During the depths of the Covid crisis when I was denied access to ‘Hejira’ while she was inaccessible on the Cote D’Azure, I looked to get my ‘water fix’ with a small dinghy on the British waterways. This was explained in the blog ‘Wind in the Willows’ (which also explains the nomenclature of the ‘Dramatis Personae’ who feature here – me: Ratty, Peter Grover: Toad & Carl Beetham: Chief Weasel) and this is followed by a blog of our first dinghy fiasco: ‘Scuppered’
The ultimate target was always to travel the length of the non tidal, navigable river Thames from Lechlade to Teddington Lock. The scheme was delayed and almost eclipsed by the return in 2021 of the ‘big’ Hejira to the UK from the Mediterranean but the itch remained, and the mission had yet to be fulfilled.
So it was that ‘T/T Hejira’ was towed by Alan (MD of Atom) with my next-door-neighbour, ‘Toad’ to a launching slip in Lechlade Marina, very early in the morning from where we set off on our delayed adventure.
We were to have travelled with two other dinghies crewed by good friends of mine with the same intention. When we arrived, they were casually planning showers in the marina, having arrived the previous day but we were soon ready to go so we cast them a cheery adieu expecting them to catch us up at the next pub; we never saw them again!
It became clear that we were on different programmes, ours was to complete a mission, theirs was to have an indulgent and relaxed passage, savouring the experience on route. This would certainly have had its attractions but with commitments back home for all our crew, we had to press on. Carl (Chief Weasel), the third participant was due to join us somewhere mid-afternoon or that was the plan… We were equipped for several nights of camping and provisioned with a somewhat unbalanced and eclectic cargo of victuals – put it this way, we were unlikely to dehydrate.
Toad’s pathetic, inept efforts at manually operating the first lock resulted in him being relegated (or promoted…), by mutual agreement, to helming where he could cause fewer problems and he remained in that position for practically the remainder of the passage, the engine providing warmth and, seemingly, a headrest.
The first notable incident happened early on as we entered a lock just after a boat hire location. We were safely ensconced at the front of the lock as a hire boat entered, clearly out of control. Thank goodness that there was a lock keeper in attendance as he saved the day. He took the warps, slowing and stopping the ‘runaway’ boat before it crashed into our vulnerable dinghy. The hire company had laboured the point that boats should turn off their engines in the lock; incredibly, these hirers had literally interpreted the instruction and turned off their engine as they entered the lock!
With improving co-ordination and teamwork between the Toad and me, we were transiting the manual Locks with improving efficiency and speed, waiting for the Weasel to call us to agree a rendezvous location. The best prediction suggested a likely pub serving food, ‘The Ferryman Inn’ at Bablock Hythe and we forwarded the post code to the Weasel who was being driven by his lady friend, Rhian after a weekend in the west country. The wonders of modern science and navigation placed them on the wrong side of the river. With ten miles either way to the nearest bridge, the Weasel had to be sheepishly recovered from the opposite bank to belatedly, and probably reluctantly join our adventure.
The selected pub outwardly promised little, being run-down and adjacent to a scruffy mobile home park. As it turned out, The Ferryman served excellent food and beer and we departed replete, with a spring in our step – or whatever is the nautical equivalent.
Pressing on, we transited through Oxford and focused on ‘The Kings Arms’ at Sandford Lock where Toad ‘threw his toys out’ at poor service and silly rules so we only stopped for the one pint, no food, and entered the lock intending to pass through before finding somewhere to pitch our tents.
That is where our mission ‘hit the buffers’ as we became stuck in the lock with none of the ‘out of hours’ controls working to allow us to exit.
Thankfully the Weasel earned his stripes, took the camping gear off the boat, and found a place to pitch our tents and lay our heads adjacent to the lock. A technician sent out from head office finally released us from our incarceration and we moored up and gratefully sank into the welcoming embrace of our tent and sleeping bags.
It has been my mantra for many years of adventuring that, by not doing it, you inevitably miss some unexpected pleasures and I have many examples of this over the years. This evening, we witnessed a bizarre and seemingly dangerous spectacle. Two small planes were flying around with active fireworks strapped to their wings creating the most spectacular display as they looped and swooped above us.
Carl (Chief Weasel) had done us proud by pitching the tents where he did and we woke to a steady stream of athletes completing a 100mile run along the towpath from Richmond to Oxford, some of them clearly in better shape than others.
Day two and we were making very good progress. The early rural fields, distinguished only by Second World War ‘pillboxes’ and the smell of cow dung had given way to a more varied vista. We began to identify suitable stops and focussed on ‘The Boathouse’ in Wallingford for lunch. Although it seemed promising with good beer, we were early and the reality was disappointing – Toad ‘lost the plot’ again as the poor organisation and service “didn’t deserve our patronage”, so we left after only a couple of pints.
In retrospect, our boycott served us well as we carried on and moored at Goring. We then walked over the bridge for an excellent meal in the Swan in Streatley. This was a meal that Toad failed to retain but that is another story which may have to ‘stay on tour’.
There must be something in the human make up which makes people territorial and unfriendly. Much of the riverbank is peppered with signs saying ‘Private’, ‘Keep Out’, ‘No Mooring’. Could this just be a British thing?
