On Saturday morning it seemed like a good idea to head down stream from Reading to spend another few weeks on the Thames and Grand Union so after a good stock up at Tesco we joined the crowds heading towards Henley, where we would have to pass through one of the main days of the Henley Royal Regatta.
Narrowboats were definitely in the minority as we queued for Marsh Lock amidst dozens and dozens of gin palaces, cruisers, shiny wooden launches and generally anything else which was capable of supporting a wicker basket and champagne bucket.
Unphased by the ever increasing queue, the seasonal lock keeper at Marsh, working on his own throughout the lunch hour, had everything totally in control, squeezing dozens of boats through the lock at time. Sadly many of these boaters seemed to be from a different planet and our normal hellos, waves and acknowledgements were totally ignored with at best a “don’t let your dirty boat touch ours” glare.
As we dropped down the lock with a dozen others, the lock gates opened to a flurry of spluttering outboards and whizzy bow thrusters as the other occupants fought for position in the un-scheduled Marsh Lock to Henley race, leaving us wondering what we had let ourselves in for.
First myth was quickly dispelled – at lunch time there were still plenty of moorings available before Henley Bridge, albeit at £50 pounds per night, but we headed onwards and joined a melee of boats waiting to go through the bridge and edge our way into the procession of boats running parallel to the actual race course. It was a bit like driving a truck down Oxford street, keeping only inches away from the other boats in the procession, but it was great fun too. It would be no exaggeration to say that several hundred boats were jostling for position up and down the mile and a half long course. Every ten minutes another race took place, causing a foot high wave to cascade through the procession as the boats came through being chased by the Umpire’s launch – a very impressive piece of shiny rowing history in action. I was struck with the thought that this would be a great time to do a toilet pump out with the holding tank sediment being shaken up like never before, but it was not to be.
Amongst the hundereds of particpants we were one of maybe ten narrowboats moving at the time – definitely in the minority in the same way a gin palace with a brass band on deck would have been out of place at Braunston historic boat procession, but everyone seemed to be having a good time. I hadn’t expected the fringe element to be out waterbombing other boats in pirate style, and was pleased not be considered a worthy target and mildly amused to see others having to cover their cucumber sandwiches in case of stray splashing.
But overall, if you want to visit in a narrowboat, you will more than likely be able to find a mooring in town, and with a bit of pre-booking or luck, there may even be a place for you along the course at a similar price. There appeared to be plenty of late night entertainment lined up too, so I imagine there would some late night boating activity too.
So what if you were just hoping to pass through without any interest in the Regatta? It is perfectly OK to come through but expect a delay of two or three hours for queuing at the lock and to pass down the length of the course.
Leaving the parade where most others turned back to go through it all over again, I guess this has been one of the most memorable hours of my boating experience. Not perhaps my favourite, but nevertheless very enjoyable although unlikely to gain much respect in traditional narrowboating circles.
Continuing through Hambleden lock we passed maybe 20 large boats waiting to get up to Henley and the towpath telegraph was buzzing with stories of queues of 4 hours at Hurley, which may even have been true. Satisfied with a most interesting day’s boating we moored up at Bourne End and had a beer or three in the Bounty – perhaps one of the most unusual pubs in the whole country, not least because it has no road to it – and poles apart from the world we left behind us in Henley.