Saturday 6 June 2020

River Thames. Wallingford during Covid 19 Lockdown.

Stay Safe. Stay at Home.

All in all, while we were at Wallingford the river broke the banks 5 times, but eventually, as we knew they would, the red strong stream warning boards went to amber, and the River Thames opened up for navigation once more. That happened while we were on our way up to the lock on our daily water walk the morning after Boris' speech of March 23rd asking everyone to stay at home. By the time we got to the lock, Justin, under instruction from EA, was busy wrapping red and white tape around the gate to the lock cottage and putting a big sign up forbidding entry to the lockside, and Covid 19 Lockdown had become a reality. He said it would be ok for us to carry on getting water from there which, over the following weeks, gave us our daily exercise.

EA responded to the government's lockdown rules by banning all but essential boat trips and withdrawing assisted passage through locks, meaning that the lock keepers would not be taking ropes and opening gates. Also, in order to discourage boaters from making non-essential journeys, they cut the electric power to all the Thames locks so that if you did go through, you had to manually wind the hydraulics; not an easy task.
Our anxiety levels were a bit up and down for the next week or so. As the infection and mortality numbers began to rise and the shops began to run out of things, even in lovely Wallingford where everyone is polite and civil it quickly began to feel scary. It must have been awful to have been in a big city when Lockdown first started. On top of that it occurred to us that normally, from the end of March Wallingford Town Council start to charge visiting boats £10 a night. Since October they'd not charged us a penny because we were in Safe Haven on a flooded river - effectively a free winter mooring - but now it wasn't flooded would they start charging? Also, Waitrose had closed their toilets, and we were only supposed to go shopping alone for necessities. Our cassettes weren't going to last very long now.
To take our minds off things we started on a list of boat jobs. Dave had already stripped and re-waxed the floor throughout the boat while we were up on the floodwater, but now his efforts turned to the outside, and mainly the roof, which only got half done last year on the K&A. Over the next few weeks of lockdown as the weather got better and the water level got lower, the remaining sections of roof got scraped, sanded, red leaded, undercoated and two coats of gloss.

The mushroom vents got polished for the first time since we've owned the boat.
The handrails finally got painted properly.
The back deck and tiller got a real spruce up - new paint, new ropework and Danish oil on the tiller handle.

The rear hatch cover got stripped and re-painted to match the rest of the boat, and had new hardwood sliders installed underneath.
The pigeon boxes got painted and the brass tops got polished, again for the first time since we've owned the boat and they look lovely.
The cratch cover got scrubbed.
By April, the flow on the river had subsided enough that we could easily turn the boat round, so the sides and back got polished and the left hand gunnel got scraped and prepped ready for painting, but by then the water was so low that it wasn't possible to get down there with a brush.
Although it was what we had been wishing for all winter, the falling water level made it increasingly difficult to get into the boat. Where we'd had to clamber up a gang plank and our Handy Step to get to the gunnel, we were now having climb down, so it was a nice surprise when we found that our Handy Step is even more handy and works both ways.
While Dave was entertaining the locals, Ann-Marie was busy being crafty inside making beautiful cross stitch birthday cards for everyone and knitting environmentally friendly cotton dishcloths so that we don’t use any more (un)disposable ones.

As the weather got better we swapped the fading daffodils, tulips and pansies for summer bedding and vegetable plants to adorn our newly painted roof and sowed lettuce seeds in our new tiny cold frame.
 Spring bulbs drying out for storage till Autumn.
 Summer Bedding
4 Different lettuce in our new mini cold frame
All the plant saucers got little wooden feet to minimise the contact area on the roof and so do less damage to the paint; they seem to be working, but obviously time will tell.
Colin and Julia, on Smith’s Lady, the lovely Dutch barge behind us, brought a couple of old, faded garden chairs round for us to use as fire wood, we gratefully accepted them and were about to smash them up when Dave had a closer look and realised that they were beech and quite well made, and with a bit of time and care they could be brought back to life. So that became a project for a week or so.
Missing slats and a bit bowed, but otherwise sound.

Dissasembled and ready for sanding.
First coat of Danish oil, three more to go.
After and before.

To great interest from the passing dog walkers and joggers, our folding bikes got a strip down and service. The last time that happened we were in Cambridge, so they were well overdue.

Throughout all this activity the weather just kept getting better. The Wallingford residents made the most of it and many of them regularly came to take their allotted daily exercise along the river bank, often stopping for a chat and to see what we were up to today. We have never felt so much part of a community since we left the house.  
We know that for a lot of people Lockdown was a complete nightmare. Parents who were trying to work from home and be teachers at the same time, people living alone in inner city flats, those not able to visit sick friends and relatives, or attend funerals, as well as all the cancelled weddings, holidays and numerous other important events that 2020 will be remembered for not having. However, apart from not being able to go to foreign countries and see our grandchildren, and having to learn to use Zoom instead, Covid 19 was a time that, despite feeling guilty about it, we can’t help but look back on fondly.
 Easter Morning
 Family chat on Zoom
 Celebrating Richard Fox's birthday.
May Morning with a Pagan Star.