We passed through clouds of May flies with birds swooping through them presumably gorging on the seasonal feast.
We were now in familiar and more interesting territory passing through Pangbourne, Mapledurham, Tilehurst, Reading, Sonning and Wargrave.
We may have pressed on beyond prudence as the light faded and the temperature dropped but we eventually traversed the length of the Henley rowing course to camp on the riverbank under the watchful eye of a herd of cows.
At least the cows were silent, but we had camped in the epicentre of a goose convention which carried on all night with most of the delegates voicing their opinions at the same time and some from just outside our tent – sleep was intermittent.
Carl had become so cold that he went straight to bed fully clothed wearing gloves and a hat, but he apparently still woke up freezing.
The morning was very misty and it took some time for the river to clear enough for us to press on with confidence.
We were now in a fascinating and more familiar part of the Thames as we passed by Hurley, Temple, Marlow, Bourne End (where we re-filled our petrol tank and Toad stocked up on his special personal fuel, all the way from New Zealand) Cookham and Maidenhead. We were looking for a good lunch stop and found it (courtesy of Toad’s recommendation) in GOGO’s Restaurant in Windsor Racecourse Marina. Surprisingly for a Monday lunch time, it was really busy so it was just as well that we had booked a table and we enjoyed a welcome and excellent meal.
Windsor, Datchet, Old Windsor and Runneymede were soon left in our wake and so was Carl who ‘jumped ship’ at the Runneymede Hotel. He had never recovered from the horribly cold night in Henley and maybe he was a little chastened by his lamentable performance on the helm.
So, it was just Toad and I left on the adventure and by this time we were (I was) operating the locks solo but still making reasonable progress. The lock keepers have been a mixed bunch and not all the locks are attended and then only part of the day with an inevitable lunch break. They do, however have access to sluice settings which empty and fill the locks much faster than the default slow speed available to the ‘self-service’ boater and the slow, public, manual operation can be tedious.
Soon we were through Staines (upon Thames), Laleham and Chertsey but with the last of the light we had a target of some common land just after Chertsey Lock where we pitched our tent within reach of the two pubs at the bridge. Needless to say, we enjoyed what they had to offer in the evening and after our best night under canvas, returned for a big breakfast the next morning.
So, it only remained to pass through the final lock before a pause at my friend’s house in Shepperton.
Our Shepperton Lock experience deserves a little more description as, mooring outside the lock and seeing no life ashore, I wandered to the lock office. There was an attendant who didn’t look up as I said we wanted to transit downstream. He finally looked up and said’, ‘well, where are you’? – as we were so small, we were out of sight. When I suggested I open the sluices, he said to ‘leave them alone’ – without looking up or lifting his gaze from his paperwork. I disconsolately wandered back to our dinghy cursing the attitude of many of the Thames lock keepers. We could see a bit of activity and then the whole river started to flow towards the lock. The deep lock filled in a trice and we were beckoned in as the gates opened. The Lock keeper, with a glint in his eye, told us not to moor up, to just stay in the centre of the lock and we would experience our fastest lock transit on the Thames. Wow! The gates closed and the lock just emptied, and this was a big fall, it was like an express lift. Being ‘spat out’ like that was impressive and it enabled us to just drift past Desborough Island to our final mooring in Shepperton.
With an undertaking to complete the mission to Teddington lock before too long, Toad and I ordered an Uber back to Sunningdale reflecting on a mission all but completed but thoroughly enjoyed.
It didn’t start well…..driving down the M4 with Alan and Ratty, in the pouring rain with all the windows open as Nick’s Lamb Jalfrezi from the previous night made its presence felt in a most gut churning way.
When we arrived in Lechlade, I begged Alan to take me back with him but to no avail. I realised that I would need to have the final say over what Ratty ate on the trip as we were sharing a tent and, as I took the helm, was always down wind of him (quite literally). I hoped he was ready for some nice plain salads rather than the spicy, pungent food he was clearly used to.
We stood in the misty rain, and I realised my ‘summer’ wardrobe that I bought along was not going to cut it and I was soon wearing all my clothes all at once……
The two of us set off, leaving the others to pack up their boats…I wondered why we would have 3 people in our tiny vessel and they would only have a maximum of 2 in their larger boats……Still, I thought Ratty must know what he’s doing…..once again, I was clearly wrong.
We were making good progress until my misplaced confidence came back to haunt me. I thought anyone capable of sailing the Atlantic would be able to get us down a river which, rather like a railway line, had no opportunities for wrong turns. I didn’t allow for the navigation of Locks……needless to say as it started to get dark, Ratty managed to get us into a Lock but was incapable of getting us out again.
This called for a couple of pints in a nearby pub where we put our thinking caps on and called the water way equivalent of the AA. In the meantime some, happy, local lads offered to carry our boat around the lock. Even at this stage of the evening, I could see lots of opportunities for misfortune. Eventually a ‘pissed off’ lock keeper returned to his Lock to allow us out and down the river 100 yards to our improvised camp site where Chief Weasel had erected both tents. Unfortunately for him he had set them just 10 feet apart, he would live to regret this when Ratty’s snoring kept him awake all night.
