Saturday, 18 November 2006

Steaming Down the Thames

Laurence Monkhouse

Being an account of a voyage down the Thames made by three steamboats in September 2006. Suilven has a fixed canopy with side-screens attached at night and in bad weather, Mudlark has a cabin. Phaeton, the smallest at 16 feet is open, the sleeping accommodation is a tent canopy put up at night. Despite this she has made many long voyages in Britain and in France.


Rain in night, foggy start, mainly overcast Up early but not early enough – P was already 'abseiling' Phaeton into the road. Hitched up and drove round to front and breakfasted. Away 8:45, traffic towards Burton dreadful so went through Ashby, filled up at Tesco – expensive – and got more stores. South along A42/M42/M40 – good new computer traffic control on M42, then off at Warwick and cross country, lovely market at Moreton in the Marsh – Fosse Way, to Lechlade. Missed turning, across Thames bridge, but back, dreadful narrow bridge into Trout field, had to uncouple trailer and wiggle it sideways. Finally there 11:45. David with Mudlark already there. Geoff and Pat with Suilven came 10 minutes later and had even more struggle with bridge. Launched and coaled – perhaps rather too leisurely, moved boats to pub frontage, had bar lunch. David took two wheels off his trailer and reduced pressure in others, and it then rode well. Finally the three men with trailers left about 15:00. David said he knew the way and wanted to go past a place where he could get auto gas – did complete loop of Wantage before reaching M4.

No great problem on M25 and bypassing Staines, then David dived into a garage with the intention of inflating his tyres and we followed him. L beginning to panic about time and all that still had to be done, told David he had an inflator so we went on, having difficulty crossing rush hour traffic, arriving Penton Hook a few hundred yards further on – 17:45. They close at 17:30, but we got in OK before the gates closed. Man arrived, very suspicious but David calmed him, left our trailer and Geoff and David's entire units, put coal for David and Geoff in van – now about 18 x 25 kg bags. All in van to office where man took payments for trailers (£1 per night) and slipping (£12.50). He remembered Phaeton, although it is years since she was there. By now it was 18:30, traffic easing, good run to Benson, that was shut too but we had gate code so left camper van in camping area (wrong plot as it turned out). John Winn arrived and drove us back to Lechlade. Ladies were in Pub, listening to good Jazz band. Good supper, then to boats – Phaeton seemed very full of gear. Rather disturbed night – we haven't got the knack we used to have of sleeping on board in comfort.


Fine and Sunny Sorted gear and packed away cover and tilt. Some order now returning. L put on temporary Licence stickers leaning over the bow and pinged chest! Firebars and bricks had collapsed amid ashes. Cleared ashpan and refitted them with difficulty. Lit fire with Barbecue starter and had steam in 35 minutes. Others not ready, so decided to sail as we were slowest. Had forgotten what the upper Thames was like – very small and winding, with WW2 blockhouse every half mile – it would have been a bit worrying if the German Navy had got this far. Others caught us up at first lock, and after that we found that provided the pressure was kept above 100 psi we could keep up with them and indeed exceed the speed limit. Three of our six sacks took us to Benson – we were burning little over 25 kg per day instead of 40 kg as estimated.

Stopped for lunch cooked on the griddle and baked potatoes and talked to people going upstream, including the owner of a house at Benson whose mooring was used for the weekend by Consuta. Had talked of stopping for the night at the Rose Revived but still going well so pushed on to Eynsham. David had a television in Mudlark and we watched the weather forecast with a heavy rain warning just where we were – weather however looked fine. Walked across toll bridge and to the Talbot at Eynsham – looked OK and beer was fine, but service was slow. L had cottage pie which was OK, but C had fish cakes which turned out to include hard boiled egg which she dislikes. Very dark going back to boats – L stumbled over kerb and bruised a toe.


Torrential rain in night, clearing late morning, then fine The heavy rain warning was quite right. Woken about 01:00 by very heavy rain on canopy. Older fabric leaking badly, new area over us doing quite well, although water was seeping underneath at front end where it isn't sewn. Put oilskin coats over the feet of our sleeping bags. Rain on roof felt like a waterfall. Slept comparatively well, considering, waking about 07:00 – some patches of wet on sleeping bags but not too bad. Even Geoff and Pat had got some areas wet. Still raining but not so heavily. Breakfast, packed, rolled cover back but keeping it over stern, put on full oilskins, steam in half an hour, sailed at 09:00. Pumped bilge but surprisingly little had got in. C steering found restricted visibility difficult, but managed OK even in locks. Rain stopped as we got into Oxford and it became a nice day. Lock Keeper at Osney Lock said we had had 1.25 inches of rain in the night, 5 times entire June rainfall, so we felt our cover hadn't done so badly after all. David dried our sleeping bags in Mudlark. Took cover and tilt off as weather now looked fair.

