Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Fisheye Photography

Today I went swimming with my new toy - an action camera that takes underwater photographs. Actual underwater photography in the Thames would be a bit pointless given how cloudy the water is, but I took a few shimmery shots of my legs just to experiment. Eat your heart out, Esther Williams.

There was a light breeze and cotton wool clouds skudding across a blue sky. A grebe was diving nearby. The Heathrow flight path was over Twickenham today, and the aeroplanes glided in above the roof tops with a distant growl.

Then I saw it - that iridescent streak of blue and a gleam of gold as a kingfisher flashed past and alighted on a garden wall beside the river bank. A kingfisher used to be a daily visitor to the bank opposite my houseboat until last summer, but I haven't seen one since. Kingfishers have a life expectancy of five to seven years, so given that I'd been living here for six years, I presumed that it had died. Occasionally in the spring there would be a pair, so perhaps the breeding parents imprinted in the consciousness of their chicks this particular secluded spot along the river.

I drifted back to the boat with the outgoing tide, thrilled beyond words that the kingfisher was back. How is it possible for so much joy to be kindled by one tiny bird? A mother duck came calling with her newly hatched ducklings -  yellow and brown fluff balls cheeping and paddling around her.

As I sat at my desk to answer emails and wade through the day's tasks, I heard the unmistakable sound outside the window - the splash of a kingfisher diving into the river. I looked up in time to see that glorious blue streak as it flew up to the tree on the river bank.

'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' is one of my favourite poems. Here it is:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Monday, 31 July 2017

Swimming with Swans

This morning I checked the news online before going for a swim in the river. I was expecting dismal headlines about intercontinental ballistic missiles, mad presidents and Brexit. This was the article I read instead. Seal populations are flourishing in the Thames estuary, and they can sometimes be seen as far inland as Teddington Lock.

A seal on Islay - coming soon to Teddington Lock?
The tide was high and just about to turn - the perfect time to swim. I let myself down the ladder into the river, distracted from the shock of the cold water on my body by a swan hissing at me as I invaded her space. I swam down the creek where my boat is moored, and into the wide and welcoming river towards Teddington Lock. Two barges chugged past, and I let myself bob on the waves they created. I attracted the usual curious glances and waved, smiling to reassure them that I was waving, not drowning. They made their way slowly up the river, and then I was alone with nothing but the birds and the occasional leaping fish for company. I imagined the thrill of discovering a seal as one of my swimming companions.

The sky was high and blue and dappled with clouds. The sun warmed my face, and the water spread around me in ripples of silver and green. A heron watched me from the prow of one of the small boats moored along the river until I came too close for comfort, then it flew a little further along the river. It repeated this routine several times, keeping a safe distance between us. A cormorant lifted from the river, its snake-like form morphing into a sleek streak of wings and neck.

I began to feel the resistance of the tide as it turned. I had to swim harder to keep moving, but I wasn't ready to turn back.  The sky clouded over and the river turned dark and sinister. I felt the tide tugging against me and became conscious of the power and volume of water and my solitude and smallness. I was adrift in some timeless force of nature, and for a moment I felt that nameless fear that romantic poets describe as the sublime.

Small waves ruffled the water, flowing fast with the current of the tide. A sparrow hawk slid across the sky above me. I feared for the gulls drifting and playing in the air currents. Green parakeets screeched among the trees at the river's edge, creating flashes of tropical colour as they flew.

I swam until the sky cleared and the river turned silver again, then I turned and drifted back with the outgoing tide to the boat. I became lost in the rhythm of my breathing and the quiet steady movement of my limbs beneath the surface.

I let the river carry me home. I was one with everything. What a glorious way to start the day.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Of high tides and floods

Written on 11th February 2016:

Yesterday was a spring tide, and the Thames in Twickenham flooded the local park and submerged the wheels of  bicycles and cars parked along the riverside. These exceptionally high tides might not be good news for inattentive motorists, but they bring out a spirit of freedom and joy among people. We talk to each other and stop to gaze at the ducks, geese and swans swimming around park benches and parked cars. Children and dogs frolic in the water, indifferent to the cold. People take out mobile phones and begin clicking away, while more serious photographers arrive with cameras slung round their necks to capture the changing landscape, the human interactions with birds and dogs, and the play of light on water. Yesterday, high tide came as the sun was setting, turning the water to pink and gold as it rippled with the movements of a soft breeze. All this made me reflect on the intimate intensity of our relationship with weather.

