If we had been granted an endless body of free time, stretching out ahead to infinity, completion of all of our plans for Falling Down the Thames would have been easy. When we encountered bad weather, Krista and I might have just stayed in place until it cleared. But life doesn’t work that way, and we needed to be on flights booked well in advance. Compromises are a part of life.
When we got up on Wednesday morning, rain was belting down in sheets, tossed by a furious wind. The scene looked like a computer-generated graphic from an expensive Hollywood film. It also looked a bit like the north coast of Kent in early May.
Shortly after breakfast, Krista and I were picked up at our hotel in Whitstable by Kerry Spendiff, a friendly and enthusiastic administrator from Reculver Primary School. This is the school that my mother and uncles attended three-quarters of a century ago. We were scheduled to make the last of our presentations to the student body.
And what an enthusiastic group of students they were. They were polite, but far more importantly, the pupils of Reculver Primary were full of joy. They laughed at our jokes, and seemed genuinely impressed by some of the things that Krista and I had been up to over the past three weeks. I showed them my mother’s report card from 1942, highlighting the grade of “E” (Unsatisfactory) that she had earned in History. “No so well remembered,” it said. The remainder of the report card had been exemplary. We modified our talk slightly to give examples of things that had not gone quite as we had anticipated, and the ways that we had overcome those challenges. We hoped that some students would see it as a lesson in how to deal with life’s many challenges. Their questions were great, and I even got to answer one by telling my story about encounters with pirates and crocodiles in Jamaica. After completing the talk, teachers told us that they felt we may have inspired a few pupils to become veterinarians or scientists. I would like to think that we inspired a lot of them to become adventurers.
By eleven o’clock we were done. The weather was far too challenging to paddle; the wind was savage. We needed something to occupy ourselves for at least four hours until we could check in to our hotel in Broadstairs. Krista suggested that we stay on the train out of Herne Bay and go as far as Dover, the English community at the narrowest crossing of the English Channel. We had, early on in our planning for Falling Down the Thames, discussed the possibility of paddling between England and France, before discovering just how crazy and expensive that would have been.
Walking along the waterfront at Dover, the sea showed its utter disregard for the distinction between itself and the land. Waves, driven by powerful winds, smashed over harbour walls. Thursday was scheduled to be a paddling day, our last, but the choppy water made that a very remote possibility. The sea, quite frankly, frightened me. When we purchased ice cream cones, the vendor described us as “brave.”
But when we looked at the ferries departing Dover Harbour heading for Calais on the French side of the channel, Krista had an idea. Since we had lost the opportunity to paddle the high seas to get to the military sea forts a couple of days before, she had longed to be on the high seas. Would a ferry ride do the trick? It certainly would. From our hotel room in Broadstairs, Krista booked us round-trip passage on ferries the following morning. And just because Krista is Krista, she reserved entrance to the special lounge for people who want the best view, some peace, and a complimentary glass of champagne.
The passage to Calais was glorious. Although the winds had fallen, the seas were still choppy. We drank our champagne and waved at passing gulls. Neither Krista nor I had ever been to Calais, and we had no good idea what we might find when we got there. Perhaps the sea front would be dotted with quaint cafes and bakeries serving the freshest croissants. Nope. That isn’t what we found. Calais is a working port. We found high fences topped with barbed wire, and a sign indicating that the community was just under a mile away.
We marked into town, purchased a baguette, a block of cheese and a carton of milk, and marched back to the terminal in order to catch our ferry back to Dover. One hour in France, and a stamp in each of our passports. If we couldn’t be paddling, surely this was the next best thing. A train took us from Dover to the cathedral town of Canterbury, where we attended evensong.
Breakfast in Broadstairs, lunch in Calais, and dinner in Canterbury. Which means that our grand paddling adventure, Falling Down the Thames is essentially complete. Tomorrow will see us at Heathrow. It is time to get back to the day-to-day adventures. It is time to plan for additional grand outings in the future.
I don’t know how many people have dragged a canoe through fields and over fences between Kemble and Cricklade before paddling the entire length of the non-tidal River Thames. Thousands, or perhaps hundreds. I don’t know how many of those have continued along the Thames Estuary in a kayak to Erith, and then from Whitstable to Margate. Hundreds, or perhaps only us.
The winds were far too gusty to paddle on the sea today. Instead, Krista and I spent the day exploring the region around Whitstable. Hearing our accent, people have asked if we were on vacation. We had to say: “Well, no. Not really. We have been having an adventure. We have been paddling the River Thames…” Folks seem impressed.
And so, in the absence of any news about our paddling progress, we would like to offer you our thoughts on the relative merits of travelling by open tandem canoe versus a tandem sea kayak. You will quickly gather that I favour the former, and Krista the latter.
