The party’s over. I thought, for a moment just before the sun set, that an invasion was indeed underway. Whooping young men plunged into the river from the vagrant boat on the opposite bank. Perhaps a combination of heat, booze and the lemming principle had driven them to it. But the last one into the water struggled to stay afloat and then had some difficulty getting out. No-one else followed suit and the barge poles were not needed to repel them.
The party turned out to be well-organized, good-natured and of course extremely loud. Cans of beer were stacked in barrels filled with water. Few of the males were ever to be seen without one to hand. Two portable toilets were perched on the back of a pickup truck. A large red awning was draped over a dance floor with light and sound systems driven by a generator. There was a small firework display.
I’m not sure if there are still such things as ‘raves’, but if this was one it was very nearly enchanting. We few on the opposite bank were the only others within even long-range earshot. I fell fast asleep to the pulse of increasingly bizarre music.
This morning subdued, youthful groups were still chatting around the smoldering embers of the fire. A drum kit was set out on the roof of the vagrant boat, but no-one played it. The party equipment was dismantled and loaded into white vans amid a good deal of violent cursing. A couple of Buddhist monks strolled by. Mr Spaniel, the TV man, may well have been among the ringers of the town church bells competing with the birdsong.
I take to my bicycle to explore the network of tracks that is said to link almost everywhere in this region. There’s a disused railway line between the two nearby cities – always attractive to the cyclist like me who prefers to avoid hills. A few years ago I found a similar one near Bordeaux in France where the stations had been converted into very attractive cafes.
The best access point to the one here is at a station roughly midway between the two cities. It has been developed into a centre for enthusiasts of steam trains. There are a few miles of track along which I’ve seen a mock-up of Thomas the Tank Engine, shrouded in steam, pulling a couple of old carriages full of enchanted children and adults pretending not to be.
The station is quiet this morning, though the cycle track is very active. There are joggers, dog-walkers, strollers, lovers and a variegated mass of cyclists. Some of the largest I’ve ever seen, almost engulfing the wheels beneath them, pound along, glancing at watches, perhaps convinced – like me – that this is a more pleasurable and useful alternative to the rigors of the gym. At one point I am confronted by what looks at a distance like a regiment of cyclists in uniform bearing down on me. It is a sponsored bike ride. The occasional serious practitioner flashes imperiously past me.
The path is a delight, cutting through woods and across rusty bridges over the same river where my barge is moored, here idling its way around fields of ripening wheat or grazing sheep, its banks draped with willow.
A small abandoned brick shed is labelled ‘Temple’. On the ironwork of the nearby bridge are colourful graffiti appealing to esoteric gods – alongside is the word ‘BLIAR’.
In less than an hour of gentle peddling down a smooth track I’m right in the centre of the city, giving thanks to all those public-spirited citizens who made this possible.
A phone call comes through from the German couple who are currently living in my former house in Oxford. Posy is unwell. She is the cat who has lived with one or other of us for the better part of 22 years, the last offspring of a mighty tomcat who was discovered in the lift of an apartment block in the East End of London.
After an uneventful youth, living with her detested sister Freddie, Posy has in more recent years been moved from a house to an apartment, then – through a snowstorm – out into deepest rural Gloucestershire, before taking up residence in Oxford.
The demise of her sister a few years ago gave Posy a new lease of life. She has recovered from a broken tail, cat flu, a murmuring heart. But this time she has reportedly stopped drinking altogether and curled up, motionless, in a corner. It looks like the end. I shed a tear and listen to Brahms’ Requiem by way of catharsis.
An hour or so later, another call. She is drinking again and on the mend. She may go on like this forever.