One man and a boat
Escapades aboard a dinghy on London’s River Thames
THE rain was dying away as I headed towards my first major landmark: Teddington Weir and locks, where the upper Thames — the land of Victorian gents in straw boaters and stripy suits, the land of Jerome K. Jerome’s famous Victorian comedy Three Men in a Boat, in which three middle-class loafers (not to mention a dog) become embroiled in a delightful series of little disasters involving mazes, frying pans and the dog — comes to an end.
Some things from Jerome’s day are still the same: the pork pie will get trodden on, the lock will lead to embarrassment and the supplies will never fit in the boat.
Rowers skimmed past me as easily as water boatmen, their attendant launches following behind, sometimes with a man shouting plummy-sounding exhortations through a megaphone. As someone who takes to the water to escape orders, one-upmanship and the rat race of the world on land, I found their flimsy craft and competitiveness hard to understand.
Magic, to a sailor, is harnessing the wind — getting something for nothing — the surprise of a gust, the boon of a side wind and the trial of a headwind and, best of all, the moment when a change in direction means turning away from the head seas and wind and spray and running away from it in silence and warmth.
To a canoeist, the magic is gravity, the free ride, and harnessing every minute nuance of current to go where you want to. Rowing looks like a sport that cries out for flat, unanimated waters, like reservoirs and lakes — a sport that might best be practised in a swimming pool if only there were one big enough. My rule is sail when you can, motor when you can’t and row when you must.
Along the banks, the years were peeled back like strata of time. Big white stuccoed Georgian riverside mansions sat by brick-built 1980s homes, playing fields, another disused power station and the towpaths that are older than the city. It was as though the river were cutting through a canyon of civilisation. By now I was on an easy run, straight before a light wind with just the mainsail up, held loosely by its rope (a sheet in nautical terminology) in my left hand, the tiller in my right, always ready to tack or change direction.
At Teddington Weir, the non-tidal Thames gives way to the tidal Thames, also known as the Port of London, the London River or, most dramatically, the tideway. Here, the Environment Agency relinquishes control of the river to the century-old Port of London Authority and little harbingers of doom started to appear. Little patches of floating rubbish washed downstream to swirl around above the locks. Later, a large, dead, silvery carp, bloated and torn by unseen teeth from below, floated on the surface. Perhaps then, this is where London begins.
At Teddington, the lock-keeper made his way towards me, filled with joie de vivre for the sun that had started to come out, the grass under his feet, the sight of a little dinghy filled with camping kit approaching, and he was quick to regale me with the tale of the lock’s claim to fame as the set for Monty Python’s Fish-Slapping Dance.
At Richmond, an hour’s uneventful sail later, I dropped sail and, picking up a single oar and standing at the stern, paddled the boat into the first of the 25 locks I would encounter on the voyage, but not after a passenger ferry locked in to travel upstream, its dirty stern wave bubbling brown and frothy, the exhaust from its diesel mixing in like a warm, vaporous fart. The friendly lock-keeper told me to grab hold of one of the chains that hang down the walls and as I held on, we sank into a Victorian chasm of black, slimy brickwork. Little splashes of water fell on my face and arms and I wondered for a moment if the
lock-keeper had produced a water pistol to take pot shots at me with.
A moment later the mystery was resolved: the lock wall harbours colonies of mussels, spitting the river out as the water leaves them temporarily high and dry when the lock is emptied.
Because I was late leaving, my ebb tide to take me to Brentford, where I’d planned to stop overnight, was slowing down as it reached low water. The wind had gone haywire, alternately still and gusting lustily from all angles, and the little outboard motor refused to start.
Rowing against the Thames would be impossible once the new flood tide started to gain pace and run from the North Sea back into town.
Soon I was in a completely deserted stretch of river, with just the dark green vastness of Richmond Park, a woodland big enough to be home to herds of deer, slipping by behind the gently sloping banks, with trees growing over them down to the high water line.
On a sunny day it would have been a beautiful place. Now it seemed bleak.
I longed to swim ashore, walk to the nearest tube and go home, but the Storm 15 was now a noose around my neck.
After frantically trying the motor time and time again, I tried talking to it, softly at first, with whispers of encouragement and flattery, then by challenging it to defy me.
I hissed at it furiously under my breath, then finally, in the strange relationship a man has with a motor (and this is a male thing, I think), I shouted at it with great passion and all the colourful encouragement I could muster, just as a middle-aged woman came into view walking a chocolate labrador on the bank. This is an edited extract from Circle Line: Around London in a Small Boat by Steffan Meyric Hughes (Summersdale, $19.99, distributed by Peribo).