The Barge of Avon

A compelling feature of barge travel is that if you miss a scheduled departure, you can catch up with your transport by taking a brisk walk. No other carrier can make that claim. The advantage might not be significant, of course, if the barge is not worth overtaking, but the one on which my wife and I recently sailed the Avon and Severn rivers proved worth it to such a degree that a new line of thought has been forced upon me. With automobiles everywhere checkmated by other automobiles, with airplanes turned into human freight compartments endlessly waiting to take off, and with passenger trains all but extinct, the barge is the likeliest vehicle of the future—more likely by far than the Concorde.

Between supersonic flight and transportation by barge a difference in operating speed will no doubt be quickly detected by the seasoned traveler. While the Concorde manages to cross the Atlantic in three hours or so, the Beverly K & Jean K makes it from Stratford to Worcester—a distance of thirty miles as the dull-witted crow flies—in just under six days, a feat made possible by a roundabout, hundred-mile route, a four-hour cruising day, time out at the frequent locks, and side trips through the country by bicycle or minibus.

In those very figures lies the irresistible law of barge travel: the lower the speed and the more eccentric the route, the greater the saving in time. The law works out this way: By reducing the passenger’s progress through the countryside to four and a half miles an hour, with plenty of time to spare for gawking ashore, the barge allows one to see in a single trip what it would take forty trips to see by any other means of travel. The saving in time alone is staggering, and I say nothing here about the saving in money and energy required to book forty trips with all the necessary connections.

But, the skeptics are sure to ask, if the idea is to see every blade of grass, why not walk to begin with? Sheer hypocrisy. Who, except perhaps a few crazed youths, would want to go scrambling up and down riverbanks, puffing, panting, and sweating until one has lost the inclination even to look at another willow reflected in the water, another swan, another bubbling weir, another curve in the loveliest stream in England? The beauty of floating along on a barge is precisely that you can see all this and more from a comfortable deck chair—or through a picture window, if the rain happens to be falling on “England’s green and pleasant land,” which it does, after all, less frequently than in the rain forests of the Amazon, and much more gently. To traverse the Avon by barge is to walk through England’s choicest countryside without getting wet and without so much as moving a leg.

As the double name indicates, our barge is twins, with the Beverly’s small diesel pulling the Jean along until they encounter a lock; then the Beverly goes through under its own power and the Jean is towed along by rope—and by muscle, when the wind is against the project. Several times a day and always at night the two handsome craft, as cheerily painted as a carrousel and lined with flower boxes, tie up alongside one another to allow passengers to move back and forth between the barge that contains their trim and comfortable cabins and the one that holds the galley and public lounge. Three gourmet meals a day—besides coffee and freshly baked cake at eleven, and tea and scones at five—are consumed in that pleasant lounge.

Those who can’t take the strain of watching others crank and uncrank the lock gates in addition to preparing quiche for lunch and filet mignon for dinner can always hire a barge and do these things for themselves. But that is the lazy way out. The Beverly K & Jean K is for those hardier folk who can, out of the corner of an eye, watch a young woman leaning her fair shape full against a barge pole to get the craft off a shoal while they sternly work away at seeing eternity in a blade of grass, or at figuring out whether the next half mile’s prospect looks more like a Turner than a Constable, or at checking on the catch of scores of dour-faced fishermen lining the banks. Other passengers are intensely occupied in studying swans, as though they might have to account for them to Her Majesty on SwanUpping Sunday, or in distinguishing the cry of the marsh hen from the mating call of the lapwing. Or, not least, they may be counting the sheep in a steadily receding meadow until that sort of arithmetic has its usual consequence.

So the busy days pass, with hardly a minute to look for the stamps one bought the day before, much less to write a postcard. But the work load is happily lightened by the side trips to a Cotswold village, an abbey ruin, a pub or two or three, or an unspoiled market town filled with medieval houses in which, miraculously, people live as routinely as though they were in a walk-up on Third Avenue or a condominium in Florida.

Barge travel is not for the many, which is fortunate because every other form of travel is. All the same, Floating Through Europe, the American enterprise that owns the Beverly K & Jean K, must be making an impact in England. Britons line the shore as the bright barges pull into the dock at Stratford or Tewkesbury or Worcester. They are clearly awed by these crazy Americans—at least, on my trip the patrons were Americans —tearing along their waterways at a speed that would get them across the Atlantic as fast as the Santa Maria.

Retroactively we had reason to be awed ourselves. After we had disembarked at Worcester, we were to see no more of the technological wonders of the Beverly K & Jean K, and to miss them sorely. All too soon we were back in the clumsy world of hurry-up-andwait. The car we had hired to meet the barge at nine in the morning arrived, after much frantic telephoning to Bristol and Birmingham, at three in the afternoon. If it had not been for the intervention of the genial skipper, we might still be stranded on the banks of the Severn, along with five heavy pieces of luggage.

But we were not to feel that we had really returned to the backward twentieth century until a few days later we arrived at Heathrow Airport, at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon. Our jumbo jet, scheduled for departure at four, would not take off, we were informed, until ten o’clock that night, owing to the sort of mechanical collapse that is unthinkable with the more soundly engineered river barge.

Worse than those seven lost hours in an airport (a person could intimately probe thirty beautiful miles of the Avon in that time) was our correspondingly delayed arrival at Kennedy. By the time we had cleared customs at one-thirty in the morning, suburban limousines had stopped running, attempts to telephone with English pence proved impractical, and a sluggishness hung over the airport, thicker and less breathable than any sluggishness noticeable in the Vale of Evesham.

With no handy barge sailing to Huntington, on Long Island’s north shore, we had a choice between an airport hotel for the balance of the night and a $50 taxi ride. We took the taxi. True, the Beverly K & Jean K, had it been available, would not have got us home until the following Tuesday, but it would have been comfortable and we might have come to know and love Long Island Sound even better than we do. What is more, as on the Avon, we would have done something to patch up a sound barrier that in recent years has been so often broken to so little avail.