Canal and River Life: (4) The canal from Brentford to Elthorne

At first during lockdown, I was walking circuits of nearby Blondin Park – each one about two-thirds of a mile. Three would cover about two miles and get you through a BBC Football Daily podcast. Four or five would cover a typical length of a political or cultural podcast. I grew quite attached to the routine, but welcomed the chance to go further afield once the rules were relaxed in May (I think it was May, but who knows? Time is something of a blur these days). The Grand Union Canal/River Brent is only a ten minute walk away and offers rather more variety. The stretch that runs from Brentford to Elthorne Meadows in Hanwell has become my staple walk now, though I’ll add a bit of the Thames from time to time. The photos in this series have been from those walks, focusing so far on particular aspects of canal and river life. This fourth piece takes a step back and views the bigger picture.

Starting urban, then going green.


The Brentford end

Glaxo SmithKline looms from many directions

Under the A4

Over to Boston Manor Park

Downstream from the footbridge

Upstream from the footbridge

Piccadilly Line

Scene of earlier reflections

The Elthorne end, looking downstrem


The weir, Elthorne end


M4 just behind the trees


Just a couple, taken into the evening sun recently with the iPhone.

Right, off for a canal walk now!




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Canal and River Life: (3) Close ups

This series is all about the wonders of nature. They are all around us; and having the canal and the Thames nearby simply improves the riches. The weather has helped too – for the most part during lockdown it has been benign and often glorious. This post goes in close, to reveal that beauty in small things which I have posted about before. Mostly from the banks of the canal, but with a couple of excursions to the Thames near Kew and Brentford.

I’m hampered in one regard – I hardly know the names of the plants and flowers I’ve photographed. A project in the making there, I think.

The photos below were taken from May to July. I’ve grouped them by month just to break things up a bit. Otherwise it’s full-on foliage!


All from the Grand Union Canal/ River Brent.

Slight focus issue with these foxgloves. I went back a couple of days later to see if I could get a better shot, but they had gone. Someone must have cut them and taken them home. Very selfish.


Canal/River Brent again. Starting, like May, at the Brentford end.


Starting with the Thames, on the Kew side.

Onto the Isleworth side.

Towards the end of the month I wandered down to Kew Bridge and the shoreline on the Brentford side. After the One over the Ait pub, there’s an alleyway with housing on one side and house boats on the other. That’s where I found a row of fuschia bushes. I think I like fuschias not just because of their extravagant colour and shape, but because they remind me of the West of Ireland, where they grow wild along the coast.

Back to the canal for the last few.

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Canal and River Life: (2) The Waterfowl

These last three months of walking along the River Brent/ Grand Union canal and the Thames have allowed me to follow the development of the natural world from day to day. And the birds that inhabit these spaces have been a fundamental part of that experience. Swans, ducks, herons, moorhens mainly. A few geese too. You catch glimpses of bright green parakeets in the trees, and they make a lot of noise, but they are elusive. Seagulls venture in occasionally, squawking aggressively. I saw a rabbit basking in the sun by the canal one day, but I knew any attempt to take a picture would scare it off. As for the rats… invisible by day, but you know in London you are never far from one. Try cycling the Thames towpath at sunset. It’s a rat extravaganza. And there was an unusually upbeat report on the BBC London news last night showing the seals at Richmond climbing up on people’s kayaks. But we will stick with the birds who live on the water in this blog. They are the main feature.

The Brentford Swans

There’s a family of swans who seem to live by the barges in the approach to the marina and waterside apartments just north of Brentford High Street. Back in May I took these shots.

Last Sunday, I was walking by and saw the same family. The young ones are a lot bigger now.

And on Tuesday, they ventured up-river – the River Brent that is.

Adult  swans tend to be in couples. So the young, when ready, must go somewhere else. The Thames? These photos from Isleworth, near the London Apprentice pub in July would suggest so.

Further up the canal, near Elthorne meadows, from a different family. Classic elegance.

The Moorhens

Perhaps the most humble inhabitants of the canal, being the smallest. But they can be feisty – with each other at least. I’ve seen a few battles for territory over the past months. Lots of aggressive posturing and even some dive bombing. Meanwhile the mallards glide by, taking not a bit of notice. All happens quickly and I never managed a decent photo. The ones below are a bit more serene.

Gathering food for the babies.

The youngsters try a bit of fishing.

Growing fast.


This mother sat on the nest in the next picture for at least a couple of weeks, seemingly unperturbed by all the passers-by on the bridge which passed over this junction between river offshoot and canal. By this time the chicks had hatched. Occasionally when the mother readjusted her position you could see the little heads. I took these shots with the zoom – I wasn’t that close.

An early hatcher from the brood. This lot were were very late though – July. Perhaps a second round?

Setting to work.

The heron of the weir

There are herons scattered around the canal and the Thames. They seem to be solo. This one lingered by a weir on the canal/river for a few days in June, then disappeared. Maybe it got fed up with having its photo taken.

It’s not in this one!

I’m assuming it has its neck wound in because it’s relaxed. Otherwise, maybe it’s a stork!


They are everywhere, and perhaps we take them for granted. But they are good citizens, just getting on with their own thing. And the couples are very loyal to each other. These shots are from May.

This is the same area that was used later by the moorhens in the earlier shot. After the moorhens had left the nest, a mallard took over again for a while. Community use?

Have they had a tiff?

Probably not.

Seagulls and geese

The seagulls come and go, but they like this spot near the M4 bridge. This was from Sunday.

The geese prefer the Thames. This was near Richmond Lock in July.

I count my blessings that I’ve had all of this within walking distance over the past few months.

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Canal and River life: (1) Reflections of…

For the last couple of months I’ve spent a lot of time walking along the nearby Grand Union Canal and from time to time along the River Thames too. I’ve been absorbing the beauty of the natural world – the steady flow of the canal, the faster rush of the tidal river; the vibrant greens of the vegetation, the striking pinks and purples and yellows of the flowers; the daily life of the swans and ducks and moorhens, as they bring new generations into the world. I’ve taken a lot of photos, and thought I’d share a few with you. Starting with a place where nature meets art: reflections.

