Three Men In A Boat

“And we’ll take a stuffed toy dog!” cried Richard. Genius plan, we agreed. Cleverly original.

three_men_in_a_boatIt was April 2nd 2008. Toby, Richard and I were in Nando’s Portuguese chicken restaurant planning our June journey along the Thames. We were to recreate Jerome K Jerome’s 1889 novel, Three Men in a Boat, To say nothing of the Dog. We had three men, a 19th century three man rowing skiff was booked, but we had no dog.

If you haven’t read the book, you must. It’s as funny as Douglas Adams, peppered with still-relevant wry social observation. It describes Jerome’s journey with two friends along the Thames in a rowing boat; a trip “free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more the bane of 19th century life.” We were hoping to do similar. Although, given that the other two work in television and I’m a freelance features writer, there’s little fretful haste in our 21st century lives, and hardly ever any vehement striving.

DSCN3577I was to be paid to write about the trip for the Financial Times Weekend Magazine, so I undertook the admin of planning the route (the stops more than the route – the route was pretty clear, it being with the current, along the Thames), booking places to stay, and reading various guide books. We were to be gone six nights. I planned four nights camping (with two people on the boat itself and one in a tent), and two nights in beds. I thought our mid-thirty year-old backs might need the respite.

In the book, the men set off from Kingston, and head upstream to Oxford, then back. Given 21st Century holiday allowances, we were to row only downstream from Oxford to Richmond. Or perhaps it was something else that compelled us to go with the flow. As Jerome noticed:

DSCN3760“Among folk too constitutionally weak, or to constitutionally lazy, whichever it may be, to relish up-stream work, it is common practice to get a boat at Oxford, and row down.”

A few days before we set off, Tom Balm of Thames Skiff Hire sent the kit list – torches, towels and so on. The final item was “Stuffed Dog”. With visions of ourselves as just one of hundreds of three-manned boats with a toy dog perched hilariously on the prow, we ditched the apparently-not-so-original stuffed dog idea.

In the beginning, when we were winning

Tom Balm was a skinny, enthusiastic fellow. He leapt about by the river in Oxford, showing us about the flat-bottomed 19th century rowing skiff. It was around 20 foot long, with four metal hoops supporting a canvas cover which folded down to convert the boat into a floating tent.

There were two sets of oars, a longer, heavier set in the middle and a lighter set in the bow, like a mainsail and a jib. For more detailed navigation there were two short paddles, which we christened duckwhackers (we had no intention of whacking ducks, but, if we needed to, these would be the perfect for the job). Two would row at a time, while a forward-facing cox steered with two ropes attached to a rudder.

Rules were simple. Generally you travel on the right, but, in moments of contention rowers give way to sailing boats, and everyone else cedes to rowers. Red marker buoys were to be left to our right, green ones to our left (backwards to conventional port as starboard colours as we were going downstream). And, as it said in my Environment Agency Guide, “The cox is always in charge and master of the boat.”

Insidious health and safety is yet to conquer the waterways, thank heavens, so we didn’t have to wear lifejackets. Tom offered them though, and we took one. We thought it might make a good pillow.


DSCN3575We launched the skiff onto Thames water that would be drunk eight times before reaching the sea (that’s a stat I don’t believe – A, how is it calculated, and B, how do they know people are drinking it? I bet most of it goes into baths), and we were off. I’d spend much more time than the other two piloting various craft around the seas, so it made sense for me to steer first. Plus I was hungover so didn’t feel much like rowing. We agreed to rotate stations every two miles.


DSCN3578The Thames was pretty much in spate, so we zoomed along. I’d been slightly dreading locks – the boat raising and lowering devices which, coupled with weirs, have been reducing Thames flow to a navigable pace for centuries. They flatten the flow by splitting the river. One split leads to a steep weir where the water can get flowing downhill out of its system in a trice, the other leads to a gated boat elevator. Going downstream, you row in, and gates closes behind you. The water level is lowered slowly, then the gates opens in front of you and you row out, a little lower down than before. Without them there would be rapids on the Thames. With them, it moseys along at an easy, navigable pace.

