(With apologies to Rudyard Kipling)
Left to right: Ganja the Dwarf, Voltarol, Alcohol
On the right hand side of this blog you will see my profile, which includes a reference to my two brothers – Alcohol and Ganja the Dwarf – and the fact that we have been known to go on the occasional mystic quest together. This apparent nom de blogish whimsy is in fact firmly rooted in reality and I have had several requests to explain more. So – as senior brother Alcohol has already written about this for publication elsewhere, I thought I would reproduce his piece here but with the addition of a few appropriate links and photographs. Only the names have remained the same to identify the far from innocent…
Three Old Farts in a Boat.
It was all the fault of my younger brother Pete. We bought him a first edition of one of his favourite books, “Three Men in a Boat”, for his sixtieth birthday last August and it reminded him of the enormous fun that he and I and his little brother Bob had on, in, and around the River nearly fifty years ago.
Within a week he ‘phoned me to suggest that the three of us get together and, using the book as a model, have a week on the
Thames. He had already propositioned Bob, searched the Web, and found a small company that hired out Victorian camping skiffs.
I hesitated for about a millisecond before agreeing. It has always been my ambition to grow old disgracefully and this seemed like a significant step in the right direction. As the plan was elaborated we decided that we would follow as directly as possible in the footsteps of Jerome K Jerome’s heroes. We would start from as near
as we could. We would take small tent for one of us and the other two would sleep under the canvas awning of the boat. If the weather was foul we might take refuge in a pub for the night. We would also exactly retrace their path by rowing upstream to Kingston , ninety-one miles and thirty-one locks. Circumstances even ensured that we did it at the same time of the year, the third week in May. Oxford
Just after three o clock on the afternoon of Wednesday the 17th the three of us shoved off from the landing slip at Thames Ditton. Pete and Bob were at the sculls and I was on the rudder lines. I uttered a confident and seamanlike cry of “give way” and we rowed out manfully into the stream. At this point Judy, our chauffeuse, began to look less apprehensive but we rather spoiled it by hailing her to ask which way was upstream.
Once this tricky point was resolved we made our farewells and set off pulling along the boundary of
Alcohol wrestles with the camping cover
It was something of a pantomime. None of us had erected a camping cover since I was a lad, the Victorian folding hoops seemed intent on inflicting painful injuries on our fingers and the heavy canvas cover weighed more than we remembered. Eventually we got it up, Bob’s tent was pitched, and with the aid of an entrenching tool sanitary facilities were provided in an adjacent thicket. This first night it took well over an hour and a half to set up camp but we got faster with practice
Ganja and Votarol work on the wine lake
Once order was established Pete cooked supper and I opened the first bottle of wine. We washed up in the river (We carried our drinking water with us but relied on the
Thames for washing water) and then opened the second bottle. We followed that with Pete’s secret camping potion, hot chocolate laced with about a quadruple brandy and by bedtime we were three deeply contented men. When we retired to our sleeping bags we slept like logs. We woke at about seven the next morning, breakfasted on tea, dried fruit and muesli, struck the tent and the cover, tidied the camp site and rowed off up river.
That first day set the pattern except that we abandoned the notion of cooking a main meal in the evenings as the weather worsened. From then on we found a pub for a couple of pints, a substantial lunch and coped with plenty of tea and cold food for breakfast and supper besides making serious inroads on the European wine and brandy lake.
The weather worsened and the wind was pretty consistently against us. On one day it recorded a mean speed of twenty-five knots, and as the heavy rain continued the lock keepers progressively opened the weir sluices and the current ran faster and faster. Passing through Reading we were overtaken by a three year old riding a fairy-cycle along the towpath and several times we were rowing flat out and only just managing to breast the current, while we hunted across the stream for slack water.
Ganja and Alcohol , Rosalind and Actief
On the fourth night we decided that a shower and a dry bed would be a good idea but discovered that most of the cheerful riverside pubs of our youth had been tarted up and become hideously expensive. What is more, in our wet and mud splattered condition we would have been about as welcome as a mild dose of amoebic dysentery. In the end, the friendly keeper at Sonning lock introduced us to “J” and Charlotte, the owners of the hotel boat “Actief” which was moored just above the lock. Despite the fact that they had just said farewell to a full complement of guests and had been looking forward to an evening off, they provided comfortable beds, hot showers, a great deal of wine and a magnificent breakfast.
Restored by good company and this touch of luxury we pressed on upstream and despite being awarded a yellow card, which told us that the current was now too strong for unpowered boats, we continued to head for
and became increasingly confident that we were going to make it. We developed a sneaking feeling of smug superiority when we encountered two more of Tom Balm’s skiffs coming downstream, the crew of one of them announcing that they had asked to be retrieved after only two days. Oxford
Despite the weather we were having a ball and despite an average age of sixty- two, reverting to our juvenile selves. We are none of us the sort of blokes to take readily to stuffed toys but Montmorency, the toy dog that had been loaned to us in place of Jerome’s very real one, began to develop a personality.
Montmorency availing himself of the facilities...
Dafter still, we boozily decided that we were on a quest and adopted the characters of Voltarol, Alcohol, and Ganja the Dwarf. Any one that has suffered from arthritis will be familiar with Voltarol, Alcohol needs no explanation, and two years teaching in a school for disturbed adolescents provided me with the third name. We later added a fourth character to our pantheon, Offa’s Dyke, a Celtic princess of indeterminate gender.
The week wasn’t merely a combination of a nostalgia fest, an endurance trial and a geriatric booze cruise. It was also a journey through a positively magical landscape. Once above Windsor, apart from a rather dreary passage through
Reading, the is every bit as beautiful as it was fifty years ago. There wasn’t very much river traffic and because a rowing boat makes very little noise the wild life took next to no notice of us and we saw at close range Red Kites, Parakeets, Herons, innumerable water-fowl, and a quietly busy little water vole. The banks were as leafy as ever and the May blossom brought to mind hackneyed comparisons with lace and foam, and an odour that booted all three of us back to being about ten years old again. Thames Valley
The lock keepers were almost universally helpful, there were still a few cheerful unpretentious riverside pubs which gave us a very warm welcome and most of the folks we shared the river with were friendly and good natured.
When we emerged from the final lock at Iffley we ran directly into a flotilla of Oxford regatta crews who were evidently bewildered by a trio of elderly hooligans chanting “Voltarol, Alcohol and Ganja the Dwarf” but before we could get in to serious trouble we reached the slipway above Donnington Bridge, where two daughters and three grandchildren were cheering and waving flags at us. “Rosalind” was hauled out of the River and on to Tom Balm’s trailer, and our voyage was over. There will be another one next year. Despite a few creaks aches and pains none of us wants to wait for another forty- eight years before we do it again.
The good ship 'Rosalind' and her crew at journey's end.
Well, that was in May 2006. The following year we paddled two Canadian Canoes down the River Wye together, on a quest that we named - unsurprisingly - 'Three men in two boats', and one day I'll tell that story here. For various reasons there has not been a quest since then but we are currently planning one for next year. We are not quite sure what form it will take but it will definitely involve boats and a renewed assault on the European wine and brandy lake. Maybe we'll try to swim across it...