23 September 2015
Fifty small children, two narrowboats and 16 'teachers'!
Peter had been approached by the school to take the tots for a trip on the river. He'd organised it well. A couple of gazebos and six tables on the bank gave them a place to draw and colour their drawings. In small groups they were given pots of bird seed and allowed to approach the water and feed the ducks, geese, moorhens and swans.
The pub had agreed to let them use the facilities.
Groups of 10 were kitted out in life jackets and shepherded onto Rosie and Little Rosie.
"Can I leave my bag with you, Miss?"
"Please Miss, may I sit next to Rachel?"
"I'm going to climb through the window!"
"I don't like boats. I'm scared!"
"I can't swim!"
You have to admire primary school teachers: they are organised, caring, thoughtful, patient.
Two parents or mothers to each boat with the hopeless task of keeping them seated and keeping their arms and legs inside the gun'l'. The safety briefing is always fun: there are three fire extinguishers which you won't need (even if you know how to use them!); please don't let them fall in the water; and everybody must test the whistle on the life jacket to be sure it works (but don't use it again unless someone goes in). It seems cruel: blow the whistle when the skipper says so, but not when you want to.
Each child was issued with a list of likely sightings (swans, fishermen, moorhens, horses) and a pencil to record every sighting. This seems to be good educational practice. Whenever one sees organised groups of schoolchildren they have checklists.
Away from the mooring, winding in the river, and down toward the lock.
Lots of ducks, many moorhens, several horses, a pair of swans and a heron.
Joggers, fishermen, single sculls and a double scull.
Winding again before the lock and back to The Plough.
And the Dragon Boat race had started!
Three times for Rosie and twice for Little Rosie.
The children squealed with joy and excitement; the Dragon Boat paddlers sweated and struggled; the teachers worried and coped; the boatmen steered and moored.
What a wonderful morning!
For the two narrowboat helmsmen the extra factor was the Dragon Boat race taking place at the same time and in the same piece of river.
So, fifty small children, 16 mothers or teachers, 30 corporate day-outers, five boatmen, two narrow boats, two Dragon Boats and one safety boat. Plus, of course, the First Aiders for the sweating Dragon Boaters.
Could this possibly end well?
It started well.
The children embarked and disembarked safely. None of them fell into the water. All of them went away with a ticked checklist (although none of them saw the heron) and most handed back their pencils and crayons.
It progressed well.
The youngsters squealed and laughed all the way there and back. The helmsmen enjoyed the half-hour voyages. The teachers and parents seemed happy.
Someone won the Dragon Boat races; the First Aiders were bored.
It ended well!
The lifejackets were all recovered (none used), the children were reunited with their coats, bags and friends, the facilities were used and, finally, the bus was caught.
Peter and John took down the gazebos and returned the picnic tables. The boats were tidied and closed.
It was a truly satisfying morning.
Laurie is a lovely lady. Mark is a delightful chap.
A group of oldies, and a little less oldy, meet on the rec every Friday evening for a game of boule. Not seriously, you understand. There are no prizes. It's an opportunity to get together, to gossip and natter, to complain about the Parish Council and the buses, to commiserate over Ian's knee and to delight in the improvement of Margaret's joints. Linda has an endless fund of risque jokes about boule and balls. They all eat fish and chips from the A10 chip van outside the cricket pavilion; you get the idea.
At the end of the season, when it's too dark at nine o'clock to distinguish the fish from the chips, Laurie and Mark invite them all back to their's for a 'snack'.
This year, Laurie had a birthday which she considered significant.
Many of those in the boules group would have been delighted to have been transported back to such a birthday, but it was the first time she had reached that age. As the youngest in the group, she wanted to celebrate and to share the occasion with her friends.
She and Mark had already had dinner together at The Plough, looking out over the lawn and the river.
The river is central to the village, although not in the centre. Two centuries ago, and more, it was the transport artery North of Cambridge through the villages to Ely and beyond to King's Lynn and The Wash. Alliums and brassicas were carried from the rich peat fen farms to the markets at Stourbridge Common; oysters, then survival food for the poor, were brought in from the North Sea.
The boats would have been long and narrow (though not yet the narrow-boats designed for the new-fangled canals of the C19) and flat-bottomed. The poorer owners punted their craft with long quants; the better-off used horses to haul along the ha'lingway. A few undoubtedly used sails.
Now, in the C21, Peter and his narrow boat Rosie provide a 'commuter' link, sailing into Cambridge at nine o'clock, returning to The Plough for a long lunch, and then back from Cambridge in the evening. Once or more a month he makes the four or five hour trip to Ely.
Photographs by Jennifer Parr
Laurie's birthday was special, and Peter and Rosie were engaged for the middle of the day.
They all embarked at The Plough, along with a mountain of food, a hillock of tables and chairs and a small lake of wine and beer. And everyone's pack of boule, of course.
