Romney lock – Hampton Court
Rise at 7 am – early morning runners are passing by already, and the trains are running from 7.30 am. This is later than I would have expected – maybe commuter trains are still not back to normal?
Looking at the map in the morning light, it seems I’m just across the river from the playing fields of Eton! How funny. I feel very exposed, so pack quickly and launch back into the water.
It’s another beautiful day, and the neatly spaced line of trees on the right bank tells me I’m passing Prince Albert’s Walk in Windsor Home Park. The signs on the bank warn of dire consequences if anyone dares to land. Even the omnipresent Canada geese are staying clear.
Passing through Old Windsor lock at about 08.30, I call the hirer to extend the hire period. Normally I would be due to be picked up today, but I’m so close to Teddington that I want to continue. We agree the details, and I’m back on the water.
A glorious morning. Fine, sunny and warming up fast – everyone I meet is enjoying the day. Lots of people afloat on the river – on everything from narrowboats to paddle boards. And there’s still the occasional heron.
Many of the houses on this section enjoy a river frontage, even if they tend to be more modest in comparison to the grand villas I saw at Henley. It’s now only 20 miles and six locks to Teddington
On the map I’m deep inside west London, yet the signs on the river tell me that I’m passing Runnymede and Magna Carta island, names of such historical significance that the concerns of the present day seem trivial by comparison.
King John’s forced signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 by rebel barons paved the way for many of the freedoms that we consider fundamental today, influencing not only English law but even the future US Bill of Rights. Because of its early association with the ideals of democracy, limitation of power, equality and freedom under law, Runnymede has attracted attention from lawmakers around the world for centuries, as well as numerous monuments and commemorative symbols.
Back here on the river, I continue on past Bell Weir lock to Shepperton, reaching the lock there at about 1 pm. Shepperton is a popular destination for visitors and has its own cafe offering cream teas!
Since it is hot and sunny I decide to treat myself. Enquire of neighbouring table if you’re supposed to put the jam or the cream on first. No-one seems sure – apparently it’s the difference between the Cornish or the Devon version.
It’s just 11 miles now to Teddington lock, my finish point. Quite a few rowing clubs on the river here, and perhaps some elite girls’ schools nearby – judging by the accents I hear from the racing skiffs going by.
Late in the afternoon I pull out of the water onto a grassy common on the north bank opposite Walton-on-Thames, apparently the place where Julius Caesar forded the river Thames on his second invasion of Britain. The only soldiers about now are in civvies, so I chat to passers-by and small groups of kayakers.
By 6 pm I’ve reached Hampton Court, and stop below the bridge for something to eat. The ice-cream parlour by the riverside is packed with trendy young things, so I pass, eventually settling at Henry’s Kitchen. London prices of course, but thanks to the Chancellor and his ‘Eat out to Help out’ campaign, I enjoy a reasonably priced meal. Thank you Mr Sunak, much appreciated.
Back to the boat to find a camping spot, though I’m not over hopeful this far inside London. The first point recommended by a canoeist I met is unsuitable – seems to be all concrete and used by druggies.
Back over the Romney lock rollers to check out Hurst Park, just upstream of Hampton Court. I pull up and have a look, but it seems a busy place, even at sunset. So I ask a couple of young guys I see on a large old boat that looks to all intents and purposes to be a floating junkyard.
Surprise! This unimpressive-looking monstrosity offers rooms on the river at £25 per night. I take one, as the public-park alternative looks worse. I’m told the vessel is an old Dutch barge from the 1970s, although I wonder, because the language on the controls is written in old Dutch, something you might have found on old boats in the Netherlands in the 1960s and earlier.
The ‘cabins’ are constructed from an assortment of bits of driftwood, old doors and various pieces of plastic. But mine has a bunk bed, a door and a piece of string for a doorlatch – it’ll do. There are various young people aboard, doing odd jobs in the gig economy it seems. But they’re a friendly bunch, and I feel welcome.
We are all Covid-19 observing of course. I have to use my own sleeping bag and towel. And once I hit the bunk that evening I sleep. Teddington should be easy to reach tomorrow.
© Philip Hunt 2020