Earlier in the week my ‘get up and go’ had ‘got up and gone’. But somehow I’ve found it again, and it was a rush to throw a few things together and load the boat. With the exception of my mini stove (which has chosen a most inopportune moment to take a rest) I’m hoping I’ve got everything sorted. If not, I’ll be surviving on cake and energy bars. And tea – if I can cadge some hot water.
And so it begins, Saturday dawns bright and promising. It could just be the best day of the trip looking at the forecast. I’m all a fluster sorting out what should be here and what should be there and in the end I’m tripping over my own thoughts. Rob gives me a lift to Abingdon and we spy some club members. I’m getting on here rather than the sailing club option I had planned as an alternative. A car has broken down on the way over so we are a little late getting away, but after negotiating the 4′ drop to the river we get away for around midday for a gentle paddle down to Benson.
As paddles go it was fairly gentle, but it was nice to enjoy a different river. Geographically it’s the same River Thames, but the character is totally different. It’s a quieter place, more serene, and in places almost silent. We take the cut down to Culham Lock, missing out on an interesting section of the natural river that may be worth further investigation on a later visit – but sea kayaks and weirs are not made for one another. Lunch is taken at Clifton Hampden, just past an old brick bridge, and in front of a nice cottage and church.
We press on through Day’s Lock (where a couple of excursions are on offer) and the group decides to stay in the boats to explore the River Thame, a tributary of the Thames, which adds a little spice to the day. It really feels like the back of beyond and on a day like today you could be forgiven for thinking there might be a croc or two lurking in the undergrowth. Turning a corner we are faced with a moored Thames barge (registered at Maldon so it was the real deal) and I just can’t work out how they got it up there or how they are going to get it out! There’s no room to turn so it must have been reversed up – and I’d like to be there when (if ever) they take it out. A couple of hundred yards further on we call it a day. Confronted with a broken weir we decided to back track to the River Thames and then continue down to our overnight. It had been a hot day and the possibility of a cool beer at the Shillingford Bridge Hotel proved too much for some.
We arrived at Benson for 17:30 where tents are soon pitched. All except me have booked at the on-site restaurant – I’ve got some out of date heater meals to use up. A shower, a walk, and I turn in. It’s been a good start to the tour with lessons on recent courses being put into practice and some advice offered to those newer paddlers amongst us.
Day 2 dawns to the sound of rain – it was forecast, but not this early. I take breakfast in the drying room, the micro tent being too small to risk the use of a stove.
The rain turns out to be much shorter and lighter than anticipated and we are still able to pack dry. By 10am we are on the water for the shortest day. Short in miles, but a real slog thanks to a refreshing headwind. Testimony to these harsh conditions is our most experienced paddler who, in his canoe, was often bringing up the rear. We paddle our way down to Wallingford, admiring some of the fine riverside properties along the way. The view from the river gives a chance to admire a rather strange looking church spire.
We pass a number of rowing clubs through Wallingford, continuing downstream past North Stoke and Brunel’s Great Western Railway bridge, the bricks of which are at a spiralling angle – probably something to do with the acute angle that the bridge crosses the river at. IKB would have had a reason for such a construction, of that I’m sure.
Some of us take lunch just the other side of Moulsford, the drinking party having found a suitable hostelry at which to quench their thirst. The trip leader spent a lot of his earlier years here and had an enjoyable tale or two to tell. When the clouds broke the sun was fierce and, most unusual for me, I took to soaking up a few rays before the drinks party paddled past advising us that they would wait at the ‘Swan at Streatley’, where we would come to join them. Going through Cleeve Lock we saw the Goring Gap for the first time.
It was just a few miles downstream to our our wild camping experience in a field belonging to The Beale Trust. Accessing the campsite proved a little difficult as it was high banks all around with a low secluded bridge guarding access to the lake and campground. Some kayak/canoe limbo was necessary. I left a message with a moored narrow boat to advise the drinks party of the rather hidden access point.
The idea of packing EVERYTHING out was anathema to some, but their worst fears were needless as some event toilets had been left from a previous occasion. With no restaurant to retire too, a variety of cooking technology was employed to produce sustenance for the day ahead – the longest and possibly toughest by some way.
Day 2 closed with a chill in the air the moment the sun dipped below a low cloud. It had been harsh with the headwind early on and a fierce sun later. Just as well it had been a relatively short paddle. After the railway traffic had died down, sleep should have been easy – but I’m a light sleeper and there was a lot going on outside: owls were hooting, foxes were barking and some rabbits were meeting a grisly end.
A call to nature halfway through the night afforded me the best view of the Milky Way I’ve seen for many a year
Day 3 – 17.5 miles. With little current assistance to benefit from this was going to be a hard day for some. Most, including me, had never paddled a fully loaded kayak before. A uniform low grey cloud and a light drizzle are not the most visually inspiring conditions in which to paddle, however it had got warmer so I dispensed with the dry top and took a chance on the drizzle. More kayak/canoe limbo and we were out into the main river, but not before I had slipped on some goose poop whilst helping a newer member to launch.
