Abingdon used to be the county town in the centre of Berkshire, but lost its crown to Reading in 1974 when the Vale of the White Horse was transferred to Oxfordshire. It had lost its pre-eminence long before when it retused to allow the Great Western Main Line to pass through the town, after which Reading grew explosively.
Having stopped for a photo or two in the Jubilee Cut south of Abingdon, we set off downstream through Culham and Clifton Locks and under the delightful Clifton Hampden Bridge, which looks far older than 1867. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, it replaced a ferry linking the Oxfordshire village with Long Wittenham in Berkshire.
I wonder if my forebears used the ferry in the mid 1700s? James Bacon of Didcot courted Mary Stiff who’d bee born in nearby Long Wittenham, and after marrying in Didcot in 1778, they settled in Warborough in Oxfordshire near Dorchester. They were so poor that paradoxically I have a huge number of references to them, because they received support from the parish, duly recorded over 500 times in the accounts. Mary cleaned the Vestry and lit the fires for meetings, and she received rations of beer and gin.
Despite James’ poor health, he outlived Mary, whose death and burial were duly recorded in the accounts in 1833:
James’ and Mary’s son Richard moved closer to Henley at Highmoor, and their son Daniel (my great-great grandfather) was for many years a carter on farms in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Bucks and Middlesex, traced via the baptisms of his children. Daniel had married Eliza Parr of Tilehurst in 1843 and they settled in Hurst for some years – the next parish to Arborfield, where we lived for most of our married life. Daniel died in 1906 aged 86 at Reading Workhouse, and is in an unmarked grave in Reading Cemetery.
Meanwhile, our friend Mark joined us at the next lock on the Thames. He’d cycled on his full-sized bike from Didcot and passed through the ancestral territory of Long Wittenham on the way to Day’s Lock, Dorchester.
For much of the way, the weather was reasonable, but we realised that rain was on the way at Pangbourne, where Mark decided to get off the boat at Whitchurch Lock and cycle to the station for his return. No such luck. The lock’s on an island in the Thames with no easy way out to a main road, so Mark and bike returned to the boat still in the lock and perched on the roof while we headed very gingerly for the bank at Pangbourne. We managed it without catapulting them into the river.
Our entry to Whitchurch Lock had taken rather longer than anticipated. We had been following a very strange-looking craft rather like a conservatory built onto a landing craft. A couple from Los Angeles had picked it up earlier in the day and probably expected that all locks would be manned. This one wasn’t, and after a long wait I got off our boat to help to press the buttons. Once the top gates had been opened and their boat entered, we had to insist that both boats could fit into the same lock.
Once on our way again, we overtook the bewildered couple and reached our goal for the night: Christchurch Meadow, Reading, just yards from the new foot-and-cycle bridge. By then it was bucketing down, and the rain continued well into the evening.
Susie stayed with us on the boat overnight. Some years earlier, she had rented a flat in Oxford Road, close to the old Battle Hospital (a.k.a. Reading Workhouse). Her closest pub was built over the old mortuary where Daniel Bacon would have lain before burial. Small world indeed.
Friday was much drier, and I went by train and bus to Lechlade to pick up the car.
Eddy joined us in the afternoon for the final stage downstream to Kennet Mouth, and then to Blake’s Lock on the Kennet – the only lock on the K & A which is maintained by the Environment Agency. In contrast to the Thames locks, however, the paddles were very stiff and the gates difficult to move.
We proceeded to the centre of Reading, once a dismal backwater but now the focus of the Oracle shopping and entertainment complex, lined with pubs and restaurants.
Traffic-lights at either end of the twisting channel through the Oracle add a bit of spice to the journey. Hundreds of years earlier, the Oracle had been the site of Reading’s first Workhouse.
The transformation of Reading is an object lesson to Swindon. ‘Water adds value’, as the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust web-site promises.
How soon before we can cruise through Swindon town centre – currently a town without a heart?
The restored town centre of Reading has a vibrancy it once lacked.
The final furlong was County Lock, just beyond the Oracle development. When we first knew the lock, the view eastwards was dominated by the old Courage Brewery and the bus garage. Now it’s all posh high-rise flats. The traffic light can just be seen behind the boat in this photo.
Reading is now the main centre for Berkshire – and no doubt in future will be a boating centre for the two-week cruising ring on the Kennet & Avon, Wilts & Berks and Middle Thames circuit.