For this, my fourth full Meander, someone somewhere (OK, let's name names, it's all Richard K's fault) decided that instead of the usual, moderately challenging four-day schedule, we'd do it in three days. To compound the reduction in pleasure, we forgot to sacrifice any goats* to the weather gods, and despite it being the early May bank holiday weekend, it was flipping freezing and there was a screaming headwind for the whole of the first day.
* This is a figure of speech: we do not in any way advocate the killing of ruminants for meteorological manipulation purposes.
Since a tale of what it was really like therefore wouldn't be in any way uplifting, and anyway regular visitors to this blog have read it all before, this time our trip is described through pictures, kindly taken by our coxes, in a bridge-by-bridge account. Most of the photos were taken approaching the bridge: occasionally we forgot and they're looking back.
As an aside, while it took us 3 days to 'do' all these bridges, an artist called Doug Myers spent 10 YEARS painting them all. I first bought prints of some of his paintings around 15 years ago when I was living in York and rather missed the Thames, and I think they're a wonderful collection. His website also proved a handy reference source for this blog.
But first, let's set the scene.
Cox: Liz (owner of the excellent camera) or Alex (Liz's daughter and Kane's partner)
Duck-spotter (part-time): Oscar (Kane and Alex's son, aged 15 months)
I did my first Meander with Kane and Alex when he rowed the whole thing, and Alex and I swapped between stroking and coxing. He later commented that we just chattered for four days, to which we enquired what his point was. Alex (aka my Tiny Skiffing Partner) and I then skiffed the whole way together for our second Meander (briefly accompanied by their dog) while Kane cycled. They are, without doubt, my best Meander Mates.
Where?Day 1: Lechlade to Abingdon (57km)
Day 2: Abingdon to Marlow (80km)
Day 3: Marlow to Teddigton (61km)
The tour party (sounds fun, doesn't it?) from my club, Thames Valley Skiff Club, also included two other doubles (whose crews took turns coxing), three singles (one of which decided that Day 1 was enough) and an amazing Land Team who chased frantically around the countryside to open and close locks, provide LOTS of food and be the best cheer leaders a meanderer could hope for.
How?One stroke at a time.
Why?Don't ask silly questions.
1. Ha'penny BridgeYou can't get far upstream of Ha'penny Bridge, so called because that was the fare on the ferry which was the only means of crossing the river in Lechlade before it was built in 1792, in a boat with a motor or oars, and so it marks the start of the navigable-non-tidal Thames.
We set off quite early: there was a long way to go.
2. St John's BridgeLocks transited: 1/44
St John's Bridge is immediately after the first of the 44 locks we'd be passing through. Locks are generally too narrow to row in and out of with blades sticking out the sides of the boat, so we 'dongle' or stand up and use the blades as paddles. The photo below shows me dongoling out of the lock while Kane remains sitting down. Just saying.
3. Bloomer's Hole FootbridgeLocks transited: Still 1/44
Built in the year 2000, our favourite fact about this bridge is that it was lowered into place by a Chinook helicopter. It may be named after Reverend Bloomer, a local rector who was caught bathing there in the nude (we're not sure when).
The Thames is insanely wiggly in this bit.
4. Eaton FootbridgeLocks transited: 2/44
An inevitable feature of bridges being photographed by an active cox is that the crew, and particularly stroke, will generally appear in the foreground of most shots. This is demonstrated in the picture below which turns out to be unusual, however, as Kane is looking perfectly sensible.
5. Radcot (New) BridgeLocks transited: 3/44
Somewhere round here we saw some camper vans parked in a field, which sparked a conversation in which I used the phrase "transit van". My pronunciation provoked much hilarity on Kane's part, and the rest of the trip was consequently peppered with comments about Transylvanian transvestites transiting the Trans-Siberian Railway while listening to transistor radios.You can tell that the miles were just flying past.
6. Old Man's BridgeLocks transited: 4/44
Although Old Man's Bridge doesn't give Tourist Guides a lot to work with, the picture below is notable for Kane starting to figure out the opportunities to mess up this serious photographic record of Bridges We Rowed Under.
It also shows I'd shed my yellow top because it had become fractionally warmer. This didn't last long.
