The River

I have been away from France for so long that I didn’t know they have Oxfam shops there now. There was one in Lille, Oxfam La Bouquinerie, the best organised charity shop I have ever seen. I went in because of a book I saw in the window – of course I would have gone in anyway – and was so thrilled by the sight of it that I forgot to put my mask on and only after leaving the shop realised why the woman had been so jittery. The book is a series of black and white photos: A Picture Book of the Thames by Theo Bergstrom, published in 1975. At various times in my life I have been in, on and beside the Thames, far more times than I would have realised if I hadn’t studied this book, which traces the river from its symbolic beginning, the Thames Head, by ‘the grey ash-tree in Trewsbury Mead’, to the sea beyond Gravesend.

            When I was small we lived in Richmond and used to walk along the river; once, when my brother was a baby and my grandmother was staying with us, we were caught by a flood, I suppose from a particularly high tide, and had to climb over a wall to safety. The story became part of family legend: my mother tied the pram to a bench with the belt of her raincoat, and went back to fetch it the next day. I can still hear her telling the story, pleased with her own quick thinking, and see the place where it happened, which is not, sadly, pictured in the book. The photos are taken from water level, which is not how one usually sees the Thames, unless one is actually in it.

            I fell into it once, as a slightly larger child, opposite Syon House, between Richmond and Kew, was fished out immediately, and brought home dripping in a taxi, which was almost as exciting as falling in the river; we had no car at that time and usually travelled by bus. I can’t have fallen in over my head as it was said that then you had to have your stomach pumped. We often went to Ham House, on the other side of the river, a journey that involved a bus ride and a ferry, a rowing boat operated in complete silence by a man who was like Seth from Cold Comfort Farm: shirtsleeves, strong brown arms pulling at the oars, hat – in those days men still wore hats – I don’t know why he should have so stuck in my memory but there he is, endlessly rowing, never speaking. Descending to the jetty and into the boat was also exciting, then the passage across, silent, on still water, at the end of a Sunday afternoon. I do not remember the arrival at the other side at all.

            Once my mother took us to Runnymede, to see the Air Forces Memorial and read the name of my never-uncle, my father’s brother and mother’s first husband, Flying Officer Edward Hart, RAF Volunteer Reserve, died 15 September 1943. The monument to Magna Carta is there too but I remember that less well than the Memorial, both of which are indicated in the Thames book by a half-hidden sign from the National Trust on the riverbank, of which the only legible word is NO.

            But the best place on the Thames was where we sometimes went swimming, a magical place, which I had never been able to identify since; its name forgotten, everybody who would have known it also gone, after so many years away from England I had given up hope of ever finding it. It is the real reason why I bought the book. I remembered the wonder of swimming in a river, the River, the soft feel of the water, its stillness, so different from the sea, the slipperiness of wet grass when one got out, and the sight of one’s muddy feet on the grass. Ordinary swimming was in indoor baths or the chilly seas around Ireland; this was a pastoral delight, an English idyll (also far enough upstream that we didn’t need our stomachs pumped). We only went there a few times, it was quite far from home and swimming there probably forbidden by some mediaeval byelaw.

            I found it in the Thames book: it is Hurley Lock, between Henley and Marlow. I might have thought I had imagined it, or read about it somewhere, but it is real, people still swim there, although now they call it wild swimming. The photos of its vicinity in the Thames book have the dreamlike quality I remembered, and from water-level too. In the map at the back of the book you can see the long and winding course of the Thames, it meanders about from one English name to another, like my path, and the book’s, from England to a charity bookshop in Lille. I did a lot more walking around in Lille but I never came across that Oxfam bookshop again.

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