Recollection of a river celebration

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The day of the Great River Race broke to a brisk wind and skating clouds highlighting the giant Dutch marine carrier docked at Victoria Deep Water Wharf in its starkness and bulk against the O2 and the unattractive neighbouring brand new hotel. Activity up on the fourth deck level was concentrated on unloading her cargo of naval whalers in good time for the 10 o’clock start around the corner of the Isle of Dogs. Her own brace of cranes seem to lower the contenders into the tideway with ease, in spite of the ready quayside help and the attending work boat nestling under her massive slab-like stern. The evening before her crew had enjoyed a pre-race ceremony on her helicopter deck, no doubt recognising their cross North sea race achievement by their tradition lifeboat whalers. All they had to do was to keep fit for the 21-mile row up river to Ham!! Dutch gin helped!!

Through a dozen or so years we have supported the competitors at various lookout points up London river and even at the finish, especially when that used to take place at the Blackwall Rowing Club immediately across the tideway from Greenwich – all very memorable as canons fired out in salute as they crossed the finishing line marked by a beflagged spritsail barge. The surge of competitors, exhausted after their back breaking enthusiasm, had to then drag their craft up a muddy slipway onto awaiting trailers. Then followed a mammoth ceremony where a multitude of well-earned prizes were distributed. After all that the 1,000 sportsmen had to find sleeping accommodation, hopefully privately arranged. In Crane Street after the race both crews and craft dragged themselves ashore exhausted and forlorn, but a couple of well-earned pints set the matter right. Our trustful neighbours put up with beached rowing boats littering our local roads.

I shall never forget the sight of bedraggled rowers traversing the foot tunnel carrying their gear and oars to reach their awaiting transport which patient and skilful wives and girlfriends had navigated from the start at Richmond to the finish in Greenwich Reach. All changed in 2009 – the Race was reversed to go upstream and the finish through Richmond to Ham was most joyous with welcoming barbecues on the adjacent meadows! All this could never have happened without the incalculable number of helpers who gladfully supported with all the necessary support vessels and boat handlers at the start and, of course, the finish. We oldies watched the whole flotilla pass by at Rotherhithe as the strong wind over tide gave us concern. Their passage up through Tower Pier was accompanied by hooters and whistles from supporters on both sides of the narrowing tideway.

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The sunlit scene gladdened our hearts and we celebrated on the Angel’s riverside balcony the passing of yet another great Thames occasion. The Angel, built onto Bermondsey Wall at Cherry Tree Pier – the home of City Cruises – provides a good pint and a panoramic view of the Lower Pool, especially from the long room on the first floor. Well worth a visit.

The next weekend was graced with a glorious summer Saturday. Taking our 188 route into town we jumped bus at the top of Tower Bridge Road in order to explore Bermondsey Street and the site of a renowned Abbey built in 1082, once the centre of the leather trade which was reliant on the nearby warehouse and wharves along the Lower Pool. Little or no leather trade survives but regeneration of the fascinating warehouse has brought a new and virile community.

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Their festive Fair right along Bermondsey Street was crowded with joyous folk mingling just like the attached print.

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St Mary Magdalen church was besieged with visitors to hear choral groups perform. Judy and I found a sunny table at an Italian bistro where we watched the world go past – a great way to celebrate the tail end of summer.

Great River Race participants (list of entrants by class of craft)

Hawaiian Outrigger, Dragonboats River Teign Seine Boat, Celtic Longboat, K….. Whaler, Cornish Pilot Gig, Salter Skiff, Bursledon Gig, St Ayles Skiff, Dulv Whaler, Thames Watermen Cutter, Ship’s lifeboat, Quad Sculled Currach, Pembroke Longboat, Hawaiian Lifeboat, Vineland Whaler, Dory, Hawaiian Dory, GRR Skerrey, Felixstowe Clayton Skiff, Gravesend Clayton Skiff, Shackleton Ship’s Boat.

About RiverWatch returns

Peter Kent shares his Thames riverside studio viewpoint

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