Falling Down the Thames Blog 29, 01st October 2014
Annus Mirabilis and Annus Horribilis
Falling Down the Thames will require nearly three weeks of padding. By itself, greater London is so large that it will take several days in late April and early May of next year for Krista and I to pass through it. In doing so, our River Thames adventure will take us through one of the most recognizable landscapes on Earth. After the Eiffel Tower in Paris, I suspect that the Palace of Westminster and the great clock tower housing Big Ben facing the River Thames is the world’s most recognizable landmarks. London is, I believe, one of the world’s truly great cities.
But as for people, cities have good years and bad years, London included.
The Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway and now part of the London Underground, opened for business in 1863, making that a pretty good year for the capital city. And 1605 must be considered a particularly good year, and least for King George and members of the House of Lords who were not blown to smithereens by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. Residents of London celebrated with gusto in 1953 for the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Each of these was a good year, an Annus Mirabilis.
London went through a particularly bad spell in 1665 and 1666. At that time the last of the really awful outbreaks of bubonic plague killed off about 100,000 people, followed quickly by a fire that left almost everyone in central London homeless. In Latin, it was an Annus Horribilis.
Then there are years in which nothing particularly noteworthy happened in the city by the Thames, and 1717 was one of those years. I had to dig deep to find anything at all.
Botanist and book collector Emanuel Mendez da Costa was born that year. The first ballet ever staged in England, The Loves of Venus and Mars, was seen by Londoners. Catherine Sedley, the Countess of Dorcester, and one of the mistresses of King James the Second, died in 1717. A maypole that had been constructed in 1661 was dismantled in 1717 and given to Isaac Newton to be used as a base for a telescope. The steeple of the church of St. Mary le Strand was completed that year under the direction of architect James Gibbs. King George threw his son out of the royal household in 1717, and Free Masons founded the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster… Nothing terribly riveting. A Mediocris Anno.
With one exception. Next week I will tell you about composer George Handel and a wonderful piece of music with an intimate connection to the River Thames.
Photo credits: the Palace of Westminster & Big Ben – www.exploretravelphotography.com; The Great Fire of London – www.hearthtax.org.uk; St. Mary Le Strand - partleton.co.uk
Falling Down the Thames Blog 28, 24th September 2014
Our Mascot “Alfred”
When Glen and I were tossing about ideas for our Thames adventure, we decided it would be fun to have a mascot join us for the aquatic voyage.
We were already very fond of the kingfisher thanks to its residence along many parts of the River Thames, and due to the fact that I am an amateur bird lover and Glen is a professional bird lover. We stared at the kingfisher on our logo and decided that would be the perfect mascot.
Now we just had to find a plush Kingfisher big enough that it could be viewed by observers on the river banks as we paddled down the Thames.
As it turns out, kingfisher plush toys are hardly ubiquitous. But thanks to an intensive Google search, we came across a beautiful handmade kingfisher being sold by a young woman in the Netherlands.
Karin was selling the bird on the wonderful online artisan marketplace, Etsy.com, through her business Stitched Creatures. We contacted Karin and after describing our upcoming trip and our mascot needs, she agreed to make us a custom kingfisher using the colors which appear on our logo: bright blue, deep orange, and deep yellow.
After two weeks and a series of back-and-forth emails from Karin in which we applauded her fabric selection, Alfred was born. Standing 14 inches tall, and composed of a precise patchwork of brightly-coloured felt, corduroy and flannel, he looks majestic and sports an expression that says “Ready for adventure!”. He even has a small fabric loop behind his head, allowing us to clip him to our backpack or the deck of our boat, and a small fish in a front pouch.
Alfred will be experiencing every inch of the Thames and every moment of our voyage, including our visits to pubs and to elementary schools. We now just need to find him a suitable lifejacket.
Photo credit: Common Kingfishers – www.waterpark.org; “Welcome” – www.stitchedcreatures.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 27, 17th September 2014
The Good and the Great
As Krista and I paddle from one end of the River Thames to the other next year, we will be accompanied by a plush kingfisher named Alfred. We will be sure to make Alfred feel as secure as possible; we wouldn’t want to lose him in the swirling waters of a weir.
