Hampton Court is a place that I have always actively gone out of my way to avoid even driving past. Being moored right outside the palace gates, however, 10:00 on Thursday morning had to be the time to have a look inside. Being an absolutely miserable morning weather-wise it made a good time to be indoors too. It is a magnificent building, beautifully preserved. If you think how grandiose and imposing it seems to us you begin to get a sense of how overwhelming and wondrous it must have seemed to people, from home and abroad, who saw it in Tudor times. Just the notion that every one of those chimneys had a fire under it must have been as mind-blowing as the fountain of wine free and available to all for the duration of the feast.
To be fair, at least with a senior citizen’s concession, the cost of admission delivers a lot for the price. However, unlike Bletchley Park, the ticket is only valid on the day. We covered Henry VIII’s Kitchens, then his apartments and finally his early reign for the first 20 years. With so much to see and read, that took us up to lunchtime and left a huge amount that we hadn’t covered, including the maze and the influence of any later sovereigns. I defy anyone to cover everything they have paid for in less than at least two days, so the one day limitation began to feel like a bit of a swindle, as did the prices for lunch in the Tiltyard Café.
We hadn’t encountered proper boater’s facilities since last Sunday so we definitely needed to move on in the afternoon and go through Molesey lock, on the other side of Hampton Bridge, where there was a full set of services. When we got back to the boat we found an elderly couple (older than us!) mooring up “Gongoozler” half off the end of the dock in the only space available. They saw us coming and asked if we were on “South Downs” and if we were leaving. We confirmed that we were but we are only 55′ and they turned out to be 70′ long. We didn’t mind at all that they wanted our berth or even that they followed us down to start pacing it out etc. but we obviously needed to prepare ourselves first. To find them hovering outside with their dog while I was shipping the tiller bar was a bit disconcerting so we already had them labelled as pretty pushy even before we realised they had persuaded the boat behind us, “Reverie”, to abandon their mooring and move up into the weeds to be sure they would have plenty of room. This pair were never going to be deterred by the owner weakly muttering “Well, it may take quite a while to get her started.” etc. etc. At least we had actually meant to move on, they had just finished getting settled.
Suitably watered up and emptied out at Molesey lock and with the rain at last stopping, we carried on upstream to the next stop, a mooring just 5 minutes’ walk from a Tesco ‘superstore’. The mooring had a very large boat, more like a big tugboat occupying half of it and two other boats abreast in front of that. We got on half the mooring, tied the stern up to a tree and logged on to Thames Visitor Mooring to register our arrival. There was the mooring on their map and in the list but not in the drop-down to register your presence. A phone call to TVM was greeted with “Oh, thanks for letting me know. I need to put that back”. It had been closed for one day overnight back on 31st July and taken off the ‘available’ list. Just never put back.
Tesco disappointed considerably by being less than ‘super’, by having few of the things we expected to get there in stock and by any items they did have offering expiry dates only one or at most two days ahead. It is a fact of our new life that we have no freezer at all, a microwave we daren’t use unless the engine is running and a tiny 12v fridge. Anything we buy must be able to be cooked in the oven or on the hob and has to have the longest expiry date possible to make sure that we can actually use it before it has to be thrown away.
Back on the boat the next leg was through Sunbury Lock. All the locks on the Thames here are huge. They take half a dozen large boats and a variety of smaller craft. They are manned by EA lockkeepers and largely electrically operated. They like you to throw lines over the bollards to hold you to the side and turn your engine off while you are in there, all things that we never usually bother to do, so it is different but it isn’t difficult.
At the top of the lock channel, 3 or 4 minutes further on, lies the Weir Hotel, gazing across at the massive weir that manages water down past Sunbury. There is a 24 hour public mooring right outside the pub that was empty when we arrived so, as it was already 17:30, it seemed a good time to moor up and reward their hospitality by giving them some custom.
Over the next two days we travelled 8 miles, passed through a lock twice and had hardly moved, being less than half a mile upstream from the Weir Hotel. Even so we are pretty sure this is not a record for the most miles travelled to move the least distance.
We had to move on Friday or overstay the 24 hour mooring, so we cast off and headed towards Walton-On-Thames. A little way upstream, just by the Walton Rowing Club, we found another 24 hour mooring run by Thames Valley Mooring and duly registered our arrival online. It was a good enough mooring but the bank was again higher than our roof. While Sue got on with tidying the boat I went for a walk up the towpath to the big new bridge and into the backstreets of Walton before circling back to the towpath at the Anglers Inn. Here the TVM mooring, which had the bank at a more convenient gunwale height, still had the two vacant spaces I had spotted on the way up. Fifteen minutes later we had started the engine, cast off and moored up 300 yards from the Anglers, once more registering our arrival with TVM.
