Far, Far Away
29 July 2020
By Daniel Walker, text & photography
When I planned out the four parts of my article on the rowing clubs and boathouses of the Tideway, I managed to wholly overlook two clubs that although based a long way from the familiar waters of Putney and Hammersmith are very firmly part of the Tideway scene. Indeed, these clubs are probably those most keenly exposed to the realities of rowing on a major commercial waterway: Erith Rowing Club and Gravesend Rowing Club.
Erith and Gravesend are located towards the eastern end of the Tideway, the last two rowing clubs before the Thames reaches the sea. And, I now know, they are 66km by bicycle from my home in Barnes. At least its 66km from Gravesend and somewhat less from Erith.
Erith Rowing Club was founded in 1943, making it one of the youngest clubs on the Tideway, perhaps second only to Fulham Reach Boat Club. However, rowing in Erith seems to pre-date the club by some years, with a town regatta that can trace its roots back to the end of the 19th century. The regatta faded away in the 1950s, but the club continues strongly to this day.
Erith RC occupies a wooden building right on the edge of the Tideway with access via stone steps directly in front of the building or via a substantial wooden slipway a few metres away.
Eleven miles further downriver, Gravesend Rowing Club was founded in 1878 and like many rowing clubs, their earliest days involved renting rooms from a pub or hotel, in Gravesend’s case, the Commercial Hotel. Their first clubhouse was built around 1908, carefully adhering to the requirement not to exceed eleven feet in order in order that “the coastal defence guns in the fort would have a clear field of fire over the top”. The present building was opened in 1990.
I visited Gravesend on a splendid sunny Saturday afternoon this month. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus restrictions meant that there was no rowing activity and the club was closed. The clubhouse, a white, wooden-clad building sits on a very seaside-esque promenade along the edge of the river, here a broad and intimidating waterway. Like Erith, Gravesend has a large wooden slipway allowing access to the water even at low tide.
The town of Gravesend itself is in Kent, meaning that Gravesend RC is the only Tideway rowing club not to be within the administrative boundaries of London. The origin of the name Gravesend is disputed, many believing it to be derived from “graves end” – the place where the graves of the Black Death dead ended up; however, the Domesday Book from 1086, about 500 years before the plague, records the town as Gravesham and thus it seems more likely that the name is derived from either grafs-ham, the place at the end of the grove or from graaf-ham, the home of the reeve or bailiff.