Thursday, 25 May 2017

I-Spy on a Meander

Let's start with some definitions. "I-Spy" books were much loved by those of us who were kids in the 1970s - and probably by our parents too as they kept us vaguely occupied when on holiday. Each little booklet contained a list of things you might see (with a short, informative explanation), which you ticked off and got "points" for: in I-Spy Birds, for example, you got something like 5 points for a mallard but 50 for an osprey. You get the idea. Some were easier than others: the whole of I-Spy Churches could be completed on a single visit to York Minster, but I digress.

Once you'd amassed 1,500 points you could send off your book to Big Chief I-Spy at Wigwam-on-the-Green (why do I remember this stuff?) and it would come back with a stamp on it. Children were more easily pleased then.

Moving on, a "meander" is the name given by the Thames skiffing community to a row down the navigable, non-tidal Thames from Lechlade to Teddington. Obviously these are best done during the summer months, which leaves the winter for skiffers to weave yarns about epic meanders of years gone by and, of course, come up with new plans. These will inevitably seem like great ideas at the time but a fast track to sore body parts and the consumption of ridiculous numbers of Jelly Babies if they actually come to fruition. 

And so it was that three of us - who had all completed the trip in (coxed) double skiffs - thought that we should do it the "hard" way in single skiffs. A singles trip, if you like, but not THAT kind of singles trip. So there we were; two 14-stone blokes and a jumped up cox with a taste for expedition rowing. Well, they'd just have to wait for me at the locks (all 41 of them).

This is the story of our four-day, 185km trip (we stopped at our club in Walton rather than going all the way to Teddington), expressed in the medium of I-Spy.

Bends (5 points)

The Thames we all row on is mostly quite wide and at worst only a bit curvey. Above Oxford, though, it's proper wiggley, It meanders, in fact. Apart from a couple of incidents which left me and my boat looking like we'd been dragged through a willow backwards (we had), I was on a roll for the first day as we negotiated these, not least because their greater speed was actually a hindrance in reacting quickly to yet another bend. When our land team (aka Anne) met us at the Ferry at Bablock Hythe with sandwiches, the others weren't even in sight. "Where are the boys?" she enquired. "In reeds, mostly," I replied.

Land team (10 points)

Anne, another skiffer and wife of one of my meander mates, pursued us by car for much of the trip, which is easier said than done because the roads and the river of the Thames Valley are about as co-ordinated as snakes and ladders on a board. As we were concerned that many of the locks would be unmanned, Anne's ability to appear at them (frankly, I was convinced she must have been apparating) was extremely welcome and involved a considerable amount of cross-country running as the nearest public road access is usually not that close. 
Another amazing Anne appearance.

Lock keeper (10 points)

These proved to be less rare than we'd expected, given that cuts to the Environment Agency's budget mean that one keeper often has to cover two locks, although at one the keeper told us he was only there for 5 minutes and that was when we'd appeared.

Baby waterfowl (10 points)

Doing the trip in late May meant that there could be frequent "Oohs" and "Aahs" at cute, fuzzy ducklings, goslings (pink-footed, Canada and Egyptian), cygnets and coot chicks. Saw a few moorhens but not their young.
Saw seven swans a-nesting (plus some others). 

Unusual birds (20 points each)

Cuckoo (heard but not seen), curlew (as confirmed by next lock keeper) on the reedy upper stretches, and a kestrel hovering (below Goring). Loads of red kites from just above Henley too, of course, and cormorants pretending to be espalier fruit trees opposite Windsor Castle.

Willows (5 points alive, 10 points dead)

A cry of, "Willows!" was frequently passed back from the lead skiffer in our little flotilla (as well as, "Cruiser!" and occasionally, "Goslings!"). Sometimes the advice had been harder-learned than others.

