Isn’t it strange to ‘celebrate’ when someone leaves their place of work, especially when that someone is Dan? A ranger for over a year, his tasks had taken him far and wide and so was well known by most Wimpole staff. His strong work ethic and beaming enthusiastic smile, even if it was usually smothered in peanut butter and jam sandwich, were welcome across the estate. In typical cheeky style, he had asked permission to have his leaving barbecue party by the lake in the parkland and took that opportunity to organise a coracle race. Having previously tried the two traditional coracles Jess’s dad had built, he had realised their fun potential. These small flimsy craft, normally associated with Wales, are very light weight and easy to transport but notoriously difficult to handle due to their almost hemi-spherical construction and lack of a keel. As Dan’s well wishers gathered and the barbecue got under way, the coracles were brought out and placed on the water. Being the adventurous sort, I volunteered to be first to have a go. I put my left foot into the centre of the craft and NO, it didn’t go though the hull. But it did start to oscillate violently from side to side as the unstable craft tried to find a suitable centre of gravity for my bulk. That was enough for me. Keeping a firm grip on my assistant I withdrew my leg and headed back up the bank for the relative safety of the white hot charcoal of the barbecue. Undeterred by my cowardice in the face of dank and muddy water, the rest of the group proceeded to try and paddle across the lake. All succeeded. So much so that once they got half way across their confidence increased and they usually took detours up and down the lake rather than crossing at speed. With encouraging shouts from the bank each had mastered the figure of eight action needed on the single oar. I marvelled as these nervous sailors stepped back onto the bank full of the excitement and joy of the experience. Yet still I kept a firm hand on the barbecue tongs masterly burning vegetables and meat without prejudice.
Then that bully Simon bellowed out ‘Who’s not had a go yet? Shane and Jayne.’ I cowered like the playground wimp as all eyes swivelled like prison spotlights and we both felt caught in their beam as they found us. Caught in the frenzy, Jayne, a keen canoeist, went down and took up the challenge and was soon floating like a lily pad on a pond. Spinning in circles at high speed, her uncontrolled flailing of the water with the paddle had little effect on direction or speed. This did not encourage me at all and it was with great nervousness that I once again put my foot into a coracle. With one hand like a death grip on Paul’s shoulder I summoned all my courage and lifted the second earth bound limb and committed to the craft. Triumph, I wasn’t wet and felt quite secure until I realised Paul hadn’t let go of the hull yet. Now he pushed me gently away and I was adrift mimicking Jayne’s frantic spinning top performance as I floated out into the middle of the lake. Panic now set in as I attempted to control the coracle. I had watched the others as they carried out the figure of eight paddling stroke slightly ahead of the craft and like them found that if the strokes weren’t forced the boat began to behave. Confidence rose and I struck out for the other side. All fear sloughed off me like a second skin. How could I have feared this elegant boating experience? By this time Jayne had also managed to have a semblance of control and together we like the others before us abandoned all thoughts of racing and set off down the lake. As we drifted along we were both struck by the calmness of floating in a structure with all the strength of an eggshell on a lake that promised a muddy surprise if we overturned. Still slightly fearful of a collision we managed a tour of the lower lake before returning to the party as seasoned coracle’ers? Now we could join in the bravado and camaraderie of Dan’s leaving party without shame. It’s a slightly strange thing to celebrate the fact that someone is leaving but I like to think that it showed consideration for the contribution he made to both the work and the social atmosphere at Wimpole. His beaming smile will be missed.