Punting to the Pub

Outside our little log cabin (a bit of Canada in Oxfordshire) is the River Cherwell.  Barry, our kindly landlord, brought out a couple of paddles and a life ring to add a little safety to the traditional pole on his traditional punt.  Barry is an animal lover, with mallards and geese favoring this stretch of river, doubtless fed.  Barry and his wife ‘have been adopted’ by a family of albino Muscovy ducks, the white feathers showing off their strange red beaks quite handsomely.  Smutty Nose, a homely but super-friendly cat, curls around my ankles, allowing my hands to touch one of the four textures they’ve been missing.

Long as a canoe and flat-bottomed as a hockey puck, I must say that poling a punt is not a skill learned in a trice.  Being the most familiar with boats, I was elected punter, and the other four sat or used the paddles to fend as we bounced from bank to bank, making our way slowly downstream to the Victoria Arms.  With my sport jacket and scarf (it’s a bit nippy out), all I needed was me straw boater to complete the picture.

Barry gave me two bits of good advice: twist the pole as you disengage from the muddy bottom to break the seal, or you may find that either a) you end up clinging to the pole as the punt takes off, or b) you and the punt leave the pole behind.  So a little twist like feathering an oar works a treat to keep all three – punt, pole and me – in the same vicinity.

We pass in the late day sun from Barry’s little riverside cottage through the hollow tunnel under the motorway, and on downstream through Wind in the Willows country – green and gentle pasture skirting Oxford.  The occasional house, horse, or bankside rambler hears our laughter as I try in vain find the balance point between the pole’s fulcrum, my feet, and the boat’s center of gravity.  I am standing in the back like a gondolier, the long aluminium pole wetting my sleeves to the elbow every time I pull it in.  But it is just too easy to slew to port or starboard, and to the raucous delight of my passengers we bump constantly into bushes or get the upper part of the pole caught in branches on either side of the bank.

At length the pub looms into view, and we disembark, tie off (giving my hands a feel of the second texture they’ve been missing all winter – the reassuring feel of rope), and join a half a dozen students for fish and chips and a typically few too many pints. One of the students brings along her husband’s tiny traveling guitar, giving my grateful hands a feel of the third texture they’ve been missing – the wound plucked strings that set the air to music.

Only four of us try to wend our way back, probably the better part of valour, because it is pitch black – well, not quite, it’s a cloudy half moon – and we are going upstream (and we’re remembering all the  many overhanging and submerged hazards we avoided on the way down).  The torch loses its batteries after the first turn.

I try polling us along, but we are spinning in the oncoming current, so finally the two paddles are employed over each side, and I take Barry’s second bit of advice: leave the pole out astern for steering.  It’s not as easy to paddle as a canoe, so with much discussion as to method (a new alternative proposed every minute or so), exhortation (to avoid collision with yet another looming bank), and indignant exclamation (as overhanging branches surprise an ear or an eye), we aim upstream and surprisingly the trip home seems far shorter than the trip down.  One of the benefits of alcohol?  Disembarking on a bank’s a slippery affair, and it’s a muddy, twiggy crew that stumbles into bed, to dream of that fourth texture my hands have been missing, the texture that can only be felt if this plane snafu unsnarls and lets me home to the skin of my one true love.

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One Response to “Punting to the Pub”

  1. Sharon Says:

    I love your last sentence. I sense I would be this woman’s willing audience. The real avatars are the ones who define “what you see is what you get.” She is your north star! Totally divine.

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