This has been a week of pastel skies, glorious dawns and gentle sunlight, heralding the arrival of spring. The houseboat has swayed gently on the rising tide, its whispers and shivers becoming a rocking lullaby as I sleep. But last weekend, London was lashed by storms, and the boat heaved and shuddered, straining against its moorings and pounding back against the dock with an alarming thump. My husband fretted in case the wooden extension he built on the deck didn't withstand the gales. Would the roof blow off? Would the walls collapse? I pretended an insouciance I didn't feel, because after all, this boat was my idea and I mustn't admit defeat. I did however sneak out many times to check that the water wasn't lashing up over the hull.

Elsewhere in Britain, people have been flooded out of their homes by a succession of severe storms. Some have been killed by crashing cars and falling trees. The spring time tides which can bring such delight are the close relations of these deadly floods, just as the winter snowfalls which bring out apple-cheeked children on sleds and turn us all into children at heart can become blizzards that turn familiar landscapes into frozen wildernesses.

We should heed the warnings of the weather. Nature is an awesome mystery not to be domesticated, with a spirit that is free from human control. We must learn to respect these rhythms - nature's cycles and tides, seasons and moods. We must learn to dance to nature's tune, for nature will never fall into step with the marching drumbeat of human time, measured in the tethering of the minutes and hours and days to profitability and progress.

Nature loops and swirls and dances around us and within us to the music of life itself. We can choose to join the dance, but the dance will go on without us. The insects and birds, the fish and the animals, the tides and the winds and the rain, the trees and the flowers and the butterflies, all will continue, for they are the dance and the dance is in them. The dance of life will go on, but whether we are part of it depends on how we choose to live, and time is running out for us to make that choice. Spring tides or deadly floods? Snowmen and toboggans, or blizzards and gales? Warm summer days, or scorching droughts? The choice is ours. The simple pleasures we take in nature's tender gifts should not blind us to the whirlwind we might reap if we forget our place in the harmony of creation. We must learn to dance all over again, and that is an arduous discipline as well as a joyous freedom.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Morning Mist

These watery mornings can sit heavily on the soul. The boat heaves on sullen tides. An incessant drizzle blurs the landscape. The news seems unremittingly bleak - violence and vulnerability, despair and disintegration.

Then I walk out onto the dock, and I see a boat ploughing against the tide, with a gull frolicking about its bow. Suddenly, my heart becomes that gull, and all the timebound distractions and worries hang suspended in some eternal now.

Maybe heaven is this - not a future reality to be anticipated beyond this mortal world, but the sudden surprise of eternity breaking through through the cracks in time, sneaking up and catching us unawares, reminding us that we are specks of dust in the dance of creation, and yet we are beautiful as we catch the light and play in the mist and turn and swirl in the breath of God.

Sunday, 4 May 2014


The tide is high and the river shimmers under a skein of light, inverting the world. There is a ripe tang in the air, as if the water shares in the erotic fecundity of the season. The song birds sing their praises to the morning on the bank opposite, and the little mother duck broods on her nest while her mate keeps watch in the river beside her. The goose nest is empty save for one abandoned egg, the parents out there somewhere with their newborn chicks. I await their arrival and wonder how many will survive. Canadian geese are a prolific pest, threatening the survival of more fragile and endangered species. Nevertheless, it is hard to be Malthusian when one has followed the hatching and birthing of a clutch of goslings, seen the brave struggle to defend the nest, and marvelled at the winsome loveliness of the tiny yellow fluff balls as they follow their mother in single file through the water.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

London Safari

This morning's visitors:

A red-breasted pochard is playing at being a cuckoo. There has been a pair of them swimming around the boat for a few days. A mallard duck is nesting on the deck,  and when she left the nest this morning the pochard laid an egg in it. The two females are now fighting to see who gets to sit on the eggs. The mallard has so far succeeded in chasing the pochard away several times, but she holds her ground determinedly as the mallard attacks her and doesn't give up easily.