When the sun shines, the surface of the water responds, mirroring the objects and scenes above and alongside. And as it ripples and flows it distorts those images. And if you zoom in with your camera you find images that could be straight out of an abstract or impressionist painting. The place that really brought that home to me in late May was where a brief offshoot of the canal rejoins the main body of water. It’s overgrown and is home to an array of wildlife. And once the camera does its tricks, it’s a work of art…


A couple more from May.

Into June.

This one’s here because it sets the scene for the next three.

Again, the scene setter. From where the canal runs by the Glaxo SmithKline complex.

Moving into July, and starting with an excursion along the Thames, from Kew Bridge to Twickenham Bridge. Photos are from the riverside just beyond Kew Gardens.

Alien slime.

Back to the canal.

Just in case you are wondering, these photos are exactly as I took them. No enhancements. The weirdness comes from zooming in. Or maybe not weirdness – just the beauty and art of nature.


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My new novel: “Hope Rising”

I’ve just published my new novel “Hope Rising” on Amazon and Kindle. It’s the follow up to “The Decision” which came out in 2018. Like “The Decision” it is set in 2027, and it continues the story of the eco-socialist movement HOPE, its leader Charlie Mowbray and his friends and family, who become even more entangled in his struggle. On one level it’s a struggle against The Authority, which governs Britain (minus Scotland), on another it’s his internal struggle. Is he fit to lead the movement; and who does he love?

“The Decision” revolved around a kidnap at Wembley stadium before a big football final – the build up and the aftermath. It ended in Ireland – I’ll say no more. “Hope Rising” begins with Charlie still in Ireland, but looking to return to England, where he will have to face trial. Can HOPE rise to power from that inauspicious beginning? What part will Charlie and his fiancee Fran play? And his siblings, Will and Susan, for that matter? Read “Hope Rising” to find out!

“Hope Rising” is a sequel, so it’s worth reading “The Decision” first, if you haven’t. And there will be another volume, to complete the Hope Trilogy. I’m working on the plot right now…


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50 Latitude moments, from 2012 to 2019

Yesterday we would have been crawling up the A12 to Henham Park in Suffolk, for the start of the latest Latitude festival. It would have been my ninth and Jon G’s tenth. But like so many things, it had to be cancelled this year. Maybe not so important in the grand scheme of things, but I will miss it over this weekend. It was one of the highlights of the year, not just for the great live music and other arts, but for the whole vibe. Everyone doing their own thing, but coming together too, in shared celebration. From 16 to 60, and all ages in between (and beyond).  It has always felt like a community.

I won’t have a festival to report on this year, so I thought I’d look back over the past eight years and pick out some highlights. I’ve focused on the live music, though some of the most memorable moments have been in the early hours, after the music has stopped on the main stages. The reggae sets from Don Letts and David Rodigan in the Woods – his show in 2016 was one of the greatest moments of all – the pumping beats in the Sunrise Arena and the Woods, the Guilty Pleasures disco, the Lake Stage sound system banging out indie, pop and dance classics whatever the weather. And, in recent years, the impromptu discos in the “Danish Bar”. And then, if the weather is OK, getting back to the tent with a bottle of white wine from the Co-op (where people dance to disco classics as they shop) and reviewing the day’s events with whoever is still up. Love every minute of it!

So, here goes: 50 Latitude memories, in slightly fuzzy focus. Flashing lights, lots of heads in front of me and pictures taken with a small digital camera or my iPhone are my excuses!


Bon Iver, Obelisk Stage (the main stage), Friday. You might have expected Justin Vernon to be more comfortable in the i-Arena, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing his heartfelt songs, but he and his band put on a big stage show. For my 17 year old son Kieran it was the highlight of the weekend.

I was very excited by the Staves’ wonderful harmonies in 2012. They are sisters. Their first album, Dead & Born & Grown was just out. They were singing a song called Wisely & Slow in this photo. i-Arena, Saturday.

The Horrors‘ goth rock tour de force was probably the best show of the weekend. Moving Further Away was truly epic.  Word Arena (the main tent), Saturday.

Ben Howard went down a storm with the youngsters on the Obelisk, Sunday. I loved his dextrous, percussive guitar playing.

Honourable mentions to War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Wooden Shjips, Django Django, Daughter, We Are Augustines and Paul Weller, who treated us to a few Jam classics at the end of his show. We Are Augustines played what I thought was one of the greatest rock’n’roll shows I’d ever seen; but getting a decent picture was impossible. They were back in 2014 as Augustines…

It was a bit muddy in 2012. It’s never been quite like that since.


Benjamin Francis Leftwick was new to me, but I liked his wistful folk sound. Lake Stage, Friday.

Japandroids headlined the i-Arena on Friday. A two piece – drums and guitar – they rocked incredibly. An exhilarating show.

Trans Europe Express! Kraftwerk were amazing on the Obelisk, Saturday. 3D images erupted through the evening sky.

James Blake’s soulful, disjointed electronica is the definition of night music. And yet it captivated a huge crowd at the Obelisk on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Honourable mentions: Chvrches were just emerging, with their debut album due soon after. They attracted a crowd that overwhelmed the i-Arena. No chance of photos, but you could tell they were going places. And Drenge rocked on the same stage on Saturday. Ed Blaney’s Ultimate Bowie tribute act at the Outdoor Theatre was pure joy. Disclosure and Foals were both good, but not as brilliant as I was expecting.

Weather report: complete contrast to 2012. Same path in this photo. Those shorts have since been ditched!


The Acid, featuring Aussie Ry X, were astonishing at the i-Arena on Saturday. Woozy melodies backed by punching electronic beats. Starkly original.

Bombay Bicycle Club had the youth vote on the Obelisk, Saturday. Reminded me a little of a 70s American new wave band called The Feelies, as well as Vampire Weekend.

