The Final Blog – Hugh Ellins

The NSPCC Thames Row – Cotswold to Capital

24th  – 26th  August 2019

The only bad thing about the row is that I did not see England put 8 tries on Ireland nor see the Ben  Stokes innings.

There were three themes that added to the already challenging task of rowing roughly 40 miles a day, almost caused us to fail.  The first is that, for once, the August Bank Holiday was a glorious weekend of blue skies and unremitting sun.  Temperatures rose into the 30s which itself made the effort of rowing difficult.  Added to that, the sun brought out a variety of other users to the Thames:  there were the swimmers, some serious and some just swimming from the riverbank; there were the canoeists and paddlers and, of course, river cruisers of all shapes and sizes and a couple  drifting in the middle of the Thames on a unicorn more interested  in  their bodies than  where  they were on the Thames.  That activity would have slowed us but the volume of cruisers wishing, like us, to go through the locks meant that there was continuing and growing delay.  Finally, the river Thames is not designed for crew changes of row boats and that coupled to the instability of the boat as we clambered in and out of it or entered or left locks meant that such times were fraught and slow .  Despite that the boat was frequently tipping dangerously towards capsizing.  All in all, the estimated time of arrival at the end of each day just kept on being pushed further and further back.

Because of the delays we all spent longer in the boat than was planned.  The killer stints were where  one rowed then coxed and then rowed again.  This meant that one was in the boat continuously for five to six hours.  Not only was that tiring but also painful on the backside.  This lead one member of the team, Sowande, to exclaim as he got into Lyn’s car “ah, just let me sit in your car – the seats are so soft”.

Bear all that in mind as I recount the highlights or  lowlights of  the row.

On Saturday the 24th August the two rowing crews assembled at Lechlade Marina at about 7.00am.  The two teams were the younger members ‘The Young Blades’ and the more, shall we say, mature members ‘The Gentlemen’. First there were the photos, the crew, the crew and Stuart McNeil from Bevirs Law, our sponsors, representatives from The Lions, who made a very generous donation, and the Mayor.  Once that was done, the boat was launched and The Young Blades plus the Cox, me embarked. Cheers of encouragement from the supporters and we were off – straight into the side of the narrow outlet to the Thames. 

The Thames at Lechlade is, for several miles, very pretty but is also narrow and very windy.  Not ideal for a boat which is designed to go in a straight line.  That, coupled with the ineptitude of the Cox, me, and the fact that we occasionally forgot the difference between stroke side and bow side, meant that we formed a close relationship with the overhanging trees and growing reeds.  Progress was slow but we comforted ourselves with the thought that when the Thames widened we would make up time.  Good theory but bad practice because the weather got hotter and filled with other users.

We arrived at our first night stop at Abingdon about an hour and a half late.  We supped at the local Beefeater, where the service was friendly but the food – ‘ho-hum’.  The Young Blades were to take the first stint and, taking into account, the previous day’s experience, intended on an early start.

Most of The Gentlemen were not needed and were given dispensation from leaving home between 4:30am and 5:00am.  We needed as long as possible to recover because the second day was the longest to row.  The Gentlemen gathered at Clifton Lock at about 8 a.m. having walked past moored boats from which the smell of frying bacon gently wafted making the taste buds tingle.  The early start had not quite happened.  The changeover was effected, but as the day got hotter, the locks fuller and the changeovers undertaken with increasing care, we slipped further and further behind the schedule.  The planned mooring was at the Marlow Rowing Club.  As the evening sun began to set, and darkness grew, we were still optimistic that we would reach our destination.  Unfortunately, we had not taken into account the penultimate lock of the day.  Lock keepers work 9 to 6.  By the time we got to the penultimate lock 6 o’clock was well past.  The problem was that no one – not the crew, the Back Up Team or those standing by the lock knew the mysteries of its operation.  We ineffectively pushed buttons and pulled levers but still the lock did not change.   Eventually, a man appeared who took control, pushed the buttons and pulled the levers in the right sequence and in and out we went.  Not only that, the man donated £50 to our cause.  This was one of several donations we collected on the journey.

