It was February, I had an opening in my diary, woohoo, nothing to do for a few days and the excitement of being able to do something just for me. It was time for an adventure, there was the call of the wild, a wish to explore somewhere new and the need to relax and enjoy being close to nature without the everyday pressures that modern life presents.
Looking at my long list of ideas for adventures, there it was a microadventure, a paddle down the Thames in my canoe, that was just the ticket. The plan, not much of one really, was simply to launch off near Cricklade, close to the rivers source and paddle down river, just going with the flow.
Here she is, my little Lakelander canoe, made with the fab guys, Steve and Dan at Orca Canoes, ably assisted by my son, Michael. I’d grabbed some sleeping gear and change of clothes and stuffed them in a big Ortlieb drybag, filled a large plastic storage box with food and topped up a 5lt water container and that was pretty much my planning done. Well yes, a coat, woolly hat, buoyancy aid and a couple of paddles and then I was off, enjoying the flow of the river.
Canoeing this stretch of the Thames in February has the advantage of it being comparatively clear, with the arrival of Spring the Bullrushes will be growing tall and making some parts difficult to navigate. Care was needed though, there was a reasonable flow and signs on the river were at amber; caution stream decreasing which means all unpowered boats (are advised) not to navigate and users of powered boats to navigate with caution. I proceeded with both caution and care – swimming could be left for another day!
Just 20 minutes paddled and it was already time for the first portage, a tree had fallen and blocked my way completely. Time to unpack and carry the canoe and gear around to the other side and then get back in again. There were a few more trees slowing progress – but the next one, looked passable! A small gap between the branches, but wide enough for my canoe to pass, this seemed just the place to avoid another portage.
Don’t under estimate the power of water
My first lesson of this trip, don’t under estimate the power of water – to get through the gap I turned across the river a little and this gave the current enough purchase to grab my canoe and I could feel the boat rolling beneath me. In that moment I imagined an imminent capsize and my gear and canoe disappearing down the river – evasive action was called for and some serious back-paddling and manoeuvring had me safely away from this predicament. A portage was the safest option and and that’s what was called for – lesson learnt!
Those first few obstacles got me in touch with the river and then I was off and on my way, going with the flow. The weather was kind, a chill in the air with some winter sunshine – good to be alive and I was enjoying the open river. Paddling along, I switched to using my deep water paddle and I made good progress, whilst keeping a cautionary lookout for the challenges ahead.
Obviously, I knew that this part of the Thames would be quiet, but it was the School holidays, so I had expected to see a few people on the river or walkers enjoying the Thames Path – but I had the river all to myself. It was wonderful to not know what lay around the next corner and Castle Eaton was just such a place. In fact the only reason I know it’s name is because I looked it up afterwards – at the time I just marvelled at its beauty and wondered what it must have been like in times past.
There are campsites along the Thames, but February is hardly the season for camping. To be honest, I simply wanted to wild camp, find a quite place to sleep each night and I wasn’t disappointed. My first night was near a lock, I had done a number of portages, enjoyed my day and it was getting dark and time to set up camp.
Cake before bed
My daily routine was to have a brew, set off early and then stop for some breakfast further down river. Lunch was my main meal of the day – so I would cook up something tasty from the large box of food I had brought along. Having set up camp in the evenings, I’d have a snack, brew and cake before bed – I find that those carbs help me sleep warm and after a good days paddling I always slept well.
I’d just had my first encounter with other paddlers, two guys paddling what appeared to be a racing canoe, a C2 I think, difficult to tell because it was already dark and I was about to stop for the evening. After a friendly hello, they sped off at speed – I saw them again later as they portaged their canoe back up river, a quick good night and they were gone. They were the first people I’d spoken to since I’d been on the river – it was amazing to be so alone and yet so near to busy towns and villages.
Poignant reminder of fortress Britain
An early morning start and I was to spot the first of many pillboxes – these fortifications were built along the upper reaches of the Thames during the second world war. With the fall of France, the home guard were tasked with building defences and using natural barriers to slow the potential invasion, these pillboxes are part of those defences.
After a frosty night, it was wonderful to get paddling on the river, those arms working and the canoe gliding along. There was still a good flow to the river, but it was noticeable how the wider stretches slowed. With a little less in the way of challenges from fallen trees, it was great to just enjoy being outdoors and to relax into the flow of the river.
Friendly lock keepers
I chatted with one of the lock keepers who works for the Environmental Agency, one of a few that I had friendly talks with on my travels. He checked that I was aware of the amber warning and was happy to show me how to work the lock gates – the manual self-service gates are simple to use, but until now I had portaged around them.
It was interesting to see the significantly different water levels, not just from one side of the lock to the other, but the differences between the locks too. At first when I portaged at Rushey lock, I couldn’t see the walk-way for putting the canoe back in and that’s because it was below the water line!
After setting up camp in the dark the evening before, it seemed prudent to scout for possible wild camping spots sooner and I made a mental note of this as I settle down to an enjoyable days paddling.