The first lock, half a mile in, was so easy that I hardly remember it now, largely because all along the Thames they are controlled by lock-keepers who tell you what to do (that’s one, above, next to his lock keeper’s cottage).

DSCN3589Very soon we’d gone two miles and tied up for lunch at the Kings Arms in Sandford, just down from a weir-pool called Sandford Lasher, where Peter Pan died (J.M. Barrie’s son, on whom Peter Pan may have been modelled, drowned there in 1921, possibly in a homosexual suicide pact. Jerome had presciently noted over thirty years before that: “The pool under Sandford Lasher, just below the lock, is a very good place to drown yourself in.”)
DSCN3592I took the big oars after lunch, and found it much less fun than steering. Arguably, it was more pleasant when none of us rowed, and the boat drifted freely, mostly sideways, through the lovely afternoon. We moored up to look at a great house called Nuneham Park, then fled when a flat capped fellow on a quad bike hove into view, clearly on his way to tell us off. “There’s a man coming!” I squealed, and we scarpered for the boat in fits of giggles. Quick reminder: we are men in our mid thirties

We carried on, rowing serenely down the summer-green avenue. “I can’t believe I haven’t done this before.” Said Richard (above right, Toby above left).
We stopped at Abingdon Lock. Theoretically you can moor anywhere for 24 hours so there’s no need to reserve a spot, but I’d booked various places along the way. We’d want showers at some point, I’d reckoned. Abingdon’s Lock’s only facilities were a water tap, a urinal and a sarcastic lock keeper, but that would do for now.

There was room for only two in the boat, so one of us was to sleep in the lubberly tent. I suggested a game of spoof to decide who won the adventure of boat-sleeping, forgetting that I always lose games of spoof. So, after we’d all put up the tent, it was Richard and Toby who excitedly prepared their beds on the boat, unscrewing seats, fabricating pillows and laying out two carry-mats each.
DSCN3595While they were busy, I chatted to a chap called Crayfish Bob ( on his boat, right, with Toby preparing the boat tent in foreground). He was tooing-and-froing in a little boat with the crappiest outboard engine I’ve ever seen, trawling a rope with a coat hanger on the end. He told me he was fishing for a 1970s designer shirt which he’d dropped from his barge earlier that day. While Crayfish Bob went about his vital business, a young Thai lady and an Australian boy carried vast amount of crayfish pots from an unseen location, presumably a nearby van, to his barge. The section of Thames upstream from Abingdon is, apparently, a superb cray-fishing spot.

I never discovered whether he found his 1970s designer shirt.

Camp ready, we walked the half mile into Abingdon. We passed some teenage drinkers who’d made a eye-offending mess of bottles and litter at a pretty riverside picnic spot. Two hours and a few beers later, we’d worked out exactly what we should have said to them.

According to Jerome, the ancient town of Abingdon is “quiet, eminently respectable, clean and desperately dull.” We saw nothing to challenge his view.


Controlled Urgency

It spitted and spotted, as they now say on the TV weather, while we were in the pub. By the time we left the curry house it was pouring.

“Camping out in rainy weather is not pleasant”, according to Jerome. However, I slept very well. Then again, I was in a waterproof 21st century tent. The other two, of course, were in a leaky 19th century tent-boat.

DSCN3602“The night started well,” Richard told me the following morning, when he knocked on my tent-flap to see what kind of coffee I might want from Abingdon. “The canvas held up, just a few drips here and there. But my sleep was interrupted by Toby’s constant panic attracts when he thought he was drowning.”

Any small lurch, you see, sends the unstable little boat disconcertingly off kilter. So every time Richard was woken by a rain drip and rolled over, the boat would shift and Toby would leap from sleep like an air-rifle shot cat, almost capsizing the craft, before returning to his snores. So poor Richard had hardly slept. He’d got up when the rain stopped at around six, and laid out his kit to dry in the stiff breeze. Unfortunately, the moment the honest fellow’s back was turned, his two light foam carry-mats seized a gust-borne opportunity and fled to freedom down the nearby weir (above right).

