A Travellerspoint blog


Rivers, canals and locks

Berkshire waterways

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

Colourful houseware

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

River steamer

Flat-bottomed boats


Caversham and Reading

Narrowboat by Reading Bridge

Calm sailing

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

Floating café


Paddle steamers at Tower Bridge

Canoeists on the Thames at London

Sightseeing cruise

Posted by margaretm 13:48 Archived in England Comments (0)

In search of a Mr Whippy ice-cream

Keeping up a good old English tradition!

Mr Whippy ice-cream

Who's for an ice-cream?

We wandered along the River Thames on the Caversham side down to the children's playground in Christchurch Meadows. Two ragdolls, Rosie and Jim, stared at us out of the window of a narrowboat which had moored along the bank. "Rosie and Jim, Rosie and Jim...", we automatically started singing and laughing. "Do you remember that TV programme we used to watch as little kids?" On to the playground. It had changed considerably and been re-vamped. The sandpits were no longer there. In their place was an exciting new swing which looked somewhat like a long-tailed Chinese New Year dragon. When the three mothers who had been swinging on it had got off, Cristina and Marc ran over to take their place. Meanwhile, I scanned the horizon looking in vain for the ice-cream van. Nothing. No tinkling tune could be heard either. Some white swans and Canada geese were pottering around where the van usually parked, even on cool sullen days like today. No Mr Whippy ice-creams today. We returned home disappointed.

The next day, in Reading, I thought I spied an ice-cream van but it turned out to be a Hot Sausage Company stall. I was beginning to wonder whether the climate change was making a great English summer tradition extinct. Hot dogs instead of ice-creams? Admittedly, the weather seemed to favour the former. It seemed to be a case of global cooling, rather than global warming. But on Friday, as we strolled through Henley-on-Thames, one of our favourite haunts, we at last discovered some Mr Whippy ice-creams. Being served at a kiosk. It was better than nothing but I couldn't help remembering how the ice-cream van used to come around the streets when I was a teenager. We would hear its tinkling tune and could judge which road it was in by how loud the music was playing. When it came nearer, we would run out the house, along with our neighbours, to buy our dessert. It would be a shame if the ice-cream van tradition disappeared, I thought.

Hot Sausage Company stall

Soft ice-cream kiosk

I had almost given up hope when I discovered a surprise in London. We had parked next to Tower Bridge and were making our way to London City Hall to have a bite to eat on the green lawns by the river. Just as we came through the small tunnel leading under Tower Bridge, Cristina shouted out, "An ice-cream van!" Sure enough, there was a beautiful modern van with plenty of people lined up eager to buy an ice-cream or ice-lolly to combat the heat, including a family of Indians in bright saris. Needless to say, after our sandwiches, we bought a Mr Whippy ice-cream cone each with a Cadbury's Flake in it. Twirled up, flaunting its delicious-looking curves and temptingly fluffy, was the creamiest ice-cream I've ever had! And soft, so soft... it simply melted in my mouth. A bite of the chocolate flake bar, then a couple of licks of the ice-cream, another bite and so on. It made my day.

Ice-cream van

Ice-cream hunters


Having crossed over Tower Bridge, we branched off to St Katherine's Dock, a beautifully quiet haven in the middle of busy London with its old barges and other boats moored up. As we headed later for the Tower of London, I stopped in my tracks. There was another ice-cream van parked by the road, dishing out the mouth-watering delight to children and adults alike. A third one was parked along the embankment where the best views of Tower Bridge were to be had. Along with a series of brightly coloured deck-chairs overlooking the river, it looked like a scene from one of the seaside towns along the south coast, not London. In big letters painted on the side of the van, we read "Josef's"..- and he had a second one not far from the beefeater who was kindly guarding the Crown Jewels.

