Alex Gregory, the two-time Olympian, escapes the city to find adventure on the river.
Recently, I had a morning of meetings in London. When they were over, and my weekly quota of coffee consumed, I was ready to escape the city for an impromptu adventure. Over the past 18 months, I’ve got to know London fairly well, regularly jumping on the train and making my way into the sprawling metropolis. I’m a country boy at heart but I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy my visits. There’s something fascinating about the history around every corner. That day, a feeling of calm came over me as I headed for Paddington to jump on the nex train towards the countryside around Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. I was planning to meet up with a good friend of mine who I was introducing to rowing for the first time
Nick and I are two kindred spirits, happiest immersed in nature, surrounded by wildlife and fresh air. Rowing would give us the perfect opportunity to take a break from our daily lives, reset our souls and, for Nick, try something new. The journey took no time at all, a little more than an hour from London. I meet Nick on the platform in Henley-on-Thames, the heart of rowing within the UK. This pretty town on the river is accustomed to the clunk of an oar and the surge of a boat with its famous annual regatta. The sun shone down on us; we couldn’t have chosen a better day. We took our time to walk along the riverfront, admiring the boats moored up, pausing to discuss the opportunities for river-based adventures. We’re both adventurous souls with imaginations that take us all over the world to remote and extreme environments. But we’d settle for the Thames today and, after a recent Arctic expedition in a rowing boat, I was more than happy to keep my toes thawed.
My friends at Hobbs of Henley allowed us to jump aboard one of their biggest hire vessels. It was great to look out over the river and view it from a different perspective, monitoring its patterns and eddies as it flowed under the arches of a bridge. A huge amount of water had hit the Thames after a heavy snowfall and it had caused the river to swell. Rivers are dynamic beasts that we try to tame, but as rowers we are often at their mercy, skimming across the swirling surface with little control.
Pushing away from land is good for you. It gives you a chance to assess; some thinking space. I’ve devoted a chapter to it in my book, Dadventures, which is out at the end of May. It’s a book of ideas for parents who want to make lasting memories in the outdoors with their children, and it’s something I’ve come to live by with my three youngsters. I try to encourage friends to try outdoor activities, too, and Nick needs no encouragement to have an adventure on the water. Trying something new is good for you, and in the UK the great outdoors is always just a short train journey away.
Rowing is a sport of unity, ultimate teamwork, where the activity is mostly done in silence. We row to feel the boat move beneath us, we feel every ripple and eddy. The rhythm and concentration required to get anywhere means our senses are heightened. We hear, smell and see things that others don’t and, as I talk Nick through the movements and techniques, we become lost in our own adventure, immersed in our surroundings. Nick is a natural, he moves with ease; able to grip the water with his oar and propel us forward… the balance will come later!
With muscles aching and a sweat on our brows, Nick and I made it back to land. We’d spoken very little for the past hour – now the words fell out of us, excited by the short adventure we’d just had. “I have to admit I was a little nervous about going out on the water,” he says. “But within minutes of pushing off the pontoon we were steaming up the river in the two-manned rowing boat. There was real sense of adventure as we got further away from Henley, which felt great. The experience was fantastic and I would encourage everyone to have a go. It’s not as daunting as it looks.”