21 April 2017
In our house early starts usually mean races and it was certainly early when CJ and I left the house. We were heading for Mansbridge and a race but any similarity to a normal race day ended with the early hour. For one Commando was still at home in bed sleeping off the night shift. There were no trainers, no race kit and there would be no medals at the end. My camera was in my bag though. We’d been reliably informed there would be a whole lot of ducklings to see and I didn’t want to miss them.
When we reached the river there was still a hint of morning mist hanging over the city and, apart from a couple of dog walkers, Riverside Park was empty. Most of the water birds seemed to be still snoozing. One lone swan was awake near the reedbeds but we didn’t stop to say hello. There was a race to see and we didn’t want to miss the start.
When we got to Mansbridge though, there was no one about. At first I thought I might have got it wrong and our march along the river had been in vain. We walked up to the White Swan in case it was the venue I’d got wrong but there was no one about there either so we headed back to the bridge. For the start of a race, even a race as unusual as this, it was all very strange.
Back at the bridge two ladies were looking around, concern on their faces. They looked to be mother and daughter.
“Are you here for the race too?” the younger one asked when she saw us. “I thought there’d be loads of people here by now.”
“So did I,” I said. “I thought we might have had the wrong day or the wrong place.”
“It’s definitely today and it’s definitely here,” the lady said, “but there are usually a lot more people by now.”
While we’d been talking the mother had walked a little way along the bank looking at the river.
“Look,” she called suddenly, “a deer.”
We all left the bridge and joined her in peering at the opposite bank. CJ was the first to spot the deer and after a bit of myopic squinting I saw it too. It was on the marshy ground at the very edge of the bank behind some flotsam caught in the branches of a fallen willow, so intent on munching the fresh new leaves it hadn’t noticed us. Of course I took some photos but it didn’t stay still for long so they weren’t the best. After a while wandering up and down the bank it disappeared into the trees.
“Even if there is no race it was worth the walk just for that,” I said to CJ.
“It’s always worth the walk,” he replied.
While we’d been watching the deer the racers had turned up. There were around three hundred of them but they weren’t taking up much space. In fact they were all crowded together in a big tote bag. The race we’d come to see was a duck race organised by Roverang, a Scout and Guide Association group to raise funds for their dance and music extravaganza. The racers were all bright yellow plastic ducks with numbers written on their sides and the race would be a little like a giant game of Pooh Sticks, with people sponsoring each duck at the cost of £3. There was even a prize for the winner.
We were hoping there’d be enough ducks left unsponsored for us to have one each but the lady in charge of the bag of ducks was not the one in charge of the money or the list of sponsors so we waited patiently.
“It doesn’t really matter if there are no ducks left,” I said to CJ, “it will be fun just watching.”
Slowly the bridge began to fill with people, some who’d already sponsored ducks online and others, like us, who were hoping there would be some left. After a while the lady with the list arrived. Luckily there were still enough ducks left for us to get one each. CJ made a note of our numbers 235 and 236, although I thought we’d be unlikely to be able to spot them once they were in the water.
Once our ducks were in the bag, so to speak, we left the bridge and walked a little way along the bank, hoping for a good view of the duck launch. In all my walks along the river I have never seen the little bridge so crowded.
Of course it wouldn’t really be a race without at least one Spitfire present. While we were waiting for the proceedings to start I spotted a familiar face in the crowd. Emma, taker of numbers at last year’s RR10’s and my companion walker on several parkruns in the late stages of her pregnancy was there with baby Ellie and Grandma and Grandad. I knew Emma and her parents were involved in Roverang and I’d hoped to see her there. Little Ellie was showing off her new found walking skills and looking quite excited about the whole thing, although I’m not sure she really understood about the ducks or the race.
When we saw the huge bag of ducks raised onto the parapet of the bridge we knew the start of the race was imminent. There was no pre race briefing or start gun, no runners jostling for position hands poised to start their watches, just a tumble of yellow ducks falling from the bridge into the water.
Sometimes the river here flows very fast. Today was not one of those days. Very slowly the crowd of ducks inched towards us. Mostly they were bunched together, some upside down, others on their sides and a few upright just as a duck should be. There was no need to run to keep up with them. Infact, for a long time we didn’t move at all, we just watched them drifting past trying to spot out own ducks amongst the crowd.
