Two men in a narrow-boat (on the River Thames)

My friend Paul and I had finally found a few days in September to take a trip together on the Thames on his modern mini  narrow-boat – a sort of floating caravan, fitted out with all conveniences.  I had been aboard before, but only for day trips.  This time we were planning to cruise for a full five days and as far upstream as time would allow.

I arrived at Abingdon Marina – where the boat was currently homed – to be met with disaster.

Fortunately it was someone else’s disaster,  not ours.

Smoke and flames were rising from among the moorings.  I hurried on to the pontoons to investigate.   A group of children were huddled together in obvious and voluble distress.  Paul was there armed with a ship’s pole, warding off a ferociously burning boat.  The cabin and deck were an inferno.  Only the hull remained fire-free.   The Fire Brigade arrived and ran out their hose.  Another fire engine arrived, and then a Fire Brigade van –  there was a lot of Fire Brigade about – but by this time there was little to do but let the boat burn itself out  – and keep it away from the other boats moored on the pontoon.  The family boat was coming in, it seems, when there was an explosion of gas or engine fuel.  The children and their parents leapt overboard in to the muddy-bottomed but not too deep water and, with help from Paul and others, clambered on to the pontoon.

The drama over, I stowed my gear as Paul directed and we puttered out of the Marina and on to the river.  It was already evening  and we decided it would be more pleasurable to spend our first night moored on the meadows above Abingdon than among the potentially exploding boats of the packed Marina.

Progress along the Thames is measured in bridges and locks.  Our first bridge, as might be expected, was Abingdon Bridge – except that it is also Burford Bridge.   The bridges were built in the 15th century using the mid-river Nag’s Head Island as a convenient half-way point, so the one bridge is in fact two :  Abingdon to the north and Burford to the south.   Both have been much altered over the centuries, though many of the original limestone arches remain.  However, in 1927 three of the ancient arches of Burford Bridge were demolished and a single wide span arch constructed instead, to be more convenient to navigation.  That was the arch we conveniently went through.

The meadows were  immediately beyond.   We moored, cooked, and went to sleep,  all within sight of the bridges and of Abingdon town.   This was a further convenience because it meant  that in the morning we could easily walk in to town and purchase our provisions for the adventure ahead – bacon, eggs, bread, beer, red wine – all the necessaries for two chaps on the river.

From my brief acquaintance with the town – from the boat to the supermarket and back – I rather liked Abingdon, especially along the river; beside what remains of the Abbey (founded, probably, in the year 675) and the town square,  where a magnificent baroque, former town hall, now serves as a local museum.  I stood beneath its open arches for a while and watched the world go by.  Cars mostly.   Abingdon, like every ancient market town in the country, it is now surrounded by its suburbs, as I had observed when I drove through dreadful streets of contemporary housing to get to the equally unlovely Marina.

Having provisioned to the gunnels, we set off up-stream towards Oxford at a rate of perhaps a couple of knots.  This was to be a leisure cruise, not a race.  In any case, we were immediately checked in our progress by Abingdon Lock.  Going through a lock is an adventure with all kinds of opportunities for embarrassment.  The lock-keepers have clearly seen it all and display great patience – or a fine line in sarcasm.  I provided plenty of opportunity for them to practice whichever they preferred  – failing to throw the rope to them; failing to bring the boat to halt at the obviously intended mooring bollard and having to hope for the next.   At least I did not tie-on to a bollard on our way down river, which would have left the boat hanging sideways against the lock wall as the water dropped beneath us.  But I am getting ahead of our story.  We’re going up-river.  I was a seasoned lock-user by the time we came back down.

