Re-creating Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat sounds terribly romantic, doesn’t it? Patrick Galbraith discovers the reality of a long skiff down the Thames. Photographs by Daniel Gould.
Soon, the sun will sink down behind the great mountain, but, by then, I’ll be back. The wolf on the sled is large, but my horse is strong and the town is just a mile or so further. I was in the midst of that marvellous dream again. The one in which I’m a mid-19th-century Dakota wolfer and I don’t have to pay Council Tax or change trains at Basingstoke every morning. Then, I awoke.
It was the rain that did it. Great drops thundering down on the canvas canopy – ‘a waterproof canopy’, the man who rented us the skiff had promised. It hadn’t always been so grim. Five days previously, in the shadow of St Helen’s Church in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, we first set our oars in the sun-dappled water and made off downstream.
I hatched the plan one night between pint five and closing time, in a sticky corner of a Camberwell pub. We were to skiff downriver in the most authentic vessel we could find to see just how much of the Thames Jerome K. Jerome would still recognise. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, in 1889, Jerome penned a humorous account of a two-week boating holiday rowing from Kingston to Oxford and back. On publication, the work was denounced as the sad result of over-educating the lower orders and Jerome was declared ‘a menace to English letters’.
James Fisher, Sub-Editor at Country Life, assured me that, unless I guaranteed him a place in the crew, he would never accept another commission on drey-poking for Shooting Times. For weeks after this, we struggled to find a third man. I’m no longer on speaking terms with a number of people after learning they don’t think skiffing down the Thames constitutes a holiday, but then I remembered Philip, a dear schoolpal, who washes dishes two days a week at a Soho restaurant famed for the exquisite things it does with grouse. It’s friends like this one needs – men of taste and flexibility.
In Jerome’s novel, he observes that ‘among folk too constitutionally weak to relish up-stream work, it is a common practice to get a boat to Oxford and row down’. Being unashamedly of a dainty ilk, we planned
to do exactly that. The author describes Abingdon as ‘eminently respectable, clean and desperately dull’. Conservationists will be reassured to hear that it remains largely unchanged.
It was about 10 miles into the journey that I first wondered if the whole thing was a terrible mistake. ‘You must have rowed at Eton?’ I pleaded with James. ‘Never saw the point,’ he replied. ‘Dull sport. I turned up once, capsized and played table tennis instead.’
At this point, Philip stopped pontificating about the Brutalist beauty of Didcot power station and lamented that he spent most of his school career hiding from sport in general and practising cigarette rolling behind the art block. I had whiled away many a prep session on the river, but, unhelpfully, it was always with a fishing rod and a can of McEwan’s Export.
On the first night, we moored beneath the bridge in Wallingford. In Three Men in a Boat, they wind up there at ‘a riverside inn’ with a ‘monstrous fish hanging above the fire place’. Everyone they encounter claims to have caught it, with one person recalling it came in at ‘eighteen pounds six ounces’.
Sadly, we found no monstrous fish at our inn, but rather an Abba tribute act and a woman named Maureen, who was determined to dance with us. It seemed improper to ask, but I suspect she came in at a little more than 18lb 6oz. As the night wore on, she became insistent and we beat a retreat back across the bridge and burnt some aubergines.
The journey down from Wallingford was still just as ‘full of beauty’ as Jerome notes. Today, beech trees line the banks. In the 1890s, there would have been a towpath for horses instead. That evening, we moored up at Mapledurham Mill and Lorna, a friend of James’s, kindly put us up for the night. As it was Philip’s birthday, Lorna’s father opened two magnums of wine and we sat sipping, listening to rain lashing the windows, telling tales of waterproof jackets we’ve known and loved.
The following day, the river was hot and muggy. As we rowed towards Reading, James remarked on the pillboxes that line the banks. Of course, in the 1890s, these wouldn’t have been there and the loss of life that loomed would have been hard to fathom.
The river by Reading is still every bit as ‘dismal’ as Jerome records, but there was a quaint friendliness about the place that afternoon. A large man with a fawn bulldog and a Union Flag tattoo stopped to bemoan the football. Someone else offered to buy the boat from us, before a conversational U-turn in which he concluded that, actually, rowing sounded ‘really boring’.
Past Reading, the landscape changes dramatically and we drifted in silence for some time, looking at progressively bigger and grander houses. Skiffing into Henley, rowing boats full of young men who may as well have been carved by Praxiteles tore past, and a dainty little cox fiercely shouted that we were ‘on the wrong part of the river’. After one particularly coarse exchange, we decided to park up at a pleasant spot on the side of the Regatta course. In Jerome’s novel, he wanders into Henley for ‘a glass of whisky and a pipe’. We took to the streets in search of curry.
