David Horn - A Year on the River

David submitted the following article for the 2021 Peter Batterley Award. 

You can download the PDF by clicking here.


The Year by the River The 14th of March 2020 has become a memorable date. Not only was it the evening of the pleasurable, well-attended GXSA Annual Dinner but the last day before Social Distance became the new norm. Then began the year spent looking mainly at the river, the River Thames. The Marlow Rowing Club closed its doors, the hire boats stayed in their base, the river went quiet. The swans though were happy. They could relax on the Rowing Club slipway, after being amply fed bread alongside the increasingly popular Higginson Park, without being shooed off or disturbed by the rowers. They were even safe from being caught and ringed by David Barber, the Queen’s Swan Marker, in his splendid uniform as Swan Upping was also cancelled. This photo taken in 2017 near Marlow lock. When restrictions eased, rowing returned but for single skulls only. Amazingly there were enough of them to fill the allocated time slots throughout most days. What did change was the enormous increase in canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, all ideal for social distancing and for quite some time not endangered by hire boat antics. Even our own daughter bought two kayaks of which we have become guardians thanks to an unused storage compound in the grounds of our flats. With the sun appeared the occasional swimmer including our same daughter. I never had imagined that the so-called bathing platform on the stern of our motor cruiser would actually be used for that purpose. At last, the Environment Agency lifted the restrictions on river usage and river traffic blossomed. The overnight moorings alongside the park became continually busy with what seemed particularly large motor cruisers that would have looked much more at home in the Solent or Med than restricted to 8 kph and ‘mind the wash’ on the river. The wide beam boats had to settle for mooring further along and one chose to tie to an overhead branch instead of knocking in a stake. We eventually jet washed the decks and ventured up-stream in our more modest vessel. The weather was glorious, It was great being out on the water again. Temple, Hurley, Hambledon, Marsh, Shiplake, Caversham, Mapleduram and Whitchurch locks finally lifted us up to Goring and a fortunately vacant space alongside the concrete towpath. We even walked up the street to the courtyard of the Miller of Mansfield for our first dinner out since the GXSA one. It was excellent. Our return downstream was not without incidents. Whitchurch, the first lock, was Self Service and stepping back onboard in the lock I missed my grip and fell backwards onto the concrete, my head narrowly missing the edge of a step. Fortunately, there was just one mooring spot available alongside the National Trust field just through the lock where we spent the rest of the day and night whilst recovering my composure. Then down through Reading to Sonning and mooring early afternoon for a late lunch, or so we thought. But driving in the mooring spike into innocent looking grass, in almost exactly the same spot where we had spent the night on the way up, disturbed a wasp’s nest and they were NOT amused! Multiple stings on bare legs, arms and back of the neck but fortunately they did not chase me back onboard! The first aid box was out of antihistamines, so it was back up to Reading but luckily before Caversham lock to moor along the tree lined bank with access to a large Tesco. The on-duty pharmacist had his own wasp’s nest that was causing the family problems so was very sympathetic. Next day it was back home ASAP but not before waiting ages at Hurley lock which was not only self service but manual operation as the hydraulics had failed. The crew of an old hire boat just ahead of us in the lock kindly did all the wheel winding only to find that their engine would not re-start for the second time during their trip. They managed to pull the boat out of the lock but the delay exacerbated the frustration of the waiting boats such that they initially prevented us being able to follow the disabled boat out of the lock. Temple, our last lock, was also Self Service but no hassle. Then almost home! Tiered restrictions soon followed, no Henley Literary Festival trip on Hibernia, GXSA on zoom and our self-imposed shielding returned. The wildlife soon had the river to themselves again. The splendid cruisers were replaced by a menagerie of live-aboard craft for the winter and it rained. And we had a full rainbow over the bridge. By 29th December the river level reached its peak well above the level at which local flooding may occur. The level upstream of Marlow Lock recorded against a meaningless datum is updated online every hour. It confirms what we see out of the window. February had an even higher peak when the level reached above the top of our pontoon. Fenders no good but the three posts kept Naiad in place. The mooring rings sliding on vertical tubes proved their worth as it was not necessary to once adjust the lines throughout the winter. T The live-a boards became marooned. And it snowed. Interest was aroused when a boat across the river, which had been set alight on New Year’s Eve, was re-floated. Now lockdown continues, rowing and river traffic remains absent, but the pleasure of living by the river also, thankfully, continues. No GXSA Dinner to look forward to but at least the swans don’t have to socially distance! David Horn March 2021.