#51 Cycling and painting

My son and daughter were with me this weekend gone. We were supposed to be surfing down at Saunton Sands. The sparky woman at Walking on waves said the sea was as flat as a pancake, that she’d happily rearrange. Anytime in the future. No problem.

I put tagine in the slow cooker, made a picnic, packed water-colour materials and bikes in the car and drove over to Monkton Combe, by the Dundas Aqueduct.


Even though they’d fought, and farted at each other while I’d sorted the parking ticket, my two were suitably impressed and calmed as we cycled beside the canal across the aqueduct. There’s a ledge beneath the balustrade that we all wanted to clamber over onto, but didn’t.

The air was soft, a light breeze scented with the sweetness of rotting leaves, the sun gradually breaking through dull clouds. Wood smoke hung in the air next to various narrow boats. The steeply banked woods on the opposite side were mostly sycamore, their outward facing leaves blushed carnelian. A drunk stumbled onto the path from the hedge. He clutched a can of Tennants’ Super-T and looked confused as we breezed past. The river ran parallel to us in the valley below, but in the other direction, south west to Bath.

My son led the way at first, his legs somehow pumping twice as fast as mine, front wheel twitching as he scanned for minor off-shoots from the main path to scramble over. My daughter followed, cautious eyes taking in all the details, cataloging, defining. We passed under a beautiful road bridge, Winsley hill road from Limpley Stoke towards Bradford on Avon.

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Just beyond, an elegant conservatory filled with geraniums looks down upon the canal path. The kids passed by oblivious. There were various hired narrow boats abroad on the water, some filled with lively chatter, some more morose. We branched off by the lane to Turleigh, down to the river, to picnic. Here, for half an hour, my children turned on each other again over their sandwiches, cookies and Doritos. While they traded tired insults, a dragonfly hovered nearby, a kingfisher shot upstream and several trains trundled along the elevated branch line at Freshford.

We ploughed back across a deeply grassed field and rejoined the canal path. Soon enough, we crossed our second aqueduct at Avoncliff. We descended the embankment and rode through the tunnel and up the path to The Cross Guns pub. I realised the last time I’d been here was 25 years ago. I’d signed up with the school cross-country team and, as a perverse end-of-term treat, our coach arranged that we would do a night-run along the path ending here. A single lemonade all round. Huzzah.

I don’t think it’s much changed. A traditional-style pub, all horse brasses and stone walls, fires roaring. There’s a large benched garden terraced down to the river. Nice enough on a hot day, maybe, but there was a shadowy, forlorn feel to the place today. The river is met by a minor brook here. The water is shallow and reedy, perfect for the ducks that my son fed most of his ice-cream to.

We cycled back up onto the aqueduct, returning the way we’d been, now actively searching for a subject to paint. My daughter chose the first boat we came upon, named Topsy. I unpacked our materials: a small A5 Winsor & Newton pad, three portable water colour kits, pencils, brushes, a rubber and sharpener.


I filled our jars with water and we began.

My son focussed on mixing the right brown for the water, which he then flooded his page with. He painted a solid black boat which soon sank beneath more brown. Eventually, twenty minutes later, just before giving up, he painted another black boat with blue windows.


I proceeded in the more traditional way of sketching first.


The roof is partly fictional as I was sat down, and couldn’t really see it. I then spent about an hour adding colour and ended up with this.


Not accurate, not awful.

My daughter took her time and steadily added layers of colour. Even though she was sat beside me, she painted a side-on view.


I love her trees.

All together:


The sun glowered at the far end of the tunnel of overhanging branches, the temperature had started to drop. We headed back. I pinched the drying paintings between my fingers, two in one hand, one in the other, steering the bike on the balls of my palms. Mistakenly, I pointed out a rabbit in a field that we’d already passed. My son turned to look, and plunged into brambles and nettles. Some tears. A cuddle.

A heron stood motionless a few feet from the path, not threatened by us. The drunk from earlier had made barely any progress in the three hours or so since we passed before. Again, a question seemed about to form in his eyes, then dissolved. We glided back over the first aqueduct, slowly enough to discern the mottled white and black neck of another static heron. The path fell away from Brassknocker Basin marina, down towards the car, its fan heater and home.

#16 Shoulders


Clouds the size of villages crowded the May sun. Sounds of distant traffic travelled slowly through the air. There were few people about, the marina was beginning to wind down for the day.  The cafe was shut and the boat-hands were waiting for the last of the hired boats to return. They had already upturned most of the two man canoes onto the quayside, the under-powered river cruisers were tethered to the mooring posts.

I have a vantage point on the scene. I am raised high on my father’s broad shoulders and look down on him and my grandmother. My father is talking to my grandmother in his  steady, public voice and she is nodding and looking up at me often. I cannot remember what they speak of. I was too young to comprehend more than a few words, but I am unable to forget the sensation of being elevated, of seeing all of life enacted before me. Warmed by the sun, my stomach leant against the back of my father’s head, I was deeply content.

There was a pair of faded black leather sandals on my feet, they hung loosely onto my father’s chest and bounced on his bosom as he walked. He wore an open cotton shirt, and my grandmother wore a linen blouse and a cardigan. We were under a tree by the side of the canal, a birch, its many leaflets dappling the sun. Voices belonging to others are here:  two women at a nearby table, a family of three on bicycles. Other than my grandmother, no-one sees me.

There was a noise. My father turned, and so I was turned to face the last of the day’s hire-boats returning. A dark green canoe, a man and a woman. I looked up. The sun now had a whole sky of blue to itself. The couple manoeuvered the canoe to the quay-side. My father continued to watch them as the woman stepped out without any sign of imbalance. She arched her feet as she turned back to the man, who lay the paddles in the gravel on the quay and pulled himself out, keeping hold of the rope attached to the prow. He tugged at the rope and the prow lifted from the water. Then, the canoe slipped and span round, its hull scraping the stone wall of the quay. The sound unsettled the air.

My father walked towards the man, his hands closing around my hips and, for a moment, raised me higher. I could see the cars on the bridge above the canal, waiting at a traffic light. I winced at the searing edge of another immense cloud as it spilled into the blue, its edges sharpened cobalt white. My father called out.  A slight breeze lifted, trees seethed, and then everything became diminished as  my father placed me down on the gravel path at my grandmother’s side. I watched him move across the quay, and heard the question in his voice. I watched him as his arms reached over the edge of the quay, then raised the canoe, dripping, from the water. He turned towards me and smiled shyly. I did not smile back. This was the last time I remember being on my father’s shoulders.