River still super-wiggly.
7. Tadpole BridgeLocks transited: 5/44
In an attempt to take well-composed bridge photos without Kane gurning in them, Liz, who was Duty Cox at this point, enjoyed short-lived success in distracting him before she pressed the shutter with comments like "Oh, look at those funny sheep over there!"
8. Tenfoot BridgeLocks transited: 5/44
Kane had got wise to Liz's distraction tactics.
9. Shifford Lock Cut Footbridge
Locks transited: 5/44 (this was a 3-bridge stretch)
It's like one of those "The many faces of..." things, isn't it?
"Shifford" derives from the Saxon for "sheep ford". Alex is an archaeologist and keeps us up to speed with these things. The fun of making your sheep walk through the river much have been enormous because Shifford is the last lock to be built on the Thames.
The wiggles continue. Big time..
10. NewbridgeLocks transited: 6/44
Newbridge was first built in 1250, which makes it not very new at all, really, but Kane still came up with a new face for the occasion.
11. Hart's Weir FootbridgeLocks transited: 6/44
Alex had taken over coxing by this point (while Liz was redeployed to looking after Oscar) and adopted a new approach to taking gurn-free photos, literally going over Kane's head.
12. Swinford Toll BridgeLocks transited: 8/44 (there was a bridge-less stretch)
When a bridge is this pretty, paying 5p to go over it seems only reasonable although the ethics of it being a 'tax haven' for its private owner are debatable.
13. Oxford Bypass BridgeLocks transited: 10/44
Oxford Bypass Bridge is not only the ugliest one so far, but also our first encounter with major infrastructure or conurbation. Lengthy stretches of countryside would return tomorrow morning, though.
We'd had another bridge-free reach into that chilly headwind before this, so distracting conversation was essential. This took the form of a wide-ranging discussion about the lack of independence in married women's tax status pre-1990 (yes, that recently) and appropriate divisions of labour in bringing up children in 2019.
14. Godstow Bridge
Locks transited: 10/44
Kane become Popeye. No one had packed any spinach so we made do with jelly babies in the lock just after this. These were essential: the fuel tanks were running low and we'd still got 19km to go.
15. Medley Bridge
Locks transited: 11/44
Does this count as photo-bombing a bridge?
Alex also took "a gazillion pictures of cows" (not included here) as we skiffed past Port Meadow. Probably because they were being ,more photogenic than Kane.
16. Osney Town Bridge
Locks transited: 11/44
She took several shots of this bridge. This one that doesn't feature us is definitely the best. Trust me on this.
She took several shots of this bridge. This one that doesn't feature us is definitely the best. Trust me on this.
17. Osney Rail BridgeLocks transited: 12/44
Having made a smart exit from Osney Lock where there was a narrow boat crewed (and I use the term loosely) by some drunk people who were totally incapable (their inebriation may not even have been a factor), the bridges came thick and fast. This caught Kane out.
18. Osney Footpath BridgeLocks transited: 12/44
Normal service was resumed. If it looks like I'm failing to get in to the swing of things while Kane's having a ball, both of our backs hurt like heck by this point and as it was over 10 hours since I'd taken some 12-hour Ibuprufen when I'd got up, we were relying on high doses of 'grin and bear it' by this point. Or maybe that's 'gurn and bear it'?
19. Folly BridgeLocks transited: 12/44
Look, I'm smiling again! Well, the sun was shining, and it's always fun to go through your old stamping grounds (I used to live just down the road from here).
20. Donnington BridgeLocks transited: 12/44
Alex fired off several shots of us approaching this uninteresting but functional bridge. I selected this one because it shows that Kane actually has a very nice smile when he's not being an idiot.
Incidentally, don't get me wrong, there's no one I would rather have been skiffing this with (I mean, when faced with a challenge of this nature, a 29-year old man has got a lot going for him), even if he HAD told me earlier in the day that I was the lowest in the chain of command in the crew, I think in the context that he and Liz had got out of the boat for various reasons at the lock and would I please get on with dongoling it in on my own.
