Friday, 18 April 2014

Meander 2014: How the Thames grows up from baby to teenager in four days

Although I'm happy to be accused of stretching an analogy too far, the 124 mile journey of the River Thames from its rural source to the point it becomes tidal, is rather like the development of a child, from wriggling infant to grown man, ready to head off to sea to seek adventure far from its home shores. 

Along the way it leaves its toys  lying around, got into technology and even acquired some brand-name accessories. Oh, and don't get me started on the state of its bedroom....

The Thames officially becomes navigable at Lechlade Bridge. 

And like most newborns (at least in the eyes of their parents, or at least those besotted enough to pay it a visit at 7am on a bank holiday weekend) it's a pretty little river, snuggled up between its grassy banks, and small enough that you could... well, not quite hold it in your arms, but certainly span it with a reasonable-sized narrow boat (more on that later).

Lechlade Bridge. The start!
From Lechlade Bridge it's only just over a mile to the first lock: "This is easy as well as fun, thinks the innocent meanderer. A break after only 11 minutes rowing!" We whizzed through this in no time thanks to the presence of Energetic Cyclist on our Land  Team. Often turbo-powered on his headlong cycle along towpaths by his dog (or, when that dog was worn out, his dog-in-law), this tireless character got to every lock ahead of us so that he could fill it, and open the gates for us if we were passing through outside the lock keeper's hours of duty. 

Whilst industry, buildings and technology have all made their marks on the lower reaches of the Thames, up near the top, it passes through countryside which appears to have changed little in hundreds of years. And though we got the odd whiff of oil seed rape, mostly there were just grassy fields, cows and a few sheep. We glimpsed the 16th Century Kelmscott Manor through some rook-laden trees, and had a stimulating conversation with our cox about what William Morris was most famous for (she proved very knowledgable, and scorned our suggestion that the answer was "mostly wallpaper").

Meandering. Us AND the river.
Why "Meander"?
Whilst navigating this part of the river, and regularly responding to requests to pull "harder on strokeside" shortly followed by "harder on bowside", or simply lugging our rather heavy boat against the rudder as we negotiated yet another hairpin bend, we realised why this popular skiff route is known as a "Meander": because meandering is exactly what the Thames up here. Like a child learning to walk its path is seemingly aimless as it wanders around, getting constantly distracted and entirely lacking in focus. 

The age of technology
As we all know, if you need to know how to work a modern gadget, the best thing to do is ask a 7 year old, and the River Thames also embraces technology pretty early in life. From Godstow Lock, just on the outskirts of Oxford, onwards, all Thames locks are electric, and all that traditional opening and closing of lock gates by leaning against the mighty beams atop them, is replaced by pressing a button. Funnily enough, Energetic Cyclist didn't seem to mind about this automation of his duties.

A crucial line of defence. No, seriously.
Leaving his toys around
I grew up next door to two boys who apparently spent their every waking moment leaping around the garden shouting "Ack, ack, ack" whilst playing "battles" and stuff like that. But I had hoped for a little more refinement from the fine river Thames. I was wrong. It seems that the Young Thames was   given a huge boxed set of pill boxes during the Second World War, which it's left  scattered all along the river bank, practically as far as Reading. Remembering these from our previous Meander we laid some bets before setting off on how many we would see. Our cox went for 12. My Tiny Skiffing Partner thought 40, and I suggested 48. 

Decommissioned military hardware put
to good use in the 21st century.
In the end, we think we spotted 17 on the first day and 14.25 on the second. They were definitely no more after that. We're still not sure about the quarter – it might have been one that was never finished, or one where the walls and roof had been knocked off leaving only the plinth, or possibly just an entirely civilian block of concrete. TSP was duly declared the winner. 

I do realise you're probably keen that I get back to tales of our on-water challenges, but before I leave the subject of Thames pill boxes for this trip, some quick research revealed that these are not just any-old lumps of long-forgotten concrete. Oh no, They have Categories. In fact, most of the ones we saw were FW3s, no less! One of the things about FW3s, apparently, is that the Type 22 and Type 24 FW3s are often confused. Which is entirely understandable. Especially when they're covered in ivy. 

I was slightly disappointed to learn that none of the ones we spotted could possibly have been "Eared Pillboxes" or "Essex Lozenges", because of their location. But the (distant) prospect of retirement is no longer so daunting as there's clearly enough to give weeks of fascinating entertainment here.

Thames Valley Skiff Club attempts a rescue!
(but ultimately fails as some people need
to learn to help themselves.)
A Thames barrier
Not the one in Woolwich (we were a LONG way up river of that), but one created by our accompanying Edwardian launch trying to help a very long narrow boat which had obviously made a hash of getting round one of the more meandering corners in a cross-wind, and had run aground on the shallow sandy edge of the river (you may have heard comments in the news this year about rivers no longer being dredged – I'm not commenting, just saying...).

Our launch threw them a long line, which was dropped in the river, and then rescued by another of our skiffs. There was some pulling, some churning of the sandy bottom, some reversing, and eventually the narrowboat was afloat! But within a few seconds, they'd run aground again, and at this point, we bade them goodbye, as we had a lot of miles to go between there and our evening stop point. There were certainly advantages in being in short boats on this wiggly stretch of the river.

Designer labels
So, by the time we reached the Wallingford stretch on Day 2, the Thames was no longer the small, playful thing it had been in the first 30 miles. It was wide. People were doing grown-up things on it (no, not THAT kind of grown-up thing...) like high-performance rowing, and large pleasure boats (careful) plied up and down with day trippers aboard. The cruiser count was going through the roof. The Thames was no longer a child.