This was a much better spot as daughter Jen & Dave were to call in later in the day and they would be able to find us and park more easily here. They duly arrived about 17:00, after a day out at the Brooklands Museum. They had been able to go inside a Concorde, experiment with the process of riveting pieces of aluminium together and the pièce de résistance, visit an exhibition of fabrics for bus upholstery down the ages. It sounds like there was really plenty to see there and they had had a good day. My brief recce earlier in the day had identified The Bear, The Swan, The George and The Old Manor Inn, all within spitting distance of the boat. However, choosing a pub is one activity where you are never looking to go the extra mile so, as The Anglers was closest to us by a few yards and also the only one with a river frontage, we took ourselves off there for a couple of pints in what was now quite nice evening sunshine before Jen & Dave went off and fetched fish & chips for us all to eat on the boat. A very pleasant evening together.
Before once again moving along on Saturday morning, we went in to Walton-On-Thames centre to visit Sainsbury’s and have a look around. Walton-On-Thames is a nice name that promises more than it delivers. The area I had seen yesterday, closer to the river, seems to have been the tattoo parlour and kebab shop end of town. Going further in to the centre there is a busy and pretty ordinary High Street and a modern one-storey mall. Most of it has a 60’s post-war reconstruction feel. There were a some stalls in the precincts but all fancy, over-priced products of questionable value. There was a heavy emphasis on Kombucha, something that Tom Archer has been talking about a lot in relation to Bridge Farm’s organic enterprises. It is described as a mild, fizzy, slightly sour form of lightly fermented green tea and a live probiotic prepared with no heat treating or pasteurising for maximum benefit. I wasn’t tempted. I wouldn’t want Louis Pasteur to be made redundant, especially as I have read that several people are reported to have died from drinking Kombucha and it’s benefits are almost completely unproven in medical science.
We had approached Sunbury Lock with the gates gaping open and a Lockkeeper beckoning enthusiastically so we had driven blindly in and carried on through. We realised, now, that we had thus completely bypassed Sunbury itself, which lies up the channel to the right of the lock that eventually leads to the foot of the weir opposite the Weir Hotel. One of the features of canal boating is the need to be careful about overshooting your destination and carefully planning any winding (turning round) operation in advance. Since entering the river we had come to realise that this is no longer an issue. If you want to go back the way you came you can just do a U-turn virtually anywhere. With the realisation of this refreshing freedom and no particular place to go we felt we should correct our omission and set out back downstream. We could take advantage of the facilities there and then, passing through, head back up the other channel, mooring up in Sunbury for the night.
Regrettably, there was no room at the Inn. We had been lucky with mooring sites, so far, but the luck seemed to have run out. Mooring there is very limited and was completely occupied. This may have had something to do with the fact that this weekend was the Sunbury Regatta. This is obviously a big deal in these parts; the marquees were out, Radio Jackie was in attendance and two thirds of the width of the river had been marked out as excluded with buoys and lines. We made one more attempt by heading down to Hampton and Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare where a 24 hour mooring was marked. We found it (we think) but it is now strictly one hour only; no clue as to why. It was just enough time to stop for lunch but would useless for any other purpose by the time you have moored up and got ashore.
Surrendering to the inevitable we turned again (just like that!) and headed back upstream towards the lock again, The regatta was still going on full steam. Lots of people and very busy but only on land, just as it was on the way down. We did spot a cluster of boats but despite the heavily guarded channel at no time, in either direction, did we see any of them on the water or engaging in any kind of display or contest.
The lock was busier on the way back with quite a little queue of boats, big and small, waiting to go in.
They got us all inside in one go so we passed through easily and found ourselves back at our first mooring of the previous day by about 16:00 just as the rain was looking like coming in. Thus we ended the day further from Oxford than when we had started and now had the challenge of ringing the enforcement company TVM and convincing them that, as we hadn’t actually used this mooring for more than an hour or so on Friday, it would be OK to moor there free within the proscribed 72 hour return time. It is a bit like parking a car in London. At least, right now, it simply isn’t the same conversation that you would have with a traffic warden. I get the impression they are just glad to talk to someone and are more than willing to be flexible if the cause is just.
Sunday was a quiet day indeed. We needed to move or pay to stay a second night so we headed off about 10:30 towards Shepperton Lock. As you head upstream from Walton you come to a junction. The river wends its way to the right and meanders around past Shepperton itself. Another channel cuts straight ahead past all these idle curves to meet the old river once again, just before the junction with the River Wey and the lock gates beyond. This straighter route is known as the Desborough cut, and created Desborough Island, which now lies stranded in the middle.
