Friday, 18 October 2013

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: THREE MEN IN A BOAT



I have a great affection for the River Thames.  I came to know every inch of the stretches of the river from the source up to Windsor some years ago when I set about walking sections of the Thames Path.  From the intermittent trickle of the source near the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire, via the wild meanderings beyond Lechlade, the bucolic stretches from Oxford to Reading, Henley to Maidenhead, and finally that amazing moment when Windsor Castle came into view in all its glory.  So it was with great enthusiasm that I embarked on reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, which tells the story of a boat trip from Kingston Upon Thames to Oxford made by three friends - the author, Harris and George - and an errant dog called Montmorency (the men were based on real people, the dog was fictional).  Published in 1889, at around the time that leisure boating on the Thames became fashionable, it provides a fascinating insight into the life and mores of the late 19th century, as well as a sense of humour which has stood the test of time.

Kingston Upon Thames, or Cyninges tun as it was known during its early days in the 9th century, got its name from the fact that the Saxon kings were crowned here. It is here that, on a "glorious morning" the three friends arrive by train from London Waterloo, having bribed a train driver to go off his designated route to take them there, and take possession of the boat that is to be their home for the duration of the trip.  Just around the first bend from Kingston is Hampton Court with its maze, which features in one of the most comic scenes in the book, in which Harris leads a group of tourists into the maze and gets them lost in it for hours.  Then on to Moulsey Lock, which the author describes beautifully, capturing the typical boating scene of the day with its "brilliant tangle of bright blazers, and gay caps, and saucy hats".  The trio spend their first night camping at Picnic Point, Runnymede, which is near Magna Carta Island (or Magna Charta Island as named in the book).  This is a location with huge historical significance, being where King John sealed the Magna Carta, hence the name of the island, which is one of the principal contenders for the exact location where this happened.

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Magna Carta memorial. Photo by Andy Stephenson, via Wikimedia Commons

Windsor, surprisingly, gets short shrift in the book, while Maidenhead is dismissed as "too snobby to be pleasant".  However, the author is much more impressed with Marlow, where Montmorency has an undignified spat with a cat, and where the three friends replenish their supplies in the local stores, resulting in a procession of delivery boys taking baskets of food down to the boat.  Up to this point, the author has been effusive in his praise of the river's beauty, but at Reading the tone changes, describing the river as "dismal and dirty", and with the comment that "one does not linger in the neighbourhood of Reading".  Some may say not a lot has changed, although the day I passed through Reading on my walk the riverside area seemed pleasant enough.  Beyond Reading, the neighbouring villages of Streatley and Goring are described as "a great fishing centre", which still seems to be true to this day. 

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The Thames at Marlow. Photo by Nigel Cox, via Wikimedia Commons


Wending their way towards Oxford, the friends arrive at Dorchester (Dorchester-on-Thames that is, not the one in Dorset!) where the countryside "grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque".  Dorchester is another historical highlight along the river: as its name suggests, it has Roman origins, and it was once the capital of Wessex, somewhat hard to believe now, looking at this sleepy little village. Then Abingdon, "a typical country town of the smaller order", and finally the stretch from Iffley to Oxford - "the most difficult bit of the river I know" declares the author, due to the nature of the currents.  Sadly, the trip comes to an abrupt end further back downstream at Pangbourne, where due to the fact that it is pouring with rain the trio decide to cut short their journey and head back by train to London, leaving the boat and its contents with a local boatman who they fool into thinking they will be coming back for it.

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Iffley Lock. Photo by Stephen McKay, via Wikimedia Commons

See here for a guide to the Thames, and if you feel like walking it, check out the Thames Path website.     

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