Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Barges, baas and bells

It was a dull grey morning, with nothing much to look forward to but some rain, when I heard hooting and sirens from the river, which usually means something at least worth a look. It turned out to be the start of the annual Barge Driving Race, in which teams manhandle (there's no other word for it) lighters from Greenwich to Westminster. Two oarsmen run up a slope to get the angle to heave the lighter forward, while another team of two wait to relieve them - this is a long race and these are both bulky and weighty craft ("lighter" only in the sense that their predecessors were used to make larger ships lighter by taking on their load for onward transport):

Feeling energised, I went to see some sheep on London Bridge. In times past, it was a valuable privilege of "Freemen of the City" to be able to drive livestock over London Bridge free of tolls: for the 800th anniversary of London Bridge this year, the Lord Mayor's charity appeal was combining a re-enacted walk of sheep across the bridge with an "Anniversary Fayre".

My heart had sunk a little at that. A "Fayre" suggests an event with the wrong sorts of pretensions, the "fête worse than death" where the home-made jam (sorry, preserves) comes with a mark-up for the lacy doily tops on the jars, and there is gimlet-eyed pricing on the bric-à-brac and vintage clothing ("This isn't a jumble sale, you know"). The weather was looking like a good excuse to ignore it.

But in the event (and I notice there seems to be some backtracking about the spelling), it turned out to be a collection of stalls and tents displaying mostly the crafts of some of the City's livery companies and various other heritage-related organisations - bricklayers and "tylers", stained-glass makers, painters, calligraphers, playing-card makers, assorted vintage vehicles and demonstrations of blacksmithing by the bus stop. Sundry people in robes of office and other sorts of fancy dress added some colour to the event.

But the sheep were the main attraction: and groups of people were taking occasionally reluctant animals for a short walk before handing them on to the next group (I'm assuming they'd all made a suitable donation to the Lord Mayor's appeal).

And all the while, the bells of the City churches were ringing - because yesterday was also the 150th anniversary of Big Ben.

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