The landscape from Henley down to Hambleden Lock was just as ‘bare and dull’ as Jerome records. We had the river to ourselves when a man with a three-legged poodle shouted: ‘Where’s the dog?’ A reference, of course, to Montmorency, the spirited fox terrier that appears in the novel. The man’s face suggested he was thrilled by the originality of his own wit. I feigned a smile and assured James that if any dog walker made a Montmorency-related remark again, I would leap overboard and set about them with the boat hook.
From Medmenham to Hurley, the riverscape becomes more pastoral. Jerome notes it was ‘full of peaceful beauty’ in the 1890s. It remains much the same and I enjoyed a small sherry as the fields rolled by.
James is an American. In the same way that I like to wear a kilt from time to time, he doesn’t let too many days pass without donning a pair of basketball shorts. Nothing wrong with that, in my book, but the staff at the Compleat Angler in Marlow seemed to have rather higher sartorial standards. As we were chivvied off down river,
I threw at the manager the observation that ‘Izaak Walton didn’t even fish in Berkshire much’. He shrugged his shoulders blankly, but a few well-read diners guffawed at my piscatorial insult.
A mile later, we found ourselves in the middle of an orgy of jibing and tacking. Wet-suited men abused us vitriolically from all angles, when a voice sounded across the water: ‘Three men in a boat, come for tea.’ Being a Classicist, Philip reckoned it was a trick and suggested we tied James to the boat to stop him being lured to his death by the promise of fruitcake.
I dismissed this absurd Homeric notion and we had the sort of afternoon that occurs in 1890s travel books. Richard, as we discovered our siren was called, was a doyen of the waterways who was in the midst of restoring a Venetian punt. For the rest of the day, we skiffed on, watching terns dive and chase mayflies over the water.
I awoke the following morning in Cookham to the sound of parakeets. Many think that these are recent arrivals, but they’ve been in Britain since the 19th century. Perhaps they awoke Jerome, too. James studied our map and discovered that, due to excess pub visits, we were now well behind schedule and the chances of us getting to Richmond the following morning were slim. Not long after his ominous announcement, lightning flashed over Cliveden, thunder rolled towards Burnham and rain poured.
A mile later, as James bailed the boat out for the third time in an hour, we stopped reassuring each other it would pass and erected the canopy. The landscape around us faded into grey insignificance and conversation ceased.
We passed Maidenhead, a place Jerome records as being ‘too snobby to be pleasant’. I have no idea whether that’s still the case. We were in survival mode and my only concern was getting to Eton, where James knew a little place he ‘escaped to’ during his schooldays. Two hours later, we shuffled into the Royal Oak. Philip ordered pints of Guinness, I dried myself with loo roll and James moped. ‘It’s changed,’ he wailed. ‘It’s turned into a gastro pub.’ For some time, we comforted him while he grieved over the gentrification of Eton, but we had to be in Staines by nightfall.
At Runnymede, Jerome gets lost in fantastical thoughts about ‘that ever-to-be-famous June morning of 1215’ and imagines the signing of the great treaty being played out in front of them. I was largely thinking of bed and the dry sanctuary of my sleeping bag.
We skiffed on until it was so dark we could skiff no further and moored up next to a Staines cul-de-sac. It was in the early hours of the following morning that I awoke with rain pouring through the canopy. For five sodden hours, I lay there, thinking about wolfing until it was light enough to insist on setting off.
Somewhere just below Laleham, where Matthew Arnold is buried, the sun came out. Passing Ham House, we entered the last hour of our journey and I mulled over the opening of Three Men in a Boat, in which the characters decide they are afflicted by almost every malady and need a restorative holiday. I often think that modern life is a malady itself; technology is stressful and the pace at which we do everything is exhausting. As an erstwhile editor of The Idler, I hope Jerome would agree.
As Richmond came into view, I turned to Philip to announce my belief that, despite the hardship, a six-day journey down the Thames in a Victorian skiff is the perfect antidote to the way we live now. He was slumped to one side and his mouth was open – he’d fallen asleep at the rudder. A horn sounded and people on the bridge started to shout. I turned back to see a large steamboat heading our way.
A rose among three thorns
- Our skiff, Rose, was built in Staines in 1908
- All her planking is original
- She’s 26ft and seats four men
- She was used in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- She has a quite rare, very ornate and fragile whicker seat back
Contact Thames Skiff Hire for further information (01932 232433; www.skiffhire.com)
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