It looked like I’d done the splits – not good at 60 years old, especially for someone who never managed this feat even when a pliable youngster!
There’s a quick run down the river with the Goring Gap still visible on our right, a kink to the East and we are soon at Whitchurch Lock. A longish run through mostly flat agricultural and pastural land to the next lock at Mapledurham, where we arrive at around 10:45 am. There’s a cafe where we stop for tea, and tea comes with extras: rolls: egg & bacon; egg & sausage; egg, bacon & sausage; with or without mushrooms etc. Economical and quick. We will have to send the Hurley cafe lady to the Mapledurham school of Lock Cafes! Fully fuelled, we set off.
Passing Purley we get sight of another of I.K.Brunel’s Great Western works. Here the Great Western Railway runs adjacent to the river but perhaps 25′ higher. I.K.B’s solution was to build a retaining wall to hold up the railway, and it’s been doing that for 150 years, supporting heavy clunking trains running on fish plated rails to the faster smoother running trains of today. And it looks good for another 150 years, even though it now supports a housing estate behind it as well. Victorian engineering from a master of the craft.
Continuing downriver it’s mainly tree lined and peaceful. The occasional train runs past but you rarely see them, and there’s a whole town (Tilehurst) behind the railway – though you’d never know it from our viewpoint. Catherine and I are forging ahead and having passed through Reading we get into the lock before the rest of the group. This gets us a few extra minutes rest at the next stop outside Marsports, where we meet a couple of paddle boarders who are doing a source to sea trip for themselves and taking sponsorship for Nepal. We will be criss-crossing each other right to the end of our trip. The weather is improving, the paddle boarders have already departed and we make our way to Sonning. Out of the lock we pass George Clooney’s new place but he’s not there to wave us past; however I expect someone’s glued to a CCTV monitor watching our progress.
The next feature on the trip is St. Patricks Stream. This stream drops some 2m or so in a km (bypassing Shiplake Lock) so it offers genuine moving water. It’s a club favourite. I lead Catherine and David down before the main group, but I might have thought twice had I known how fast it was! The channel has been restricted by rushes so, although the water was low, the current was fast. Good ruddering keeps us moving with the current and—for the most part!—out of the way of any obstacles. It provides a refreshing change from paddling. The day’s end is almost in sight as we enter Hennerton Backwater, a pleasant little stream that runs at the back of Wargrave Marsh (now mostly drained). It’s a very tired group that exits Marsh Lock and paddles the last few yards to Henley Dragon Boat club where we are camping for the night, and where the paddle boarders stay too.
After a luxuriating shower we hit the town or, to be more precise, Wetherspoons. I don’t quite know how to describe Wetherspoons pubs, except perhaps that they are at the cheaper end of the market. That said, the only complaint with this one is that we had to pass a number of other hostelries on our way. I had the Doombar draught, and I really needed those fluids!
Day 4 – our last. No one is moving particularly fast and yet everyone is set to go by 9:00 am. The paddle boarders have left and we follow them shortly after. Much of the Henley Regatta infrastructure is still to be seen – that’s some serious tentage they put up for the event, but it’s coming down now. The in-river markers are still there so you can paddle the Henley mile. For some, this is still new water, but for the majority it’s just the way home. We make the most of it with a stop at the Hurley Lock Café. The cake is always good here, but the service is never quick, it pays to paddle fast and arrive first. This time though, slow service paid off, with the arrival of the Copenhagen Rowing Club tour (Oxford to London) in rowing boats that to me look somewhere between a competition boat and a racing skiff. Finished in their wood construction or the alternate glass skin these are nice looking boats and it was a pleasure to share a few words with an English speaking crew member. Leaving Temple Lock I go on ahead to open the club for my fellow tourers, just about keeping pace with the rowers.
It’s been a top 4 days and we can’t end without a special mention to Jon Garner (assisted by Jennifer Burns) for planning and organising the trip, which ran smoothly.
Let’s not forget the newer members either, all of whom acquitted themselves with some credit: Natalie Butler, Carl Townley, Oli Dickson, & David Elmer.
And everyone else for everything else that contributed to a good tour: Andy & Liz Maxted, Catherine Harris & Tom Bailey.
And to finish a quote from Tim Ward, the Club President
‘Excellent! This shows what our club is all about’
SOME THINGS I HAVE LEARNED FROM THIS TRIP
1) A 3 man tent is a 2 woman tent (at best) and probably only a 1.5
2) Essentials (sleeping bag and shelter) should be double bagged and stored in the driest compartment, which is usually the front.
3) Sleeping bags can take up a lot of otherwise unusable space if NOT packed in their specific stuff sacs.
4) Heater meals still work fine way past their sell by date.
5) Make a list of what is in each hatch – and keep to it.
6) Micro tents are good for everything but your back.
7) Check your cooker frequently – avoid yours not wanting to join you on a trip.
8) It’ll come to me later.
Our friends – the antipodean paddleboarders. See what they’re up to, how far they’ve got and how much they’ve raised. If it’s a cause you feel strongly enough about you can donate via this link:
Words: John Norris
Photos: John Norris, Andy Maxted and Natalie Butler