July 05 2010
The heatwave was in its second week as Henley readied itself for the first day of the Royal Regatta. It was perfect weather for boating, and Francis Morton (known to his City friends as “Frog”) had invited a couple of mates from work for a beano on the MV Lady Mildred.
The broker had picked up several bottles of chilled champagne and a picnic hamper from Harrods (with hors d’oeuvres, three poached lobsters and plenty of strawberries) before he met up with his chums downriver from Henley, at Hurley, where the Lady Mildred was moored. She was a 38ft 1923 Gentleman’s Saloon Day Launch, as elegant and mannered as an Edwardian dandy, with a curved beaver stern, Lloyd Loom furniture and a 1916 Buick petrol engine. Her mahogany-planked hull contrasted gently with the oak-beamed cabin covering the rear third of the launch, and there was a striped-silk canopy to its fore. “I like to think of it as a floating version of a box at Royal Ascot, only without the need to dress up in silly clothes and hats,” said Frog, who was clad in an ancient pith helmet, frayed open-necked Jermyn Street shirt and faded blue shorts.
The boat had been in the family since it was commissioned by Frog’s grandfather, the late Marquis of Northleach, who had named it after his favourite mistress. It was one of perhaps less than a 100 such bespoke boats that graced the River Thames, most of which were owned by those who liked to pretend they lived in a dilettante age, even if in reality they mostly worked at the computer face.
It cost a small fortune to keep The Mildred afloat – there was no change from £60,000 when the hull was restored two years ago – but it was as grand a launch as there was on the river. And it was certainly a cut above what Frog referred to as “the vulgar Slipper”, the 30ft mahogany boat with the sloping stern and split windscreen described by its builders as “rakish with a touch of opulence”. This was first launched in the 1920s and had been faithfully reproduced every decade since. Slippers were frequently driven by enthusiasts in captain’s caps and striped blazers and, said Frog, “More often than not they have bowls of flowers on the foredeck.”
While a Slipper was not designed for speed – most would struggle to make more than 10 knots – a Gentleman’s Day Launch was even more languorous. Even at full throttle it barely made a bow-wave. However, this did have its advantages, allowing for a proper meal to be eaten at a table – and on the Lady Mildred Frog insisted on a decent tablecloth, china, and ice buckets for the champagne.
And today was no different. The table, with the lobster and strawberries, was a picture from a glossy magazine. Frog steered gently towards a bankside mooring to tie up for a preprandial drink before the tuck-in. But as he pottered towards the spot, a Leslie Phillips character in a Slipper called MV Skylark sped in front of him in a crass attempt to bag the same picnic spot. The Lady Mildred was forced to turn sharply, causing the champagne to spill and a Wedgwood bowl of fresh mayonnaise to slide off the table and onto the deck.
“Nettle-crouchers!” shouted Frog, a particularly vicious insult because Slippers, unlike Gent’s Day Launches, don’t have lavatories. “Don’t forget the tin-opener,” replied the tin-pot Slipper driver, an oblique reference to the book Three Men in a Boat, and a jibe at the lavish lobster spread.
Unfortunately, the remark carried across the water to the MV Flower of Kent, a 45ft launch that was passing. It was flying the Cross of St George defaced with the Arms of Dunkirk and was one of the “Little Ships” that had helped evacuate British troops from France. In boating terms, it was royalty. Nobody upstaged a Dunkirk veteran, let alone sneered at it by implying that its crew still lived on wartime rations. It is why Frog gave a wry, but wide, smile when he saw a tin of Spam arching its way from the Flower of Kent toward the MV Skylark.