staines! or Staines-upon-Thames as it renamed itself in 2012.

Ah Staines. Staines Staines Staines Staines Staines.

The entry was not auspicious. I haven’t mentioned that all morning we had been walking under the main Heathrow flight path — the runway being as close as 3 or 4 km from where we were —  and every 45 seconds, someone said, a plane takes off or lands. That’s what it seemed like. Extraordinary. We padded down a long path next to the Egham sewage works, the Egham waterworks and the Egham gasworks followed by, from our vantage point, the slightly forbidding office buildings of Staines Business Park which appeared largely unoccupied.

We were hungry. I think because we still had a couple of maps to walk through we had ignored an offer of sustenance near Runnymede that looked quite promising. So the search was on for the cafe with the delicacies and the 40 year-old woman etc etc. We did the main street, and don’t make me laugh. Yes to Maccas. Yes to KFC and so on, but we were in lino land. This is Staines at its finest.IMG_1612

‘Roll out the Lino’ by David Annand. A terrific sculpture. Engraved on it:

    Roll out the lino from Staines to the world!
    Release every pattern from chessboard to twirl!
    In every hopeful kitchen let life unfurl,
    Bathrooms are artrooms from soapsuds to swirl!
    Roll out the lino from Staines to the world!

(Words by Richard Price and Leona Medlin, 2003. As far as I know not yet set to music.)

Sir Frederick Walton, a Staines native (as was Christine Keeler) invented linoleum and offered it to the world in 1864. It’s the empire again. What can I say?

We continued our search for edible food. It was fruitless in the main drag. You get impatient when you’re hungry, so we launched ourselves into the local mall resolving to take the first offering; and that was BHS Foods which offered classic British food at very cheap prices with plenty of room for wheelchairs.IMG_1613 imagesWhen Ali G (at left) says he comes from Staines, he doesn’t. He’s far too young. I believe he has now taken to saying he really comes from Egham, across the river. I also believe however, that the Staines FC has taken to describing themselves as Staines Massive which is excellent.

We fought our way out of Staines Central back to the river which we had somehow mislaid, and that had all changed too. The first houseboats appeared, although boats in name only. They weren’t going anywhere.IMG_1615My journal says: ‘A long stretch of slightly crap properties. The houses needed painting or the garden cleaning up or getting the rubbish out of the yard or the barge boards repairing.’ Even the boatbuilders’ yards were like that — just massive tumbles of junk. Unworkable you would think. I wondered if we were looking at backyards and shortly we were, on both sides of the river which had shrunk in width. The guidebook says: ‘Along riverside Staines, the little houses, in their infinite variety, still reflect the joy of simply living by the Thames.’ Maybe. Your choice.IMG_1627

By Laleham we had returned to more bourgeois offerings. The BMWs were back in the drives. In the naming stakes ‘The Willows’ had replaced ‘Iris’s Wet Dream’. We veered off the Path again to find some refreshments at the Feathers pub (high marks) returning to walk around Dumsey Meadow, the only meadow in Surrey left with its original vegetation. It was lovely, full of buttercups, red clover and the other plants with which we had become familiar. Which was why I was surprised, looking across, that it had been chosen to locate what looked like a dump for old caravans and vehicles next door. IMG_1629We got bit closer and realised that this congregation was actually in, on, the meadow. A very large man was holding a toddler by one leg behind his head and shaking him or her up and down. On the river bank three people in hi vis jackets were trying to hit swans with stones shot from shanghais (catapults you might say elsewhere). They and their dogs greeted us. The only word I really caught was ‘wankers’. Then we hit the area of the Path which they had been using for their lavatory. 

The rest of the day was spent walking through one of those strange nether lands that grow up around big cities, the transitional spaces, worked over for utilities, remnant green patches, perhaps sporting grounds, bits of farming life not far from apartment tower blocks, big fences and, here, complex water ways and reservoirs. We were quite tired by this stage — it had been big day, among other things we’d walked about 28km — and I found this disorienting and slightly surreal. As we walked the final kilometre along Ferry Lane with its huge mysterious hedges and then turned into a most unanticipated small village square set into all of this, I really wasn’t at all sure where we were.

Shepperton to Hampton Court — 10 km

When we arrived I had asked for a room on the ground floor with a bath, requests graciously granted, and we woke feeling better oriented. This was where we were.

 IMG_1636It still could have been anywhere. Shepparton Studios, source of a heap of very good British films, was nearby. Stanley Kubrick, for example, seems to have felt at home here (Dr Strangelove, 2001, Gosford Park and Eyes Wide Shut).

The day started slow and stayed that way. We only had 10 km to do, and we weren’t in any special hurry to finish. Because it would be the end.

Industrial Thames. We wandered round past the big brick wall of Las Palmas Estate and got back to the river at Walton Bridge (today’s version at right)IMG_1637 which might have been where Julius Caesar crossed the Thames. Except there is no evidence for this at all. As I have noted previously, this is very minor issue in historical terms.

