Friday, 22 April 2011

Meander 2011 (Part 1): From tadpole to opera

Many, many rowers, myself included, row regularly on one of the 45 stretches of the Thames between locks. We often race on another two or three. 

But that leaves an awful lot of Britain's most famous river left to explore, which was one of the best bits of this 135 mile skiffing tour from Lechlade to Teddington over an Easter weekend.

There were also chocolate eggs, history lessons and a Handel aria in an unexpected place.

Event: Private Expedition
Where: Lechlade to Teddington, on the River Thames
Distance: 124 miles
Locks: 44 
Time: 4 days – it was a tour!
Boat type: Thames skiffs
Number of crews in the event: 6
Event Organiser: (ourselves)

Why this chunk of the Thames?
The source of the Thames is near Cricklade in Wiltshire, but it's too narrow to be easily navigable at that point, and Lechlade is held to be the top of the navigable Thames. Teddington, some 135 miles, 44 locks and a drop of 225ft towards sea level.

We rowed to the Boundary stone which is about 100m below Teddington lock, marking the official start of the tidal Thames, and so our course covered the entire navigable, non-tidal Thames. It's good to have very specific challenges.

If it wasn't a race, what was it?
The tour was the 2011 edition of a regular event undertaken by most of the Thames racing skiff clubs. My club, Thames Valley Skiff Club, hadn't done one for some years, so the old hands were keen to do it again, and the six of us who hadn't done it at all were just plain keen.

The cast list
Our little flotilla comprised five coxed doubles and a crazy lady in a single. The skiffers in some of the doubles swapped round according to various schedules that best suited the personnel involved, whilst others skiffed the whole way, being steered by a rota of volunteers.

And the production team
The whole trip was only made possible by the stalwarts of the land team, who packed bags into the minibus, made sandwiches, went shopping, drove around like demons (observing the Highway Code at all times, of course), and had the beer in the fridge at the end of each day. 

They were supplemented by other Club members who appeared without warning at various points along the route, which was always a nice surprise for us and, actually, allowed them to enjoy feeling part of the whole thing too. Never underestimate the pleasure that's to be had in playing a part in an expedition, however small – people really enjoy helping, so don't be afraid to ask, if you're planning one.

Lock 1 of 44.
Up the pointy end
The River Thames in Lechlade is totally unrecognisable as the same river that may of us row on in Oxford, Reading, Henley, Walton and elsewhere. It's narrow, and it's extremely bendy – in places, like a bunch of sine waves huddling together for warmth.

Another way in which the upper reaches of the Thames differs from the lower stretches is that until you get to Oxford, the locks all have to be mechanically operated. So the plan was that members of our land team would try to get to each lock before us and have the gates open so we could just row straight in. This didn't quite work, in fact the illustration above was the ONLY lock they actually got to at the same time as us. Although they were invaluable in many other ways and frankly did jolly well given one of them had only passed her driving test two weeks before and neither had much knowledge of M4-corridor geography. Or so it later became clear.

Are the wiggles in the river like a tadpole's tail?
Arguably, yes. But the tadpole of the day is Tadpole Bridge. Whence this idyllic scene of rural navigation was taken. This is just a straight forward photo – there has been no retouching of the colour of the sky or the calmness of the water. Exquisite, isn't it?

The next surprise for us meander novices was the string of concrete pill boxes along the banks at frequent intervals. We'd heard of the Maginot Line but had no idea that there was a Meander Line that provided the final line of defence before invading Nazis reached the Midlands manufacturing base!

We noted 27 of these. And then lost count. They ran out before Oxford. Maybe it had other ways of defending itself? Invader (and anyone else for that matter)-repelling piles of student laundry, perhaps?

One of the pill boxes had had a piece of plastic pipe humorously inserted in the gun slits, to look like the barrel of a bazooka. Now, I realise that's not going to go viral on a social networking site as "the funniest thing you ever saw", but in the general atmosphere of bonhomie that went with unexpectedly good Spring weather, and lovely English countryside this brought smiles all round. Sorry that I omitted to take a photo - we're repeating the trip with new club members in April 2014, and it's top of my "must snap" list.

Where're you walk... or row
Sometime around mid-afternoon, we approached Oxford, where the river splits in two. Half of it goes off sightseeing round town for a bit, whilst we stuck to the other bit which is consequently rather thin, and also shaded by tall trees, houses, and what I think was once a brewery. We then squeezed our six boats into Osney lock, along with a narrow boat, and a punts. 

Every lock was an opportunity to chat with the other crews about the highlights of the previous stretch of river, and to swap possibly unwanted reports on the current states of hands, knees and boomsydaisies. With all this going on, it took us a few seconds to realise that, as the lock gates were swung shut by the look-keeper (thank you, sir!), a good, old-fashioned, "his master's voice" type gramophone player was being wound up in the punt. 

And then a gentleman stood up in the said punt, and launched into the famous aria "Where'er you walk", from Handel's opera Semele. Only in Oxford. With the exception of the one with the topiary (more on this in a future post), it was without doubt the most unusual lock experience of the trip, and it's not easy for a 1790 lock to get noticed.

The verb "to dongol"
Whilst rowing is an efficient way of propelling a boat through water, one of the biomechanical aspects of it which makes it so efficient, is the fact that the blades are quite long, and pivoted at just the right point on the edge of the boat. Which means that rowing boats can't easily be propelled through narrow spaces.

This man is dongoling.
His girlfriend, in the foreground, is apparently
not interested in joining in.
Now, if you're in a traditional racing boat, there's previous little you can do about this. But in a skiff, which is wide, and is stable in its own right – not needing the blades sticking out the side to give stability in the manner of a tightrope walker – you have an alternative method of propulsion, when you're in a tight spot. And that is to stand up and "dongol" the boat as if it were a Canadian canoe.

As the trip went on (and this is still only day 1 of 4), our crew got very slick at dongoling out of locks like our lives depended on it – each of the 2 skiffers grabbing a blade on the opposite and pre-determined side, paddling out, and then pirouetting round, dropping the blade neatly between its thole pins, flicking the other one out, and skiffing off. Not that we're competitive or anything.

At summer skiff regattas, there are sometimes "fun" races at the end of the day which often include a "dongola" race - lots of people paddling with small paddles in a wide punt, one of which invariably slews right off course, probably crashing into the other boat, and certainly getting everyone very wet as a water fight ensues. Anyway, that's just some added colour about dongoling. 

Day 1 over
After an interminable wait at Iffley lock, at the bottom of the stretch on which the Oxford College crews row (except they weren't, because it was Easter weekend, and well out of term time), where our senses of humours were getting rather tired, and even the sight of a plastic heron failed to cheer us up much, we eventually reached Radley College, where we had arranged to leave the boats for the night.

The main questions in our minds at that point were, "Will the City of Oxford Rowing Club bar be able to revive our flagging spirits?", and "What's for supper?". (By the way, the chocolate eggs and history lessons are in the next blog posting.)

No comments:

Post a Comment