21. Isis BridgeLocks transited: 13/44
OK, we missed this one, I think because Liz had just swapped back in (so Alex could go and have dinner with Oscar at a nearby Harvester - although he was very well behaved, she admitted that conversation with a 15-month old is not the most stimulating) and had forgotten about photography duties. Isis Bridge is only another boring bypass bridge so you're not missing much.
22. Kennington Rail BridgeLocks transited: 13/44
Keen to keep morale up, I encouraged Liz to talk about cake, a subject on which were all keen, but on which she's particularly knowledgeable as the founder of Elizabeth Ann's Confectionary, and creator of all sorts of hilarious birthday cakes (or pretty ones with flowers on if that's what you prefer). It turns out that the most popular type is red velvet, which traditionally has a cream cheese filling (yum), but this doesn't work at all with royal icing on too. I think that was the gist, anyway.
23. Nuneham Rail BridgeLocks transited: 14/44
Although almost indistinguishable from the previous bridge, this one was almost an hour further on, quite a long way down the lengthy Radley stretch which was proving taxing on the bottom which is why we'd stopped to stand up.
24. Abingdon BridgeLocks transited: 15/44
Liz took this shot after we'd gone through the bridge and it's much more interesting than the ones approaching it as you can see the range of arch options the architect included, as if he had various ones left over from other bridges and bunged them all in. I expect there's a more logical reason, but have no idea what it would be. Liz's grandparents used to run the tea gardens on the island at the upstream end of it.
A further 1k or so downstream we stopped for the night, leaving the boats at Abingdon Rowing Club who had written a nice welcome message up for us on their notice board. My old friend Corinna is now a member there and had planned to meet us with a bottle of bubbly to celebrate finishing our first day. Due to me not having checked my phone and therefore not having let her know when we ere passing through Abingdon lock, she just missed us, but left the bubbly in the bows of the boat and it was pressed into service later.
25. Culham Lock BridgeLocks transited: 15/44
When we got back to the boats the next morning there was frost on the blades and mist rising from the river but, thank goodness, the wind had dropped.
I always tend to think that Culham Lock Cut goes on and on, and it does. When we got to the lock at about 6.45am we encountered various long distance runners. What nutters!
26. Sutton BridgeLocks transited: 16/44
Liz must have been standing up to take this picture of the two remaining singles in the party (one realised that enough was enough in Abingdon and his boat was picked up later by trailer). Richard (in blue), whose fault all his was, was still sitting on not much more than a piece of newspaper (Kane and I were on 4" thick upholstery foam which we considered the bare minimum necessary). Meanwhile Keith (in yellow) is a firm believer in talcum powder for avoiding blisters on the hands and, as he'd liberally reapplied this at every lock, his boat was now a very long way from what might be called shipshape and Bristol fashion.
27. Appleford Rail BridgeLocks transited: 16/44
This is quite a long stretch but somehow, for once, what with each boat's different speeds, and the amount of faffing exiting the lock (we were distinctly low-faff compared with most of the others), we all finished up in in a bunch at this point.
Over the three days we found that our speed relative to the others changed quite a lot, but this was mostly because the other doubles were swapping between skiffing and coxing, meaning that some combinations were stronger than others, and also that they got a fresh horse every so often. Meanwhile we just plodded on, which led Kane to observe that we were a "one speed engine". I called him a lawnmower.
28. Clifton Lock Cut FootbridgeLocks transited: 16/44
Much like Culham, this lock cut goes on for ever, and much like the bridge over that, this one does up, along and over. Variety this was not.
However, what WAS starting to be different about Day 2 was the number of herons around. In fact, it turned into a thoroughly herony day.
Somewhere around here, Liz pointed out two swans who were doing that heart-shaped thing with their heads and necks. "Oh, look," she said, "Swans courting!" Just after we'd rowed past them, and as they were therefore behind her but we could still see them, the cob mounted the pen and we fell about laughing.
29. Clifton Hampden BridgeLocks transited: 17/44
Just before 8am. Gorgeous or what?
The river is quite shallow here as the river bed is vary hard limestone that is impossible to dredge.
