Two Weeks on the Thames

Posted On 01/08/1991

Kate Dawson cruises from London to Lechlade by narrowboat, and finds it very different to the canals.

The summer of 1990 was certainly "jolly boating weather" for everyone, but our family has another reason to specially remember this summer.  This was our first summer cruise on our new 55ft narrowboat and to christen Bosworth, we'd chosen the Thames.  We'd taken two and a half weeks from our base on the upper Peak Forest and now at the end of July we were preparing for our first day on the river.

We set off from Little Venice, heading for Brentford.  Extra ballast in the form of wine, food and general goodies were taken on at Kensal Green Sainsbury's - surely the most convenient place to stock up on the whole waterways system.  A very helpful relief lock keeper at Norwood helped us to work down the eight locks and we arrived at Brentford Gauging Lock at five o'clock.  A sign informed us that the lock keeper would be on duty at six.  The hour was usefully spent in picking huge wild blackberries, which kept us in summer puddings for two days, and in splicing the rope on the anchor.

With some trepidation we began our journey onto the first tidal river we'd ever been on.  We were thankful when another narrowboat, Sun, came along steered by its owner (we never exchanged names!)  a very cheerful and friendly man who knew the river.  Rounding the bend onto the Thames was a heart stopping operation as the current took the boat.  Standing in the forewell, being liberally splashed by spray, I wondered if our decision not to have a cratch had been right.  Oh well, too late now!  We let Sun get ahead and for the first time opened the engine up.  Here was a great sense of exhilaration in being on such a wide river with the oat powering through the waves.

However, exhilaration soon turned to dismay when ominous black smoke began to drift up from the engine and the temperature soared to way beyond its norm.  Fire extinguisher instructions were hastily read, the speed reduced to tick over and the calorifier's hot water was run off into the bath.  Gradually the temperature reading dropped and the black smoke ceased.  At this point we were aware of Sun winding and coming back to see if were all right.  It was a very kind thought and much appreciated.  With the engine running at its normal ‘canal' speed we progressed to Teddington Lock, came off the tidal Thames and moored after some bank scrambling.  The cause of the smoke was then diagnosed; a plastic label stuck on the exhaust lagging was now a blackened, crozzled remnant.  Not for the first time we spent the evening admiring the sumptuous ‘des res' on the other bank and wondering what kind of price tag it attracted.

The next day was our first full day on the Thames and the morning was spent in a launderette!  By the afternoon, it being a hot Sunday, the river was very busy, especially in the reach near Hampton Court.  After the canals it was quite a shock to be surrounded by quite so many boats, canoes, cruisers, steamers, dinghies .... You name it and it was on the river.  We were still coming to terms with the Thames locks, edging gingerly in, very aware of our sixteen tons of steel among the plastic, trying to perfect our jumping off and rope throwing techniques and remembering to switch off the engine.  All very enjoyable but a bit fraught.

We were also beginning to find that Nicholson's Guide to the Thames could not be totally relief upon.  One difficulty was the lack of landmarks and bridges which made it easy to lose track of where we were and another was that the moorings marked didn't seem to exist.  Attempting to moor at Laleham we were pretty sharply told that we were on a private site (although there was no sign) and that the public moorings were fifty yards upstream.  These we eventually discovered, but the sign was overgrown by brambles and in any case could not have been seen from the river.  So began our main problem; planning where to moor for the night, finding our mooring and the attendant worry that our 55ft would prove too large to be accommodated if we arrived later than four o'clock.

The next day caused severe mental pressure as my husband and I tried to dredge up the remnants of our school history lessons and explain to our two boys, aged ten and nine, why Runnymede and Magna Carta were important.  In this reach of the river there is a definite sense of the landscape having a historical relevance; a feeling which we rounded off by a visit to Windsor Castle before mooring upstream above Boveney Lock.

Here our itinerary was subjected to one of those hiccups to which boating holidays are prone, when one of the crew has a minor illness.  If you ever remain static for a couple of days' convalescence I heartily recommend Boveney Lock which its nearby village (Eton Wick), doctor, pharmacy, supermarket, fish & chip shop, pub, post office, all sanitary services, pleasure streamers from Windsor for interest and the lock keeper for providing the milk of human kindness.  What could have been a miserable time proved most pleasant and restful.

By Thursday we were ready to set off again and had a gentle cruise to Cookham, where we found good moorings which were the first way had to pay for.  I was glad of my morning's shopping excursion to Eton Wick as Cookham appears to have no food shops at all. This is somewhat made up for by a large number of pubs and restaurants so I suppose no-one starves.

