Sunday, 3 March 2013

waterways, craft, grebes, the lock, picnics



















I was working at the Taylor yesterday but beforehand walked along the Oxford canal where I took the photos of the rowing boat and the narrowboat rudder above.

The great crested grebes I saw on the Thames near the train station earlier in the week. When we lived in Oxford I used to love seeing these birds on different parts of the river. On Saturdays, when my wife finished work, we often used to cycle to Port Meadow and have a picnic beneath an evergreen oak on the bank of a narrow arm of the river and watch the pair of grebes that always nested there. In my first novel, The Lock, I used this place as a setting for a couple of the scenes. In the following extract, Elizabeth and her daughter Alison are walking along the bank and see the grebes.

****

They passed an evergreen oak and the line of trees to their left gave way to a broad grassy expanse of bank running down to a dense margin of water forget-me-not, mint and woundwort. The pool itself was formed by the stream broadening out at a point where it forked. Both arms flowed into the Thames a little further on from here. The main one arrived at a weir beyond the end of the next bit of avenue. The other one flowed down the side of an island that was covered in rosebay willowherb and alders, joining the river near the railway station.

‘There they are,’ said Alison, pointing at the pair of grebes.

‘Oh yes.’

‘And they’ve got little chicks. They hatched just the other day. There – the little stripy heads are poking through her wings.’

‘Oh, yes, two of them.’

‘I can never work out which of the adults is which, let alone the chicks – both sexes look more or less the same. The other one, though, seems to have a more peachy-coloured throat.’

‘Dad would know.’

The grebe that was not carrying the chicks promptly dived, to re-emerge some way off from its partner almost half a minute later with a straggling piece of reed in its bill. It propelled itself gracefully towards their nest with its prize. The other grebe swam up to the nest now too and both prodded the reed into place.

‘I wonder if they really are the same pair Dad used to bring us to see?’

‘I should think so. Do you remember seeing them down by the lock?’

‘Yes, that was brilliant. I didn’t believe they were the same ones that time. The city seemed so big then – I didn’t understand how all the waterways linked up. Funnily enough we were down at the pub on the Island the other night.’

****

That bit about all the waterways connecting up is significant because a lot of the story unfolds on the banks of the Thames, Cherwell and Oxford canal. When the location shifts from Oxford to Gloucestershire in the second half of the book, the scenes are set on the banks of a different canal--the Thames and Severn. In the novel, waterways link the characters even though they are at odds with each other.

Meanwhile, today I cycled towards Tadpole Bridge and along the Great Brook for the first time in several months. The Great Brook lane had been closed because of flooding. It was nice to go that way although the land looks as if it has been picked clean by the water and there is that strange cement-like smell in the air that lingers for a long time after flooding.

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