Tag Archives: Henley Regatta

Watching the river flow: pictures from a Victorian summer 1897

It looks like summer has arrived so it’s time to get down to the river again. This week’s post is a long delayed companion to Menpes on the river, revisiting his paintings of that long Victorian summer of boating on the Thames but this time in photographs. Some of these images show the same locations that Menpes painted, others show yet more outposts of the quiet life along the river.

The tidal Thames ends here, at Teddington:

 

001 Teddington Lock p20

 

I’ve walked as far as Kingston along the Thames Path. I remember this spot and although there were fewer boats when I saw it I can still recognize the place I visited. Teddington Lock, some of you may remember was the location of Thames Television’s studios in the 1970s.

Molesey Lock, further along shows the classic Sunday view of a crowded river in the days of Jerome K Jerome.  (No account of a journey on the Thames can avoid mentioning Three men in a boat so I’ll do it here. I may even quote from the book later.)

 

003 Molesey Lock p60

 

The river in Jerome’s time was becoming a pleasure resort for a wider range of people, not just the upper middle classes. The white collar workers, men and women who spent their working days in the City could now afford to come down to the river in their leisure time. Although some no doubt enjoyed being in a mass of fellow pleasure seekers, the ideal of river pursuits is solitary.

 

007 Bray p113

 

A woman sits quietly as the river flows by. To quote a more modern voice speaking of a completely different river:

Well, take me back down where cool water flows,
Let me remember the things I don’t know,

Across the river is the tower of St Michael’s Church at Bray where the famous Vicar of Bray officiated. I prefer to think of Bray as the home of Bray Studios where the Hammer company made horror films in the 1960s.

 

008 Glen Island from Boulter's Lock p117

 

Boulter’s Lock is one of the places that Menpes painted. This view shows the approach to the lock. The picture below shows it as Menpes painted it in a crowded condition.

 

009 Boulter's Lock p118

 

Below, a much more exclusive group walks by the river in front of Spring Cottage on the Cliveden Estate.

 

011 Cliveden, Cottage and Woods p134

 

Much later Spring Cottage was leased by Stephen Ward and was one of the locations associated with the Profumo affair.

Below. a boating couple are mooring in a secluded spot opposite Formosa Island, one of the many river islands, also called eyots or aits.

 

012 Formosa Island p135

 

These pictures have the tendency to make me want to write about long summer afternoons gliding quietly through a still landscape. I did some of that in the Menpes post. Riverscapes give me a sense of nostalgia, not only for my own teenage years when I did a bit of rowing on another quiet river, but also perhaps some of that nostalgia for an imagined past which I have also written about when discussing the Chelsea Pageant or the Whitelands May Queen. It’s a longing for an older,  more idyllic England.

Below, At Bisham two women are boating. Boating was, like cycling one of the leisure pursuits which the “new women” were taking up in larger numbers.

 

014 Bisham from the river p143

 

Another bit of local colour below at Medmenham – the building in the centre is Medmenham Abbey, one of the homes of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club,although it would have been a quiet country residence at the time these two parties were rowing by.

 

015 Medmenham from the river p158

 

I’m presenting these pictures in the order they appear in the book although I’m not sure how accurate that is. The further up the river the amateur boatsman travelled the more the water landscape was dominate by features like locks and the weir below at Hambleden.

 

017 Hambleden Weir and Mills p163

 

At Henley, where the amateurs met the athletes at the Regatta.

 

020 Henley Regatta p166

 

The regatta attracted large numbers of visitors by land and water. Some of them came in those huge houseboats like the ones below.

 

021 Houseboats by Shiplake Ferry p180

 

Near Shiplake Ferry, a couple of the giant vessels which were like floating hotels.

Just off the river a tranquil backwater. Jerome’s narrator complains extravagantly about landowners who prevented the traveller from entering them with chains across the entrance.

 

022 Wargrave Backwater p181

 

Caversham, where Menpes painted another of his boating beauties:

 

025 Caversham from the river p192

 

Look back at the old post. It’s the final picture. Can you make out that barn?

 

027 Streatley from Goring Weir p213

 

This view of Streatley from Goring Weir has taken us into the heart of that old England of villages, mills and inns.

Jerome describes Streatley and Goring as “charming places to stay at for a few days“. Of the two, Goring was not quite so pretty but it was “nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

At the end of their journey Jerome’s three friends abandon the boat at Pangbourne and take the train back to town. They finish up at a restaurant in the West End. They’ve done their time on the River and London has called them home.

We’ll give the last scene to Menpes, a picture I didn’t use last time but easily could have done.

