"It is not down in any map; true places never are."
– Herman Melville
I’ve just got back from a wonderful barge holiday along the leafy Oxford section of the River Thames. A holiday like this is all about slowing down from the normal hectic rhythm of life, where travel along the canals is based at walking speed, and the landscape transforms itself slowly. Fields slide past and approaching cities announce themselves with the peak of church spires over the tree line.
Entering Oxford, we slipped under its bridges to moor on the towpath at the heart of the city. At once memories of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights novel (renamed The Golden Compass), flooded back to me and it was easy to see where his inspiration for the Gypsums came from. A quick visit to the Pitts Rivers museum and of course the obligatory viewing of the shrunken heads (which also features in Pullman’s work), matched up to my startling memories of when I’d first seen them as a child.
Leaving Oxford behind, we travelled along a river filled with wildlife. Flocks of geese called to us out as we manoeuvred between them, the electric blue sparks of Kingfishers sped overhead, and Sand Martins swooped down for flies over the water in an aerial ballet. But it wasn't just nature that made it such a special experience, it was also the people on the waterways. From the lock keepers to other boat owners, everyone was so friendly. In a world where people often don’t talk to their neighbours, river and canal life seems to bring out the best in human nature. It feels a bit like stepping back in time to a simpler age, where people took the time to chat with total strangers.
Having returned home I’ve found myself seriously considering buying what’s known as a live aboard barge – a boat sufficiently equipped to stay the whole year round on. Being able to travel and write certainly has an appeal. My brief experience in the slow lane has made me think about lifestyle choices and the alternatives available. Heading up to London by boat for agent meetings, etc, would also be very cool.