Huge brick walls hid the water storages and treatment plants — think how much water London would require daily, and marvel. The only truly smelly encounter on the river was at an inlet from the river into one of these storages. The Path takes a long slow curve around the Queen Elizabeth and Bessborough reservoirs, the banks increasingly lined with house boats.IMG_1640

We seemed to arrive at East Molesey in no time, Molesey being to Hampton Court as Windsor was to Eton, a neighbour across the river where the humans live. At the East Molesey Cricket Ground we found exactly the sort of cafe required for lunch the name of which escapes me. No it doesn’t, I wrote it down: Thyme by the River. Who could have forgotten? Ha ho. We got the very best table on a mild and still English summer’s day,IMG_1641

and fell to talking to the Club President who was putting the caps back on the aluminium pickets visible in the photo. Kids pick them off and drop them in the garden on the other side of the fence. By the time he’d finished, post photo, he’d found most of them and got them back on. I asked about losing balls in the river not that far to the left of Myrna, and he told us a story about an Australian touring team which played here in mysterious circumstances in 1953. 

For years cricketers had been trying to hit a six over the trees on the bank to Tagg’s Island in the centre of the Thames just here. For this match the Molesey and Ditton News offered £50 to the first man to put a ball on the island without a splash during the course of the match. The paper invited further contributions and by match day the sum had risen to £1000, worth close to AUD50,000 today. This project had been driven partly by the presence of Keith Miller — 6’2″ of sexual allure, oh digressed, famous for his big hitting — in the Australian team. 

There are two endings for this story both with the same conclusion. One, the official account as checked, has Keith plopping them very close but in the drink a metre or two short of the island. The second, as parlayed by the President, has him hitting the island but the ball rolling back off the bank into the river — with a splash. And what do the rules say? Either way he didn’t get his money.

He probably made it up at the races the next day, along with the acquaintance of some of the finer flowers of English womanhood. When asked on return to Australia about the three most beautiful things in England, Miller said, ‘The hills of Derbyshire, the leg sweep of Denis Compton and Princess Margaret.’ Keith made the most of things.

From here it was 15 minutes to our hotel. Over this bridge, you can see it centre left in the backgroundIMG_1642

and in here.IMG_1648

A great hotel, directly opposite Hampton Court where we spent the next day, and as it turned out the next night at a fabulous Jools Holland concert. Just a whiff of luxury to finalise things. No more than a whiff. But there was a bath and some very nice real ale.

We had one of each of those, and then went for a walk.

• • • • • •

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It’s good, desirable even. But there’s plenty more to do.

#5 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

Regatta-land

The Thames is host to 41 major regattas. Thousands of oarspersons participate. At Henley alone in 2015 there were 528 entries. The marquees to accommodate them, their equipment and their supporters might cover 10, 12 hectares. There are more than 40 major long distance rowing events held annually on the river. The apex of these is the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, four miles and 374 yards, 600 strokes, from Putney to Mortlake through the western suburbs of London. There are 88 substantial rowing clubs on the river and goodness knows how many smaller ones.

I didn’t try to count the number of racing boats we saw in use and on the banks, certainly hundreds, possibly a couple of thousand, but we were looking again at money. A new racing eight from those eminent Australian suppliers Sykes the Boat Builders costs around AUD40,000, a set of oars 3,200. Most of the boats we saw in use on the Thames, even the eights, were double-rigged (each rower has two oars), comparatively rare in Australia, but very good for going fast, learning to row well and to create either-sided sweep rowers, i.e. with the one oar, as in most prestigious events (except single sculling). With an amoury like this GB should win every rowing medal all the time.

The ideal rower is a very strong robot with a long reach who can repeat precisely the same motion with undiminishing power for, depending on the size of the boat and the length of the race (championship usually 2000m) somewhere between six and 18 minutes (The Boat Race). For this reason it can be the case that competitive rowers are considered thickos. But while racing is never pleasant and usually occasions very high levels of pain and discomfort, the experience of rowing in a well-drilled eight on a glassy river with the catch of oar to water perfectly synchronised, the surge and glide of the boat under power and the click of the recovery in perfect time — it is a profound aesthetic delight.

We visited the National Rowing Museum at Henley devoted of course to rowing but the Thames as well, and while it meant well, it didn’t come close to describing and relating that pleasure.

redgrave-and-pinsent

In the Museum’s grounds. At left Sir Steven Geoffrey Redgrave, Commander of the British Empire, Doctor of Letters (hon), Doctor of Laws (hon) and Sir Matthew Clive Pinsent, Commander of the British Empire. Pinsent won gold medals for rowing at four consecutive Olympic Games 1992-2004. Redgrave, born at Marlow, dyslexic, a diabetic and occasional sufferer from ulcerative colitis, won gold medals at five Games in a row, 1984-2000. Big boys; grand men. 

tumblr_mxyz7nY2Dz1szju7bo1_540Actor comedian Hugh Laurie (second from the right with rowers’ thighs; dead set! you can find anything on the net) doesn’t have a statue but it may be of interest that he rowed in the Boat Race for Cambridge. He was on track to row in the Olympics until he got glandular fever. 

Racing is not compulsory. I mentioned my envy of the pair in the skiff in the previous post. A well set-up clinker-built boat would be close to perfect in these circumstances. Ratty’s skiff for example. If you want to go rowing, the Thames is your river; and we were entering rowing’s heartland.

