For some of us flatwater paddling is what it’s all about. None of the frenetic adrenaline fuelled activity of white water, or the oft-gruelling endurance of sea kayaking. Instead, just a relaxing cruise with friends and fabulous scenery to the pub and back.
In 2015 Michael Day organised a series of six tours spread throughout the spring and summer months into autumn. Responding to feedback from members, Michael specifically chose paddles that were short drives from Marlow; had few, if any, portages; avoided the complication of tidal paddle; where possible, avoided car shuttles by selecting go-and-return or circular paddles.
The result was a series of paddles that were enjoyed by far more members than those in 2014, including your correspondent who joined in with all six paddles – despite the relatively poor weather during the summer. (Ah, the English weather, no making sense of that sometimes.) We got off to a great start and finished in equally fine form.
It all started in the middle of Spring…
April – St Patrick’s Stream and the Hennerton Backwater (11 km)
It has almost become a Marlow tradition to make this local trip as the summer season opener.
We gathered at the start point at the Wokingham Waterside centre on the Thames near Marsport. And what a great turn-out! Over twenty paddlers on the trip, a marked contrast to the three that came along last year.
This was the only paddle of 2015 that would involve a car shuttle, so there was the usual delay before getting started. However we were soon on the water and gliding downstream to the first lock at Sonning. On exit from the lock we met a huge passenger boat which we all navigated past safely. Before we knew it we were turning right into St Patrick’s Stream.
The stream, which runs parallel to the Thames, is very shallow in places and only really navigable by canoes and kayaks. There are some minor “rapids” not far beyond the entrance that pretty much constitute the closest we ever get to whitewater. The rest of the stream offers a pleasant paddle down the lovely little fast-flowing channel. We had fun squeezing through the narrow gaps between the fallen trees and admiring some of the beautiful waterfront properties.
After exiting St Pat’s, lunch was taken on the Thames at Shiplake lock. We were then back on the water and heading under the low bridge that forms the entrance to the Hennerton backwater. Here, if the river is high, it can be tricky to get under the bridge, luckily this time it was relatively easy.
Arguably more picturesque than St Patrick’s Stream, the Hennerton backwater (also running parallel to the Thames) is certainly more navigable and at times felt more like canal paddling than St Pat’s. There were some glorious views as we paddled downstream; we particularly admired the curious mock wildlife that people with more money than taste had erected in their back gardens.
We emerged onto the Thames at Marsh Lock, whereupon we lifted ourselves and our boats out of the water to load onto our cars, which we had shuttled earlier that morning.
By going early in the season we had avoided the fishermen that otherwise line the banks of these backwaters. Even better, we had managed to get glorious weather, with no April showers, something that would not be repeated during the summer.
May – Grand Union Canal from Cow Roast to Little Tring (14 km)
After the massive turn-out for the St Pat’s tour in April, our touring rep and trip leader, Michael Day, was getting slightly nervous about similar numbers for this trip due to the limited car parking available. As it turned out, Michael needed not to have worried, with eight people and one dog meeting up at Cow Roast Marina for the put in. The dog in question was Chalky, accompanied by his human underling, Adrian Cooper, in an open canoe.
This was a go-and-return paddle, so with no car shuttle needed and no locks on the route, we were able to start paddling straight away and carry on through until lunch. The only downer was that the sun had decided not to join us.
We left the marina, cruised past the narrow boats and began our gentle glide down the canal and through the woods. When we eventually emerged from the woodland, turning off the Grand Union and into the Wendover arm of the canal, it was initially a welcome break from the slightly samey woodland scenery… except the open landscape sent the wind right into our faces! Onward we battled until we suddenly hit an industrial landscape dominated by a huge flour-mill: The 1875 Heygates mill at Tring. It provided a nice visual contrast to the rural landscape that we had experienced so far.
We paddled onward to the section reclaimed in 2005 (including a rebuilt bridge) until progress was no longer possible. At this point we turned around and paddled back to the Grand Junction Arms where lunch was taken indoors by most of the group. Annoyingly, dogs were banned from the pub, so Adrian and myself remained outside to enjoy the now falling rain with Chalky.
Suitably restored and, in mine and Adrian’s case, dampened, it was back to our boats and back to Cow Roast Marina. Another pleasant day out – just a shame that it remained overcast, rainy and windy all day.
June – River Cherwell at Oxford
Late June brought another popular paddle that’s starting to feel like a regular event.
We all met at the scouts/guides facility near Donnington bridge just south of Oxford.
With a slipway available, the put-in was very straightforward and we proceeded upstream for the short paddle to the right turn that takes us onto the River Cherwell. Thereafter it was the usual splendid paddle up the Victoria Arms where, after dodging the many punters on the river, we took lunch.
On the return trip we diverted down a narrow channel to take an alternative route back to the Thames past one of the most picturesque views of Oxford University’s colleges.
Despite being one of the shorter paddles on the calendar, in the less than perfect conditions that we faced on the day it presented a tiring challenge for those in open canoes. Regardless of the weather it remains a favourite tour for many.
July – The Goring Gap (14 km)
It might have been July but, bearing in mind this was one of Michael Day’s paddles, it was raining. (As Tom Bailey is keen to point out, this is a water sport, even when the said water is flat.) This was a new tour for most of us. It was a trip that I had suggested so I felt compelled to go, as did organiser Michael Day. Fortunately four others joined us, all in plastic kayaks of varying dimensions.
The put-in at Goring provided no convenient parking, so we all dropped off our boats in a narrow lane that led to the river and parked our cars in the village. With Catherine Harris standing on guard duty there was obviously no chance of having our boats nicked!
The put-in was slightly awkward, but with help from Michael we all got in. I did wonder who’d help Michael, but he appeared to magically require no assistance. Off we went downstream.