So a sleepy and disconsolate Richard went marketing in Abingdon for lattes and croissants while Toby and I slept some more. We ate heartily on his return, and, folding the canvas above us into a boat length shade from the drizzle, set off on the 15 mile row to Wallingford.

One expects squalls at sea, not on the river by desperately dull towns. So it was a rather a surprise when a sudden storm nearly wrought disaster as we rowed from Abingdon. One moment we were paddling along in the drizzle. The next it was dark, and moments later a fierce gale full of hot rain rammed us from behind. We didn’t have time to notice that we’d been instantly soaked, because the gale had lifted our canvas awning from its loose ties above our heads and turned it into a spinnaker.

An effective spinnaker it was too; we sailed sideways along the river at high speed. The port gunwale was a quarter of an inch from the river’s surface and disaster. As we fought to end the canvas’s capricious career as a sail, lightning flashed, followed by thunder a microsecond later. An electric storm was directly above. We were zooming down the middle of a broad body of water in a soaking boat topped by four metal hoops.

I’d been in scary spots before when sailing, and got out of them without a bother. As cox, and therefore ‘in charge and master of the boat’, I calmly delivered the commands required to bring the boat to shore and safety (although I was accused by other two later of ‘panicking’; it’s a shame when people mistake controlled urgency for panic). Richard, on long oars, enthusiastically eschewed the boat’s chain of command and pursued his own agenda, countermanding my instructions to the impressionable Toby. A display of astonishing three man muppetry followed. I pursued one agenda, Richard pursued another, and Toby tried to pursue both. It proved quite impossible for the us to grab the bank. Finally, I had to shout for a passer-by to grab our bow line. The excellent stranger was completely soaked before the boat was satisfactorily moored.

Afternoon delight

DSCN3611The squall passed, as squalls do, and was followed by balmy calm. We rowed a lovely narrow channel fringed with weeping willows, then moored and wandered around DSCN3608Clifton Hampden (above, our covered boat is the little bright green thing, bottom right), “a wonderfully pretty village” as Jerome noted. Bar the sad invasion of the motor car, it was unchanged since his day. We lunched there at the Barley Mow: “without exception… the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river.” (right, click on it to read sign)
After lunch we elected a half mile detour up the narrow River Thame to Dorchester, ancient capital of Wessex. With big oars shipped, me on smalls, Richard directing and steering, we navigated the twisty tree-hanging and reed choked channel like a giant two-armed crane satnav-directed into a country lane.
DSCN3620Mooring, we used the duckwhackers to hew a 50 meter channel through a field and up a steep bank of head-high nettles. Slipping at the top of the bank, I toppled back in several large steps, and received a sheaf of duckwhacked nettle stalks up each sockless trouser leg. I was comprehensively stung to the knee on both legs, much to the merriment of two of us.

It was worth it though, to see the ancient village with its incongruously massive church (left, me and R with duckwhackers), overlooked by an Iron Age hillfort. It was here the first Christian king of Mercia was crowned in 635. The place seethed with history. This isn’t unusual for the banks of the Thames – the tourist blurb nauseatingly calls the river ‘liquid history’. So, although it is very interesting, I’ll be leaving most of the history out of this account to prevent it becoming even longer.

Literary Land

In Wallingford it was my turn to sleep on the boat. Just me. We’d decided that only one of us would sleep in the boat from them on, so that he wouldn’t be disturbed by the other’s movements (and because half our bedding had escaped back in Abingdon). I had a full eight hours, finally woken by an insistent quacking. I lifted the edge of the canvas on the river side and came face to face with a male mallard. He didn’t seem at all surprised. He looked at me arrogantly, quacked again, then paddled away at an insultingly languid pace.

DSCN3663There were a man and a woman fishing nearby. I lay hidden in the dark boat-tent listening to their Midlands-accented dialogue. It sounded like a young girl asking her father incessant inane fishing-related questions that anyone over six would surely know the answer to. “So you need a hook do ya?” and similar.

