Upstream from Marlow
Shetland 27 ‘NAIAD II’ Goes as far as possible West
Tuesday 16th August 2016 was a beautiful hot day, ideal for starting a River Thames Cruise. With NAIAD visible on her pontoon from the window it was just a matter of shopping for perishables and loading last minute things before casting off late morning.
Past Bisham church and Bisham Abbey en route to our first lock at Temple in a mile and a half. Then the short stretch to Hurley lock with a pleasant wait overlooking the mostly covered vanished slipper launches in Peter Freebody’s yard. Beyond was Medmenham, the once home of Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club which closed in 1774. Then going alongside a field between trees we hammered the mooring spikes into the ground for a long lazy light lunch. Sheep too were munching their lunch as we soaked up the vitamin D before the short hop to Hambleden weir. Three small canoes played in the turbulent downstream water.
Being mid- August the Henley Regatta restrictions had been removed so it was easy to moor alongside in Remenham but difficult not to tread on duck droppings in the process! The spot we chose was reserved for the weekend as the site was being prepared for the Henley 80’s Pop Festival. For this, according to the collector of the £8 mooring fee, 4,000people had already booked! The walk into Henley past the Rowing Clubs and over the bridge to the Angel Pub alongside it proved longer than anticipated. Fortunately, Mike and Cate Goffe who we joined for supper at the Angel kindly gave us a lift to Remenham Church so the walk back to the boat in the dark was much shorter.
There is a tendency to think of the River Thames as flowing from West to East and hence refer to the North or South bank. This is fine at home in Marlow but in Henley the road runs east/west over the bridge as the river flows south to north at this point. Using Left or Right hand bank going up stream is far less confusing. So, the busy park and Rowing Museum moorings on the right bank lead into Henley’s ‘Marsh’ lock. Here there was a touch of James Bond as we followed ‘Casino Royal’. In continuing brilliant weather it was lunch again between trees on The Lynch, a wooded island just beyond Shiplake College. No sheep this time but several families with lots of energetic children and several small day boats.
Sonning Lock was passed without sight of the nearby celebrities - Mays & Cloonies. As Caversham Lock drew near it was fortunately noticed that the holding tank Red Light was ON! We were almost outside the Better Boating Co. so it was an unplanned pump out and, while we were at it, a top up with ‘red’ diesel.
Reading seen from the river is far better than from the roads. Another festival was in preparation on their enormous site with even a temporary pedestrian bridge being built across to the Oxfordshire side. By the time we were through Mapleduram lock it was find-a-spot-for-the-night time but we made the mistake of rejecting one close-by because of masses of geese poo. Several attempts at getting alongside tempting looking spots on the left bank lead to vigorous reversing and much churned up mud before getting to the National Trust field just before the next lock only to find all the spaces taken. So back the two miles, not obeying the 8 kmh ( an exciting 4.3 knots! ) speed limit, to join the geese in preference to operating Whitchurch Lock ourselves and hoping for something better up-stream. It was actually a very nice spot and we did not begrudge the £5 fee collected by an estate worker next morning.
After passing through Whitchurch and Goring locks in their picturesque settings and Cleeve with a fall of only 2 feet 3 inches, the smallest on the river, it was time for lunch. Ye Olde Leather Bottle looked attractive for an indulgence by the water but we were not allowed alongside as the berth was already reserved. The grass bank across the river beckoned and over our sandwiches we watched the African Queen moor up and several passengers go into the restaurant. Goring Sailing Club is next door but there was no sign of activity.
The historic town of Wallingford, only the second in England to get a Royal Charter, was a natural stopping point as it was already almost full and we didn’t want to be charging about like the previous night. Under a willow tree was fine until next morning when the Le Boat hire boat tried to leave in the rain to return to their base just upstream in Benson - it was well aground! We cast off for fear of being run into as they went back and forth at great revs! The day was spent close to Wallingford’s long, fine bridge as the weather had broken into rain, wind and grey sky. Our long plank was needed for Marion to get ashore.
Continuing miserable weather and four more locks got us to Abingdon, another historic town on a site first settled in the Iron Age and having a bridge built in 1416. After a night here, it was the stretch through Oxford beginning with Sandford lock which has the biggest fall on the Thames of 8 feet 10 inches and needs the Lock Keeper to help take the lines. It was reconstructed in 1972/3 with an entirely new system to reduce the filling time without producing excessive turbulance by the in-rushing water. The old lock was enclosed in a coffer-dam using 424 steel piles restrained by 78 drilled ground anchors. The new lock floor was made of reinforced concrete with two 32 inch wide culverts running along each side the chamber, each having 13 equally spaced outlets into the floor of the lock. The head sluices were thus eliminated and hydraulic controls on the inputs and emptying make for a smooth lock transit for the various types of craft through this deep lock.
On leaving progress was slowed by a regatta racing down-stream from the College Boathouses which was not marshalled to the Marlow Regatta standards!
Roger Pilkington in his ‘Small Boat on the Thames’ published in 1966 writes “Sadly the Thames is forced to confess that the burghers of Oxford have made the course of England’s loveliest river hideous with dereliction, …. ‘. We would not go that far but were surprised and disappointed by how ordinary it was from the river and lacking in facilities for our type of river boat.
One of the highlights of the trip was to go under Osney Bridge with a headroom of just 7 feet 6 inches, the lowest on the Thames and a barrier to the modern gin-palaces with their flying bridges and the like. They were no spaces available on the towpath side of the river so we tied up to the railings of an old warehouse building to lower NAIAD’S windscreen. Our heads had to be ducked very low and we were through with about 8 or 9 inches clearance!!
After a mile the right bank opens up to the 350 acre Port Meadow, a flood meadow used for over 1,000 years for common grazing. The grey painted pontoon of The Perch gastro pub was empty hence the ideal spot to re-erect the windscreen. The notice said ‘no overnight mooring’ but on the basis that we would only eat there in the evening if we could moor for the night agreement was reached after my promise/guarantee to the Manager that NAIAD would not sink!! There was even Sunday afternoon dinghy racing from the Medley Sailing Club to watch - the only sailing seen on the two-week trip and this in light airs.
The next lock, Godstow, was the last one electrically operated. Just through it is the 8 feet 5 inch Godstow Bridge we assumed would be no problem. apart from being at an angle across the river.
The bow was well under the arch before it was full revs in reverse! Good clearance in the centre but not for the outside corners of the screen. So tied up by the ruins of the 1139 Benedictine Nunnery, which Marion went to explore, while I again lowered the screen and associated bits.
Passed a narrow boat aground well inside the red buoys as it was coming downstream. Lady helmsman (don’t like ‘Helmsperson’ ) frantically revving back and forth and a chap in the bow looking contrite. Too shallow to help so told the King’s Lock Keeper, who groaned! Had our first experience of a manually operated lock.
Steak that night at the Rose Revived by Newbridge.
Started to pass several concrete Pill Boxes, built in 1940 as a line of defence against a German invasion, as we motored through very rural country side along a very narrow, meandering Thames with the sound of wind in the reeds and willows and swifts swooping low over the water.
This took us to Kelmscott Manor, a stone farmhouse built in 1570 and lived in by William Morris from 1871 until his death in 1896. A worthwhile visit.
Through Buscot and then St John’s Lock, the resting place of ‘Old Father Thames’ since its relocation in 1974 from ‘Thames Head’ where it had suffered vandalism.
Mooring to a grass bank had a great view of Lechlade Church. Then under Half Penny Bridge which opened in 1792 and took its name from the toll imposed on walkers except those going to church!