Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Woken by a very noisy dawn chorus

Moored at Beale Park on a sunny evening with no geese
Why do people feed geese? If they had a huge flock of them honking and splashing outside their bedroom window at 4.30 a.m. like I had today then I bet they wouldn't be so keen.
Why do they feed them? And pigeons for that matter? Swans and ducks I understand – I'm happy to feed a duck an occasional piece of something when we are moored up – but I just cannot understand why people continue to feed these birds that are nothing short of pests.
I don't mean just throw them a few leftover crusts, no I mean shovel industrial quantities of food into the water and onto the riverbank. For some reason, Asian families seem to be the worst. I understand that the swan has a significant place in the Hindu religion so I'll concede feeding those but pigeons??
Anyway enough of the ranting: I was pretty grumpy at 4.30 a.m. and I had only just got back to sleep again when it started raining heavily and I realised I hadn't put the cover on the engine chimney so I had to get up and go outside to do so, rather than risk getting water in the engine.
Fortunately, once the morning rain had stopped, the day was blustery enough to keep me wide awake at the tiller.
We haven't come far, just to the edge of Beale Park wildlife sanctuary between Pangbourne and Goring. That's partly because of the rain but also because we decided to stock up the galley at Reading Aldi before leaving. There aren't many shops between here and Oxford – and certainly no Lidls or Aldis in posh old Oxfordshire.
A pair of pretty old Severn tugs now on the Thames
There's a long run out of Reading before the first lock at Mapledurham where pretty much everything you can see is (or was) part of the estate that centred around Mapledurham House, one of the finest Tudor mansions in the country. Like a surprising number of these places it is still in the hands of descendants of the Blount family who built it. The house and the working water mill are only open to Joe Public on summer weekends and lie virtually hidden from view behind banks of trees to us humble passing boaters. You will have seen them in films and tv programmes like The Eagle Has Landed and Inspector Morse.
Hardwick House - the inspiration for Toad Hall
A mile upriver is the rather more elegant Hardwick House, which glories in its elegantly symmetrical setting just back from the river. Queen Elizabeth I stayed here and, seemingly, Kenneth Grahame used it as his inspiration for Toad Hall and its then owner in 1909, Charles Day Rose, as a model for Mr Toad.
The present owner is his descendant, Sir Julian Rose and, as toffs go, seems a jolly good bloke. He started as an actor, took over the estate when his father died and changed it into a pioneering organic farm. He has opened up the estate forests for a young offenders project and lets out cottages at affordable rents to local people. He is now a leading 'green' campaigner.
Alpacas that have swapped the Andes for the Thames
A little further we came upon another pioneering farming venture – fields of apacas grazing. Bozedown Alpacas breeds these South American animals which are becoming popular here for their easy temperaments and fine fleeces.
Bulky Edwardian piles line the river at Pangbourne
We went under the Victorian iron toll bridge which allows motorists to venture between Whitchurch and Pangbourne for a 20p fee and on past another line of the grand but rather bulbous Edwardian houses that dominate the Thames-side scene along its home counties route. Oddly, with a main road and river in front and a railway behind, these huge piles have virtually no gardens.
House-watching is one of the fascinations of cruising the river – everything is here from ultra-modern glass and steel Huf houses down to little tumbledown timber cabins that are probably still worth a few hundred thou simply by virtue of their location.
Tomorrow we'll head through Goring, where money really is no object when it comes to building a flashy Thames-side home. Tonight though it's been kingfisher spotting in the beautiful, tree swathed countryside.

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