A recent conversation put me in mind of canoeing, and in particular me canoeing with my friend Frankie in her canoe. We lived in Cambridge not far from the River Cam and the river was an important part in my life. My dad was a keen oarsman when young, and after the war he started coaching teams, cycling along the tow path bellowing at them through a simple metal megaphone, quite often with me and my sister in pursuit on our bikes. There was also the annual ‘Swim through Cambridge’ a race along the Cam along the backs of the colleges and beneath the many beautiful old bridges. I’m not sure when I first did that, maybe when I was eleven or twelve? We walked by the river, we cycled by the river, we swam in the river on the other side of town, we punted on the river with my dad proficiently handling the pole, the river really was part of my life. And then Frankie decided she wanted a canoe more than anything, and she eventually received a kit to make one for Christmas or her birthday, I guess.
Her dad made the canoe – bending and fashioning the wooden bits into a frame, stretching and sticking the canvas onto it with hot melted glue – I burned my hand playing with it but didn’t dare say in case I was told off. It must have taken several weeks, but I only remember being out in the cold, damp weather, ‘helping’ or not and at last it was ready and I suppose we must have carried it down to the river. We were both good swimmers, we had both been in wooden hired canoes, so I guess we knew what to do, and we were young and fit and strong because of all the swimming and biking we did.
Once we got the hang of it we spent every moment we could on the river. Going upstream along past the backs of the colleges, over the weir by the mill pond, then along the upper reaches of the river as it changed from being the Cam to being the Granta. We went as far as Byron’s Pool but never saw the ghost of the great man – not that he had died there, he’d just swum there but his ghost was said to swim there still. We went downstream out into the Cambridgeshire countryside, taking the canoe out of the water to bypass locks, and I can’t now remember how far we went, miles and miles, I know. We went far out into the countryside and the fens, we spent hours out on the water, never bored because there was always something to see, something of interest. We didn’t wear life-jackets and of course we had no mobile phones.
It seems like we did this for summer after summer, but I think maybe it was only for a couple of years, but I often think about it and always think how fortunate I was!