Reading to Henley-on-Thames — 15 km

Reading, which has its own off-river ‘artificial’ 2000m straight course, was just fine. We pulled up short at the Crowne Plaza right on the Path for a cup of tea and sort of wished we were staying there. It looked like the sort of place where the floor might be flat and you mightn’t have to lug your cases up near vertical narrow staircases.IMG_1416 But the ‘Great Expectations’ (at right) met our modest expectations and, along with a very fine collection of fire doors, provided a comfortable bed and a good pie. I might note en passant that Reading was once the world capital of biscuit manufacturing and home to Joseph Huntley the inventor of that splendid symbol of Empire — the biscuit tin. (How else might you get scotch fingers to Chandigarh without them breaking up?)

Misery and wetness were forecast for the next day, but nothing of the sort occurred. We saw the clean-up of the early market and were centimetre perfect in our return to the Path which glided around another meadow mostly full of a giant Tesco before returning to what the guidebook calls ‘a simple country way’.

The zippy buildings in this pic are the Luscinia View housing development on Reading’s fringe. More importantly, note the goalposts in the foreground. Proper ones.IMG_1420

We noted that parking issues could also apply to boats.IMG_1422

This one might over time have accumulated some tickets. IMG_1421

IMG_1426The Sonning Bridge gets a mention in guidebooks because the borders of two Counties meet on its middle arch, one of 11 which are all different sizes. But we didn’t stop to enthuse. We were cantering along.

At the entry to Shiplake we met a couple who were unsure of the way back to their hotel. They’d gone for a walk and got turned around and the signage wasn’t decisive. It turned out not only that our immediate destinations were the same but that she had parents living in Mooroolbark (a suburb of Melbourne) who she visited annually. We chatted for 15 minutes or so. Fulfilling a lifelong dream her parents had moved to the other side of the world after a comparatively early retirement leaving friends and family behind. Now they were getting older and less capable this was presenting a challenge that several but not all of the parties were trying to resolve. So many people we met had personal and family connections in Australia, that slightly coarse and untutored but rich and suntanned relative so very far away. 

With the scent of a possible cream tea in our nostrils, we walked up to the Shiplake pub through an avenue of glorious trees and even gloriouser homes. Beyond very nice. VNH+, even ++. Their names had become riparian, The Ripples, The River Cottage etc, and for a kilometre or so they had their own private river frontages.

IMG_1432We stopped to look at the map for a moment and, blow me down, I was pretty sure that what we were looking at was a house featured on ‘Grand Designs’ (at right) and, apart from ‘budget’ and ‘then the winter rains came’, the big issue was building a distinctively modern house on this very narrow Shiplakian block. Out of keeping; not like the neighbourhood; neighbours stacking on a turn. Boo hiss, in fact, hissssss, to the stodgy complainants.

IMG_1434Looking very like the others nearby, this was the house next door (at left). In situ, I wondered if my hiss might have to be withdrawn or at least moderated. Can you build whatever you like, or should you pay respect to the rest of the built environment? From a cosmic perspective it is not of the slightest importance, and the new building was actually beautifully designed (still not finished I noted), but standing there in Bolney Rd I felt much more sympathetic than I had to the views of the locals.

Further down the road was Thames Side Court. We didn’t see it, you can’t see it unless you’re invited in. The Path takes you round its most substantial perimeter. Ooo ah you go, not least because in the midst of all this rain the huge garden was being watered, and Oo ahh a mini rail line is running along the fence. And then ahh ooh, the much photographed mini rail station. Unknown-1The tower is perhaps 2.5m high.

We ran into a tradie here who had been doing some work on the other side of the fence. What went on there? What was the railway about? Big money, he said. Pots of dough. Owns the polo grounds next door. They never come here, but they built the railway for the grandkids, but now they don’t come much either. So this property the size of a small farm with its enormous upkeep impost, well … as  far as I could tell, not far, was left to the artisans and the ducks to enjoy.

While we’re on houses, check this one out. IMG_1445

Start right at the pollarded trees. Then the patterned lawn. Move up to the arch of boulders. Left to the clipped fascia. Left again to the decorative elements on the feature wing. Down to the boat entrance. Left again and up to the brand new screened wing with huge viewing platform on its top. I’m not sure what it would be like to live in, but it’s worth a round of applause at least.

IMG_1454We got to the Museum, watched a wedding, drank elderberry fizz and ate scones. Could life have been improved? Only in one regard.IMG_1464

We went rowing.

This was not the well set-up skiff I was looking for; in fact it was an awful boat. But we were out on the water and with the regatta being set up a week away we rowed half the course.IMG_1488

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Henley from the water, Temple Island the starting line just visible in the far distant centre with the finish line in the foreground. 

We repaired to our excellent hotel, The Row Barge, the one we liked most on the walk I think, and I drank beer and swapped good cheer with a party from Leigh-on-Sea which, for a start, my untutored ear took as somewhere in France. (Like Beyoncé?) It was a weekend and they’d driven over from the other side of London for a drink. ‘Mightn’t stop at one.’ The men averred they were rugby union fans. The two women said there wasn’t a match they’d ever seen the end of. ‘Roarin’ blind by then.’ They knew about Australia and Australians. Shit daytime TV and really bad ads generally. The people are friendly, but they’ve got no ‘brains’, meaning I think, are not quick-witted. No one goes to sport; they all go to the beach. Anyway it’s too hot to watch sport.  And if they do go they don’t know how to behave (don’t sing), and there are no good pubs. A cousin of the alpha male of the group lived in Sydney and was coming home for those very reasons.

What could I say except, my round? We had in fact become addicted to the early morning BBC, and there isn’t anyone as smooth and or as smart as Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty probably anywhere on Australian TV. But the ads? Ok we’ve got crap ads.

