9 May 2020
By Mark Blandford-Baker
As we mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe), I was reminded of Sir John Betjeman’s poem “Henley-on-Thames”. In the last verse he asks when we will see the Thames again, something we are asking ourselves now while in the midst of the Great Pestilence which has befallen the world in 2020.
Though written in 1948, three years after the Second World War ended, Betjeman (Poet Laureate 1972-1984) muses on the ‘beefy ATS without their hats’ – the ATS was the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the army until it merged in 1949 into the Women’s Royal Army Corps. Betjeman knew something of the river and rowing having been educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, though there is no record of him taking much part in the affairs of the Boat Club. To read the words of this poem it is easy to conjure up a warm summer’s day on the river and to feel nostalgia for an era past but also to empathise, as we head into a summer of no rowing and no Henley, with the poet’s reflective mood in the third verse.
Another eBay acquisition arrived this week, this time an 1898 Thames timetable. Prepared 50 years before Betjeman’s poem, it provides another angle on which to glimpse the summer season on the river. The charming way it is produced as a guide to how long it takes to row between towns and locks from Oxford to Putney, with all the caveats about the size of the boats, number of people rowing or sculling, the weather and so on, make one want to get out on the water and see how it compares today. Would that we can very soon.