Three Woodbridge women in a boat
PUBLISHED: 11:36 02 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:36 02 September 2014
Catherine Larner rowed more than 140 miles with fellow Deben Rowing Club members Jacq Barnard and Lucy Hollis to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Jerome K Jerome’s classic tale and raise money
We rowed 142 miles, negotiated 43 locks, camped for seven nights and participated in half a dozen silly fundraising challenges, yet the first thing everyone wants to know is ‘Did you get along together?’
We are quite different characters – incredibly organised Jacq Barnard, a training and development consultant and mother of three, landscape architect Lucy Barnard from Bermuda, fit, active, inventive and thoughtful, and me, a writer and editor who likes a challenge, particularly when it makes good copy.
We share a love of rowing on the Deben, at Woodbridge, and wanted a holiday with a difference. When we learned that this year was the 125th anniversary of the Jerome K Jerome classic Three Men in a Boat, the adventure took us over.
Jerome’s book recounts an escape into the countryside from London to Oxford, but we were advised to take the easier option of rowing downstream – albeit covering a greater distance – from the source of the river at Lechlade in Gloucestershire, to Richmond, Surrey.
We hired the 130-year-old wooden skiff from a company specialising in such trips, which came with cooking equipment and a canvas canopy for protection from the weather and to turn the boat into a tent at night.
We had eight days to row the distance, which divided into fairly evenly distributed 20-mile sections, determined by where we could camp – beside a lock, a scout hut, rowing clubs and a marina, all pre-arranged.
Flooding earlier in the year meant the river was still running faster and higher than normal. Even as we set out, the Thames Environment Agency website was still reporting that most of the 43 locks we had to navigate were closed for safety reasons. Only on our second day could we see a clear route to Richmond, and that was still dependent on the weather.
Fortunately we only had two days of rain and the rest was sunshine and warmth. This kept spirits high and made camping a pleasure. Two of us slept in the boat – cosy with the canopy down and swaying on water it felt like being in a hammock – the other in a tent pitched alongside. We cooked on a single gas ring and, thanks to having ingredients donated by Woodbridge Budgens, created some ambitious menus – anyone for vegetable curry with naan bread, apple pie and custard?
We spent about six hours each day on the water, rowing and negotiating locks. Each was different – the mechanism, the depth, the facilities, but also the laybys, moorings, weirs and approaches. The boat was awkward to manoeuvre and slow to respond and, in order to go alongside, we had to stow our heavy wooden oars. The slightest puff of wind or pull of current meant we were quickly facing the wrong direction and the boat proved obstinate when it came to getting back on course. But we rose to the challenge and passed through each lock without mishap, though usually not without incident.
We also completed various challenges to gain sponsorship from friends and family following us via Twitter and Facebook. In the spirit of Jerome’s japes we devised a bingo challenge in which people collected numbers as we completed silly tasks – swimming in the river, finding a fresh pineapple, inviting passing dogs on to the boat, meeting someone in a striped blazer, wearing false moustaches and so on.
During the middle weekend, members of Deben Rowing Club joined us at Henley for a meal and to make up an eight to row the famous regatta course. It was fantastic to see everyone and tremendous to experience Henley, the home of rowing.
We were stunned by the isolation we experienced for so much of our journey. Even in the more built-up areas of the south-east, there were long stretches where we found ourselves alone on the water, among reeds and willows, grebes and herons, dragonflies and yellow irises.
It was the most astonishing experience. The scenery was beautiful, people were friendly, the weather was glorious. We thought of nothing each day except getting to the next lock, taking our turns at the helm, eating and setting up camp. While free of all concerns about life at home, we received a steady stream of messages of support. The trip raised £1,000 for new equipment for our club, which we hope will help many more people experience the sheer delight of rowing.