Henley and this stretch of the Path — fabulous.

Henley-on-Thames to Marlow — 14 km

We paid our respects to the late great Dusty Springfield and the Leander Rowing Club which is not where the guidebook thinks it is, and with a hop, step and a jump we knew when we’d done the first 2000m. The Path took us off the river to Aston through a thrilling display by a horde of kites careening around above a big chook run and from here there was the first sense of the Thames running through a valley.
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The river is tucked away behind those trees. It is still no monster. Races at Henley are only ever rowed two abreast.

The pic above was taken just near Holme farm. A few hundred metres more and we were in Culham Farm walking past Culham House, its glorious chestnut tree, and its ha-ha.IMG_1529

Myrna was bemused by this vast pile and the efforts which had been made to ensure privacy when it was all battened down with no one home. And, lo and behold, what did I discover!

Daily Mail Aug 27, 2006: 

Schwarzenbach_2984188bWhen a magnificent country house went on the market for £25million, financier Urs Schwarzenbach decided that the owners weren’t asking enough. He offered £10million extra and exchanged contracts within a week on Culham Court, on the banks of the Thames. (!)

Swiss-born Mr Schwarzenbach, 57, and his wife Francesca, a former Miss Australia (!!), plan to move into the ten-bedroom house near Henley, Oxfordshire, later this year. … “We are thrilled at the thought of moving into Culham Court and making it our home,” the couple said in a statement. 

The departing owners, Paddy and Annabel Nicoll said: “We are delighted that a local family is buying Culham Court. The Schwarzenbachs have always been incredibly supportive of causes in and around Henley, most recently through their funding of the redesign and build of the River and Rowing Museum. (!!!)

Clive Hopkins, head of farms and estates at Knight Frank, said: “It is a classic Georgian house in a perfect location. It doesn’t get any better than this.” 

Mr Schwarzenbach, a keen polo player and friend of Prince Charles, has lived in Britain since the 1980s. His current home, Thames Side Court in Shiplake, has polo facilities and has been described as a ‘Disneyland-style park modelled on the train station at St Moritz’. (Et voila!!!!)

He also owns a 26,000-acre estate in Scotland on which he has lavished more than £20million, reportedly adding a bowling alley, marble-lined hot tub and a panic room to hide from potential kidnappers. The family also has a £3million chalet in St Moritz, four other homes in Switzerland and 123,000 acres in Australia, including a ranch where Prince Harry spent part of his gap year. 

This wasn’t in the guidebook! Especially the panic room bit. The threads — all drawn together — to unify the last 30 km! Even if he is only the 115th richest person in England, he owns a lot of south Oxfordshire including the village of Hambleden where ‘Midsomer Murders’ has been filmed. His paw marks are everywhere!

I note ‘In 2012 the Schwarzenbachs revoked their consent for the permissive footpath that had run alongside the Thames in front of Culham Court as part of The Thames Path for many years.’ Must have changed their minds. But we were there even if Mr Schwarzenbach, now 67, and his wife the former Miss Australia (godmother of Lady Louise Windsor, daughter, Earl of Wessex (Edward*)), weren’t.

IMG_1530The grounds were full of white harts and there was noise coming from a large industrial shed on the hill that sounded like something out of ‘Brittania Hospital‘. I didn’t like to make that connection and we moved on.

At Hurley Lock we did, for the very first time, find a cream tea and, as might be anticipated, it was not quite what it was cracked up to be. Bit stodgy. But the dogs enjoyed their repast. IMG_1531[Please insert your own humorous tagline. Publication and prizes will be considered.]

IMG_1538 2Despite a sign defaming its very elegant bridge as ‘weak’, Marlow was as welcoming and pleasant as Henley. The concentration of Rollers, Mercs, BMs, and Bentleys in High Street Marlow was just as high as in Hart St Henley; the number of Ferraris, Bugattis, Aston Martins, Maseratis, and top end Jags on a par. Felt right at home.

* From a biography: ‘Prince Edward made two very public attempts to pursue a career but, after failing at both, returned to his life as full-time member of the royal family.’

Marlow to Windsor — 24 km

The mess round the two first toes on my left foot was in train of becoming pretty gross. Several new blisters had emerged consequent on trying to correct the implications of the first including, not that I realised it at the time, a blister or blisters below other blisters, deep blisters. I couldn’t see anything properly, but what you couldn’t see could still be a bit painful. The bottoms of my feet are generally like rhino hide but they had been constantly wet for most of 10 or 12 days, absorbed water, got soft and their calluses had lifted off the underlying skin. My standard treatment had caused more harm than good and when I removed the elastoplast a fair bit of skin came too. Ha ho. Issues.

I plundered Marlow’s Boots for anything that might work. I had also put some ti tree oil on the affected areas, as we professionals say, in anticipation that it would produce a magic result. What it did was to make it difficult to stick the ‘second skin’ plasters on. But, hey, what’s science but trial and error?

We had three choices: just walk on; get a cab the whole way to Windsor; or take punt on getting a cab to somewhere in the middle and see how I went from there. It wasn’t if we were in the middle of a wilderness.

