Your Boat Will Be Your New Best Friend!
If you would love to try river and canal travel and think you would like to control your own trip and choose your own pace and sights to see; this might be the travel style for you! Here is how a six-week immersion trip worked out for us.
Friday, August 24- We don’t know it yet, but today, we meet our narrowboat, the Golden Tarn-our new best friend. Tired but eager, we arrived on time at Heathrow, where we encountered enormous customs lines and a memorable customs agent. He was a real ale fan. He said our plan to have an ale everywhere Inspector Morse did would fail, “…you’ll get cirrhosis!”‘
The Adventure Starts
We love murder mysteries. Why? So many people do, we are not alone. Is it the puzzle? Is it how intrigue morphs into suspense? Could it be the safe thrill; the way that a good story suspends the reality of daily life? We have never been sure but now we are on our way to the epicenter of murder mysteries. That should be just part of the fun.
It is time for an adventure and we have one planned. We have rented a traditional English narrow boat for the next 6 weeks. We’ll live aboard, learn some new skills and see a lot of new places. We are planning to traverse the Thames Ring.
Our Narrowboat Plans
Our trip will start on the Thames river, we’ll sleep tonight in the university town of Oxford, travel northward in the rural countryside, then east through a long tunnel and join the Grand Union canal, going east then south to rejoin the Thames near London.
We plan to see historic villages, great houses and gardens, Henley (the Mecca of all men who were oarsmen in college), Hampton Court, and, if we can squeeze in the time, visit William Morris’ country house near the origin of the Thames. We’re fans of the Arts and Crafts movement. We will cover 245 miles, 176 locks, and a lot of bridges. This trip should end with us tired but well entertained.
Getting Aboard The Narrowboat
We easily found the Heathrow bus station and got the bus to Oxford (nice big sightseeing buses). You can ticket onboard and the drivers are kind to tired strangers who almost speak the language. So were the passengers, perhaps a little hyperbolic.
We left the bus, with our rollaboards for a “two-minute walk” to the boatyard on the Thames. The Royal Mail man chimed in, “Just over that hill.” After a long flight, it was a lengthy two minutes. This is another theme; the English are a walking people. To them all distances are short.
We just traveled 57 miles in less than 1.5 hours. It will be weeks before we travel that fast again! The Romans built canals in this country, and we won’t be going any faster than they did!
We Meet Our Narrowboat-The Golden Tarn
We were early at the boatyard, a small watery place with a repair shop and boats everywhere, on lifts and rafted together in the river. It’s been a rural backwater of the Thames with gigantic reeds and grasses everywhere. Some of the reeds have drooping magenta heads. We’re charmed already. In the luggage are guidebooks purchased online from the Canal and River Trust, which maintains the waterways.
Inside The Golden Tarn
The boat is 57’ long but only 7’ wide. She is a fine home for an adventure, with all the necessities including a nice little gas stove. We can be comfortable and eat well. This is what we expected – narrowboat life is a little like sailing and a little like camping.
Onboard, the salon has two very restful leather lounge chairs, the kind that reclines and let you put your feet up. When we do this, our seat backs touch one wall and our feet hit the other. We can have a good time on the Golden Tarn. (A tarn is a glacial lake in a mountain range.)
We are renting this boat from the Anglo-Welsh company. They offer about 160 or more boats from approximately 11 locations across England and Wales. Tarns must exist in the Welsh hills. Our trip will be a little different than the average for everyone involved. We are on board for a six-week adventure. We are recently retired, and having time to immerse ourselves in a trip is a new experience, and we intend to miss nothing!
The boat hire companies normally rent the boats for a week or so. Everybody adjusts easily to our plan. They will meet us every two weeks to deliver fresh linen and for any maintenance needs. Instruction is pretty quick. Good detail about the boat, brief on boat handling – then off you go. (Thank God for YouTube, we were at least, prepared.)
The Trip Begins on the Thames
The river here is twisty but slow-moving, equal to our skills. Our first lock was at Eynsham. People have lived in this town since the Bronze Age, today it is a pleasant home to about 4,000 people.
The Thames locks are manned, so I got a good education. (On the canals we’ll be on our own – how hard can it be?) The locks are stretches of water, enclosed by gates that exist to allow the vessel to traverse between low and high water levels.
You open the lock gate in front of you, drive the boat in, close the gates, turn a big crank to fill the lock with water, open the far gate to let the boat out, close it up again, and hop back on the boat.
With the lockkeeper, we enjoyed a little bit of the banter that would become familiar between us Americans and the Brits. He was a pleasant man who lived for 7 years in Nassau in the Bahamas, not so far from us in Naples, FL. He waved goodbye saying, “We still want our tea back.” We negotiated three locks, enjoying the scenery.
This is not the London Thames. It’s lazy up here, not so far from its start in the Cotswolds. We find our recommended mooring area in Osney, the west gate of the academic city of Oxford. With the help of a kind Australian living aboard the power boat next to us we moor beside a linear park in a residential area. This is life on the Isis. (Isis is what the Romans called the Thames and Oxford is a town where everybody knows their history.)
