Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Stream of Pleasure

Henley - from The Stream of Pleasure, 1891

This afternoon - it was very quite in the the shop - I was reading a very nice book: The stream of pleasure. A narrative of a journey on the Thames from Oxford to London (1891, Joseph Pennell & Elizabeth Robins Pennell, illustrated Joseph Pennell, Internet Archive streamofpleasure00penn).

As I mentioned previously (see Elizabeth Robins Pennell on Margate and London at play: on Margate's sands) ERP was an American journalist, writer and critic whose work in the late 19th and early 20th century including affectionate portraits of London life and leisure for the US market. The Stream of Pleasure is an evocative account, co-written with her artist husband Joseph (who also produced the illustrations), of a trip down the Thames, from Oxford to Richmond, in the Rover, a Thames camping skiff:

It was only a pair-oared skiff, shorter and broader than those generally seen on the Thames — "a family boat," an old river man called it with contempt ; but then it had a green waterproof canvas cover which stretched over three iron hoops and converted it for all practical purposes into a small, a very small, house-boat. By a complicated arrangement of strings the canvas could be so rolled up and fastened on top as — theoretically — not to interfere with our view of the river banks on bright days ; or it could be let down to cover the entire boat from stern to bow — an umbrella by day, a hotel by night.

Under it we could camp out without the bother of pitching a tent. We had already talked a great deal about the beautiful nights upon the river, when we should go to bed with the swans and rise up with the larks, and cook our breakfast under the willows, and wash our dishes and ourselves in quiet clear pools. What if river inns were as extortionate and crowded as they are said to be ? we should have our own hotel with us wherever we went. In the midst of a weak and damp hurrah from one ancient boatman, and under a heavy baptism not of champagne, but of rain, the Rover was at last pushed off her trestles and with one vigorous shove sent clean across the Thames to the raft where we stood under umbrellas, while Salter's men at once began to load her with kitchen and bedroom furniture. They provided us with an ingenious stove with kettles and frying-pans fitting into each other like the pieces of a Chinese puzzle, a lantern, cups and saucers and plates, knives and forks and spoons, a can of alcohol, and, for crowning comfort, a mattress large enough for a double bedstead. It filled the boat from stern to bow, covering the seats, burying the sculls and boat hooks, bulging out through and over the rowlocks. It was clear if it went we must stay, and so we said, as if we rather liked the prospect of roughing it, that we could manage just as well and be just as comfortable if we slept on our rugs ; for we carried all the Roman blankets and steamer rugs we possessed, together with a lot of less decorative blankets borrowed from our landlady in London, and the bundle they made took up the place of two people in the boat. The locker was stored with our supply of sardines, jam, chocolate, tea, sugar, biscuits, towels, and tea-cloths. Our bags were stowed away with the kitchen things. And then at last we crawled into the long green tunnel.

Despite all these mod cons, on the first night the Pennells went all nesh and stayed in an inn because it was raining, and thereafter abandoned the option of camping out in the skiff. Nevertheless, it's still an interesting journey, a genteel account of the inns, villages and towns they visit en route during their month-long trip. The book could be viewed as a serious countertext to Jerome K Jerome's 1891 Three Men in a Boat (which also involved a skiff holiday on the Thames, between Kingston and Oxford). Both books were written in the same time-slot, when commercial traffic on the upper Thames had ceased, and boating holidays had become a Victorian craze.

Much of the flavour of the Thames of the time is captured in the works of the Oxford photographer Henry Taunt, who was both a documenter and populariser of the upper Thames, chiefly through his guidebook Taunt's Illustrated Map of the Thames, which in the 1875 fifth edition covered the whole river from Thames Head to the Houses of Parliament. Another, later, good guide is the 1897 The Thames Illustrated: a picturesque journeying from Richmond to Oxford (Internet Archive thamesillustrate00leylrich), which is copiously illustrated with high-quality photos.

The riverscape has changed remarkably little since these books were written. In 2010, a Millennium Project by photographers Jeff Robins and Graham Diprose, In the footsteps of Henry Taunt, revisited and rephotographed Taunt's locations; the English Heritage Viewfinder site has a 22-page photo-essay, In the footsteps of Henry Taunt, with a number of comparison images such as Salter's boatyard in Oxford, the Beetle & Wedge pub, and the church of St Thomas of Canterbury at Goring.

You can even still  take Thames skiff holidays - though personally, being in a shallow-draft rowing boat alongside powered river traffic doesn't sound my idea of a relaxing holiday. I may be wrong - see How three women in a boat took a trip back in time (Joanne O'Connor, The Observer, 2 July 2006). But the Thames Path National Trail looks more to my taste.

Related further reading:
  • The book of the Thames : from its rise to its fall (Samuel Carter Hall, 1859, Internet Archive bookofthamesfrom00hall).
  • Evenings on the Thames; or, Serene Hours, and what they require, Volume 2 (Kenelm Henry Digby, 1864, Google Books)
  • Dickens's dictionary of the Thames, from its source to the Nore: an unconventional handbook (Charles Dickens, 1883 and other eds., Internet Archive dickenssdictiona1885dick).

- Ray

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