It was one of the longer sections so walking the whole way was probably not that good an idea. But it was another nice day and I didn’t want to miss it by sitting still. So we decided to get a cab to the bridge at Maidenhead which the driver insisted on calling Boulter’s Lock which was about 2km north and not where we wanted to go at all. My advantage of being in possession of the relevant A-Z map had no impact. There are times when foreigners just can’t win. But he did drop us at the bridge where we got some coffee served by a gal from Mt Isa on her gap year.

We’d knocked off 8km and in doing so we missed seeing a Stanley Spencer-assisted resurrection in the Cookham cemetery (a pictorial representation of which we were later able to consult in the Tate), missed drinking in the atmospherics of Cliveden and Cabinet Ministers playing up with Russian spies possibly joined at or near the hip by Ms C. Keeler, missed eating at the Fat Duck at Bray (wrong bank) but anyway Heston Blumenthal was in Melbourne.

I began a bit nervously, but it wasn’t problem. Perhaps as we warmed up my foot had self-anaesthetised. I don’t know. Maybe I had a shoe full of blood. I didn’t look. By the time we got to Brunel’s next bridge I’d forgotten about it.IMG_1546What a killer. What an absolute killer. All brick with two long flat arches. The sign says [still, since 1838] the longest (128 feet, 39m) and flattest (24 feet, 7m) brick arches in the world. I have read that his backers would not believe this bridge (I think) would hold up, so they demanded that he build in-fill supports. He did, leaving a gap of a few inches between the top of the supports and the bridge, i.e. there was no support happening. Some time later at the next high water the supports were washed away and never replaced. That’s confidence for you. But who could believe that a curve shaped like that built out of bits of baked clay and burnt lime would support generations of train traffic? Applause applause.

On exit, Maidenhead offered a generous esplanade lined with VNHs which could even be described as gracious. It wasn’t long before we were walking along the side of the Dorney Lakes Rowing course. Ten years to build and costing £17m, it is owned and of course used by Eton College, but was the site of the rowing events held at the London Olympics. (Wags head. Were we walking through money or what?) The Path was grassy and busy with walkers and cyclists and, closer to Windsor, swimmers (of the naughty boy variety). The last stretch perambulates around and was sheltered by trees.

You walk through casual artIMG_1548IMG_1551 and more deliberate art (at right, for the Olympics, on the track to the rowing), just moseying along, and then suddenly across a river meadow called ‘The Brocas’, named for a 13th century family of local nobles and now owned by Eton, you come out of the wood andIMG_1552

Have a rest and then continue east.

#4 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

Flint!

In Goring we thought we would try our hand at something different for our evening meal. So, generating the usual crisis, we wandered up the main street to explore the range of options. Indian we decided. Masoom was a very clean, very cautious, white linen napkin version of the genre and appreciated as such by the well-heeled scions of Goring. Whether or not any of the food would be recognised in Varanasi, Delhi or Mumbai is neither here nor there; it was tailored to palates very similar to our own and we left well-pleased.

A couple of doors up was this house.IMG_1375

There, I said. There it is. Writ large. The late evening sunlight bouncing off it. And I stood there trying to take just the right photo and failed because the owner came out quite briskly to see what we were up to. This provided the perfect opportunity for an investigation. Flint, she said. The house is a couple of years old and while there were some issues about its construction, you couldn’t fault the flint work.

So, flint. Bugger me. Harbinger of civilisation, essence of early tools, provider of the first blades and arrowheads, the spark for a million fires, the flint in flintlocks — and I’d never seen it before.

Flint is a hard, sedimentary cryptocrystalline form of the mineral quartz. It occurs chiefly as nodules and masses in sedimentary rocks, such as chalks and limestones. And what are The Cotswolds? A chalk escarpment.

You can see the glassy quality and the splendid variation of shade in the photo. These had been knapped, in this case split to provide a flat surface. Knapping is just the process of hammering a piece off the original ‘ball’ of flint. It is possible to make the pieces square or any shape in fact. Historically, flint knappers commonly suffered from silicosis, due to the inhalation of flint dust — the world’s first industrial disease. So much information. Truly blogging with a public purpose.

Flint does not occur naturally in Australia. Anywhere. Isn’t that interesting? Plenty of iron ore, loads of bauxite, uranium, mineral sands, rare earths, opals, even cognac diamonds, and yes, chert which is in the flint family — but no actual flint. That might mean something. Where we were however, there was plenty of flint. Sections of the Path were strewn with it. I picked up a piece that I’m looking at now. I like rubbing my finger on the napped section. On the other side it still has its vernix.

IMG_1250Flint at Oxford. The Father Walmsley Museum, an annexe of the church where I remarked on it first. The mortar is pointed unusually.

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Flint at Abingdon, squared off by knapping.

 

 

 

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Flint at Dorchester, still cobbled but fitted into rectangular slabs.

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Flint at Whitchurch-on-Thames knapped to the size of half a brick.

 

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Flint at Henley-on-Thames. Could it be called diapered? Actually no. It needs to be a diamond-shaped pattern for that.

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Flint at Windsor inserted into the mortar courses of the castle. To reduce the construction effort, or to make the mortar sparkle? Either way it’s galletting.

Goring to Reading — 18 km

We began the day with a return to Ms Pierrepont’s establishment for proper coffee and the sandwiches we’d been promised. It was sunny day of sculptural stillness, the surface of the river a mirror.IMG_1378

IMG_1398Classic meadow walking with the river still about 25-30m wide. Cows, geese, black-faced gulls, kites and another one of Brunel’s masterpieces about halfway to the wood and the climb, ‘down to a dry bottom and then a steep ascent’ clinging to the rugged chalk cliff faces like human flies. The wood and the climb did make a change and like the rest of the day, they were just lovely.