The cut was created by Lord Desborough and when I first heard about it I pictured an exhibition of 18th century aristocratic arrogance carving out a channel to speed the journey to Weybridge for his own convenience. In fact the cut was only dug in the 1930’s, Lord Desborough was President of the Thames Conservancy at the time and it was jointly funded by the Conservancy, Surrey County Council & Middlesex County Council. We took the route less travelled and found mooring on Lady Lindsay’s Lawn by a park just short of Shepperton. There is a mooring site in Church Square at Shepperton but having looked at it later in the day it was a short pontoon we would have had to overhang by about 15′ at either end, even if it were free.
We stayed here for the next 24 hours, had a look around Shepperton and on Monday morning went on foot to follow a route we had found across the river, round Desborough Island and back via Walton Bridge. I think two people could go to Shepperton and report totally different impressions. The town is extremely dull and looks as if, somewhere in the mid-20th century, someone decided to just dump a town half a mile from the river. It is busy and has a couple of Costa’s, a Sainsbury’s Local, a Co-op and all the rest but there is nothing special about it. There is certainly none of the glamour and excitement conjured up by the name “Shepperton Studios”, which is a mile or two to the north-west. South of the town and hard up against the river is Old Shepperton. If you visit this Shepperton it looks charming and steeped in history, although the truth is nothing of any great excitement seems to have happened here.
The square is only a couple of hundred yards across but has a couple a pubs, two hotels and a Bar & Grill in the shadow of the church and walking through the square takes you to the tiny mooring pontoon and a slipway into the river. There is a much nicer feel to the area as you walk down to the Ferry by Shepperton Lock which, for the princely sum of £2.50 apiece, whisked us across to the Surrey side in something just slightly bigger than a rowing boat in about three minutes. Apparently the ferry has been running for over 500 years (not using the same boat throughout that time) and featured in H. G. Wells’ book “War of the Worlds” as a target for the Martian heat rays.
On the way we had a classic boat builder conversation that some people will recognise. We rang and asked if they had the revised drawings yet and had been able to work out a new price. They said they hadn’t but they planned to start in three weeks and as they usually invoice the first stage a month beforehand I could expect an invoice this week. We had to point out that as we hadn’t agreed a price, never mind seen the contract, we wouldn’t be able to pay any invoice yet. They seemed taken aback. I think they truly believed that it didn’t really matter what the price was in the end, so we might as well start paying anyway. On our side, however, it was already through the ceiling and if it went up at all we would have to have a serious discussion about how to bring it back down again or else cancel it altogether. I don’t think this possibility had occurred to them at all.
Crossing the new Walton Bridge back to Shepperton and trying to find our way back to the High Street we realised that the whole area is very ‘enclosed’. There are obviously a lot of water constraints around it. River, wetland, streams, water works, reservoirs hem everything in. Nonetheless it is striking that, apart from the roads themselves, there seem to be very view of the established rights of way, footpaths, alleys etc. that always emerge to provide short cuts to take the pedestrian more directly to their destination. Even from the surrounding residential streets it is only possible to access the High Street by walking a long way round to the one or two streets that actually open into it. What there is, is a greater proportion of ‘Private’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs than you tend to see elsewhere; not that welcoming.
After lunch, another voyage to find new mooring at a site called Dockett’s Eddy a little way beyond Shepperton Lock; at least a 45 minute voyage! When setting out from Crick it had seemed that boaters’ facilities were very limited on the Thames and we might struggle to find rubbish disposal points or sanitary stations but we had always assumed drinking water would not be a problem. In practice it was water points, that could accept a hosepipe connection, that had proved the problem and it had now been several days since we had last filled the tank. Usually we like to top up every other day. Once again Shepperton Lock only had a tap, some way from the river, where you could fill containers of water. So this was now getting to be a priority.
We had heard from Sue’s sister-in-law, Chrissie, who is home from New Zealand, that she would be able to meet us for lunch at The Kingfisher, by Chertsey Bridge, on Tuesday. Talking to people at our new site it seemed that mooring might be hard to come by in Chertsey. As we had also heard that there was a usable water hose at the lock we took a stroll up along the Thames Path to do a recce. After a chat to the Lockkeeper we had identified the water point and secured his agreement to moor on the lock landing just upstream from Chertsey Lock overnight tomorrow, potentially for a fee but TBD. It only remained to inspect The Kingfisher, 300 yards from the lock and confirm its suitability. The refreshment and service provided was excellent, although our standards aren’t that high, so we returned to the boat all set for Tuesday.
Before we set off on Tuesday there was some maintenance to attend to. Firstly, I had an entertaining 40 minutes lying prone on the rear deck with both arms down through the weed hatch wrestling with the remains of someone’s baseball cap and about 20 yards of strong black twine that had entangled themselves around the propeller. Then I spent half an hour crawling around the engine bay checking that none of the electrical connections were loose. We recently seem to have developed an issue with electrical system. Everything had been fine but, since Friday, we had begun to get alarms sounding from the inverter. This supplies any 230v power we need, although only by drawing it from the 12v batteries. We had also seen signs that the battery voltage was getting unacceptably low. I couldn’t really see that there was any issue down there so I guess the next step is to find an electrical engineer.
