It began as a tiny thought yesterday afternoon, it grew during Bake Off and was squished again after reading the ‘London Tideway Guide: Downstream Addition’ – at 24 pages it’s a whopping eight pages longer than it’s upstream counterpart and with lines like ‘It is very important to appreciate that making the passage downstream to Limehouse from Teddington or from Brentford is considerably more challenging that coming the other way,’ we decided it was no go. So we went to bed, happy with the knowledge that just a short trip down to Brentford lay ahead.
But the sun was shining this morning, and the water was calm, and the tides were perfect. There was no way we could go though as we hadn’t given Limehouse 24hrs notice - so emphasising our lack of booking we felt safe to ask the Teddington lock keeper, expecting flat no, meaning we could at least tell ourselves we tried. We weren’t expecting him to say ‘It should be fine, phone Limehouse,’ and we really weren’t expecting Limehouse to say come on down…
Waiting with a nervous hireboater on his way to Brentford wasn’t the most calming start, then out of the blue another narrowboat sped along to Teddington Lock, he was going all the way too. Yay. Out into slack water nothing seemed any different to the non-tidal section above Teddington, in fact with so little rain and a low tide the river was way calmer than our previous Brentford journey. As the hireboater veered away into the safety of The Grand Union Canal we ploughed on, the tide was beginning to pick up and it was no struggle to keep good time. Miles and miles passed, the water grew wide, the Boat Race finish came and went, the Boat Race start came and went, Harrods Depositary, Battersea Power Station – other than the odd City Cruiser the water seemed quite quiet. Then London came in waves, thick and fast. The traffic busied up and the landmarks were hard to keep up with in between negotiating the best angle to direct the boat in order to tackle the ever-increasing rolls of wake. Suddenly London was all around, we were a teeny-weeny boat muddled in a big city snow globe – even a crazy Dazzle ship used extensively in WW1 added to the mad whirl wind.
The grand finale came in the form of Tower Bridge – built from 31 million bricks, two million rivets and 22,000 litres of paint that all opens on average three times a day…no need for our passage, we just about squeezed under, before radioing our position into Limehouse.
As the sights decreased the reality of the turn into Limehouse Basin hit home. The main rule being: travel on to get a good view round the bend before attempting to turn to the wrong side of the river…the Clippers come quickly, which they did, two of them just as we wanted to turn. Eeek. So we waited, the boat pitched and rolled in their wake. In reality there’s not an awful lot of time that Clippers aren’t zooming at you from one direction or the other, flashing their ‘making life easier’ sign writing – really? We bit the bullet and turned. Willing the boat to come round the waters were all over the place – people talk of ‘back-Eddys’ – perhaps that’s what it was, but one things for sure it’s our trickiest lock turn to date, smashing Selby out the park. Safe and sound we moved into the lock and up into a gloriously sunny Limehouse Basin.
An adrenalin fuelled start to London for all three of us, having had an axe fall on him during the turn Murk was pleased to stretch his legs – which he did in Canary Wharf as though he owned the place.
Leaving Eton we passed what looked like a whole bunch of brilliant free moorings only to read one of many signs stating the land was Crown Estate and there was strictly no mooring, for the most part we’d still clock it as stopable but a huge guy in a Range Rover looping the boundary looked like he meant business.
South of Windsor there seems to be a shift from eye-popping ornate bricks and mortar to intricate floating homes. Passing under the M25 and then the M3 we motored on towards Shepperton Lock. The junction with the River Wey was busy with rowers and boats. A quick stop at Shepperton Marina was an eye opener, pontoon after pontoon after pontoon of pristine cruisers bobbing about, the chandlery is stocked with just about every boat thing imaginable too.
Narrowboats slipped away as we headed on through Kingston Lock, in fact we were mainly surrounded by boats heading out for evening drinks or the theatre. A couple of perfect moorings were still available outside Hampton Court, we thought about squeezing in between two shining cruisers but having considered their immaculate canopies and the fact we’d be lighting the fire, opted for a mooring tucked out the way where sparks wouldn’t matter. With temperatures still brilliantly high for this time of year, it’s hard to imagine Henry VIII rode to London on the frozen Thames on one of the 20 occasions it’s frozen over since Roman times.
A misty start meant Cliveden House had vanished this morning. The sky began to clear as we travelled down river passing some very elaborate homes, it seems a flag pole and boat are a must along this stretch. Not overly busy with private boats today although plenty of French Brothers river trips were running. No horse racing to gawk at as we drifted by, just long long lines of sprinklers watering the course. Rounding the bend the castle began to come into view, with mooring available on either side and the island we opted for a night on Eton College Fields – Windsor is just 100m across the water.
The city was bustling as usual, still odd to see hotels we’ve stayed in and car parks we used before sussing out this alternative way to see England. After a walk through the shops and up to the castle we made a very quick trip to Waitrose.
Up on the roof and moored right on the flight path Nick lost himself in ‘Planefinder’, point it at a plane and you get all sorts of interesting information down to details like how many seats are on each flight. It’s along the same lines as his M6 traffic reports – interesting for the first few minutes….
Still reeling from getting caught for our first mooring fee this trip, enjoying the evening sunshine there was no escaping the ticket man marching along the riverbank. The further downstream we’ve travelled the higher we’ve climbed in terms of ‘neighbours’, not totally next door but we’re claiming Windsor Castle for tonight, Liz and Phil even helped with our tv tuning thanks to a surprising aerial poking out from a turret.
