Earlier this year, I finally got round to reading Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. It had lain on my bookshelf for some time; one of those books that look great there, though not compelling enough to actually pick up and read. In retrospect, I wanted to enjoy it more than I did, although I was pleased to have read it. The humour was light and there were some lovely, poetic passages, notably in chapter two (‘Slowly the golden memory of the dead sun fades from the hearts of the cold, sad clouds.’) and Jerome’s quasi-religious reflections at the end of chapter ten, which stayed with me long after the last leaf was turned. Like The Wind in the Willows, the book exuded an air of Englishness – at least the quirky, bucolic Englishness we are led to believe was real and tangible many summers ago. To this end, I decided to follow in Jerome’s path and see if there was anything left of this quintessential Englishness by taking a boat down the Thames myself.
It has to be said, I had never been in a skiff before (or camped out in the outdoor sense), so the whole escapade seemed fraught with problems. To this end, I sought out the most seaworthy travelling companion I could, and was delighted to welcome aboard my stalwart Irish friend, Raymond, who was not only able to cast a jaundiced, Celtic eye on my search for Englishness, but could actually row a boat (or so he said). Strangely, the whole rowing part of the adventure was something I didn’t think about till August, about a week before we were due to sail. To mitigate any chance of needing hospitalisation (there being only two of us and with eighty miles to row), we sensibly decided we would sail downstream only, and picked Oxford as our starting point.
We hooked up in London on the 22nd August and began our journey by taking the remarkably quick Oxford Tube to Oxford. I had two bags with me: a kitbag and a small, off-the-shoulder number containing hand creams, sun creams and a potpourri of tablets that ward off my various ailments. Ray had a huge holdall that looked like it had a kitchen sink in it, and a packet of cigarettes. I wasn’t sure how far from civilisation we were going to get, whether Jerome’s England still existed, or whether Conrad’s Heart of Darkness awaited. Ray reckoned we would be no more than one hundred metres from a Tesco Metro wherever we were, but I was sceptical. I am always sceptical and the weather seemed to agree with me. Grey clouds covered the Chilterns and rain was forecast.
We arrived in Oxford about midday and took a bus to Donnington Bridge Road where we saw our skiff for the first time, laid out on a trailer on a slipway by the quiet Thames. She was called Ty-Ho and was longer than I thought but much narrower. Tom, her bronzed sailor owner, went through a tick list of things that we needed to know and then got her in the water for us. I was beyond nervous, somewhere between stepping off a plane before a skydive and having a cystoscopy (which is another story). I had never tested my mettle in the wild before, though maybe ‘wild’ was overdoing it. I am a rudimentary swimmer and didn’t want to chance my stroke against the hidden currents, so I wore a yellow lifejacket without a shred of embarrassment. In a few minutes, there would be other things to get embarrassed about.
Ray took to the oars, or sculls as he corrected me, while I took the rudder. Within seconds, I had steered us straight into the opposite bank. ‘Was the right string right or left?’ I asked, gamely. Ray gave me a withering look. Did I know what I was doing? It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts. We struggled to turn the boat round, forwards and backwards to no avail, whilst the river traffic flowed past us, amused no doubt by our struggles. Not for the first time that day, I wondered what I’d let himself in for. But, you know what they say about adversity – you want to avoid it. I gradually got used to the subtle turns of the boat and the low gunwale and the splashing water and gradually, gradually, we made progress down the river. The weather picked up and thick and heavy August sunshine carpeted the water. I looked out at the trees along the riverbank and wished I’d remembered their names. My grandmother knew them all, I remembered. That kind of information is seldom handed down now, at least for city folk. Ray, who had spent a lot of time in rural Ireland, was better able to pick things out: a still heron, sitting stately on his branch; quick-flighted kites circling overhead; and blue dragonflies zipping across the river like boy racers. He pointed out that for someone who prized the agrarian life and the English countryside, I knew precious little about it. It was true. My impressions lay in the pages of the books I had read, a memory of something or other, but had never actually experienced. I didn’t have much time to ponder on this glaring contradiction as we had come to Iffley Lock, the first lock on our journey.
