Paddling the Thames

Once again, I found myself in a boat.  I’ve never considered myself as a rower but there are so many opportunities for adventure based on waterways.  When you look at a map the blocks of sea and lakes or wriggling paths that are the worlds rivers stand out, begging for them to be followed or crossed.  Even when on land-based adventures the rivers provide a convenient navigation method.  When a mate calls you and asks if you fancy Canadian canoeing 129 miles down the Thames in your four days off, what are you going to say?  For future reference your reply should be “Hell yeah!”
We launched two canoes at Lechlade in Gloucestershire which is recognised as being the first real point of the Thames that is navigable.  Ben, Callum, Jamie, Rudy and I had a two man and a three-man Canoe which we loaded up with our kit (and rum) for the adventure ahead.  We had billed this trip as being a little less intense than previous group expeditions.  Yeah, that that didn’t pan out!
We all naively presumed that it’d be easy to ‘just paddle down the river’.  Turns out it’s a bit trickier than that!  Both canoes travelled down the river for those first few miles like I play golf.  Left to right, right to left, left to right… We were really taking in the whole river!  The encounters with bushes, trees and nettles soon stopped being funny though and we really had to start getting better at his canoeing lark otherwise we’d never reach the end in time!  It wasn’t long before we reached our first lock where we met our first lock keeper.  It seemed that I had been the only one to ever had worked a lock and was surprised to find that we had a lock keeper.  In fact, most of the locks had keepers during the day and many turned out to be electric.  For the ones that didn’t have a keeper there were clear instructions for the electric ones and the others didn’t require a lock key (like a car wheel nut bar) as they had a sort of boat wheel instead.  This was fantastic news because we didn’t have a key and had imagined doing a lot of portaging (lifting the boat out and carrying it around the lock).
After that first lock we attempted to tie the two canoes together so we were side by side.  This was of course extremely sociable, but we were very slow!  By the time we reached the next lock we abandoned that idea, as nice as it was!  We changed the crews around which is something we did often in the first three days.  If you were at the back you were in charge of steering, which would often come with a lot of cursing if you took the lads into yet more bushes!  We all expected the three-man canoe to be the quickest but the weight of it soon showed and the two man would be ahead. 
It was also soon evident that the weight differences and general size differences of the five of us would impact on who sat where and which boat would be quicker.  The heavier of us were no good in the front of the two man as the man in the back would struggle to keep the boat straight.  The smaller guys would also have shorter paddle strokes to the bigger guys which made it hard to keep in sync.  Whichever way we were though, we were still having a great laugh.
I don’t think it took long for the enormity of the task ahead to sink in.  We had a LOT of miles to cover!  What also struck us was how beautiful the Thames is.  I for one only think of central London when I picture the Thames.  Busy and dirty.  All the way up stream where we started it was clean, warm, picturesque and VERY winding!  It was also very rural, and we didn’t really pass through any towns, instead just rolling countryside.  We even performed a rescue that day after spotting a sheep that had presumably fallen into the river.   She swam up to us with tired and pleading eyes.  ‘Help me’ they said.  Jamie, Ben and I jumped in and dragged her exhausted body out of the river.  She shook off and stood there baa-ing at us.  It seemed like a thankyou to me.   Buoyed by our good deed we ploughed on.
After 23 miles we eventually tied the canoes up near Farmoor reservoir and made camp.  It had been a beautiful day and the evening was much the same.  Callum and Ben had a tent, Rudy and I had a Tarp and Jamie had, well nothing!  He’d been advised that he didn’t need to bring his tent!  There was just enough room under our tarp if we wanted to be squashed but as the evening was so clear he opted, along with Ben, to sleep under the stars.  A basic meal of cous cous and hot meal chicken casserole and we were done in.  We’d all just come off a busy night shift and so were all bushed.  The stunning sunset was an ample reward for our efforts.
  We awoke early and began the normal camp routines for a morning.  First priority was coffee!  I’m a coffee snob so had the luxury of my Aeropress and as such, fine proper coffee!  A bowl of porridge and a tidy up and we were ready to go!  Everyone I think had mixed emotions between excitement and apprehension.  It was to be a long day, but the sun was out and it looked gorgeous.  Those first few strokes however were a stark reminder of what our day was to be like!  It must have been doubly tough for Jamie who’d woken up ill!