All of which does not stop people being in nature, but not of nature.IMG_1379

Another of Brunel’s masterpieces near Gatehampton Manor.IMG_1381

 

 

 

 

 

Below, a walker struggling up the ascent.

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IMG_1384At left, two walkers finding themselves in a crazy mirror used presumably for practising dressage.

 

The climb preceded an attractive stretch through wooded farmland before a gentle glide down a busy road into Whitchurch, a very very pretty little town with a toll bridge authorised by the ‘Whitchurch Bridge Act paffed In this thirty-second year in the reign of His Moft Gracious Majesty King George III’. However the paffage of horfes engaged in drawing veffels along the river was legislatively exempted. And does the toll still apply? Yef indeed it does. Depending on the type of vehicle, anywhere between 40p and 3 quid. Pedestrians go free.IMG_1395

And on the other side of the bridge, the beginning of another cheery form of messing about in boats.

IMG_1397Mole and Ratty (from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows) should be introduced here.

[Mole] thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. …IMG_1405

[He meets the very capable Ratty.] ‘What?’ cried the Rat, open-mouthed: ‘Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?’

‘Is it so nice as all that?’ asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

‘Nice? It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily. …

‘I beg your pardon,’ said the Mole, pulling himself together with an effort. ‘You must think me very rude; but all this is so new to me. So—this—is—a—River!’

The River,’ corrected the Rat.

And here, and on this day, that’s just how it was. I was most envious of the pair in the skiff above.

There is some conjecture about which of the grand houses on the long delectable curve of the other bank Grahame used as a model for Toad Hall, but I’m going with Hardwick House because of this squadron of ducks. I can also see the stoats and weasels living in the slightly wild wood beyond.IMG_1403We sat on the bank at Pangbourne eating our lunch watching four child care workers with a passel of very small kids, some just toddling, and agreed that good quality childcare could be very good indeed. The focus was explicitly on the kids and what they were doing; they were talked with, encouraged in lots of language practice, and what they were doing was constantly named and converted into something interesting. An hour or so later we ran into a group of young mums in Purley. They were talking to each other, not watching the kids and in fact ignoring them as they wandered back and forth across a trafficky road and played in the cow pats on either side. Not bad mums, just a bit bored with their lot. It can be a virtue to get professional assistance. Go, you massively underpaid and undervalued childcare workers!

This chap was waiting his turn at Mapledurham Lock. There was a lot of opportunity to take dog on boat photos. IMG_1408Question. In the event of a sinking would the vest have saved the pooch? That could only be investigated empirically. I have no answer. Sort of looked cute though, in a hi-vis kind of way.

IMG_1409And this guy was, on his ladder, waiting for trains, which we had been following directly for a few kilometres and which — it must be said — were roaring past every five minutes. But it wasn’t just any train he was waiting for. He wasn’t even sure that the engine he wanted to photograph was coming past this afternoon. But if it did he would be there to see it. He gave me a very generous description of just what was going on. Perhaps when you’re walking you have time to see and note some of the world’s vast clutch of enthusiasms.

Rounding the big meadow that the Path brings you back to after the suburbs of Purley and the company of the train line there is little intimation of what lies beyond. Suddenly, with the advent of the Reading esplanade the river grows up. I had a sense that we’d left the countryside behind — not quite true as it happens — but we certainly had here. There was also a newly-minted sniff of grandeur about the view.IMG_1410Right here we saw our first oarsperson, in a scull, 153 km from the source and 64.59% of our way. And, for almost the first time in 20 years, I had a blister.

#1 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

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Caveat ambulans: Talking to myself about walks

Preparing to write this I read quite a few blogs describing walks, and this walk in particular. I was struck by how fluid the nature of a walk is and how defined they are by the conditions in which they occur.

When describing walks one option is to take the approach that they are ‘genetically determined’, fixed entities, the Guidebook approach. You talk about the length and/or time, the terrain, the landscape features, the waymarking and so on. Except in Portugal, these matters are largely changeless. In Portugal they can be a variety of fantasia.

IMG_1113The ‘historical footsteps and notable landmarks’ approach is a version of the same thing. (A contribution from Cricklade at left.)This did happen there; that’s a sign of that. Yes, you are walking on Roman cobbles. It used to be the Voie des Marchands. That might spring to life for me or it might not. I remember walking through the top of a pass in Japan where 500 samurai had been slaughtered some time ago and remaining completely unmoved. It was hot and I was thirsty.

Alternatively you can take the approach that it is the conditions that are the walk, the argument from context or, pursuing the previous metaphor, ‘upbringing’ — the subjectivist perspective.

In this case what do you talk about? The weather of course, but also who you are with, who you meet, what you do and what choices you make — you, not someone else — the state of your body, unforeseen difficulties, the food you take or find, the accommodation. This is in the splendid tradition of Jerome K. Jerome, and all good travel writers. It’s the story and its rendering that is interesting.