We waited patiently at the moorings, pretending to be seasoned boatmen, then gave the whole thing away by paddling the boat in the vague direction of the lock gates and hoping we’d get in when it came to our turn. Our boathooks proved invaluable, not just for pushing off the sides of the lock walls, but for grappling onto anything and each other. The lock keeper had probably seen it all before but, deep down, I was again sceptical. On the other side of the lock, we decided to change places and I had my first go at sculling. There is a rhythm to it, I was told. It’s not in the arms but in your whole body. Put your back into it, is the best advice. That first day, I got arm dyslexia and struggled, then succumbed to a regrettable feeling of schadenfreude when Ray managed to steer us straight into a willow tree. If a seasoned navigator could get us so marooned, then maybe I hadn’t done so badly? Fifteen minutes later, we had extricated ourselves from the knotty branches of the tree and resumed on our way.
We passed through Sandford and Abingdon locks and each lock was better than the last. Our paddling improved and our aim was more or less straight. As it darkened, I got slightly agitated as we couldn’t find a place to moor up. Ray wanted to press on, eager to cover as many miles as possible. He would stop and survey the bank in the gloom, looking for a spot. Any time I asked ‘How about that one?’, he would turn his nose up and row on, saying we would find somewhere better. Eventually, we found a place on the starboard bank between Culham Lock and Clifton Lock. There was a field of cows next to it. I looked at them suspiciously. The bank was steep and wet and I clambered out with difficulty. Ray was less fortunate. After finishing making up the boat for the night, he fell in the water. Mild hilarity ensued. He was like a wild aurochs trying to escape from a pit! I held my hand out, then a branch, but he kept slipping back in. For a brief second, I thought he’d be stuck, but the boathooks (not for the last time) came to our rescue. It was dark now and we lit our headlights and lanterns. I cooked a dal on the bank and we ate it with relish. I had my first bowel movement in the field later and had to lean on an angle to do it. I was living like a wild man, far from civilisation. Everything was new. The cows observed me dispassionately. ‘Welcome to the club. We’ve been doing that all our lives,’ they seemed to say.
The first night, we decided to sleep in the skiff. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had; more like restless wriggling and pensive looks over the gunwale in case I slipped into the river, really. My first attempt at getting back on to land resulted in a swift slide down the bank and a near reprisal of Ray’s routine from the night before. I dragged myself out and was greeted with a splendidly sunny view across a straw coloured field. Inspired by this sight, I was eager to get going, but Ray had other ideas. I habitually wake like a wound spring, but Ray, I discovered, was of the opposite disposition: a spent clock ticking softly in the reeds, in need of new batteries. The batteries in this instance were coffee and cigs, and then some more coffee and cigs at our first stop, Clifton Lock, before something approaching alertness appeared on his face. I made some light-hearted comment about our different backgrounds having something to do with our different attitudes to the morning and it began a long and interesting conversation on Anglo-Irish relations. I had been reading Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli before I left and mentioned his unadvised comments on the Irish: ‘[They] hate our order, our civilisation, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry…My Lords, shall the delegates of these tribes, under the direction of the Roman priesthood, ride roughshod over our country – over England – haughty and still imperial England?’ Ray fixed me with a wry grin and said, ‘I don’t know where he got lazy from. We’re not lazy…’ before launching an excoriating historical broadside on English ‘values’ from Cromwell to the Troubles. I grew up in Belfast in the late seventies so was no stranger to it. My first memory of being English was at school there. I remember being branded a Fenian by kids at my Protestant school because of the way I pronounced h (as ‘haitch’). My mother told me to tell them I was English and that we didn’t care which way you said it. The kids had a field day. I was an English Fenian.
After Clifton Lock, I took to the sculls. It was very warm and the journey on the big meander round Didcot power station was very punishing. No matter how far and how long I rowed, the blasted thing was always in sight. Ray pointed out the herons and the kites and the dragonflies again. We saw a Chinook helicopter flying overhead, heading towards Vauxhall barracks. I thought of Belfast again and the squaddies on the streets when I was young. The longest section of the Thames (between locks) is between Benson Lock and Cleeve Lock, some six and a half miles. I foolishly decided I would keep going and attempt this, but did not figure in the strong headwind. After some three hours, we were asking passing boats how far away we were from Cleve and found it hard to believe we hadn’t even gone halfway. Ray was fairly pissed off, not just with me, but with the helmsman’s seat. It was so uncomfortable. We both decided we would rather take to the sculls than sit on it. Our mood was not helped by encountering an idiotic swimmer under Wallingford Bridge who turned us so far off course that we ran into it, and then had to turn the boat around midstream. We needed the full width of the river and a lot of fruitless paddling against the wind to effect it. To make matters worse, Ray couldn’t find his lighter and needed another cig. There was a bit of a tense atmosphere for a while and much huffing and puffing.
