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CAMPING: A Floating Holiday in England's Forgotten World

November 15, 1987|BRIAN M. FAGAN | Fagan is an archeologist and free-lance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.

LONDON — The problem was a challenging one: How could I spend some time afloat in England, away from the crowds, between four London business appointments spread over 10 days?

I wanted to get away from the city, but the schedule meant I couldn't go to sea where I would be at the mercy of wind and tide. Then I heard of Mark Annand's fleet of restored Victorian camping skiffs on the Thames and my search was over.

What better way to spend my spare time then rowing down the Thames from Oxford to Hampton Court, exploring a corner of England I had never seen? And when business meetings called, I just showed my Britrail pass and was in London in less than an hour.

Historic Boatyard

Mark Annand is a wooden-boat traditionalist to his fingertips. He and his partner, Mark Edwards, bought Constable's Boathouse in Hampton several years ago, a boatyard full of Thames history.

Constable's was already flourishing a century ago when thousands of elegant camping skiffs plied the river. Reveling boat parties crowded riverside taverns and picnicked under weeping willow trees.

These were the leisured days immortalized by Jerome K. Jerome in his Victorian classic, "Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog)." Jerome and Montmorency (the dog) passed through Thames locks that were "a brilliant tangle of bright blazers, and gay caps, and saucy hats, and many-colored parasols, and silken rugs, and cloaks, and streaming ribbons."

They were like boxes into which flowers of every hue had been cast in a rainbow heap, Jerome thought. But the days of the skiff were numbered--Jerome complained about puffing steam launches. Then the internal combustion engine and motor cruisers came along. The skiffs soon dwindled to hundreds, then to dozens, ultimately to a decaying handful.

Today, Annand, Edwards and a few enthusiasts keep the camping skiff tradition alive, so you can still enjoy an excursion into Jerome's forgotten world afloat.

I joined Annand and Rowena at the doorstep of a pub near Osney Bridge in Oxford. Mark told me that the skiff I would use was more than 100 years old, capable of being handled by one oarsman or two; it was 23 feet long, with a fine bow and comfortable beam.

It came complete with a canvas cover supported with iron hoops, a sleeping mattress and cooking gear.

I stowed my backpack aboard and paddled slowly to the first obstacle--Osney Lock.

Working the Locks

The lock keeper was at lunch, so Annand showed me how everything worked by hand: Close the downstream gates and sluices, open the upstream sluices so the lock fills. The water calms. Open the upper gates, pass through, close them again. Open the lower sluices, fending off as the water level falls again. Open the gates, pass through, then close them.

I had worked up quite a sweat by the time we finished. Fortunately, the lock keepers operate the gates and sluices hydraulically during working hours.

With 88 miles to go to Hampton, I rowed carefully through the backwaters of Oxford, passing under busy bridges and by bustling college boathouses.

Within a few miles the routine established itself. Rowena was equipped with thole-pinned rowlocks, a far cry from the swivel type fashionable today.

"Thunk, thunk" went the oars with an easy rhythm. The first few strokes were hard work, but the skiff soon gained momentum. I paddled smoothly along at about 2 m.p.h., perhaps faster if there was a tail wind or the current was stronger than usual.

I had ample time to enjoy the sights, talk with fishermen on the banks and to admire the quiet meadows with their contented cows.

Nicholson's admirable "Guide to the River Thames" guided me from lock to lock, drawing my attention to stately homes, Victorian canals, boatyards and pubs along the way.

Every hour or so a lock came into view. Each was a quiet adventure, no longer a flower bed of pretty Victorian hats but a little world unto its own, complete with trim lock keepers' houses and carefully tended flower gardens.

The lock keepers were friendly and always ready to lend a helping hand. The procedure soon becomes routine.

I would tie up alongside convenient pilings immediately before the lock. The gates open and the lock keeper summons the waiting motor boats first. Once they are inside, the light and fragile skiff follows, tucked into a corner where the heavy boats won't crush it against the walls.

The lower gates open and the procession leaves, with the oarsman poling out carefully last of all.

Hurly-Burly World

The motor cruisers lived in a more hurly-burly world. They came in every shape and size, from small outboard-powered craft to massive floating houseboats. A constant procession passed me, their crews lolling by the wheels.

Many of them slowed down as they passed: "Where are you going to?" they would ask. "Hampton," I would reply. They would shrug their shoulders and return to their beer.

The locks were time for idle banter. I treasure the memory of the skipper who quietly leaned over and gave me a welcome can of beer on a steaming hot afternoon.

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