It was impossible not to be impressed by many of the riverside properties and sun-houses that overlooked, and in one case, overhung the river. House envy aside, the scenery was glorious as we cut through the countryside, taking side channels here and there on our short and rainy trip down to Pangbourne.
Conveniently the Swan pub is just before the lock in Pangbourne, so we didn’t need to portage for the whole trip – nice! With the rain having stopped, we left our boats in the water. Myself and Michael used our ropes to tie the boats together and secure them to the bank.
Lunch was duly taken in what proved to be the most pleasant, if not the cheapest, hostelry of the year. The pub made us very welcome and served us excellent ales and lunches, despite us all being clad in sodden kayaking gear.
It was with very full bellies that we reluctantly got back into our boats for the return paddle, which, with the stream, wind and rain against us, was a tough paddle.
I for one was glad to eventually get back to the car. That’s not to take anything away from this paddle, it was another splendid day out and I would like to repeat it… just maybe when the sun is shining.
August – The River Wey at Guildford (9 km)
This was another go-and-return paddle. Seven of us arrived at the Woodbridge Meadows car park near Guildford for the put-in.
A core of regulars (formed by three mixed couples) was starting to emerge on this year’s tours and this trip was no exception. The only actual partners, married or otherwise, were Michael and Sally Day, but at times you could be excused for thinking that Claire Osborne and Mike Dodge were themselves an old married couple, with their constant bantering and mild bickering. Then there’s myself and Catherine Harris, paddling buddies since the beginning of time – well, at least since we both joined the club several years ago. The trio of couples were joined by Andy Maxted, sans his own good lady.
The put-in was a moderately long drop down. A booze soaked spectator provided vocal encouragement as we got into our boats, but left disappointed as none of us managed to fall in (though Mike gave it a good effort).
Onward we paddled through the centre of Guildford and eventually to the small park where we portaged our boats. Beyond this point there were some delightful views of waterside properties that soon gave way to open countryside.
At about this time the heavens opened. “Oh what a surprise”, I hear none of you say with some justification. Every summer paddle since the sunny opener back in April had been a rainy affair and this was not going to be an exception. I think Michael was starting to feel cursed as most of the party pulled to the side to don their cags. I resolutely refused and just paddled under the cover of trees at the side of the river in the hope that the rain would ease off. The rain became much heavier before my decision was eventually justified.
We portaged another lock as we proceeded along the canal towards the pub. At one point we tried proceeding down a side channel to see where it would lead us, but sadly it ended in a terse notice stating that beyond was “Private Water”… Obviously as responsible law abiding citizens we thoroughly respected this instruction and turned around to the main channel where, after a bit more paddling, we found the exit to the pub.
Boats tied up, we trudged through a small trading estate to the pub. As the only member of the party with a packed lunch I was forced to sit outside on my own under a parasol as the rain poured down. No sympathy from the remainder of the party sitting inside the dry warm pub as they consumed their ample pub lunches. Catherine attempted to salve her conscience by buying me a pint but the mental scars of the experience remain deep and I am still in counselling.
Pub lunch over, we trooped back to our boats and dropped back into the water. We were soon out of the boats again when Andy Maxted persuaded us to take the longer route back along the winding river rather than the canal. The put-in was just after a control gate in the river, which formed a waterfall that churned and stirred the water. Mike Dodge put in first and started getting sucked into the waterfall, but eventually broke free with some hard paddling. The rest of us learned the from his lesson and either studied the current to ensure that we got into a position where a gentle current swept us away from danger, or simply deployed into the water with a burst of vigorous paddling and careful edging to break through to the fast water.
Thereafter it was indeed the lovely meander through the woods that Andy has promised. Eventually we rejoined the canalised section and followed our tracks back through to Guildford and the car park beyond.
September – Basingstoke Canal from Winchfield Hurst to Odiham Castle (15 km)
The last flat water paddle of the year, and the only one in Autumn, saw six of us gather at the car park in Winchfield Hurst for the put-in. Sally and Michael Day were in attendance as usual, along with myself and Andy Maxted. This time we were also joined by Heather Mellersh and Sally Axler.
For me the put-in at Winchfield Hurst is arguably the most beautiful scene to kick off any of our tours. It certainly makes you feel the one-hour drive to the canal is worth it. But there is the twist: the view was even more amazing when we piloted this paddle back in the winter when there were no leaves on the trees to obscure the view.
As we set off it was clear that we were in for traffic. The scouts had apparently arranged a race event on the canal and for the first few miles we took our chances as we threaded our way avoiding the oncoming and passing volumes of fast moving kayaks of all shapes and sizes, which was all good fun! Eventually we reached the Basingstoke and Dean canoe club and that seemed to be where the event ended. Beyond that we had the water almost to ourselves.
The paddle along the canal is really pleasant and only marred by a short stretch where it runs near parallel to a noisy main road. Aside from this, it is a nice paddle with changing scenery that feels much shorter than the 15km suggests.
Eventually we passed Odiham castle, where after a short way, the canal becomes a nature reserve and no boats, including canoes, are permitted. We spent some time in this region of the canal, tracking the large and various groups of fish in the crystal clear water, before we turned back to the castle where we enjoyed a picnic.
The castle was built by King John and is the place from which he rode to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede. Today it is a ruin, arguably very much like the principles of Magna Carta. We took some time to explore the site before heading back to the boats for the return paddle.
The way back was every bit as relaxing as the paddle up, and gave us time to admire some of the interesting ornamental features that people had installed in their waterfront gardens – a full size ornamental feeding horse was probably the most impressive.
Without a drop of rain all day, we enjoyed glorious blues skies and sunshine – a truly splendid end to the season. Michael’s curse was finally broken, thanks Mike!