Two pairs in a row

Robin Poke and his three com­pan­ions fol­low in the wake of Jerome K. Jerome

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

COU­PLE of years ago, Bri­tish co­me­di­ans Griff Rhys Jones, Rory McGrath and Dara O’Bri­ain re-en­acted a jour­ney un­der­taken in the 19th cen­tury by three English gen­tle­men of leisure (and Mont­morency the dog) by pad­dling a skiff 95km up the Thames from west of Lon­don. Their ex­ploits were filmed for the BBC television hit , based on the 1889 book of the same name by Jerome K. Jerome. life­long oars­man, I de­cide to ful­fil an am­bi­tion, with my wife and an­other cou­ple, to com­plete a jour­ney from the source of the Thames all the way to Lon­don. This is my story of two men (and their wives) in a boat. Af­ter months of plan­ning, the trip be­gins, ap­pro­pri­ately, at the Thames Head Inn. My wife, Les­ley, and friends Jack and Shena Hay­den drive here from Hen­ley, where Les­ley and I at­tended the Royal Re­gatta, an event in which I first com­peted as a coxswain 50 years ago. The ho­tel, near Cirences­ter in Glouces­ter­shire, is so named be­cause it is about 1km from the source of the river (or so we think). We take a pre-break­fast walk in bright mid­sum­mer sun­shine along a wind­ing foot­path and across rolling mead­ows. I am dis­ap­pointed to find on reach­ing the source that it’s marked only by an un­pre­pos­sess­ing and al­most un­read­able stone slab. It seems a low-key venue and mon­u­ment for such a land­mark. My com­pan­ions, how­ever, think it an en­gag­ing ex­am­ple of English un­der­state­ment. Adding a sense of ec­cen­tric­ity is the fact there is no trace of wa­ter. The source nowa­days, we later learn, is in an in­ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion sev­eral kilo­me­tres down­stream. Homage duly paid, we drive to Lech­lade, a pretty Cotswolds town that is the start of the nav­i­ga­ble Thames for boats of the size we have cho­sen: a 9mlong, 1.2m wide clinker-built dou­ble skiff. The only craft that can go fur­ther up­river at that point are ca­noes. The skiff, named Mae­gen, was built in Ox­ford in 1888. It could even be the ves­sel in which those three toffs jour­neyed up­river more than a cen­tury ago. It is de­liv­ered for us at Lech­lade’s en­gag­ingly shabby boat­yard by the Bridge Boathouse. We push out into the river, pad­dle un­der the quaintly named Half­penny Bridge and are on our way. Con­di­tions are per­fect as we set off down a river that at this stage is but a wind­ing stream. About 2km later comes our first lock, St John’s, where stands a statue of Old Fa­ther Thames. Our jour­ney then takes us through mead­ows in which lan­guidly in­quis­i­tive cat­tle and the oc­ca­sional horse graze, and across which church spires peek. On the tree and reed-lined river, wildlife abounds: swans, geese, herons and ducks. A some­what in­con­gru­ous fea­ture is the oc­ca­sional oc­tag­o­nal con­crete em­place­ment, its gun slit point­ing down­stream. We learn later that dur­ing World War II th­ese were part of an im­prob­a­ble line of defence de­signed to stop the in­vad­ing Ger­mans from ad­vanc­ing into the Mid­lands. The Home Guard he­roes from come to mind. There are more cen­turies-old stone bridges to ad­mire, Tad­pole Bridge in par­tic­u­lar. The wa­ter is like oil, and Jack and I feel al­most crim­i­nal mak­ing holes in it. We en­joy hugely our steady pad­dle, and six locks later have reached our first des­ti­na­tion, a pub named The Rose Re­vived near the Ox­ford­shire town of New­bridge. Jack and I orig­i­nally nom­i­nated Mae­gen as our overnight place of rest. It is, af­ter all, a camp­ing skiff. But the women dis­abuse us of that idea fairly rapidly, so river­side ho­tels and B & Bs it is. The Rose Re­vived con­firms ab­so­lutely the wis­dom of our spouses’ de­ci­sion. The inn and its large gar­den, fringed by weep­ing wil­lows, are the per­fect an­ti­dotes to the ex­er­tions of the day and add greatly to what is al­ready a sense of ut­ter con­tent­ment. It is here, too, that we have the first of what is to be­come a fea­ture of the trip: a full English break­fast. The mush­room alone is the size of a side plate. The next day is our long­est: a 37km pull to Abing­don that ini­tially takes us past in­creas­ingly wooded scenery, then homes with lawns sweep­ing down to the wa­ter’s edge. Of note, too, are the locks, within which the lock keep­ers’ res­i­dences, lawns and flowerbeds are beau­ti­fully tended. At Ox­ford, one of the two univer­sity towns that con­test Eng­land’s an­nual boat race, we stop near the Folly Bridge to im­bibe at the Head of the River ho­tel. Be­low us are be­ing plied row­ing shells of all va­ri­eties. Duly in­spired, we go on through flat, open farm­land, reach­ing Abing­don at dusk. Our spot­less B&B ac­com­mo­da­tion is very wel­come. As be­fits a town es­tab­lished in the 7th cen­tury, the river frontage at Abing­don has an al­most me­dieval ap­pear­ance, and we en­joy an early morn­ing tour, a fea­ture of which is a long wall with a mu­ral de­pict­ing the town’s con­sid­er­able his­tory. About 15km down­stream from Abing­don is the pretty vil­lage of Dorch­ester with its Abbey