After getting back to Gainsborough, we went out in search of a pint and some food. We wandered about the night-time streets of Gainsborough, finding nothing but shut-down pubs, some people drinking cider in the street, and some lads having a fight outside a chip shop. It was a bit depressing.
The only things open seemed to be a garage, several fish and chip shops and a dingy looking chinese takeaway. We got a takeaway and a bottle of wine from the garage and retreated to our guesthouse, wondering at the fact it seemed to be the poshest place in Gainsborough. It was right next to the bridge and had a fabulous sweeping staircase – it must have been a grand ‘Gentleman’s residence’ when it was built. Now it’s surrounded by derelict buildings, but has an air of trying to keep itself above all that.
The woman running the guesthouse had been perfectly nice to us, but I bridled a bit at the ‘Please only put as much water in the kettle as you need’ sign by the teamaking stuff in our room. I don’t need telling to be eco-conscious, and if I did, I don’t suppose a little sign would work. It also said in the ‘room guide’, ‘Guests are welcome to eat takeaways in the breakfast room’. Which I took to mean, ‘Don’t eat takeaways in your bedroom and make it smell’.
Essentially, we weren’t very at ease. It was ab0ut half ten by now. We tiptoed into the breakfast room to eat our takeaway, had a whispered conversation about whether it was OK to use their bowls, then shovelled in our indifferent chinese as quickly as we could. We then couldn’t work out what to do with the now dirty bowls.
In paroxysms of petty-bourgeois embarrassment, I insisted we couldn’t just leave them on the side for the woman to find in the morning. Ross, with his unintellectual but unerring instincts, said, ‘I don’t feel very comfortable here. Leaving the bowls would be a way of being more comfortable.’ But once we’d talked about it for ten minutes neither of us were likely to feel comfortable about anything. We took the bowls upstairs and rinsed them in the washbasin using ‘luxury bath and shower gel’ as detergent.
Ross told me I was turning this into one of those British sitcoms that are all about social embarrassment. He predicted that we would end up in more and more ridiculous situations trying to deal with the bowls, and eventually get caught naked half-way up a ladder, balancing silver candlesticks on our heads, with no way of explaining anything about the situation. We stifled our uncontrollable giggles and tiptoed out to the garden with our wine.
There, an unexpected gift, there was a little decking area at the bottom of the garden, looking out over the river and the bridge. We drank garage forecourt wine out of thimble-sized toothglasses and watched the river in the dark.
The tide was coming in, which we still find primeval and fascinating. You could see the turbulent currents and the power in it. We discussed how people’s attitudes to the river have changed as we’ve travelled along it. It’s something I hadn’t really expected. Or maybe I’d expected it intellectually, without really knowing what it would mean.
Here the river is a thing you could never ignore. Everyone knows someone who’s drowned in it. In Stoke you could cross from one side to the other if you’d got wellies on.
Here in Gainsborough, so many people work on the river too – and years ago it would have been many more. Gainsborough used to be a bustling port town. Now road and rail transport has taken over, the town is a shadow of its former self. The river gives, and it takes away.
George Eliot stayed in Gainsborough in 1859, a hundred yards from here, just the other side of the bridge. The Mill on the Floss is based on Gainsborough. It’s thought the site of Dorlcote Mill in the book was about 250 yards the other way, to the south. I looked at the water and thought of her seeing it with her novelist’s eye. In the book Tulliver the Miller, so conscious of his lack of book learning, is the only one who seems really aware of how capricious and dangerous the river is.
We watched the derelict buildings along the riverbank, in the glow of the lights from the power station. We sipped our thimbles of wine and hummed songs about rivers. Two and a half weeks of walking along a river telling stories may have addled my brain, but it felt like a romantic moment.