Thursday 16th August – must be the shortest cruise ever! Woke on Thursday morning to a fine drizzle that soon became persistent, heavy rain that lasted into the afternoon. We had heard it was coming so had a rainy day plan to stay put in Staines for the day. We would go to Sainsbury’s, just across the bridge, first and in the afternoon we would do a bit of shopping in the town and go to the pictures. We certainly didn’t intend to spend another night with our various friends on the Town hall quayside so, the evening before, I had checked out the lovely new landing outside the Swan Hotel, on the other side of the river and investigated their policy on mooring there. As customers they were happy to let boaters moor there overnight, provided there was room, so we conceived the plan to shimmy across the Thames on Thursday morning moor outside the hotel (also nearer to Sainsbury’s), book a table for the evening and go about our business for the rest of the day. I calculated a voyage of a little under 0.1 miles.
We waited a while to see if the rain would ease, while watching anxiously to ensure the staging remained clear. By 11:00 we finally decided that it was not going to let up and donned our wet weather gear, for the first time in months. Just then “Plan B” hove into view with a crew member poised on the bow, line in hand. We had noticed her moored a little further downstream yesterday afternoon and she was a veritable leviathan. A wide-beam to start with, extremely tall and at least 70 feet long. Our hearts sank as it seemed clear they had had the same idea and we feared they would take up the entire mooring. Once she was tied up I had a quick, rather splashy, trot up the towpath to size up the situation across the river. It seemed likely that we could just squeeze in between “Plan B” and the end of the staging we cast off as quickly as we could and hurried across lest any other craft should suddenly appear with the same idea. There was just room to squeeze in so we were set for next 24 hours and 10 minutes’ walk in the rain closer to Sainsbury’s.
The little enclave on this side of the river had a rather different feel, part of the old town with a couple of nice pubs and restaurants in a few streets of smaller, older houses and no shops, as such. It seems to be a conservation area known as the Hythe and is in the ward of Egham Hythe. Hythe is an old word for port so presumably, historically, the area was based around the river traffic and crossing. Certainly dinner at The Swan was very pleasant, with our table overlooking the river having a view along it in both directions. A minor celebration, of sorts, as we had received the contract from our boat builder today and made the next stage payment to let them buy the steel.
Friday dawned bright and sunny, if a little fresher. Today we planned to head up to Runnymede via Bell Weir Lock and moor there tonight before an even shorter hop up to Bells of Ouzeley, where we had been assured we would find plenty of mooring and we had arranged to meet our engineer on Saturday morning. We found a pretty good site, pleasantly rural to look at, just beyond the National Trust car park at the start of the meadows. The A308 was just a stone’s throw away but over a bank and not really visible so we’ve certainly done worse. The big drawback is that the NT demand £7 a night to moor against their bank with no concessions for senior citizens or members – an outrage! This is the first time we have had to pay for mooring on the Thames but we gather it may get worse through Windsor.
We walked up to have a look at the mooring opposite the Bells in the afternoon. It seemed ok but a little cramped and was marked as 24 hours only by the parish council. “Plan B” had taken up residence against a good length of it and right in the middle but they were likely to be gone tomorrow. While we were there we watched a quite stout lady of a certain age unsteadily lever herself down the bank into a dilapidated old rowing boat. The operation took about ten minutes and once seated she took up the oars and began to row across the river towards a narrow channel behind a tiny eyot just upstream. What really had us fascinated was that she was facing the bow of the boat, looking in the direction of travel and pulled the blades of the oars back above the surface of the water, dropped them in and pushed them back through the water towards her. The complete opposite of what we had always thought was the normal technique. It certainly looked slow, clumsy and inefficient. The whole performance began to make us wonder if she was unfamiliar with water and had stolen the boat but the pace of the getaway made that unlikely.
We strolled up behind Runnymede and walked back down past the JFK memorial. This is definitely worth a visit as there is more to it than just the inscribed slab. There is a board here explaining how it came to be there and the background to its design. One bit I liked is that there is a step up to it for every one of the 50 States in the US, each made up of over a thousand individual, axe-hewn setts of Portuguese Granite. They wanted the setts laid randomly and each step thus to be unique but “The craftsmen were unable to comprehend this need for individuality, and could only complete their task when the steps were likened to the uneven appearance of a crowd at a football match.”
We had a look at an art work in the meadow known as “The Jurors”, the gist of which we sort of got but not the detail. Everyone else visiting at the time seemed equally baffled and there was no helpful information board here. Another artwork across the meadow, new this year, was like a giant concrete pillbox wrapped around a pool of stagnant water in which words taken from Clause 39 of Magna Carta (you all know it: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”) are reflected legibly from where they have been crafted inversely around the rim. I have included Sue in the picture to give a sense of the sheer size (of the sculpture not of Sue). The only information actually on display by this piece is a list of the bodies who were involved in funding it, presumably to head off at the pass complaints from NT members about where their annual subscriptions are being spent.