Once our initial fears were overcome (Angie, the mooring warden who became a really good friend came and told us that we wouldn’t be charged anything all the time lockdown was in force, and we arranged with the caravan site over the bridge to use their elsan for £2 a go.) life really was a breeze. Social distancing soon became the new normal and stepping off the towpath to let other people pass became almost second nature. We made firm friends with Colin and Julia on Smith's Lady, with Steve on Andelante who was moored behind them, and with Ruth and Alex, a young couple on NB Aquarius which was moored further up the towpath in the trees.

On VE day we had a socially distanced party. The bunting went up on Legend and Smith's Lady and Ann-Marie had victory rolls in her hair and sausage rolls in the oven. With us on the back of our boat, Colin and Julia on the front of theirs, and Steve, Ruth and Alex on chairs on the bank, the party got into full swing. Angie came along as well and a lovely afternoon went on to be a lovely evening with loads of food and far too much gin.

We had such a good time that we repeated it twice more, the final one being our going away party the night before we left, which was one of the best parties imaginable.

A couple of weeks before we left, the restrictions eased and estate agents were allowed to resume business. We got a phone call from France asking if we could go over to Frankie and Harry’s flat near Enfield, put a new piece of plasterboard in one of the bedrooms where the original ceiling was bowed and cracking, making it look like it was about to fall down.
And could we spruce it up a bit so they could put it back on the market. “No worries” we said. “It shouldn’t take long.” we said. Of course, the whole country was on lockdown and everything that wasn’t simply impossible took forever.

Day 1. Left the boat at 6:30 and apart from the half hour it took to rip down the old section...
...the entire day was spent trying unsuccessfully to buy plasterboard. We finally found some and considered ourselves very fortunate to get a click and collect time slot for the same day at 3pm.

Two sheets of plasterboard only just fit in a Kia.

Day 2. Plaster board up and a rather unconvincing artex match applied without any artex or artex tools. Rather annoyed at having to buy 1000 drywall screws when we only needed 20. Applied first coat of paint to bedroom ceiling. Did lots of cleaning.

 Day 3. Did lots more cleaning and applied second coat of paint to the bedroom ceiling. It looks a lot better now, but it's quite obvious that it's been repaired.

Put two coats of paint on the lounge ceiling.

We came home very achy and tired. The flat was empty so there wasn’t anything to sit on or eat off. We had our fish & chips sitting on the floor. Hopefully what we did will speed up the sale.

When the government allowed longer walks we went back to our more usual routine and tried to get out more.


At the end of May - just over 7 months after we arrived - EA lifted the navigation restrictions. We waited until the bank holiday was over before moving, as we assumed that all the gin palaces would be out in force after being forced to stay in their marinas for half the summer. (As it turned out we were wrong, it was the hordes of paddle boarders and people in blow-up boats that would have made boating a nightmare.)

 And so, on Tuesday morning we said an emotional goodbye to our wonderful friends, slipped our mooring and finally pulled away from Wallingford riverbank.
By several months it had been the longest that we’d been in one place since we sold the house and a time we will never forget. We’d arrived almost by accident and tried to leave a couple of days later only to be turned back because of the increasing flow, so it was by absolute good fortune that we hadn’t found ourselves tied to a tree up the river somewhere when the floods came. When we think of the alternatives we are only too aware that being in lockdown in Wallingford was the best thing that could have happened to us. The local residents were so friendly and welcoming, Chris, the retired army colonel, who made us soup and some delicious goulash, Theresa, the ex-mayor who came past on her daily walk and was so lovely, and so many others who regularly came by our boat and were always interested in what was going on and how we were coping. We felt so safe and happy that it’s easy to forget the mayhem that the rest of the country was trying to cope with.

On our way upriver the weather was glorious, cloudless skies and hardly a breeze; such a contrast to the rain and gales that we would have faced if we hadn’t been turned back in October. We had two stops, the first at Abingdon, where we had a wander round and found the abandoned entrance to the Wilts and Berks canal...

and again at Osney where we met Tony Robinson two years ago. Electric power had been restored to most of the locks, but Abingdon was still on hand wind which gave Ann-Marie a good workout. We played River Bingo on the way up to Oxford, Ann-Marie won by being the first to get a line, she got swan, waterlily, damsel fly, kite and finally - running across Iffley lock gates - squirrel.

Shortly after that we turned right at an unmarked junction under an unassuming and innocuous looking footbridge onto a dingy looking narrow channel that went under a rather low railway bridge.

We were expecting the entrance to the beautiful Oxford Canal to be a somewhat grander affair. Or at least have a sign. But we were off the Thames at last, and however much we love this river, and we really do love it, being back on the main system after 2 years away felt amazing. As we worked Legend up Isis Lock, a beautiful narrow lock, the sort of lock our boat was built for, it would be fair to say that we were both a bit emotional.


Carol said...

A great post, a great adventure and a great relief! A winter to remember with every emotion possible. Well done! Enjoy your narrow cruising and continue to stay safe.

Pip and Mick said...

I've just looked back at our blog for the end of last year. We were a few days ahead of you leaving the K&A, then I think a day ahead at Goring Lock. After loitering for a while and studying the river Mick managed to leave the Thames on the 2nd November. What a difference a couple of days made!
Glad you had a good time in Wallingford for all that time.
Shame our paths don't look like they will cross this year as we are heading northwards.
Stay safe, enjoy your time in Stourport!
Pip and Mick

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