Best kept secret’s of men and mice, or whatever the saying goes, ensured that this years’ St George’s Day went nearly as planned, or as much as a plan ought to go. We only celebrate St George’s Day when it doesn’t fall on a weekend or Monday. Can’t remember what happened last year but I think we ended up busy for some reason and someone had erroneously booked an inspection in that couldn’t be changed. The aim of the day is to celebrate our National Saint’s Day, obviously, but it must involve something George and England. On a recent trip down the Thames aboard the good ship Consuta I was reminded of the most appropriately named ‘St George and the Dragon’ at Wargrave. Now this pub used to be a bit tourist, Henley actually, shabby and not chic but has had a big make-over so I would need local knowledge. Hang on a mo, Mr Shem lives at Henley and he also had a boat. Two questions then.
The weather on the 23rd April was spot on. Marky was flying in the morning but the evening was going to be wet and the morning possibly so with a risk of mist. Bright and bushy tailed Jane and John were loaded aboard the Landie and we headed for Henley. Now it has to be said quite early on that Shem’s boat is just that. A boat, and not as big as it looks. Somewhat smaller than an upturned Westfalia trailer lid but with a ‘cabin’, cabin being a very loose term. Being a thoughtful soul he had cleaned it up and given the inside a bit of smudging over with white emulsion but it was pretty basic and clearly John’s expression suggested a degree of foreboding. We could all get aboard, just, but Marky had to steer so sat in the stern meaning John and Jane managed to perch on the seat and I found myself standing. Deep respect as Mark did a fair bit of Cornish fisherman and stood as well. What you have to take on board, in a figurative way of course, is that John can’t swim and Jane hates boats, nevertheless I reckoned it was just the job for a proper adventure. We launched, which is a loose term for lobbing it off the bank above the Henley Lock, and all went quite smoothly until Jane valiantly asked why it was filling with water. John had a vision of ‘Four go missing in St George’s Day in Thames boating mystery’ across the front of the National Press. With all the recent rain the bungs had been left out. No matter, while Mark fabricated some bungs out of a plastic bag and twigs John cut down a plastic bottle to act as a baler. Engine hung on, all aboard and we were good to go. The little 2HP Mercury pinged away merrily and we cast off, then it stopped. John, quick thinking (with disaster, readable in a mirror) written across his brow, grabbed the last vestiges of a passing willow and Marky frantically pulled the starter. After some words of encouragement it clattered back to life and a trip over the weir was averted. Heads down under the bridge, proud circle performed, and we were away into the empty, quite strongly flowing, mainstream Thames and quickly settled into the bank. Headway was surprisingly good and Jubbly Bubbly was happy as. We did look a bit odd I must confess, well down at the stern and doing a good impression of a Rhine barge (low on the gunnel) the four of us filled it quite nicely. Stores, as in Hobgoblin nor foul fiend, and ‘Old Hooky’ was broken out courtesy of Mark and we had a laugh with a large domestic barge going the other way sportingly flying the George Cross.
Our destination was still a secret from John and Jane and to further confuse there is a little known backwater that takes a short cut away from The River. The Thames has a tributary called the Loddon and although there is eventually a River Loddon it sort of starts and rejoins the Thames and the first short stretch is locally known as ‘The Loddon’ which, Hove actually, might not be. It is rather duelling banjos and overhanging trees but does go past some rather fantastic piles. We throttled back, posted watches and slipped into the trees. I swung the lead calling the depth every so often and prepared to do battle with the fender (garden rake). It was rather splendid. Then the engine stopped. After a bit of frantic heaving on the starter chord which nearly had John overboard as he evaded Mark’s cussing elbow, it was deduced we had run out of fuel. Never mind plenty aboard and I rather enthusiastically locked us to the bank by swinging the rake into a well manicured bit of lawn under a rather magnificent London Plane. Whilst John pumped Mark did his best to avoid spilling fuel into his beer which, largely, wasn’t successful. Now this is where things started to go a bit awry. We did get it started but a few minutes later all was quietness again. John nearly went overboard once more, ‘Balloon repair man vanishes in mango grove’, he visualised narrowly missing Mark’s elbow again. Luckily though this was by a house with a beautiful bronze cast of a driftwood built horse in pride of place and a cheery gal raking the lawn. We complimented her creation whilst Mark explained in no uncertain terms to the Mercury that it really should start which, eventually, it did. There was a moment of uncertainty as I tried to release the rake. Five minutes later it stopped again. John was now intent that the headlines would read ‘Four Lost in Dark Backwater, rescue services fail to locate them’. We laughed. Finally after much cursing and fiddling with the choke Jubbly Bubbly settled down to a bit of African Queen and in a somewhat almost dignified fashion we clattered onwards past houses and gardens that if you were even given them you’d never be able to afford run! We swished under the first low bridge with no drama but it did involve ducking well down and heading spot bollix for the middle of the arch. “Think that was low”, laughed Mark, “The last one is really low and if The River hasn’t gone down enough we’ll never get under it”. Despite the setbacks we were now approaching our quarry but there were still a couple more low bridges to negotiate but they were not that dramatic. Mark reassured us that the last one was really truly very low. It was. Actually it was extremely low. In front of us was indeed a very, very low bridge. Pretty bridge. We squared up to it and spread ourselves out in the bilges to get Jubbly as low in the water as possible. The runners on the cabin roof hit the arch and we stopped so did the engine! We went backwards in the current rushing under it. Bring on the theme from Jaws. New paragraph.