Nils Frahm, i-Arena Saturday. An absolute keyboard/ electronica genius. His music was a really exciting discovery. Have seen him a few times since. Always captivating.

And so to the best run of bands in my time at Latitude, on the Sunday. Parquet Courts – Eagulls – Fat White Family – Augustines – War on Drugs. Two venues, so you couldn’t catch the full show of each band. I did stay for the whole of Parquet Courts, at what was now the BBC 6 Music stage. New York new wave, updated. Loved their album Light Up Gold.  They were brilliant – and very arsey.

Didn’t see much of Eagulls, but caught the first few songs of Fat White Family at the i-Arena. They were wild. I’ve played around with this photo a bit, but not much.

Rushed back to the 6 Music stage for Augustines. Another magnificent show. An element of Springsteen and a lot of rock’n’roll. Singer Billy McCarthy lives for his music.

And then the War on Drugs, featuring their brilliant album Lost in a Dream. I was lost in a dream watching this. A very moving dream. One of the great Latitude concerts, maybe the best. Adam Granduciel, singer and lead guitarist, suffers, and it all came out in his magnificent guitar playing.

Honourable mentions: East India Youth, Cate le Bon, Bondax, Marika Hackman, The Bohicas (rock’n’roll!), Damon Albarn, headlining the Obelisk on Saturday amid an impressive lightning storm, Julia Holter, closing the i-Arena on Sunday with a haunting set.


Gengahr had just become my favourite indie guitar band with their debut album “A Dream Outside”, and their set at the i-Arena on Friday showed why.

There was a new, one-off stage along the lake this year called Other Voices. This is the Kit’s beautiful, off-kilter folk was just perfect for the venue on Friday afternoon.

Jon Hopkins finished off proceedings in the BBC 6 Music tent on Friday with a sonic and visual assault on the senses that was truly exhilarating.

I’d never heard of Duke Garwood before, but after his brooding guitar masterclass at the i-Arena on Sunday, I had to hear more. JJ Cale meets Robin Trower.

Rat Boy at The Alcove on Sunday was a pure energy rush in that space where rap and punk collide. There was moshing!

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds were pretty good, with some imaginative lighting; but things really took off when Noel pulled out the Oasis songbook. There was a magisterial Champagne Supernova and a truly anthemic Don’t Look Back in Anger to finish the show. Obelisk, Sunday.

Honourable mentions: Nadine Shah, Wolf Alice (brilliant in the 6 Music tent on Saturday – no chance of photos), Warpaint, James Blake, Jack Garratt (the new James Blake!), Thom Yorke’s late “secret” set, which was overwhelmed by the kids waiting for DJ EZ, Manic Street Preachers rather grudgingly working their way through their hits.


Norwich teenagers Let’s Eat Grandma played an intriguing mix of prog, pop and dance as only their generation could. Sunrise Arena – changed name this year – Friday.

Aussie Courtney Barnett knows how to rock and writes intriguing lyrics that are both highly personal and amusing. She energised the Obelisk crowd on a sunny Friday.

Punk, thrash, hardcore and lots of shouting. How the two members of Slaves keep it going, I don’t know. This was primal rock’n’roll, an awesome experience – but not one to repeat too often! 6 Music tent, Friday.

One of the greatest Latitude moments for me. Chvrches, second on the bill at the Obelisk on Saturday. I went down near to the front – I wanted to experience this one properly. It was exhilarating. Hi-energy electro-pop and some rib-crushing basslines. Lauren Mayberry transformed from the rather tentative performer of 2013.

Top of the bill the same night, The National. Their songs are about introspection, but they have become anthemic. The light show and backdrops enhance the experience. AND Matt Berninger sang a duet with Lauren Mayberry on “I Need my Girl” – what else?

Pumarosa were my discovery of the festival this year. A big sound that had shades of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith, as well as Wolf Alice. Honey, with its searing guitar and environmental angst, soon became one of my favourite tunes of recent years. Sunrise Arena, Sunday.

Roots Manuva woke everyone up on Sunday afternoon in the 6 Music tent. Reggae, rap, dance, the London streets – it’s all in there. And some thumping bass lines. You cannot keep your feet still to this music. Altogether now, witness for fitness

Honourable mentions: Lonely the Brave, Mura Masa, Kieran Leonard, Lambert (Nils Frahm in disguise?), New Order – when they launched into the hits. And not forgetting David Rodigan’s reggae odyssey in the early hours of Sunday morning – a wonderful communal experience, the best of Latitude.


A year of new favourites for me, starting with Julia Jacklin from Australia, whose debut album Don’t Let the Kids Win was a wonderful combination of folk, Americana and heartfelt pop. A live show honed to perfection by months of touring. BBC Music stage, Friday.

Catherine McGrath, a young country singer from Northern Ireland,  played The Alcove on Friday afternoon and was delighted that anyone had turned up! Her music was Taylor Swift as much as Kacey Musgraves and she had a very engaging between-song patter. I’ve seen her play live in London many times since.

I wasn’t too familiar with The 1975, but my lot were, so I went along to the Obelisk on Friday for their headline show. I liked the Prince-style sheen to their songs, and singer Matt Healey had a bit of style – as did the stage set. Good modern indie-dance-pop.

My favourite new favourite band, Honeyblood played the Sunrise on Saturday. The set was pared down to the rock’n’rollers from their brilliant two albums, Honeyblood and Babes Never Die, and got a good sized crowd rocking. I was proud of them!

If you want brutal rock’n’roll, Idles are your band. This was their first appearance at Latitude, on the Lake Stage, Saturday. It was pretty wild – this is an early shot when they still had all their clothes on. It all ended with the band leading a posse of teenagers in a conga over the bridge and into the Woods!

More new favourites: Goat Girl, from South London. They have a scuzzy, loping sound with bursts of punk riffing, and no-nonsense lyrics about the state of the world. PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth and Fat White Family are all in there. This was a big gig for them and they responded magnificently.

