Yesterday was officially the end of the British summer as the cold front came in with vengeance. Fierce storms, 70mph winds and driving rain were the forecast, and indeed, when I went out for dinner last night, the roads were relatively quiet as people opted to stay indoors. The forecast this morning was meant to be the same.
Overnight, there had been several fatalities on the road in southern England. This morning, at 6am, there was a massive accident on the M4 at Langley. There was a tailback going back 10 miles.
But over dinner last night, Knight had dared me to do something I have never done before: swim on the River Avon with him. I have never swam on the Avon with anyone. What a ridiculous suggestion. Because at the best of times, I hate swimming. I am a strong swimmer based solely on this very dislike of the water – I swim fast, to get myself out of the water as fast as possible. But to voluntarily swim on the swollen Avon on the first day of autumn? I must be mad. Even my normally implacable mother had wailed, “But darling, people have drowned on the Avon!”
But meet Knight’s challenge I must. After all, isn’t growth all about coming face to face with your inner boundaries, and stepping out of your comfort zone? it’s what keeps us young, as we draw new confidence and new exhilaration from taking the step off our usual daily existence.
So like two misbehaving teenagers, we set off from London at the crack of dawn on this supposedly vicious day to travel to Avon. To our surprise, the sun followed us throughout, with no sign of grey skies or dark clouds, as we drove past the roads of our past. We laughed joyously, and the years melted away.
Whilst at University (though at separate times) we were both members of the Oxford Stunt Factory. I joined, simply because I wanted to go to its Pink Pimms Party in the park after the May Ball. I ended up being catapulted across the river at 3am in the morning, still in my ball gown. After that, I was hooked and became the Club’s fixture.
River Avon is rich in history. It is 75miles long, slow, meandering, with hidden dangers. In the past (maybe 5,000BC), when it was young, it was a powerful torrent that the limestone outcrop could not push back. The river gradually wore away at the rock eventually forming the 300 feet deep gorge that is the seaward entrance to the city.
And it was into this river we jumped in, swam briefly, emerged with shivering bodies and chattering teeth, exhilarated, alive.
Warning: Do not attempt this. In April 2014, a man drowned on the same spot on the Avon that we swam in.
Same view, different eyes
A year after I graduated from Oxford, my family remained in our Oxford house whilst I started work in London. I had to commute. It was a nightmare, but there was no way out. Housing in London (where I wanted to live) has always been exorbitantly expensive, and I was the main breadwinner. We also had lots of children. So. for almost a year, I had to endure the long commute. I could not afford to commute by train, because a huge chunk of my salary would have gone to British Rail. The bus would have been too slow. I had no choice but to bike it. My machine was a Ducati Monster, which was a thrill to ride buy quite unreliable. And it was hellish on winter nights. I just wanted to rush home either to put my kids to bed or to have breakfast with them, depending on my shift. Life wasn’t easy then.
Thus, I travelled on these roads for over a year without noticing how beautiful they are. Today, I did.
The strength of a nation
Avon and Somerset, Oxfordshire and London. We set off at 6am, and caught the morning sun burning the mists off the grounds in Oxfordshire. We both have great fondness for this county, because Oxford is our alma mater. We had a lot of lovely memories here, punting on the Isis and Cherwell in summer, pubs of St Giles in winter, the higgledy piggledy bookshop on St Giles, friends’ houses in Jericho and summer parties on our colleges’ quads. It was a magical interlude before ‘real’ life began.
We drove on, passing rolling farmlands and pastures, fields ready for winter cereal or those with tall corn already growing. We drove past deer, horses, cows and sheep. The leaves are starting to turn auburn and gold at this time of the year. It is this that deeply binds Englishmen and Englishwomen to our country rather than the glitter and opportunities of the capital. I hope my son will return after his 6 month tour of duty of the Middle East back to his beloved England once more. He promised me he would do his best to come home, and to bring others safely home too. We have one Englishman whose time is running out, a John Cantlie. My son said, it is worth the sacrifice of his own life and others like him to bring John Cantlie home, because all the British men and women involved had gone into this voluntarily, with their eyes wide open, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
“We will never leave one of our own behind, Mum,” my 25 year old Lieutenant said. “It’s not machismo, but a simple ideology.”
My boy is young, passionate, idealistic, fiery and so proud to be English. Someday, he will make a fine leader. But as his mother, I just want him home where he belongs. Here, in England.
Knight touched my hand lightly as we drove into the capital at nightfall. We had driven in silence for the last few miles and I had tears running down my cheeks.
“What I said in my speech just now, though I misquoted slightly, is something you have shown me,” he said. “That you can judge the strength of a nation by the face of its women.”
And through my tears, I smiled for him and my son.