I discovered later, chatting when I went to get the campsite’s bathroom key from her, that the ‘young girl’ was in fact a comely twenty-something from Birmingham, and he, fifty-something, fat, and bald wasn’t her dad, but her ‘partner’.

“Oh don’t worry!” She told me smilingly – she really was very pretty – “Lots of people make that mistake!”

This unlikely couple were the only other people in the campsite – a field next to Wallingford Bridge. Her whole family usually came for a week every year, she told me, but, due to the rain, only her and her elderly beau had journeyed south this time. They had no plans to leave the campsite. She was going to read magazines (there were celebrity glossies scattered about their tent-and-caravan set up), and cook, while her boyfriend fished. Despite her annual visits, she had no idea that Wallingford, a quarter of a mile distant, had any historical value (Roman walls, Saxon remains, remains of a massive Norman castle, etc.).

DSCN3633I was my turn to unearth breakfast victuals. In ancient Wallingford I bumped into Mr Davis, the superb father of an old friend of mine. The world would be a stranger place, of course, if coincidences didn’t happen, but I love it when they do, so I was very pleased to see Mr D.

Back on the river, Toby and I were first on oars. Since I’d been last on the helm, I showed Richard the two mile change-over mark on the map (I had marked every mile on the map and written the number – one always likes to know exactly how far one has gone on these trips). Richard, I was slowly discovering, carries that manly trait of playing by nobody’s rules but his own. He therefore decided to discard my careful numbers, and use his own method of calculation. So Toby and I ended up rowing three miles. I was a little put out, but it turned out to be a blessing. From then until the end we rowed in three mile stints, which was actually a better distance. One had time for a proper chill while helming.

We passed the Beetle and Wedge restaurant, where HG Wells wrote The History of Mr Polly, and my grandmother once embarrassed me by loudly proclaiming to the full but silent dining room that I’d never have a girlfriend until I understood that “GIRLS AREN’T JUST FOR THE KITCHEN AND THE BEDROOM!”

We crossed under Goring bridge, which carries the Ridgeway Path, which I’d walked six months before [picture above, see Ridgeway article, also on this website for a picture of… the same bridge! Life doesn’t get crazier than that]. We passed various clumps of wildfowl, including several baby grebes, which are mint humbug-stripy, like baby tapirs.

DSCN3637We went through the lock at Goring, the location of Jerome’s only direct criticism of 19th Century society, and the only deeply poignant section in the book. Here the Three Men had seen the floating body of a young woman. An outcast single mother unable to support her child, she had killed herself, after appealing to friends but being rejected by “the chill wall of their respectability”.
We lunched in Pangborne, at the Swan, aptly named because there were around a million swans in the vicinity (swans, of course, were introduced by Richard 1st (1189-1199) from Cyprus) . [reading this as I update my website in 2015, I realise that I put a swan in my book Age of Iron, set in 61BC. Whoops.]

DSCN3641Skip this short paragraph if you don’t want the book spoiled…. but it was here, at this very pub, as rain poured down outside, that the Three Men resolved to abandon their boat and return to London. They’d been to Oxford and back.

Pangborne is also where Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows author, lived. Passers-by, fittingly, did seem more literary around here. Cries of “Ha! Three Men in a Boat!” and “where’s the dog?!” or “Where’s Montmorency?” from the really clever ones (Montmorency being the dog’s name), were more numerous than before, and we found ourselves often watching glumly as some wag rocked with laughter at their own wit for spotting the literary parallel.

DSCN3640At one point a cheery old lady, granny no doubt of a family gang on the towpath, cried out “Where’s Montmorency?” as we rowed by. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d shouted: “He’s dead!”. There was silence in bank and boat. The old lady stared thunderously after us until we were out of sight.

“That was probably a bit much”, said Richard eventually.

“Yes, I replied,” genuinely not sure what inner demon had briefly surfaced. I still don’t know. On the off chance that the granny is reading this, I’d like to apologise.