By the time the last few ducks passed us the bridge was almost empty and the riverbank was crowded with people slowly following the ducks and, like us, looking for their own. There were men in canoes on the river marshalling ducks away from the tangle of flotsam by the fallen willow and making sure none got caught up on either bank. At a snail’s pace we followed the tide of yellow downstream.
All the ducks made it past the branches of the willow. By the time they were headed for the first bend in the river most of the clumps had broken up and, like any race, there were several front runners well ahead of the pack and a few stragglers at the back. Some of the back markers needed a little encouragement with a paddle to keep going.
The first real obstacle was the tangle of reeds a little way downstream. Some ducks decided to take a shortcut close to the bank while others took the long way round, taking advantage of the faster current. One or two became tangled and needed a paddle to get them loose.
By the time they’d rounded the bend most of the ducks were close to the far bank, meaning the marshals had their work cut out keeping them away from entanglement in tree branches. The field had really stretched out by this time and there seemed to be some clear front runners.
When the ducks got to the next bend in the river they had a real challenge to conquer if they were going to make it to the finish line. This is where the side stream runs off towards the activity centre and joins with Monks Brook. There is a kind a weir where the main flow of the river and the side stream join. Fast flowing water like rapids heads off into the trees and loops round.
A brave marshal had stationed his canoe in front the the swirling water but was having difficulty not getting swept away himself. While he struggled to push straying ducks back towards the main stream while paddling like mad to stay there himself, a few little ducks went the wrong way. Another canoeist a little further upstream had clambered onto the Boardwalk behind the tree line and was frantically fishing the off course racers out with a net as they swirled past him. We watched fascinated, wondering if our little ducks had made it through or been swept away.
Eventually almost all the ducks had made it last the danger zone so we walked on around the final bend before Woodmill. Now they were past the fast flowing river before the side stream the ducks were moving so slowly it seemed as if they were becalmed.
“They could do with little sails,” I laughed. “At this rate we’ll be here all day.”
“There are worse places to be hanging about,” CJ pointed out.
Inch by inch the first ducks floated down river. A stream of people followed on the bank. This was certainly not the fastest race I’ve watched and there was still a long way to go to the finish line at Woodmill.
“I don’t envy the canoeists the task of fishing them all out when they get to the sluice where the river runs under the road at the mill bridge,” I said.
“They won’t be able to get through will they?” CJ wondered.
“I shouldn’t think so,” I said. “I imagine they’ll all just get stuck there but it will still be hard work fishing them out.”
When we reached the straight stretch of river leading to the mill we could see real ducks ahead. A mother mallard was shepherding her brood of fluffy little duckings upstream. They were the cutest little things, little balls of fluff and feathers scampering along as if they were running on the water. We watched entranced, wondering what would happen when the duck family met the racing ducks.
When the marshals came round the bend and saw the ducklings they obviously decided a meeting would not be a good thing. Perhaps the prospect of accidentally scooping up some real ducklings along with the racers was too much of a worry or maybe the river was flowing to slowly and the race was taking too long. Whatever their reasons they decided to pick an arbritary finish line and end the race a little early.
The marshal who’d been policing the side stream stationed himself beside and overhanging branch and waited for the first duck to come past. When it did he fished it out and took note of the number. It wasn’t one of our but we didn’t really care about winning anyway and we hadn’t seen our ducks at all during the whole journey.
While the marshals in their canoes set about rescuing all the little yellow ducks from the river we went to find Emma to say our goodbyes.
“Ellie’s duck has only gone and won,” Emma said excitedly as we went over to her.
Little Ellie didn’t seem all that impressed by her first race win. She wasn’t even especially excited by the fifty pounds prize money but Emma thought she’d probably enjoy the rocking horse she was going to put the money towards almost as much as she’d liked watching the little yellow ducks floating down the river.
CJ and I walked back along the river stopping to look at the duck family who seemed unscathed by their close encounter with the racing ducks. It had been a fun morning, despite the pace of the race being a bit slower than I’m used to. Roverang raised the fantastic sum of £771.50 and, for once, the marshals and supporters got far more exercise than any of the competitors. The irony of a Spitfire winning the race wasn’t lost on us either, even if little Ellie hasn’t yet learned to run.
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