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.