Canoeing along the river at a gentle pace, you become so much more aware of all the wildlife. I’m in someways sorry I didn’t take photographs of the many birds, ducks and swans I watched on route. the many herons, they always gave flight when they saw me, even though I was some way off. They are such beautifully elegant birds, it was a pleasure to see them fly across the river. The swans by contrast, barely battered an eye, often continuing to forage in the murky depths as I paddled by. The Northern reaches of the River Thames really are a wonderful place to enjoy bird watching, and the perhaps because I didn’t take that many photos, I remember them all the better!
Wild camping on riverside meadows
Camp for the night was on a grassy meadow, a lovely spot on the bend of the river. I pulled up, unloaded and rigged up my tarpaulin against the canoe, with the opening away from the prevailing breeze. It was a warm evening, time for some stretching to ease the aching limbs and then a brew, a wash with the remaining water and bed time! As I lay there in my sleeping bag, toasty warm, I listened to the river and the squawking from the rooks near by. They appeared to be bombarding another rookery and were on near constant missions to other parts of the woodlands, wow, they were noisy, but it wasn’t long before I was asleep.
Thank goodness for Muck Boots – they proved themselves well on this trip. The river banks were very muddy, well it was winter time. At first I was going to wear some wellies, but my older son, James, kindly lent me his Muck Boots. They were fab, with possibly the only downside being that my feet did get a little too warm at times and hence a little sweaty – yuk, but warm and wet is good, right!
Be prepared – a good motto to have!
It’s always good to be prepared and one of the great things about travelling in an Canadian canoe, is that you can pack lots of gear. Yes, of course when you portage you realise that maybe you packed more than you needed. On this occasion, having some gaffa tape and para-cord proved a good choice. Alas, my canoe split open! I remember getting in and hearing a crack, but nothing appeared to have happened so I continued paddling on towards Oxford. Later, whilst pulling the canoe through a lock, I noticed a good inch of water in the bottom – oops!
The canoe is made of plywood each section or chine is held together with glass fibre and epoxy resin. But a crack about 8 inches long had appeared and so a little ingenuity was required…
The plan, stitch it back together with the inner fibres of para cord (that’s the white cord). I made pairs of holes either side of the crack with the bradawl like tool on my Swiss Army knife, made a ‘needle’ from some chicken wire fence and sowed it all back together, tightened it up and then covered it with gaffa tape on both sides.
Of course, that would have been far to easy, so it started to rain. I Laughed a little and set up an impromptu camp on the outskirts of Oxford and set about the repair and then cooked some lunch.
Setting off again, with the Lakelander repaired, me all togged up to keep warm and dry, I was greeted by a beautiful sunset – the rain stopped and the paddle down the Thames continued. Of course I was running later than expected due to the enforced repair – I had hoped to paddle through the City of Oxford and find somewhere to wild camp on the other side. Still it was interesting to look at some of the old industrial buildings as I found my way along the river.
Camping on the wild side of Oxford
It was getting dark and despite my best efforts at paddling a little quicker, I was going to have to make camp in the City of Oxford! After paddling the upper reaches of the Thames, so peaceful, with just the birds calling and the ripple of the flowing river – Oxford was quite a shock to the system.
I paddled on looking for somewhere secluded to camp, but all seemed rather exposed. Eventually, getting darker and the river narrowing again, there on the right was a meadow, facing on the other bank many expensive looking blocks of flats.
It was noisy, boy was it. Sirens of emergency vehicles, the raw of trains and the hooting of horns – I longed to be out of the city. But I was tired and needed a sleep, so that meadow looked good and I set up can discretely in Oxford, keeping lights to a minimum, I really didn’t want anyone popping by to say hello!
I had a brew and a piece of cake and then went to bed – I crawled into my sleeping bag and can hardly remember putting my head down, I was asleep in no time all. I had a great sleep and woke early, still dark and to early to set of paddling. I checked my watch – it was only midnight! I had had a wonderful 4 hours sleep, I really had, and it was still very noisy. A call of nature and then another piece of cake and I was asleep again for another 4-5 hours – yes I was up around 5am ready for another days paddling.
Too much plastic
Paddling out of Oxford, it was interesting to see everyone heading off to work, cycling, running and walking. There were ladies rowing teams out, being coached from the river banks, they certainly shot by faster than me. But what sadly struck me the most was the amount of plastic waste, the litter that had carelessly been discarded by the thousands of people who live in the city and no doubt the tourists too. The river was suddenly awash with plastic bottles and cartons – it will be a huge but worthy task to clean it up. In the upper reaches, where few people appear to walk, I had seen little rubbish, perhaps the occasional football stuck in the bullrushes, but that was about all.
A life less complicated
Reflecting on this much needed #microadventure, what I loved was that just a short drive from our busy lives lay this beautiful piece of river, where you could connect with nature, listen to the birds, splash in the river and sleep out under the stars. This special time, provided a space to think and relax into a simple routine, a life less complicated – it comes highly recommended! Thank you for reading this blog – I hope you can find somewhere to be at peace, at least for a while.