When Krista first suggested the name “Alfred” for our kingfisher, I thought that it might have been a tribute to Alfred Russel Wallace, the great English naturalist whose work Krista and I both admire. Instead she explained that the name is a tribute to King Alfred the Great, considered by some to be the first king of England. Also known by the name Ælfred of Wessex, Alfred was born at the Royal Palace at Wantage approximately 1,165 years ago. He is the 32nd great-grandfather of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
Not that Alfred took a direct route to the throne. When his father, King Aethelwulf, died in 856, next in line was Alfred’s older brother Aethelbald who reigned for just four years. When Aethelbald died, brother Aethelbert took over, and was on the throne for six years. Then brother Aethelred I got to be king for four years. By the time his third brother died in short order, I have to wonder if Alfred even wanted the job. Luckily for him, Alfred lived for an additional twenty-eight years before shuffling off, leaving the job to his son Edward.
In his time as king, Alfred accomplished some rather amazing things. He learned to read and write Latin in his late 30s, and assisted in the translation of scholarly books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon. Alfred’s forces defeated the Danish army in 878 at Edington, in 884 in Rochester, and again in 886 in London. At this point the Danes were probably getting a little tired of Alfred. He is credited with establishing a permanent army and naval force, and built a series of fortifications to help defend the kingdom. Alfred also initiated the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a record of British history, which begins with the words: “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad.” In 893, the Bishop of Sherborne wrote a biography entitled The Life of Alfred the Great, and the title stuck. As travel companions go, Krista and I will be in good company.
When we paddle into Oxford, Krista and I might walk Alfred to a street just a couple of hundred metres from the River Thames known as Alfred Street. We will be about ninety kilometres into our journey at that point. Perhaps Alfred would like to join Krista and I for a pint of beer at a thirteen-century pub on Alfred Street called The Bear Inn.
Photo credits: King Alfred the Great – www.news.com.au; The Bear Inn – www.lovetravelengland.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 26, 10th September 2014
A Wealth of Kingfishers
As described last week, the symbol for the 2015 paddling adventure of Krista and I is the Common Kingfisher. It is a shy but beautiful blue-and-orange bird which we should spy along many segments of the River Thames.
Krista’s father, Jørgen, gave me his copy of a book published in 1955 entitled Fugle I Farver. This translates from Danish to English as Birds in Colour. From Fugle I Farver I learned that:
“Ret sjælden ynglefugl, almindeligst i Østjylland. Isfuglen bliver her hele året. Den styrtykker efter småfisk, vandinsekter g krebsdyr. Den bygger rede i åbrinker, hvor den hugger det lange vendrette indgangsrør og redestedet ud med næbbet. Æglægningen finder sted i maj. De 6-7 glinsende hvide æg bliver lagt uden underlag, blot omgivet af en krans opgylpede fiskekogler.”
And just in case you don’t speak Danish, this translates roughly as:
“A rare breeding bird seen most commonly in East Jutland. The kingfisher is a resident. It feeds by swooping on small fish, aquatic insects and crustaceans…”
But the online translation program I used had a bit of difficulties with the fourth sentence, offering:
“…The nesting åbrinker where the chipper the long turn right inlet and the nesting area out of its beak.”
I then learned that breeding takes place in May. Six or seven glistening white eggs are laid without formal nesting material, but rather surrounded by a wreath of regurgitated fish bones.
I got additional information about the Common Kingfisher from a 1943 British book in my collection entitled A Bird Book for the Pocket. I gather that we will be paddling down the Thames at just the right time of year to see both parents-to-be excavating nest burrows in steep banks. We should expect them to pass us swiftly, low to the water. It seems that these birds, while hunting, are even capable of hovering motionless before plunging into the water.