On to the monument to Magna Carta provided by the American Bar Association in 1957. Sue swears it wasn’t there when she often visited as a child and I can’t decide if her memory is playing tricks or if she has lied to me about her age for the last four decades. Everyone knows that the Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede, of course. Except that it turns out it wasn’t. It seems no-one knows where it was actually signed. Runnymede was just where the rebellious Barons had their encampment, with the King on the opposite bank. One theory is that it was signed under the Ankerwycke Yew, an ancient tree on the far side of the river. It seems more likely that they actually met on the little strip of ground in the river, just opposite our mooring, now known as Magna Carta Island. Because of the association with his name some people think King John was the architect of this charter of freedoms and even a benevolent sovereign, rather than a failed despot brought to book by his disgruntled investors. I suppose you have to think that if John hadn’t been such a dick, behaving as an arrogant tyrant and merciless collector of revenues, throwing away our continental territory and being defeated by Louis of France, he might never have generated the antagonism and desperation needed to spark the rebellion of the Barons in the first place. History might have looked very different without the remnants of the freedoms listed in the charter having been embedded in English law for so long.
Saturday morning we moved up to Bells of Ouzeley and were duly attended by our engineer who spent three hours putting in the switch he had made up in the workshop and fitting heavier gauge cable around the battery and inverter circuit, which he felt would ease the load on the system. At the same time he relished the chance to make it clear that you get what you pay for and half the problem was likely to be the ‘bargain’ batteries I had bought at the Crick show. We didn’t feel at all tempted to invest even more money in replacing the batteries again so, having imparted his wisdom and relieved us of some more pound notes and a bacon sandwich, he went on his way. There is no major ‘fault’ as such, the system is now as robust as it is going to be and we have the knowledge and means to manage around it so we will live with it as it is since we anticipate selling this boat within the next year.
We had an amble round Old Windsor in the afternoon. A world away from Staines. A lot of very nice properties some of them not nearly as old as they pretend to be but all very much in keeping and firmly aloof from the bustle of “new” Windsor across the park.
As we waved goodbye to the electrician I had a message from Jason Moore. He and Sharan were in Windsor for the weekend and wanted to know if we were nearby. We certainly weren’t far away, being just the other side of Home Farm in Old Windsor. They seemed to have had a great weekend, visiting the castle, taking the open top bus tour and embarking on the river cruise with commentary. They called in to see us on the way home on Sunday afternoon and had a gander at the boat. Sharan seemed shocked at the size of it and surprised by the facilities on board, Perhaps she can be persuaded to become a boat owner after all?
On Sunday morning we had left in good time and walked back up past the JFK memorial and out to Englefield Green and Windsor Great Park. This place seems vast and almost devoid of rights of way so presumably access to its many paths is purely on a grace & favour basis. Before going into the park we had a coffee at The Fox & Hounds in Englefield Green, a really well-maintained and managed pub, it seemed to us, worth a visit for a meal sometime. As we then made our way through the wooded park we came upon a game of polo taking place across a very wide field. I don’t know anything about the game but one of the riders managed to hit the ball at least twice and even took it through the upright stick things (is it a goal?). The rest, while cantering back and forth furiously, in a tight bunch, seemed to be playing ‘air polo’.
A stroll around the Obelisk Pond took us back up to the Saville (not that one) Garden and the very expensive Gift Shop at about the time the day’s visitors really seemed to getting going. Moving against the tide, we made our way out to the surrounding countryside, heading back towards Runnymede. This took us past the Air Forces Memorial on Cooper’s Hill, which is maintained by the War Graves Commission and is a really magnificent and worthwhile tribute to the 20,000 plus airmen (and women) whose names are inscribed there and thousands more who played their part without being so recorded. The view out from the monument, high up on the hill, is breath-taking especially from the roof.
There are many, many steps down the path to the flat meadow below but neither of us had ‘one of our falls’ and we arrived at the NT tea room for lunch unscathed.
We were on a 24-hour mooring at the Bells of Ouzeley but had, for once, decided to flout the rules and stay a second night right where we were. By Monday morning we seemed to have got away with it and cast off about 09:30 towards Windsor proper. Before mooring up there, however, we urgently needed to find boater’s facilities to fill and empty the relevant tanks on board. The only place to do this seemed to be Boveney Lock a mile or so beyond Windsor. We duly made our way up there, completed our mission and returned to moor up at Baths Isle (this used to be the site of the public baths) at Windsor. A good enough berth in a place where mooring is at a premium but only at a cost of £8 per night paid to the Water Bailiff on demand. There does not seem to be anywhere that charges don’t apply, your only choice is whether to pay it on the Windsor Castle side or move to the other bank and pay it on the Eton College side.
After lunch we went into Windsor town and ran a couple of errands, as well as picking up a self-guided town trail to take us around the place on Tuesday. For Monday we settled for a stroll to the other side and a wander around Eton High Street and the outside of the college buildings. Interesting to see the famous school but you have little idea what you are looking at most of the time. One bonus is that Eton seems to be largely above the high water mark for Windsor tourists so it was much more peaceful than the other side of the river which reminded me of visiting famous landmarks in Rome or Florence.