Honourable mentions: Japanese House, Shame (it was them or Idles for a photo), BEAK>, Slotface, Cabbage, Declan McKenna, Twin Peaks (fantastic straight ahead punk/rock’n’roll), Jack Garratt (stepping up to the BBC Music tent), Tom Grennan, Ward Thomas (more UK country-pop), Girl Ray (another new favourite), The Magic Gang. Disappointments: Mumford & Sons (expected); Fatboy Slim (unexpected).


Palace Winter are an Aussie/Danish band with strong melodies, swirls of electronica and pounding beats. Two albums in, they played a powerful set taken from both at the Sunrise on Friday.

Durand Jones and the Indications played some great 60s and 70s-style R&B, soul and funk. They were slick, they were tight, they were rousing. They hail from Indiana. Joyous, uplifting music.

Black Midi were still a riddle wrapped inside an enigma when they played the Sunrise in 2018 (on Friday). Their music is very distinctive, melding prog, jazz rock, punk and psychedelia. Or something. Best of all is the incredible drumming of Morgan Simpson – a whirlwind of beats.  We came away from this one thinking, wow, what was that?

I used to think Alvvays were from Sweden, such was their way with melody. They are in fact Canadian. You could call their sound power pop.  They’ve written some genuine anthems, like Archie, Marry Me and Dreams Tonite. They played a triumphant gig at the Roundhouse earlier in the year. This one was great, but slightly marred by a preponderance of Liam Gallagher fans in the crowd, waiting for their hero’s “secret” show. BBC Music tent, Saturday.

Holly Cook played a lovely set of old school reggae in the Music and Film arena late on Saturday night, heavy with the sounds of dub. Verily music to chill to, after a hard day’s gigging.

I loved The Orielles’ set on the Sunrise, Sunday. A young band from Halifax, they have updated the sounds of 80’s indie, with Esme Dee’s mellifluous vocals and pulsating bass lines and Henry’s crystalline guitar. The last song, Sugar Tastes Like Salt, gave him a chance to rock out – it was truly epic.

Wolf Alice absolutely bossed the Obelisk stage on Sunday. They were great back in 2015 and have just got better and better. They know how to rock and they know how to write a good tune. Their latest album, Visions of a Life, is a bit heavier than the first, My Love is Cool, but it came alive on the big stage.

Another year, another Jon Hopkins extravaganza in the big tent, to finish Sunday’s proceedings. As awesome as before, if not more so. Based this time on recent album Singularity. That is a masterpiece; this was mind-blowingly good.

Honourable mentions: Hinds, Lower Slaughter (very angry!), Lucia, Alfa Mist (cool jazz, out of grime and hip hop), Sorry, Wildwood Kin, Wandering Hearts, Confidence Man, She Street Band (all woman Springsteen tribute band – huge fun as part of the Guilty Pleasures night in the Comedy Arena), Pip Blom, Mogwai (finally got them), Idles (even more pummelling indoors), Jade Bird.


I didn’t know Anna Calvi’s music too well. I always thought she was a fairly bland pop musician. Wrong! This show, early Friday on the Obelisk, was sensational. Her guitar-playing was visceral. I know her music now.

Crows were completely new to me. They made an awesome noise. Pile-driving riffs and ear-splitting distortion. Singer James Cox did a lot of crowd surfing, even though it was just the Sunrise on Friday afternoon.

Primal Scream played their hits, and what hits they are! The Screamadelica stuff, the rock’n’roll. Bobby Gillespie natty in pink suit. Absolutely joyous.

Honeyblood were first on the Obelisk on Saturday. They played with verve and had attracted a decent-sized crowd by the end. Third album In Plain Sight added to the catalogue, but you still need Ready for the Magic to finish!  Stina went on to play a solo set in the Danish bar in the afternoon. That was great too – though swelteringly hot under the perspex roof.

Quite possibly the greatest Latitude concert of all. Underworld came on after headliners Stereophonics on Saturday night and blew the place away. The beats, the lights in the night sky, and lager, lager, lager! 

Julia Jacklin was back, on the BBC Music stage, Sunday, and better than ever. Armed with her new album Crushing, and my favourite song of 2019, I Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You.  Fellow Aussie Stella Donnelly made a guest appearance.

Chvrches returned too – Sunday on the Obelisk. The emphasis was on their high tempo pop, especially from latest album Love is Dead. It was a party, with Lauren dressed for the occasion.

And finally, not for the last time in this festival season, the amazing The Comet is Coming, featuring the indefatigable Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone. In the darkness, on the Sunrise stage, it was an incredible end to an incredible festival.

Honourable mentions: so many! The Murder Capital (who were the very best at End of the Road later in the summer), Freya Riding (Lost Without You so moving!), Loyle Carner, Maisie Peters, Life, Ider, Pigs x7 (as loud and overwhelming as Crows), Palace, Working Men’s Club (a new band to watch), Pale Waves, Sons of Kemet, Celeste (who has made a real name for herself since, with the lovely ballad Strange), the Japanese House (rockier than before). I’ve sneaked in another photo below, from when Nadine Shah joined Life on the Lake Stage. Sums up the fun to be had at Latitude.

I have to pay tribute to the poet Luke Wright too. I’ve seen him plenty of times over the years at Latitude. He lives locally. He usually comperes some of the poetry as well as performing his own material. It’s quite brilliant – searing social observation, excoriating about politics, sometimes quite personal – he’s divorced with two children – and often crudely funny. He does these amazing pieces where only one vowel is allowed. In 2019 it was “U”.  It must be the rudest vowel! He is an astonishing performer – it’s poetry with beats and rhythms. Drum and bass made from words. As much at the heart of Latitude as all the music.

So, that’s my eight years of Latitude. Let’s hope I’ll be back to celebrating another brilliant festival in 2021.