By Tower Bridge

Looks like he's got customers

Josef's ice-cream van

A summer day along the Embankment

Josef's second ice-cream van

Suddenly, I began to see ice-cream vans cropping up all over the place. Old ones, new ones, with queues. I breathed a sigh of relief... it didn't look like they were becoming extinct after all, at least not in London. A great English tradition HAS been preserved.

On its way to sell ice-creams

An old-style van

Posted by margaretm 21:37 Archived in England Comments (0)

London in red, white and blue

A very British-coloured day

I love London. For me, a visit to England is incomplete without a trip, albeit a brief one, to the capital city. Especially for us, since getting to the centre of London takes less time than cooking an English roast lunch. On this occasion, we just had time to drive around the main sights and wander around for a few hours but it was enough to keep me going until our next visit.

After chaotic and stressful Mexico City, the streets of London seemed very quiet and orderly, the buildings bright and clean, and London transport shocking red. In fact, it was very a very British-coloured day, predominantly red, white and blue. I'm not talking about all the Union Jacks, the name which the British people affectionately give their flag, flying on buildings or choking souvenir shops. I'm referring to the white clouds scudding across the blue skies, the red double-decker buses scooting noiselessly and smokelessly along the streets looking like the brand new Dinky or Matchbox buses we used to play with as kids, the patriotic-coloured taxis beginning to outnumber the traditional black ones, Tower Bridge and the telephone boxes. Shame the River Thames didn't put on its Sunday best, and was more a muddy brown than blue... Here are some of our photos to pay tribute to the city which features on my passport as my place of birth.

Tower Bridge and boats on the River Thames

New London buses

Lord Nelson on top of his pole in Trafalgar Square

Telephone boxes for those who still don't have mobile phones

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament silhouetted against a blue sky

London souvenirs

Looking towards the Tower of London and the Gherkin

An old London bus like my Grandad used to drive

St Paul's Cathedral from the taxi

A patriotic-coloured taxi

A post box for those who write letters and postcards and don't use e-mail yet

Signpost near Tower Bridge

A row of Union Jack flags

Historical London

Carnaby Street sign

Who are the Royal beasts, I wonder?

Looking towards London City Hall and the Shard. When finished, the Shard will be the tallest building in the European Union.

A pub window and sign

Crossing over Tower Bridge

London's famous Underground sign

A very British mini

Red and white


We love you, London!

(P.S. As I was driving, some of these photos were taken by my family.)

Posted by margaretm 04:57 Archived in England Comments (0)

On English soil again

The village of Goring

Narrowboats on the river

Last week I was back on English soil again after an absence of several years. During the first few days, the great English summer seemed to be living up to its rather gloomy reputation. Temperatures were cool, verging on chilly, although the English people were stoically bearing up and some were wearing shorts, sandals and sleeveless tops. Skies were cloudy, hiding the sun if it existed, and scattered showers and heavy downpours were likely to surprise us any time.

As we were about to land in Luton Airport, a girl sitting a few rows in front of us on the plane asked a passing air stewardess about the weather. I'm sure she wished she hadn't. “Well, it’s a bit chilly.” We didn’t hear the next question but the answer left us looking at each other, wondering if we’d heard correctly. "It’s going to rain until the 16th of August!” “WHAAAA?!!!” was the poor girl’s reaction. Cristina's expression of mildly disguised panic had nothing to do with the fact that Ryanair's novice pilot had submitted us to a very rough landing. Clearly neither of them had heard of St Swithin's. According to an old wive's tale, whatever the weather is like on the day of St Swithin's, it will continue like that for the next forty days. It must have been cool and damp that day.

It goes without saying that I was mainly looking forward to seeing the family again but I have to admit I felt a twinge of excitement at seeing the cute English cottages with their pretty skirts of hollyhocks and roses climbing up the walls, the hedgerows stitching the fields together, mossy gravestones huddling around spired churches, or the River Thames gliding serenely under the bridges carrying colourful narrowboats along on its back... and, of course, the pleasant green countryside which is clearly the English people’s reward for tolerating their weather.