So excited to be approaching my favourite bridge!
But you know how it is with teenagers – they are obsessed with brands. They won't wear M&S jeans any more, it has to be Levi 501s. That kind of thing. And thus is was Moulsford Railway Bridge, which isn't just any old brick bridge, but a Brunel bridge. I'd been enthusing to the rest of the party about it right from the evening before we started. It's my absolute favourite bridge on the Thames: red brick with elliptical screw arches. And the older half of the bridge has stone quoins! OK, I'll stop that now. We celebrated getting through it (and it does mark the half way point on the longest bit of the Thames between locks – some 6.5 miles) with a brief pause for jelly babies.

Rabbiting on
The top snack of this trip was the Malteser Bunny. The Land Team had bought a large box of them, in a moment of inspiration at the cash and carry. 

The last stretch on Day 2 was a substantial 4 miles from Mapledurham Lock and, being a touch weary by this point, we decided that we would break this up by having a short pause half way through this when we would consume the Malteser Bunnies we'd slipped into our dry bags at lunch time. We didn't half push on to that half way point, I'll tell you!

Once we got there, and were discussing the "ears first vs bum first" approach between munches, the boat drifted a good 400m. These were duly christened "bunny meters", a phrase that has subsequently slipped into Thames Valley Skiff Club parlance for any distance made good due to stream whilst not actually rowing (normal skiff outings involve swapping over the person coxing at 1/3 and 2/3 into the outing).

Energetic Cyclist is not amused as his bike has broken.
The dog is not amused as he can no longer
run along with Energetic Cyclist. 
Mad dogs and skiffers...
... would be delighted to go out in the midday sun, but as there wasn't any, we went out in some biting headwinds (our breaks were as important for thawing out the coxes as they were for refuelling the skiffers). And on Day 3, we got the downpour that had been forecast. As the rain began to fall, we were were no more that half way through the fairly long stretch between Hambledon and Hurley Locks, and as TSP and I were already at the back of the fleet (again)*, and we were darned if we were going to get left further behind by stopping to put our waterproofs on. Reasoning that as we were shorter and thinner than the others so would hit fewer raindrops we pressed on for the next lock, where we got our coats on just before it REALLY started to hammer down.

You won't see this in the Boat Race.
Despite being very new to all this, our cox impressed us by producing two plastic bags – crucially, the kind with handles – which she tied round her feet to stop them getting wet. Me, I just congratulated myself once again on having bought a (highly expensive, but worth every penny) pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks a couple of years back for another expedition row blighted by an inclement forecast. Dry feet = bliss.

The cox of one of the other crews was spotted using an umbrella to keep dry whilst coxing, which has been a long-held ambition of mine. Impressively, he was also drinking a cup of tea at the same time AND steered a perfectly good line. Perhaps men CAN multitask after all?

Large pieces of foam.
* TSP and I were the slowest crew on the trip, but our excuse is that we were the only all-women's crew that went the whole way. As lightweights, our progress was also particularly hampered by there being a headwind for most of the first three days. We had discussed in advance how we would have to be mentally tough enough to be the slowest crew, so we weren't phased, and we were fully signed up to the concept that if it were as fun as going to Disneyland, there wouldn't be a sense of achievement in completing it. We also had good gloves, large pieces of foam to sit on, rowed perfectly in time (actually, TSP rowed perfectly in time with me which made my life a lot easier), and were totally oblivious of the significance when the "Young 'Uns" crew sang the theme tune to "Pirates of the Carribbean" every time they passed us (we tried to get out of most locks first).

The Thames "leaves home"

Our trip ended at the Boundary Stone, about 250m below Teddington Lock, which marks the official end of the non-tidal Thames (there must be a reason why this offical line isn't at Teddington Lock itself, but none us us knows what it is). This is where the Thames leaves the confines of its safely locked upriver stretches, and sets off for London town roistering about, experiencing tides, and eventually heading out to sea to seek adventure.

What a mess!
This was my second meander, but I've spent much  of the past 30 years rowing regularly on several stretches of the upper Thames, and have done several other expedition rows on sections of it too. But what stuck in my mind above everything else on this trip was the total mess that the river was in. 

A major spring-clean is needed.
The whole way, every bank-side shrub was stained to a height of 2-3 feet above the water with a dry, muddy residue; we saw countless huge piles of wood, worthy of being Guy Fawkes bonfires (which is probably exactly what they will be as the wood in them might just about be dry enough to burn by next November; numerous willows had split, leaving half-trunks protruding out over the water, narrowing the navigation channel, and leaving their trailing, still-living branches poised to root themselves out into the river where they will be very hard to dislodge if they're not moved soon; and various boats left literally high and dry in places they didn't belong.

"Most of us need support in order to achieve"
Our meander took place at the same time as the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. Despite being only a mile longer, this is a much more gruelling event, not least because it's non-stop. A first-time competitor this year was Olympic rowing gold medallist Ben Hunt-Davies who, despite having been a top-class athlete, found the event extremely tough (see my above comments about Disneyland...). Afterwards, Ben wrote of how "Having the right people around you makes such a difference. Whether it is the people in your boat, your immediate support team or other cheerleaders along the way." I couldn't agree more, so three massive cheers for TSP, our coxes, the other crews, Verity the launch and, of course, our fantastic Land Team (even if they did leave the chopping boards in Reading).

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: 5 (coxed doubles)
Event Organiser: (ourselves)

The End.

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