Still happily afloat after 300 columns and 7 years

After a short interlude, Mort Smith sails back into our lives with thank-yous to some of the people who have provided inspiration for some many stories during the past seven years.

GREETINGS river lovers – sorry about the extended absence but my wife and I had very little idea about the amount of time it would take to get our new house even remotely straight. However, we’re getting there now.

This is the 300th Riverwatch column I’ve written for the Herald and News and I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back over the past seven years and to pick out some of the highlights that I’ve particularly enjoyed from writing about our wonderful stretch of the Thames.

First and foremost, I’ve met some wonderful people.

Pat Eustace, for example, who I dubbed the ‘Lady of the Lock’ because she lives beside Shepperton Lock – a truly lovely lady who told me great stories about learning to swim around Pharoah’s Island when she was a youngster and about playing on the lock.

Micki Gooding was another fantastic lady. Micki was losing her eyesight but had always loved the kingfishers that frequently her riverside home in Chertsey and had always wanted to see one up close. She told me the story about discovering a bird trapped inside her house and managing to catch it with a tea towel to guide it to freedom. But she then revealed that by feeling its long pointed beak and just being able to make out the blue and gold of its feathers she realised it was indeed a kingfisher. Her poignant comment was that she’d always wanted to be able to study one at close quarters but that when the chance came, she couldn’t really she it.

Of course, the river attracts a wide range of characters.

Jenny Beagle who runs the Bridge Marine boatyard at Shepperton where my brother and I kept our old Seamaster cabin cruiser for many years always has a tale to tell – and what that woman doesn’t know about boat engines ain’t worth knowing!

Michael Dennett, who with his son, runs a boatyard on the Chertsey side of Laleham Reach specialises in repairing and building wooden boats – and he’s restored many a Dunkirk Little Ship using skills that are rapidly dying out elsewhere on the Thames and other rivers.

He showed me the row of machine gun bullet holes in the bow of ML238, one of the Dunkirk little ships he was restoring that had been strafed by a German fighter during the evacuation from the beaches. Living history.

Talking of the Second World War, I had no idea until I started writing Riverwatch that our stretch of the Thames was so heavily involved during the conflict.

There was Thorneycroft’s Boatyard at Port Hampton, which manufactured motor torpedo boats, motor gun boats and a variety of launches for the Admiralty.

I discovered that Supermarine Walrus flying boats were built on Chertsey Meads and that a small amphibious tank called the Carden Loyd (correct) was built in the same place. There was even a photo of the tank crossing the Thames from the meads to Dumsey Meadow on the Middlesex bank . (You can just imagine what the authorities would make of that in the present day.)

I’ve written about the islands of the Thames, fishing, sailing clubs, rowing clubs, long distance swimming, secret passages from old manor houses to the river, scores of coconuts discovered by the banks of the river, sunken wrecks and artists who continually find fresh inspiration from the river.

And I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of my regular contacts including Doug Milsom, Matt Carter, Doug Myers, Mike Shefras, David Prior, Sally Dick, Alan Woolford and the dozens of other correspondents who have kept me stocked up with great stories about the Thames over the years – keep it coming guys…

And mostly I’d like to thank my lovely wife, Julie, and my brother, Alan, for putting up with my obsession and for helping me to enjoy the river.

When I first suggested writing Riverwatch, the then editor of the Herald and News told me that no-one would be interested and he doubted that I’d have enough material to keep it going for more than a couple of months.

I’m so glad he was wrong – and that’s down to you, the readers.

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