- Glen: When it is time for a pee, I can leap out of a canoe, empty my bladder, and be back in a canoe seated comfortably in about thirty seconds. In a kayak, this is a forty minute exercise.
- Krista: That is what Nalgene water bottles are for.
- Krista: In a kayak, your lower half and gear remain dry, regardless of the conditions. In an open canoe, you and your gear are exposed to the elements.
- Glen: “Dry” is why the British invented riverside pubs with fireplaces.
- Glen: Canoes are lighter than kayaks.
- Krista: That depends on the construction material and length.
- Glen: No it doesn’t.
- Krista: Yes it does.
- Krista: The ergonomic fit of a kayaker in the cockpit allows maneuverability. The paddler is at one with the boat. In an open canoe, it feels like you are sitting in a bathtub.
- Glen: I rather like bathtubs.
- Glen: If you need to look around, it is possible to stand up in a canoe.
- Krista: That is what maps are for.
- Krista: A kayak is less influenced by the wind than a canoe. An open canoe is easily tossed by the wind.
- Glen: If it is that windy, find a coffee shop and wait to paddle another day.
- Glen: Canoes are cute. In Wind in the Willows, Rat and Mole had fun in an open boat, not a kayak.
- Krista: Kayaks are cool. Fisher Price Adventure Sets include a kayak, not a canoe.
- Glen: You can take your dog along for a ride in a canoe.
- Krista: It is tricky, but not impossible, to train a dog to sit in the cockpit of a kayak.
- Glen: I’ll bet that dogs get sea sick in kayaks.
- Glen: Canoes are Canadian.
- Krista: That’s true, eh?
More news tomorrow.
The community of Whitstable hosted a ten kilometre footrace this morning. How wonderful that Krista and I could say that we had to miss it because we have even more exciting things to do.
Throughout our paddling adventure, Falling Down the Thames, the Met Office has been threatening us with forecasts of horrid weather. Day after day those forecasts have been overly pessimistic, and we have been provided with the most wonderful of paddling weather. At times it has felt as though we were living passages from Wind in the Willows.
Now that we have arrived on the north coast of Kent, and are facing paddling that is, for all intents and purposes, on the ocean, we have to take threats of foul weather far more seriously. So when the Met Office Forecast high seas on Tuesday and Wednesday, with winds gusting to eighty kilometres per hour, we knew that a conservative approach was our only option. Krista and I were scheduled to meet the Oyster Morris dancers for some fun and silliness today, May Day. But with a promise of beautiful weather, we had to call that off, and prepared to paddle instead.
We set off from Whitstable in the kayak under a lovely blue sky. The wind was fresh, but at our back to help push us along. We agreed not to have a specific destination in mind, but to see how the day unfolded. To our right were runners following the race course along the sea front. To our left were giant wind turbines and the remains of the sea forts that helped to protect wartime Britain.
We had planned to paddle the eight kilometres or so to these sea forts tomorrow, with the support of the good people at the Redsands Project. Regrettably the weather is likely to be far too foul. And so, when we arrived at the community of Herne Bay, we tried to do the next best thing. At one time, Herne Bay could brag about a lovely long pier jutting out into the sea. My mother told me stories about roller-skate dancing on the pier. A short segment of this pier remains attached to the shore, and its derelict terminus far offshore; the remainder is gone. We paddled around the once-great distal end of the pier, now home to gulls and pigeons.
Aiming for the shore, we pulled the kayak onto Herne Bay’s beach. With salt-encrusted faces, wet hair, life jackets and spray skirts we did not look like the usual May Day holiday-makers in Herne Bay. Leaving all of our gear on the beach, we enjoyed cheese-and-tomato sandwiches and coffee at the bandstand. If I remember the stories correctly, my mother and her brothers would listen to musicians perform at the bandstand when they were young, and dance to their tunes.
Back in the water, we spied the twin towers of Reculver, long used as a navigational aide to mariners, and aimed for them. If Krista and I had had the luxury of unlimited time, we would crawled back out of our kayaks, and enjoyed a pint of beer in the King Ethelbert pub. Next time…
The wind shifted directions, and instead of pushing from behind, it had a go at pushing us out to sea. Not wanting to arrive in Norway on this trip, Krista managed the rudder with a delicate touch to keep us reasonably close to the shore. On we paddled.
After five hours, we came to the community of Margate. The skies had turned from clear to heavily overcast, and I think I spied rain in the distance. Instead of pushing on to Broadstairs, we grounded the kayak on the mud-and-sand beach. I watched over our possessions, while Krista went in search of a place to store the kayak for the night. I looked back over the seas we had just paddled, and resolved the towers at Reculver as the tiniest sliver in distance. When we contacted Harry, he offered to simplify things by coming to Margate to retrieve the kayak and drive us back to Whitstable. While driving back, Krista commented that the car ride showed, in a way that a map couldn’t, just how far we had paddled.