It was just under a mile from our mooring at Dockett’s Eddy to the other side of Chertsey Lock. Everything went more or less as planned. We were moored up, with a full water tank, in good time to meet Chrissie and her sister Cathy for a great catch-up and a rather lengthy but very enjoyable lunch that pretty much wiped us out for the rest of the day. I did have a very brief “boat, what boat? I see no boat.” conversation with the genial lockkeeper. That means, so far, we had not yet had to pay for mooring on the Thames at all.
On Wednesday morning we had a nice visit from the electrical engineer we had contacted yesterday. Well, nice for him. It is almost impossible to tell how genuine these people are or to what extent they are inventing work to line their own pockets. There is a proposed course of action, we are in no position to judge how worthwhile or necessary it is and if it were not for the fact that this is our only home for at least another few months we would probably not bother and manage around the problem. As it is, we have agreed to go ahead with his plan and meet him on Saturday morning at a mooring near Datchet so he can do the work and relieve us of some more pound notes.
Once that was out of the way we cast off and headed upstream again towards Penton Hook lock. We stopped, briefly, at one boatyard to see if we could use their services and were, pleasantly but firmly, advised that they are not there to deal with passing boaters. They did direct us to Penton Hook marina, down a side channel around Penton Hook Island and just short of the lock. We took their advice and arrived at a marina that could not have been further removed from the last marina we had visited at Harefield. Everything was smartly kept, there were all manner of services and businesses based around it and multiple service points around the site. There was a clearly signed visitor pontoon and the staff could not have been more helpful, directing us to moor up at a nice purpose-built berth more convenient to use their facilities, free of any charge. One can only say they come highly recommended by us homeless drifters looking for a freebie although, when they do charge, we suspect their fees will reflect both the quality and the location in full.
After lunch we headed up through Penton Hook Lock and on to the next town to visit. On admittedly brief acquaintance, Staines seems to live up to its name as a stain upon the Thames. The town centre itself isn’t so bad, just very generic. It had a market of sorts. You can sense the network of roads around it burdened with heavy traffic, the railway crosses the river most conspicuously just below the road bridge and outside of the centre itself the pedestrian is very actively discouraged. Access on foot to cross the river involves an absurd diversion in the wrong direction and once up at street level you are fenced in with steel to ensure there is no wayward attempt to cross to the other side of the road. There is no Tourist Information or guide available although there are traces that someone once thought it might be worthwhile to make it attractive to visitors. They seem then to have decided that there was no reason for people to come there voluntarily and gave up, which seems to have set up a vicious circle – the town doesn’t make the effort so people don’t come, so the town feels justified in not making the effort. Sue compared it to Croydon but I felt it wasn’t quite that bad and in the end we agreed that, in many respects, the closest comparison was Bromley.
We were tied up on the Town Hall mooring, right in the town. The Town Hall itself, Grade II listed, is grandiose in the extreme but now lies derelict and surrounded by hoardings, with foliage growing out of the roof. It was abandoned by Spelthorne Borough Council (we had never heard of this one until we started up past Kingston) in about 1976 and successive attempts to use it as a pub up to 2012 all failed. We imagine that was because of the sheer scale of the place as well as the lack of any level access. There is now an application to turn it into flats. Sad, but if it restores and preserves the exterior it must be better than the current state.
This was the only place on our journey, so far, that had actually made us feel uneasy. The mooring staging is ten steps below the level of the street, behind the Town Hall and minutes after we arrived two separate groups of teenagers turned up and started hanging out beside the quay, It is clearly a favourite haunt; out of sight and out of mind. This was the first town we had visited with security wardens patrolling the streets and guards in high-vis protecting the shops. As we went into town we were concerned enough to stop a couple of the security team by the Town Hall and ask about the wisdom of staying here. They assured us it was safe and there had never been issues with the boats mooring there so we decided to stick with it for the night, particularly as my evening recce showed that other sites were likely to suffer from similar issues. Different groups came and went through the afternoon and evening and into the night. Age seemed a factor, with kids in the late afternoon, obnoxious adolescents brawling with one another like play-fighting puppies in the evening until, by midnight, it was a group of older people apparently carrying on where they had left off when they called time at the local. There was noise, shouting, swearing and loud one-sided mobile phone conversations with the occasional 21st Century equivalent of the boom box thrown in. Nonetheless, this all seemed mainly to be directed at one another, was perceptible but easy to ignore from inside the boat and left us intact and unmarked in the morning.