Courtesy of Micheal Ots – trip date July 6th 2020
Ever since moving to live beside the Thames, I have felt the urge to paddle the length of it. For a wedding present our lovely neighbours had bought us a book explaining then history of the river and its surroundings. So it seemed like a journey down the river would also be a journey through English history.
Technically any such journey should really be from ‘source to sea’ but there were two problems with this. Firstly, you obviously can’t actually start paddling at the source of the river (a field in the Cotswolds) which even at the wettest of times is nothing more than a puddle. Secondly, paddling the tidal part of the Thames beyond Putney Bridge requires a specific qualification and you have to be a part of group – neither of which I had. So I decided that the best option was to paddle the entirety of the navigable non-tidal Thames.
Navigation rights on the Thames begin at the picturesque town of Cricklade in Gloucestershire. However, when Rebecca dropped me off we realised that the river is really not much more than a shallow stream. Not to be undone I simply inflated the board without the fin for the first part of the journey. This got me afloat, but it also meant that I spent most of the first couple of hours trying not to spin round in circles! An added challenge on day one was that the river was almost entirely overgrown with bushes and fallen trees making for very slow progress as I navigated each obstruction. It’s possible that few, if any, others have been through this part of the river this year due to the pandemic and the exceptionally dry spring.
I stopped for the night a couple of miles short of Lechlade at a beautiful quiet spot on the river bank where I could watch the sunset. The Thames is a brilliant river for wild camping and it was very easy to find quiet spots all the way until you are until virtually in London. While not technically permitted I found no problem waiting till dusk to pitch my tent and making sure I was up and off early the next morning. I woke to lovely weather and made the most of enjoying the sunshine as I cooked my breakfast of bacon and eggs as the forecast was for the rain for the next three days! The sun was gone by the time I paddled into Lechlade. The town marks the limit of the river for powered craft and all of a sudden the banks were dotted with barges and boats.
I stocked up on supplies as i wouldn’t pass through civilisation again until Oxford, and that wouldn’t be for another couple of days. Just outside Lechlade is St John’s lock – the first of 45 locks on the river Thames. Locks are somewhat of a blessing and a curse. They are a blessing because they break up the journey and give you a sense of progress (they are spaced on average about every 3 miles). They also provide an opportunity to fill up one’s water bottle. (Sadly though they didn’t give you the opportunity to use the toilet as like most pubic toilets they were closed because of COVID – so I was glad of my spade!).
Locks are also a curse in that they required pulling the paddle board out of the water, taking off the bags, walking to the other end with the board through 2 or 3 gates, walking back to collect the bags and then finally when back at the board, reattaching everything and launching off once more. Despite the hassle it was still much quicker than going through the lock and meant that I actually kept pace with most boats despite my slower speed. Occasionally I arrived just as the lock was opening for a boat and so I took the opportunity to talk kindly to the lock keeper and go though with them and so have a bit of a rest. For the rest of the day I meandered through the flat countryside. Paddling down a river is definitely not a quick way of getting anywhere.
The Thames in summer has very little flow so most of the time I was going at about walking speed but expending considerably more effort to do so! Thankfully I had been on a test trip a couple of weeks previous where I had discovered this fact. Before that I had naïvely anticipated being able to paddle about 50 miles a day and quickly discovered that a decent distance from a hard days paddle would be more like 20 to 25 miles! It took a while before I settled on a suitable spot to camp – partly because I was not only looking for a flat area or grass but also for some tree covering from the now persistent rain. I finally found such a spot and I cooked dinner in the doorway of the tent and soon after I was sleep.
There is something lovely about going to sleep to the sound of rain on a tent. It is not so lovely to wake up to the same sound knowing you have to get up and spend a day paddling in it. By lunchtime though the rain had stopped and it had brightened up enough to almost feel warm. I arrived at Kings Lock – the first mechanised lock on the Thames and the most northerly point of the river. From here I would be paddling mostly south or even south west for the next day and a half. Unfortunately the winds were also set to be south westerly meaning the prospect of a lot of hard paddling to come.Just outside Oxford I doubled back up Wolvercote Mill Stream for a few hundred meters to meet up with my friend Adam Grady for lunch and was thankful for the hot noodles and tea he had brought with him.
