“This sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were”
That’s Kenneth Grahame, describing the river – this river, the Thames – in The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908. It could have been today though. We’ve pulled over to the bank to tie up for the night in an ideal spot under a tree outside Wallingford in Oxfordshire, not so very far up river from Grahame’s place. The evening light dances on the water; huge dragonflies like the Chinooks flying out of RAF Benson up the road dart low across the river; from high above comes the sad whistle of a red kite. The other sound is the unmistakable one of an English riverbank in summer: the gentle swish of leaves in the breeze, the wind in the willows.
This year’s family holiday was supposed to be sailing, around Corsica. Then … you know what happened. So we’re spending the weekend chugging down the Thames. Guess what though: it’s bloody lovely. Corsica may still happen, but it’ll do well to beat this.
We picked up the boat – the Calypso, 13 metres long, sleeps eight, so much room for the four of us, comfortable not beautiful – in Benson. The masked boat guy showed us how to do it: push the lever to go forward, pull back for reverse, thrusters left and right for manoeuvres, drive on the right. Would we like to go out with him for a little driving lesson? No, no, we know boats – we were going to sail round Corsica …
(To be honest, we probably should’ve taken the lesson, a 13-metre river cruiser isn’t the nimblest of beasts. Still, we escaped without major incident, just a few small bumps. Oh, and a spot of river rage. We’ll come to that.)
The writer and his sons, aged six and eight
Then we were on our own, a family bubble. We could have stopped off in newly opened riverside pubs but chose not to as we had everything we needed: hot water, cooker, fridge to chill the rosé. It was nice to park in the quieter stretches, where nothing much has changed since Grahame’s day. It was even possible to forget about you know what. This is a holiday you could go on if you weren’t entirely corona confident – no flying required. Bookings have been flooding back they say, since easing.
One weird but quite nice thing about lockdown: my boys, aged eight and six, have become 1908 children, not into Fortnite but nature, birds especially. We knew from watching Springwatch that the wildlife was going to be good; fewer boats on the river has meant successful nesting and clearer water. We saw no water rats, or badgers, and only evidence of moles in the meadows. But the birds were brilliant.
We soon got bored of red kites: they’re two a penny round here. The boys made a list (because they’re boys). They counted more than 30 species, including buzzards, herons, flycatchers, long-tailed tits, a green woodpecker, terns, so many different ducks and geese. A kingfisher, you ask? Not one but 11, over the two-and-a-half days, I kid you not. Incongruous metallic blue flashes, speedy sky beetles darting up the river.
The writer’s younger son enjoys feeding a family of swans from the boat
We pootled through the Chilterns, coveting the manicured riverside gardens of Goring and Pangbourne, to Mapledurham, whose Elizabethan manor is said to have been the inspiration for Toad Hall. And it was near here that the incident occurred.
As we were exiting Goring lock, the boat behind us – a rather superior-looking vessel, with lots of wood and brass, and a rather superior-looking old boy in Brexit-red chinos at the wheel – suddenly gunned it and overtook us. Because he knew the next one, Cleeve Lock, was just a couple of hundred metres up the river, and he wanted to arrive ahead of us. Then, when he got there, he didn’t pull in all the way to the end. So we tied up, and I went and asked him if he’d mind moving up a bit, fixing him with a hard stare. “You wouldn’t fit in any way,” he said, looking ahead, resolutely. “I’ve been boating here for 60 years.” I told him that on our boat he was known as Mr Toad. “Why’s that?” he barked.
The boys have become keen birders in lockdown
The joke ended up being firmly on us. When we eventually got into the lock, it was a DIY one, with no lock keeper on duty. We – OK, I – got it all wrong, pressed the wrong buttons (definitely should have had that lesson), jammed the whole system and had to get help. By the time we got out, Mr Toad was long gone, poop poop.
It didn’t spoil anything. Oh, and there was another reason to come to this part of the river: my mum lives just up from Benson, in Dorchester-on-Thames. We had a picnic in a meadow, with more siblings, and cousins, and quite a lot of goose poo. Mum, who’s 80, hadn’t seen most of us since the beginning of lockdown. Scotch eggs and strawberries in the sunshine under the Wittenham Clumps, swimming, another kingfisher (zzz, yeah bored of you now). As a rat in a book once said, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
• The trip was provide by Le Boat. Seven nights on the Calypso, which sleeps eight, costs from £1,589, starting and ending in Benson; three nights from £809. Smaller boats available: Capri sleeps three, from £309 for three nights, £659 a week