Saturday, 13 June 2015

English rows or English rose? The Magna Carta 800th Anniversary River Pageant

When it comes to expedition rows, I'm generally drawn towards the more challenging end of the spectrum. But despite involving more time spent picnicking than actually rowing, and the main preparations being  focused on what to wear, this two-day paddle along the Thames from Cookham to Runnymead was a truly splendid extravaganza of rowing in all its forms.

"What sort of boat is that?", was a FAQ along the way (both asked of us and by us); equipment was compared (I experienced boat-hook envy); and we made some lovely new friends too.

Incidentally, where was Magna Carta signed?

Before I get on with the rowing, a quick history lesson?
800 years ago, in June 1215, around teatime, as The Life of Brian would have it, there was a load of politics going on and some powerful barons kinda forced King John, of England (just England back then, mind) to sign (actually, seal) a big document, promising that he would stop being quite such an absolute monarch, let them have some rights, and stop demanding money off them. Well, not quite so much anyway.

There were lots of other clauses in it, including the charming one about banning fish weirs from the Thames, which seems a little baffling today, but was apparently to make it easier, or even possible for trading craft to get up and down the Thames without getting stuck on the said fish weirs. A bit like banning market stalls from a motorway, perhaps.

Oh, and Magna Carta, as every schoolboy knows, was signed at the BOTTOM.

Rowing a little (a very little) and picknicking lots
We took to the water in the pleasant drizzle of an English morning in June, and drifted about for a while, chatting to other crews. The crew of a Cornish Pilot Gig (patriotically dressed in Cornish flags), asked what sort of of boat ours was. "A Thames Skiff", we replied. "A Pimms Skiff?". "No, but I like the idea."

Then we met the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, not surprisingly the most recently-founded of the London Livery Companies, who had a figure of Mercury (a god loosely associated with the conveying of messages) atop the canopy of their cutter. 

After a little bit of rowing, we moored up at Cliveden, albeit somewhat at the river tradesmen's end of the grounds, and got the sandwiches out. A pair of ducks appeared at a speed that Yogi Bear would have been proud of, but one of our companions saw them off...  

Did I hear a sandwich box being opened?
I SAID, "Did I hear a sandwich box...."
Cor, luvvaduck, what on earth's THAT?!
Splash, rapid exit.
There was a "knight" on the bank, wearing a rather fine reindeer skin. I admired his chainmail and he let me try his jousting helmet on. It was VERY heavy: he reckoned his neck muscles were stronger than F1 drivers' necks.

Eventually our long lunch came to an end as a "bishop" announced that the Queen's Rowbarge Gloriana would soon be here. 

This fantastic vessel was built in not time flat, and in total secrecy, for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in 2012, and is floated out for all sorts of English/British celebrations (including the final leg of the Olympic Torch Relay, later in 2012).

We duly "tossed oars" to salute her as she passed.

And then we were off. It was just brilliant being part of such a large flotilla of traditional boats, and as we approached Maidenhead, the crowds along the river bank began to build up considerably: an unusual experience for us ordinary rowers!

We got just a weeny bit close to her coming out of Boulters' Lock in Maidenhead, and got somewhat told off.

Gloriana then hung about for a bit, taking salutes from maidenhead Rowing Club, some of whose members were rowing her, so we pressed on, and as the sun came out, had a delightful paddle, through Windsor, where the Royal Standard was flying on the Castle (it was Her Majesty's Official Birthday that day, so maybe she was having a tea party there), and on to Datchet.

I'm not often described as an English rose
Having been humbled by the quality of dressing up on Day 1, I felt that our ebay boaters and Thames Valley Skiff Club racing shirts didn't really constitute trying hard enough so, in an attempt to up our game for Day 2, I raided the rambler rose in the garden which was having a conveniently-timed flowering frenzy. Someone did ask if they were headphones, but overall, the reaction was positive.

The "800 years of boating" parade brought together a fantastic mix, and some brilliant costumes. 

A Venetian sandolo (left) and a Maltese dghajsa (pronouncd dysa, I believe),
both of which were sort of water taxis.
All the various boat types were grouped together for the final row past, and we rafted up next to an extremely beautiful touring skiff, dating from the late Nineteenth Century, which had quite the most gorgeous paddle boathook I've ever seen. 

I now realise my life is incomplete...
But the delights of the day weren't just about equipment, they were about people too. There was the pleasure of messing about in boats with various friends; there was the banter with the rest of the skiffing community; and the brief exchanges about boats with other enthusiasts. 

However, a real highlight was meeting the sons and daughter-in-law of one of the pioneers of women's rowing in the 30s, in whose honour the Lester Trophy at Henley Women's regatta was given, and hearing stories of her and her crew's exploits on a rowing trip to Australia. And then finally, whilst waiting for the shuttle bus back to our cars, with jousting going on in the background (just another ordinary Sunday in merrie England), meeting the author of the Rowing for Pleasure blog, which is one of my favourite online reads. It really was a unique day out!

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