We came, after a while, to Iffley Lock.  Our Navigator’s Guidebook informed us that the church of St Mary the Virgin was worth a visit.  And so it was. We moored by the lock and walked up the narrow lane to find a magnificent Norman facade – round arched doorway and three arches above, with a great round window between, all chevroned with zig-zag Norman stonework.  The church was built around 1160/70 and extended in about  1230.  After that, it seems to have been left alone, or at least, any necessary repairs were done without destroying the fine original.  [1]  The church also sports the remains of an anchoress’s cell attached to the church wall, dating from the 13th Century. An anchoress was a woman who chose to separate herself from the world to devote herself to God and to contemplation thereupon.  The anchoress was confined to her cell until she died. Iffley’s anchoress was called Annora.  Her cell had one window looking in to the church and to the altar through which she could receive the sacrament and another to the outside through which she could talk to visitors.  She lived there, never leaving its confines, for nine years, until, indeed, she died and was buried there.  Mind you, she did have a maid to look after her who lived in an enjoining room, and who could go out.

Becoming an anchoress was not an altogether unusual choice as there were, around that time, some ninety-two of them in England.  Men too – anchorites – sometimes chose this life, though not many – but then they had the alternative of going into a monastery where they would be fed and have a roof over their heads, whereas similar options for women were scarce.

The question is, why did Annora – and others – choose this life ?  Piety – and a belief in the future prospect of heaven or hell – was strong in the 13th Century. Presumably those who chose to imprison themselves in this way very much believed in both the virtue and the good sense of what they were doing.  Meanwhile, these were rough times.  The security of a cell (or a monastery)  was attractive to those whose lives were hard – and even more so, as in Annora’s case, to those whose lives were actively threatened.  She was the daughter of a Baron who fell out with King John – the famously nasty one.  Her father was outlawed; her mother and older brother were imprisoned in Windsor Castle and left to starve to death; her sister’s lands were seized; she herself, together with four young nephews, was incarcerated for some time in Bristol Castle – and she was widowed.  Her sister became an anchoress – near Canterbury – even before Annora did.  As an anchoress Annora was protected by the Bishop and by her devotional status.  She still had income from her own wealth and even received firewood and other gifts from the King – not from King John, but from his successor, Henry III.  She clearly chose a sensible – if challenging – course of action in the circumstances – both spiritual and secular. [2]

Iffley, by the way, appears to be an isolated rural village when you visit from the river.   When you look at the map you discover that it has now been utterly absorbed by the expansion of Oxford City’s unlovely south-eastern suburbs.

Paul and I returned to the cell-like freedom of our narrow boat and headed upstream -towards Oxford proper, where the Thames is also known as the River Isis.  It was mostly a matter of passing university college boat houses – where they keep their rowing boats, from single sculls to coxed eights (as in the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race).  The river rather skirts Oxford than enters it – the old city at least.  We passed under Osney bridge, where larger boats are prevented from further passage by the 7’6” arch, and we were soon out of town and  in stretches through meadows on either side, or banks lined with trees, although the river was still busy with boats moored along the banks, a boat yard, a marina, a riverside pub.

Our next lock was at Godstow.  It was here that I was given my first opportunity to operate an electric-powered lock.  I failed miserably.  I read the instructions but remained non-plussed.  The lock-keeper – a woman – came out to help.  She pointed to the instructions. I pointed to a daddy-long-legs (a very thin fly) which was – I suggested – obscuring the instructions.  She was not persuaded.  She pressed the correct button and let us through anyway.

We passed the ruins of Godstow Abbey.  The ruins consist of a large rectangle of high stone walls with the remains of what looked like the abbey church in one corner, near the river.  We did not stop, but I consulted the Guidebook and discovered that there was a story associated with the Abbey – that of Fair Rosamund.  Rosamund Clifford,  daughter of a marcher lord, became renowned for her beauty.  She also became the mistress of King Henry II.  Quite when their liaison began is not clear, but it was publically acknowledged by the King in 1174.  However, by 1176 Rosamund had retired to Godstow Nunnery.  This may well have been because Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had something to say about the affair.  In any case, Henry does not appear to have been blamed (except by Eleanor presumably).  Rosamund also died in 1176, at Godstow, not yet thirty years old.   Indicating, perhaps, that Henry’s feelings for Rosamund were heartfelt, he paid for a tomb to be built for her in front of the altar in the Nunnery Church.  Her family also contributed, and the tomb soon became a popular local shrine.  However, a couple of years after Henry’s death, in 1191, the Bishop of Lincoln happened by.  He was not amused.  He pronounced Rosamund a harlot and ordered her remains to be removed from the church.  It is not recorded what the Bishop had to say about the King’s role in the matter.  But there you are.  Rosamund’s body was re-buried in the nunnery cemetery, where she continued to be venerated by the locals – until her grave was destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

I must write a folk song about this, I thought.