DSCN3655“One does not linger in the neighbourhood of Reading” said Jerome, so we took his advice, shot straight through, and pulled up for the night at Sonning: “The most fairy-like little nook on the whole river.. more like a stage village than one of bricks and mortar…” Here the Three Men put up at the Bull, an excellent pub where we had a couple of pints before spending a thriftier night in a marvellously-comfortable converted horsebox which I’d booked at nearby Henley (


Constructive criticism

DSCN3714We were getting much better at rowing by now, hardly ever clashing oars. Being the experienced boatman I was of course faultless in all I did, and helpfully pointed out errors in the others’ boatmanship. Toby’s chief habit was reading guidebooks much more than the course of the river, so under his steerage the boat zig-zagged from bank to bank. Every few minutes he’d glance ahead, and quietly readjust the course hoping that Richard and I hadn’t noticed. Every now and then he’d look up, blanch with terror, and jerk us away from collision with bank, boat or branch. He’d almost always do this in good time, so we’d only find our oars clashing with bankside foliage every mile or so.

DSCN3715Toby though, was a most diligent rower. He’d always ask cox’s permission for a rest, and was quick to act on cox’s directions. Richard, rugged own-rule player that he is, never quite got the idea that the cox was in charge. To his credit, he was very good at remembering it when he was cox. When he was rowing though, he preferred to disregard instructions immediately or soon afterwards, shout his own orders to the boat, and stop rowing whenever the fancy took him. He did make up for it with hilarious and pitch perfect John Hurt and Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions.

I of course was both an attentive crew and an excellent helm. If you believe that, remember that I’m writing this and the other two are not. History isn’t written by the winners so much as the writers.

Mechanical Monstrosities

It was Saturday when we left Sonning and we spent the first half an hour waiting for a lock. We finally entered, slotting in between fume-spewing, high-sided weekend-cruising plastic horrors which had more in common with caravans than river boats. They were vile machines, especially when compared to our elegant old boat and its mostly odourless passage.DSCN3749

We’d found the modern equivalent of Jerome’s hated steam launches with their arrogant little captains. “The expression on the face of the [steam launch captain]”, Jerome noted, “is sufficient to excuse a breach of the peace in itself”

DSCN3686We rowed through an avenue of giant mansions west of Henley, past the famous Angel pub (famous to me anyway, I’d spent many a happy teenage hour there when staying with friends nearby or in the field for the Regatta), and on to the mile long Henley Regatta rowing course. It’s a shame they weren’t timing that day, as Richard and I put everything into our fastest mile of the whole trip, as Toby paid attention for long enough to steer a course strait as a prop forward rugby player.

The next lock was annoying. During the customary weekend wait for a space, a small fellow in a hat with two kids bobbed up to us in a little speedboat. He said:

DSCN3688“Hey Lads! There’s a nasty cross current from the weir on the other side of the lock! I’ll hang around in case you get into trouble!”

I put on my best ‘yeah, it’s the same at every lock, that’s how they work, and we’ve done about a thousand already’ face, and was ready to ignore him. However, Toby piped up with:

“Gosh, really? If you could hang around in case we do have problems, that would be great!”

What is with people that haven’t boated much? Don’t they understand that looking like you know what you’re doing at all times is key in boating? You must never look like you’ve only just hired the thing, especially when you have.

To compound my miffed-ness, when we arrived at the Flower Pot Inn, our lunch stop half a mile later, Toby asked a man standing on a jetty under a huge sign saying “The Flower Pot Inn” whether this was the Flower Pot Inn. That was the limit. I was compelled to have a word about appearing river-competent. Toby was disarmingly apologetic and understanding.

We lunched and continued. It was a lovely Saturday. River and banks thronged with leisure-seekers. We received a lot of attention.

“As irritating as the ‘where’s the dog?’ comments might be” observed Toby, “it’s quite nice being in the limelight.” Indeed it was. We were the most elegant craft on the Thames, propelling ourselves in the most impressive way.