Several attempts to rush it were made but the current under was quite strong and the roof runners collided with the arch. Now it became a matter of honour. The engine repeatedly failed and we chuckled, Mark cursed The Messenger and it was decided that he would attempt to walk it under by laying on the two square foot of bow. That resulted him and the front of the boat getting jammed by his head under the bridge. At this point, thinking on his feet and chucking his Marlboro’ overboard, John (‘Three vanish under bridge torrent’) abandoned ship, grabbed the painter (not the tin of emulsion) and pulled us out. True courage which left him stranded in a garden of a rich person. Now if we couldn’t get under we’d have to go back through Banjo Country and come up the main River. This would be a tragedy especially as by now John was certain it was going to go badly wrong and elected to stay on the bank. In a fit of HMS Campeltown I managed to fire up the engine give it full rabbit and charged the bridge. Somehow we kept straight and Mark, bravely standing up and facing the arch, managed to get us square on at the last minute before diving for cover under the cabin. With much scraping and a rather impressive wash we popped out the other side pulling up (or did we hit the bank) just short of ‘Heaven Sent’ a bit of a six figure fibreglass floating palace. After persuading John that our goal was just around the corner and pacifying himself, now devoid of Marlboros, with a well earned Bensons he reluctantly climbed back aboard having watched the possible disaster from the top of the bridge. Wise man. Now we only had to make it around the corner to the main channel again and we were home and beer and dinner. The little buzzer continued to splutter on but disaster, there was a coach party at the mooring. Well not exactly a coach party but a gin palace, sporting a flying parade of English Flags and it was somewhat parked where we needed to be but Jubbly made a last concerted lunge for the mooring and we tied up just short of ramming distance. Emulsion paint is, as you may have gathered, water based. We’d done a fair amount of slithering in the bilges in our quest to get under the bridge so it was that as it had been drizzling four painter decorators exited the little gem much to the mirth and merriment of both spectators on the promenade. Bet they were from the gin palace. We didn’t care and, laughing with relief, headed for the polished beech bar and libations. On the quayside one brave soul looked in dis-belief at our little chum, shook his head and wandered off to find a duck to feed. We liked to think he was actually an admirer.
The sky may have been a tad overcast and there was drizzle in the air mixed with 777s banking overhead and lining up for Heathrow but we were brave adventurers and everything was mighty fine England and St George so we sat outside and had a very fine lunch. What must have the passengers above have thought? Actually they probably didn’t give a monkeys’ but I bet a few looked down on the Thames and were glad they were home so we raised a few glasses to them. I elected for trad-type steak pie cooked in beer whilst Shem went for the rather more appropriate nauticalish salmon fishcakes. John had the Belly Pork and Jane settled on fish and chips. We all had some more beer. I have to say as we swapped and tasted each others grub we pronounced the food really fantastic. Can’t remember what the beer was but it was also very good and well kept if not a little slow being delivered but that was more to do with the reluctance of the predominately NZ staff not wishing to embrace the light drizzle to bring it to the mental Englanders. After watching the juggernaut load its guests and cast off, a lot of pink rinse I have to say, and not before they all shot a somewhat wary eye over Jubbly, we to, well relaxed, bade our farewells and clambered back aboard but not before the traditional photos. At this point I have to admit that an awful lot of admiration went to John as he had somehow figured out how to take timed photos with his camera albeit the date and time was clearly not exactly correct on the pics as you may note but the effect was the same. He set the timer and ‘ran’ somewhat incorrectly and joined the pose. We all smiled and blow me down it took another one. The effect was spectacular. Happy souls and all aboard once more we laughed and cast off then returned to collect Jane. The little splutterer spluttered into full song, and we yahooed with the current well up jacksee headeding very stern down and embraced Father Thames. Dear John, colour back in his cheeks, was happy having been feted on beer and now didn’t really give a monkey’s anymore especially when we didn’t turn right and back down Banjo Creek so he elected to take his first onesee which apparently is a selfee. Seems the little Mercury preferred full tilt boogey so the trip back was flat out. Bow up, fingers pointed forward Jubbly didn’t miss a beat as we charged back to Henley on an empty River. If the duelling banjo backwaters sported some fine pads then the main river is mighty fine. We whizzed past Vince Hill’s house, nice pad bought from the proceeds of Edelweiss, not bad for a one hit wonder, then the house squeezed in a gap as featured on Grand Designs. The former Mayor of Moscow’s grounds looked very inviting but Mark advised us a landing would not be a good idea as they were heavily guarded by former Ghurkhas as he’d fell out with Putin. Not Mark but Putin. Still binging away merrily we throttled back and glided under the Henley Weir Bridge and coasted in a sort of controlled manner into the bank from whence we had departed many hours before. We hadn’t stopped laughing since our departure but through it all we’d survived, enjoyed a fine lunch and tricked the weather. We survived everything that the Grand Master of Rivers had thrown at us and it wasn’t really truly raining. We hauled our little mate onto terra firma. Brilliant it had been, truly brilliant. Jubbly Bubbly was returned to her mooring on the drive and we were up the steps into Shem’s kitchen being regaled by his lovely missus about a visit by Victor Meldrew to her blazer factory for a fitting and drinking some right posh tea. Shem and I took the opportunity to check on the progress of his WD Matchless which he was planning to ride to the D-Day Landing celebrations in June. There was a bit left to do but it did look smashing fine super. What a fine day but it wasn’t over yet. We bade our reluctant farewells and Marky headed off for a banjo recital and, as the skies opened, we set off for home turf noting the tide mark on the wall of the ground floor of Marky’s house (its built on arches don’t you know) showing where the recent floods had got to. Awesome.