It looks as though the winds will have us landlocked tomorrow, but I am sure that we will have fun in and around Whitstable.
It is possible that the paddling adventure of Krista and I, Falling Down the Thames, is unique in annals of transportation. It may be that as long as people have been paddling, never have two adventurers spent so much time in taxis, trains and busses.
Yesterday, Saturday, was to be a day of paddling from the community of Gravesend to Sheerness. This would have involved a little more than thirty kilometres of coastline composed of mainly mudflats. The weather was not great, and with few opportunities to paddle to shore if required, we spent the day quietly in Gravesend instead. Today was to be another long slog from Sheerness to Whitstable. Again, the weather was not in our favour. At times the water looked calm enough to paddle, but five minutes later flags would be flapping furiously, and the Thames would be covered with whitecaps. In the interest of safety, we decided to abandon that segment of the paddling adventure, and head to overland to Whistable.
This is where things got a bit tricky. The British transportation system tries to complete maintenance and repair work done on weekends so as to inconvenience as few people as possible. From Gravesend, we caught a train to the middle-of-nowhere. From there we took a bus to the back-of-beyond. Both communities are gloomy. If Kent is the “Garden of England,” small bits of it could use some weeding. An additional train journey brought us to the seaside community of Whitstable.
It is the May Day bank holiday weekend in Britain. I suspect that many families have been looking forward to a get-away for quite some time. Lots of those made holiday plans for Whitstable, hoping to eat oysters and take in the bracing sea air. Silly families! Don’t they realize that this is “Spring” in Britain? Krista and I felt as though we were kites in the wind. Holidaymakers huddled against the wind, and coffee shops and pubs did a very good trade.
If you know Whitstable at all, you will know that it is a seafood lover’s paradise. It is not a vegetarian’s paradise. When Krista and I set off in search of dinner, we passed four types of restaurants. Some served only meat and seafood. Some were fully booked. Some claimed that they weren’t serving food. The remainder were closed. After ninety minutes of walking we came across an establishment called Birdies. We enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant meal there.
As a result of the weather, we have thrown our timetable out the window. In the distance we can see the Maunsell sea forts from Whitstable, but our plans to paddle to them on Tuesday have been scuttled. We are now planning to take advantage of any opportunity to paddle, without taking any risks with high winds that might push us to Belgium. Stay tuned.
Life. Life is wonderful. To date, life has exceeded all of my expectations.
That isn’t to say that life has been working out exactly as I had planned it to. On a big scale, and on a small scale, life has provided me with lots of twists and turns. Surely this happens to everyone. If I haven’t always ended up at the anticipated destinations, I have generally wound up where I needed to be.
Krista and I have been paddling the River Thames for almost two weeks. We would have been naive if we thought that our paddling adventure was going to go without a single hitch. In the end, those hitches don’t matter at all because we have adapted to each circumstance, and have been enjoying a marvelous time.
Yesterday morning, Friday, we set off by train from our hotel near the Kings Cross / St. Pancras station to meet Harry and recover our kayaks at the AHOY Centre. The plan had been to paddle a section of the tidal Thames with Harry from the Greenwich region to the community of Gravesend. The distance ahead was about thirty kilometres. Under Harry’s guidance, we anticipated a noon departure to take advantage of the outgoing tide to speed us along. We would pass by, through and under three great landmarks. The first is the imaginary line in Greenwich that divides the western hemisphere from the eastern. The second is a great engineering project; the Thames Barrier protects London from flooding. The third is the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, by far the longest over the River Thames. Each of these is described in blogs I have posted over the past year.
As we packed the kayaks, it was apparent that weather conditions were not perfect. The wind, cool and brisk, was blowing from the east. It would be in our face for most of our route. The skies were threatening rain. One of the team members at the AHOY Centre claimed that he had had a good look the seas we would be paddling while walking his dog that morning. He wasn’t impressed. But Harry was confident that the water was not beyond our abilities. The wind would make the trip more challenging, but he was sure that we were up to the challenge. After loading all of the gear securely in the holds of the kayaks, Harry helped Krista and I push into the Thames.
It was at this point that we almost lost Alfred. While gentle paddling to keep us in place, I saw something cute and fuzzy floating by the kayak on the port side. Floating, and sinking. Although our toy kingfisher, Alfred, had been secured to the deck with bungee cords, Krista must have just knocked him into the water with her paddle. We retrieved him before he sank. It was impressive how much water he had taken on in the short time he was in the river, and how heavy he had become.
With Harry in his solo kayak, and Krista and I in our tandem kayak, with wet Alfred on the deck, we got underway. Harry helped to guide us into circumstances where we could best take advantage of the falling tide while avoiding as much of the head winds as we could. Even so there were times when it seemed that Krista and I were paddling as well as we could without making much headway.
