MICHAEL PORTILLO was given a taste of rowing in Henley for a TV programme.
The former MP for Kensington and Chelsea took to the River Thames in a Henley Rowing Club eight for the BBC show Great British Railway Journeys, which he presents.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the former Conservative minister struggled to find his form.
His visit came at the end of the final leg of his train journey through the Home Counties, beginning at Egham, and was broadcast on BBC 2 on Friday.
Mr Portillo told viewers that he would attempt to “pull his weight” in the boat.
First, he was shown the ropes on an ergo by the club coach Stan Admiraal — while wearing a traditional boater and whites.
Mr Admiraal told him: “Let me just introduce you to the basics of rowing and let me teach you in a quick and brief way how we do that.”
Mr Portillo replied: “Just enough that I don’t drown!”
After the training session, he said: “It’s one thing to learn the technique on a rowing machine, time to put it to the test on the river.”
Then he took a seat in the middle of the eight and quickly discovered the difficulty of rowing in sync with the rest of the crew.
He told them: “I’ve lost it completely, I’ve got to get the rhythm back. I don’t think my old university will be head hunting me but it’s been an oarsome experience!”
Mr Portillo arrived in town via the Henley branch line from Twyford, where he was met by the familiar face of stationmaster Norman Topsom, who retired last year after 53 years on the railways.
In the series, Mr Portillo travels along the railway networks of Great Britain and Ireland, referring to a Victorian guidebook written by George Bradshaw. He describes how the various destinations have changed since Victorian times.
He described Henley as a “pretty and affluent” market town that had the river to thank for its fortunes. During his visit he also met Eloise Chapman, head of collections and exhibitions at the River and Rowing Museum, who gave him a brief history of Henley Royal Regatta and the Boat Race.
He was shown around the rowing gallery and examined the boat that won the first Boat Race in 1829 on the Henley reach. He also learned the importance of the railways to the regatta.
Miss Chapman explained: “To begin with it was really a social event, a way of bringing people to the town and making some money for the town as well.
“About 20 years later, with the coming of the railway, it became a much bigger social event because people could come from London and all the surrounding areas.”