Friday, 8 August 2014

The River Avon Cruise

This cruise along the River Avon began at a pleasant spot in Bath city-centre where the boat is moored beside Pulteney Bridge. I walked onboard just as the navigator was loosening the ropes, his mate, the guide, doing likewise, and with that the boat eased out into the river. We had a brief health and safety announcement and then were pretty much left to our own devices for the outbound leg of the trip.  

When we approached Cleveland Bridge I remembered The Bridges of London Tour that I covered last year, also a boat cruise with live commentary. That cruise was very different, however, as it was given by a TV celebrity and was part of a large arts festival. For all of its build up, that cruise was far less comfortable with the format of the boat tour than this river cruise was. The Thames tour was essentially a TV series delivered, off the cuff, on a boat. This, however, is a long-established concern, and the boat felt as if it was the second home of the navigator and guide. Just letting the first half of the trip be a quiet, relaxed boat ride was fine as there was plenty to see. We knew we'd hear more about it on the way back so it gave us a chance to take a good look and awaken our curiosity. The Thames cruise did it the other way round giving the commentary on the way out followed by a silent return. That felt like an anti-climax that was only covered over by the copious wine and canape. But I digress. Back to the River Avon.

While the crew were in their element here, less at home on the river were some of the tourists who had rented row boats and got themselves stuck in between trees. I can imagine incompetent rowing being a staple of the hen/stag party weekends which flock to Bath, something I will no doubt see more of in the coming weeks. There can be a pleasure in doing something badly, after all, particularly with a little wine. We steered aside the mayhem and as we progressed further from the boathouse from whence they came, the rowers generally looked more competent and pleased with themselves. 

As we made our way out of the Bath urban area, Solsbury Hill came into view. Our guide mentioned it as the hill that inspired the Peter Gabriel song by the same name which is about having a spiritual experience that doesn't fit with the world of the flyovers and pylons. I don't know if Peter Gabriel has written other songs about the Bath area where he has lived for many years, if so they might lend themselves to being put together into a musical themed tour in the manner of The Beatles Walking Tour of Liverpool, The Smiths Walking Tour of Manchester, or the Crossroads of Sabbath a heavy metal walk around Birmingham. These sorts of tours have a big appeal to fans as they bring them closer to the musicians, their lives and inspirations, though going all the way up this hill just for one song is a bit too much effort for the pay back, unless you too are guaranteed a spiritual experience... or your money back.

The cruise came with a map but it was not in any way necessary to follow this to make sense of the cruise. Looking at it now, I realise I was quite unaware of the river's meander as I was just relaxing and looking at the river, the banks and the hills as they drifted by.

We were told the final bridge we approached at Bathampton was the most expensive toll bridge in Europe in terms of price per distance travelled. It must be one of the prettiest, too, not that that is much consolation to motorists. The small pier in front of the weir was the half-way point where we stopped to pick up some more passengers and where a gaggle of teenage girls were swimming and squealing in the river. This was quite definitely not the canals of Birmingham that I was walking along just a few days ago where you'd be more likely to find dumped traffic cones than teenagers in the water.

On the return leg we got a good deal more commentary as the guide talked us through the route. If there is one thing I thought could have been improved it would be to adjust the sound balance: it was very bass heavy. He had a warm voice with a gentle West country burr when speaking normally, but amplified, he seemed to suddenly drop an octave, like a Laurie Anderson routine. He told us he had been working on the river for 14 years and had no desire to do an office job as this was far better. He certainly did look very relaxed and, on a warm Summer's day like this I could see why; the river was without a doubt the nicest place to be. He said that he didn't get bored with cruising back and forth as the river is always changing, and he got to meet people from all over the world. I could see his point.

From the boat's point of view you see the landscape and hills around the city very well but the city streets very little. The city does not precisely embrace the river Avon, it seems more wary of it and focused instead upon the abbey. The commentary reflected this river perspective, however, and so we were told about the city as a whole, its relationship to the hills and why they are not built upon. Rather than a walk which is conceived from the desire to tell a story and then realised by finding the best route to illustrate that narrative, this was a tour that followed a pre-existing natural route and then described the city from that natural feature's point of view. As opposed to a location tour, such as Bath Abbey, which gets complicated because there are many ways to explore and describe the building, a river cruise makes things simpler by admitting only two possibilities: upstream or downstream. Because of this, and the less exclusive focus on history, the cruise did not run into the same frustrations around its narrative: the cruise just naturally flowed, the river bringing its own sense of narrative.

I found that the people on the boat chatted to one another more freely than on walking tours and one in particular, the man on the left with glasses, had a habit of saying, "Just what the doctor ordered, eh!" He'd repeat this every ten minutes, about the cruise, about the breakfast he had this morning and about the eleven-day trip to the UK the young man on the right was taking. This visitor to the UK was originally from Hong Kong but was now living in NYC and this was his first time here. He had been to London and he'd been to Edinburgh and now he was in Bath. Just what the doctor ordered, eh!

Back in the city and near the end of the cruise, we came again to the elegant Pulteney Bridge modelled on the Ponte Vecchio. It turned out to be less than elegant when viewed from this angle. Walking guides have made similar observations about a number of Bath buildings which present a unified facade while having individual and less dignified rears. Passing under it brought us back to our starting point and the end of the cruise. It was understated and very pleasant, a relaxing hour away from the bustle of the shops, buskers, cars and people. It was not an escape from the tourists, of course, but even they seemed to relax and quieten down when gently chugging through the water. They simply became normal people.

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