We continued to pass the great city of London. Soon we had left behind the iconic architectural and historical landmarks, and entered the regions of warehouses and docks covered with monstrous shipping containers. Krista and I reflected on the changes we had seen in our river. The wind, the tide and the wakes of passing ships combined to make for a bumpy paddle. Krista said that it was like paddling over something alive. We occasionally passed workers at construction projects and children on school outings, and they all shouted their encouragement to us. Our pace gave them plenty of opportunity to shout; we certainly weren’t racing by.
After a couple of hours, my body started shouting at me. It asked me what in the world I thought I was doing. Krista estimated the waves as approaching a metre in height. I was paddling from the bow of the boat, and each time we crashed down from a passing wave, I could feel my spine compress. Unlike the gentle non-tidal portions of the River Thames, this tidal section required us to paddle without taking breaks. Each missed stroke was a missed opportunity to make progress.
At the Thames Barrier Harry radioed for permission to pass, and we were assigned a section to paddle through. Harry snapped photographs, and I did my best to smile, although I was feeling old and tired.
After about three hours of paddling, we were met by a pair of common porpoises, also known as harbour porpoises. The pair were probably a female, about two metres in length, and her youngster, about half that length. It was a rare sighting, even for people sitting so close to the water. This species of mammal doesn’t ever show too much of itself above waterline. We were heading downstream, and they were heading upstream. We cheered, waved, and resumed our paddling.
We could see the QEII bridge ahead of us. Harry estimated that it would take us an hour to get to the bridge, and another hour to get to Gravesend, our destination for the night. Krista and I conferred, and agreed that it was too much for us. Instead we pulled into the yacht club at the community of Erith. The only person on site was painting the hull of a boat. He told us that there should be no problem in storing our boats at the club overnight. Harry could retrieve them in his car the following morning. The three of us walked to the train station, so that Krista and I could get to out hotel in Gravesend, and Harry could collect his car in London. At some point in the future, I hope that the mayor of Erith will invite me to visit the community, so that he or she can point out all of the loveliest bits. Between the yacht club and the train station, we didn’t see any.
The schedule for Saturday was for Krista and I to paddle from Gravesend to Sheerness, a distance of about thirty-four kilometres. Sunday’s schedule was for the section of the Thames between Sheerness and Whitstable, either twenty-two or thirty-two kilometres, depending on the route we would have to take as determined by the weather. The weather forecast wasn’t good. Krista and I decided to give ourselves a break, and resume our paddling adventure once we got to Whitstable. We would spend the night in Gravesend, catch a series of trains and busses to Sheerness on Saturday, and do the same again on Sunday to get to Whitstable.
But then something magical happened. When we got to the hotel in Gravesend, the proprietors were so welcoming, and the room was so nice, that we cancelled our reservation for Sheerness, and booked into the room in Gravesend for a second night. The Clarendon Royal Hotel on Royal Pier Road in Gravesend is a marvel. Reasonably priced, full of character and history, but without being fussy, it has served the needs of Krista and I to perfection. Take a break at the Clarendon Royal. If you are lucky, you will get a room with a view of the Thames.
Here is the update… Krista and I have paddled the River Thames from its source near the village of Kemble as far as the community of Erith. We have passed under more than one hundred bridges, and don’t feel badly that we missed the QEII. We are in Gravesend. Tomorrow we will take land transportation to Whitstable. As soon as the weather turns in our favour, and after a short break to let our muscles and joints recover from our efforts to date, we will resume paddling with the Roman fort at Richborough as out intended destination. We are safe, warm, dry, and happy.
And Alfred is drying out nicely.
If I manage to fit one amazing happening into a day, then I consider the day to have been well spent. Today Krista and I had three amazing experiences. What a day!
At 07:30, we walked to the base of the clock tower at Kings Cross train station to meet Tom Bolton. Tom is the author of a very good book about the lost rivers of London. In this book, Tom described how one could follow the paths of London rivers that have now been partially or completely hidden below London’s streets. Each drains into the River Thames. When we contacted Tom, many months ago, he had generously agreed to give Krista and I a personal tour of the lower Fleet River beginning at Kings Cross.
At the agreed time and at the agreed spot, we found Tom. We also found two ladies, Rosie and Emma, whom we had met through a group dedicated to walking-as-art who had agreed to join in on Tom’s tour.
If Tom doesn’t know something about London’s lost rivers, then it isn’t worth knowing. He guided us through curving backstreets, and along major thoroughfares. With grand gestures he illustrating how the River Fleet, now below our feet, had shaped the composition of modern London. In places we peered through manhole covers to spy and hear the Fleet below us. We heard stories about the industry that had grown along the river, and about the 19th century character of the neighbourhoods through which we passed. We learned that many of London’s street names are based on the lost rivers below, and how the current dividing lines among boroughs trace their paths.
