The problem was a challenging one: How could I spend some time afloat in England, away from the crowds, between four London business appointments spread over 10 days?
I wanted to get away from the city, but the schedule meant I couldn't go to sea where I would be at the mercy of wind and tide. Then I heard of Mark Annand's fleet of restored Victorian camping skiffs on the Thames and my search was over.
What better way to spend my spare time then rowing down the Thames from Oxford to Hampton Court, exploring a corner of England I had never seen? And when business meetings called, I just showed my Britrail pass and was in London in less than an hour.
Mark Annand is a wooden-boat traditionalist to his fingertips. He and his partner, Mark Edwards, bought Constable's Boathouse in Hampton several years ago, a boatyard full of Thames history.
Constable's was already flourishing a century ago when thousands of elegant camping skiffs plied the river. Reveling boat parties crowded riverside taverns and picnicked under weeping willow trees.
These were the leisured days immortalized by Jerome K. Jerome in his Victorian classic, "Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog)." Jerome and Montmorency (the dog) passed through Thames locks that were "a brilliant tangle of bright blazers, and gay caps, and saucy hats, and many-colored parasols, and silken rugs, and cloaks, and streaming ribbons."
They were like boxes into which flowers of every hue had been cast in a rainbow heap, Jerome thought. But the days of the skiff were numbered--Jerome complained about puffing steam launches. Then the internal combustion engine and motor cruisers came along. The skiffs soon dwindled to hundreds, then to dozens, ultimately to a decaying handful.
Today, Annand, Edwards and a few enthusiasts keep the camping skiff tradition alive, so you can still enjoy an excursion into Jerome's forgotten world afloat.
I joined Annand and Rowena at the doorstep of a pub near Osney Bridge in Oxford. Mark told me that the skiff I would use was more than 100 years old, capable of being handled by one oarsman or two; it was 23 feet long, with a fine bow and comfortable beam.
It came complete with a canvas cover supported with iron hoops, a sleeping mattress and cooking gear.
I stowed my backpack aboard and paddled slowly to the first obstacle--Osney Lock.
Working the Locks
The lock keeper was at lunch, so Annand showed me how everything worked by hand: Close the downstream gates and sluices, open the upstream sluices so the lock fills. The water calms. Open the upper gates, pass through, close them again. Open the lower sluices, fending off as the water level falls again. Open the gates, pass through, then close them.
I had worked up quite a sweat by the time we finished. Fortunately, the lock keepers operate the gates and sluices hydraulically during working hours.
With 88 miles to go to Hampton, I rowed carefully through the backwaters of Oxford, passing under busy bridges and by bustling college boathouses.
Within a few miles the routine established itself. Rowena was equipped with thole-pinned rowlocks, a far cry from the swivel type fashionable today.
"Thunk, thunk" went the oars with an easy rhythm. The first few strokes were hard work, but the skiff soon gained momentum. I paddled smoothly along at about 2 m.p.h., perhaps faster if there was a tail wind or the current was stronger than usual.
I had ample time to enjoy the sights, talk with fishermen on the banks and to admire the quiet meadows with their contented cows.
Nicholson's admirable "Guide to the River Thames" guided me from lock to lock, drawing my attention to stately homes, Victorian canals, boatyards and pubs along the way.
Every hour or so a lock came into view. Each was a quiet adventure, no longer a flower bed of pretty Victorian hats but a little world unto its own, complete with trim lock keepers' houses and carefully tended flower gardens.
The lock keepers were friendly and always ready to lend a helping hand. The procedure soon becomes routine.
I would tie up alongside convenient pilings immediately before the lock. The gates open and the lock keeper summons the waiting motor boats first. Once they are inside, the light and fragile skiff follows, tucked into a corner where the heavy boats won't crush it against the walls.
The lower gates open and the procession leaves, with the oarsman poling out carefully last of all.
The motor cruisers lived in a more hurly-burly world. They came in every shape and size, from small outboard-powered craft to massive floating houseboats. A constant procession passed me, their crews lolling by the wheels.
Many of them slowed down as they passed: "Where are you going to?" they would ask. "Hampton," I would reply. They would shrug their shoulders and return to their beer.
The locks were time for idle banter. I treasure the memory of the skipper who quietly leaned over and gave me a welcome can of beer on a steaming hot afternoon.
Then there was the North Countryman who looked at me pityingly. "Only an American would be crazy enough to do that," he remarked loudly. The whole lock chuckled loudly.
One rowing day passed imperceptibly into another. The first half day down to the pleasant town of Abingdon was the hardest, for my hands were adjusting to the oars and an eight-hour time change from California was taking its toll.
I tied up the skiff at the Upper Reaches Hotel's private pier and slept off jet lag (dinner, bed and breakfast $90 to $110 U.S.).
Away from the bridges and towns the river was serene and peaceful, just as it was in Jerome's day. I lazily dreamed myself back to the 1880s, until a jet plane or an express train crossing a bridge overhead reminded me of present-day reality.
The trip survives in memory as a kaleidoscope of savored moments. A beer and sandwich at Jerome's favorite pub, the Barley Mow Inn in Clifton Hampton (pub lunches $5-$10), gave an unforgettable flavor to a showery, muggy day. The aroma of baking bread from a cottage kitchen wafted by near Wallingford.
At Dorchester I moored at the foot of a churchyard just below an old stone bridge. The ancient monastery and Abbey Church of Saints Peter and Paul beckoned, where a devoted team of elderly women served delectable afternoon tea and cakes. (All proceeds go to charity. One should support the cause with at least $5.)