Lunch by towpath above Iffley Lock – cooking on griddle and in oven again, then on to Abingdon arriving 15:45. Absolutely no steaming problems at all. David, Pat and L walked into town for stores and money. The Queen was visiting tomorrow – decorations going up. Back to boats and found that gypsies had arrived at the car park by the loos, hundred yards away, but hordes of police were there too – most unusual but they probably wanted to get rid of them before the Queen came – and did so. In evening walked across bridge and met John and Brenda Winn with Ian and Jeannie Whatley – ate at Broad Face Inn just across the bridge – it had been a National Finalist for pub food – deservedly, it was excellent – L had pork and honey sausages with mashed potatoes and red onion gravy, C roast pork loin. Afterwards C + L walked about in Abingdon Town Centre, lovely mild evening, like being in France, before going back to Phaeton to bed.


Rain in morning, then fine Good night, beginning to get the swing of it. Breakfast, packed, steam in half an hour, and away, but it then began to rain and we had to put on full oilskins. Luckily it didn't last. Went up newly opened entrance to Wilts & Berks Canal opposite Culham Lock Cut, only a couple of hundred yards but still caught the others at the lock – held up by big Dutch barge type boat with only one person manning her. Ran up old course of river below the lock, everybody including the big boat came together again at Clifton Lock, then up the old river, past the Trout Inn up to the weir – only Phaeton got there and we ran aground with a bit of bumping of skeg and propeller. Beautiful 30 foot Frolic there with clerestory roof to saloon. So through Day's Lock and reached Benson on the last of the fire. 30 boats expected, had to moor alongside Mudlark, had left van in wrong place but moved van – next to Calverts in a big new tent. Heap of our own, Mudlark's and San Toy's coal discreetly behind van. Cooked lunch on griddle – Thai kebabs, grilled courgettes, mushrooms. Pleasant idle afternoon of talking and helping people to launch, then in evening showered, put on smarter clothes from van and walked into village to Crown Inn – long tables, very jovial, sat with Robin Wallace Sims and Ian Miles. Back to sleep in van this time.


Fine but mainly overcast David and Newtons decided to have a day off, although David had lit his boiler, but he came with us. Leisurely start, almost the last boat to leave. Up to Thame Mouth with David helming, River Thame looked (and was) very narrow but quite deep, went boldly through reeds to staithe which natives told us was head of navigation but pressed on another hundred yards to bridge. Got through but a few yards further it was very shallow and we turned. No other steamboats (some went up in afternoon). Back in the main river it was obvious we had picked up weed – L got some off but worried about ribs, David took over and cleared a huge ball. Up through the lock and stopped for lunch beside a convenient hedge. Fed all with grilled chicken and mushrooms and baked spuds. A Dragon Boat went by. Then on to Clifton and up backwater past the Trout moorings – lots of boats still there. Gently back to Benson, mooring alongside this time for loading. David engineered this time, rather better than L but he concentrated more! Several casualties including Annabelle and the Chairman – would have been unremarkable once but surprising now. Pottered for a while, trollied three sacks of coal and loaded into Phaeton. David made huge stack on his foredeck. Then changed into posh clothes including L's new pink jacket and to The Three Horseshoes for formal Thames dinner. Sat with Rutters and Adrian. Chairman arrived in time for L not to make a speech!


Fine and sunny, clouding later with slight shower Leisurely start, moving gear from the van to Phaeton. Suilven ready quite early and sailed, but Pat reappeared having walked back from the lock to pick up a fender and finding it rather a long way – we took her back with us. Had to queue for lock, but then a long clear run to Cleeve Lock. Went through this and Goring Lock and stopped for lunch. L walked back with David to the pub to say farewell to friends – very posh and expensive, bought shandy for David – £2 75!! – and not even proper beer so L didn't have a drink, which embarrassed David. Can't win. Instead back to boat and drank from our own copious (rather excessive) supplies, lunch on griddle. Geoff and Pat reappeared having had moules with Julian. On downstream past Reading – where we couldn't see a shop for stores for David – past our Island where we camped in 1988, and moored just above Sonning Lock. San Toy arrived a bit later having diverted from her return up the Kennet and Avon. Made up cover, then all in gloaming through churchyard (L talking loudly until he realised Evensong was still in progress) and to Bull Inn. Sat outside, although it got rather dark, good beer and food – L had liver and bacon, C Thai and rice.