Take one small tent, two men of advancing years and both proportioned for comfort, not speed, 2 artificial hips, 2 sleeping bags and 2 bed mats; why did we ever think it was a good idea to get ready for bed, in the tent, both at the same time. It was like 2 sumo wrestlers playing Twister, in a phone box and was never going to end well.
The next day we had promised to stop at the ‘Old Anchor’ in Abingdon for a pint and a spot of lunch with the landlady who used to run our local, the ‘Royal Oak’ in Sunningdale…. unfortunately (as we were out to win the Thames speed trial), we arrived just after 8.00am and realised that the plan was scuppered, so we simply waved her a good morning and pressed on and on and on and on…..….. I enjoyed a lovely Carbonara for my lunch, washed down with some Rebellion IPA but Ratty found a way to trigger my gag reflex and it all left me a couple of miles down the Thames. That episode probably deserves a blog all of its own.
Once again, we pitched our tents in the semi darkness, wearing our head torches as the temperature plummeted to around 3 degrees.
Necessity being the mother of invention, that night we invented the Bloody Mary soup; take 2 sachets of tomato cup-a-soup, add chilli, Ratty’s garlic granules and a healthy slug of vodka (about a quarter of a bottle) cooked on a primus stove and our sense of humour gradually returned……though during a cold night in a field of cows with the loudest, nocturnal, geese on the planet plus Ratty’s incessant snoring, it soon disappeared again.
We woke the next day to more cup-a-soups, chicken this time, as variety is the spice of life and set off with our Boaters perched on our heads. Unbeknown to us, they were starting to film ‘3 men in a boat’ in Henley that very day and we were mistaken for cast members by several passers-by and local rowers….quite why anyone would think Walther Matthau (Ratty), Rob Brydon (Weasel) and a chap with very high blood pressure (me) would have been picked for this dramatisation is anyone’s guess.
We pressed on again, with a lovely lunch in Go Go’s, a restaurant in Windsor racecourse marina, a meal that I managed to keep down, I think even Ratty knew he had overstepped the ‘mark’ the previous day. But he hadn’t played his final card just yet. We dropped Weasel outside the Runneymede Hotel and, once again, I begged someone to take me home with them, but he strolled off leaving me with Ratty. Having put in another 13-hour shift in that little boat, we camped in Chertsey and this time Ratty thought it a good idea to be very close to the boat….so close that my half of the tent was on a 45 degree angle down the riverbank whilst his half was on the level. That night he also managed to kick me in the head, a timely reminder that I really am too old for all this malarkey…..until the next time 😊
- Satnav is a spectacular innovation that will deliver you to within 25m of your postcode destination. However, try to ensure the 25m is not the width of the river Thames that now separates you from that target, with no bridge crossing for ten miles either side. Doh.
- Much of the upper Thames is undoubtedly very pretty. Much of the upper Thames is also equally boring.
- You’ve worked one lock, you worked them all.
- Repeatedly pressing the ‘Close Sluices’ button again and again and expecting a different outcome is the new definition of madness. So, imagine the mood of the ‘on-call’ lock tech support engineer upon being summoned to display his skills and talent at 9.00pm on a Saturday evening. He didn’t strike me as being over-the-moon, which had risen by the time he departed.
- The Kingfisher is truly the king of birds and to witness its flash of petroleum blue in the bright morning sun was a genuine delight. Failing to see it as you have your nose in your phone updating your SnapFace status is borderline criminal.
- There is no place for a selfie-stick in anyone’s luggage who has been instructed to travel-light.
- Online booking apps do not a great customer service experience create.
- The lassoing of buoys is best undertaken by North American cowboys or South American gauchos as it’s not as easy as it looks. Probably.
- Lock-keepers need to pinch themselves each and every morning. Unfortunately, most appear not to do so.
- Neat vodka, as an additional ingredient to Bachelor’s Cup-a-Soup, appears to impart surprisingly medicinal qualities.
- Young, inquisitive heifers are invariably drawn to the snoring man.
- Canadian Geese never need to sleep, remain active 24/7 and become noticeably more vocal during the hours of darkness. Also, with broods of 10+, they are taking over.
- What is it with women and dogs? Are we that bad?
- I remain the Carbonara king!
- Paddleboards are unwittingly stable and no amount of intentional wash can send them to the depths.
- Rowing is a really, really skilful sport. No, really.
- The banks of the Thames is home to both the most exclusive of properties and the most basic of semi-sunk barges. Multi-millionaires live cheek-by-jowl with the disenfranchised and unrepresented of society.
- Property porn is developing en-masse via the building of steel & glass Scandinavian palaces of opulence. Sadly, none looked lived in and the baby-grands remain unplayed.
- Every other residence has a trampoline in their garden but n’er a child was seen bouncing in any.
- Three tipsy idiots in a boat, in boaters, do a smile bring to all but the most pursed of lips.
I was somewhat frustrated that we had not been asked to produce our Thames license or insurance – not once. Having gone to the expense and trouble of ‘doing the right thing’, I was denied the pleasure of brandishing our ‘nurdily’ laminated paperwork.