But — the classic subjectivist problem — you can say it’s like that, but what I found was … possibly nothing like that at all. You saw the most expensive private house in England (we missed it), but where did you say Dusty Springfield’s grave was?IMG_1505 (The grounds of the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Henley-on-Thames. Bad luck you didn’t see it.) And I know four lots of people who are going to read this to make up their minds whether or not to do the walk. Caveat ambulans.

Should this be a revelation, or am I running through the bleeding obvious by saying that it is probably true that there is an organic and indivisible relationship between the two; and anyway, inevitably, you just follow your nose when you’re writing? Yes. The bleeding obvious. Thank you.

A secondary thought, of slightly better than marginal relevance, is that, taking the idea that a walk can be the sum of its conditions and that the conditions include the sorts of things above, it is possibly true that the more remote the walk the less there is to write about.

What to say, for example, about one of my favourite walks, the Razorback between Hotham and Mt Feathertop and back again? It’s 22 km. It’s exposed. It’s not for beginners or the unfit. There will be mountain weather; but regardless, the views are constantly fabulous. You must climb Feathertop to enjoy it properly. You don’t have a chance to access Dusty Springfield’s (or in this case, anybody else’s) grave. There’s no water. Anything else? You can have a close up look at the impact of bushfires. You’ll walk through a lot of Alpine mint which tinkles when you brush it. You may see some gang gangs and yellow tails. There is an important Alpine gum at the Federation Hut junction that’s somehow avoided the fires. And that’s about it. You could put photos in I guess. (Look! Amazing.)IMG_0259

But also vice versa. There is plenty to write about, far too much in fact, from the Thames walk.

We’ll start here.

STARTLING. YOU NEVER KNEW. CELEB. NUDE. 

10 Things about the Thames and the Thames Path. 

  1. The Thames, the second longest river in the UK and the longest in England, begins not far from the Severn Estuary/ Bristol Channel close to due west of London. (The tea towel above has a common illustration suggesting it flows north-south. It doesn’t.) The Thames Path, a National Trail, finishes formally at the Thames Flood Barrier east of central London 295 km (184 miles) away.
  1. Following the Thames you walk through bits of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and the City of London (Middlesex). So to walk the Thames Path is a bit like walking across the south of England.
  1. We walked, this time, from the source to Hampton Court. The official distance for this, without errors or digressions, is 237 km (148 miles). The distance as the crow flies from the source to Hampton Court is 120 km (70 miles). This implies correctly that the river meanders extensively.
  1. The source is 108m above sea level. Sea level occurs at Teddington (possibly a corruption of ‘tide end town’) 244 km from the source. Thus the average gradient of its downstream flow is 1: 2259, almost uphill but not quite. It starts slow and, for most of its length, stays slow.
  1. The river has 51 tributaries from which it gets its eventual heft. But only half a dozen pack much punch. The impact of the Cherwell at Oxford is noticeable; the Kennet at Reading also makes a significant contribution.

It does gain considerable heft. Looking upstream from near Hammersmith Bridge while walking part of the city leg of the Path three years ago.IMG_0177 copy
6. The greatest altitude attained on the walk was 62 m asl, on a chalk cutting above Whitchurch-on-Thames (with the magnificent private gardens and superb examples of flint work). At no point during the walk did I breathe heavily. This is the peak, with steps.IMG_1392

  1. Until you cross under the M25 just west of Staines 212 km from the source, ¾ or more of the walk is either rural or provides you with the illusion of rurality. A lot of the time is spent walking through or next to meadows, the vast majority in close proximity to the river.

Getting the idea? Not the Tour de Mont Blanc. Not the Dolomites by via ferrata. Congenial, long but easy, accompanied by a river that is undemonstrative, polished, polite, meandering and not given to large gestures. 

8. The river has 45 locks (between Lechlade and Teddington). These are now all ‘pound’ locks (based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci) with gates that close either end of a box. Opening either end allows the water, and whatever is floating on it, to find its level. Closer to the source, the gates are operated manually using the mechanical advantage afforded by huge timber beams. (The possibility of having a swing on one of these is tremendously seductive. Beam mania is kept in check by hi-vis safety-scarved volunteer supervisors.) Further down, the gates are power operated. Sandford Lock (below), ‘The Lasher’, has the highest fall — 2.69m, just a tad over the world high jump record. You can see why Conan Doyle went elsewhere to find a suitable setting for Moriarty to hoick Holmes over a waterfall. ‘The Lasher’ indeed.images

With a river of such very minimal gradient why would you want locks? Without locks sections of the upper Thames would be dry after a spell without rain and floods would be even more prevalent in the wet. Locks allow navigation by boats to Lechlade 250 km upstream. They are picturesque — tres tres tres important — and most have well developed and kept gardens. At some of them, but not nearly enough, you can get a cream tea (which is English for a cup of tea and scones, perversely what we would call a Devonshire Tea).

They also provide important opportunities for the older boat-type person to demonstrate competitive marine skills and handiness with ropes. While no one is in any doubt who the complete dork is, this process is handled almost invisibly with restraint and forbearance. Gifted. English.

9. ‘Riparian’ is the correct adjective for the zone defined by a river and its surrounds. This is one of only 15 biomic terms used to classify and describe all terrestrial plant and animal communities. You may be able to work this into the conversation sometime.

FIG7

  1. If you encounter carbohydrate debt on your walk, rest easy. There are reasonably regular opportunities to enjoy battered halloumi (salty Cypriot-style cheese, with either one ‘l’ or two) served with chips, mash and gravy. [From a food blog: ‘The lightly battered halloumi cheese bizarrely (in a good way) had the texture of fish and chips.’ I can’t comment.]