On the way back to the boat we passed the life-size model of a Hawker Hurricane on a stand by the Island. We had no idea why it was sited there but it turns out that the designer, Sir Sidney Camm, was a long-time resident of Windsor. He went on to be responsible for the Hunter and the Harrier jump jet. Despite the Spitfire always seeming to be in the limelight as we grew up, yet another of the many things I didn’t know turns out to be that, in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Hurricane shot down more enemy aircraft than the combined totals of all other aircraft and ground forces.
French Brothers’ Boats have pretty much got the river sewn up as far as trip boats are concerned. Giant double-deckers, ten times our size, fully armed with booze and discos and creating a heavy wash every time they pass. Turns out Monday night was race night at Windsor racecourse. Apparently they run a ferry service from Windsor to the racecourse and back every 20 minutes or so all evening using three or four boats. Made for a really rocking evening on our boat!
After dinner we thought we should have a look at what our itinerary looks like for the weeks ahead. We have some actual fixed points being leaving the boat and going up to see our new house in Long Itchington on 31st August; getting off the river by 5th September, when our licence runs out and booking in to Cropredy Marina on 18th September to moor up while we go off for our much needed holiday in Devon. A first rough plan suggests we might need to get a bit more of a move on, particularly in the first few days of September.
On Tuesday morning we set out to follow the town trail we picked up yesterday. Every day is a school day on this trip but the 57 points of interest covered on this tour had us pretty much overwhelmed. We did catch the changing of the guard, although the small group of Coldstream Guards marching behind the band seemed rather outnumbered by the heavily armed police presence holding back the crowd, all trying to look genial while clutching an automatic rifle with a pistol on one hip and a Taser on the other. Lots of interesting facts, too many to list here (collective sigh of relief!) but to just pick one: It took a 15 year old schoolgirl just 10 minutes to come up with the winning entry in a competition to design one of four 2012 Jubilee memorial. Having been fabricated and installed in King Edward court, it seems simple but surprisingly good. Unexpectedly it was sunny all day but not too hot and with a nice breeze so much more comfortable than the heatwave of July. Exhausted by sight-seeing we had a couple of hours sitting around in deckchairs by the boat before an evening out overlooking the river and the castle on a warm evening that seemed positively Mediterranean.
Much greyer day on Wednesday with a trip up to Maidenhead that was heavily interrupted even for us. We had to have separate stops for water, a sanitary station and diesel, as well as lunch. We couldn’t get into Boveney Lock on arrival because two French Brothers warships arrived just ahead of us and took up the whole thing and when we got to Bray Lock it turns out to be rather small; two Tupperware boats ahead of us was all it could handle and we had to wait for another cycle although that gave us a chance to check out the wreckage all around the lock.
A feature of the Thames, particularly, as we came up from Brentford was the number of wrecked boats just sitting in the water, like the two we photographed at Sunbury.
These had petered out once we got past Staines but as we arrived at Bray Lock we could see two boats caught separately trapped on the weir and another was visible just beyond the lock. It seems one had been stolen by kids, set alight and cast adrift to burn out against the barrier. Another appeared to have just come loose from somewhere upstream and come to rest there months ago. Apparently it isn’t registered so they can’t contact the owner to discuss its recovery. Presumably the owner must be staring at an empty mooring scratching his head but doesn’t seem to have bothered to do the obvious and follow the river down or contact the authorities. The one beyond the lock had been there since April when, the owner having left his lines too tightly tied, it was dragged under the rising waters of a flood and sank. In this case they know whose it is but he is still arguing with is Insurers as to who should pay for the recovery, while the damage needing to be repaired steadily increases.
We moored up on Wednesday afternoon by a green lawn just short of Maidenhead by the viaduct which is another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s and is labelled “The Sounding Arch”. It’s singular claim to fame is that: “the brick arches are the widest and flattest in the world – each span is 128 feet with a rise of just 24 feet”. It appears that the board of the GWR didn’t trust the design and were so nervous that they insisted the wooden framework used to support the arches during construction should remain in place as additional insurance against it collapsing under the weight of the trains. Brunel’s critics were finally silenced when this wooden support was washed away in floods a year or two later and the bridge stayed standing.
We hadn’t been to a supermarket for fresh supplies since Staines the previous Thursday so we headed out, on foot, to both Sainsbury’s and Tesco beyond the railway station. Walking up there was fine but returning with four heavy bags of shopping wasn’t going to be much fun so, as we are now outside the Oyster zone, we decided to try the bus – exciting! The bus stop was opposite Tesco, we didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes, the driver did take cash and setting us down at the closest stop it saved some pain. However, with two fares, the bus journey of just under a mile cost £5.00 and left us ¾ mile from the closest road access to the boat. On balance, we would have done better to call for a taxi from inside the store, we think.