Rivers, canals and locks are to Berkshire what potatoes, gravy and mint sauce are to British cooking. Ingredients, without which, life in the area would be orphaned of its unique essence, robbed of its true flavour. Both the River Thames and the Kennet and Avon Canal cross Berkshire, meeting at Reading which is how I know something about them. I grew up with them and they've been a watery accompaniment to certain periods of my life. I used to have regular contact with the Thames since every time I went to Reading, I had to cross over the river from Caversham. This was the main reason for the traffic jams on the way home. There are just two bridges stretching their bony backs over the river at this point and everyone in Caversham or north Berkshire is trying to get across them. If you walk, there's a third possibility, across the weir and Caversham Lock.
River Thames at Caversham
So what makes the River Thames so special, besides the fact that it has played a part in my life? It is England's longest river, flowing 346 kms across southern England and 2000 years through English history. It has seen some of Europe's most impressive castles built on its banks, such as Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, saw the Mayflower ship set off in 1620 to take the Pilgrmin Fathers to America, is overlooked by Big Ben and probably overheard Guy Fawkes when he was about to carry out his gunpowder plot and blow up the Houses of Parliament. That alone is a pretty impressive CV. Its smooth waters are also tickled by punters at Oxford or rowers in streamlined skiffs pumping their way up and down the waterway and it has seen Henley celebrate many lively regattas and tens of thousands of spectators watch as it plays host to the world-famous Oxford and Cambridge boat race. The flat meadows which hug its banks become green table cloths for picnics and tea parties or playing fields for ball games, quietly absorbing excited shrieks and romantic conversations. Swans, geese and ducks paddle their way along it, looking as if they own the navigation rights and fishermen of all ages sit patiently on its banks hoping to catch its elusive fish. So as you can see, I lived by an interesting, historical river which tiptoes noiselessly past the bottom of our road, making no fuss except when it bursts its banks every decade or so. And in the summer, it provides the ideal means for thousands of people who want to slow down over their holidays. It transforms into a boating paradise.
The Tower of London spanning the River Thames
Of course, since boats cannot leap up waterfalls like clever salmon, they need some help going upstream or downstream. This is where locks come in handy. The boat enters a box-like space along the river, and once the doors are closed, the water level in the lock is raised or lowered to the same level as on the other side. This is, above all, what makes boating an activity for "slowing down". The Thames has 45 locks along its course but imagine sailing from Reading to Bristol along the Kennet and Avon Canal with 105 of them. I realise I've spent hours of my life watching boats squeezing in or out of Caversham Lock and negotiating locks certainly takes high speed out of travel.
Boat going through the lock at Goring
Lock doors closing
Perhaps the most colourful boats cruising along the rivers and canals are the narrowboats. Why any boat would want to be just 2 m (7ft) wide is a mystery to me but it all goes back to the Industrial Revolution when England was crisscrossed with canals moving cargo around the country well before motorways had carved up the countryside. Since there was a standard minimum width to the locks, the canal boats had to be built to these dimensions. You don't see many cargo boats being used nowadays which means the narrowboats are mainly for holidaymakers, who have to squeeze their vacation lives into the tiny dimensions. But they seem to enjoy it and the Thames and Kennet and Avon Canal in Berkshire are awash with leisure boats, narrowboats, converted barges, rowing boats, skiffs, punts and other floating craft as we saw from our trips along it this summer.
Narrowboats are usually just 2 metres wide
Some narrowboats have flower pots and gardens on top
Traditionally many are decorated with paintings of castles and roses
Towpath along the river where the horses used to pull along the wooden boats
Goring and Streatley
Weir next to the lock
Long bridge over the river at Goring
Bridge at Sonning
Fishermen trying their luck
Boats on the river
Growing tomatoes on the top of a narrowboat
Thames Path for walkers
Boats at Henley
Typical wooden boat
Caversham and Reading
Narrowboat by Reading Bridge
Reading Rowing Club
Skiffs by Reading Rowing Club
Swans, ducks and geese by Caversham Bridge
Kennet Canal going through Reading
Narrowboat on the Kennet Canal at Reading
The swans on the River Thames belong to the Queen of England
Paddle steamers at Tower Bridge
Canoeists on the Thames at London