The first real highlight and major milestone was passing through oxfords centre.  It is a beautiful city and it was a shame that we didn’t have time to disembark and explore a little, but time was of the essence and we pushed on.  We stopped at the occasional pub for a break and a swift pint and what was becoming an obligatory sheep rescue.  The locks had at first seemed like a necessary evil.  They were slow and obviously affected our progress, but we soon began to love them.  The little blue signs that denoted a lock were greeted with whoop whoops as they now represented a break from the monotony of the paddling and from the beating sun.  The heat was draining, and the cool insides of the locks were a breath of damp cool air.  We took turns in jumping out at the locks for a leg stretch and the opportunity to do something different from paddling.
We wound our way through little villages such as Abingdon and Clifton Hampden and were soon past Dorchester.  At this point we began our search for a suitable camping spot and finally moored up after 36 miles between the villages of Moulsford and South Stoke.  Our spot was a popular dog walking track, but the foot traffic soon ceased.  We made camp and wearily put our food together.  For Rudy and me it was a bowl of rice topped with Meatballs and pasta.  It was a pleasant evening but once again we were soon in our sleeping bags after another very long day.  The lack of chill out time I think was beginning to be an irksome theme of our group travels.  Jamie slept under a bench so obviously had the prime spot, even if he, along with Rudy had damp… more like wet sleeping bags where the goosenecked plastic bag they stuffed their gear in had failed to keep the water out.  Not that we had capsized you understand, but the man at the back of the canoe who steers is constantly swapping sides and therefore a little water from the paddle drips into the canoe.  After 13 hours or so of this there is a fair amount of water sloshing around your feet!
Day three was greeted with more than a little dread.  We knew how hard 36 miles had been and we were faced with the same again.  Nobody slept that well (to be fair, I didn’t have that bad a sleep at all!) and so tired bodies loaded up the canoes after breakfast and we set off.
The going was tough with some headwinds and a complete lack of flow in the Thames.  I had presumed that when not paddling we would be taken along by the flow of the river.  Not so.  After the lack of rain over the last few months the Thames was getting low on water and as such many of the weirs had been shut off leaving us with glass like still waters.  To put it in some kind of context the Thames would on average be expected to flow at the rate of 200 cubic meters per second.  Now I accept that this doesn’t really explain much, and I couldn’t tell you what that means in real money, but what puts it in context is that while we were on this micro adventure it was flowing at Six. 6 cubic metres per second.  That’s basically standing still.
Each of us were having to dig deep now and plenty of Ibuprofen was being dished out among my fellow paddlers.  Dips in the Thames were wonderfully refreshing even though the water was incredibly warm!  I was struck by the sheer number of people that we came across swimming in the waters.  I just hadn’t anticipated our great river being used in this way.  We passed many a rowing club, canal barges, incredible riverside houses and many, many Herons on our travels.  We also saw a snake swimming and it came right at us!  The two wimps that were in the three-man canoe with me at the time hastily shooed it away with their paddles.  Ill be honest, it was no Anaconda but was pretty cool to see.
By mid-morning we’d reached Pangbourne where we had left our cars and so Jamie and Ben nipped off to fetch supplies and more importantly Jamie’s tent from the car!  We weren’t making especially good time by this point and energy levels we low.  But head on we had to and so we entered Reading.  River traffic was busier, and it was here that we had to perform our one and only Portage of the trip.  That’s not bad considering we would eventually pass through 45 (or was it 46?) locks over the four days.  Passing six or seven boats temporarily moored up before the lock we discovered that it was being repaired.  This was one time that we had the edge over the powered craft!  Dragging the canoes out, five bare chested, slightly sun burnt, and barefooted men carried the canoes to the other side of the lock and boom!  We were off again! But only for a few minutes.  Reading, being at the heart of the county where we all serve as Firefighters, was well known and a large Tesco called out to us for restocking for the nights food.  We were all getting sick of sugary instant energy foods by this time.  All of us ate well and trained hard week to week so the initial joy of ‘cheat food’ was wearing thin.  That didn’t stop the purchase of a few more sweet treats mind you!  For me it meant chocolate milkshake.  Oh, how I love a milkshake!
