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A Century of River Craft

You may have seen wooden rowing boats and elegant punts out on the River Thames between Kingston and Hampton Court bridges. If so the chances are you’ve been watching members of the Dittons Skiff and Punting Club, in their distinctive yellow and blue striped tops, enjoying this beautiful stretch of the river in their traditional Thames crafts. In this, its centenary year, we meet up with members of the club to learn more…


Words | Alex Riley


Situated in the heart of Thames Ditton, next to the Albany pub, Dittons Skiff and Punting Club enjoys a fantastic location overlooking Home Park and Hampton Court Palace. Club members, Natalie MacLean, Guy Hanscomb and Natasha Woollard welcome me for a visit.


We begin with a tour of the boathouse, which is packed to the rafters (literally) with the Thames skiffs used by the club – hand crafted traditional wooden sculling (rowing) boats of a design which has been seen on the Thames for over 100 years and which remains virtually unchanged. Equally impressive are the wooden punts (narrower than their counterpart leisure punts to be found in Oxford or Cambridge). The skills required to build and maintain these craft are found only in a handful of places up and down the Thames, and the club is instrumental in keeping these traditional skills and expertise alive.


‘There is nothing quite like the feeling of taking a skiff out on the water on a summer’s evening, to focus on nothing but the rhythm of the sculling.’

Natalie, who is vice-captain of punting at the club, provides a demonstration of punting technique on terra firma, and it is immediately apparent how much skill is involved. However, the emphasis at the club is on welcoming all-comers who would like to try either skiffing or punting (or both), and, as we sit upstairs in the clubhouse enjoying the great views over the river, Natasha explains that from 25th May to 24th August the club runs Thursday evening taster sessions, at which everyone is welcome to come along and have a go. “I used to wonder how you got to have a go in these boats you see up and down this stretch of river”, Natasha says, “until a friend introduced me to the club last year. I had no previous rowing experience, but everyone here is extremely welcoming and willing to put their time into those who would like to come and take part, whether competitively or not. There is also a thriving social side to the club – on Tuesdays throughout the year we have a club night – members can take it in turn to cook and it is great opportunity to meet and catch up with fellow members.”


Guy, the vice-captain of skiffing explains that he too is a comparative newcomer to the club, having joined a couple of years ago, also with no previous rowing experience. “Members are free to come and row at any time (river conditions permitting) – there is nothing quite like the feeling of taking a skiff out on the water on a summer’s evening, to focus on nothing but the rhythm of the sculling – a good way to clear the head after a busy day or week.” Not only does being on the water improve physical fitness and technique, it also appears to aid mental wellbeing – working with Help for Heroes, the club found that the active and safe environment helped support veterans and their families discuss and overcome any problems.


With summer comes regatta season, and events practically every weekend with other skiff and punting clubs located up and down the river. Those who wish to do so can take their skiffing or punting more competitively, and races are overseen by the respective governing bodies for the two sports, the Skiff Racing Association and Thames Punting Club. “There is rivalry, but it is a very courteous rivalry!”, says Guy.


Natasha adds that the club, along with others up and down the river, has the opportunity to take part in other London river events, such as The Great River Race (London’s river marathon), a 22 mile race upstream from Greenwich to Ham in which crews of all manner of boats powered by oars or paddles compete. Guy recalls taking part in the 2022 event – and the amazing experience of rowing past the Palace of Westminster – “a unique perspective on one of our most familiar landmarks”.


2023 marks a milestone for the club – its centenary year. A year of special events is planned, on and off the river. “Look out for the Centenary Flotilla on Saturday 17th June when all of the club’s craft will be out on the river – it promises to be quite a spectacle”, says Natasha.


It has been such a pleasure to meet Natalie, Guy and Natasha and to be infused by such enthusiasm for the club, their commitment to nurturing its traditions, both sporting and social, and to welcoming anyone who would like to come and have a go. I certainly plan to do so.

 

Taster Sessions run on Thursdays at 6.30pm from 25 May, and are open to all.

For further details on getting involved and membership:

Dittons Skiff and Punting Club

Albany Reach, Queens Road, Thames Ditton KT7 0QH


www.dittons.org.uk | enquiries@dittons.org.uk

Instagram @dittonsskiffpunting

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