I’m thinking of a place, and it feels so very real

A great War on Drugs song. Resonant today…






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A Thames Journey: (3) From Newbridge to Oxford

In this third part of the Thames journey we travel downstream from Newbridge to the river’s second city, Oxford – a place dear to my heart, having spent three years there, at university. This stretch of the river runs for 13 ½ miles, according to my Thames path guide. We covered it in two separate walks, nearly a year and a half apart.  My two diary entries for these walks suggest something more like 15 miles in all, but that may be accounted for by a diversion to a village called Stanton Harcourt – see below. The pivotal point was near another village, Farmoor.

Newbridge to Farmoor

We walked this stretch on 25 April 2019, the first of three days of walking, which were the last of the journey – see A Thames Journey 2 for the other two. We walked upstream from Farmoor to Newbridge, which wasn’t far from where we were staying, in Longworth. It’s not a spectacular part of the river, but the walk was pleasant enough. We did have to come off the towpath for a while, and slightly overshot the diversion so that we ended up in Stanton Harcourt. It’s an attractive Oxfordshire village, which takes its name from a 12th century owner, Robert de Harcourt. There’s an impressive church and a prehistoric stone circle – a henge – called the Devil’s Quoits. We didn’t see any of this, as we were focused on getting back to the river. To that end, we found ourselves in Bablock Hythe caravan park, where there was a social club that served as a pub for passers-by. It was one of the rare occasions when I lowered the average age when I went in to buy the drinks!

Beyond the trees, Harcourt House, built in C15 and 16

Newbridge is a small village which is notable for having the second oldest bridge on the Thames – some say the oldest, as Radcot’s is not on the main river. It dates from 1250 and was built by Benedictine monks from St Denis in Paris, who were living in nearby Northmoor. It has pubs on both sides of the river by the bridge: the Rose Revived on the towpath side and the Maybush on the other. We stopped at the Rose Revived and sat outside – it was rather cold, so we didn’t hang around. I’d been there once before, during one of my recent annual reunions with Uni friends – we’ve been staying in a house in a place called Ducklington, near Whitney and the River Windrush, which joins the Thames at Newbridge. An evocative name – the famous ship was named after this humble river and then gave its name to a generation of West Indian immigrants to the UK in the post-war decades. I should say re-named – it was originally a German passenger ship and did service for Germany during the Second World War. It was captured by the British at Kiel in May 1945, and became one of the “Empire” ships which were all named after English rivers.

A few photos of this stretch – as if we were walking backwards!

The bridge at Newbridge

View from the Rose Revived


Pinkhill Lock

Approach to the jetty at Farmoor

Farmoor to Oxford

We did this one on 28 December 2017. It was meant to be the first of three walks, taking us down to Dorchester. We abandoned day three as the towpath was waterlogged – more of that in blog 4.

This was a really lovely walk: big skies over a flat surrounding landscape that had succumbed to the rains and was flooded in many areas. That included where we started, which really felt in the middle of nowhere, though it is close to Farmoor village and the large reservoir.

Farmoor from the other side

We came upon Swinford Bridge. This has an interesting history. It was and still is a toll bridge. It was constructed in 1769. There had previously been a ferry in the same location. That was bought out by the Earl of Abingdon in 1765, and the Swinford Bridge Act was passed by Parliament in 1767 which allowed the Earl to collect a toll of 5d (old pennies = 2.5p) free of tax. The earl must have had friends in high places. Plus ca change – the mates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings have recently been awarded a massive contract to conduct public opinion research on covid 19 with no formal competition. Anyway, the toll was doubled to 5p in 1994 – outrageous! – and is, I believe, still being collected, leading to delays that must really annoy the local people. I guess the Act would have to be repealed for things to change. The same Act says that if the bridge falls down, the ferry has to be restored. That’s helpful.

That toll bridge

We passed Godstow – the place of God – and the ruins of the abbey, as well as the Trout Inn, a place I’ve visited many times in the past. Very popular, especially in the summer. And then it was along the river by Port Meadow, a vast expanse to the west of Oxford. Apparently it’s an area of 342 acres and was given to the city by William the Conqueror. It has never been ploughed or built on. Parts of it flood in winter – and it was winter! It’s a haven for wildlife too. I found it serenely beautiful, although this was a time when I didn’t have a pair of proper walking boots, and my feet got very wet!

This part of the world also brings to mind Philip Pullman’s brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, and in particular the first book, Northern Lights. It’s where Lyra plays and does childish battle with local children, including the Gyptians who spend time on the nearby Oxford canal each year. They, of course, become her allies in the fight against the evil daemon-paring Gobblers. It’s an engrossing story and was superbly serialised by the BBC last year. Can’t wait for the next instalment, which will be based on The Subtle Knife.

We came into Oxford on a route from the west that I don’t think I ever walked in my time as a student there. Still, there were lots of things I didn’t do when I was a student – like truly appreciate the beauty and history of the city. I’ve been slowly making up for it over the last forty years though.

Our walk for the day ended at Folly Bridge, where the Abingdon Road, heading south out of the city centre, crosses the river. It’s also the location for the Head of the River pub. Now, that’s part of Oxford I did know something about! This may be the original Oxen-ford. The current bridge dates from 1825-7; architect Ebenezer Perry. The first stone bridge dates from around 1085, erected by one Robert d’Oilli. There are still the remains of a wooden bridge in the river, from the time of Saxon King Ethelred of Wessex, Alfred the Great’s predecessor. Alfred is one of many people said to have founded the University (and possibly even my college). Others include the renowned Theobald of Etampes in the 11th century. We will never really know.

Folly Bridge

So, yes, Oxford. A place of many fond memories. I was at university there, at University College, from October 1977 to June 1980. The era of punk and new wave, and the slow collapse of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. The 1979 general election, which gave us Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, was my first as a voter. Suffice to say, her party didn’t get my vote. I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, mainly for the economics, but a practical, political economics, not the really theoretical stuff. I never thought of economics as a science – and my later professional experience vindicated that.

