Remembering Rowing and the River During Lockdown

Early morning Hammersmith Bridge in the mist.

18 June 2020

By Daniel Walker, text & photography

On 23 March 2020, as part of their response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the British government announced a wide-ranging series of restrictions to normal life which, amongst many other things, meant that rowing of any sort was no longer allowed.

In response to this announcement, on 24 March, I started to post a series of rowing-related pictures on Twitter. I called this the “Tideway Day of …” series with the intention that it would provide a small reminder to the rowing community of normal life and in particular of rowing and the river.  Each day, I selected a picture from the archive of pictures I have taken over the last several years when I have been living near to and rowing on the Tideway. I have been taking pictures of the river since about 2006 and have taken a picture almost every day for the last five years.

The majority of the pictures are of the short stretch of the Thames from Putney Bridge to about Kew Bridge, though I included an occasional foray from further afield, including training camp in Spain, Henley on Thames, the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepoint and Strathclyde Park.

The whole series ran for 52 days finishing on the day that a limited resumption of rowing (single sculling and “household” doubles only) was announced. For this piece, I have selected nine of those images that encapsulate for me this particular stretch of water.

Day 30 – Key Rail Bridge and Oliver’s Island (iPhone 8)

This picture was the image from Day 30 of the series – it is taken from the Middlesex bank looking up-river to Kew Rail Bridge. The island beyond the bridge is Oliver’s Island. As a student, I rowed from the University of London Boat House a short way downriver from where I took this picture and this scene is etched in my memory.

Oliver’s Island, which is rumoured (incorrectly) to have been a hideout for Oliver Cromwell, was the 18th-century location for a tool booth and barge to levy tolls on river traffic. The barge provided the inspiration for the name of the nearby pub, The City Barge.

Day 3 – Chiswick Bridge (iPhone 6)

A short way downriver is Chiswick Bridge. Every rower who has raced a Tideway head will know this view – it’s almost exactly as you see it as you start the Championship course – 4 ¼ miles lies ahead of you and you are already feeling tired. The only difference is it’s hardly ever this sunny and the tide is never this low on a race day.

Day 32 – Barnes Bridge (iPhone 8)

Barnes Bridge is a rail and foot bridge carrying a loop of the rail line from London as it diverts away from the main line to Richmond and instead heads to Chiswick and Hounslow. The first Barnes Bridge was built in the 1840s, but the second and present Barnes Bridge took over its function in the 1890s. Although they are no longer used some of the spans from the original bridge remain in place and can just be seen curving down sharply to the brick piers on the far side of the bridge in the photograph.

Day 4 – Corney Reach (iPhone 6)

Turning from where the last photograph was taken, we look down Corney Reach towards Chiswick Pier and the smoke stack of the Fuller’s, Smith and Turner Griffin Brewery, now owned by Asahi. Even though it’s still mid-tide, this picture clearly shows how shallow the river is on the Barnes side – rumour and some older residents tell me that World War II bombs are responsible for the pools and banks in the shallows – racing crews need to keep well into the centre as they leave Barnes Bridge behind.

I should love to claim that photographic skill ensured the perfect positioning of the gull in the frame, but it was sheer, blind luck.

Day 17 – Chiswick Eyot (iPhone 5S)

At low tide, one can walk out from Chiswick Mall and reach Chiswick Eyot, the last true island on the Tideway before the sea. This picture is taken from the upstream end, looking towards Chiswick Pier, home of the Chiswick RNLI station and Chiswick Pier House, the organisational hub of most Tideway Head races. The island is now a nature reserve and must be treated with appropriate care.

Day 19 – After the Island (Canon 350D with 75-300)

The Head of the River Race in 2007 was not a good day for almost anyone involved. Conditions at the start were benign but by the island it was brutal. This picture shows a Leander Club crew sinking with an abandoned eight (judging by the blades probably one belonging to Marlow RC) in the background. Purely by chance, I was spectating that day, on the shore just after Chiswick Eyot, at almost exactly the halfway point on the race. The race had been abandoned by the time this picture was taken. Readers can be assured that the crew were all rescued by the safety teams.

Day 48 – Single Sculler and Hammersmith Bridge (Fuji X-T20 with 16-55)

These days, I row from a club located close to Hammersmith Bridge and as a consequence, it appears in rather a lot of my pictures. I find this a particularly evocative image of a lone sculler paddling through the mist towards what is perhaps the most iconic and lovely bridge on this stretch of the river.

The Hammersmith Bridge of today is the second such bridge and was designed by Joseph Bazalgette (also largely responsible for the London sewer network). It rests on the same pier foundations as the previous, original bridge. Hammersmith Bridge has had a troubled life, twice bombed by the Provisional IRA and once by the Real IRA and has suffered extensive structural challenges since at least the 1970s. It has been closed to motor traffic since April 2019 following the discovery of cracks in the cast iron pedestals, which transfer the load from the suspension chain links into the bridge footings on each side. The resolution is still unclear; however, the present proposals include the building of a temporary pedestrian and cycle bridge a short way downstream.

Somewhat ironically at the same time as Bazalgette’s celebrated bridge is facing reconstruction so too his sewer system is being replaced by a new 25km Thames Tideway “super sewer”, due to be completed in 2024. I suspect the super sewer will be helping keep the river clean long before the bridge will be back to normal operation.

Day 10 – Crabtree Reach (iPhone 8)

Perhaps my favourite of all the pictures in the series: with Hammersmith Bridge just behind me, the early morning sun is rising over Crabtree Reach looking towards Putney. The cranes in the distance mark the reconstruction works at Fulham Football Club’s ground, Craven Cottage, where the Riverside Stand is being wholly rebuilt.

The building on the right with the sun-tinged cupolas is the former Harrods Furniture Depository, built in 1914 and converted to residential use in 2000.

Day 16 – Dawn Over Scullers Head 2014 (iPhone 5S)

The last picture in this series is also the oldest, taken as the sun was getting up over Putney Embankment on the morning of the Vesta Scullers Head in 2014.

A note about the pictures: over the years my cameras have changed fairly often, but the majority of the pictures used here were actually taken with the camera built into my phone, usually an iPhone of some sort. I additionally use a pocket-sized point and shoot, Canon S120, that provides slightly more flexibility than the iPhone whilst still being incredibly convenient. If I want more control, then I used first a Canon DSLR and recently switched to a Fuji X-T20.

Daniel Walker has been in and around rowing since he was a schoolboy in Norwich in the 1980s. He is a British Rowing Multi Lane Umpire, sits on more committees than he cares to remember and a member of Auriol Kensington Rowing Club and Leander Club.

One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos. I’m in lockdown in Surrey and haven’t seen the Thames for months.

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