Fine, clouding in evening Once again steam in half an hour. Stopped briefly at Shiplake Lock to get rid of rubbish and get water, then again at Henley Bridge – small free mooring place, just big enough for us. C, Pat and David went into town to shop while Geoff and L talked to onlookers. On down Henley reach and stopped at a bank for lunch – C had got lovely lamb burgers, but had to be careful L didn't get the ones with berries in. Signs said charge of £4 for mooring, but nobody came. On through Marlow and passed Ian and Sylvia's – whistling and waving. Carried on to Cookham, some disagreement about where to moor – Geoff's map seemed to show imaginary mooring places, but all finished up beside a park a hundred yards above the Bridge. Geoff rang the Rutters and invited them to dine with us. Made camp in leisurely style. Somebody came along to charge mooring fees but charged all three of us the price of a single boat. Got as respectable as we could – L had no clean trousers at all! – and to Ferry Inn – now revamped as a most stylish eating place, but surprisingly modestly priced (for the Thames) Sat outside waiting for the Rutters, expecting a car, but they arrived in Irene under electric power. Ate indoors – started with home made bread dipped into olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then L had burger bun and C had risotto. Afterwards all sailed back to the boats in style on board Irene.


Fine and sunny Rain expected in the night didn't materialise. Geoff had instructed us to be at the lock when it opened at 09:00 – we were there in good time but the lock keeper wasn't. Loos also shut, but there was one in the shower room. C helped David and did next bit on board Mudlark. L had so much steam that he led away, and saw a kingfisher in Cliveden Reach. C felt cold and returned to Phaeton. Steaming now not quite so good and others got to Jubilee River first. This was a cheat – a public navigation marked RESTRICTED NAVIGATION and shut off by what looked like an unbroken fence, but as the Rutters had briefed us this was merely a slalom course which we all negotiated without difficulty. So up this unspoiled bit of river to the weir at the end beside the paper mill. Back and to Boulters Lock, where nothing happened despite much whistling. No lock keeper and lock empty. However a single handed cruiser appeared at the bottom end and opened the gates and we got the message that we had to work through ourselves. By now several other boats had arrived, but L still had to work it single handedly, until a lady from the River Authority appeared to say that the lock keeper was ill and to work us through. The lock keepers this day were in marked contrast to up river where the keepers were invariably jolly – today few said much, one made it clear that he thought that we ought to put our fires out because of the 'Stop Engines' rule, and one was so busy talking to a supervisor that he didn't open the bottom gate until we shouted at them.

Through Maidenhead, Windsor and stopped at Datchet for lunch – a second lot of lamb burgers and roasted vegetables. Runnymede, successfully raced a huge Dutch barge to Bell Weir Lock as we were getting a it worried about time. By Staines L was running down the fire and the hitherto excellent steaming was becoming very dull (we found later that the grate was heavily clinkered) – gingered it up with kindling. More kindling needed from Penton Hook Lock, and particularly in Marina – most of the embers had been thrown overboard and the wood which burned to nothing got us to the slip. Suilven came out first – their systems were impressive. We had the problem that our trailer was locked and C had left the key at Benson, but we tied the trailer to Geoff's towball and she came out without difficulty and was parked next to Mudlark's trailer. David was going on to Teddington. Essentials were taken out of Phaeton and put in Geoff's car. So away, towing Suilven, through the London rush hour – rather slow to M40, then good run to Benson. We all ate at the cafĂ© – adequate but no more after past two nights, then Newtons left, we unloaded residual coal from van, did some washing and drying as it was free, L showered, exhausted bed.


Fine and sunny Up, light breakfast of beans (all we had), packed, including 3 x 25 kg sacks, paid parking, away. Smooth run to Penton Hook, fuelled in Sainsbury's in Staines, arrived 10:30, unpacked boat including 2.5 x 25 kg sacks, had to move van to avoid crane laying up a cruiser, but still away by midday. Had gone 100 yards when we remembered we had left spare wheel on David's trailer, but back without problems. Then smooth run home, stopping at Services on M25/A1M for lunch, thence via Royston. Shop at Beccles. Home.

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