Chapter 7 – A Night on the River
In which we go on a downstream expedition…
In the second week of May we decided to take Peggy and Tadorna downstream and spend the night on the boats. Our port of call was to be Pluck’s Gutter, one of the few places where the River Stour is bridged, and a couple of miles down from Grove Ferry.
Early on the Saturday evening we were packed and ready. The engine started at the first attempt, and with the bow-line loosed, the current turned Tadorna’s head out into the river. When the stream had pulled her nearly all the way round, we pushed off from the stern, and the engine went into gear with a thud. Past the dormant Blue Dolphin we went, and off down the moorings, with Peggy following close behind, and out into the open fields. Janet and I sat side by side on the cabin roof with an ear each pressed against our transistor radio – we were accustomed to share everything – and sang along all the way downstream.
The character of the river downstream always seemed quite different from the same river above the bridge, not two hundred yards away. The long ridge, of which Grove Ferry Hill and the high north bank were part, ended just here; the higher ground and the marshes met. In ancient times the Stour was a great river, flowing out into a broad sea-passage, named the Wantsum, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kentish mainland. Grove Ferry, at that time, stood at the tip of the estuary where the river met the sea. This, of course, was long before the ferry was thought of – there must have been a muddy beach or a saltmarsh where the moorings stand now.
Downstream of Grove, we were sailing out into the old Wantsum Channel, long since silted up to become a low marshland. The River Wantsum itself, not much more than a ditch now, met the Stour about half-a-mile above Pluck’s Gutter. It stretched the imagination to think that the sea tides once flowed here, and that Roman ships on their way to Canterbury sailed past Grove. It must have been a very exposed place.
Pluck’s Gutter itself, despite the odd name, consisted of not much more than the pub, the Dog and Duck, a favourite visiting place for us before our boating days. It was apparently named after one Gunther Pluck, a Danish land drainage engineer, whose ‘gutter’ or drainage channel, ended near the bridge. The Pluck’s Gutter bridge was an ugly concoction of steel tubes, quite unlike the graceful bridge at Grove, and soared high above the river. The nearest village is called Stourmouth, which it once really was, standing on the outlet of the Little Stour into the old Wantsum. Pluck’s Gutter must have stood on the very tip of the estuary of the two Stours, a beach again, like Grove Ferry. It is still the place where the two rivers meet, though the Little Stour is not much more than a stream now.
We gave a little cheer as the tall Pluck’s Gutter bridge swung into sight round the bend, and watched it look larger and larger until at last Peggy and Tadorna passed beneath it and tied up beside the Dunlin, an old and battered sailing boat, and long-time resident at the Gutter, well known for her soft, rotten planking.
Frank and Rene came up onto the bridge with us to admire the view. Downstream, there was the flat expanse of Minster Marshes, with the river vanishing among them on its way to the sea; below us were Tadorna and Peggy, looking very small beside the heavy Dunlin. Upstream was the pretty confluence where the Little Stour flows into the main river. The stream was dredged out just deep enough for boats to be moored a short way along its course – a picturesque moorings with its colourful clutter of boats and landing-stages. Beyond Pluck’s Gutter, our river was as lonely as it could be, with scarcely a trackway coming down to it through the criss-cross of drainage dykes. Looking out across these flats we could see clear across the old Wantsum Channel to Thanet.
There was a long companionable time while the sun sank. In the west, the red sun came down into the marshes, and the river turned pink and blue with steely shadows. Through these wondrous colours the moorhens bobbed, each leaving a golden sparkling wake behind it. Overhead the swifts screamed and screamed, soaring in the dark blue. When the bats came out we retired to the Dog and Duck for the evening.
When we came out of the pub, there was the intense, warm, celery-like smell of cow parsley all around. It was very dark. We scrambled down the path to the boats, torches shining. Already Tadorna had a heavy coat of dew, and smelt of damp wood instead of warm varnish. Moths flashed in and out of the torchbeams while we slithered down the bank. The trees were dead still in an overhead canopy, the river still, too, with gleams of water between the boats in the torchlight. We slipped under the flap into the cockpit, clumsy in the dark. It was cold; the water vapours seemed to penetrate the very woodwork. The floor was icy under our feet as we prepared for bed, and the feeling of clamminess never quite wore off. Still, we had slept aboard before, Mum and Dad taking the cabin, Janet and I bunking down on the cockpit floor. It was surprisingly comfortable, and we always slept well. The lamps went out, and we all settled down. Peggy’s light went off, too, and it fell very quiet.
I was awoken very early by – what? The birds? The thrush and the whitethroat, the screaming swifts, the sedge warbler chattering in the reeds, and very far off, a cuckoo. The light? Great floods of yellow light were pouring through the polythene flap, unchecked. The movement? Tadorna was almost still, but perceptibly afloat. No, it was none of these. It was the scent. Sweet, insistent, almondy – every hawthorn along the river was giving of its dewy best. I could see them in my mind’s eye as I lay comfortably on my back, the sun already warming the bulkhead beside me. Every branch would be covered with creamy flowers, all giving out that cloying fragrance, now thinned down by the river-scent of fresh leaf, mud and green water. I got up, stepped over Janet and rolled up the hood flap. The keen air came in; down the river the bright greens softened in a pale haze; the water was still, brilliant with diffused light, the surface alive with small insects, their wings glittering. I shivered and let down the flap.
Back in my sleeping-bag, I watched the play of reflected lights on the inside of the hood, vaulted on its supports. This was the most delightful time of day to be on board. So peaceful; and while it was quiet I imagined that this was what Tadorna was like when we were not with her. I had long wanted to know the atmosphere she had when she was alone. This was as close as I would ever come to finding out.
On the way back to Grove, we pulled in at the pumping-station that marked the joining of the Stour and the Wantsum. Janet and I took it into our heads to haul the dinghy over the bank and go for a ride on the once-great waterway. The Wantsum was narrow, dredged-out and full of water crowfoot. We saw it as an adventure, and flopped the dinghy into the pool behind the pumping-station, started the little outboard, and set off into the unknown. About a quarter of a mile on, the crowfoot stems and a plastic bag wrapped themselves round the propeller and we spluttered to a halt. Our little half-horsepower engine refused to restart, and we had to row back, which was difficult since the oars were wider than the waterway.
I think we may well have been the only people from Grove ever to sail on the great Wantsum Channel.
Look out for the next chapter of The Tadorna Days, in which we explore the river upstream to its navigable limit…