We got to Goring Lock around seven o’clock and decided that was enough for the day. I had visions of another twilight search for a perfect spot to moor up but we found a good spot on the starboard bank in the grounds of a deserted mansion. It would have been an excellent place to make a horror movie. We could hear trains on the other side of the bank and that was somehow reassuring. I reflected that we’d come about twenty-five miles and not passed a single house that could be considered cheap. The river attracted wealth like a magnet, the preserve of England’s well-scrubbed and well-to-do. Yes, the countryside was idyllic and the houses beautiful, but I began to think of places that were not, and the unfairness of it all. This England of Swallows and Amazons and The Wind in the Willows was a place for the rich. I made some chickpea curry in the dark and we talked. Ray kept the conversation going till midnight, then fell asleep. I looked at the deserted house on the bank and imagined figures making their way through the trees towards it. Perhaps this was the hideaway of the Ghost Ship of the Thames and these were pirates?
I woke up early and peeped over the gunwale just as the sun poked its head over the other side of the river. The dawn sky had split open and red and yellow flames appeared like fissures in the seam of night. The first thing I did was get out my phone and take a picture. It was then I realised there was something in the boat with us. Water! Lots of it! Ray, still half-comatose, considered the matter carefully and decided there was a problem with the rowlocks. We bailed the boat out and had breakfast. Ray thought it was safe to keep rowing but I was sceptical (again). I imagined the whole boat coming apart midstream and us floundering around.
Now the sun was up properly and the river came to life with midweek traffic. There were more Gin Palaces and pleasure boats and strong-limbed boys on kayaks than we had seen on any of the previous two days. We moored up by the Adventure Dolphin Centre in Pangbourne and paid a visit to the local Co-op to take on supplies (including chips and mushy peas). Ray cast doubt on whether the chips were vegan; he reckoned the oil they were cooked in was of animal origin. I took even less credence of this than I did the rowlocks theory. As we ate, it struck me how quickly we had adapted to river life. At the outset, I had regarded the Thames as a dangerous and untrustworthy companion, but now we had become firm friends. I was used now to the chopping water and the sound of the weirs; I was used to the sculling and the steering. I delighted in the heady speed of 2mph that I managed to reach. There were blisters on my hands, and my lips had cracked under the fierce summer sun, but my back felt fine. Our only real trouble came from the helmsman’s seat, which no amount of cushioning could protect our rumps from.
Before we knew it, we had come to Reading. It was festival time and the banks were full of students, hippies and amphetamine addicts. The haze of weed wound its way across the river. This was an England I was definitely familiar with. Ray wanted to offer a taxi service upriver but the sight of us in the skiff would have put a pirate off, never mind pretty blonde students from the home counties. I was pleased when we’d left Reading behind and I’m told a lot of people feel that way. It was the nearest we got on the journey to mixing with common folk like ourselves. The lock keeper at Mapledurham had told us Sonning was a good place to moor up so we headed downstream once again.
After last night, we had decided that cooking late at night was not for us and we would pick up a takeaway. The quiet village of Sonning didn’t look a good candidate for that kind of thing – there was only a single lane road running through it – but I discovered a Bangladeshi-run restaurant called The Ivy of Sonning there. My Bengali is non-existent but my Urdu is navigable and when I said I told them I was from Manchester, one of the waiters smiled. He fixed me up with a delicious assortment of vegetarian dishes and threw in some bottles of water. He said Theresa May had come to the restaurant a few times. This was her constituency. George Clooney also lived here and a raft of other famous people. It all made sense. This was Tory England, along that stretch of the Thames that flows down through the shires, past Eton’s privileged breeding ground, to the Houses of Parliament. That’s not such a long journey for those who are born to rule. Ray nodded diffidently when I told him; he was a Corbyn man. We didn’t have much time to dissect the English class system. As we looked down river for the nearest mooring, we discovered that the boat was taking on more water.
