Friday, 9 April 2010

Back up the Thames

A day off from the big writing job, planned yesterday on the promise of good weather. There’s a marked path along the Thames from source to, I suppose, sea and I'm walking it from Hampton Court (west London) to Oxford. Or plan to, in stages. Today was stage 2, from Shepperton where the film studios were and J.G. Ballard lived to Staines where nobody lived and nothing happened but there’s a station I can get back from.

It felt like the first day of spring. It was what Easter weekend should have been like. Buds, flowers, birds, the green haze of new leaves on the clumps of willow shoots, the water brown and fast. A few boats out but it’s early days.

Once you’ve left Shepperton it gets a touch less civilised and boats and riverside shacks start to appear that look scruffy, lived-in and amiable.

Along one stretch the guide I was carrying said the opposite bank was an island. Along here I was accosted by a lady: ‘Excuse me, I know this may sound silly, but can you tell me what day of the week it is?’ I had to repeat ‘Friday’ as she told me she was hard of hearing. Seizing the opportunity I asked her something that was on my mind. The guide had mentioned the ancient water-meadows that the river flooded in the winter and that produced fine crops of grass for hay in the summer; I gather they don’t do that any more but have often been built on. So I wonder what caused the floods in the old days, since I believe there were no locks or weirs but a clear run to the sea. Was there a point where the course was too narrow or shallow for the water to get away as fast as it came down?

The lady’s answer was, ‘Oh, the river floods now. My house is over there -’ -- she pointed across the river and I realised she’d rowed across from the island, as all the residents have to -- ‘and I get flooded. I didn’t use to -- I've lived her fifty years -- but since the moneyed people up in Windsor have made alterations to prevent themselves flooding it happens all the time and my house has lost a lot of value.’

That’s a summary. I wasn’t able to ask her about the historical flooding patterns -- the answer would have taken too long and I was supposed to be on a walk -- but someone else, a well-dressed gent in a suit standing on the path with his garden gate behind him, just enjoying the day I think, said the reason there aren’t floods now except here and there is that they’ve built sluices to get the water away faster and by more direct routes. That makes sense because what strikes you straight away about the Thames is its meanders and the remains of new cuts and older courses.

The day was intended as exercise necessitating vigorous walking, but the mood was such that I relaxed into ambling carelessly like Mr Polly in H.G. Wells’s novel, just enjoying the light and air and people, and stopping to stare when I felt like it.

Soon after the lady and gentleman the path entered a more organised park with at its entrance a notice setting out the by-laws.

When I was a kid in Bradford, a city that had fine parks, every park entrance had a notice like this, only the board was dark green and the lettering cream. Most places have taken them down in the last few years -- as a means of influencing behaviour it didn’t seem the slickest. So this example was a rarity. Since it’s as well to be sure of one’s responsibilities I did have a look, and took a photo.

A New Statesman competition years ago invited extracts from a novel, written about the present some time in the future, that gets it wrong in some ways about the presents. My brother thought of submitting one in which the hero approached the park and, after taking ten minutes to study the by-laws, walked confidently in to meet his lover.

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