From there we were into familiar territory, passing through Sonning, Wargrave, Henley and Marlow.  It was great that we recognised these parts but at the same time you knew how long it would take to drive between these places and then you looked at the speed we were doing.  Our three to three and half miles an hour seemed painful!  Spirits were raised when asking a passing barge if he had any spare beers left, he stopped his engine and disappeared below deck.  He emerged with his last three beers and insisted that we take them.  What a diamond!!  It was also nice to see a former firefighter who since retiring had become a lock keeper.  The role really suited old Big John.
We ended the day outside Little Marlow, pitching up in a field.  Ben and I took a dip to wash away the days sweat and just as we were starting to make camp we spotted an off-road golf buggy heading straight for us.  Oh oh.  We were going to be sent packing.  Ben approached the driver and explained who we were and what we were doing.  His apprehensive demeanour soon changed when he realised we were firefighters.  We discovered that it was indeed his land but among promises of being clean and tidy he agreed that we could camp there for the night!  Amazing news!  The man’s name?  Roger.  Roger Randall.  We felt as though we should have heard of him and as he drove away good old Roger Randall became the cult hero of the trip.
We’d all run out of energy and enthusiasm after the 32-mile day and the opportunity to pitch camp in the daylight, eat and chill for a while was a massive relief and morale booster.  Pasta and tinned ham was washed down with a few cans of fruit cider as we watched yet another stunning sunset.  Jamie was delighted with his tent and all was well... Except the news of the final days weather.  It was going to rain.  Darn it.
The final day started dry enough which to be honest was a massive boost.  Starting a day in the rain is a real drain no matter what you’re doing and after our final breakfast we tidied up and relaunched the canoes.  Wow.  It was hard work that morning!  Our slightly shorter day meant we had a massive 37 miles to knock out to reach Teddington lock.  The enormity of this was not lost on anyone.  The first five miles went surprisingly quickly and then then rain came.  It would haunt us on and off for the whole day and suddenly those welcome blue signs that signalled a lock weren’t so eagerly awaited.  Yes, they were a chance for a rest but now they left us cold and shivering.  We were wet through and the temperature had dropped significantly.  By now all we wanted was to finish this thing.  We craved coffee and not beer.  We craved warmth and not a dip in the waters.  For the final push we kept to the same positions in the canoes all day.  In the two man were Rudy and Callum and the three housed Ben, Jamie and me at the back on steering duty. 

There were more and more boats around and we navigated around the many islands that the Thames holds that I just didn’t appreciate were there.   As the rain fell we slowly ticked off the towns that we all knew all too well.  Cookham, Taplow, Maidenhead, Bray and then Windsor. Come Eton we passed our soon to retire guvnor Pete Farmer who egged us on from the banks where he was casually walking his dog.  Fellow adventurer Gavin greeted us in the rain with is daughters and dished out cans of pop although we all secretly wanted coffees!  Old Windsor came and went but the miles to go seemed so big!  The straights were long and demoralising but the whistling of the Jurassic park music as we exited each lock became our mantra and a tune that would stick in our heads for days to come.
Egham and Staines passed and we were beginning to wonder if London would ever arrive! A cold stop for a Guinness and a huddle under a patio heater momentarily gave us a lift but it was back to the grind and all thoughts turned to just reaching the end.  Finally, we passed Hampton court palace after a couple of encounters with grumpy lock keepers and snooty boat drivers.  Heads down we paddled through the rain until it cleared, and we began to dry off.  But that wasn’t the end of the rain...  Oh no, as the last miles came into view we were chased by an almighty black cloud.  The wind picked up.  Here it came.  Bam! The heavens opened, and the rain came down in what seemed biblical degrees.  Were they hail stones or just ridiculously large rain drops?  We had to laugh at the conditions.  What else could you do?
Then, there it was, the final Lock.  Teddington Lock.  We posed for photos and went through to find a rowing club where the canoes were to be picked up.  After some faff and having to go back through Teddington Lock(!) we finally disembarked for the last time and unloaded our gear.  We’d done it.  Man hugs and back slaps ensued before hastily finding some relatively dry clothes.  It was done.  We were done.  What a journey.
As adventures go this is totally accessible in many ways.  It’s pretty cheap to do and can be done in fairly quick time.  We are truly lucky as a profession to have the shift pattern that we do, allowing us to do these four-day adventures in our days off.  We’re also really lucky to have found a group that are all up for the challenge, bond well and muck in to get the job done.  A fantastic if exhausting trip but another one I’m really proud to have completed.  Well done fellas.  Here’s to the next one!

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