Finally I consulted the Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Birds of Britain. It offered a little factoid that I had not come across before. “The kingfisher,” I read, “is seldom preyed upon by other birds, as its flesh has an unpleasant taste.” Perhaps that is a result of eating so many fish.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, we don’t have to worry too much about the plight of the Common Kingfisher which is considered to be of “Least Concern.” It has a huge distribution across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Its current population is estimated to be about 600,000 individuals. But before celebrating the abundance of our kingfisher, it is important to remember that there are fewer of them, spread over a vast range, than there are humans living in Greater Bristol.
Photo credits: Fugle I Farver - www.arnoldbusck.dk; Common Kingfisher - ibc.lynxeds.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 25, 3rd September 2014
A Bird Fit for a King
In an earlier blog, Krista explained how we came to have a kingfisher as the totem for our great 2015 paddling adventure, Falling Down the Thames. To us, kingfisher are the bold, cheerful and colourful embodiment of the River Thames.
But the bird used on our logo isn’t just a kingfisher. It is the Kingfisher. You see, the British have a habit of using common names for birds that imply that theirs is the only one that really counts. I offer as evidence the Nightjar, the Blackbird, the Martin, and the Dipper. You can trust me on this matter – there are lots of types of nightjar, a wealth of blackbirds, piles of martins, and plethora of dippers. And there is myriad variety among kingfishers.
Indeed, there are no fewer than ninety-two species of kingfishers in the Family Alcedinidae. Other than far northern North America, Europe and Asia, and the Sahara of Africa, kingfishers are found almost everywhere. The African Dwarf-kingfisher is aptly named, being only ten to twelve grams in mass. At the other end of the scale, thirty-five times more massive, is the Laughing Kookaburra. I often hear these birds calling raucously outside my office window in Australia.
If one attribute sets kingfishers aside from other birds, it is their long, straight, murderous bill that they use to impale fish, insects and other small animals. Most species are residents of forest and woodlot, and they seem to prefer habitat near water. Kingfishers have short legs, are brightly coloured or starkly patterned, and prefer classical music to pop.
Actually, I made that last bit up.
There are two species of kingfishers in New Zealand, four in Argentina, five in Mexico, six in Russia, nine in Ethiopia, eleven in China, and twelve in India. Some types of kingfishers are broadly distributed and well known to the public. At one time the Belted Kingfisher of the Americas was featured on the Canadian five-dollar bill. Australia has depicted eight species of kingfisher on its postage stamps.
Kingfishers have also made their way into our business culture. The firm KingFisher Boats of Vernon, British Columbia, specializes in the design and manufacture of heavy-gauge aluminum watercraft. In Europe and Asia, Kingfisher home improvement stores attract six millions shoppers each week. According to its corporate website, Kingfisher beer is the best selling Indian beer in the world. The Canadian firm Kingfisher sells German-made medical lasers. Clearpath Robotics sells an unmanned water craft, powered by differential jet propulsion, called Kingfisher.
In terms of birds and their conservation, kingfishers are doing reasonably well. Most, but not all. The Bougainville Moustached Kingfisher of Papua New Guinea and the Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher of the Solomon Islands are both in danger of extinction. Things are worse for the Tuamotu Kingfisher of French Polynesia, and the Javan Blue-banded Kingfisher and Sangihe Dwarf-kingfisher of Indonesia which are all critically endangered. Worst of all, the Guam Kingfisher was driven to extinction in the wild by introduced snakes, although some remain in captivity.
In the next blog, I will tell you about our kingfisher, the Common Kingfisher.
Photo credits: African Dwarf-kingfishers - migrantbirdsinafrica.blogspot.com.au; Laughing kookaburras – Ian Montgomery, birdways.com.au; Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher – www.monitoringmatters.org
Falling Down the Thames Blog 24, 27th August 2014
When and Where
Krista and I have been making plans for our great British paddling adventure, Falling Down the Thames, for the past year. As each component of the trip has consolidated, the trip has achieved greater clarity. The day on which we begin the journey is now less than nine months away.
Both Krista and I have been on lengthy wilderness paddling adventures in the past, but this journey is something quite different. Four hundred and sixteen kilometres from Kemble in Gloucestershire, we will cruise through Oxford, Reading, Henley and Windsor, through the heart of London, all along the length of the River Thames and then the Thames Estuary, and finally along the north and east shores of Kent. We will visit eight counties, pass under 130 bridges, and navigate almost four dozen locks.
