David Horn – Henley Festivals

David Horn – Henley on Thames Festivals

David submitted the following article for the 2020 Peter Batterley Award. 

You can download the PDF by clicking here.


Henley-on-Thames Festival In both 2018 and 2019 we experienced the Henley Traditional Boat Festival from the water in our own boat. An impressive sight although marred last year by the Sunday afternoon queue for Hambleden Lock, the first lock downstream from the Festival Site. As more and more boats came down on both current and wind the crush became almost chaos. This, though, is not about the Boat Festival but the annual autumn Henley Literary Festival which we also attended in both those years. In 2018 we spent a very interesting hour cruising from the Hobbs boatyard on the Hibernia. Through the Henley bridge, past Leander Rowing Club and Phyllis Court , down the regatta course almost to THAT lock and back again. We were listening to ex-Oxford University lecturer Diane Setterfield discuss her not yet published novel Once Upon a River. The back of the book cover says “A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.” It was this idea of a Thames-side mystery that attracted us to get the tickets. We were well rewarded. A very interesting hour on board, a pre-publication copy of the well written book that spent much of last year in the Times Bestseller list and a story based in the upper Thames area which we have now twice cruised in Naiad. This added interest while reading a gripping tale particularly as many of the book’s locations are recognisable today. The ancient inn is Ye Olde Swan by Radcot Bridge on the upper reaches of the Thames beyond Oxford. It is “hundreds of years old” according to their website whilst the bridge was built around 1200. It is claimed to be the oldest on the Thames. A little further up-stream is Buscot where one of the main families in the novel lives in the Lodge. There is now both Buscot Manor and the National Trust Buscot Park with a fine house. They also own the island where action takes place. This is Brandy Island, the old Farringdon Water Board water board building now being used by a marina where we left Naiad for a week as part of our family handover. Another main character lives in a farmhouse in Kelmscott. Kelmscott Manor is a Grade 1 listed farmhouse which was the summer home of William Morris and was built around 1600 adjacent to the River Thames. We have moored there and been round the house, gardens and out-buildings. Another example of the realism is the character Daunt, an Oxford based photographer who spends much time in the area on his boat fitted out as a studio/darkroom. In the late 1800’s an Oxford based photographer Henry Taunt travelled along the river in a houseboat with a camera on its roof and is feted for his images. An added pleasure is the author’s ability to describe the atmosphere of being by the water and of its movement. 2019’s author had a comparable capability for describing river water. This time being in her parent’s yacht on the lower reaches of the Thames. We were again on Hobbs’s Hibernia but listening to Caroline Crampton being interviewed by Dame Katherine Grainger, the Olympic oarswoman who has spent many hours rowing on the Thames. Caroline’s “The Way to the Sea: The Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary” had been published earlier in 2019 and we had already read it thanks to reviews in the Economist and Thames Guardian, the Magazine of the River Thames Society. The Economist says “In the Way to the Sea, Caroline Crampton takes readers from the river’s source to its estuary and the open sea. En route she tells fascinating stories of the Thames past and present.”, and concludes the review with “Ms Crampton’s account of her lifelong relationship with this storied waterway is as elegant and sinuous as the river she loves.” The other very complementary review similarly ends with “Her infectious enthusiasm and seductive writing should win it plenty more fans.” The author’s parents sailed up the Thames in 1984 from South Africa in the boat they had built themselves. They initially lived on-board in St Katherine’s Dock before moving to the Isle of Sheppey and finally Sittingbourne, where Caroline was born. Their and her weekends were spent sailing out of the Medway. Those growing up years ingrained her feeling for the water, the estuary and this area and she has developed the ability to write about it. On graduating from Oxford she spent several years planning the book. First walking from the Thames source to London, which only occupies the first chapter, then sailing with her parents in they new 38 feet Swedish built yacht from St. Katherine’s to the North Sea. The combination of memoir and history works well and the detailed research is amazing. There are almost 100 references at the back of the book. Conrad is much quoted, the index lists him on 18 pages, so he’s now on my reading list! Bazalgette also gets plenty of mentions, and as Katherine Grainger remarked ‘how many times have you read a whole chapter on sewerage!’ The Book’s evocative Chapter Headings caused our Imray Chart to be extracted from the garage to pinpoint: 2. Upper Pool to Cuckold’s Point 4. Gallions Reach to Silvertown 6. Mucking No. 5 to Lower Hope 8 Deadman’s Island to the Nore Only the First Chapter Heading of ‘Thames Head to Tower Bridge’ didn’t require any looking up. For us it was also a nostalgic read as in 2001 we too sailed up the Thames to Tower Bridge in our Contessa 32 but we only spent a week in St Katherine’s Dock and not several months like Caroline’s parents. Like in the book our daughter even joined us for the sail back out to the mouth of the Estuary! We then spent the night off Queensborough before returning to Burnham-onCrouch. So thanks to the Henley-on-Thames Literary Festival we have spent two stimulating hours on the Thames in Hibernian and thoroughly enjoyed reading two very different books covering the full length of our local river. We wonder what the 2020 Festival will bring! .

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