Band-Aids for Sodas
Then there were my fellow rowers, two women from Portland, teachers with a yen to explore off the beaten track. We started off in company for the first three days, taking photographs of one another, trading Band-Aids for sodas.
They were a wonderful encouragement on the second day, when the miles seemed to drag and the long reaches stretched interminably.
But as Annand said they would, the aches and pains soon passed away as long-forgotten rowing muscles came into play. Our sort of rowing was a far cry from that of the hard-working schoolboys from Radley College, pursued in their eights by coaches with stentorian voices, who kept us company one afternoon. You could hear the coaches' admonitions for miles.
Camping Yields to Hotels
Each stay ashore was a different adventure. I could have camped, but the thought of coping with sleeping bags and cooking meals after 15 miles of rowing did not appeal.
I settled for hot showers and comfortable beds in good hotels each night, while my skiff waited at a boatyard or lock. Wallingford saw me in The George, a galleried 15th-Century hotel that catered to sales meetings and American tourists ($80 to $100 bed and breakfast), Marlow at The Chequers, where the beer was superb and the food outstanding ($60 bed and breakfast).
Two nights I slept in anonymous and undistinguished bed-and-breakfast inns ($20-$30). My lunches were those of the river traveler, draught bitter and a plowman's lunch of bread and cheese at crowded pubs--some pretentious, others delightfully prosaic.
The Shillingford Bridge Hotel about halfway to Hampton served steak and kidney pie and Courage Real Ale (pub lunch buffet $8-$15).
I fed the ducks and admired a fine old Victorian barge that once held spectators at river regattas. Now it's a restaurant.
From Ouzo to Curry
My dinners were as anonymous as my bed and breakfasts. I drank ouzo and ate appalling eggplant at a Wallingford Greek restaurant ($20), consumed delectable fish and chips under a weeping willow near Cookham ($5), and enjoyed two Indian curries in Marlow so strong that they brought tears to my eyes.
I forgot the names of the restaurants the moment I left, but you can find excellent curries in any Thames-side town for $8 to $15.
Everywhere I stayed the locals complained about the June weather. "Too much rain," they told me in every pub. "When is summer coming?" my friends asked. Rain clouds threatened every day, building menacingly in early afternoon with dark tones of black and gray, with rain that fell near and far but always missed Rowena.
It was as if we had a charmed existence until the middle of the regatta course at Henley, where a deluge damped my competitive ardor among the marquees and white posts of the Royal Regatta, still two weeks away.
That day the mecca of the rowing world was damp and depressing. I rowed on to Marlow in the late afternoon quiet, Rowena steaming with moisture in the cool sunshine.
A kind lock keeper let me tie up the skiff near his house. Together we watched a guest arrive at the Compleat Angler, a hotel so posh that a Mercedes seemed out of place in the driveway (bed and breakfast $120 and up). The residents watched spellbound as the guest dropped in--by helicopter.
Marlow was decked with flags, ready for its annual regatta the following weekend. As I rowed past Cookham and Maidenhead, the quiet river was crowded with Eton College boys taking eights and fours upstream for the races.
Coaches on aged bicycles tried to keep a semblance of order from the winding tow path, with limited success. I kept carefully to my side of the river and rowed with my head constantly turned.
The eights thinned out and the great keep of Windsor Castle brooded over the river ahead. Her Majesty was in residence for Ascot Races, so the Royal Standard flew in the wind.
I shivered as the breeze picked up from astern. The oar blades caught the gusts as Rowena hustled past Datchetto to the outskirts of Staines, a busy, unattractive place with the virtue of a nearby railroad station, where I left the skiff at a lock while attending to a day's meetings.
Miraculously, the weather cleared the next day, as I rowed the last few miles to Hampton past Runnymede's historic meadows where Magna Carta was signed, through reach after reach of exquisite mansions with manicured lawns.
I was in the affluent suburbs now, just a short distance upstream of Hampton Court where Henry VIII once lived. And finally, on a bright sunny noon, I arrived at Constable's after 88 miles of some of the most leisured and satisfying travel ever to come my way.
As I walked to the nearby station I resolved to return to Jerome's world--just as soon as business brought me to London again.
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You need some rowing experience if you plan to row all the way from Hampton to Oxford. But the skiffs are easily handled, and a beginner can learn the basics in a couple of easy days.
Just take some Band-Aids for blisters. To rent a skiff, write to Mark Annand, Constable's Boathouse, 15 Thames St., Hampton, Middlesex TW12 2EW, England.
You normally rent a skiff at Hampton and row upstream, but you can sometimes arrange a hire from Oxford for a small surcharge. The best time to go is slightly off season--in May or June or after the beginning of September. Weekly rates for a camping skiff are around $150, but rates vary.
Hampton is a short bus ride from Heathrow Airport, or you can take the underground into London, then a British Rail train from Waterloo to Hampton. Constable's will send you a map to find them; they are five minutes from the station.
Three books make the trip much more interesting:
"The Ordnance Survey Guide to the River Thames," Robert Nicholson Publications, London, is an excellent reach-by-reach guide when you are on the river. The maps are superbly detailed.
"A Thames Companion" by Mari Prichard and Humphrey Carter, Oxford University Press, Oxford, is wonderful background reading. This is the book your companion should entertain you with along the way when the head winds are strong.
"Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog)" by Jerome K. Jerome is still in print in English bookstores. It will make you chuckle time and time again.