13 October 2022
By Daniel Walker
In Part 1, Tim Koch gave some background to the recent Reflections flotilla on the River Thames. For Part 2, Malcolm Knight, one of the main organisers, gave his behind-the-scenes perspective. Today, Daniel Walker writes about taking part in the flotilla.
Originally conceived as part of the Totally Thames Festival 2022 and organised by Thames Alive for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year, the Thames Reflections Flotilla instead became both a memorial marking the death of Queen Elizabeth and a celebration of the accession of King Charles. Additionally, it was an opportunity to raise money for the new Royal National Lifeboat Institution station at Waterloo Bridge.
One hundred and fifty river craft representing the river community, from single person canoes through traditional oared cutters and shallops, the Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana to modern cruisers and motor boats all took part. Every one decorated and illuminated with simple white lights – the first illuminated flotilla on the Thames in over 300 years.
I was rowing aboard the Lady Mayoress, a 42-foot shallop of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. We were a crew of six oarsmen and a cox. Using traditional wooden oars, resting in open thole pins (no swivel gates for us) and a simple leather sleeve without buttons or collars. The oars were long, heavy, unwieldy and quite a change from the carbon sculls I am more used to using. Thus equipped the six of us were able to propel her at, shall we say, a suitably stately pace.
Along with the other traditional craft we mustered at Imperial Wharf, a short way downriver from Wandsworth Bridge in West London. As the sun started to set, we started to row downriver through Battersea Rail Bridge, the first of 17 bridges we would pass that night. Below the bridge we were joined by Gloriana, the Queen’s Row Barge, steered by Chris Livett (formerly the Queen’s Barge Master, now awaiting appointment as the King’s Barge Master) and rowed by Doggett’s winners assisted, slightly oddly, by broadcaster and writer, Ben Fogle.
Gloriana took position in the centre of the flotilla, ahead were the motor craft and behind were the rowers and paddlers. In Lady Mayoress we were immediately behind Gloriana.
This was the start of a simply magical experience, rowing through central London with the sun setting in a dramatic sky behind us. As the evening turned to twilight and then the light faded entirely the illuminations on the boats started to glitter in the dark.
That evening will live long in my memory: the incredible crowds watching from bridges and along the bank; the chimneys of Battersea Power Station lit up in red, white and blue; Gloriana’s oars gleaming like lightsabres; the shimmering lights from dozens of rowing boats scattered across the Thames behind us; the Royal Navy officers and ratings aboard HMS Belfast standing to the salute as we glided past; standing with our oars raised to salute in return; rowing under the raised bascules of Tower Bridge bathed in purple light.
A truly memorable night.
The official 7-minute video of the event is on the Thames Alive Facebook Page of 10 October (make sure playback is set to “HD”).