30. Little Wittenham BridgeLocks transited: 18/44
Little Wittenham Bridge is immediately after Day's Lock. It still wasn't even 9am when we went through it, but I was on at least my second snack of the day and that was after porridge for breakfast. Rule No.1 is, after all, eat.
31. Shillingford BridgeLocks transited: 18/44
With its stone ballustrade, Shillingford Bridge has a grown-up air and a certain sophistication about it. Which is more than can be said of my skiffing partner... (who doesn't have a ballustrade, stone or otherwise).
32. Wallingford BridgeLocks transited: 19/44
By now we were on the Wallingford stretch which, at nearly 11km long, is the longest distance between locks. Alex had bought some yoghurt-covered raisins which were spot on.
Wallingford Bridge has a lot of arches. Most Thames Bridges don't have as many as it does;.it has few arch-rivals.
Just ignore him.
33. Winterbrook BridgeLocks transited: 19/44
Frankly, the A4130 is welcome to this.
We had a Jelly Baby pause shortly after this to ready ourselves for the wonders that were ahead. Actually, this was prompted by seeing an ice cream sign at a boat yard and not allowing Kane to stop and buy one. No time, no time.
34. Moulsford Railway BridgeLocks transited: 19/44
As practically everyone I've ever talked to about rowing the Thames knows, this is my FAVOURITE bridge. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it has four elliptical skew arches so that it can cross the river at an oblique angle. I mean, swoon! And check out that brickwork. AND the Bath stone quoins! You can tell we're in awe.
35. Goring BridgeLocks transited: 21/44
The photo below is noteworthy because it proves Kane did bother to dongle sometimes. By this stage we were well drilled (by me): always dongle with the strokeside blade, and on my command, turn and put the handle under the ledge, dropping the blade through the strokeside holes in the process whilst also sitting down, pick up the bowside blade, drop it through its tholes, pick up the strokeside handle and go. This efficiency quite often resulted in us then crashing into the more faffy boat ahead, though.
You can also see some of my essentials, carefully placed in easy reach : water bottle, snack box, cuddly stork.
36. Gatehampton Rail BridgeLock transited: 21/44
This was another long stretch, enlivened mostly by observing the Chilterns on one side and the Berkshire Downs on the other. This was only of limited help, though, so we also talked about how peakcocks' tail feathers regenerate.
Fortunately, our amazing land team provided tomato soup shortly before the next lock. I hate to think what would have happened if they hadn't; it was a stroke of genius.
We were joined in the lock by some kids in Trinity boats on a Duke of Edinburgh Expedition who were also heading downstream. We asked them were they were heading for. One of them replied, "Oxford". Let's hope they got that one sorted out before their assessor turned up.
37. Whitchurch BridgeLock transited: 22/44
In a further act of mercy, the land team had given me a second bottle of Lucozade Sport at lunchtime. I have no idea why I had thought I could survive the day with only one (plus water).
38. Caversham BridgeLocks transited: 23/44
Not sure why this one wasn't photographed. Possibly we were distracted by discussing llamas, alpacas (there was a field of them above Mapledurham Lock) and vicunas. As you do in Berkshire.
39. Christchurch BridgeLocks transited: 23/44
This new footbridge looks awfully like the Dartford Crossing, in miniature obviously, and as it's only a few hundred metres after Caversham Bridge, suffered the same lack of photography.
40. Reading BridgeLocks transited: 23/44
Looks like Caversham Bridge - another BOGOF from BridgesRus?
41. Sonning BridgeLocks transited 25/44
OK, so we missed that one too, almost certainly because we were still traumatised from having had to pass a food festival just upstream of Sonning Lock. There were hot dogs and artisan ice cream and everything!
Sonning Bridge is very pretty and a photographer was taking arty wedding pictures of a couple on the towpath just below it, which we photobombed. We shouted "Congratulations!" and paddled on past.
42. Shiplake Rail BridgeLocks transited: 26/44
My expression indicates that it was 4.45pm and we still had 18km to do. Best have another couple of Jelly Babies.
43. Henley BridgeLocks transited: 27/44
The booms were already in on the Henley Royal Regatta course, which seemed awfully early (given it was only the beginning of May).