Thatched cottage at Streatley

Green gardens and countryside

Village church at Sonning

Boat moored along the River Thames at Caversham

Angel on the Bridge pub at Henley

There is a bit of ambivalence as to how I feel when I go back to England after living abroad for so many years. On the one hand, I find myself re-living my earlier years there, and the many times I took Cristina and Marc there as small children to spend summers or Christmases. The familiarity of places, sights, experiences mellows us. “That’s where we …..!” “Do you remember when we…!” “Look at my old…..!” It’s comforting to come “home” and settle back into certain customs and habits, something akin to slipping on well-worn slippers after a day's hard work. Nice things such as going barefoot in the house and sinking my toes into the soft, long-pile carpet or the smell of a roast dinner cooking in the oven on Sundays. I know I can only be in England when I see those adorable little milk bottles dropped off trustingly by the milkman on the front doorstep. I miss that feeling sometimes.

Then there is the other side. Having lived for so many years in another country and culture, I find England somewhat exotic now. Most English people don’t get that warm, fuzzy feeling when they look at a red post box or telephone box. We do. It sends me running for my camera. As do the picturesque country pubs with their hanging baskets sending cascades of flowers all around the doors and windows.

Part of the experience is to tickle our taste buds again with hot cross buns, Cadbury’s Flake Bars and Dolly Mixtures, with HP sauce and Marmite. We scramble to savour warm crumpets with melting butter or cheese lodging in their spongy insides, creamy blueberry and cherry-flavoured yoghurts, chunky marmalade, cheese-and-onion crisps, tantalizing roast beef and roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings drenched in gravy or crispy battered fish and vinegary chips. There’s hardly time to reunite with all these long-lost flavours.

Red telephone box and post box on a village green

Milk bottles on the doorstep

Hot cross buns, usually eaten at Easter, but available all year round now

Hanging baskets

But the longer I live away, the more I realize that a major factor contributing to me feeling a bit of a foreigner in my own land are the idiosyncracies of certain aspects of British life. When I go to get in the car, I’m invariably opening the wrong door. As I drive along, I find myself searching for the gears with my left hand instead of my right one and opening the door instead. I have to mentally concentrate to stay on the “wrong” side of the road and go around the roundabouts the “wrong” way. It doesn’t help that the speed limits and road signs are in miles and not kilometers. I have the sensation that everyone is moving very slowly at 30 because only tractors do that sort of speed back home but have to keep reminding myself that, when converted to kilometers, it is actually 50.

Whenever I return to England, my mental capacities are stretched to the limit as they are required to do so many conversions. Miles to kilometers, feet and inches to metres and centimeters, pounds to euros, Fahrenheit to Celsius, pounds and ounces to kilos and kilogrammes, gallons to litres… the list is never-ending. Is there a reason why the British are SO different, I wonder? Do they do it to make everyone else feel like they are foreigners?

Visiting England also sends our body clocks whizzing wildly forward or backward and dazed. Our digestive systems find it almost impossible to adapt to having early midday lunches or eating supper when in Mexico we'd only have finished eating lunch a couple of hours earlier, at 3.30 pm. They've already been sent into confusion by the iron grip of jetlag and the recent change back to Spanish hours. The English light wakes us up and pulls us out of bed much too early in the morning and doesn't fade into darkness until 10 pm. And the widely-differing opening times of shops, banks and restaurants in Mexico, Spain and now England leave us in a state of disorientation. We have to dig down deep in our memories to remember in which country shops close at midday, and where they are open till late and on Sundays...

Cottages at Sonning

Bumble bee on flower - part of the British summer

But I love visiting England for all these reasons. I actually even begin to feel a bit English again. All these sensations are part of the essence of travelling, of living in other cultures and this is what makes life interesting and varied. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life and I have to say our life is quite spicy at the moment. Long live the Queen!

Posted by margaretm 23:02 Archived in England Comments (0)

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