I’ve been living in West London near the Thames for many years. A comfortable trot takes me to the water’s edge in five minutes or so, and being able to get there so fast and to walk along the towpath and commune with the waterfowl is a wonderful antidote to all the hours spent at the computer.
But now the Thames has burst its banks at Chertsey and Datchet, not all that far away, and the latest BBC news was mainly about waterlogged houses, sandbags and tired volunteers. Not a word about when, or whether, that unholy amount of water will roll down to these parts. So here I sit, wondering what to do.
When I first moved here, a message arrived from Hounslow Council. It instructed me, in the case of flooding, to go upstairs with radio and kettle and wait for instructions. A telephone number was also given, with “Monday to Friday, 9 to 5” in bold print. There will always be an England, I thought. Flood, what flood?
I hope not to find out now.
The Thames is tidal here, and Continental visitors used to the unchanging flow of the Seine in Paris or the Rhine at Cologne get quite upset when they see the Thames turning in a few hours from a grown-up river to a muddy trickle. Ebb or flow, I know and love it so well, complete with gulls, Canada geese, moorhens, ducks, swans and cygnets. During a long illness many years ago, when I was practically housebound, this path was my only escape from a tiresome, demanding therapy; it saved my sanity with its perpetual motion and shimmering beauty. Ever since, a kind of love affair has been going on between the river and me.
There are three pubs along the towpath: the Bell and Crown, good for romantic meetings and good meals, the ancient City Barge full of tradition, and the Bull’s Head whose pub sign mysteriously depicts a bull without horns. Opposite the City Barge, in mid-river, sits Oliver’s Eyot or Eyt, named after Oliver Cromwell. According to tradition, Oliver and his un-merry men were meeting at this pub when they heard that the Cavaliers were about to arrive. Upon which “with one bound” Oliver reached the Eyot and escaped from the enemy. Well, so they say. It must have been a mighty bound, or else the tide was out, or there had been an underground passage linking the pub to the Eyot. The choice is yours.
Back to the flooding. The huge, elegant and murderously expensive houses along the river protect their front gardens with tall walls; the flotsam and jetsam of a high tide reaches those walls with ease. I stop for a moment under one of the old weeping willows that leans towards the water: it is used to having its roots washed regularly, but will it survive a total immersion? Will we, living on this precious unmistakable flood plain? Shall I have to go upstairs with kettle, radio and my old wellies, waiting to be rescued no longer only between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday? Frankly, I am scared.
“”Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” and beyond, too. Please.