A boaty biography

Sophie Neville

I grew up with boats in the garden. My father owned eight at one time, including two coracles and a vintage river launch called Ottor that he renovated himself.

Martin Neville with friends on the Norfolk Broads

As a young man, while setting up a team to develop the fibreglass hull, Dad raced on the Solent, volunteered on a tall ship, and wrangled an Atlantic crossing on the maiden return voyage of the QE2, taking us children around the liner when it reached Southampton.

Sophie Neville with her younger sisters aboard the QEII in 1969

I learnt to sail dinghies at Newport Bay in Pembrokeshire, later making my own sail for a Thames skiff so that I could take it down the lake where I grew up in Gloucestershire.

My father wanted a Mirror dinghy, but since they were beyond his budget we had a dubious one-design with a ? on its sail.

A family holiday in a Hullabaloo boat on the Broads – off season

Dad bought one of the first Toppers, which seemed quite daring at the time. It had no halyards. Its arrival caused much excitement. Called Earwig, the fibreglass hull was portable but proved precarious, soaking the crew as waves sloshed over her orange deck. I wasn’t much good at withstanding the cold and grew to loath setting off with wet feet.

Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island
Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger rowing to Cormorant Island

Playing Titty in original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ involved quite a bit of rowing, which I kept up first as a member of the Collingwood Ladies Four at Durham University and later on the crew of The Drapers’ Shallop, a ceremonial barge that can be spotted on the Thames and River Lea, the Dart or Poole Harbour.

Rowing the Drapers’ shallop down to Runnymede

My dedication to fixed thwart rowing enabled me to take part in a Jubilee Pageant for The Queen at Henley, transport a copy of the Magna Carta to Windsor, and man an oar of the royal barge Gloriana in the Boat Race flotilla at Putney a year when Cambridge won.

Sophie Neville rowing in black cap on the River Thames at Putney

Belonging to the rowing club, City Barge, enabled me to take part in the Voga Longa in Venice – a 35km marathon – with the gold medalist Ed Coode as stroke. I later rowed a sandalo down the Amstel into Amsterdam standing to row Venetian-style, getting used to the idea of using a forcola in windy weather.

In the bows of a sandalo on the River Amstel in Amsterdam

We navigated the shallop down a tributary of the Loire in Brittany, leading a procession of two hundred and forty traditional boats into Nantes for the Rendez-vous de l’Erdre. I was asked to take the helm on the way back, great Dutch barges bearing down on us.

With the presenter and crew of France 3 news

One of my favourite vessels is a two-man canvas canoe my sister found on a rubbish dump. I nearly drowned after getting stuck in a kayak and prefer an open dugout or fibreglass equivalent. These have taken me on adventures in Papua New Guinea, across Lake Malawi and through the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Bird watching on the Boro River – Sophie Neville with Jez Lye

Back in 1978, I helped my father, Martin Neville, to restore a 1901 steamboat called Daffodil, which they kept near Oxford at Port Meadow on the Thames.

SL Daffodil on the River Thames

We would steam down to Henley each year for the royal regatta or upstream towards Letchlade. You can read about how we renovated here here.

We took a Humber Yawl that Dad built to take part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere and pay homage to launches used in the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ kept by George Pattinson at the Steam Boat Museum, now known as Windermere Jetty.

Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel on the broads

I a lot of time on the water while filming the 1984 BBC adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ when we spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads. The series starred a yacht called Lullaby from Hunter’s Yard, which you can now hire for holidays.

I went away from my wedding in a punt, Dad polling while I sat with my new husband, holding an umbrella while a rainbow appeared over the water.

At the Brewery Arts Cinema in Kendal for the launch of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ and the 40th Anniversary DVD

While serving as President of The Arthur Ransome Society, I gave twelve Q&As at cinemas. Members of SailRansome have often come along with the little clinker-built dinghy used as Swallow, which I helped purchase when she came up for auction in 2010.

I am often asked to write articles about my life afloat, and have spoken at literary festivals, on BBC Radio and on ITV News when I nearly capsized.