My college was on the High Street. Here are a couple of photos from a blog that I wrote way back in 2012.

University College

The main quad

The river didn’t play a huge part in my Oxford life. I drank quite often at the Head of the River, and, like many of my contemporaries, spent much of Eights Week – the summer boat race season – drinking pints of Pimms at the college boathouse. I did once trying rowing myself, in the second year. There was a competition called Rowing On, a prelude to Eights Week proper. It was a qualifying competition – a few of the eights got through to the main event – but for most of us it was just a bit of fun. Or more accurately, a bit of torture – it was the hardest physical exercise I think I’ve ever done. When you row, you use just about every muscle in your body. You also have to go flat out and have to get your feathering technique right – basically the angle at which the blade enters the water – otherwise you catch a crab, and bring the whole boat to a halt. It is the ultimate team sport – one person makes a mistake and the whole team is stuffed. There is no way back – not in Rowing On or Eights Week, where once the boat that starts behind you catches you and bumps you, you are out. Finished. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desperate not to make a mistake as I rowed for the Football Eight in Rowing On. We knew we had no chance of qualifying for Eights Week, as we were novices; but we really wanted to beat our college rugby and hockey equivalents. And we did! The hockey team were just in front of us – and someone caught a crab. Bad luck guys!

Looking down toward the boathouses from Folly Bridge

Photo from the following day, looking upstream

The new Univ boathouse – bit of a monster

My other main encounter with the river as a student was on a barge. This was bizarre. Six of us hired a barge in Oxford just before the start of the third year. Actually one of our mates, Andy, organised it all then decided not to come. Good call! The man at the barge place gave us about five minutes of instructions and off we went. A load of 19 year olds in charge of a barge for a week: what could possibly go wrong? We went up river for a day then turned back, and over the course of the week went as far downstream as Henley – or was it Reading? We moored near towns and villages where we could go to a pub in the evening for a few beers. And it all went very well! No accidents, no crushing smaller craft in the locks (which was always a risk). The thing I remember best now is the pleasure of taking my turn steering the barge. It was very simple – there was an accelerator/ brake and a rudder. We weren’t going very fast. It was just so lovely, so peaceful, standing there, gentling guiding the vessel and taking in the scenery. That feeling of being on the water, at one with nature. Liberating.

A moment I always remember was when one of our number threw a fag packet into the river. Another of the crew rightly took exception and insisted that we reversed the barge and fished the packet out of the river, even if the offender had to go into the river to do it. I don’t think he did, but we did retrieve it. The person who insisted on fishing out the packet – another Andy – was a geographer and went on to work for the Environment Agency. Good for him!

And that’s my riverine Oxford. A couple of punting debacles on the Cherwell too, but the Thames – or Isis – was mainly just there, a brooding presence, the quiet essence of the city. I crossed it regularly – at Folly Bridge – as I walked down the Abingdon Road two or three times a week to our college sports ground to play football and, in the summer, the occasional game of cricket. But that’s another story…

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lovelondonscenes 170 – Back to the heart of London

Last Monday I took a train for the first time in three months to central London, and some of my favourite locations down by the river. I stayed away from the tube and caught a near-empty train at Brentford to Waterloo. I have spent so much time by the river, especially since my retirement; and it felt wonderful to be re-aquainted with old haunts. It was a cloudy but pleasant day. I brought my camera along and snapped away. Places I have photographed many times, but it felt special today.

I walked up to the Tate Modern, so that I could cross over the Millennium Bridge. I stayed on the north side on the way back until Hungerford Bridge. Initially I had planned to walk all ten or so miles home, but after stopping for a beer (see photos) and taking a lot of photos, I decided a couple of hours walking was enough, and caught a train home from Vauxhall.

So yes, these are familiar photos, but with a special resonance.  Hope you enjoy.

Starting with Hungerford Bridge from below.

The British Film Institute had a takeaway bar open. Couldn’t resist a cold pint of Camden Hells by the river!

A few people around, but not many.

Some views from the Southbank.

A very quiet Blackfriars Bridge.

The Andy Warhol exhibition was only open for a few days. I missed it. Hopefully it might return, given that it was scheduled to go on until 6 September.

Views of and from the Millennium Bridge.

Zoomed in for Canary Wharf.

River of bridges.

Waterloo Bridge.

The London Eye motionless.

Views from Hungerford Bridge.

Still functioning, though barely.

Albert Embankment not heaving.

Land of hopes and dreams.

It felt oddly reassuring to know it’s all still there. Of course it was, but you know what I mean…



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40 from 2020

BBC 6 Music has just had a day where all the DJs played their favourite tracks of the first half of 2020. I listened to quite a lot and loved it. And, as ever, discovered a few new tunes I really liked. There is so much music out there, even in lockdown, that you can never keep up. Best just to cherish what you do hear, rather than worrying about what you don’t.

So, in the spirit of 6 Music’s Recommends day, I thought I’d offer you 40 of the tunes I’ve liked this year. The tip of the iceberg – same as it ever was. Most of them I’ve picked up from listening to 6 Music. Whenever I hear anything I like, I try to stick it on a Heard on 6 Music playlist that I keep on Spotify. You quickly forget otherwise. There are other sources: Rough Trade does a good podcast called Rough Trade Edits which has some great recommendations, for example. And there have been one or two things that I’ve been alerted to on Instagram – Maisie Peters being one such.

We’ve all had our different reactions to lockdown. I found myself at first listening to a lot of the classic artists – the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen especially. I guess I was just seeking reassurance from the very best, the roots. I also made a jazzy playlist, which now runs to over a hundred tunes, which mixes some of the jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis with artists who have fused jazz, soul, funk, rap, electronica, you name it, over the years. I called it All That Jazz, even though a lot of it isn’t jazz. It’s in the same spirit. I listen to this more than anything now. Not only is the music brilliant, but I find I can keep writing while I listen to it – it has a groove. The perfect combination!