DSCN3692The river became less populated and more beautiful briefly – a wooded Swallows and Amazon type place with islands and creeks and more wildfowl that you could shake a duckwhacker at – before filling up with pleasure craft again as we approached Marlow.

It was Marlow Regatta day, and we had a strenuous stretch trying to keep up with a boat of sleek-thighed honeys in a racing skiff. Jerome had noticed that: “It takes a great deal of practice before a man feels comfortable rowing past girls”. We had no trouble at all looking comfortable, but we couldn’t row past them.

One Sad Moment

A FT photographer had joined us by the time we arrived at the campsite I’d booked on the far side of Marlow. It was a big campsite, spreading back from a channel formed by a long thin island and the riverbank. That Saturday afternoon, it was teeming with about a million teenagers charging around on the bank and having a fantastic time in boats. Their exuberance put us in even finer fooling that the excellent day’s rowing had, and the four of us (including photographer festooned with camera kit) walked happily through the campsite to check in.

Our bubble was soon burst. A group of the children’s teachers eyed us suspiciously, and one of them darted over.

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” He demanded officiously.

“Yes, sure.” Said Toby.

There was a long pause.

“Well, what are you doing here?” He asked.

I’ve never felt more like punching a man. We reluctantly explained our trip, and the teacher reluctantly allowed us to go about our business.

DSCN3718It was so depressing. Not least because it was so pointless. On the billions to one chance that we were a group of predatory kiddie-fiddlers, would we really have confessed all when challenged? Or would we have had a cover story along the lines of the story we told him? Clearly the latter. So there was no point in him approaching us. He had no achievable goal, other than to demonstrate that he was paedophile –aware, and to remind us how warped the perceived relationship between adults and children has become since we were in our teens.

We carried on through the site, being careful not to look at the children. I went into the campsite office to register.

“Just make sure your photographer doesn’t take photographs of any of the children” ordered the camp commandant, before allocating us a spot alone on the island, safely out of temptation’s way.

Marlow to Windsor

DSCN3699The night in Marlow, where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, was fun. The whole town teemed with teens from the Regatta, reminding us of similar happy days in our youth as we discovered the joys of booze and girls.

The next day was the normal joy of idyllic rowing, albeit with the most hung-over start of the trip. Being accused of paedophilia had put us in a drinking mood early the previous evening, then we’d been swept along in the festival feel of the Regatta town.

I’d booked a pub in Windsor, thinking that our aching mid-thirties backs might need a proper bed for the second last night. It was an error. We would have been much happier camping and picnicking by our beloved Thames. The pub was an offensively overpriced hole, and we had a subdued night out in the royal town.

Nearly there

DSCN3741This was our biggest day, 18 miles from Windsor to Sunbury. We put our heads down and got it done, talking for the first time about what we’d do when we got back. We tried only one adventure, to see the garden of a big house that Richard was interested in. I gashed my hand nastily while climbing a high wooded gate, however, so we aborted that mission.

Despite proximity to London, the river was still rural and lovely. The only difference was the high incidence of fishermen. To a man they were bare-chested, gold-chain wearing, tattooed and threatening. I’d never known DSCN3798that coarse fishermen were such pikies. I guess the word ‘coarse’ is the giveaway there.

We passed Runnymede, arguably the Thames’ most important historical site, without noticing, then made up for that by operating a lock on our own (who knew where the lock-keeper was?), almost faultlessly.

We camped that night by Sunbury lock, taking a taxi to nearby Shepperton where the three pubs on the square were each nicer than any pub I’ve been to in London. We had an excellent evening.

And finally

DSCN3810The final stretch was great, lined with funny little granny houses, weeping willows, and churches. We raced the 12 miles to Richmond without pause. We were met by Tom Balm. He loaded the boat onto a trailer. We took our bags, and headed for the tube station and back to real life.

We agreed that Harris, one of Jerome’s three men, summed up the journey very well: “We have had a pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it to old Father Thames”


to hire a rowing boat like ours, see

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd, photos Angus Watson and Toby White