We moored Ty-Ho up by a fisherman’s fishing spot. I was concerned about the legality of this move (there was a sign saying we shouldn’t) but Ray had no such qualms. ‘What’s the guy going to do?’ he said. I nodded and immediately recognised another difference between us. He was comfortable with rocking the boat (pun intended), of challenging authority, and living wild. I wasn’t. I didn’t think the English were, either. ‘We obey instructions; we follow orders,’ I said. ‘It’s ingrained in us.’ ‘You know,’ he replied. ‘I’ve met a lot of English people in my job and they always share the same reluctance to change things, even when things obviously need changing. I always thought they were either stubborn or stupid. But maybe you’re right. Maybe they’re just good at following orders.’ It sounded like a compliment.
We examined the boat and discovered the cause of the leak: it wasn’t the rowlocks but a plank leak. We got in touch with the owner, Tom, and he said he’d come out to fix it first thing. That’s if the boat was still afloat. We bailed her out and sat down to dinner. Privileged or not, the food from The Ivy of Sonning got top marks. We could hear the sound of music borne downriver by the wind from the Reading Festival. The storm that had been predicted all day failed to materialise but we saw sharp flashes of light in the sky towards the south. Yet again, we had chosen the starboard bank to moor up and I wondered whether that was just coincidence or OCD. With the boat sinking, we decided to sleep on land under a tree. The air was thick with fever. If the rain caught us, we would be drenched.
Thankfully, the night spared us and next morning, when we checked the boat, she was half-submerged. The plank leak was more substantial than we thought so we rang Tom again and he said he would come up straight away. We bailed out the boat and made for Shiplake Lock. Tom spotted us from the far side of the river and took the skiff ashore. He was a shipwright of some skill. He used torch, tar and a piece of wood and patched up the Ty-Ho within an hour. He said he came from a sailing family. You could tell. The plank leak had been caused by age and not by us, which was some relief.
Ray’s health had deteriorated over the last day. He was suffering from sunburn, a bad back, a swollen coccyx (due to the helmsman’s seat), a swollen finger and spider bites (which, thankfully, hadn’t got round to eating me). This had a corrosive effect on his rowing, which dipped from a muscular 2mph to 0.5mph. He would stop mid-stroke for a cig and a chat at every opportunity. Tom had warned us again of heavy rain on the Thames and kindly offered us a tent, which we could pick up from his workshop further down river. Unfortunately, he gave us the wrong instructions, telling us it was after Shiplake Lock when it was actually another three miles further downstream after Marsh Lock. In normal circumstances, such a mistake would be forgiven, but Ray was not in a very forgiving mood. High up on his list of pet hates were people who gave wrong directions. He was so pissed off that he dropped his speed in half to 0.25mph so that the ducks and swans now swam past us and we lay amidstream as if in the doldrums. I took over and rowed very fast to compensate. My rowing had improved every day since we began and, if I got in a groove, the bank swept by.
The sculls clicked in the rowlocks, I pushed against the footboard, and straightened my back. We glided through the water. I can hear the rhythm of the stroke even now if I close my eyes. We were behind schedule if we wanted to make Shepperton on the Saturday. After passing Tom’s workshop due to his poor directions, we picked up the tent from him by Henley Bridge, nearly crashing his boat into the side in the process. We were shocked to discover he was bald underneath his boatman’s hat.
We passed some very beautiful islands, notably Temple Island, afterwards and the weather held good. This was regatta country and the Thames teemed with ardent rowers and the sounds of coxes. As afternoon became evening, we passed the 12th century All Saints church at Bisham, just outside Marlow. What a beautiful building that was. We moored up at Marlow, a quaint and picturesque town, and decided that was it for the day. After yesterday’s feast, we decided we would get some more Indian food rather than cooking. Ray went off into the sunset and came back about two hours later, having scoured the town for a restaurant. The food was again delicious. Ray described the day as joyless except having curry on the steps. Fatigue was taking its toll. I noticed that we had chosen the starboard bank again. Last night, we had slept under the trees. Now we slept under canvas. There wasn’t much room in Tom’s tent, but the sound of the water in the lock lulled us to sleep.