Do yourself a big favour – if you or a loved one is a fan of London, buy copies of Tom’s book. You will not be disappointed.
After a train ride back to our hotel to collect our gear, Krista and I took a cab back to the Cheslea district to meet with Harry and begin our day’s paddling. We hauled our tandem kayak, and Harry’s kayak, back across the busy street adjacent to the River Thames’ north bank, and down the remains of the stone staircase to the water. Harry had suggested that we begin our paddle against the remains of the rising tide. If we paddled with the ebb tide, we would zoom through the heart of London so quickly as to miss some of the subtleties that can be seen from the water. When the tide turned, we would get a boost.
At one time Harry provided guided paddling tours of the River Thames. (He also once held the record for the speediest circumnavigation of Great Britain – 80 days -, but that it another story). Today Harry kept Krista and I from being run over by a barge or a ferry, while serving as a font of information about the communities and buildings that we were passing. My mind spun as I tried to keep up on the glorious comings and goings of maritime London. Each bridge has one thousand stories. Each neighbourhood has two thousand years of history. And wouldn’t you know it… Both of the photographic/videographic units that we had purchased to document our travels chose today to fail. Harry stepped in by taking dozens of photographs of Krista and I in front of London’s most iconic features. We were smiling in each photograph.
As we arrived at the west end of the parliament buildings, the clock struck noon, and Big Ben chimed twelve times. Because we were dawdling, by the time we reached Westminster Bridge, the clock rang for 12:15. On we paddled.
At this point, Krista and I would like to give a huge thank-you to the kind folks at the AHOY Centre on Borthwick Street in Deptford, just before Greenwich. The centre is a charity, “changing people’s lives and building life skills through rowing and sailing.” When contacted, they graciously agreed to store our kayaks and gear in one of their boathouses for the night. When we paddled into their facility, we were greeted as kindred souls. We even received a tour of their set-up from Will and his group, and got to see some of the boats that they are constructing for an event involving groups paddling the English Channel and the River Thames in support of the charity. We sincerely hope that the AHOY Centre will be changing lives for the better for many years to come.
I suppose the simplest thing to do next would have been to catch a train at a nearby station to our hotel. Clearly Krista and I are never going to do the simplest thing. Instead we walked to the south entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, and descended into the earth. For more than a century, Londoners have been commuting from one bank of the Thames to the other using the pedestrian tunnel under the river. Given that I had written an entire blog about the tunnel, it seemed only right that we would use it. I understand that the tunnel has, at times, been a bit shabby, but today it is clean and well-lit, and has two ice cream kiosks immediately upon exiting on the north bank. Do you think that Krista and I got ice cream?
Three big Thames-related activities all shoved into one day. Magnificent.
Our bodies are responding well to our paddling, day after day. We have overcome the fatigue that comes in the early days of using the same muscles for as much as twelve hours at a go. We have a few tweaks in our elbows and shoulders, but I think that we holding together pretty well. But we will admit that we are getting tired. Ten days of paddling (and dragging) a canoe and a kayak are telling on us. Regardless, we are on track, and eager for the next stage. Tomorrow will be another day in the kayak, with Harry as our guide.
Photographs courtesy of Harry Whelan
Our morning began with a pair of train rides from Teddington to Kew Bridge. We had arranged to make a pair of presentations at Green Dragon Primary School. The first was to older students, and the second to the younger set. The pupils were enthusiastic, had been well prepared for our arrival, and asked great questions. My favourite was: “Where do you go to the bathroom?” Three train rides got us back to Teddington.
We caught a taxi from our hotel back to the the Royal Canoe Club, where we were met by Harry and a tandem kayak, bright yellow. We donned warmer paddling gear and life jackets, stowed our belongings in water-tight compartments, and waved Harry goodbye. He was to meet us later in the day.
Two locks were ahead of us. The first was Teddington, but when we arrived, rather than entering the lock and having the water drain to lower us to our next level, the lockkeeper told us to paddle to the side of the lock, get out, and use a system of rollers to bypass the lock. It seemed a bit rude of us to do this, as a swan was incubating eggs on a nest immediately beside the rollers. She watched us carefully as we passed.
Richmond lock is part-way along the tidal section of the River Thames. It maintains the level of the river between Teddington and Richmond, but is only needed at low tide. At high tide, boats sail straight over it. We missed the opportunity to paddle straight over by a few minutes, and so used another system of rollers to portage around the lock.
