Skiff Club Meander 3-6 May, 2013 – the log!

Exactly a year ago the meander was cancelled due to red boards – what a difference a year makes.

Nine dedicated skiffers (Russell, Jane, Jenny, Mary, Alison, Stella, Crispin, Sarah, Viv) assembled sleepily by the boathouse at 5.30 on May 3rd, with 9 assorted drybags, many anti-chafing products, a healthy disregard for rainwear and a multitude of cakes.

In the safe driving hands of Graeme and diligently navigated by Gillian, we arrived at the New Inn, Lechlade under blue skies for a hearty breakfast.

The centenary boats took to the water beautifully, strings cut, under the ha’penny bridge for the official start. A glorious beginning to what must be the driest meander on record (not in the teetotal sense, we emphasise). And unfortunately not so dry for the crew of Sam Lewis, who took on board quite a few pints of river water. A tip-out at one of the locks produced a miniature Niagara Falls.

Day 1 was a dream, with kingfishers, water snakes, and some extraordinarily well-developed bulls to spot. We sped past a narrow boat loaded with a fancy dress stag night, “Give us a tow”, they cried. Smoothly we went in and out of locks – apart from the thing we don’t talk about. Don’t ask.

The last stretch across Port Meadow and up to Osney Lock felt rather long, and we were glad to slip into the Osney Mill Marina and check into the nearby Westgate Hotel. “That was definitely the best day of the Meander so far” declared Russell over dinner – and we knew what he meant. It did indeed feel several days since we left Teddington.

Day 2 started with a light drizzle as we baled out the leaky boats (one dry, one very leaky, one slightly leaky). Out came the rain ponchos – then off they came again almost immediately as we realized that voluminous plastic sheeting is not compatible with skiffing. But the rain had stopped anyway, and the next challenge was to navigate the Oxford stretch which was heavily cluttered with eights and fours.

We now had Fran with us for two days – a great boost to our skiffing power! We pulled up at Clifton Hampden for a late lunch at the Barley Mow, mentioned in Three Men in a Boat. Mystifyingly, the pub makes no reference to this but Crispin felt this could be put right with a themed menu – the signature dish being a hollowed out baguette with three boiled eggs sitting in it, and celery sticks for oars.

Skiff, lock, skiff, cox, lock, skiff….one charming tea garden after another passed us by but there was no time to stop. Next time, a longer meander with more time for pottering, some of us felt. We were all quite charmed by the river’s youngest lock-keeper, a very serious boy who can’t have been more than 8 years old. We whiled the time away guessing which celebrities lived in which mansions, and making up names for our future boats (inspired by the likes of ‘Cirrhosis of the River’). Alison came up with the highly practical ‘No Mooring’, which allows you to legitimately tie up just about anywhere along the river. Jenny went for the inviting-sounding ‘Jen’s Den’, which we hope will be eternally stocked with her delicious chocolate brownies.

A sneaky mooring in Goring set us up for the night at Streatley Youth Hostel in a golden evening light. Next morning: Goring Gap and some different scenery. Then through Reading, and a stop at the George and Dragon in Pangbourne. A few quick ciders then it was back on the river –however a few pints of cider do give rise to pressing needs, and sadly not all locks offer facilities. The previous day some of us (who aren’t gents) used a gents’ urinal, but this time not even that was available. Just as we were contemplating stopping for a shrubbery, a beautiful mirage appeared…yes, across a deserted sunlit meadow, with easy, beach-style mooring, were two gleaming blue portaloos. A competitive sprint across the field revealed that they were indeed real, and even clean – put there for D of E participants.

The countdown to Monkey Island had begun and we all began to worry we weren’t going to make it in time for dinner. It was getting dark and swarms of gnats were out when we finally arrived. We had called ahead to warn the hotel that we would be sweaty and no time to change for dinner. As we disembarked the island looked like a paradise, lights hanging from blossom-laden trees and a long table laid out on the lawn, with white tablecloths and candles. Must be for a posh wedding, we thought -  but no, the hotel staff had laid it out specially for us. Sadly the gnats made it less attractive in reality, so we wolfed our fish and chips and gulped our wine in the dining room instead. The island and hotel is idyllic, with peacocks strutting about, nice rooms with hot baths, lawns, woods and a little bathing beach which three of us made use of in the morning. An excellent destination for a future weekend meander, we felt.

 The final day was sunny – again! Tim joined us at Monkey Island for the day, and Julie very kindly took our luggage to make the boats lighter. We all developed a healthy dislike of motor cruisers, which were out in force and causing huge queues at some locks. But we managed to persuade the lock-keepers let us go ahead in some cases. As we were starting to flag, well over 100 miles into the trip, we drew new energy from the fact that we were invited to Keith and Hilary’s for tea. As we hadn’t had time to stop for lunch, we all fantasized about what this might involve, and hoped it would be more than a couple of digestive biscuits. If we had known what was in store, we would probably have gone twice as fast – a fabulous buffet of salads, cheeses, savory pastries and trifle with a whole table of drinks to choose from. What a treat! A few weary skiffers also had a rejuvenating dip in the hot tub.

Reluctantly we tore ourselves away to tackle the last six miles. A ripple of cheering from the balcony as we passed Dittons. Nearly home. Then finally we were back, more cheers from the bank, a final bail-out and the Meander was over. Definitely the best Meander in May 2013, as Russell would say.

Many thanks from all the Meanderers to Russell for making it all happen, Graeme and Gillian for getting us there, Keith and Hilary for the fortifying buffet in the final stretch, and Julie for lightening the load on the last day by taking the luggage in the car. Very sorry we didn’t know about the four bags of gravel already in there!

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