It’s Sunday and we’re on our way to Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of those two great English wordsmiths, William Shakespeare and Julian. It’s a girl’s day out – Granny, Grandma, Lily, Katie and me. The sun is beating down and the road to Stratford is busy. Grandma parks the car and we walk to the bustling banks of the River Avon. The place is mobbed with visitors – families and couples picnicking on the grass, Chinese and Japanese tour groups, teenage Spanish and Italian student groups. A lot of ice cream’s being consumed today.
The narrow-boats on the river bring me back to my five memorable years living and working in Cambridge, when friends and colleagues lived aboard similar boats. Before the girls came along, Julian and I briefly contemplated buying a narrow-boat, but I was too filled with considerations about laundry and heating to take the plunge. Silly me. Put me in a time machine and take me back eight years and I’d jump at the chance. Here in Stratford, some of the boat owners are using the tops and sides of their floating homes to showcase handicrafts for sale to the tourists. Other narrow-boats have been converted into ice-cream and sandwich bars.
We’ve brought a picnic and we spread the picnic blanket under a tree close to the river. The river is as busy as the rest of the town. Sightseeing boats ply the river, with sightseers embarking and disembarking close to where we’re sitting. There are a lot of these boats, manoeuvring gingerly around the tourists in rowboats, canoes, punts and the occasional motor boat.
Lily says she wants to go on a boat trip. The grandmothers are keen to browse the market stalls. I prefer Lily’s option, so the girls and I queue up for the next boat trip.
We climb aboard a flat-bottomed 40-ish foot narrow boat, half covered, half open air. We choose seats at the front, in the open. The boat holds about 60 passengers and we’re near the top of the queue. Once we’re on board we wait and wait, as the skipper seems keen to fill the boat to capacity before he sets off. Plus, he seems to be enjoying the Tupperware tub of noodles he’s eating for lunch. Katie sings ‘Over the rainbow’ at the top of her voice, while we wait. I’m not sure about the other passengers, but she keeps me entertained.
Other identical boats come alongside and take on more passengers. The river is crowded with swans, geese and ducks scrounging free meals from tourists feeding them white baguettes and loaves of bread despite signs everywhere warning ‘Do not feed bread to the water fowl’. Some sensible families are feeding the birds bird food.
Finally we’re off. The boat moves slowly along the river, twenty minutes in one direction, twenty minutes back. Even at the farthest reaches of our trip the river is filled with the hired canoes, row boats and punts. We motor slowly along the shallow narrow river. The girls catch glimpses of the occasional fish. The river bank is lush and green, the wild greenery broken in places to reveal huge expensive houses with impossibly manicured lawns running down to private landing stages at the river’s edge. We pass one house with a beautiful octagonal garden shed. I tell Katie that if we lived in that house I would turn that shed into my office. I could write all day long. ‘And I’ll bring you tea’, Katie tells me. She adds that she thinks she and I should live in that house and Daddy and Lily should live in the mansion next door. A perfect Tim Burton-Helena Bonham Carter living arrangement, I think.
Half way through the trip, Katie announces she ‘urgently’ needs to go to the toilet. She spends the second half of the trip sitting on my lap, her legs clenched tight. ‘If we were on our own boat’ I think, ‘There would be no problem’. I work out a plan of action in case she can’t hold it in any more. Not sure how warm the day was going to be I’d packed a pair of leggings for myself, to slip on under my short dress if I got too cold. I haven’t needed to wear them. But I can sacrifice them, if need be, to soak up any wee that might otherwise pool around the feet of our fellow passengers. (The 30-something couple sitting closest to us look decidedly child un-friendly and wee-ing on them would not be good). Katie, thankfully, holds on until the trip ends and we race to the find the nearest public toilet.
The longing to be on my own boat so that Katie can go to the toilet draws me into a general reverie of longing to be back aboard Carina. I don’t want to be on this boat with 60 other people. I want to be on a wider, deeper and decidedly quieter river. Lily and Katie, it appears, feel the same way. They both, at different times, say they wish we were on Carina rather than this boat. Lily asks me how long until we go home and Katie asks if we could sail Carina up the river Avon.
Stratford and the River Avon are beautiful. Summer in England is beautiful. But we don’t want to be paying tourists on a pleasure cruise. Though we enjoy this lovely trip on the river, home on our own lovely boat is where our hearts lie.