And so we had left the freshwater portion of the River Thames behind us, and were now in the Thames Estuary. With each stroke of our paddles, the water will become saltier. With locks done, the day of paddling was now about the great city of London and her bridges. Beautiful bridges with glorious histories intimately tied to the history of the city. To me, the names of the bridges spoke of that history – Hammersmith, Chiswick, Kew, Chelsea, Albert…
As we approached Battersea Bridge, we found that it was under restoration, and that some of the arches were not available for passage. I pulled our VHF radio out of my lifejacket pocket. As instructed, I depressed the button on the side and spoke.
“Batttersea Control Kilo Kayak. Over.” Battersea Control acknowledged that it had heard us.
“Battersea Control Kilo Kayak plantation wharf outward bound permission to proceed. Over.” Battersea Control told us that it wished us to proceed through arch number four.
“Battersea Control Kilo Kayak understood. Arch number four. Kilo Kayak out.” It felt kind of magical, and Krista said that my excitement at having correctly completed the transmission had made me paddle more quickly.
We met Harry at the side of the river, immediately after the Victoria Railway Bridge, across from the disused Battersea Power Station. With the help of his friend Olaf, we hauled the kayak up a set of crumbling stairs and across a very busy street to leave it in the yard of one of Harry’s friends in the district of Pimlico. We agreed to meet there the following morning at 11:00 to resume paddling.
Krista and I now set all of our belongings at the side of the busy street. It took about thirty minutes to hail a taxi, and the drive through the evening crush of traffic required a long time, but our patience was rewarded by the inspiring story of the driver. Bob explained that he had managed to shed one hundred pounds of body weight over the past year. He showed us a “before’ picture on his telephone; he was a new person. In order to celebrate his new life, Bob was planning on training to run the London Marathon in two year’s time. It was going to be a long journey for Bob. Something like Falling Down the Thames.
Krista and I walked into an Indian food restaurant for dinner last night. I placed a serviette across my lap. Goodness knows why I did it, given that my trousers have half of the gunk from the River Thames on them.
The majesty of the River Thames continued to reveal itself to us today. We passed castles and coots in abundance. For the first time since we began our journey, we sat on the riverbank and ate ice cream. The Thames lockkeepers continued to show what decent and enthusiastic people they are. At one lock, a keeper emerged from her lunch, looked at our canoe, and said: “It’s you! I’ve just been reading about you. And here you are. This is incredible!” She seemed impressed with our journey to date, and about the journey ahead, and used the word “incredible” three more times.
We achieved a milestone this afternoon, and it is one of which we are particularly proud. We arrived in the greater London community Teddington. This may not sound like a big accomplishment for a pair of adventurers committed to paddling the entire length of the River Thames, but it is. Teddington is the location of our forty-fourth and final lock. It is the spot where the Thames stops being entirely freshwater and becomes tidal instead. Tonight, after eight days of paddling, we have now covered two hundred and thirty-four glorious kilometres.
At the Royal Canoe Club in Teddington, Krista and I met up with Harry Whelan. If you think you know a lot about paddling, it is only because you have never met Harry. Tomorrow morning, after we make a couple of presentations about our adventure to the students at Green Dragon Primary School, we will swap our beloved yellow canoe for a tandem kayak which Harry will deliver to us for the completion of our journey. A canoe is easy to jump in and out of, but wouldn’t be sufficiently safe in the Thames Estuary and beyond.
The weather has been very cooperative to date. The forecast suggests that we are in for a change. It appears that we might see some rain and for some unfavorable winds. Please let me reassure our loved ones that we are safe, happy, and will not do anything silly.
I would like to retract what I said in the last update about the taxi firm in Henley. A delightful fellow from the same company picked us up at our hotel, and delivered us to our canoe the following morning. Something must have flown up the bum of his fellow employee.
Krista and I have been working ourselves into a lovely rhythm. We know in which bag to find each of our possessions, and have worked out where in the canoe each bag goes. We have adopted SPF 50+ sunscreen, and keep our rain jackets within easy reach. With ease Krista finds the most appropriate paddling lines, minimizing the distance covered while keeping us out of the way of other boaters. At each lock not operated by a lockkeeper, she finesses the canoe up to the dock, I leap out and do my tricks with the sluices and gates, she paddles into and out of the lock, and I join her on the far side. If I have counted right, we have now passed through thirty-eight locks.
But as we get closer to London, and the boating traffic increases, more and more of the locks are tended by a lockkeeper. These are, almost without exception, the most pleasant and cooperative men (mostly) and women (a few) in England. Krista and I have adopted a term to describe lockkeepers. They are either “Lifesaver worthy,” or they aren’t. Very few keepers have been anything other than worthy of a package of Lifesavers.
Three Lifesavers recipients stood out for me today. The first was a man who thought that we were offering him a single candy, rather than a pack, and wasn’t sure that he had done enough to merit a whole roll. The second was a fellow who had, that morning, received news about his family history, and was so excited that he wanted to share it with Krista and I. The third was a gentleman who admitted that he had not been having a particularly good day, but brightened considerably when he had Lifesavers in hand.
