Taking the Slow Boat on The Thames Through History

Mark Bibby Jackson accepts the offer to take a boat on the Thames with Le Boat and ends up in a bit of an Eton Mess.

Culture & History, Europe, Gastronomy

Mark Bibby Jackson accepts the offer to take a boat on the Thames with Le Boat and ends up in a bit of an Eton Mess.

It is on our final morning that I start chatting with Robert. Together with his wife Eileen they have been living on a canal boat on the Thames for the past few years – I assume since retirement. Their experience comes in handy as Robert explains how to open the sluice and allow the water to flow through the lock so that we can safely return to base. Our chat continues as a various assortment of boats plod up river, before we take their place in the lock. Robert clearly is a very contented man.

This is the beauty of boating. There is a gentle pace to life which comes as a great antidote to modern living. It is the epitome of slow travel. Certainly nothing is fast on the Thames, we learn as a member of a rowing club informs us to slow down the one time Alice, our captain, applies a bit too much welly.

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

A couple of days earlier we had picked up our boat from Penton Hook Marina near Chertsey. Getting out of the marina proved the most problematic part of the trip, akin to navigating a hire car through an airport car park. After that is was plain sailing, or rather boating. Pausing for a picnic lunch on deck we continued our trip up to Windsor where we moored on the Eton side of the Thames.

Windsor Castle dates back to 1070 when William I had a small keep built here on a hill. It was burnt down the following century, so the hill really is the sole remaining part of the original Windsor Castle, as one of the defensive motte and bailey castles the French king built as a ring around London to keep Brexiteers out. It was not until the reign of Henry I that is was used as a royal residence. Elizabeth II was in residence during our visit.

Our Windsor Castle tour started at St George’s Chapel, which was built in the 14th century under King Edward III, though extensively extended the following century. Many a monarch is buried here, and it seemed strange to walk over the tombs of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour as we walked through the chapel.

Bat on the Thames
Ministry of Silly Walks?

After the chapel we visited the State Apartments, which were built for Charles II and his wife Catherine of Braganza, although Nell Gwynn also stayed here. Charles apparently had at least 12 children but none with his wife. The apartments were restored during the reigns of George III and IV, which no-doubt explains the frequent appearance of the latter’s vain profile around the walls. They are replete with Rococo, Gothic and Baroque furnishings, as well as wonderful paintings by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt. However, I found Queen Mary’s dolls’ house designed by Lutyens between 1921 and 1924, with its incredible attention to detail and still working parts, the most impressive.

Windsor Tour, an Eton Mess and a Gallop Through History

Windsor Castle is surrounded by the 4,800-acre Windsor Great Park. We are taken on a tour of Windsor town receiving details on the royal obsession with horses – perhaps Richard III should have taken more note – and plans for Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. The tour concluded on the bridge separating Windsor from neighbouring Eton on the opposite bank of the Thames. It is from here that Swan Upping takes place each year – a swan census to ascertain the state of the royal swan population, which fortunately is now once more growing. Apparently the Queen owns half of the swans, with the other half shared by the Company of Dyers and Vintners. We dined at Eton Mess, a wonderful restaurant where I had the best octopus I have tasted for years.

Octopus at Eton Mess
Octopus at Eton Mess

The excuse for our boat trip on the Thames was to attend the Gallop Through History to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Sadly our visit did not coincide with the attendance of Queen Elizabeth and Tom Cruise so we had to content ourselves with Alan Titchmarsh and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

A tad militaristic and jingoistic for my republican tastes, the skill of both riders and horses was impressive, especially the acrobatic Azerbaijani retinue and the more understated Swiss drummers with their baton twiddling. However, I felt the Indian Bollywood dancers improvising their dance routine to a Trinidad carnival steel drum beat was incomparable while slightly surreal, something like the Beetles in their maharajah phase. My main complaint was the whitewashing of history and the naffness of the jokes which really should have been laid to rest during the reign of the first Elizabeth.

