On the river

“there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

A month ago, before the political world blew up and everyone started running round with their hair on fire, we went on holiday to Cornwall. On the way out traffic was surprisingly light, and we were able to pass by the increasingly horrible trio of Slough, Reading and Swindon quickly. Since we were ahead of schedule we detoured to see the vale of the white horse, which was much smaller than I remembered, and is also surprisingly difficult to see in its entirety without being in the air. Pushing on to Clevedon Court we were reinvigorated by a scone and tea, and then took a look round the house. We enjoyed the impressive collection of glass and the great hall, but the highlight was definitely the gardens, with terraces of beautifully manicured lawns backed by large flower beds. Basking on a bench in the sun occupied us until closing time, and then we made the short hop to Weston Super Mare.

I had decided a night’s stay on the road was preferable to attempting to drive to Cornwall in one day, and since Ed had never been to Weston, I thought this lack of a traditional British experience should be remedied. We stayed at one of the big hotels from when Weston was a popular resort, all fish tanks and overapplied gilt. We were one of only two couples for dinner, and the chef compensated by using at least enough salt for twenty people. An after dinner stroll was everything you could have hoped for, the wind-whipped sand abrading your legs as you stared out over the mud flats to a distant sliver of sea.

After a refreshing night’s sleep we fortified ourselves with breakfast, which in contrast to the dinner was extremely good. And a lucky thing it was, since the drive was rather an endurance test, through road after road clogged by roadworks and a detour to completely the wrong place as I hadn’t read the directions properly. By seven in the evening we were getting rather weary as we drove through a gate that warned us no vehicles were allowed, into a green tree tunnel and down down down till we ran out of road. Things didn’t look hopeful but I went down the footpath at the end of the road, turned a corner, and suddenly found myself looking at a little yellow cottage nestled in the middle of the forest.

The first couple of days were rather rainy, and apart from a hike around the coast we mostly sat indoors, reading and cooking and enjoying the view of the lush growth of trees and ferns around us. As the weather cleared we ventured to Helford, where we could get the ferry across the river and go and visit the spectacular gardens, which featured a pond full of huge koi, tree ferns, beds of sub-tropical succulents, and the largest spread of giant rhubarb that I have ever seen. There was a sunken path between the spiky stems, and once you were in the enormous leaves blotted out sound and light together. Then down to the garden’s beach for an ice cream, and I finally, after ten years, learned how to skip stones. The second garden had a maze but I am afraid that compared to seeing a rock that I threw bounce on the water for the first time it was rather tame.

However, for me the highlight of the holiday was the two times we went out in kayaks on the river. Ever since the days I rowed I have found nothing in life quite so relaxing as – Grahame put it so well – messing about in boats. The Helford river has a multitude of little creeks to explore, the banks covered in oak forest which reaches right down to the water in many places. We paddled for miles, watching fish dart away, birds take wing and water squirt up from the mud flats, presumably from some hidden creature. A heron shouted its disapproval of our presence from its nest as we pushed on, the water getting muddier and shallower until we reached Gweek, where we finally ran out of depth in sight of the town. Heading back proved easier work, and we were able to venture up Frenchman’s Creek almost to within sight of the cottage. The river was so lovely that I could have stayed out all evening, but the final ferry and our tired arms called us back.

On Ed’s birthday we celebrated with a roast chicken, roast potatoes and a homemade cake. Afterwards we sat outside, each with a gin and tonic, listening to the owls calling and watching the bats flitter across the sky. There was no internet, no phone, no link to the outside world at all. We were quiet, and alone, and the world seemed a very peaceful place.

Of course, in the end, we had to come back. But a story is shaped by where you choose to end it; and this one ends here.

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