But as we’ve continued in this state of limbo, I’ve found my way back to new music. And I never gave up on it completely. 6 Music is my guide more than anything else. All the DJs – to single out any one of them would be invidious. They are all brilliant. And, between them, they cover the waterfront. So, in a new burst of enthusiasm, I’ve compiled this playlist of some of the tunes I’ve loved this year. There are one or two from 2019, I think, but I first heard them this year. There’s a Spotify playlist to accompany it, if you have access to that. Sorry if not. I’m sure all the tunes will be on YouTube and other platforms.

40 FROM 2020

The List by Maisie Peters – Circle the Drain by Soccer Mommy – Dear Sweet Rosie by Freya Beer – Texas Sun by Khruangbin and Leon Bridges – Space Samba by the Orielles – Shift by Lilly Palmer – What Moves by LA Priest – Melt! by Kelly Lee Owens – Cherry Baby by Bess Atwell – Hallelujah by HAIM – Daily Routine by Disq – Dip by Tina – Sunrise over the Flood by Eli Winter – You’ve got my Number by Margaret Glaspy – Too Young by Phoenix – Conditions (Petit Fantome remix) by Rozi Plain – Give it up 2 Me by Ojerime – Slow Drive by Moon Panda – Face Down in Ecstasy by Number – One Rizla by AJ Lambert (cover of the Shame song) – Question it All by Lucy Rose – An Afternoon of Endless Drift by Awkward Corners (good lockdown title, that) – Switch by Biig Piig – Light Turn Green by MXXWLL and others – Paper Thin by Lianne la Havas – Felt by Cloth – I Used to Dream in Color by Eve Owen – Stranger Than Fiction by Moses Boyd – Paper Cup by Real Estate – Home by Caribou – Everybody Hurts by Alice Boman (not the REM song) – Boulevard by Isobel Campbell – A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC – Black Dog by Arlo Parks – Lizard Street by Oscar Jerome – Scarecrow by Wilma Archer – Pace by Nubya Garcia – Five and Dime by Hazel English – Yeah I Know by The 1975 – School by Four Tet.

There’s no dominant theme to the selections. A fair number of singer-songwriters, quite a lot of electronica, a bit of indie guitar (but less than usual), some jazzy soul and a few jazz numbers too. If I had to choose a favourite, it might just be Boulevard by Isobel Campbell. This was a Rough Trade recommendation and comes from an album called There Is No Other. Isobel used to be in the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. She has also collaborated on a few albums with Mark Lanegan, as well as making her own albums. She has a beautiful voice and Boulevard is her at her most wistful, conjuring up hazy memories of Paris, even though the song may just be about those down on their luck. The lyrics are elliptical.

Best album of the year so far? I’ve not heard anything that has really blown me away, but I do like the new one from The 1975. It’s had mixed reviews, some critics saying it is over-ambitious. That’s what I like about it! Not everything hits the mark, but it is like a journey through pop from about… 1975. I’ve included one of the more electronic songs Yeah I Know on the playlist. Still six months to go before the year’s Best Of. The strangest year in our lifetimes for sure – who knows what the next half will bring.

Anyway, if you have access to Spotify and fancy checking the playlist out, it’s here.

My Heard on 6 Music and All That Jazz playlists are publicly available too if you want to have a listen.

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A Thames Journey: (2) From Cricklade, via Lechlade, to Newbridge

This stretch of the river, winding its way through Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire involves a walk of just under 28 miles. We did it over three days at two different times. The walk from Cricklade to a spot between Highworth and Inglesham, which aren’t far from Lechlade, was on 30 December 2016; the other two legs were the last of the whole walk, on 26 and 27 April 2019.

Cricklade to Highworth/Inglesham

We stayed overnight in Cricklade, at the White Hart hotel, after our walk from the source. Cricklade is just in Wiltshire, with the Gloucestershire border the other side of the Thames. We didn’t look around much in the mist, but while it is a quiet town these days, it has an interesting history. According to Peter Ackroyd, there are a number of theories about what the name means: it could be river crossing by the hill or stony/rocky country; it could be a derivation of Cerrig-let, the stony place where the River Churn meets the Thames; or it might be a corruption of Greeklade, which means an assembly of learned monks and scholars. It is said that Brutus of Troy arrived here in 1180 BC and established a university amongst the Britons. The story then fast-forwards to AD 650, when Panda of Mercia also established a university in Cricklade, thus beating Oxford by a few hundred years. The Romans’ Ermin Street passed through Cricklade, and King Alfred built a wall around it. It was sacked by Cnut later and seemed to slip into decline over the centuries, although in the 12th century King Henry II granted the townspeople a charter allowing them to trade in any part of the country as reward for protecting his mother Maud. By the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was known for its venality in general elections. The town had slipped into poverty. William Cobbett, journalist and MP in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wrote:

A more rascally looking place I never set eyes upon. The labourers seem miserably poor. Their dwellings are little better than pig beds, and their looks indicate that their food is not nearly equal to that of a pig. In my whole life I never saw such wretchedness as this.

It’s fair to say that things have moved on since then! The only landmark that we did look around was the old church, St Mary’s, which dates back to Norman times. It claims to be England’s oldest Roman Catholic church, having returned to the faith in 1984, after it had been deemed surplus to Anglican requirements by the Bristol Diocese – there is another church, St Sampson, in the town.

The day’s walk was shrouded in mist. It was icy on the roads and pavements too. A day for staying nice and warm indoors. But the river was there to be explored! Throughout the day, especially the first couple of hours, there was a rather spooky quality to the surroundings –you could imagine the retreating Saxons hiding in the rushes as Cnut and his fearsome Danes plundered the area. It made for some atmospheric photos though.

There was a stretch near the end where we were diverted from the river – I think the river bank was military territory. It may have changed since 2016, I’m not sure. Just one photo to share from this part of the journey: a lone tree in the mist. I liked this one and felt moved to try painting the scene. You can compare and contrast!