Within a few minutes of the Abbey, we passed under the modern concrete and steel bridge of the A34 Oxford Ring Road.  Immediately we were through, the feel of the river changed. The sound of the traffic soon faded and the river was narrower, the banks were thick with vegetation – teasel, reed-mace, tall spikes of sedge, feathery willow-herb and  pink-flowered Himalayan Balsam, the only plant still in flower at this time of year.  Or thick with trees – alder, willows, hawthorns laden with bright red haws, stretching out across the water so that it felt like sailing through a forest.  Then there were  wide meadows with cattle and sheep grazing the meadows.  The banks were bare earth cliffs or muddied slopes where the animals came down to the river to drink.

After going through the mercifully manual King’s Lock, we moored for the night just beyond the bends of Hagley Pool.  The university farm was visible across the field to the South and the dark mound of Wytham Hill and its Great Wood rose to the South-west.  I stood on the bank at dusk until the glow of sunset in the west was nearly gone and watched skein after skein  of geese coming up from the South.  As soon as one had passed overhead, and I thought that must be the last of them, another flight appeared,  heading, I guess, to the reservoirs just to the North to roost.  There had been congregations of Canada and Grey-lag geese all along the river, on the water and stood on the banks. Presumably it was these, and others, which were now looking for a safer place to spend the night.

We spent the night safely on our narrow-boat, having dined to excess on our Abingdon food supplies.

Next morning we soon came to first Eynsham Lock and then, immediately after,  to Swinford Bridge.  Swinford village is immediately adjacent to both the lock and the bridge,  but Eynsham village is half a mile away.  The lock seems to have inherited its name from its original construction by Eynsham Abbey, long since ruined.  The present lock, meanwhile, is one of the last modern locks built on the river, constructed in 1928.  Swinford Bridge was built in the eighteenth century, and is one of only two toll bridges across the Thames.  Cars are charged – to the great annoyance of the local populace – the grand sum of five pence to cross.  However, the annoyance is not with the amount, but rather with the delays that result from collecting it.  A campaign to have the toll abolished had substantial local support, and yet, in 2009 it was sold at auction with its toll intact for over a million pounds.  With an estimated 10,000 vehicles a day crossing the bridge the purchasers obviously thought it was worth the risk of losing their tolls.  Mind you, the risk was probably small.  The local Council couldn’t afford to buy it and was, I suspect, equally unlikely to spend the money necessary to challenge a right which was established originally by an Act of Parliament in 1796, and which – by the way – exempts the owner from paying income tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax or VAT on the earnings.  Had I known about it at the time of the auction, I would obviously have bought it myself.

Our next stop was at Farmoor Reservoir.   It was a not a pretty sight.  High banks, bare of all but grass, rose from the river side.  Once climbed, the reservoir lay to right and left with a straight road across, cutting it in two.  It was all very obviously artificial.  However, nature was also obviously happy to make the best of it.  We walked across and watched  bright-eyed,  blue-black and white-sided tufties (Tufted duck, males) and their  brown female companions.   We saw elegant, slim-necked Great crested grebes,  still with their full whiskers of summer chestnut and black; and Coots – sooty black with chalk-white foreheads.  Nothing extraordinary there,  but we had not seen them on the river.   They all prefer the still, open water of lakes (and reservoirs) to the disturbing flow of rivers.  However, when we reached the far side we found ourselves stepping through and surrounded by a great gaggle of Grey lag geese.   They were stood on the roadway – which was decorated with their droppings – and quite undisturbed  by our passing.  Nor were they in any way belligerent.   The Grey lag is of course the origin of all domestic geese, but I have met many a domestic goose a deal more militant than these wild relatives.

Back on the river, it began to rain.  I sat at the bow while Paul had the helm.  We disturbed kingfishers repeatedly – sapphire-blue missiles, racing ahead of us, then doubling back.

