I’m sure most of you will know what CAMRA is – it stands for the Campaign for Real Ale, and it is actually the largest consumer group in the European Union, with over 160,000 members in the UK. People who like drinking real ale usually have an affection for other “traditional” things, such as historic pubs, steam trains and…. Thames sailing barges! It seemed the natural thing to do to explore the possibility of organising weekend charters for beer drinkers who wanted to experience life on a Thames barge. Little did I realise how popular they would be!
After last year’s successful charter, the Maldon and Dengie Branch of CAMRA organised two separate weekends this year. The first charter was from Upnor on the river Medway in July, which was followed by one from Maldon in September. Both trips were very well received, with many of the CAMRA members expressing a desire to repeat the experience in 2016.
The trip from Upnor began with a very convivial evening in the King’s Arms in Upper Upnor, which is a regular entry in the “Good Beer Guide”. The food and ale were excellent. We set off from Upnor downstream shortly after sunrise (which was about 5 o’clock); the Medway lacks the scenic charm of the Blackwater, but there was plenty to see along the way. We passed Sheerness and managed to do some sailing on what was a glorious summer’s day. However, we wanted to explore Queenborough, so we headed into the Swale and anchored near the Harbour. The range of pubs was not that impressive, but we soaked up the sunshine for an hour. It was soon time to board the barge boat and re-join “Centaur”; we sailed to Stangate Creek, which was our overnight mooring.
After our meal, we drank some of the beer on board and joined in with skipper Geoff Harris and mate Mick Nolan as they sang some sea shanties for us. An evening to remember! We were up early, though, to make our way back up the Medway to Upnor on the tide. The winds were very light, but it was a beautiful day which made for a pleasant trip back to base. Quite a few of us took our turn at the wheel – Mick was also very good at assigning tasks to make us feel part of the crew. The feedback from everyone was really positive; they had particularly enjoyed the interaction with Geoff and Mick, which had been first-rate.
The second charter left from Maldon in mid-September. Only two of our group (including me!) had ever sailed on a Thames barge before, so this was an interesting trip. Geoff was once again our skipper, with Peter Taylor as mate. The Queen’s Head was the natural meeting place for the group on the Friday evening, and a good time was had by all. Our destination on Saturday was Rowhedge on the Colne; we had arranged with the landlord of the Olde Albion to call him to let him know we were on our way. He had indicated that he would open early for us at lunchtime, which was very accommodating of him! After a couple of excellent pints of ale, we clambered back on board and Geoff headed out of the Colne. We anchored off Bateman’s near Brightlingsea, which allowed us to make another trip ashore on the barge boat. The Railway Arms is a quirky watering hole, but serves good beer! After a great night aboard (with more sea shanties), we headed back to Maldon on the Sunday. Once again, the feedback was very good indeed; Geoff and Peter scored high marks for their friendly and participative approach to the whole weekend.
Where will we go next year? Suffolk is high on the list of options. I don’t think we will have any trouble finding people willing to come along.