Swindon

The story should start here, one version of contemporary England.

Like the rest of the crowd in post-Eurovision Vienna, we were swept up in the rush to get to Swindon. The Queen of the west, backed onto the Wessex Downs, a short Sunday drive from the Cotswolds, home to the Magic Roundabout, Brunel’s rail works and modest early experiments in socialism. Equidistant from Bristol, Reading and Oxford, and so so not like any of them. In fact so not like anything else we saw for a fortnight or so, all within an hour’s drive.

We’d landed at Heathrow and the carefully constructed plan for three train trips culminating in an arrival at Swindon RS had worked like a charm. Swindon because our destination, Kemble, was yet another train trip, a whole 12 minutes away as it turned out. But as well as a chance to have a look at something else, it was a sort of rest insurance.IMG_1027

He loved his new bike with the tyres that still had their sprues on them. (And sprues are the little rubber ‘hairs’ left after the molding process. I’d always wondered if they had a name.)

The Jurys Inn (Get it? Ok. Put the apostrophe back. Jury’s, jury is … Look, talk to me later) loomed over the car park, the building site, the struggling houses and the tarmac of a couple of big roads — a dominant presence.IMG_1039

The assumption that people in England would speak English had already been tested and found wanting. Reception — you know, when you’re a bit tired, want to sit down, have a cup of tea … where are you anyway, some commercial travellers’ stopover? And, despite a real concern about not wanting to be a grumpy old man, a real concern, you have a lot of trouble making yourself understood. And like a shiney suit and a well-rutted line of patter, it was a commercial travellers’ stopover — some kind of refuge from the depredations of what the rest of the day held. Fine. Fine. Just …

We walked out through the rather desolate town. The five pm bell had tolled a minute before and everyone had fled.IMG_1032Even though ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Pitch Perfect II’ beckoned from the Cinemax, we were on our permanent search for the gorgeous little boutique café run by the energetic, gifted and committed 40 year-old woman serving fabulous little inventive treats and equally fabulous coffee. (090901These do exist. Pierrepont’s Café, Goring, at left, being an outstanding example.) Burgermaster, Nando’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Cisco’s, Costa (spread through the UK like the flu. So promising, but always such a let down), pizza joints jostling each other for visibility and punching on with the equal number of establishments offering souvlakia: that’s what we found.

We proceeded up the limestone ridge where Swindon began (historically; geographically it’s spread all over the place) towards the better but still modest class of houses in the grip of a frenzy of renovation. Past the craft beer and folky jam joint (that’s the music rather than the conserve), past the churches that have changed hands in the last decade or so: the First Assembly of God, the Assembly of the First Christ, the Strict Baptist Church, to the street of restaurants most of which were empty except for South England’s Best Indian Restaurant 2013 which overflowed. So much of our shared primal dreaming in these streets.

91661286After the customary struggle to choose, we found The Goddard Arms to our taste. Myrna’s first choice of meal in England in 2015 was Lincolnshire sausages and mash while I, less remarkably, had cod and chips. Also rather oddly, she wasn’t completely put off by the two-hour hagiography of Warney being televised. ‘And this … is the greatest ball ever bowled. … Oh no. This one.

Down the hill again to Jurys Inn past Swindon’s next two biggest buildings, the Jobcentre and the social security, swarming with signs warning of damnation if you tried to get in. We went to sleep to more TV, a special on Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Crystal Gayle and Emmylou Harris. 1970. It seemed entirely appropriate.

In the morning we had the commercial traveller’s breakfast of orange juice that wasn’t orange juice, organic toast that redefined ‘organic’, homemade crumpets that weren’t homemade, muesli that hadn’t been muesed, although the coffee may well have been coffed. It was fine. Fine. Then a tour of down the hill down at heel Swindon, a pretty beaten up burb with a huge mix of nationalities and ethnicities, but not many from Richland or Wealthitria.IMG_1036

We visited an outdoor gear shop. I wanted a beanie but a beanie was way out of range. No prospect of a beanie. Impossible. An almost offensive request. This may be what has happened to gear shops. You get a big shed, a truckload of puffer jackets and polar fleece vests from China, some silvery metal things and a backyard tent and call it done. Come in customers. Buy. It would surprise me if any of the staff had been outdoors beyond the trek from the car park to the front door.

We inspected the Little Vegas Club, and considered signing up for the Goan Football Tournament but weren’t church married.IMG_1038IMG_1037

Reviewed the main street. Myrna gave a very large donation (as requested) to the hairdresser who cut her fringe and we moved on thinking that Swindon, whose soccer team the Robins is the only club ever to have played in both the Premier League and the bottom tier, probably deserved more time to fully appreciate what it had to offer.


IMG_1040Swindon provides a frame of reference for the slightly preposterous luxury that was in evidence for the next fortnight. If we hadn’t stopped at Swindon we would have spent quite some time thinking that all Englishpersons drove cars worth more than a lot of the houses we had seen in Swindon, and that a frontage means several hundred metres of carefully manicured green sward. I kept thinking of Mark Lawson’s excellent book The Deaths, set not so far away in Buckinghamshire.

But you haven’t even seen river yet. Sorry to keep you waiting. Try here.