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Word from Wormingford

17 May 2013

Ronald Blythe spends some time messing about in boats

TO THE Stour, to launch the John Constable, a fine barge, or lighter, on a fine day, the populace watching, the sun shining, and a young man in danger as in The Leaping Horse. I have been listening to Pepys on the radio, of course. But the replica of what was once a common sight on our classic river is actual enough. David and I make our way to the water's edge, and there, perfect in every way, lies the new barge, bright as a button. May God bless all who take holiday trips in her - me first.

When I was a boy, by the Stour-side, the last Constable barges were scuttled, and lay a yard or two below the surface of the river, where it was hoped that they would feed pike, rot away, and be no more, the railway taking over. Mothers warned their swimming sons not to go near them for fear of being trapped, although this never happened. And I would watch their huge black outlines waver under the gentle current, and think of John Constable seeing them hard at work.

For him and his fellow Stour artist Tom Gainsborough, they were the most ordinary sight in the world. The river was industrial, busy all the way to the sea with these horse-drawn coalers which, to the astonishment of the Royal Academy, the young Constable, a local miller's son, imagined would be a suitable subject for art. No one bought.

In vain his glittering workaday visions of our river hung on its walls. The Stour itself twisted and turned through the water-meadows, doubling the distance to its estuary, but offering a smooth alternative to our bad roads, and the laden lighters would glide like slow birds from hard to hard, pulled by huge horses. When the old business was sunk, just before the Great War, we all thought that that was that. Progress had finished it off. Now, here I was, on a Bank Holiday afternoon, saying: "I name this ship the John Constable," and climbing in, alongside a score of other river travellers, to sense the exquisite gentleness of a river journey, a fresh flag fluttering at the helm, and the blare of a bugle to say that we were coming.

Oh, we should have sailed all day! The throne we sat on provided such sensations! The afternoon was so Englishly perfect, the scattered folk on the slowly passing banks so civil, the rushing dogs in the grass so gratifyingly amazed by the sight of us, that I, at least, could have sailed on for hours; only there was a queue for others to have a turn.

So we came home to watch croquet being played in a walled garden, and to eat sandwiches.

Should paradise be in your mind, go to Sudbury, Suffolk, for a river trip on the John Constable. Barges are so blissful. And rivers are so good at getting about. They will take you to destinations that can only be dreamed of, and offer you smells that stimulate senses that you had forgotten you possessed.

Seated with other old parties on board my lighter, I saw myself, aged 14 or so, lying with a book in the water-meadows alongside the meadowsweet, the enormous East Anglian skies floating overhead. With maybe a bottle of Tizer. And the Boat Club shouts, and the screams of swallows in concert above me. And to think that all these years later they have let me launch a barge - our river's liner - and savour the early joy.

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