Last time I meandered the Thames was just after the floody winter of 2013/2014 and I was horrified by the number of willows which had split their trunks and were sitting in the river, still alive and rooting rapidly - and severely restricting the navigation channel. But with miles and miles of trees like this, pruning it all back was clearly a massive task. So it was great to see on this trip that land owners had actually achieved more than I had expected, with numerous rows of heavily pollarded trees.

A weed is a plant in the wrong place, and "in the river" is defiinitely the wrong place for willows to be.

Cute constructions (10 points)

Back in the days before lock keepers had TVs, online gaming or Instagram to help those long winter evenings fly by (I am making this up, by the way), they would turn their hands to various crafts, the fruits of which they would display at their place of work to amuse passing boaters.
Dear little houses at Buscot Lock (I think).

Wooden animals at Abingdon where there was also a helpful sign saying. "Keep the red floaty things on your right as you exit the lock". The Campaign for Plain English would be proud.

Purple irises (5 points)

If your lock doesn't have these, you're just not trying hard enough. (See pic above.)

Pillboxes (15 points)

As usual, attempts to count these bastions of defence collapsed after about the first five. Built as part on the north bank of the Thames in World War II, they were a key part of "Stopline Red," the first point that an invasion from the South coast might have been halted. There are loads up at the top of the Thames - the furthest downstream one I noticed was on the Wallingford stretch.
Pillbox: to be honest, when you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.

Elliptical skew arches (30 points)

Moulsford railway bridge on the Wallingford stretch is my absolutely favourite bridge. One of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's finest creations, it crosses the Thames diagonally yet its arches follow the line of the river. Sooo clever! 
Check out that BRICKWORK!

Those are Bath stone quoins, you know...

Massive stately home (25 points)

I must have been coxing or looking at ducks or something all the other times I've rowed the stretch between Cookham and Boulters locks because I'd never noticed how Cliveden is perfectly angled at the top of its hill to give it a vista straight down the river. What better way of giving its owners the impression of being the masters of all they surveyed.

Cliveden is in the V in the dip in the tree line just to the left of centre in this picture. 

Letter box (30 points)

Fake letterboxes have apparently been popping up in various locations on the mid-Thames over the past few years. Is it art? Or a better class of graffiti? Dunno, but this one just upstream of the start of Reading Head amused me for a few strokes!
Mooring  "post"?

Archimedes screw (40 points)

Romney lock stands out from its siblings in two most unusual ways. First, it has two Archimedes screws that are used to power Windsor Castle. And second, it is the only lock on the Thames that tweets in the first person, e.g. "All my radial gates are down. 1 of my Archimedes screws is rotating (very quickly); the other is resting. Lots & lots of lovely sun 🌞🌞😎😎." Gotta love a lock like that!

Widdling lock (10 points)

As we dropped down at Romney lock, the wall started widdling into my boat. Which makes a change from the usual direction of this kind of transaction between mankind and walls...

Windsor Castle (25 points)

You can't miss it, or the fact that Her Majesty doesn't want you to land in her garden.

There were a heck of a lot of willows for the unwary just upstream of Home Park. Perhaps Her Majesty could lend the Environment Agency one of her groundsmen and a pair of shears for the day? Her skiffing subjects would be terribly grateful...
We get the message.

Headwind (5 points)

Not many points for spotting this because it was easy to find! Bah.

The End.


  1. I think you deserve an extra bonus of 100 points for doing it in a single without a guide boat! I singled my old double with a cox a few years ago so that was cheating and obviously had a guide boat for the non-stop paddle...cheating again so loads of respect to the three of you - well done! By the way, how many times did you get caught in trees/bushes/backwaters???

  2. I've just meandered as well! Admittedly it took us six days to row from Lechlade to Beale Park but I was in a Hampshire punt which rows like a brick and hey...we had pubs to go to...

  3. I've just meandered as well! Admittedly it took us six days to row from Lechlade to Beale Park but I was in a Hampshire punt which rows like a brick and hey...we had pubs to go to...