Slow Boat on the Thames

Swans on the Thames at Eton
Swans on the Thames at Eton

Along with the slowness of travel, the main appeal of taking a boat on the Thames is waking up in the morning, your peace only disturbed by the noisy neighbours – geese and swans. Watching swans float gracefully on the surface of the water while waiting for my early morning caffeine rush to kick in is a wonderfully calming experience. The grace of the swans certainly contrasted with our clunky manoeuvres in the locks the previous day.

We returned to the Windsor side of the river for a brief chocolate making workshop at Dr Chocs Windsor Chocolate Factory, where we were shown how to make a bar of chocolate and sprinkle it with an assortment of toppings before drinking either a cup of coffee or hot chocolate while the chocolate slowly set at 14C in the freezer. I stuck to the dark chocolate, although there was also milk and white on offer. A 70% mix from the Dominican Republic with no dairy products, the chocolate was absolutely amazing and proved a great hit when I returned home, which sadly meant there was less for me to eat.

Magna Carta

King John stayed at Windsor Castle when he met the barons at Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. We traced the ill-fated monarch’s path in the morning, stopping at The Runnymede Hotel for a refreshing lunch on the terrace overlooking the Thames. Few places on the river can have a better setting.

JFK Memorial at Runnymede
JFK Memorial at Runnymede

The Magna Carta was signed in a field in the middle of nowhere – as it remains now. It is quite remarkable that the tribute to the bedrock of modern western democracy and justice is so understated. Really it is just a meadow gifted to the nation in the middle of which is a set of 12 chairs representing a jury. The Jurors by Hew Locke was built here in 2015, with each chair representing an image of justice and injustice, including the cell in which Nelson Mandela was held at Robben Island.

To its right as you walk from the car park is a small hill on which there is a memorial to JFK, in an acre of land gifted to the US.

The Magna Carta was sealed on 15 June 1215 and distributed around the country. Copies remain in Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral as well as the British Museum. Despite its monumental importance the Magna Carta only lasted as law for a matter of weeks before it was repealed by a papal bull upon the request of John. The monarch did not live long to regret his decision to renege on the agreement dying in Newark the following year while fleeing from the barons, losing his crown jewels in the Wash in the process. An amended Magna Carta became law of the land in 1297 under the reign of Edward I, and has remained so ever since.

Boat on the Thames
Navigating the locks on the Thames

That evening we moored up at the The Swan Hotel for the night. The 16th century building proved the perfect spot for our last night as we had aperitifs on board before dinner in the pub – the turbot was excellent.

On the final morning I had a go behind the wheel – make sure you understeer – before my chat with Robert and Eileen at the last lock. My only complaint about taking the slow boat on The Thames was that it was far too brief a sojourn, and it was with great reluctance that we trundled back into Penton Hook barely two days after we had first left it.

Boat on The Thames Photo Gallery

Boat Holidays on the Thames

Looking for boats to rent on The Thames? Le Boat operates boat trips on the Thames in London from 1 April to 31 October 2022. A seven-night self-catered cruise on the River Thames on board a Horizon 4, is from £2,399 per boat. T: 023 9280 9124

Windsor Castle Tour 

Entry and tour £26.50 per adult / £14.50 per child / kids under five go free (Family discounts available)

How much to moor a boat on the Thames?

Amazingly it only cost £10 to moor our boat on the banks at Eton, but Robert tipped me off to a place where you can moor for free.

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Mark Bibby Jackson

Mark Bibby Jackson

Before setting up Travel Begins at 40, Mark was the publisher of AsiaLIFE Cambodia and a freelance travel writer. When he is not packing and unpacking his travelling bag, Mark writes novels, including To Cook A Spider and Peppered Justice. He loves walking, eating, tasting beer, isolation and arthouse movies, as well as talking to strangers on planes, buses and trains whenever possible. Most at home when not at home.

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