The afternoon took me south through Oxford itself although the views from the river are not that great – it’s path is through a more industrial part of town.By the evening I had made it through Abingdon. I’d normally find a more secluded spot but when I saw a nice sheltered area just outside the town I decided it looked too good to pass by and stopped there to camp. This also meant that Adam was able to pop over again – this time armed with a couple of beers. The following day started sunny – at least for a few minutes at 6am. So I quickly got up to make the most of it to cook breakfast and then left early. This was just as well as it was going to be a long hard day of paddling into an almost continuous headwind. However, this was more than compensated for by the fact that I was able to meet with Tom Price for tea and cake at his parents house in Moulsford. They have a lovely place right on the river and I enjoyed stuffing my face with various cakes and desserts which powered me on for the final part of the day.
By the evening the wind had completely dropped and I loved the final mile or so with the crystal clear reflections of the wooded hills on the left bank. I found a wonderful spot on that bank to camp, sheltered under the trees, and enjoyed dinner washed down with a cup of wine. The following day was to be the longest yet but I had a good incentive to make the distance. After 24 miles I wouldn’t yet be finished but I would be home! I enjoyed the benefit of the now north westerly wind blowing me south easterly through Pangbourne but I wasn’t so glad of it as I battled my way into it that afternoon on the way in to Henley. Jerome K Jerome had little good to say about Reading on his journey ‘Three Men in a boat’ and I can’t say it was my favourite part of the journey either, despite the fact the sun had finally come out. Reading does though have the only Tesco Extra in country which comes with its own mooring. So, I made use of this to buy lunch before setting off again to find a nicer setting outside the town to eat it in.Just before Henley is Marsh Lock. Unfortunately, the lock keeper didn’t let me go through with the boats as it turned out to be the longest portage on the Thames – a walk of several hundred meters over a footbridge with board and bags. However, upon leaving the lock I was now back on home territory as I had already paddled these last 9 miles a few times before – though it wasn’t quite as easy as the first time I did it in January when the river was much higher and faster than it was now.By 6pm I was back at Marlow lock, with Rebecca waiting for me, and a very welcome dinner of BBQ ribs and chips – not something you can easily cook on a camping stove! We also happened to bump into John – an American now living here in the UK who was also paddling the Thames.
Despite travelling at a similar pace we hadn’t yet seen each other but it was very providential we did just then because we were able to help him find his hotel (he had dropped his phone in the river!) and also store his board outside our flat to save him lugging it through town.Rebecca joined me the following day as we paddled on with the benefit of a healthy tailwind for most of the morning. The stretch heading south past Clivedon House is one of the nicest sections of the Thames with steep wooded hills on the left bank and numerous little islands to navigate around. We could have stopped for lunch in the tiny village of Bray – the unlikely culinary capital of the UK. It boasts seven Michelin stars in total including two of Britain’s five three-Michhelin-star restaurants. Instead we stopped just before in Maidenhead where we bought a considerably cheaper lunch from the Co-op!After ice-creams in Windsor we headed on to find a place to camp. Although the pristine grassy banks of Windsor Great Park looked gloriously inviting, we didn’t fancy getting shot so we pressed on past Datchet where Rebecca found a fantastic secluded spot to enjoy our evening G&T’s and chilli con-carne.
The following morning Rebecca headed back while I pressed on for a long final leg to Teddington. It was the hottest day of the trip and I ended up jumping in the river every half an hour to keep cool. Once I had passed under the M25 the banks were almost continuously lined with houses and apartments and it was fun to decide which one I would choose to buy if I found myself with a few million pounds to spare.
The river grew increasingly busy with boats, kayakers, paddleboarders and swimmers all enjoying a glorious Sunday afternoon. It reminded me of seven days previous when I had begun the journey at Cricklade. Despite being little more than a stream, even then a group of kids were enjoying playing around in it. Seven days and 140 miles downstream the same river was still providing enjoyment and pleasure to so many – just as it also had to me.As the afternoon bore on, I needed a break and I fancied an ice cream, so I kept an eye out for anywhere suitable.
Finally, in Kingston, I spotted a café on the water’s edge and paddled over to find that Jon was also there. After catching up on our respective journeys we paddled on together for the last three miles to Teddington. As we pulled up to the lock, I felt rather sad that the journey was coming to an end. In the moment I didn’t actually feel tired (although I can’t say that today!). Rebecca was there to meet me and we celebrated by going out to the nearby pub for dinner – our first meal out in four months! As we walked back over the bridge to the car and watched the sunset over the lock and the tidal Thames beyond, part of me wished I could keep going to the sea. Maybe at some point I will…
Courtesy of and with permission of Michael Ots
Taken from the Marlow Paddlers (SUP) Facebook Page