Having already read Three Men in a Boat I'd chosen Mark Wallington's account of his journey to the source of the Thames Boogie up the River for my holiday reading.  I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with a sense of humour and an interest in boats.  Every night I'd read what he had to say about our next day's stretch and this alerted me to the presence of the Stanley Spencer galley in Cookham.  This small galley is well worth a visit.  Seeing the paintings in the village where they were painted adds an extra dimension, and although the subjects are largely religious they're certainly not dull or sanctimonious.

The weather was so hot on the following day that we decided to stay put and enjoy Cookham, which we did.  The next two days were the essence of the Thames for me. The weather was idyllic and the riverside frontages of Marlow and Henley have a lovely ‘seasidey' feel.  There was even a regatta in progress at Henley! The Thames is certainly very different from the canals  Firstly there's the depth and width of the water which allows so much more manoeuvrability; then there's the way that boats seem to spread themselves into several ‘lanes' especially when the ‘gin palaces' are jockeying for the prime position at the next lock.  And of course the boats themselves are very different from those which frequent the canals.  We were quite excited if we saw another narrowboat.  Also I began to wonder why the Thames river authority seems to have so much more money than British Waterways.  Everything was better maintained and staffed.  The end of our first week on the river found us at a lovely (and free!) mooring at the Child Beal wildlife trust.

After doing some repairs to the paintwork - Thames locks are not narrowboat friendly! - we spent an enjoyable morning in the wildlife trust park.  Again this is something not to be missed and a morning is really not sufficient to do it justice.  They concentrate on birds, the owls I found particularly impressive, but there is no a pets corner with pigs, sheep, hens, goats and cattle.  There is a large collection of statuary, a miniature steam railway, two excellent gift shops, a fairly basic café and a couple of padding pools, one of which was being vacuumed, much to our amusement.

Our next stop was Goring and Streetley with its cheese shop which stocks over 150 varieties and where you are invited to sample before you buy.  Anything bought there makes the average supermarket pale into insignificance.  Mass production did bring about a reduction in price but, unfortunately, the quality disappeared as well.

Wallingford was an interesting town, with a strong sense of identity and some very exclusive shops.  Along some reaches of the Thames you can almost smell the money, a far cry from the majority of areas canals travel through.  Here I have to admit to being a very enthusiastic customer at ‘Jumpers' which sells - jumpers.  I claimed the mitigating circumstances of my birthday and paid penance by cleaning the interior of the boat.  Hence I know nothing of the reach between Wallingford and Abingdon!

At this point another little hiccup interrupted our progress.  Before we had set out we had a problem with our inverter which had necessitated it being sent for repair and it had not been ready at the beginning of the holiday.  However a phone call established that the inverter was now repaired.  With the lock keeper's permission we arranged for it to be sent to Iffley Lock where we were assured it would arrive on Wednesday, probably at some time after twelve.  We duly presented ourselves at Iffley Lock before twelve and moored.  No inverter had arrived and none did arrive.  Many phone calls later we were promised it for the next day.  Our frustration was tempered by watching the boat trips from Oxford and the arrival of an American couple in the most beautiful camping skiff.  After some conversation though they unloaded and went to spend the night in a hotel.  Cheats!

The next day saw the arrival of the inverter and we were off for a morning in Oxford.  Unfortunately the dreaming spires had no great attraction for our sons.  Another name on the list of places to re-visit when the chicks have fled the nest.  We now had two days of our Thames licence left and decided we probably could make it up to the head of navigation at Lechlade.  Going out of Oxford was almost like being back on the canals, with the river narrowing and snaking its way round backstreets which had obviously seen better days.

The stretch from Oxford to Lechlade is very remote and passed through flat water meadows with the river becoming more and more windy.  In comparison with the rest of the Thames which passed though more dramatic scenery, especially near Cliveden reach, I found it rather dull.  However, it was exciting to reach the head of navigation.  The cottage at the winding hole is a picture from a fairy tale.

And so to our last day on the Thames.  We were up early and went into Lechlade where we found a wonderful shop, The Flour Bag, full of bread, cheese, bacon, sausage, whole foods and pastries, in fact the sort of place where fortunes are spent.

As we meandered back to Oxford and the Duke's Cut, I wondered how I'd feel about returning to the canals, particularly the narrow and shallow Oxford.  I needn't have worried, no matter how much I liked the Thames the canals still felt like home.  No more nerve wracking leaps from the bows onto the wet and slippery-looking lock steps, hanging onto the rope like grim death!  And for the steerer, no more edging a way gently on through a flotilla of plastic.

The first lock onto the Oxford seemed like a child's toy - and impossibly narrow!  However, the boat did fit and we were back on the canals.  Our first major trip on the new boat was over and Bosworth had done us proud.  We were heading for home and the pleasures of planning next year's cruise.