Tonight’s neighbours aren’t in, it could have something to do with the price tag starting at £1,800 for a night at infamous Spring Cottage. Moored just along from where the exciting stuff once went on – On trips from Windsor, Queen Victoria enjoyed the ease of tea on the terrace as opposed to being hauled up the hill to Cliveden House in a pretty undignified hoist contraption…Christine Keeler and John Profumo enjoyed themselves there too. Rooms are still and empty and the silence surrounding the place is almost deafening. Occasional use by a whole host of indulgent paying guests suits Spring Cottage so much more than happy families.
What went before pales into insignificance, which is harsh as working backwards we drifted through Marlow and before that Henley. Henley’s regatta course wasn’t set out, making for an easy straight journey down towards Temple Island. Past Culham Court, owned by Urs Schwarzenbach who buys surrounding multi-million pound properties only to knock them down in the pursuit of a more pleasing view. Out numbered by cruisers it’s always fun to see a narrowboat out here - passing Sue on No Problem was a coincidence as she first contacted us during our terrifying ordeal on a flooded Thames telling us to moor up and wait because when conditions are right the river is a great place to be. And she was right.
Soon on and into Marlow. With visitor moorings all taken at the park we moved on through the lock to the good moorings below, a short walk up into the town and into Sainsbury’s. The last leg of today’s journey was the beautiful drop down through Cookham Lock and on past Spring Cottage, before mooring amongst the trees. Judging by Cliveden’s luxury ‘Doggy Break’ promising dinners from the chef’s canine menu, Murk is definitely neglected.
A walk on to Cleeve Lock saw us legging it back to the boat – watching masses of boaters badly queuing for the lock was entertaining until we realised the longer we watched, the longer we’d have to wait. Despite mooring on a £4 mooring last night the debt collector didn’t show up, although a Defender did seem to be kicking up a lot of dust and heading in our direction shortly after we pulled away…
Down at the lock most people were hanging about for water, figuring we could wait for the next hose we dropped down and out. One guy whose engine was causing him problems eventually caught us up, plumes of smoke and a spluttering motor meant he wasn’t exactly enjoying his Thames experience. Entering a later lock he mentioned being desperate to get off onto the Kennet and Avon…having bought his boat in Staffordshire he’d endured his rope wound round the prop, smashed the back canopy off under a bridge and boiled two sets of batteries. Things weren’t about to get any better. Leaving Whitchurch Lock the keeper explained there was a kayak regatta in full swing, ‘Basically keep left of the white buoys and sink as many kayakers as you fancy,’ were our instructions. On leaving the lock a total muppet pulled in front of us all – gesturing for us to slow and let a whole load of kayaks cross our path. That wasn’t part of our instructions. It seemed the poor guy’s engine either did flat-out or nothing at all and after smacking into the buoy he faded to a tiny dot amongst the colourful mass of energetic kayakers and was never seen again. Boat life isn’t always a walk in the park.
Reading came and went under the gloomiest skies all day, on past the turning for the Kennet and Avon it was just a short spurt downstream before things brightened right up with beautiful Sonning Lock. Houses grew bigger and wider and grander as we gained ground on Henley, tied up for the night and looking across at the jaw dropping amount of light filled windows opposite you have to think that pound for pound, our view beats theirs hands down.
A little out of place through Blackburn and Burnley, Nick’s pink shorts are right at home down here on the Thames, in fact he looks a little underdone without a captain’s hat, Henri Lloyd deck shoes and striped shirt.
Murk’s morning walk resulted in discovering Abingdon Heritage Open Day, a stroke of luck as it happened for just one day. Designed to transport visitors back 100 years the town was transformed by war horses, soldiers, choirs, Punch and Judy shows and perhaps the most surprising touch – windows displaying information on war-time residents, many owners even opened their front doors for passers-by to experience the places soldiers lived before leaving to fight.
Moving out of Abingdon the water was busy, boats of all shapes and sizes out for Saturday morning on the river. Magical boat houses hide away beneath the boughs of trees beginning to turn, some of the enormous human houses are pretty impressive too. The miles ticked up as locks came and went. Tucked out the way compared to others, Day’s Lock was quiet but since 1983, crowds gather there every March for the World Pooh Sticks Championships.
Beyond sad, we’re marking all the free mooring spots in Nicholson…there are more than we’d previously thought although last time down we needed to see rings, or at the very least bollards for a gap to register as moorable. Now, provided it’s plankable, it’s moorable. Home tonight is up from Cleeve Lock where, other than one disco thumping neon bright light party boat, the water has been still for hours.
It was time to put Folly Bridge to bed. River conditions maybe as calm as they get, but no way was that bridge biting us twice, so we walked a loop – passing the site of our worst ever boat bash – ending up with one last walk through the city before untying and entering Isis lock.
The deeper water always makes the boat move well and we were soon into Osney lock, taping licences in the windows. We noticed so much more compared to last time round when we were catapulted downstream under the force of red board water; there are marinas, ornate road bridges and even a few locks that we had blanked out in our traumatised states. Separated in two parts by an island, it’s okay to travel on either side but not knowing that bit of information last time round is why our paintwork is still visible on the stone arch today. Steeped in history, bursting with riverside life and Salters Steamers churning their way through the water makes for an idyllic view, yet what’s gone before is enough to keep a chill in the air.
Watching Oxford fade away the water opened up and trees stretched high, still bizarre to be the only boat around for miles on such a well-known river.
In need of water we motored along as the sun began to set, arriving at Abingdon there was wait for the water point, one handy thing about narrowboat travel is that dinner can be multitasked with water filling, lock waiting, lock dropping, moving along and mooring – which meant by the time we’d settled for night on Abingdon Meadow there was just enough time for drinks before food. Abingdon is twinkling outside, Nick figures it’s a good place to blow our whole seven days of Thames licence – a definite improvement from wanting to live at Star City.