This past week, our planning reached a milestone. We are pleased to report that we have settled on an itinerary. We can now say with a degree of confidence when we will arrive at each new station in our journey. Perhaps reading our schedule will give you a small thrill.
Day 1: Tuesday April 21 – Kemble to Cricklade
Walking /Paddling distance 17.12 km / 10.64 mi
Day 2: Wednesday April 22 – Cricklade to Tadpole Bridge
Paddling distance 34.47 km / 21.42 mi
Day 3: Thursday April 23 – Tadpole Bridge to Oxford – Folly Bridge
Paddling distance 33.43 km / 20.77 mi
Day 4: Friday April 24 – Oxford – Folly Bridge to Pangbourne / Whitchurch Lock
Paddling distance 50.26 km / 31.23 mi
Day 5: Saturday April 25 – Pangbourne / Whitchurch Lock to Henley Bridge
Paddling distance 25.36 km / 15.76 mi
Day 6: Sunday April 26 – Henley Bridge to Boulters Lock
Paddling distance 23.53 km / 14.62 mi
Day 7: Monday April 27 – Boulters Lock to Penton Hook Lock
Paddling distance 26.38 km / 16.39 mi
Day 8: Tuesday April 28 – Penton Hook Lock to Teddington Lock
Paddling distance 24.12 km / 14.99 mi
Day 9: Wednesday April 29 – Teddington Lock to Westminster Bridge
Paddling distance 24.27 km / 15.08 mi
Day 10: Thursday 30 April – Westminster Bridge to North Woolwich
Paddling distance 16.33 km/ 10.15 mi
Day 11: Friday May 1 – North Woolwich to Gravesend
Paddling distance 29.8 km / 18.5 mi
Day 12: Saturday May 2 – Gravesend to Sheerness
Paddling distance 33.7 km / 20.9 mi
Day 13: Sunday May 3 – Sheerness to Whitstable
Paddling distance 22.4 km / 13.9 miles
Day 14: Monday May 4 – Whitstable
A day of rest at the Whitstable May Day Festival
Day 15: Tuesday May 5 – Paddle to Maunsell Sea Forts from Whitstable
Paddling distance uncertain
Day 16: Wednesday May 6 – Whitstable to Margate
Paddling distance 27.9 km / 17.3 mi
Day 17: Thursday May 7 – Margate to Richborough
Paddling distance 30.8 km / 19.1 mi
Photo credits: hand-drawn map of the Falling Down the Thames route – Dr Krista Halling; Folly Bridge, Oxford - Daniel L. Johnson (www.danlj.org); Westminister Bridge - nexttriptourism.com; Maunsell Sea Fort – hdwallpapersfactory.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 23, 20th August 2014
The Old and The New
In last week’s entry, I indicated that Krista and I would be passing under something like 130 bridges as we paddled the length of the River Thames in 2015. I realize that this isn’t any sort of world record. According to a study by Professor Bob Regan, there are almost 450 bridges in the American city of Pittsburgh alone.
Even so, there are a lot of opportunities to cross the Thames. These include Gosditch Bridge, Hailstone House Footbridge, Old Man’s Footbridge, Black Potts Rail Bridge, and Summerleaze Footbridge.
I am particularly looking forward to passing beneath two bridges along the River Thames; the very first and the very last. These two must count among the oldest and the youngest structures to cross the river.
When Romans invaded Britain nearly two millennia ago, they quickly established a series of paved, all-weather roads. The longest of these roads at more than 350 kilometres was Fosse Way, stretching from Lincoln near England’s east coast to Exeter in the southwest. Fosse Way passed through several major communities including Bath, Leicester and Cirencester. The Romans were great surveyors, and some of their chosen routes are still used today by motorways as major as the A2 and A5. The A433 is a twenty-seven kilometre long stretch of road which follows Fosse Way for about three kilometres just north of the community of Kemble.
