It seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do with the down time between Christmas and New Year. Never mind I didn’t own a kayak, nor that I’d never really kayaked before. Those were arbitrary to the fact that I could end my year with a little adventure, given my track record for the year, it would be good to get a completed adventure under the belt and put the critics to bed once and for all. As Roosevelt’s famous Man in the Arena quote says: “if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly”. It has certainly been a year where I pushed the boat out massively and while in the eyes of some I “failed and blamed everything else but myself”, for me the adventure always starts when the plans fail. Most importantly I had fun, I learnt shed loads, I ditched the critics and found a whole bunch of really awesome, positive folk doing some pretty cool adventures. My kind of folk.
As Brene Brown says: “Its is seductive to stand outside the arena and think… I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I am bullet proof and when I’m perfect.” So imperfect I went into a kayaking adventure, full steam ahead and don’t mind the icebergs. It took a few misfires but finally sourcing a touring kayak a few days before we left – thanks to Alfie from Moo Canoes for allowing me to use his personal kayak, Roland for all the other kayaking kit and a raid of my old pile of sailing kit – I was all set to head out and give it a crack. I definitely over packed for the adventure, coming in at about twice, ok maybe three times the weight of the boys kayaks. Man I really don’t like being cold and taking spares of everything seemed quite reasonable given the below freezing temperatures and the likelihood of me rolling over into freezing water. As it turned out I used everything I packed and on one occasion seemed to be wearing it all at once while sleeping in a bivvy at -6 degrees.
We kicked off in Lechlade on the afternoon of 27 December, a mere 125 miles of paddling lay ahead so getting in a few hours before darkness descended was a good start. We pulled into the Swan Hotel to thaw out and refuel once it got dark, I’d survived my first “day”, getting in and out the water without going in and managed to haul my kayak up the banking, this didn’t last long and I needed some help eventually. The hotel campsite was across the bridge on an island but they allowed us to camp in the garden, our feet almost hanging over the edge into the Thames. I’d have slept to the relaxing sound of the river were it not for the wood felling sounds emanating from the bivvies near me, silicon earplugs are a godsend. It was a frosty night, waking, as we would in subsequent nights, to a heavy frost settling on the bivvy bags. Camping spots would generally be alongside the river in a farmers field or the garden of a friendly pub. No amenities provided, so thankfully I was supplied with a small trowel for digging holes, this would have been great if the ground wasn’t frozen solid. So onto an early breakfast was our best option.
With the days being short we agreed to wake early and start at the crack of dawn. What we hadn’t accounted for was how freezing it would be and getting things packed up in heavy gloves was a slow process. Add to that a frozen brain, packing up was neither a fast nor a smooth process. Once we got onto the water the sunrise was out of this world, it was impossible to paddle while the sun rose and we would meander along with the flow while taking photos. The boys were ace at updating social media and it gave me a chance to get ahead a little and not hold up the pace.
On most days the end of my gloves would freeze, especially where I would inadvertently dip them in the water due to the lack of any kayaking technique. I would spend the next six days focused on trying to get the boat moving smoothly without veering to one side of the river or the other as the back eddies pulled the boat off course, trying to use more than just my arm muscles to power me forward. I’m not sure my mind thought of anything other than absorbing the incredible views, paddling straight and working out how to rotate my torso to stop my arms falling off. In Reading we were caught by a racing kayaker who invited us to their club house for coffee. His advise was “follow the bubbles” as they indicate where the flow goes. Hell yeah now this is a sport I could definitely take up.
It was not until we paddled through the lower reaches of the Thames that I appreciated just how incredible the upper reaches were. To have an entire river to ourselves with no other traffic on the water, being able to paddle on completely smooth water, to witness the views and reflections of land across glass-like water surface undisturbed by anyone else – simply mindblowing. To be enveloped in silence broken only by the sound of blades breaking the surface of the water. Not a single bit of rubbish or plastic on the river, once we were past Oxford the bushes along the river were strewn with plastic, pockets of rubbish and loads of lost balls. The boys adopted a few, named them Wilson and played chase the ball for a few hours while I escaped uphead claiming the smooth water.
“Lock crushing” was my favourite bit. From day 2 to 5 most of the locks were frozen over and we would race at the ice to break it up before grinding to a halt. What followed was either a boat rocking manoeuvre or cracking a hole with the paddle to pull us through the ice. When my arms died I’d wait for one of the boys to crack a path through and nip in behind them. One of the sections below the lock was also frozen solid, this was a first for us, a walker told us a previous kayaker abandoned and portaged past the ice. We decided we were going to give it a crack. The ice must have been a good half a centimetre thick and where a plate of ice shifted over another it froze together almost instantly. We made it through with team work, at one point I was being shunted from behind to break through the solid sections. This particular section was iced over for a substantial distance after the lock too, once we got past the thick ice, there was patchy, thin ice for a good 500m which was easy enough to paddle through but still make the cool cracking sound which made me laugh out loud at the madness of this adventure. It showed just how cold it was, with one of the guys saying it was the coldest night of the year. I can certainly believe it.
