River of dreams?
No. Water flowing from a marshy source near Cricklade, through my life’s story to the sea. I have written much poetry and prose about my connection with the Thames, but this is the first time I have tried to pull it together into a memoir.
The prompt immediately brought back childhood memories of Auntie River, who carried an enormous leather Gladstone-type handbag. When she came to stay, we would demand to know if she’d brought us ‘her’ river. She would open the cavernous bag, peer in, and tell us in fractured English, “Sorry, I forgot. I must have left it at home.”
Belgian Auntie River and Dad’sDad lived in a chilly asbestos-walled bungalow set in a glorious garden, sloping down to a backwater of the Thames with a view of Windsor Castle across the meadows on the island opposite – at least so long as one of the frequent pea-soupers was not deforming the landscape.
We didn’t visit until after the end of WWII, when Dad was demobbed, so our imaginations ran riot as to what ‘her’ river meant. Christmas 1946 saw us minding the house while Dad’sDad and Auntie went to Australia to see my Uncle Peter. It was far too cold to experience the joys of what later became my playground, my escape route, my joy.
That Christmas saw my sister and me sleeping on the Put-u-Up beside the sweltering ceramic anthracite-burning stove, while Mum and Dad shivered in the unheated bedroom. Those asbestos walls wept condensation. Mum learned to cook on the coal-fired Raeburn range, with mixed results. Meals were a bit hit-or-miss, but the true disaster was not due to cooking: A melon was acquired, from where, I’ve no idea. Exotic fruits had still not made it back into circulation, so this was considered a true delicacy, to be savoured in small portions and the rest was put into the fridge, unwrapped for the following day. Clingfilm and aluminium foil had not then been invented.
Shock, horror: next morning every precious morsel in that fridge was tainted with the powerful smell of melon. Inedible. Our rations saved up for Christmas feasting were ruined, with no hope of replacement until next month’s ‘points’ became valid. We were told that we would be eating bread and pullet – great, we thought, as chicken was a treat in those days. Not a bit of it – the words were ‘pull it’, and everything had to be stretched.
While we were there, everything froze – except the river of course. Power cuts were frequent, but the hot water bottle contents were heated on the Raeburn, so we did at least manage some rather rubbery tea.
Summer visits followed, with my sister and I putting to good use the swimming prowess acquired at Epsom Baths, in what was then a murky, polluted river. We learned to row Dad’sDad’s beautiful skiff, permitted to take it out alone when a swim across and back had been achieved. My sister and I slept head to toe on the open verandah, on that unheard of luxury in those days a swing hammock. I can still feel and smell that fake fur rug that covered us, the early morning mist off the river coating the hairs with dewdrops. I can recall the pungent pong of the sewage farm on the island, when the wind was in the wrong direction, still hear in my mind’s ear the magical sound of the dawn chorus. The gargling coo of wood pigeons takes me straight back to my 8-year-old self.
That autumn it rained and rained and rained again. The Thames was swollen beyond containment, covered miles of the flat lands surrounding the river. Dad’sDad’s asbestos bungalow was built on stilts and escaped the floods, but many others were not so lucky with foul brown water sweeping into homes and staying, three feet deep, for a week or more.
Other people’s misfortune was our good luck. A pretty bungalow a few doors along the riverside was abandoned by the owners in fear of a recurrence, and Dad was able to buy it at a knock-down price, because of the tide-mark round the walls. We moved in at the beginning of the glorious summer of 1947 and the river took me to its heart.
I ran wild, in the boat or in the water every free minute, and some that shouldn’t have been free. My best friend was the youngest of four mostly teenaged boys, and our gang passed the summer holidays in making dens, cooking indigestible dampers over camp fires, playing cowboys and Indians all over the island opposite the houses, exploring the river in all its glory – upstream to the weir about 3 miles away, past the riverside homes to open country, or downstream to Old Windsor lock and beyond, paddling an ancient kayak which had lost it’s canvas, so that we looked as though we were sitting up in the water up to our waists and paddling nothing. Fans of the Swallows and Amazons books, we tried sailing the dinghy: an old tablecloth tied to the garden rake wedged into a hole in the thwart. Not one of our more successful adventures.
Downstream on Friday nights saw Mum and Dad poling sedately in the punt followed by the school of fish which was me and my friends. They would punt the three miles or so down to the Bells of Ouseley riverside pub where we, of course, were not allowed in. A decorous G and T later for the oldies, we kids would hang on to the painter to be towed upstream by a sweating Dad.
Five years of my childhood, fettered only by my addiction to the river were followed by a move to London and the constraints of suburbia, where I had to wear shoes and socks, keep to the footpath, conform. My adult life took me back to the river for a while, but never again was I as free as during those early river years.