Krista and I travelled to Kemble earlier this year to visit the spot traditionally recognized as the head of the River Thames. We walked across the A433/Fosse Road bridge, the very first of 130 bridges that cross the Thames. It is a near certainty that when we go back to the spot next year, we will be dragging our canoe under the bridge, not paddling it. Except at time of very high rainfall, that part of the Thames is dry.
After something like 270 kilometres of paddling, and 128 other bridges, Krista and I will come to the very last bridge over the River Thames. First opened to traffic in 1991, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is the only road crossing of the tidal portion of the Thames outside of greater London. It connects Dartford in Kent to Thurrock in Essex. It is a toll bridge, and in excess of 130,000 vehicles cross each day. Nearly 1.5 billion crossings have been made since it first opened. Including its approach viaducts, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is over 2800 metres and length, and when we paddle under it, the bridge will soar about sixty metres over our heads.
A teeny old bridge, and a huge new bridge – we will pass under both.
Photo credits: Glen on the one of the earlier bridges over the River Thames – Dr Krista Halling; Queen Elizabeth II Bridge – Martin Smith, www.mrsmithworldphotography.com; Queen Elizabeth II Bridge Marker – Richard Kindersley, www.kindersleystudio.co.uk
Falling Down the Thames Blog 22, 13th August 2014
Take a Wet Hen
Consider the mighty Yukon River in north-western North America. It begins its journey in British Columbia, proceeds north through the Yukon Territories, and then flows through Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea. The Yukon River is 3,200 kilometres in length, and has a catchment area of 832,000 square kilometres. It is longer than the Indus, the Rio Grande, and the Saint Lawrence, and discharges more water than the Nile, the Zambezi, and the Paraguay.
By way of contrast, the River Thames is a tiddler. It is 346 kilometres long, and gathers water from an area fifty-two times smaller than that of the Yukon River. On the whole, I am pleased that Krista and I are planning on paddling the River Thames in April and May of 2015, and not the Yukon. We have other things to do with our lives.
And surely length isn’t the only measure of greatness. For instance, there are only four road bridges over the Yukon River, and just two footbridges.
The River Thames is crossed by so many bridges that, despite my best efforts over the past week, I have not been able to tally them with certainty. I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Krista and I will be paddling under a lot of bridges. Using government documents, Ordnance Survey maps and aerial photographs, here is what I have found so far…
1) The uppermost reaches of the River Thames are considered to be non-navigable by powerboats. But even if we have to drag our canoe the whole way, Krista and I will be traversing every bit of the seventeen kilometres between Kemble and Cricklade. In doing so we will pass under at least seventeen road bridges and two footbridges.
2) The remainder of the Thames can be used by powerboat enthusiasts and paddlers alike. Krista and I will guide our canoe along the 217 kilometres stretch whose flow is regulated by locks. This will involve us gliding under 81 road, rail and footbridges. They include structures with such whimsical names as Ha’penny Bridge, Bloomer’s Footbridge, and Tadpole Bridge.
3) When we reach the lock at Teddington, the Thames becomes tidal, and Krista and I will need to swap our canoe for a kayak. After doing so we will paddle through the great city of London, and under an additional 30 bridges that span just 36 kilometres of river. These include such iconic monuments as Westminster Bridge, Tower Bridge, and London Bridge.
Of bridges, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev is reported to have said that: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.” I am not certain what that means, but Khrushchev apparently also said: “If you cannot catch a bird-of-paradise, better catch a wet hen.”
Next week I will write about the very first Thames bridge under which Krista and I will pass, and the very last.
Photo credits: a wet hen – thefinaltrawl.tumblr.com; River Thames at Cricklade – www.flickr.com; Tadpole Bridge – www.thamespathway.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 21, 06th August 2014
Canoes Don’t Like Highways
Once Glen and I had shaken hands on Falling Down the Thames as our next adventure, I decided that I would be smart to purchase a solo canoe to practice paddling. This decision was less due to me actually needing a boat (I already have a perfectly functional sea kayak and a tandem canoe), but more due to the fact that I love outdoor gear and this seemed like a great excuse to add to my existing fleet of seaworthy vessels.