I was up at 5.40 the next morning. The tent was extraordinarily humid. I encouraged Ray to get up early and some two hours later, he was raring to go, the promise of a proper breakfast at Cookham Lock just two miles away. He warned me that it was going to be a two coffee cup break, though, but even that failed to dampen my spirits. After an hour at Cookham, we continued downriver. I did the majority of the rowing. Ray was not at full fitness. It was another beautiful day and the scenery on either side was some of the most glorious we had passed. Long avenues of trees shaded either bank, oftentimes craning over the water itself as if to drink. We diced with death a few times by changing seats midstream, but we were spared the ignominy of falling in. We rowed more that day than on any previous day. We needed to be at Shepperton the next day and wanted to be within striking distance. But we were skilled navigators now. Even locks were a breeze. We passed through Boulters, Bray and Boveney and tutted at amateurs trying to get through them, forgetting our earlier abject attempts.
After beautiful Boveney Lock, we entered royal territory. Windsor Castle looked pretty impressive but we weren’t about to pay fealty. The Queen wouldn’t even let us moor on her riverbank. It is fair to say that neither of us were monarchists. The pomp and pageantry that surrounded it seemed quintessentially English (though the royal family is more German) but it left a bitter taste in my mouth. They opened their castles and palaces so that we could gawp at their displays of vulgar magnificence, and marvel at the iniquity of the class system that had kept them in their place and us in ours. Like the Thames itself, Windsor Castle seemed a fairy tale world totally removed from reality. As an antidote to such ostentatiousness, we stopped off at Old Windsor and wandered off in search of another Indian restaurant. We left the skiff moored up on its own for the first time and found a restaurant called Cinnamon, whose staff had the odd custom of turning their back on you when you spoke to them. They said they couldn’t deliver the food to us because they didn’t know where the lock was (though it was only a mile away). Maybe there wasn’t a call for curry on the Thames? But we were in charitable mood. We walked back with our curry, rowed further down river, and moored up (on the starboard bank again) by the National Trust offices on Runnymede Fields. Ray didn’t want to venture too near Staines because of all the Ali G types there. The curry soon attracted the attention of some flagging wasps and Ray, ever the explorer, discovered a nest about ten metres away. I said it would be dark soon and they wouldn’t be able to fly properly. He suggested otherwise and we had a bit of back and forth about whether we should move. Eventually, we decided that walking wasps weren’t much of a threat to us or the curry. It was a still night and we opted for sleeping on the bank again. After a minute, that stillness was shattered by the sound of another aerial nuisance – jet engines – and we realised we were directly under the flight path of planes taking off from Heathrow. The noise continued until about midnight. By that time, it had got cold. Very cold.
I am sure it was that which woke me up at five o’clock: that, or my bottom lip, which was now twice its normal size, the result of the heat and dehydration. Ray also stirred and we set off earlier than normal, about seven o’clock. I think we both realised we were coming to the end of the journey and that gave us an extra fillip. Ray’s rowing had been very slow the last few days but today he was back to the pedigree rower he was at the start of the week. The sun beat down on the river. Despite a continued forecast of rain the latter half of the week, we had seen none. We rowed through Staines. It was not as bad as Ray imagined. Indeed, it was all rather nice. In retrospect, the thought he’d made a mistake: it was Slough that was full of Ali G types. A ‘Rhodesian’ man on his kayak joined us on the section down to Chertsey Lock. He said he’d been here forty years now, since the country got its independence. Still looking for answers about Englishness, I seized my opportunity and asked him whether he thought of himself as English now. He said he didn’t; he saw himself as African. I noticed he didn’t say Zimbabwean and wondered whether he also resided in a kind of mythical world that no longer existed. Rhodesia had been and gone, like the Empire, like everything else. Ray and I made good progress all the way down to Shepperton Lock. We had rowed eighty miles in five and a half days and had become used to the life on the river. There was a manly shake of the hands when we said goodbye (though we had to be careful about the blisters). I threw my kitbag over my shoulder, and the small, off-the-shoulder number with the creams I had barely used, and walked to Shepperton station. It was a hot day and it felt good to be back on dry land. I ruminated on Jerome’s journey on the way back home and the England he had depicted. I decided that his Englishness was not entirely fictional and that there were parts of this island that still retained it, but whether that was a good thing was another thing entirely. So much of the country is not like that and never will be. I had jokingly asked Ray during the week, ‘How come the Thames only flows through rich areas?’ So much of how the country is perceived, at home and abroad, runs along its course. It is our Nile and Amazon, a tributary of our history, real and imagined, but for all its majestic beauty, my thoughts were on the invisible currents of other rivers that told different stories of our often benighted island.