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.