Henley is a bitch of a place when it comes to rush hour so we nipped down the back roads home, out onto Grays Road and our first stop, a rather small bizarre and well-hidden miniature folly built by the 343rd US Engineers in 1942 who were billeted at a site at Highmoor all of which has now vanished. It’s a copy of their cap badge but there is a debate which suggests that it was laid down (for it is very small) in 1944 prior to their departure for the D-Day Landings. Whatever, it is still looked after by the locals and the sewage works they built still serve the local community. It is lovely and easily missed by traffic thundering down the nearby road despite been visible if you know where to look. Rather nicely there were a couple of posies on it.
From there we sloshed down to The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row. This is a fine thing built from funds given by the Maharajah of Benares in 1863 along with funds to plant a cherry orchard to provide for its upkeep. It was seriously starting to get the habit of raining now but Jane and John took it in good form. The Lieutenant Governor of the North Western Provinces, a certain Mr Reade who lived nearby at Ipsden, had assisted in providing a water supply for a local community in Azimurgh in India and as a ‘thanks mate’ the Maharajah, having heard of Stoke Row’s acute water shortage, declared that he would sink a well for the village and as he could not visit in person, Mr Reade arranged for it to have an ornate structure which would ‘lend itself to photography’. The well was hand dug to a depth of 368 ft and provided between 600 and 700 gallons of water daily. That is a lot of winding for anyone. It was opened on 24 May 1864, on Queen Victoria’s birthday, and served the village until around 1939. Adorned by an elephant one has to say it is the Dog’s wotsits. Now wet and with the weather set for really miserable we scuttled of taking a brief moment to espy the brick kiln at Nettlebed.
This is a very rare survivor from a time when, in the main, bricks were imported. The Nettlebed kiln survives from the late 17th, or possibly, early 18th century. Nettlebed and its surrounding clays produced bricks from the medieval period until early in the 20th century. The Nettlebed Kiln is now the only surviving bottle-type kiln in the country. Goodness knows why it was spared when all the others were demolished but today it stands a monument, almost in a bungalows back garden. It is quirky by any means and is quite remarkably wobbly but I reckon if it was in my back garden I’d be delighted. Today many local buildings sport Nettlebed bricks which were renowned for being extremely strong. In his 1676 in the ‘Natural History of Oxfordshire’, Dr Robert Plot (neat name) commented: ‘About Nettlebed they make a sort of brick so very strong that whereas at most places they are unloaded by hand, I have seen these shot out of carts after a manner of stone to mend highways, and yet none of these broke.’ Sadly the strength of the rain meant that we had to make a hasty retreat so all aboard we headed into the murk and Wendover. The last port of call was given a miss but next year, as St George’s Day falls on a Thursday, it will be rolled over. Big ones then to the good ship Jubbly Bubbly and Marky Shem. Now at this stage, when I am desperately trying to sort out piccies and the story as it occurred into some semblance of order, I find I can’t so apologise if none of this makes sense but, you know what? We had the bestist St George’s Day yet and we have to ask the question, how can we better it next year? Well I personally reckon Shem will have to be in the mix.
http://www.stgeorgeanddragon.co.uk/home/ Here you go all about the Thames pub. Recommended.
http://www.chilternsaonb.org/ccbmaps/1321/137/nettlebed-brick-kiln.html#sthash.AkUpbu4f.dpuf stuff on the Nettlebed brick kiln.
http://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/HistoricalVignettes/GeneralHistory/090CorpsCastle.aspx 343rd Engineers and the other stuff they have built. Stonking stuff.
http://www.6thcorpscombatengineers.com/ArmondeCasagrande.htm some very interesting stuff on the 343rd Engineers.
http://www.stokerow.net/well1.asp Stuff about Stoke Row and the Well.