Something magical happened at a lock yesterday. A keeper noticed the Canadian and Australian flags flapping at the back of the canoe, and said: “Oh! You’re the ones. I’ve been following you!” It seems as though Sophie Smith at the Environment Agency has sent a message to employees, describing our adventure. Since then we have had a couple of other lockkeepers and a few men on boats shout encouragement, or simply throw us a thumbs-up. I feel like a minor celebrity.
Celebrities, or perhaps oddities. At many bridges and locks I have looked up from my paddling to see people snapping pictures or taking footage of our passage. Longboats and cruisers are common, but a bright yellow canoe flying flags from overseas is something out of the ordinary.
The boating fraternity is amazingly close-knit and friendly. When we encounter a powerboat moving downstream more than once, it seems we cement a friendship. There is, however, an exception. That exception is called Henley. In the five or so kilometres on either side of the racing regatta town, it seems to be very bad form to admit that anyone else exists on the river. Our waves and our called greetings were universally ignored. The River Thames in this region is also choked with well-muscled paddlers in skinny racing shells. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that none of them own the Thames. Even though Krista and I did our best to stay out of their way, they looked at us like plague-carrying vermin. Everywhere but Henley, people have been delightful to Krista and I.
On Sunday, Krista and I spent the night with my dear friends Cath and Errol. Readers of my books will have met them. Cath owns a property on the River Thames in Maidenhead, and made us a fabulous dinner. These people are so generous of spirit as to make me wonder what I have done to be friends with them. I suspect that if Errol had three pounds left in his pocket, he would spend them buying me a beer.
When we arrived at Windsor, I plonked myself down on the riverbank guarding the canoe and its contents while Krista set off in search of provisions. A procession of fifty-three swans filed past me, most looking hopefully into the canoe for food. Five minutes later, fifty-three swans swam back past me. They had “that” look about them, as though they were trying to decide if it were worth mugging me. They didn’t.
How any member of the waterfowl fraternity could possibly consider being hostile to Krista or I is beyond me. I suspect that Krista is currently keeping the bakers of southern England in business all by herself. By her own admission, she fed bread to something like 250 ducks, geese, swans and coots today. The number may have been a smidgen higher.
Shortly after the incident with the swans, I was passed by a lady pushing a pram along side her young son on a bicycle with training wheels.
“Richard. Stop being silly!”
“I’m not silly. You’re silly.
“No, you are being silly.”
“I am not silly!”
“You are. You are being silly!”
As she passed, she nodded at the canoe and asked if I had room for a passenger.
“Why have you got one to spare?” I asked. She rolled her eyes, and nodded at her son. I wanted to tell the son that I though silliness was one of the finest attributes of a human being, but didn’t think the mum would approve.
In eight hours we comfortably covered the twenty-five kilometres between Maidenhead and Staines. After showering off the grime of travel, we went in search of coffee. While wandering, I came over with a very strange feeling. The terrain was eerily familiar, even though I have never been to Staines. It took me a minute to realize that I had scoured this very scene on Google Earth Street View, looking for a pub called the Blue Anchor. Readers of my Falling Down the Thames blogs will know that I had been trying to find out more about the pigeon named All Alone who had been awarded a medal for meritorious service in WWII. This pigeon is listed on Wikipedia as one of the most famous one-time residents of Staines. The breeder of All Alone had been the publican at the Blue Anchor in the years leading up to the war. The building in front of Krista and I, still adorned with a painting of a blue anchor, seemed completely unoccupied. A little further along the same avenue was a series of billboards depicting animals that had received medals for meritorious service, including one of All Alone.
Life on the River Thames has been glorious and challenging for Krista and I over the past three days. If our trip had gone exactly to plan, then perhaps it would have been slightly less glorious.
On Thursday morning, bright and early, we were picked up at our hotel at Tadpole Bridge by Bob Edy. Bob is the minister for the church in Ducklington. Krista and I were hoping to see two things in Ducklington. The first was the village’s duck pond. (I am willing to admit that the duck pond was more of a goal for Krista than for I). The second was a meadow just on the edge of the community that is home to one of England’s largest populations of snake head fritillaries. The flowers of these plants, mainly purple, but some white, have never struck me as looking much like the head of a snake. (I am willing to admit that the fritillaries were more of a goal for me than for Krista).
Bob Edy is the sort of fellow that you want on your side when the going get’s tough. I suspect that he almost always knows exactly what to say at exactly the right time. For instance, when I wrote to Bob, many months ago, asking if someone from Ducklington might be interested in giving us a tour, he immediately volunteered. And what a tour it was. We walked through the community, discussing its history and its future. We saw the field full of fritillaries, chatted about the growth of the population over the years and gabbed about Ducklington’s festival associated with their blooming. We saw the duck pond and discussed the sources of mortality of young ducks. We were even shown through the church which, if I heard correctly, has components dating to the time of the Normal Conquest.
