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The River Great Ouse – Cambridgeshire

A trip to remind us why we do this!

The ‘River Great Ouse’ Adventure – Godmanchester to Ely, Cambridgeshire – 50km, 2 nights wild camping.

A river to behold and to avoid!

Following on from Michael Ots great write up of his River Thames adventure (full length navigable see Marlow Paddlers SUP group), I thought I’d do a brief write up (that was the intention anyway) of my recent trip along the ‘River Great Ouse’ – not to try and compete with his great write up, but to maybe encourage some other local write-ups, and maybe inspire a locals adventure outing or challenge somewhere soon (from Marlow).

This trip was planned by my two mates who decided to canoe a length of the River Great Ouse over a long weekend, take in some sights and drink plenty of booze along the way – I found out and invited myself along – I don’t think they minded, but I don’t drink booze (anymore). Unfortunately, the local canoe / kayak centre at Godmanchester had no Kayaks to rent, so I opted to do it on my SUP. Canoeing isn’t that fast afterall, and I figured I could keep up.

50km over 3 days is not at first glance a big challenge – but bear in mind this was only my 10th or 11th go at paddle-boarding, having first ventured onto the Thames in Marlow in May this year, and I hadn’t even grasped how to paddle more than 3 strokes without veering into a turn and having to swap sides.Pre-planning of the route is made easy using RideMyGPS – you can drop a line along the River and check distances using the desktop version and then ping it to your phone app and share the route with the group.

We used GoogleMaps to try and find wooded areas to camp, but to no avail. There isn’t much in the way of sheltered places and there are many footpaths making sly camping places a bit hard to find. We decided open fields would be the way and as such took a couple of BBQ trays in case we couldn’t find enough wood to get a fire going, and to wing it regarding where to stop. Obviously you cannot look down a river using Google Maps but you can pan around at bridges and RideMyGPS has a variety of map overlays to see what is going on along the route.This also allowed us to find a few places to check out for an end point where I could drop my car and shoot straight off at the end – being that the canoe hire place couldn’t fit me in his van at pick up time.

I’d tell you where the end was as it was a very convenient spot, but seriously you don’t ever want to go this far as once you hit Gipsies Corner it is too much hard work on a SUP. End there or turn back. Will explain later.

Starting at Godmanchester is certainly recommended – this must have been a practice design by the main man above (or woman?) to get Manchester right – absolutely beautiful!

And easy access onto the river being that this is where the canoe hire place is. The handy thing about tagging along with a canoe is that they carried all the gear – and when I say all the gear I mean it. My ‘bear grylls’ mate who has a penchant of buying the lightest weight gear all the way down to knives and forks also has a penchant for carry heavy gear including a 14” weighty super drone and two converted wheelchair batteries connected together acting as a super USB charger, amongst other things.

My SUP carried just me and so portaging was nice and easy – and off we went.This first day was a leisurely cruise – the river seemed easy, despite winding about like they all do just to make you feel like you are doubling your distance to get anywhere, but it offered great scenery and two pub stops.

We found an open field with a large branchy tree (my mate insists on using a Hammock where possible) and no footpath meaning no one disturbing us, and us not disturbing them; just past where we had envisioned stopping, but right in the middle of a cow-pat minefield. Pitching out tents to miss them was tricky but we managed. And so was setting up a fire and sitting around it. One thing to note is a hot fire soon warms up nearby cow-pats making head torches essential. Our shoes never made it into our tents. Steaks on the BBQ tray finished of the day well and it was a warm enough night – we slept well.

I did say this was leisurely – we spent about 3 hours messing about for breakfast and chilling out. ‘Bear Grylls’ bought along his wood burner stove and we fed it enough twigs to home a stork just to get a few cups of tea – gas burners are definitely easier and more practical, but the wood burner is for real campers.

By day two I seemed to have ‘semi-mastered’ the j-stroke (right-handed only) and paddling became more of a breeze as the muscle memory kicked in and I was paddling straight without swapping sides. Even my mates thought I started looked pretty competent.

Day two is also where it starts to go wrong – once you hit Gipsies corner you hit the weeds, and the ‘River Great Ouse’ has ‘Very Little Ooze’ – i.e. nil to no flow. And when I say weeds I mean it – I was told by one boat crew it would have been impossible to pass two weeks earlier had the weed skimming machines not been through – and I think they need to service them as for the next 1/3 of the route I spent having to reach under my board every 100 to 200 yards to clear the weeds off my fin – the photo shows it all. It was back killing and challenging, but the weeds would not win.

Pub stops were hard to find too! And the ones we found were taking Covid protection to the extreme with one bar completely barricading the bar with a thick clear protective screen, and one-way systems and ordering procedures that could be used for Mensa tests.One thing is to be said for day two – the wildlife was out for show. A 3ft grass snake seemed happy to climb onto my oar, some baby coots that were literally 3-4 inches tall, and a yellow-bellied slider terrapin sunbathing on his favourite log, and. These terrapins are not native so he (or his kin) have been discarded by someone at some point. These creatures can be hard to spot and it was the same mate who saw them both – if I was on my own I’d have missed them as I tend to just drift along, so remember to watch the banks and keep an eye out for these little treasures (he also seems to spot lots of small insects having sex but I left those photos out).The evening stop over was a bit trickier to find and we ended up in a more densely ‘cow-pat’ populated field than the first night. It was hard to believe this could happen. There was more wood to be found and ‘Bear Grylls’ pulled out a mini flick-open saw that could cut down an oak tree (we didn’t though) and we collected some good wood. The BBQ tray was pretty poor so we tore it up and used the mesh to cook our steaks on the embers of the fire – a winning touch.The morning took the same slow start – my back was almost broken from the weeds but day 3 was the home straight – we had done ¾ of the trip and the weeds cleared up. It was time to practice left handed j-stroke – and practice I need; more than the remaining ¼ of this trip. We had plenty of time so we made use of it and had a good pit-stop in Ely for lunch and fluids. The end point was literally a mile or so away and felt so rewarding. As I said, 50km in 3 days does not sound too much of a challenge, but with such little flow and so many weeds it was a killer, but it was great to complete. ‘Bear Grylls’ said with open honesty he was truly amazed I completed it and I looked very adept on my board by the end – and that was enough of a compliment for me.

The End!

C/O John Lloyd – Beginner paddler! 2020

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