That evening, moored between Rushey and Radcot Locks, we were entertained by enormous military transport planes passing over low.  The RAF’s Brize Norton airfield – home to Air Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling –  lies just a few miles to the North of the river here.  In times past a military transport plane was always a Hercules – identified by its four propellered  engines and its top-mounted wings.  There are still Hercules at Brize Norton,  but the aircraft above us now had jet engines.  A little research reveals that they were  Boeing Globemasters.  They are capable of carrying 102 personnel,  13 Land-Rovers,  or an entire Chinook helicopter  – the big one with two propellers – and all with only a crew of three to look after it and the cargo.

So no cabin service then.

Brize Norton also hosts the rather similar Airbus Atlas – although with propellers again, not jet engines.[3]   I watched one take off at the Farnborough Air Show a couple of years ago.   You can stand right alongside the runway there,  close to the action.   The huge airplane trundled down the tarmac for hardly a couple of yards before it was up in the air and climbing at a quite ridiculous angle.

It  was showing off of course, and empty.


The next day was to be our last heading up-stream.  We were now only a couple of hours sailing from Lechlade, the end of the navigable river – other than by kayak.  We therefore had plenty of time to delay when we came to Kelmscott Manor.

Originally a 16th Century farmhouse, Kelmscott  was first expanded and then elevated to a Manor when its owner purchased  53½ acres of manorial land together with the lordship thereof in 1864.  From 1871 to 1896 it was occupied by William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  It is now a fully restored country house fully furnished with Morris family possessions and creations, as well as works by the pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rosetti  (who also lived there for some years), Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Ford (both friends and business partners of Morris) and Phillip Webb (friend, architect and designer).  There are some works by Albrecht Durer and Brueghel too.

Its the sort of place that you would expect to belong to the National Trust.  In fact it belongs to the Society of Antiquaries of London, who, with the help of keen volunteers,  open the house and gardens to the public every Wednesday and Saturday from April to October.  Lucky we arrived on a Wednesday, in September.

Among the paintings on display is a portrait of William Morris’s  wife, Jane, by Rossetti.  Jane had fantastic hair – a great thatch of tight waves – much like my wife’s in fact.  It must, therefore, have been a nightmare to manage, and in those days quite without the benefit of modern-day designer shampoos.   She was also (like my wife) a great beauty.  Indeed that seems to have been why she and Morris got together in the first place.  She modelled for him,  then they married.  Then she modelled for Morris’s friends, and for Rossetti in particular, who painted her twenty-one times in four years.  They were of course having an affair at the time.

If you were to believe Rossetti’s paintings, Jane had the jaw of a superhero, the lips of a rosebud, hair down to her waist, and the neck, if not of a giraffe, at least of an okapi.   Photos suggest she did indeed have a  strong jaw-line, and inviting lips.  However, she sensibly  seems to have kept her hair shortish, and her neck can reasonably be described as elegant rather than abnormal.  Still, you can see why her painters were happy to look at her for hours.  As I am my wife of course.


We came to Lechlade.  In fact we motored  a little beyond, to where the Severn Canal  and the River Coln join the Thames and the Inglesham Wharf, Warehouse and Roundhouse guard the junction.  This is the proper end of the navigable Thames – for now at least.  The roundhouse was built along with the canal in the 1870s as a lock-keeper’s house,  a three story high stone tower.  Except that the third story is an inverted cone roof, apparently designed to capture rainwater for the use of the inhabitants.  Clever.   Better than having to lift water out of a well. I presume it didn’t leak.


We moored for the night back downstream at Lechlade.

Our return to Abingdon was a good deal swifter than our upward journey.  We were going with the flow and had finished with sight-seeing.  Nonetheless,  there was one more vision to delight us.   Near Kings Lock a lone Spitfire flew over low to thrill us with its Merlin roar.

















[1] See

[2] The story of Annora is told in greater detail by Ruth Nineham .  The above is my precis of her account.

[3] Yes I know, the propellered engines involved are turbo-props, but I’m trying not to be too technical.  Propellers or no propellers is the basic distinction.