Sunday, 24 April 2011

Meander 2011 (Part 2): Ending with a fizz

Day 2 of our "meander" by skiff from Lechlade to Teddington (you can read the story so far here) saw our little flotilla of six boats taking to the water at 6am. Which was a bit grim, but also extremely beautiful. 

Our first lock of the day was Abingdon, and once out of that we rewarded with the iconic sight of Didcot Power Station's cooling towers looming above the reeds in the distance. 

The next site of note was a little older: Wittenham Clumps are two plump little hills that pop up incongruously from the surrounding landscape which you'd struggle to call undulating with any accuracy. Grass covered, some early humorous arboriculturalist (or an arboricultral humourist) planted a small group of beech trees on the top of each. This makes them look somewhat like giant versions of these cress-grown-in-the-top-of-a-potato projects that children used to be encouraged to produce, though probably haven't been since the 1970s.

Checking the facts for the next stretch.
One of my crewmates was a professional archaeologist, so she filled us in with interesting details about hill fort features of the Bronze and Iron Age, some of which the Clumps displayed.

Did you say "a pineapple"?
Two of the crews, including mine, contained members of the same family, and had been supplied with extensive notes about the various locks and the surrounding area, which the matriarch had researched. We particularly enjoyed reading how the first pineapple in Britain was allegedly grown by the gardener of Dorney Court, and was subsequently presented to King Charles II. Which probably explains, serious rowers, why the pub just before you turn right for Dorney Lake after coming off the M4, is called The Pineapple. Hope you love that little factoid as much as I do, and that it makes you smile as you head towards Wallingford, Metropolitan, or Marlow Regatta this summer.

Education is more effective when not stuck in the bushes.
One of the other crews was equipped with a guidebook, from which the person coxing read relevant extracts. This is actually quite hard to do whilst also steering, and led to some small episodes of practical forestry.

Oh go on, wave!
By mid-morning the sun had burnt off the mist, and it was a truly glorious late spring day. Members of the high-performance Wallingford Rowing Club were enjoying post-outing cups of tea outside their clubhouse in the sun as we passed, although they didn't wave, which was slightly disappointing. Maybe they were too consumed with jealousy of the fun we were having compared with their serious training?

Approaching Moulsford Bridge and its
must-see arch engineering.
A bridge about which I sigh
The Wallingford stretch is home to my favourite bridge on the whole of the Thames – Moulsford Bridge. Without a doubt it's best viewed from the water, and what's clever about this Brunel masterpiece is that it crosses the river at a angle, yet the arches are parallel with the river, meaning that they are set at an angle relative to the rest of the bridge, and the brickwork inside sweeps round in the least utilitarian way imaginable. Brutalist modernism this is not. What it IS, apparently, I discovered on researching this later, is a great example of "elliptical screw arches". So now we all know. Do try to find a way to row under them!

Day 2 ended at Reading Canoe Club with nearly 68 of the 125 miles under our oars (no one was wearing a belt), and to our delight chocolate mini-eggs were served after dinner, because it was Easter-eve.

By Day 3, some of us had run out of
clean kit that was also co-ordinated.
By Day 3, we were well into the swing of things and we romped along the Shiplake stretch, imaging what it would be like to live in some of the houses we could glimpse through carefully landscaped gardens above beautifully manicured, sweeping lawns.

This ogling stepped up a gear later in the day as we rowed through Maidenhead and past what's known as Millionaire's Row, although the more hyper-critical amongst us felt that while most of these buildings were all very well in themselves, and certainly had great views, they were unimpressively close to the neighbours in most cases, and the discrete and secluded mansions between Shiplake and Marsh locks had more going for them. Although a million almost certainly wouldn't get you much more than the thatched shed for the ride-on mower in one of those.

Locks: not entirely skiff-friendly

This lower part of the Thames is popular with motor cruisers, which has its plus and minus points. The Minuses include wash, and the fact that the Good Lock-Keeping Guide states that little rowing boats should go into locks BEHIND motor cruisers when going downstream, so that if one of the big cruisers managed to untie itself during the descent, it won't crush the little rowing boat into the downstream gates. Which is all very considerate (I have no idea if this envisaged scenario has ever actually happened), but the problem is that us wee rowing boats go faster than the cruisers which are bound to an 8km/hour speed limit. So, on exiting a lock behind the cruisers, we have to wallow through their wash before we can overtake and get back to having a nice time again. We then arrive at the next lock, invariably just as the lock keeper is closing the gates, wait for 20 minutes till the cruisers all catch up with us, and then watch them being loaded into the lock ahead of us again.

Locks are also an opportunity to
relieve pressure on the bottom.
However, in my attempt to offer balanced reporting, an advantage of cruiser traffic is that lock keepers get all entrepreneurial to make the most of this literally passing traffic, and this can take the form of ice-cream stands at locks. This is a Good Thing.

We pulled in for the night at Eton Excelsior Rowing Club where we admired some expedition double sculls made by Rossiter Rowing Boats for a trip down the Zambezi later that year. Which sounded very exciting, though the crocodiles and hippos would be a bit of a worry.

A gratuitous scene of fluvial charm.
Her Majesty has the pleasure of inviting...
Earlyish on Day 4, the Thames passed through the crown estates attached to Windsor Castle, and this being only a week before Wills and Kate's wedding, there were numerous marquees in the ground and clearly tight security along the banks. No chance of hopping ashore and hiding in the bushes to gatecrash the bash the following weekend, then.

After that it was on to our home stretch through Walton – which was not THE home stretch for this trip, of course, but it was nice that a couple of stalwart members were standing by the boathouse to wave us past.

The real home stretch was from Hampton Court to Teddington down the Kingston stretch, which we reached in the early afternoon - along with half the cruisers in England, it seemed, and the kind of stiff headwind you often get with high pressure (aka sunny) weather.So it took ages, and was a right old slog. But no matter, we were nearly there!

And over the line!
Glossing over some misdemeanours we didn't understand at Teddington Lock, for which the Lady Lock-keeper soundly told us off, we lined up across the river (the skiff equivalent of holding hands) for the final few yards through the boundary stone. We then beached the boats, and gathered around the stone for the obligatory photo, whereupon a rowing friend of mine from Kent happened to walk by after lunching with friends. Unexpected, but a pleasure.

Our land team, who could not be praised enough for their wonderful support up to this point (including producing bacon butties at the mid-morning stopping points in various fields), surpassed themselves by producing several bottles of champagne.

Thames Valley Skiff Club Meander 2011.

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