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Romancing the River Thames
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Romancing the River Thames
  London Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

I had just been on a train through Scotland's glorious heart and landscape and now here I was, sitting in a 1642 pub in Pangbourne, waiting to board the "Actief," a luxury hotel barge that cruises the River Thames. I shook off Scotland's persona as best I could, put on my sailor's cap and examined the old pub. Still an inn, Swan Hotel practically creaks with age. I loved the crooked floors, the tilted walls, the hidden nooks, and the low . . . the very low ceilings -- so low the bartender had to walk around with a perpetual stoop!

" Great for character," said the barman. " But hard on the neck."

The place was dimly lit and smoky, and (with my overactive imagination), when I concentrated really hard, I could make out 17th century figures tilting back a pint or two.

Down by the river life seemed prosperous and purposeful. Fat swans glided by in slow motion; houseboat owners busily swept, shook mats and hosed down decks; homeowners washed windows and concrete boat ramps.

" The Actief is here!", someone hollered.

The Actief is the biggest vessel navigating the Thames and she's hard to miss floating in the narrow channel. She seemed peaceful and gentle, despite her cumbersome size, as peaceful and gentle as the Shire horses we called on later in the week. The river seemed peaceful and gentle, too, and unusually calming, despite the additional flurry of activity.

I watched the crew, one man and three women, efficiently maneuver and moor the shiny black 100 foot 1907 Holland hull.

The crew wore many hats, I soon discovered. When they weren't navigating, mooring, or squeezing through locks, they were guiding, cooking and making beds, or running errands in response to requests from us. They did this unobtrusively, quietly.

A certain newspaper, a brand of wine, a breakfast preference . . . whatever our pleasure, all we needed to do was ask, and it appeared like magic.

The nights were magic, too, for we'd anchor in the most enchanting places.

One night we anchored by a farmer's field and a herd of cows came to check us out. Another night, we anchored alongside a life-size pop-up book -- at least that's what Henley's waterfront looked like to me. Still another night, we had our own private island with a draw bridge that went up late at night.

It was obvious someone plotted the course carefully.

" We want to accommodate you in every way. " said Jonathan Parratt, owner of the Actief. "If it's a game of squash or tennis you're after, or fishing, let us know, we'll make the arrangements. If you want to relax on the deck and enjoy the river, that's fine, but if you'd rather tour the towns, or visit pubs and meet the locals, we're ready for that, too. It's your vacation, you're the boss."

" And unless it's something that costs us extra money like hiring horses to go horseback riding, " he continued, " or something like renting air-balloons for air-ballooning, there's no additional charge."

The saloon on the Actief was cozy, comfortable and inviting, with a well-stocked bar and library of books describing wildlife, history and life on the Thames. Staying on board was tempting, however, there was a land program that I didn't want to miss.

The program included tours of Oxford and Eton Colleges and Windsor Castle; a trip to the Courage Shire Horse Centre; stops at historical hotels and a boat builder's boat yard, and guided walks through fairy tale villages that pretend to be real towns. (In the town of Eton, for example, students dress in traditional tailcoats.) Besides, Hugh, our personable young captain, was so witty and persuasive and qualified in his role as tour guide, that, like the proverbial lamb, everywhere that Hugh went, I was sure to go.

We climbed the hill to the Cliveden House, the same hill Lady Astor climbed in the 1890's . . . or more accurately, the same hill she climbed with help. Apparently her servants used a curved wooden stick that fit her bottom and pushed her up the incline.

" Don't look until I tell you, " said Hugh, as we approached the very hill.

Hugh liked his job; I could tell by his grin. Eyes down, we followed him obediently up a narrow path overgrown with bushes. We stopped at a huge landscaped clearing.

" Now look! " he said dramatically, with a wave of his hand.

Cliveden House, a monumental ornate structure, domineered the skyline. With nothing else in sight except yew trees, a monstrous manicured lawn decorated with ornamental shrubs, and the river below us, the image was truly splendor in the grass.

Gosh! Wow! Look at that! and other exclamatory remarks of admiration and awe spilled from our mouths.

It wasn't the only time we uttered words of wonder on this voyage.

As I suspected, the River Thames has many personalities.

It's opulent and private where mansions the size of castles and park-like gardens cast shadows on its rippling surface.

" Look! There's Ratty's House from " Wind in the Willows! "

I think Freda spotted it first.

It's cosmopolitan and common when grand old cities, modern roadways, ancient bridges and cobblestone sidewalks track its shores.

" We're floating between several time zones, " someone said.

It's lively when long boats, fish boats, row boats, house boats, fancy yachts and dozens of locks and weirs make it so.

" There's the lockmaster with his empty cup." said John, confirming what had become a ritual, the lockmasters getting their cups filled with freshly brewed coffee every time the Actief came through.

It's quiet, swamp-like and isolated, and wild, too. Ducks, coots, and herons and other feathered beauties live among its grasses and its graceful weeping willows.

" A kingfisher, " Stuart said, but nobody believed him.

A flash of sapphire skimmed across the water.

"It's true! It's true!" he insisted.

"No, it's not." We'd tease him unmercifully, knowing well that it was.

We could do that because we had become quite familiar with one another. After all, the nine of us were together most of the time.

When we weren't staring out the window, we were contemplating.

Mornings, I buried my head in my notes; Stuart would be examining a book about birds; Ken and Olive would be out for a stroll; Peggy would be checking the stocks; Freda and Jeannette would be reading " The Wind in the Willows " or looking over a thick Abercrombie & Kent portfolio of tours; Leonard and John, would be reading the dailies.

We ate breakfast between 7:30am and 8:30am and pushed away at nine. There was always time for a run on land. On occasion, it was possible to walk alongside the barge as it continued to the next lock.

One such morning, horrors! I slipped and fell just as I got started. Humiliated, I hobbled on despite an injured knee, determined to make it to the next lock.

" Do you come here often? " I asked a fisherman sitting under a gigantic umbrella. I had to stop to rest.

He looked funny in his rain gear with the sun hot and bright. I knew, though, that the rain was only minutes from falling.

" Well, today my wife is doing some redecorating and she's wanting me out of the house. "

He looked me up and down, at my torn, grass-stained jeans and muddy shoes, and I know he's thinking, she sure looks funny with that bulky sweater tied around her waist and that long black raincoat dragging about her feet. She's been tripping over the whole mess, I don't doubt.

" I come here when the day's done," he said. "But, it's not for the fish; I release the fish. It's a way of relaxing. "

The river is relaxing. I knew that. He tossed the line upstream. We watched it move down with the flow.

Back on the Actief I joined the others on the deck. Stuart was still looking for the kingfisher.

" There he is! " he said excitedly. " You saw it, too, then? "

We couldn't deny it. He saw we saw it. . . . a streak of blue swooping down and up and disappearing.

Inside the saloon, I rested my leg on a pillow and put an ice pack on my knee. For the rest of the trip, I decided, I'm going to be like that Kingfisher. I'm going to hang around the river.

Abercrombie & Kent offers several barge cruises in Britain and England. For more information and rates and schedules call 800-323-7308.

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