I chose a canoe that would be lightweight enough for me to lift on and off the roof of my car by myself. Its other criteria was that it would also be roomy enough to allow my dog, Fixie, to join me, in case I lost my mind one day and saw that as a good idea.
My friend, Rob, and I drove 2.5 hours north of Toronto to Swift Canoes and Kayak. Their boats are handcrafted in Canada, so I could further justify my purchase by helping the domestic economy. I picked a perfect day to buy a canoe in Canada – an exceptionally windy, rainy, cold day in mid-November.
The folks at Swift Canoes were terrific at helping me with my selection. They suggested the Keewaydin 15, weighing a mere 30 lbs. That sounded great. And it was on clearance.
It had been a while since I had transported a canoe on my car’s roof. It had been even longer since I had transported a canoe on my car’s roof in inclement weather. The art of securing a canoe to a vehicle involves a few essentials:
1) Being able to safely load it onto the roof of your car. A canoe is much more difficult to carry when you need to lift it to a height above your head.
2) Having a padded yet non-slip surface between your roof or your roof rack and the gunnels of your canoe. I did not have a roof rack so we opted for specifically-designed foam blocks.
3) Strapping the body of the canoe to your car’s roof or the roof rack. Again, in my case – without a roof rack – we ran the straps over the canoe transversely and under the roof of the car. As the straps are tightened, it is important to put enough tension on the strap without deforming the canoe (or your roof). We started with two body straps, which is standard.
4) Securing the bow and stern to the front and rear of your vehicle, respectively. These straps are intended only to control the boat in case it slides around under the body straps (which it should not do if you have enough tension on the body straps and have the boat on a nonslip surface). The bow and stern straps are not intended to be primary means of securing the boat. We used straps with hooks and secured them to hooks under my car’s body.
And off we drove. The wind had significantly picked up since we arrived, and we were now enduring 80 km/hr cross winds on the highway. My lightweight boat now posed a huge problem. A 30lb canoe with a height of 18 inches and length of 15 feet offers a tremendous surface area for the wind to push against, with little resistance to being tossed around.
I knew we were in trouble when people in passing cars started frantically waving and pointing to the top of my car. Time to pull over. Sure enough, the boat was being tossed around with no hope of the two body straps of holding it in place. We carefully crawled along the highway, stopping at each exit in the hopes of finding something to better secure the boat. I was about ready to settle for duct tape, when we came across a hardware store which carried tie down straps. We added two more body straps and another one on the bow for good measure. And off we went.
The return trip took 4 hours. I probably could have paddled it home faster. But I learned my lesson…there is a reason people don’t drive around with boats on their cars in the winter.
Falling Down the Thames Blog 20, 30th July 2014
The great search engine provides a service that is generally underappreciated. It can be used to crudely estimate how much attention the world is paying to a particular topic. In an era of short attention spans and sound bites, more returns presumably means “more important.”
My search for “Thames River” provided 486,000 returns, but many of those were related to the Thames River in Ontario. When I corrected this and searched for “River Thames” I found 1,500,000 returns. This seemed impressive to me until I discovered that a search for “Game of Thrones” received thirty-four times as many returns.
I found a number of other potentially revealing pair-wise comparisons. What do the following have to say about the state of the world?
“Michael Jackson” – 44,900,000
“Thames Estuary” – 622,000
“How I Met Your Mother” – 451,000,000
“University Education” – 1,180,000
“Global Warming” – 17,200,000
“Viagra” – 28,300,000
“Biological Conservation” – 821,000
“Cheech and Chong” – 1,110,000
“Global Conflict” – 888,000
“Queen Elizabeth” – 8,110,000
” Justin Bieber” – 73,800,000
29-year old “Katy Perry” whose birthday is 25 October – 51,700,000
55-year old “Glen Chilton” whose birthday is also 25 October – 32,800
“Loch Ness Monster” – 775,000
“Falling Down the Thames” – 27
Photo credits: River Thames Barrier – www.esri.com; Sasquatch crossing – DustDevil75, i239.photobucket.com; Society for Conservation Biology – www.conbio.org; Glen – www.abc.net.au