I would like to retract what I said in the last update about the taxi firm in Henley. A delightful fellow from the same company picked us up at our hotel, and delivered us to our canoe the following morning. Something must have flown up the bum of his fellow employee.
Krista and I have been working ourselves into a lovely rhythm. We know in which bag to find each of our possessions, and have worked out where in the canoe each bag goes. We have adopted SPF 50+ sunscreen, and keep our rain jackets within easy reach. With ease Krista finds the most appropriate paddling lines, minimizing the distance covered while keeping us out of the way of other boaters. At each lock not operated by a lockkeeper, she finesses the canoe up to the dock, I leap out and do my tricks with the sluices and gates, she paddles into and out of the lock, and I join her on the far side. If I have counted right, we have now passed through thirty-eight locks.
But as we get closer to London, and the boating traffic increases, more and more of the locks are tended by a lockkeeper. These are, almost without exception, the most pleasant and cooperative men (mostly) and women (a few) in England. Krista and I have adopted a term to describe lockkeepers. They are either “Lifesaver worthy,” or they aren’t. Very few keepers have been anything other than worthy of a package of Lifesavers.
Three Lifesavers recipients stood out for me today. The first was a man who thought that we were offering him a single candy, rather than a pack, and wasn’t sure that he had done enough to merit a whole roll. The second was a fellow who had, that morning, received news about his family history, and was so excited that he wanted to share it with Krista and I. The third was a gentleman who admitted that he had not been having a particularly good day, but brightened considerably when he had Lifesavers in hand.
Something magical happened at a lock yesterday. A keeper noticed the Canadian and Australian flags flapping at the back of the canoe, and said: “Oh! You’re the ones. I’ve been following you!” It seems as though Sophie Smith at the Environment Agency has sent a message to employees, describing our adventure. Since then we have had a couple of other lockkeepers and a few men on boats shout encouragement, or simply throw us a thumbs-up. I feel like a minor celebrity.
Celebrities, or perhaps oddities. At many bridges and locks I have looked up from my paddling to see people snapping pictures or taking footage of our passage. Longboats and cruisers are common, but a bright yellow canoe flying flags from overseas is something out of the ordinary.
The boating fraternity is amazingly close-knit and friendly. When we encounter a powerboat moving downstream more than once, it seems we cement a friendship. There is, however, an exception. That exception is called Henley. In the five or so kilometres on either side of the racing regatta town, it seems to be very bad form to admit that anyone else exists on the river. Our waves and our called greetings were universally ignored. The River Thames in this region is also choked with well-muscled paddlers in skinny racing shells. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that none of them own the Thames. Even though Krista and I did our best to stay out of their way, they looked at us like plague-carrying vermin. Everywhere but Henley, people have been delightful to Krista and I.
On Sunday, Krista and I spent the night with my dear friends Cath and Errol. Readers of my books will have met them. Cath owns a property on the River Thames in Maidenhead, and made us a fabulous dinner. These people are so generous of spirit as to make me wonder what I have done to be friends with them. I suspect that if Errol had three pounds left in his pocket, he would spend them buying me a beer.
When we arrived at Windsor, I plonked myself down on the riverbank guarding the canoe and its contents while Krista set off in search of provisions. A procession of fifty-three swans filed past me, most looking hopefully into the canoe for food. Five minutes later, fifty-three swans swam back past me. They had “that” look about them, as though they were trying to decide if it were worth mugging me. They didn’t.
How any member of the waterfowl fraternity could possibly consider being hostile to Krista or I is beyond me. I suspect that Krista is currently keeping the bakers of southern England in business all by herself. By her own admission, she fed bread to something like 250 ducks, geese, swans and coots today. The number may have been a smidgen higher.
Shortly after the incident with the swans, I was passed by a lady pushing a pram along side her young son on a bicycle with training wheels.
“Richard. Stop being silly!”
“I’m not silly. You’re silly.
“No, you are being silly.”
“I am not silly!”
“You are. You are being silly!”
As she passed, she nodded at the canoe and asked if I had room for a passenger.
“Why have you got one to spare?” I asked. She rolled her eyes, and nodded at her son. I wanted to tell the son that I though silliness was one of the finest attributes of a human being, but didn’t think the mum would approve.
In eight hours we comfortably covered the twenty-five kilometres between Maidenhead and Staines. After showering off the grime of travel, we went in search of coffee. While wandering, I came over with a very strange feeling. The terrain was eerily familiar, even though I have never been to Staines. It took me a minute to realize that I had scoured this very scene on Google Earth Street View, looking for a pub called the Blue Anchor. Readers of my Falling Down the Thames blogs will know that I had been trying to find out more about the pigeon named All Alone who had been awarded a medal for meritorious service in WWII. This pigeon is listed on Wikipedia as one of the most famous one-time residents of Staines. The breeder of All Alone had been the publican at the Blue Anchor in the years leading up to the war. The building in front of Krista and I, still adorned with a painting of a blue anchor, seemed completely unoccupied. A little further along the same avenue was a series of billboards depicting animals that had received medals for meritorious service, including one of All Alone.