On meeting real Oxford Gyptians, Summer 2020.
It’s hard to socially distance with a stranger on a narrowboat, but we cannot resist the invitation. These are real Oxford Gyptians on a real canal that curves into a backwater of the real River Thames.
As real fans of Philip Pullman’s parallel world, we know about Gyptians – they are good people, loyal and true, water-travelling families held together in close communities on the margins of society.
If we hadn’t been delayed by a mis-timed egg at breakfast and the excruciating length of a teenager’s shower, we might have missed them altogether: two narrowboats nudging towards the footbridge we are crossing.
A man in the first boat, a woman in the second. Both boats proper homes with plants and saucepans and books, and slick new italics painting their names.
This is my second outing to the Oxford Canal. Earlier, I jogged past two boatmen sat on a bench opposite Jericho. They held steaming mugs of tea as they watched the water and exchanged grunted pearls of wisdom.
Further along I dodged a duck family crossing the towpath, and saw a woman emerge from her boat with messy morning hair. She was in a serene world of her own, and smiled to herself as she fetched water from a pump in her wellies and pyjamas.
Entranced by it all – the bike wheels and herb gardens kept on narrowboat roofs, the owners sharing everyday tasks – releasing ropes and plugging leaks – important, cooperative things, I ask my family to abandon plans to explore the colleges and come with me to see the canal – where real Gyptians stay.
So here we are, my eldest sons managing the lock for the man and the woman in the two narrowboats – a process that is slower than any of us are used to in our own instant world. And my youngest son and I boat like Gyptians.
Our host sounds French, and I want to know more. I want to know if she is a longtime Gyptian with stories to tell. I want to know why she and the man travel in two separate boats.
But when we are canal-side again, waiting for the man’s boat to traverse the lock, the woman tells us that she’s had her boat (Philia) for less than a year. She’s worked hard on it and now it looks like new.
The man (Andy) is talking with my husband and sons a few metres away. Their stance is relaxed, the conversation flows, but the woman is anxious to get going: it’s her first time cruising her boat alone, she says. They are headed for Abingdon which will take several hours, and on top of it all there’s a wind.
The longer the men talk, the more agitated the woman becomes. However, she doesn’t want to be rude. So I call to my husband – gently at first, but nothing works until I resort to a holler.
We wave as the boating pair navigate the turn into Castle Mill Stream and then into the river. As we pass back under the footbridge we notice a sign that’s a few months old. It says:
“NO ACCESS. VULNERABLE BOAT OWNERS SELF-ISOLATING HERE. PLEASE RESPECT THEIR PRIVACY.”
It’s August and lockdown has loosened its grip; there are no boat owners here now.
And I wonder if sanctuary was sought close to the Isis (an alternative name for the Thames) for a reason – Isis being an ancient Egyptian goddess who healed the sick. Probably not … but flights of fantasy are diverting.