A Day In Oxford
Saturday, August 25. We’re such old hands. We are in Oxford. History, literature, art, murdered bodies everywhere, beer, what’s not to like? It’s the gap year we never had. We’re going to love it. On the High Street; across from us a sign says “Relax it’s just an exam.” Not our problem.
We waste far too much time buying a disposable phone for local calls. If we’d been smarter we would have brought an old iPhone from home. The salespeople all laugh at the Americans because we call them “burner phones.” Some of us have been watching too many US cop shows; remember what Shaw said, “…separated by a common language.”
The Covered Market is the place to start. Meat, coffee, cheese, butter, fresh greens. All the vendors held our purchases for the day. The boats are slow moving, we’ll be in rural places with few shops and we plan to eat well wherever we are.
The Oxford Botanical Garden started life in the 1600s as a Physic garden, to develop plants for health care. The beds are laid out in plant families with lots of medicinal plants. You’d be surprised at all the plant-based remedies for cardiology. For example, Digitoxin comes from Digitalis pupurea (the foxglove.)
It’s small, less than five acres, but it’s magic. You walk beside a fountain and the golden stone shimmers and, over the wall, the spires are all around you. “Dreaming Spires…” The poet Matthew Arnold was right. A place can inspire ideas.
We always liked our gardens; even when we moved our family to different places and dealt with Pete’s job travels. We treated our houses like investments but we planted each garden as if we were going to stay forever.
We wonder how those gardens are doing now. Recently, we retired and moved to South Florida. We became Master Gardeners. A great education, and interesting volunteer work. We can do a little good. We have a list of English gardens we want to see. It’s been a hot summer for them. In Florida, we all live in two seasons, wet and dry. The Brits are not used to hot and dry, but, so far, it looks like they coped pretty well.
There is a coffee bar beside the glass plant houses, we watch the punters on the Cherwell river. One is precariously holding a baby, a sight that almost makes us drop the coffee! Several of these greenhouses were featured in murder mysteries that we read or watched on TV; No bodies today!
The tropical plants are in the glass houses. They have gigantic water lilies in big tubs. In Naples, Florida our botanical garden is 170 acres. We float the great lilies in huge ponds. So, the water lilies were a familiar sight. But the English trees: wow, there is nothing like them – huge, majestic.
I read that Henry VIII, knew that he wanted to run the world’s greatest naval power when he was only 18. He certainly did, he cornered the world market in masts!
For more information on Oxford Botanical Garden see this post. It is one of a series of “Gardens To Visit” on this site.
The Turf Tavern
Lunch at the Turf Tavern, tiny but iconic.
Everybody drank here: C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Mrs. Thatcher. Liz and Dick; on breaks from the movies or the fights. It inspired Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. Bill Clinton failed to inhale here (such a waste). But then, in 1963, The Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke set a Guinness record for drinking a yard of ale in 11 seconds. Now, while undoubtedly impressive, that’s a waste! Ale here is very good, how could you taste it? You will find the Turf Tavern hidden in an alley – ask a local.
We try Hook Norton ale. This is the first place where we hear that they deliver it by horse-drawn wagon. Pete has beef and bone marrow pie – terrific. I have a mundane curry. We have eaten in English pubs in the past and I forgot the basic rule. Eat what they are good at. They will make you a salad, but their hearts are not in it.
Like the other tourists, we wander in the Bodleian Quad, photograph St Mary’s, the Radcliff Camera, and the Bridge of Sighs. The people we meet are kind and helpful, but as we have learned elsewhere, a lot of folks don’t know their own towns. We’ve lived in a lot of places and we are constantly ashamed of the great sights we ignored when we were locals living near them.
It’s a long walk back to the boat, we pick up our packages at the Market and make a quick stop at the Metro Tesco. We have been going at a pretty good pace for a few days, so we slept well in the bed onboard. Tomorrow’s plan is a visit to the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers Museums.
Sunday, August 26. This is a rainy museum day. When I was a kid, on many rainy days our mom would put up to 7 children in the station wagon and drive us to Boston museums, 26 miles from the farm. Today, I still enjoy paintings much better if the weather outside is lousy.
British oatmeal for breakfast – it seems to be finer cut than ours. It gets mushy, it takes me a while to figure it out. We make toast on the burner. The bread came from the cheese man at the Covered Market. We love these European markets. They are like our farmers’ markets, but on steroids!
Excellent marmalade and the French butter has sea salt that pops in your mouth. The Golden Tarn has a tiny refrigerator and a freezer, too. We bought enough to freeze some food – lamb patties with mint in them, meat pies, and good-looking chops. Lots of vegetables, we will need to replace these as we go along. They may be hard to find in tiny village shops.
The Ashmolean is near our mooring, we walked toward it in a drizzle. They have a nice basement café and lockers for your rain gear. We stop for coffee and share a slice of lemon cake.
It’s a big museum, we saw Greece and Rome and then the early English exhibit. We didn’t know it at the time but the information from the Saxon and earlier periods would turn out to be important in interpreting things we saw later.