This was almost the only stretch of the river that a lot of motor boats moored on it that were in good condition. It's sad how many of the other busy stretches look a mess now because of tatty boats.
44. Upper Hurley Foot BridgeLocks transited: 28/44
Kane's face could be expressing what our bottoms felt like by this point. Still, better than having to stand up and paddle, eh?
45. Lower Hurley Foot BridgeLocks transited: 29/44
Another 2-for-1 offer, this time with Upper Hurley Foot Bridge.
46. Temple FootbridgeLocks transited: 29/44
At the time we passed under it, Temple Footbridge (the longest hardwood bridge in Britain) was closed because in February, "observations were made that needed to be investigated." Woodworm? However, soon after this it was decided that it was fine and it reopened. So it can't have been woodworm
Gotta give Kane credit for facial ingenuity. This is another from the Popeye stable, I think.
Richard's still ahead of us, still using not much more than a sheet of newspaper for seat padding. He was a machine (though did have the decency to be totally wiped out for most of the following week)!
One more lock and we'd reached our destination for the night (Bisham Abbey).
47. Marlow BridgeLocks transited: 30/44
On another beautiful morning, we set off soon after 6am just as the course was being laid for Marlow Spring Regatta and about 15 mins before my husband arrived with a trailer load of boats for him and his coachlings to race in. Ships that pass just after dawn.
48. Marlow Bypass BridgeLocks transited: 31/44
Well, it does what it says on the tin and you can't expect it to have an aesthetic too, so it's a good thing Kane's livening up what would otherwise be a very dull image.
It might have been somewhere round here (and it was certainly when Liz was coxing because it always is), that we spotted some waterfowl fishing and had the usual snigger about funny terns and good shags.
49. Bourne End Rail BridgeLocks transited: 31/44
Quite unusual to see a Dutch Barge in the UK still with a mast.
50. Cookham BridgeLocks transited: 31/44
Check out that reflection!
51. Cookham Lock Cut Foot BridgeLocks transited: 31/44
With the Popeye options fully explored, Kane moves on to channel Gordon the Gopher.
52. Boulters Lock BridgeLocks transited: 33 (nearly)/44
The only Thames lock with a bridge over it. Spectators just cant get enough of it. Still no time to stop and get an ice cream, sadly.
52. Maidenhead BridgeLocks transited: 33/44
This is one of several one-eyed faces (a new area, not previously explored) and is actually the least goo one of the set, but it's the best one of the bridge which has fancy street lamps as well as a stone ballustrade.
53. Maidenhead Rail BridgeLocks transited: 33/44
Another of Brunel's masterpieces, Maidenhead Rail Bridge has the widest flattest brick-built arches in the world. Wikipedia notes that one of the arches is known as the 'Sounding Arch' because of its "spectacular echo" which is an oxymoron if ever there was one.
The stretch after this in known as Millionnaires' Row; it's certainly peak giraffe when it comes to garden sculptures.
54. M4 BridgeLocks transited: 34/44
Although it has little going for it aesthetically, you've got to feel slightly sorry for this bridge that no one could be bothered to name.
55. Summerleaze BrigeLocks transited: 34/44
Somewhere around here, it emerged that the Emu Wars, which Kane had mentioned in passing much earlier in the day, were not in fact a joke, but an actual thing. Google it for yourself. Amazing!
56. Windsor & Eton Bypass BridgeLocks transited: 35/44
To be honest, it was impossible for our Land Team to surpass themselves by this point, but they did: they met us in a car park just under the bridge where they were cooking bacon on a camp stove for sandwiches. Love you guys!
57. Windsor Rail BridgeLocks transited: 35/44
Still in post-butty euphoria.
58. Windsor BridgeLocks transited: 35/44
Soon after the bridge you turn down the cut to Romney Lock where we were, as always, excited to glimpse the Archimedes Screws turning that power Windsor Castle.
59. Black Potts Rail BridgeLocks transited: 36/44
This is the oldest wrought ion bridge still in use in the world. Who Messers Black and Potts were, I'm unclear.
60. Victoria BridgeLocks transited: 36/44
We met various cruisers round here who were not fully engaged with the concept of it being about the journey not the destination.
