Like Toad, Mole and his many river friends, the Thames Traditional Boat Rally originated with a few friends along the river bank at Shepperton in 1977.Established to preserve the old traditions of boat building which were beginning to disappear, the regatta has grown to the extent that over 200 hundred craft from Europe and the U.K are displayed when the boats and their owners assemble at Fawley Meadow, Henley-On-Thames in July each year to share their enthusiasm, expertise and sense of a good day out for boaties, their friends and anyone with an interest in traditional craft.
Lovingly maintained, the boats glisten in the sun, brasses gleam, flags flap, and proud owners, many in the traditional dress of striped blazer and boater hat, generously make themselves available to tell the onlooker the finer details of their craft. Not to be outdone, a number of women too, dress in traditional costume of long skirted dresses, flowery hats and nosegays of summer flowers. As with many events of this nature, there are prizes for costumes, and the many classes of boat. And what better to set the atmosphere of the day than a traditional jazz band to get the blood stirring and the feet tapping.
Having done a quick recce it is time to begin the serious stuff – categories, lines, finish, history. And the history is extensive. Built in 1883, the steamboat ‘Alaska’ offers rides. She’s the oldest original passenger steamboat on the river Thames. ‘President’, www.nb-president.org.uk built in 1909, a steam narrow boat – a work horse of the canals, snuggles quietly alongside the river bank. ‘Robert’ a lifeboat built in 1960 and the only lifeboat to have served in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales saving 46 lives in 30 years of active service sits proudly further downstream. There’s ‘Leaf’, a packboat, designed and built by Sir Frank Whittle, (inventor of the jet engine), so his employees could go fishing on their day off. Launches open and closed, small, medium and large, skiffs, a genuine Venetian gondola, canoes, gigs, canal boats, one sail boat, steam boats and a tug are all lined up either on the bank or in the water. Although all are competing for prizes, there is an air of bonhomie among the owners and their friends no doubt helped along by the odd drop of the bubbly stuff.
For us, the biggest highlight for us was the display of some of the “Dunkirk Little Ships”, www.adls.org.uk those worthies which had so valiantly sailed across the channel in 1940 rescuing 338,000 British and Allied troops. The little ships as they are lovingly called took pride of place in the display and were bedecked with strings of bunting, shining woodwork and glittering brasses. Proud owners, many of whom were from the next family generation were happy to tell of the history of their craft. In the calm and peace of the day, with the sounds of eager voices, happy children and lively music, the idea of war seemed a long way off.
Naturally, like most shows or rallies there are the trade stalls. Tempting fittings, tools and memorabilia are on offer. Marine insurance is available; restoration boat yards are advertising their skills, sign writers, boat builders ply their trade and most have their displays set up as working units on the day. An excellent display.
Picnickers abound and we find a spot at the water’s edge by a family of swans and the jazz band, right in middle of the display area which runs a good half kilometre along the water’s edge. Weather-wise, there is a keen wind and the day is a little chilly. When the thermos runs out, we find the inexpensive takeaway coffees are good and hot and the slabs of fruit cake to go with them just the best. If one is inclined there is also an excellent catering tent which caters for thirst as well as hunger.
As the day draws into the afternoons, the boats take to the water for the parade of classes. Two witty comperes give the pedigree of each boat and occasionally of the owners as well. One chapter of Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” is enacted as a narrated parade, by – three men in a boat. Fun, laughter and a fair bit of horseplay abound.
Normally there is an illuminated parade of boats at night, but threatening weather caused the organisers to cancel the event.
For anyone travelling to the U.K this or any year, a trip to the Henley- on -Thames Traditional Boat Rally www.tradboatrally.com is a must. To be honest, I was not entirely sure that a whole day ‘looking at boats’ would be my thing, but I have to confess I was completely captivated by the whole event.