Some of the bridges were pretty spectacular, from wooden bridges such as Tenfoot bridge dating back to the 1800s, to Newbridge, a stone bridge dating back to from c1250 and being the second oldest on the Thames, it’s a stone bridge with low arches making navigation a little tricky for the cabin cruisers. Perhaps my favourite bridge, which my photos don’t do justice to (but you can zoom in on the photo to see the detail), is the red brick Moulsford Railway Bridge built in 1839. As you paddle below it you can see how the bricks are laid in a diagonal direction under the arches, quiet incredible. One last fact on bridges, Maidenhead bridge has the longest span arch of any brick bridge in the world.
The chaps were fab to paddle with, Sean (Conway) is a natural in the outdoors, everything looked so easy for him and his paddling style was a lovely rhythmic pattern, he donned a straw hat for the trip and with his wild hair escaping the brim, at times I felt like I was paddling the Canadian wilderness with some outback dude who didn’t interact with civilisation (of course he’s not like that at all). James (Ketchell) who rowed the Atlantic solo, has arms the size of my thighs, he just pulled himself calmly through the water, making it look effortless. On his row he got hit by the wrong weather and sat stationary for 2 weeks. Knowing he would not have sufficient food stores, I asked about this aspect of running out of food – one of my greatest phobias. Explaining that food is simply not just a fuel source, his comment on food being a motivator or lifting moral was a very interesting observation. Then we had Steven (Lloyd) who pitched up with an inflatable kayak he’d never used before, he pumped it up, hopped in and off we went. Well between Sean’s look and Stephen’s kayak, I could easily have been in a cartoon. They made me laugh so much and I just loved that it didn’t matter what you turned up in or what little experience you had, as long as you went forward in the water that was good enough and given the flow on the river if you couldn’t paddle you eventually end up in London anyway. Thankfully we were all seasoned bivvy baggers, if there’s such a term, as we didn’t have much problem setting up camp, it left us loads of time to warm up in a local pub.
Oxford was possibly our most exciting day. Needing breakfast, Sean suggested a detour via town to grab a bite. The massive bollards blocking the way should have been a good enough warning that kayaking any further was a risk, but there was a small gap with a height restriction sign, which after a little debate lead us to believe it would be fine to carry on. As I passed under a low road bridge, called Quacking Bridge (we found this out later) I suddenly heard this wild rushing water sound and dead ahead was a slews gate. I started back paddling wildly yelling “weir” (does it matter what it’s called in a moment of blind panic). Someone yelled “go left” and we all managed to paddle into a small slipway. Once we got onto dry ground we could see the hazard below the slews gate – a very low double arched bridge which, had we been able to navigate into, given the way the water was rushing up the side of the building, would have required us to lean right back onto the kayaks to clear the arch. Phew! More excitement than I had banked on and thank you TwiggyArms you did me proud. What followed was a massive breakfast and even more massive portage to get back into the canal so we could make our way back into the Thames. We’d paddle along a canal and then swap into the flowing stream to paddle against the flow to access the main tributary and the spot we’d been two hours ago. If you zoom in on the photo you can see the slews gate to the right and our escape route to the left.
Swapping between the canal and the stream James took part in an involuntary swim. Keen to attempt an entry from the bank, we loaded James into his kayak and gave him a push off the bank. Unfortunately the mud was a bit too grippy and the back of the kayak stopped short of the water rolling James elegantly into the freezing water. Luckily he had been shopping in Oxford and had dry clothes to put on, I’m not sure he’d fit into any of my spares.
We had a handful of folk come and find us on route, thanks to Sean’s request to bringing Ale on social media and tracking on his website. A morning’s coffee and croissant stop, a few drop off’s of ale and a surprise of home-made fudge from the lovely Angus Thompson who took some cracking photos (like the one above). Such a nice surprise to see complete strangers waiting with food and warm drinks or a bit of night time antifreeze Ale.
The best part was finishing, not only because my arms were about to fall off, quiet literally (I’ve not been able to use them for four days), but because there were a whole heap of folk who came out to meet us at the finish. We decamped to Anna’s folks’ place on the river, ate pizza, drank bubbly and then I discovered Thames Tummy had taken hold. I’d watched James decant the contents of his stomach onto the dock when we finished and it was only when I followed suit in the early hours of the morning that I realised: one should not break off the ears of a Lindt bunny with soaking wet, Thames infused gloves and hand them to a fellow kayaker before devouring the rest of the rabbit with those same gloves.
That aside, it was one cracking adventure and to have survived the cold, the paddling and my first attempt at endurance kayaking. Oh and not to have fallen in. I am one very happy adventure bunny (just don’t make it Lindt for now).
Distance kayaked: 125 miles
Happiness level: 10/10
(Some photos credited to Sean Conway: @Conway_Sean)