Colin Henwood, wooden boat builder and early exhibitor, on how, like Old Father Thames, the 'Trad' maintains momentum.
With photographs by Kathy Mansfield.

The River Thames has a great tradition of fine boating. The proximity of London with its fashion and wealth started the notion of relaxing on a beautiful river back in the 1880s and the idea has never really gone away.

There was a lean period in the 1970s when the extinction of delicate wooden rivercraft seemed almost inevitable but the faithful held their breath and the tradition survived, thanks to some intervention by far sighted boatbuilders and boat owners. The late Peter Freebody's boatyard at Hurley, near Maidenhead, was the cradle of this revival. He knew that fine wooden boatbuilding would endure and that there were people out there who appreciated and valued beautiful elegant boats built from wood.

The other 'home' of the revival was the Thames Traditional Boat Rally, which began as a picnic on the riverbank at Henley in 1978 and has evolved to encourage an understanding of the wooden boat tradition on the river and beyond. The event is no longer a 'rally' and is now a 'festival' for it has long outgrown the picnic on the bank for a few boat owners; people now come from far and wide, bringing their enthusiasm for a special kind of British eccentricity, the unconventional and of course, beautiful boats.

Visitors new to the Festival discover a world they probably never knew existed, while those in the know are reassured that they are not alone in their passion for varnished mahogany, steam coal, cars which float – just about – and the odd vintage bicycle made of bamboo.

This year on 15-17 July, the middle Thames will again come alive to the 'Trad'. People will dress up to go out on the river, put flower arrangements on the decks of their immaculate launches, enjoy elaborate picnics and talk about which varnish to try next season.

They may enter their boats for prizes. The Chief Judge, a man with well-honed diplomatic skills, presides over a team of serious minded, eminently experienced minions judging the various classes. There are trophies to be won for the smoothest running engine, the best structural restoration, the best dressed crew, the most dazzling display in the illuminated parade on Saturday night, the best workboat... and many more classes.

This part of the Festival is taken seriously as it is often the justification for remarkable efforts by amateurs and professionals to excel in the work they carry out. To avoid pitting amateurs against highly skilled professionals, there are classes specifically for the home builders. The chance to take a trophy home in recognition of the hours of hard work and the dedication that goes into a prize winner pushes people to sacrifice much more than just money.

Atmosphere is often an over-used word to describe events but the Thames Traditional Boat Festival has an atmosphere confidently defined as eccentric, stylish and mad. The current management, all volunteers, somehow have also injected an element of the unexpected. If you have ever come across the historic motor event, the Goodwood Revival, then you will be at home at the Trad. A step back in time which celebrates handmade boats, where you can settle in a deck chair with a plate of good food to watch an amphibious lorry just making headway against the flow of the river or a magnificent steam launch with a gold-plated bird for a figurehead. Every so often you look up to find a pair of triplanes in a mock slow motion dogfight. Then a Spitfire barrels up the river and leaves with a victory roll. An early Thornycroft step hydroplane stutters into raucous life, locking into gear while desperately trying to keep below the river speed limit at tick-over.

There is any amount of oldtime boat fittings and nautical memorabilia to browse along an aisle of sprawling stands. The boatbuilders show off the most amazing craftsmanship. Vintage cars are everywhere. The Dunkirk Little Ships are there in force, keeping that extraordinary piece of history alive in the minds of a new generation.

The Trad certainly has atmosphere.

This article was first published in Watercraft Magazine, July/August 2022