Let Your Boat of Life Be Light*

*from “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)” by Jerome K Jerome

It’s a little chilling to read, when you consider that Henry VIII brought each of his six wives to Hampton Court Palace, that “Viking Cruises is delighted to be headline sponsor of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show”.

Still, the day went off well, and I joined for a little while the crowd watching the World Cup on the big screen thoughtfully positioned above the Cocktail Bar.

The last launch of the day back to Richmond is scheduled for 5.45pm. (“At six o’clock their Mommies and Daddies/Will take them home to bed”), and we are keen not to miss it. It has capacity for a hundred and ninety passengers, though probably half that number will travel.

We start to gather near the landing stage, sitting on the grass and picking at it, like spectators at School Sports Day. Every so often, a representative of Turks Launches or Parrs checks that we don’t really want the shuttle to Hampton Court Station or the trip to Molesey Lock.

The lock at East Molesey stars in Three Men in a Boat, a comic travelogue published in 1889. The trip it describes is a typical boating holiday of the time in a Thames camping skiff. This was just after commercial boat traffic on the Upper Thames had died out, replaced by the 1880s craze for boating as a leisure activity.

The family business of Turks Launches was established in Kingston in 1710. When Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”, depicting the final years of Sir Thomas More, was made into a film in 1966, the late Michael Turk, Swan Marker and Queen’s Waterman, was approached. In response to the request for a 16th Century shallop, he built a replica in his boatyard.

As Lord Chancellor of England, More (author of the 1516 work, “Utopia”) refused to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and refused to take an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England. In 1535, More was executed by beheading for his stance. Dr Clarence Miller has written that for Bolt, the religious pole “…could only be a metaphor for something else, the watery, amorphous, terrifying cosmos in which modern existential man finds himself …”.

We board the New Southern Belle, and skittishness sets in. Most of us are sitting in the upper saloon, where the double row of chairs in the middle are placed back to back, as though for a game of musical chairs. A young man comes round to check our tickets, and confesses to being Swedish, enabling us to commiserate with him patronisingly.

It is like starring in a Royal Progress, and whatever our nationality when we boarded, we are all now definitely identifying as English for the duration of the trip. Along the banks of the river and on the river itself, people want to wave at us and cheer, including the crowd outside Richmond Yacht Club, who are all dressed as pirates of the Gilbert and Sullivan variety.

As we approach St Helena (patron saint of new discoveries) Pier in Richmond, the pilot gives two blasts on the ship’s hooter – one for each English goal, I surmise. The crew see us off, looking as exhausted as parents who have hosted a children’s party.

Please, no tears before bedtime.

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