By now darkness had descended and the Cox, me, could not easily distinguish the water from the bank, nor was I able to see that the boat that I thought we were trying to overtake was actually coming straight towards us.  The decision to abandon our efforts to reach Marlow, was made as we approached Hurley Lock.  I suddenly realised that our approach was not the lock but the adjoining weir.   The cry of ‘Back row! Back row!’ stopped the impending disaster and to Hurley Lock we went. 

On the lock side, and high above us, there were shadowy figures making helpful suggestions as to what we should do.  None of those suggestions gained consensus.  Suddenly, there was a man saying ‘It’s OK, you can use my boathouse’.  Some of the Back Up Team and non-rowers, whilst searching for access to Hurley Lock, stumbled into this man’s garden.  He was having an al fresco dinner with friends.  Without hesitation, he left his meal, came to the lock, made his suggestion, returned to his house to find a torch and then, like a Cornish Wrecker, waved his light.  We secured the boat in a mood of despondency, occasioned by tiredness, if not exhaustion, and the failure to reach our objective.  That was not the end of the man’s generosity as he then offered us sleeping accommodation in his house.  The man was a star and lifted our spirits.  Having had our spirits lifted, they were then sent descending as we discovered that the restaurant at which we were intending to eat was now shut.  Not surprising, as we were some 2.5 hours late.  Did this mean that our only source of food in Marlow was the kebab van?   Among the Gentlemen was Peter Mapson, who is known for enjoying good food and wine.  His gastronomic nose found the Marlow Bar and Grill.  Not only did its kitchen stay open for us, it served some seriously good food.  If in Marlow do visit, I recommend. 

We spent the night in the Travelodge and in the morning returned to Hurley Lock.  The Gentlemen took the first stint to the Marlow Rowing Club.  We rowed as quickly as we could to make up the time.  Despite that, and because the boat needed attention, the day proper again started late. 

If we thought the river had been busy and hot on the previous two days, it became busier and hotter on day three.  We were now slipping seriously further and further against the schedule.  An hour, an hour and a half, two hours.  This led to discussions as to whether we could achieve our goal, or only achieve it if we could return and row on Tuesday, or whether we had to admit defeat and accept that the heat and the activity on the river would beat us.  Whilst no one wanted that, the prospect was looming large. 

Then a piece of luck.  One lock keeper pointed out that at the next lock there was a portage point.   We rowed towards it among shouts from various boats who had been queuing for a considerable time of “there’s a queue you know!”  and manhandled the boat to the other side.  That gained us half an hour.  We now believed we could, not would, achieve our objective. 

The decision was then made that the greatest chance of success lay with The Young Blades doing most of the remaining rowing, and with The Gentlemen joining in when a Young Blade admitted he needed a break.  That was usually confessed through gritted teeth.  Whilst I, and I think, the other Gentlemen felt that this meant we were not pulling our full weight, it was the right call. 

With the number of miles remaining reducing steadily, we found another portage point and again hauled the boat out and into the water.  That, again, made up some lost time.   From the final changeover point, The Young Blades were rowing together with Alan as Cox.  They rowed the last five miles at a cracking pace, at some point reaching 12 miles per hour, and, eventually, finished at the Lensbury Hotel at about 8:30pm.  Without The Young Blades we would have failed, so well done guys and thanks.

On the question of thanks, there are three people who have only been obliquely mentioned as ‘the Back-up Team’.  That consisted of Lin, Pauline and Lyn.  I know that they had assistance from others but they bore the brunt:  getting up early, making sure that we rowers had water, food, transport, tender loving care, and hauling increasingly tired bodies in and out of the boat.   One measure of their efforts is that, between them, they walked some180,000 steps during the three days.  Remember, that was done in the intense heat and whilst carrying heavy loads of water and food.  Without those three we would have undoubtedly failed – so a big THANK YOU.

Thanks also to the Reading Rowing Club who lent us the boat and, particularly, to Des who taught us the rudiments of rowing and repaired the boat when we had a collision.

Thanks to all those who have made donations.  I am uncertain as to the final amount, but it is heading to  £12,000.00.  Thank you.

Finally, would I do the same again with The Young Blades and the other Gentlemen?  Despite tiredness, heat and a sore backside “bet your sweet bippy I would”.

Hugh Ellins