Paddling down the Thames

Something written a while ago about a trip I took once:


The paddles of the kayak oar cut through the water in a steady rhythm: right oar in, pull, lift across the chest, left oar in, pull, repeat, repeat, repeat. One stroke every couple of seconds, thirty strokes a minute, with breaks and rests maybe fifteen hundred stokes an hour. Ten thousand paddle strokes a day. By early evening the river water felt thicker than it had in the morning, resistant, like paddling through glue.

Our starting point was Cricklade, a small village about eight miles from the source of the Thames and the first point at which it is possible to use a kayak or canoe. More stream than river at this point, kayaking here is a struggle; the water is shallow and by late summer the stretch of river is chocked with weeds. Our first day was spent fighting our way through these grasping tendrils and feeling the hulls of our inflatable kayaks scrape worryingly against stones and submerged sand banks.

As we paddled downstream white swans patrolled beside us and lines of fluffy cygnets bobbed at their tails. We eased past them slowly, warily; a mother defending her cygnets is likely to be aggressive and, given the size and power of them, a swan attack at eye level would hurt.

The river vanished in front of us, the mirrored surface disappearing round the next bend, then the next. The sheer sided banks towered high above our heads, too steep to climb and covered by swathes of nettles and grasses six feet tall. We were cut off from the world, kept company instead by the moorhens that scuttled along the bank at water level and the shoals of tiny fish that flitted through the water beneath us.

Locks were a welcome break, a ten minute pit-stop from paddling. The heavy wooden gates would close behind us and as we hung on to slime covered chains the water would drop beneath us. At every lock we’d shout the same questions up to the white shirted, red life-jacketed lock keepers; ‘How far to the next lock?’, ‘What’s the river like?’

As dusk fell the kayaks were hauled out of the water and we would make camp at one of these locks. Facilities were basic but the cost of a night’s camping rarely exceeded £10 a person. A pub was always within walking distance.

The river grew wider and busier as we nearedOxford, our finishing post and final port of call. Hikers walked along the bank beside us and narrow boats became more frequent (the light blue ones hired by tourists and steered with little idea of left and right). Fifty thousand paddle strokes over five days, fifty miles covered. The spires of Oxford were ahead of us.

Almost there.


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Filed under 5 Minute Sketches, Blog, Creative writing, Places

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