But Bob’s generosity didn’t stop there. He took us back to our hotel, helped us load up our gear, and then drove us to Kelmscot to resume our journey. Luckily the canoe was exactly where we had left it the previous night. Off we set, a couple of minute before 10am.
Our goal for the night was the city of Oxford. It was an ambitious plan; Oxford was a long way away from Kelmscot.
If anyone ever tells you that the River Thames is anything less than magnificent, rest assured that they have never paddled a canoe along it. The birdlife was spectacular. Among the highlighted were the jeweled kingfishers that became more and more common along our route. Each time we approached a lock, we felt as though we had reached a milestone in our journey. 1. Ensure that the downstream gate are closed. If they aren’t, push on the long, multi-tonne paddles until they are. 2. Turn the cranks to open the sluices. 3. Walk to the upstream gates and crank open the sluices. Wait until the water levels in the lock rises to the level of the upstream river. 4. Open the gates to admit the canoe. 5. Close the gates. 6. Go back downstream to open the sluices to let the water out of the lock. 7. Open the gates to let the canoe through. 8. Reclose the downstream gates. Easy!
I will admit with no reservations that Krista is a more accomplished paddler than I. Therefore when we approached any lock that was not currently operated by a lock keeper, I would leap from the canoe, and perform steps 1 through 7, while Krista guided the canoe safely through the lock.
On and on we paddled. The day aged. Knowing that we were behind, we had to call one of our wildlife experts to cancel a meeting at a pub along our route. The Godstow Lock has been automated, suggesting that it would be easier to use than one of the stuffy old manual types. Don’t believe it. No matter how long I pushed the buttons, I simply could get the lock to operate properly, and so Krista and I had to empty our canoe, and carry it and our gear around the lock. The process chewed up precious time. And with one lock to go before our hotel in Oxford, Osney Lock, we found that that one wouldn’t operate properly either.
Krista and I strapped on headlamps and flashlights, and pulled up to the dock at our hotel at Folly Bridge well after dark.
Friday morning saw us bright, refreshed, and full of Starbucks coffee. Off we set. My first joy of the day was arriving at Sandford Lock to be told by the lockkeeper that we were her first boat of the season. Krista had brought along packages of Lifesavers candies from Canada to distribute to nice people, and the lockkeeper received a package. Finding that the automated locks were working much better than they had the night before, we made good progress. The weather was cooperative, and while kingfishers became less abundant, grebes became more so. Paddle, paddle, paddle.
Krista and I had prepared a presentation for pupils at Battle Primary Academy. Regrettably some miscommunication resulted in us having to cancel the presentation. On we paddled.
The River Thames is longer in person than it is on paper. Our goal for the day was Pangbourne, but we didn’t quite make it. We had to stop at Benson, and then catch a cab ride to our hotel in Pangbourne.
Which brings us to today. Cloudy skies provided our skin with a needed break from the sun. Despite the liberal use of sunblock, we were getting pretty red. Eleven hours on the water under clear skies will do that to folks with skin as fair as Krista’s and mine. Through Pangbourne, through Reading, onward, onward… we spied an assortment of coots, geese and ducks, including Mandarin Ducks which have been introduced to the UK.
Krista and I had brought with us small Canadian and Australian flags. Our first attempt to construct a flagpole from a branch was unsuccessful. Today when we stopped at a marine for provisions, Krista purchased a child’s butterfly net and, without the net the bamboo pole made a perfect rod for our flags.
We have both been fascinated by how much of the River Thames is bordered by agricultural fields and rangeland. The Thames is a beautiful river. It is surprising that more of it isn’t lined by homes. As we sailed further and further along, a greater portion of the river bank was occupied by evidence of human occupation. People on bridges pulled out cameras as Krista and I passed in our bright yellow canoe. We attracted attention and questions at almost every lock. The most common question now seems to be: “How far are you going?” The single strangest response that we got to the answer, Kent, was: “What? Today?” Well, no. That is a couple of hundred kilometres from here, but thanks for your faith in us. We shared the river today with scores of healthy young people practiced paddling racing shells, and a small but growing number of people in longboats who invariably waved or called out words of encouragement.
We ended our paddling day at the Henley Rowing Club, whose management generously agreed to let us store our canoe for the night. At the request of one of the club’s administrative staff, a taxi firm sent out a car to take us to our accommodations. I have taken hundreds of taxi rides in dozens of countries. Tonight Krista and I met the rudest cab driver in the world. If you are ever in need of a taxi in Henley, avoid a firm whose name sounds almost exactly like my surname.
Tomorrow we are bound for Maidenhead.