Lunch in the rooftop restaurant; here, you really are surrounded by spires. There is a lot of looking up in this town, it’s fun to look right out on the rooftops. The restaurant is run by the London-based Benugo chain. We have eaten in their restaurants in the V & A and the British Museum. Always good soup, perfect on a rainy day! We have sweet potato soup and salads, we share a tasty dish of olives. I can make soup on the boat, but it will all be chunky. Cooking tools are adequate but basic. No nice Bamix for me!
Here we split up, Pete went to European paintings – and I went to China and Japan. I like ceramics and we have a few pieces of Chinese Export Porcelain. Even when you have some knowledge and really like a subject, this much information can be tiring. This is why museums sell so much pastry.
Pete saw the collection of musical instruments. This included the Messiah, a Stradivarius often discussed throughout history but rarely seen. (That’s violin humor for you!) We were very disappointed that the audio tours were broken and staff did not think that fact important. It is.
If you get to see, the Ashmolean do not miss The Hunt, the big Uccello painting: The Hunt In The Forest is worth the whole trip! He painted it about 1465, and it’s fresh today. Paolo Uccello was a guy who managed to bridge two worlds. He combined the color and pageantry of the Medieval world with the mathematical perspective of the Renaissance.
Sadly, his paintings today are often in bad shape, and he left no school behind him to carry on his ideas. The Hunt makes up for all of that. It’s hypnotic! Everybody who views it sees something in it. It’s a painting people return to over and over. The Ashmolean gift shop can sell its image on absolutely anything!
It mesmerizes the detectives in an episode of the Masterpiece Mystery, Inspector Lewis. It’s not just the dramatic perspective. It seems alive, he thing draws you in. It is vibrant around the outside and dark and mysterious as your eyes move in. You know it’s a dumb idea to gallop off in the dark but you want to go into the forest with them!
A great day but we are tired. It’s much too rainy for the long walk to the Pitt Rivers. We hope we won’t be sorry for that decision. We have time to see it again, but we know that all trips have surprises! Back to the boat, on our way, we look at a hotel for a possible stay on our last night. The Royal Oxford is an old hotel and newly renovated. It will be convenient for the bus back to Heathrow. We book it.
Back at our mooring we shower and have cheese and wine in our PJ’s on the bow of the boat. The ducks and swans gather around. It’s a perfect early evening. We chat with the lockkeeper who is on her rounds collecting mooring fees. (£10.00 per night in Oxford.) In most places, we won’t pay a mooring fee at all. This lady (the Canal Trust lockkeeper) is charming. We find them all very kind, they explain everything. They’ll push the lock gates with you, so you will know for the next time.
Our rental company, Anglo-Welsh, sends its boats out painted in dark green and gold livery. It’s a giveaway that the boaters onboard know nothing! The first lockkeeper on the Thames said, “I was cutting the grass, as soon as saw that green boat I shut off the mower and ran right up.” Glad he did.
Leaving Osney Mooring – Heading North to Thrupp Village
Stuck in the Brambles
Monday, August 27: Here, we left the Osney Bridge moorings in Oxford’s West Gate. We successfully negotiate the manned Osney Lock and need to make a hard turn. The Thames here is not much wider than the boat is long. In our attempt to make a 180-degree turn, we block the whole river from one side to the other. We can’t budge and neither can anyone else!
We try the few tricks in our bag but we don’t move. We are stuck in the brambles. We are rescued by the narrowboat, Tudor Rose, and her family crew who make it look easy!
Back through the Osney lock and on to the Isis lock, which is very small and followed by a tiny arched bridge. We motor north through the Oxford suburb of Jericho. We found that the canal side development is still unfinished. It has been planned for several years and is very controversial. It looks as if it’s being scaled back.
We were shocked to pass permanent moorings of astonishing poverty – a waterborne slum. The boats must be impossible to keep warm. Many are wrapped in plastic and old tarps. Housing a growing population is a big problem here. This is a beautiful country with a tough challenge.
Stopping for our first water fill, we meet a charming guy – retired from Oxford University. He lives in Oxford, and vacations on a perfect traditional narrowboat. It’s brightly painted with Roses and Castles on a brilliant turquoise background.
Why Roses and Castles? I don’t know. I read speculation that some of the early commercial canal men were Roma and brought the designs from central Europe. The castles do have a little Bavarian flair. The decoration included his water pails and his striped poles and boat hooks. His brass was shining.
We meet a fair number of single-handers like him. They have evolved clever ways to manage their long heavy boats by themselves. They will walk along the towpath leading the boat like a horse through the locks. In a long flight of locks, they will tie up the boat and ride a bicycle ahead, and open 4 or 5 gates for themselves.
There is an etiquette to canal life. You are considerate of one and another. The single-handers might open a few gates but not a lot. Other people are coming toward you. We learn to appreciate the culture.
We find a mooring for the night near the Jolly Boatman. It’s a well-known canal-side pub on the southern edge of the tiny village of Thrupp. Depending on the weather you can eat inside or out. We eat a good meal in a charming room and later fall into bed. Tomorrow we will travel farther into the country.
Some More Ideas for Your Trip to Oxford
North From Oxford
If you follow the canal north here is what you experience.