The walk petered out near Highworth. To get to Lechlade – the original intention – would have meant walking along the A361 for a few miles. That didn’t appeal, so we called a taxi and went back to Swindon station for a train to London. The Thames journey in these parts would resume a couple of years later…

Inglesham to Newbridge, via Lechlade and Tadpole Bridge 

This was two days of walking, the last of our Thames journey, but early days in the river’s own journey. We stayed in a house in an attractive village called Longworth, which is a couple of miles south of the Thames. You reach the village from the river by walking up Harrowdown Hill – a lovely spot, but now notorious for being the place where the scientist Dr David Kelly took his own life in 2003, having become embroiled in the Iraq crisis. As you walk along the bridle path, through the woods, with a beautiful vista of the Thames plain to one side, it is hard to imagine the despair that he must have been feeling.

Longworth itself had a nice pub called the Blue Boar which, conveniently, was about a minute’s walk away from our house. Just up the road, too, were some rather amusing residents.

Thanks to Jon for this one!

On our first day, Thursday, we walked from Farmoor upstream to Newbridge. I’ll cover that in the next blog. On the Friday we took a taxi to a spot on the river near Inglesham and headed downstream. You can only really be near Inglesham as it is a long-gone village; only a 13th century church and a farm remain. The church, St John the Baptist, has Saxon origins and was restored in the late 19th century by William Morris, the textile designer, poet, novelist and socialist.  Inglesham is also where the poet Shelley and companions gave up their attempt to sail to the source of the Thames. The river here is still narrow and winds this way and that. I think it is also very shallow in places. But the scene as we arrived at the river was one of great beauty: a rich palette of greens beneath a bright blue sky, flecked with wispy cloud. It was one of the loveliest stretches anywhere on the river: a classic, modest English beauty.


I got my paintbrushes out again quite recently to depict the first of these scenes. You’ll note that there is one major difference: the tree in the centre of the picture has leaves in my version. Artistic licence… and an emergency measure when I messed up the bare branches! Too many and too thick. But, you think, it should have had leaves by that time of the year – everything else has. Perhaps the real thing was diseased, despite its dignified presence.

The approach to Lechlade was gorgeous, with the spire of St Lawrence’s church rising as if from the river. The church dates from 1496 and was originally dedicated to St Mary, before changing to St Lawrence at the behest of Catherine of Aragon. On Sunday, before returning to London, we stopped for some breakfast by Lechlade’s Market Square at a café called Lynwood and Co, which was very good. Outside the spire loomed above us, but being Sunday and with services on, we didn’t get to look around. Another time, perhaps.

Lechlade means the wharf or crossing by the Lech, or today, Leach – the river which joins the Thames at this point. Four counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire – also meet at Lechlade, which itself is just in Gloucestershire. This is the furthest point upstream that commercial boats could travel; and in centuries past it was a thriving port, serving Oxford and London. A notable commodity that was sent down river was cheese; the stone that was used for St Paul’s dome in London was also transported from here.

Halfpenny Bridge was completed in 1793. It was made high to allow the barges to pass under it without lowering their masts according to Ackroyd, though to be honest it doesn’t look that high. Its name comes from the toll levied on walkers – except churchgoers and mourners – until 1839. It became toll-free from all traffic in 1875.

On the outskirts of Lechlade is the first lock on the river, St John’s. Today a statue of Old Father Thames rests here – it was originally situated at the source.

We passed near to Kelmscott, where the aforementioned William Morris famously lived in a manor close to the river. I don’t remember seeing it! A couple of miles further on we reached a village called Radcot and stopped to eat our sandwiches, aided by a pint from the pub, Ye Olde Swan. The original bridge here – over a side stream of the main river – is thought to have been built in AD 958, which makes it, the books say, the oldest bridge over the Thames. (That must be outside London – London Bridge, in its various guises, has been there since at least the times of the Romans.) A replacement was built around 1393 by Normandy monks who lived in nearby Faringdon. There was a Civil War battle here in 1465, in which royalist Prince Rupert fought off the parliamentary army.

None of the next set of photos are of either of those locations. But these ones were on the way and rather lovely.

While we were in Radcot the weather turned and it lashed down for a while, but we continued onwards.  As we progressed the river rippled in the wind and it seemed to be flowing faster. Our destination was Tadpole Bridge, which was in the middle of nowhere. But it did have a pub, the Trout Inn, which has rooms for those hardy walkers who like to walk from the source, or Cricklade, to Oxford in a couple of days.

The most pointless gate I’ve seen. Maybe there was a fence in times gone by.

Tadpole Bridge.

We ended our journey for the day with a pint in the Trout, returning there on Saturday morning to start the last leg of our Thames venture. This group photo was taken on Saturday by our friendly taxi driver.


We were heading for just near Newbridge, at the path leading to Harrowdown Hill. It was an incredibly windy day – the remnants of Storm Hannah – and for the most part, the scenery was austere compared with the lush greens of the area either side of Lechlade. We barely saw a soul all day.

One notable feature of this stretch was the old pillboxes, from the Second World War. The Thames has often been a border, a defence, a refuge. We weren’t quite sure why the Germans would be interested in this part of the river, but some googling in the evening revealed that it was all part of a defence plan should the Germans invade from the south coast. Territory would be yielded as far as the Thames; from there the invading forces had to be denied access to the industrial Midlands. I’m not sure the pillboxes would have offered much defence against German tanks, but I guess they had to do something to prepare for the possibility.

And then we reached our destination. The signpost that marked the end of our journey. We had covered the length of the Thames from the source to the estuary. 22 walks, including one around Canvey Island. Mostly downstream until Marlow, and all upstream in London as far as Hampton Court. We celebrated with a pint outside the Blue Boar; and later, a glass of champagne back at the cottage.

This blog, of course, is travelling downstream with the river, and the journey has only just begun. In the next instalment we will begin at nearby Newbridge and make our way to the dreaming spires of Oxford.

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