Church. Shortly there­after comes the straight­est stretch of the river, the Walling­ford Reach, a favourite train­ing venue for Ox­ford Univer­sity row­ers be­fore their an­nual con­test against Cam­bridge. Our des­ti­na­tion that night is Streat­ley, where we try an­other pub, The Bull, a 15th-cen­tury for­mer coach­ing inn. There, too, the am­bi­ence is per­fect. The fol­low­ing day, just a half-hour af­ter re­sum­ing our jour­ney we reach Pang­bourne, where Ken­neth Gra­hame, au­thor of the clas­sic river­side tale , spent his last years. It is thought that Maple­durham House, just down river, was the model for Toad Hall. It was at Pang­bourne, too, that those less than in­trepid three men in a boat, whose feats we are eas­ily em­u­lat­ing, ended their up­stream jour­ney and caught a train home. Much ado about noth­ing, we scoff. Thence on to Read­ing, where we are aware of in­creas­ing ur­ban­i­sa­tion, but then the river be­comes pic­turesque again as we make our way past at­trac­tive vil­lages such as Son­ning, Shiplake and War­grave. That day’s row ends back at Hen­ley. Here we take a day off for me to at­tend, at the posh Le­an­der Club, a much an­tic­i­pated re­union of the eight I had steered at the Royal Re­gatta in 1957. As at all such oc­ca­sions, it seems the older we get the bet­ter we think we were. Much as I would have liked us to stay here, the club’s overnight tar­iff is pro­hib­i­tive. In­stead, we find a ter­race house in the quaint old Ox­ford­shire town and are de­lighted to learn that our hosts, David and Kate Bridekirk, are Aus­tralians who es­tab­lished their busi­ness 30 years ago. Our jour­ney then takes us through Mar­low, fea­tures of which are its sus­pen­sion bridge dat­ing from 1831 and Bisham Abbey, one of the many ex­am­ples of monas­tic es­tab­lish­ments that once lined the river but sur­vive only in name. About 24km into that day’s 32km pad­dle we pass the 100-room Ital­ianate villa Clive­den, now a ho­tel but owned by su­per-rich Amer­i­can fam­ily the As­tors about the time Jerome and his two com­pan­ions made their way up­stream. Shortly there­after we reach the river’s stock­bro­ker belt at Maiden­head, where some of the river­side man­sions have to be seen to be be­lieved. Among the res­i­dents here are Rolf Har­ris and Michael Parkin­son. No man­sion for us, how­ever: we stay at Amer­den Lodge, a de­light­ful B & B just be­low Bray Lock. Cour­tesy of hosts Nigel and Jane Saw, we want for noth­ing. From Bray our jour­ney takes us past Eton, of boat­ing Army Three Men in a Boat in the Wil­lows Dad’s The Wind Oar­some lo­ca­tion: song fame, and Wind­sor, but there is no royal stan­dard atop the flagstaff: ma’am is not at home. As we pad­dle past Home Park we find our­selves un­der­neath the first of the in­nu­mer­able flight paths that take jets on their approach into Heathrow air­port. We stop then at Run­nymede, site of the sign­ing in 1215 of Magna Carta and thus known as the birth­place of free­dom. Be­hind it, on land des­ig­nated US ter­ri­tory, is a me­mo­rial to pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy. Past Staines, we en­ter the vast me­trop­o­lis that is Greater Lon­don, ev­i­dence of which is a river­side rib­bon of con­stant but en­tirely agree­able houses and bun­ga­lows. In 1966, English hu­morist A. P. Her­bert, who had a life­long love af­fair with the Thames, wrote of this part of the river: There is lit­tle real beauty, per­haps, but there is pret­ti­ness ev­ery­where and, not unim­por­tant, con­tent­ment.’’ Our place of rest that night is the Boathouse and Bridge Lodge at Chert­sey. Our last day but one on a river that I have also come to love takes us, at Mole­sey, past elab­o­rate and fas­ci­nat­ing house­boats, some with wrought-iron rail­ings, to the twist­ing Tu­dor chim­neys of Hamp­ton Court. Inside its or­nate gates, tourists pack the gar­dens and the maze, or look inside the house that Car­di­nal Wolsey built and Henry VIII ac­quired. An hour down­stream, at Ted­ding­ton, we ne­go­ti­ate the last of the 44 locks on our jour­ney and ar­rive at Mae­gen’s base in Rich­mond. But the trip is not quite over; we have not made it to cen­tral Lon­don. The fol­low­ing day we pad­dle down the far more com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial part of the river known as the Tide­way as far as Put­ney, the start of the an­nual Ox­ford-Cam­bridge con­test. We then row back up­river to Rich­mond and thus cover the Put­ney to Mort­lake boat race course twice. It is a day of nos­tal­gia. I was brought up on the Tide­way. It is the stretch of the river on which I was in­tro­duced to row­ing and first ex­posed to its his­tory and cul­ture. It is there­fore the per­fect way to end a mem­o­rable trip that has taken seven days, cov­ered al­most 250km and re­quired, Jack and I es­ti­mate, more than 50,000 strokes. The Cotswolds town of Lech­lade, where the Thames be­comes nav­i­ga­ble for boats big­ger than a ca­noe, was the start­ing point for the au­thor’s ex­pe­di­tion

Hope floats: Robin Poke pre­pares to set off from Lech­lade with his crew, from left, Jack Hay­den, Shena Hay­den and Les­ley Poke

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