61. Albert BridgeLocks transited: 36/44
Royal Windsor Horse Show was being set up in the grounds of the castle between the two bridges. We trotted on by.
62. Ham BridgeLocks transited: 36/44
When we reached Romney Lock just after this we were met by the cheery sight of a group from the club who had cycled up to cheer us on, creating their own expedition.
The Land Team had given me a bunch of grapes at the bacon butty stop, and I decided to have some of these here, unfortunately, the combination of my hands not really working that well after three days rowing and wearing gloves meant I dropped several whilst pulling them off the stalks and they rolled under the burden boards. I was greatly teased for this when we came to clean the boats the following day, but I still maintain our boat wasn't as much of a mess as Keith's talcum-powdered one.
63. Runnymede Bridge
Locks transited: 38/44
Runnymede, of course, was where Magna Carta was signed. And where was Magna Carta signed? At the bottom!
Locks transited: 36/44
No stone ballustrades but the lamps have three prongs!
65. Staines Rail Bridge
Locks transited: 36/44
The yellow stripe along the top is allegedly to deter swans from flying into it.
66. M3 Bridge
Locks transited: 39/44
Another poor, unloved bridge that no one could be bothered to name, like its cousin M4 Bridge.
67. Chertsey Bridge
Locks transited: 40/44
Both Alex and Oscar joined us in the boat just before this. Initially Oscar was in a stable seat placed in the bottom of the boat between his mother's feet, but after about 5 minutes he indicated his dissatisfaction with this arrangement, quite reasonably, really, because he couldn't see much from down in the bilges. He was then hoiked out and sat on Alex's lap where he made himself useful by pointing out ducks that we never would have noticed otherwise.
The upstream end of our own stretch.
69. Desborough BridgeLocks transited: 41/44
The grammatical rule for when you use "fewer" and when you use "less" were discussed, as in, after the lock there were fewer (countable) Jelly Babies left in the pot and I had less (not countable) Lucozade. That.
70. Lower Desborough BridgeLocks transited: 41/44
We forgot this one but it's just like the previous one so you're not missing much.
71. Walton BridgeLocks transited: 41/44
We must have still had our eyes off the ball a bit, so this is a retrospective.
The colour was apparently chosen to deter swans from flying into it (like the yellow stripe on Staines Rail Bridge - not sure how that works). But three or four years after it was opened, it REALLY needs a wash.
Shortly after this we passed our club which is always the worst moment on a Meander!
72. Sunbury Lock Cut BridgeLocks transited: 41/44
By this point it was ten to four in the afternoon and quite chilly, so we got cold in locks and then warmed up a lot skiffing between them. At each lock there were indecisive discussions about whether to take our long sleeves off just as the gates opened ("I don't want to, I'm freezing!") and then overheat on the next stretch unless you stopped and risked being overtaken. I know it wasn't a race, but...
73. Hampton Court BridgeLocks transited: 43/44
Another retrospective but skiff rudders are pictureque, n'est-ce que pas?
74. Kingston BridgeLocks transited: 43/44
75. Kingston Rail BridgeLocks transited: 43/44
While we had a brief stand-up to take the weight off our bottoms, a train helpfully demonstrated what Kingston Rail Bridge is for.
76. Teddington Lock Cut BridgeLocks transited: 43/44
Just as we approached our final bridge, immediately before our final lock, we passed Sunbury SPC's Meander group (which included two splitters from our club who had elected to go with the red and greys because they were doing it over four days which sounded more pleasant and because Sunbury trips incorporate drinking at a level we simply can't compete with) coming back upstream. They'd set off a day ahead of us, leaving a message on Facebook saying, "Catch us if you can" and we'd tried very hard to do that, spurred on by reports from lock keepers on Day 3. In the end, we were undone by a couple of unlocky locks late on (that's our story, and we're sticking to it), and we failed to overhaul them by about 15 minutes. Well done guys!
Land Team Rachel is on the bridge - thanks, mate!
Our crew (including the stork), celebrating with Corinna's much-appreciated fizz. Happy days! NB Oscar didn't have any fizz but was completely content with just eating a paper cup.
All photos © Elizabeth Egginton or Alex Egginton.