Nat Lucas discovers how time moves differently on a late summer row down the Thames.
The sky is an ink wash of gunmetal grey, silver and indigo. Swollen with rain it dips down to meet the water; the willows mutter in the rising breeze. Two men pass by on a working barge, a patchwork of black with a shock of exhaust. They raise their hands and nod in greeting as they overtake. They have watched our progress for the last twenty minutes on a straight avenue of the river. We rest and balance our oars on the water for steadiness as their wake slaps against our boards. Then the rain comes.
Things move at different speeds along the river. Our pace is marked by the muted thwack-knock of heavy oars against fixed wooden rowlocks. It is the pulse of a resting heartbeat that deviates into a hiccup when the rhythm is lost to a distraction or an oar jumping inexpertly from its pivoting position. Everything in the boat is static apart from the tiller. This is Rosalind, a thirty year old handcrafted camping skiff and she will not be hurried. Even the green water smell of our overnight mooring lingers in the stowed canvas of her covers.
Natural sounds travel quickly over water. The familiar braking of ducks and geese as their feet enter the river is mirrored by our wooden blades as we turn them horizontally to scud over the surface before rolling back into full stroke. Unnatural sounds travel further too we find. The first night we were kept awake as ‘Heaven must be missing an Angel’ bellowed from a wedding across the water.
Fastest moving is undoubtedly gossip. The river, from the point we join as it washes seamlessly from Isis into Thames, until we reach our last lock, acts like a string stretched between two tin cans. It is an aqua telegraph. The lock keeper has been warned of our speed he jokes as he stands and passes the time of day while the crowns of our heads disappear beneath his view. He seems impressed at our arrival, having already heard of our trials upstream. In the first ten minutes of our adventure we had twice manoeuvred into a moored barge and dropped an oar attempting to turn our noses downstream for the first time. Then our speed had the imprint of the city; a digital governance of minutes run. Now we have sloughed off such confines and cannot comprehend measuring time in anything less than a brace of hours.
Whatever our actual speed it was fast enough to startle cows as they scrambled stomach deep in the water among the trees at dusk. Yet we were slow enough to see the blue flash of a kingfisher as it turned out of the tree line and darted away up and over a tributary. This is a wholly different experience, far removed from the sensation of motionlessness encountered during modern air travel. A journey this close to the level of the river transmogrifies all land bound notions of time. We reached our destination with a quarter of an hour in hand. This was travelling while barely moving.