In the face of such determined bonhomie the threatening rain clouds slunk away to the East and left the sun to shine through a scattering of fair-weather cumulus. The fresh wind died to a gentle breeze. The cruise to Jesus Green was gentle and relaxing. Rosie has her own berth close to Jesus Lock, in the heart of Cambridge.
To the delight of summer visitors to Cambridge, Peter takes Rosie through the lock on most of his pleasure cruises. There is a special fascination in watching the thousands of gallons of water pour through the sluices and seeing the boat, and its passengers moving up or down several metres between the Middle River and the Lower River. The hard work of winding the sluice handle 80 turns to achieve this is glossed over, but even the youngest gongoozlers are keen to push the gates open and shut.
The gazebo was set up under the tree and the tables and chairs were assembled and laid out. The ladies organised the food. Everyone had brought something, but Laurie had arranged her usual 'snack'.
Laurie's 'snacks' overwhelm the stoutest hearts and the keenest appetites. They are tempting beyond reason, and her guests succumb to temptation beyond reason. They gorge themselves to regretful gluttony. And some of them take away doggy-bags!
The boule was random and sporadic, but the gossip was so agreeable, and the company so convivial, and the food so fabulous, that often the boule were left lying in the grass.
The voyage downriver, back to The Plough, passed in an engorged and alcoholic haze. Swans hissed and ducks quacked and moorhens skittered across the water.
Passing cruiser crews waved cheerfully. Joggers and cyclists on the ha'lingway smiled wonderingly at the party.
All too soon the tables and chairs were disembarked and loaded into cars, the remnants of food were shared out, farewells were made and promises exchanged of boule to come.
The river is the perfect journey.
You'll remember what Ratty said to Mole?
16 & 17 January 2017
The fens were shrouded in mist, the A14 was slowed by a breakdown and a hundred tiny children were on their way to the Museum.
The Cambridge Museum of Technology is on the site of the steam-powered pumping station established centuries ago to drain the fens. Steam gave way to the more efficient diesel power during the early C20 and the steam engines decayed.
The engines were revived during the late C20, and made to work again. The tall chimney, checked over by the redoubtable Fred Dibnah, still stands and, occasionally, smokes.
One of the large storage sheds has been turned into a classroom capable of seating a hundred students.
It was here that the coach was bringing a hundred primary schoolchildren.
Rosie’s big diesel engine was reluctant to start, but eventually yielded to its battery. Ariana's little petrol engine needed choke, but eventually warmed to its task.
The mooring lines were wet and soggy, soaking their clothes as they dragged them through the rings.
The short voyage upriver to the Stourbridge Water Point was cold and wet, and they were glad of their waterproof jackets and overalls.
At Riverside they unloaded the equipment and moved it to the Museum. The classroom was set up; and the coach arrived with today’s group of forty eight. Six teachers; eight groups of six children. Well-organised, disciplined, obedient and cheerful through the damp gloom. The sun shone from their faces and questions.
The first 24 were kitted out with lifejackets, sent for the ritual, last-minute loo-stop, and escorted down to the boats.
Excitement ran high. Some had never been by boat before. Those who had excitedly explained.
The men resurfacing the footpath, with their heavy lorry, mechanical scoop, dumper truck and road roller, were nonplussed.
But they quickly rose to the occasion. They stopped their engines, opened the barriers and escorted the tiny people through. They quickly set up a safe procedure for when the group might return and for the next group.
The theme was bridges.
They had all crossed bridges in cars and coaches, but now they would see them from an entirely new angle.
There was the new cycle and footbridge. There was the Elizabeth Way Bridge, with its heavy, continuous traffic. There were the foot- and cycle-bridges from MidSummer Common to the boathouses. And there was the splendid Victoria Road Bridge, simply a road from above but a Victorian wrought iron delight from below.
Here the boats turned and sailed downstream to disembark again at the waterpoint.
Tuesday was not damp and foggy; the frost had been hard overnight. The boats were even more reluctant to start. The mooring lines were stiffened polypropylene bars that froze the boatmen’s fingers as they dragged them through the rings.
The short voyage upriver was hard and bright and bitterly cold, and the boatmen were glad of their thermal underwear and fleece jackets.
The second day’s children had listened to the previous day’s children, and were even more excited.
The men resurfacing the path, with their heavy lorry, mechanical scoop, dumper truck and road roller, were ready with their procedures. The safety of the public, and especially of small children, was their first priority, and they worked together to escort them through the stilled machinery.
The teachers now knew the boat procedures; to keep hands inside the boat; not to stand on the seats, and not to fall into the water.
Another two successful trips and they were all back into the giant classroom for their packed luncheons, their checklists and their drawings.
Everyone wins in these adventures.
The children have a great, exciting, adventurous day out.
The teachers can enjoy the river and a day out.
The boatmen delight in the excitement and joy of the children.
The men resurfacing the path were delighted with the intervention.
The rowers all stopped their exertions to wave and smile.
Walkers on the ha’lingway stopped and wondered.
The children might have learned about the structure and purpose of bridges.
They certainly learned about echoes under them!