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The River Thames

Boat building in Oxfordshire

Esther Lafferty looks at the perks and pitfalls of Oxfordshire life in our new monthly column
Esther Lafferty

While the Significant Other is in the garage this autumn, I’ve decided to take on the Aspire Challenge and swim the channel

The Significant Other has decided to build a small boat...


Not, as I initially imagined, to bob amongst the rubber ducks among the bubble bath but instead something seaworthy that a minor rock-star might envy. I pointed out that we live in the very centre of the country and it’s ninety minutes to the coast in the car assuming we set off with the lark when land-lubbers are still slumbering.

His response was that the Upper Thames flows only a mile and a half from our door, and suggested that weekends away on the sea would be just the ticket. And while I calculated that the Upper Thames to the coast is over 200 miles and that as the speed of a boat is heavily restricted to that of a jogging hippopotamus (10mph) weekends away were as realistic as me running alongside said hippopotamus shouting encouragement or even digging the coastline a little closer myself, The Significant Other immersed himself in Amazon with the vigour of a Kraken, one-clicking boat-building manuals left, right and centre. And then cleared the garage, a task very much underplayed in those three little words.

By dawn the postman was on his knees at our doorstep, as if delivering an entire pirate ship ready formed, and we became awash in ‘Practical Boat Builder’ magazine and other tomes undoubtedly important for a man the sum total of whose woodworking experience is a wooden tray with brass corners for his grandma. Armed with unbridled enthusiasm and a basic woodworking textbook, a sharp pencil and a cheery whistle, he was off.

Although the boat will take many months to build, I like to look on the bright side and so I am already planning ahead for my nautical wardrobe. It seems best to skim over white deck shoes and navy jackets with golden epaulettes and opt for various buoyancy aids, clothing with pockets for emergency flares and a themed skirt I found in Sea Salt where the fabric is reminiscent of the RNLI. I did suggest that he just built a lifeboat and cut out the middle man. It didn’t go down well.

And so I’m concentrating on swimming, an activity where I very much sit on the fence. Unlikely as this sounds, it’s an indoor/ outdoor thing and I’m a swimmer of wavering preferences.

I love swimming in the open air, kingfishers whipping past, a dash of turquoise, imagining the otters frolicking under fronds just out of sight; crayfish, no more than labour-saving toenail clippers.

I recently discovered the most beautiful river pool just a few miles from where I live. I’ve always harboured a secret fantasy about being a mermaid and it would be the perfect place. My hair looks like reeds anyway (and I’m never going to own up to scaly legs in public). You can ship wonderful iridescent tails from the US and I imagined gliding through the water surprising Thames path walkers with fairy-tale magic. The realisation soon hit home though that getting to and from the car in full body fin would require a lunatic caterpillar wriggle and rather damage any romanticism.

However beautiful the outdoor water, as the weather draws in and the air temperature plummets, there’s something increasingly alluring about the clean lines of a heated pool.

To occupy myself while the Significant Other is in the garage this autumn, I’ve decided to take on the Aspire Challenge and swim the channel. Now before you leap to conclusions and have me slathered in goose fat in your over-vivid imagination, and while I do have terrifying friends who do this kind of thing before breakfast on a weekday, I’m signing up to swim 22 miles in a pool. And before Christmas rather than breakfast which will suit me rather better, and fortunately leaves the goose for a festive table.

Esther Lafferty is the organiser of Oxfordshire Artweeks, a visual arts festival, and the oldest open studios event in the UK, involving around 1000 artists and over 400 venues each year. She is married with three children and lives in Faringdon. This hyperactive mermaid lists her hobbies as triathlon, kayaking, dancing, writing, theatre and cryptic crosswords.


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