On ITV News at Ten with Nina Nannar

It is with The Arthur Ransome Society that I have been able to sail an historic wherry down the Norfolk Broads, take an old German ferry to Lundy Island and cruise down Coniston Water on SL Gondola.

Aboard Wherry Maud – photo Diana Dicker

As a member of the Nancy Blackett Trust, I’ve sailed on the Orwell, in the Solent and through the inland waterways of the Netherlands, visiting Middleburg.

~Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands~

I enjoyed crossing the Veersemere to Zierikzee in the wake of my own forefathers.

Over the years, I’ve grabbed the chance to sail yachts to Salcombe, up the coast of Norway and through the Mediterranean but I still love taking out a small boat in the Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads.

At Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available on line.

Rowing The Queen’s Barge Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla

If you are able to watch the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race or catch it on BBC Television, you might catch sight of the Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana, her gilded dolphins glaring into the dark water of the Thames.

She will lead the Boat Race Flotilla ahead of the actual races, a warm-up act for the crowds waiting along the bank for the great event.

She will be promoting the Future Blues – a year-round community outreach project that aims to increase the total number of school rowing clubs in the UK by 50%. The Boat Race Company say, ‘We hope this initiative will leave a legacy of not only social upliftment but diversity and education for the future.’

I was fortunate enough to join the crew as they rowed from Chiswick Pier up to Putney Bridge in 2018. I wore the black cap of my rowing club, City Barge and the red shirt of the Gloriana:

After mooring up near the Putney boatsheds where television cameras were lining up under the sponsors’ banners, we rowed our passengers down the official four-mile course. I’m on the right of this shot (above) wearing a black City Barge cap.

The Men’s Boat Race, from Putney to Mortlake, was established in 1845 and has also been used for The Women’s Boat Race since 2015.

Map of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race

Our flotilla was joined by standing-up oarsmen from City Barge, rowing Italian and Maltese vessels, while members of other rowing clubs joined us in Thames skiffs and a variety of traditional craft.

They added colour and brought life to the River Thames reminding onlookers of her past glory.

Glimpses of this rich history are depicted on the cabin walls of the Gloriana, while hand-painted pictures of water birds adorn the ceiling.

As in the days of old, food and drinks are laid on for guests including excellent English sparkling wine, which has become a feature of the day.

The Gloriana from the water

While the men’s eights to row the course in under 17 minutes, it took us 52 minutes to reach Chiswich Bridge in the Gloriana.

11 We follow Glorianna

However, we were pulling 9 tons. Since we were a crew of 18 oarsmen, we each pulling the equivalent of half a ton, against the stream but with the tide. It’s exhausting.

Rowing the Gloriana through London

We had more than twenty passengers on board – representatives from schools nearby who hope to participate in the Future Blues scheme.

The big thing for the oarsmen is to keep together. This is trickier that you might imagine as the curve of the hull makes alignment tricky.

Rowing the Gloriana under Chiswick Bridge

We were watched by thousands crowded along the riverside.

The White Hart pub on the Thames

The challenge was in raising our oars to salute almost every crowded pub or boat-house along the route.

Saluting

These wooden oars are 16 foot long and quite a weight. I look at myself now and wonder how I did it.

Gloriana salute on the Thames

I have managed to lift my oar in Venice after rowing the Voga Longa but found it tricky in the Gloriana.

Our cox was gracious but it was clear I need more practice. I got there in the end.

Once under Chiswick Bridge we were able to wait for the racing eights to come through after the finish.

We had been asked to grace the back of shot for the BBC coverage of the event.

This put us in a prime position to watch the crews pull in and gather for the prize-giving.

We almost became part of the antics that otherwise could only be seen on television.

Back in 2018, Cambridge University won both the Men’s and Women’s races with ease and enjoyed traditional celebrations despite the cold.

You can watch the coverage on BBC iPlayer here

It was great to have taken part in such an exciting a national event. Many thanks to Malcolm Knight and The Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana for having me.

Sophie Neville on the crew of the Queen's Row Barge Gloriana~Sophie Neville in the QRB Gloriana~

with additional photos by Richard Bailey of City Barge

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