 

Punting frontispiece

Postscript

The photographs come from a book called the Thames Illustrated: a picturesque journeying from Richmond to Oxford by Frederick Leyland, published in 1897. I found the text a little dull but there are dozens of excellent pictures in it all showing the slow summer river and the sights beside it. Mortimer Menpes was there a little later in 1906 when the Victorian summer had become an Edwardian summer but not much had changed on the river.

There is even one winter picture,of the Thames at Oxford frozen with a crowd of people walking on it. My mother took me to a frozen river once and we walked on it. I was seven or eight at the time but I never forgot it. However, this is the summer. We can leave all ideas of freezing aside for now.

[later] I’ve noticed that I’m misquoting John Fogerty in the lines above, from his song Green River. It should read “things I love” instead of “things I don’t know”. I was quoting from memory. Somehow I thing my mis-remembered line is better. Green River also contains that evocative line; “Barefoot girls dancing in the moonlight.

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Mr Menpes on the river

There are several parallels between the work of Mortimer Menpes and Yoshio Markino. Markino brought a Japanese sensibility to the way he looked at London and Londoners, and an outsider’s eye for the unfamiliar sights of his new home. He was particularly fascinated by the river. This fascination was shared by Menpes who published this book, The Thames in 1906 in collaboration with G E Mitton.

00 Thames

Menpes also brought an outsider’s viewpoint to the river. Remember, he was from Australia and had been brought up in quite a different climate and landscape. So it’s not surprising that while Markino concentrated on London’s river, the tidal Thames with its bridges, embankments and fast flowing water, Menpes was captivated by the other Thames above the tide. This was still a world of country towns, lazy river pursuits and long still sunny days -that late Victorian / Edwardian summer epitomised by Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat or Kenneth Grahame’s the Wind in the Willows.

Pangbourne p4

The other thing Menpes shares with Markino is an eye for the picturesque qualities of the new women of the Edwardian era. Sometimes they lounge casually under a parasol with the obligatory small dog who, like his literary ancestor Montmorency is an essential part of the crew for a river journey in a small rowing boat. Sometimes they took the oar themselves.

Pangbourne from the Swan Hotel p64

In this case it looks like the same woman, slightly sad about having to dump her companion but happy to be making some progress at last. The upper Thames had declined as a route for commercial traffic but had seen an enormous growth in boating for pleasure. There were tranquil backwaters suitable for punting.

Dorchester backwater p52

Deserted stretches, given over to wild life.

Goring p62

“Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees,
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea.”

There were plenty of places for river sports, boathouses for the small rowing skiffs and the solitary canoeist:

Radley College boathouse p34

But the river was also a site of mass entertainment. Large gatherings of pleasure seekers attended events like Henley Regatta as they still do today. These events were attended in huge numbers by the new middle classes who had leisure time to fill and the ability to travel to formerly exclusive spots by train and river boat.

Henley Regatte p100

Along with the rowing boats in all sizes there were the giant houseboats, like floating hotels which were towed from one riverside event to another. These were the glory days of the upper Thames. The picture below is of Boulter’s Lock on Ascot Sunday:

Boulter's Lock Ascot Sunday p128

A traffic jam of river craft in the narrow waterway. Below, the area near the lock where larger  boats and  steam launches wait their turn. You can even see one of the luxurious houseboats (gin palaces as one of Jerome’s characters called them) although I doubt if could go through the lock.

Below Boulter's Lock p130

By the end of the day the crowds of fashionable pleasure seekers had withdrawn to their houseboats and inns or just made the journey home and the river was calm again.

Hampton Court from the river p178

All the different kinds of river craft had made their way to a mooring.

Rose Garden at Sonning p72

The very fortunate had a pleasant riverside dwelling to return to as the sun went down.

Streatley Inn p18

The sun hangs low in the sky and the river people are indoors telling stories about their exploits on the water.

Mapledurham Mill p66

“If I had wings and I could fly,
I know where I would go.
But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow.”

Hambleden p102

The picture below is my favourite of Menpes’s illustrations of his river journey. A woman finds a comfortable spot and nods off on a quite summer afternoon. Her parasol slips back, but her face is still shaded by her wide brimmed hat. Her unseen companion sits quietly at the stern so as not to disturb her. Even the dog sits calmly enjoying the same relaxed moment as his human companions.

“Put on a gown that touches the ground
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily “

Sad eyed lady of the lowland

The peaceful moment lives on forever.

“The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That’s where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town.”

Postscript

Lyrics by Roger Waters and Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds) and Bob Dylan.

Everybody knows Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat but for a modern day version of a river journey try one of my favourite books, Nigel Williams’ Two and a half men in a boat.

We’ll come down to the river again one day I’m sure.

Finally, thanks to Kat for all her work in Local Studies, and for her friendship.


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