After the excitement of visitors and seeing my first outdoor swimming event, I had to face the dull chore of shopping which I had avoided in the persistent rain the day before. However the sun was shining and I optimistically set off in a vest top and shorts and no phone. As I was walking along Mill Lane it started raining. I sheltered under a tree as it got heavy and watched the clouds move over and a chink of blue approaching. I was soon out in the sun again. I regretted not bringing the phone when I couldn’t see the large supermarket I had expected would be signposted or obvious from the top of the lane. Thankfully a young couple pointed me in the right direction and all was well. I got back to the park and the rain began again even more heavily than last time, so I broke into a run to get quickly along the last few yards.
We were off back the way we came, through the jolly hollyhocks lock at Sonning. When we had last come to this one we had waited as a set of rowers had gone in. Their boat is very narrow but the oars are so wide they only for in the lock if they pull them in a bit. I spoke to the lock keeper who was struggling with his layers with the changeable weather and stripping off his waterproofs and changing his hat. I mentioned the rowing eight being in the lock and how wide they were. He said they were also very fragile and not well balanced, so they never let them share a lock with a narrow boat.
Once we reached Reading we were leaving the Thames locks behind. Blake’s lock was unstaffed and we were back to working all the locks ourselves in Kennet and Avon. While it is nice to have help and an exchange with the lockkeepers, it is quite satisfying to work them yourself. The locks are generally narrower, though still double width, but some are very deep or long. As I drove towards one such a fisherman watched intently and then decided to leave his post, and go up to the bridge above and watch the whole proceedings. It was an exceptionally deep lock and took a very long time to fill, but he stayed filming throughout. I can’t imagine it will make an interesting movie, but it was quite exciting to be in it. The next one was pretty deep too and long so filling involved some pitching and rolling around, despite staying at the very back of the lock and using a rope.
On an the evening stroll, I heard some very high pitched chirping crickets, but no sight. I was very surprised and unbelieving to see my Merlin app suggest an osprey. We have seen kites and kestrel, sometimes together, but I wasn’t sure we were in osprey territory, perhaps it was the little motorbikes on the towpath. I don’t think it was the crickets. The cycle route seemed unappealing.
Another disconcerting traffic direction was this height restriction. Most traffic would fall foul of a restriction of less than a metre. Shane is the giveaway that it is the paint that is missing and that cars won’t all have their roofs peeled off.
At the next night’s mooring we had difficulty finding a good spot. We saw boats moored up and drew in at the back. We could see why it was not a popular spot as the nettles were dominating. I did try to take care while putting the spikes in but still got a few stings. Both the nettles and the flowers were taller than me so throwing ropes back and forth was quite the challenge and the gangplank was essential for boarding.
In the morning , we managed to not get stung and Shane did the removal of spikes and passed the ropes and spikes to me, and put away the gang plank, while I was preparing to drive. We had to have someone ready at the controls as the river doesn’t necessarily let you stand still. I saw a boat was about to come from the lock behind so I hurried away so as not to hold it up. They didn’t catch up so that seemed fine.
Shane was in making himself a coffee when I met a boat coming the other way. The driver asked if I had any help. I wondered why he was asking. Then he explained that the next lock had a gate that needed three people to open it. I said there were two of us and a boat behind, so we should be okay. Shane leapt out to do the lock and I went in the far side and he opened the other gate to make it clear that we were inviting the boat behind to share. The driver waved to show he was coming. He came in then started to climb out and we realised he was a lone boater which was probably why he hadn’t caught up so quickly as I had expected after leaving the previous lock, as he would have had to close up the lock behind him. A dog appeared and I asked if it was a good driver and he said, “are you?”. We had noticed his boat the night before as it had interesting painting on it and holders for windlasses on the side of the boat so I spoke to him about the holders, that they looked handy and we had wondered about whether they were always kept in the far side from the tow path. He said he took them in at night as he had heard of someone having their bike stolen from the water side. Some lone boaters are quite reserved people who clearly like the life alone. This chap was chatty and jokey. As usual we talked about where we might be heading and he said he was meeting someone for coffee in the nearby town but wasn’t sure where they would go as he didn’t know the place and asked about mooring spots. He got out to help with gates as the boats were nearly at the top and was chatting about having had a widebeam before, “but then my wife died of COVID on New Year’s Day”. We both said how awful that must have been for him and he said she had told him to continue travelling like they had planned so he was doing it without her. Then he helped Shane open the gate and I applauded as they managed with only two. He got back on and I said I hoped he enjoyed his coffee and it was good to have events to help plan your travel, but he reply was that he was actually dreading it, as it was an old school friend of his wife’s and he didn’t think he was ready for it. I agreed all the first times would be hard, as he drove off out, but what did I know, I have never lost my partner. Shane closed the gate and got back on. We both were struck at how he had opened up with us and Shane wondered if he had unwittingly brought emotions to the surface by wearing his T shirt saying:
lets me go cycling
It had already got a remark that morning from another boater saying he liked it and then “I take it that is your wife” nodding to me. Perhaps this man shared his story with everyone. We had often shared a bit about Shane’s treatment and our journey being punctuated by trips back there as a way of explaining our travel plans when people asked about where we are based or where we are going.
We wanted to moor up for lunch at the next town and found ourselves pulling in next to him. He greeted us warmly “ah neighbours that’s nice”. We had a long chat with him at the side and heard more of his story. He has her ashes in the boat and he finds more friendship and community on the canal. His situation certainly helps you keep any annoyances in perspective. I waved to him as he walked his dog the next morning and later saw him walking past again with a woman and am guessing that the “coffee” was in progress. When we got ready to go I felt bad not saying goodbye to him.
We carried on through the locks and swing bridges, including one lock with CRT staff, who helped Shane. They were rebuilding the brickwork as the walls move in the lock each time it fills and empties. Glad I found that out after and not before. I always like to see them repairing and taking care of the old structures. They weren’t sure if this was going to be enough.
A few miles along, when we were nearly at Newbury, we saw our friendly widower still walking with the woman but going the other way and it seemed like the coffee was going better than expected. He waved to us brightly and said he was sorry to miss us as he wanted to ask us about Edinburgh. I said I was sure we would meet again.