Monday, 16 August 2010

canoeing down the Thames

We had great plans for an adventure down the Thames, Richard, young Maud and me. And then he went and pranged his leg, during a cricket game. The shock waves from the snapping of the tendon set things a-bobbing furiously in the Beard household, and the ripples even reached Schloss Marland. No canoeing for Richard. However, Maud was still keen for the adventure, and so was I.

So we set off to find the marina in Abingdon that had been recommended to me as a launch point. But then I got horribly lost. This was fortunate, because it meant that we found this slipway on St Helen's Wharf, which is just the right size for launching a canoe.

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Here we are, putting on our lifejackets and stowing the gear. Camera in the watertight barrel, check. Chocolate, check. Paddles, check. Stove and tea-making stuff, left in the car. Damn. It was only later that it would come to feel that it would have been a good idea to have taken that.

Off we went, then. A kindly wind blew us on our way, so that we were able to overtake the occasional pedestrian, and exchange nods and smiles. Groups of teenagers sat under willow trees, practicing being disaffected. They were getting good at it. They neither nodded nor smiled.

We saw a pair of grebes, the first of many pairs. For some reason, there was a single parent and a single young grebe in each duo. And in every instance, the young one was volubly saying "Feed me!" At least, I guess that is what it was saying. Grebe is not one of my languages.

Beyond Abingdon, the river banks became surprisingly wild and impenetrable with tangled trees, chiefly willow and alder, and brambles, nettles, Himalayan balsam, monkeyflowers, and these vivid purple spears whose name I do not know.

(edit: I have been informed that this flower is purple loosestrife. Thank you, Julian and Larry!)

We passed fishermen, who resolutely blanked us as we passed, because fishermen are a miserable lot. A small boy, who'd been told to go fishing with his dad and uncle by his mum who wanted to get them all out of the house, shouted excitedly to us as we passed, asking if we were enjoying ourselves and telling us about the fish he hadn't caught. His father and uncle sulked over their beer cans at him letting the side down. We gave them a smile just to rub it in.

There was a fork in the river above Sutton Courtenay; to the left is the cut that leads to the lock, and to the right is the village, and four weirs. The village and the pools below the weirs looked much more interesting than the cut to the lock, so we went that way, paddling determinedly past the sign that said DANGER. I'd recce'd the area on Google Map, and read up on the weirs to see how dangerous they were. Weir No 4 sounded plain scary; it has drowned loads of people apparently, because once you go down it you are trapped by something or other underwater and then that's that.

So we didn't want to go that way.

In fact, I didn't really want to shoot any of the weirs today. So we tied up next to the friendliest of them, N0 2, and went looking for a path down to the pools below the weirs. What we found was a passing cyclist, who directed us to a short track to a sandy beach. He helped me lift the canoe out of the water, and offered to help carry it down there. Which was jolly nice of him, but I said that we'd be OK with the wheels. And so we were.

Here we are, about to launch into Sutton Pools, and catching up on a bit of chocolate therapy.

And in no time, we were back in the wilds. So wild that I began to wonder if we'd taken the wrong turn and were heading along a hitherto unknown waterway, as the banks were so wild and we seemed to be the only people in this particular part of the world. But then along came a narrowboat and a cabin cruiser, and we were back in Oxfordshire instead of Heart Of Darkness Congo country.

And then the sky darkened, and it poured down, and we went alongside a wharf by Wittenham weir so that we could get our waterproofs on. But a man in a big cabin cruiser alongside us popped out with umbrellas for us, and invited us on board for tea. We gratefully accepted the brollies and reluctantly declined the tea. Well, I did; Maud didn't get any say in the matter. It was getting late, and I had no idea how much longer it would take to get home.

The rain eased, and we paddled on. And soon arrived at Day's Lock. I intended to carry the canoe around the lock, because I find the idea of going through locks in a canoe a bit scary, and so we went alongside and tied up, were about to hop out when the lock-keeper called and gestured for us to enter.

And it wasn't really scary at all.

And then the sun came out, and the wind dropped to nothing, and everything was perfect on the river, and there round the bend was the bridge and church of Clifton Hampden, and journey's end.


  1. There are epic journeys across Europe where there is no visible evidence that I was actually there, I should have handed the camera to my companions once in a while. Just saying...

    Caroline xxx

  2. point well made, and taken :-)

  3. Lovey pictures as always. What is that metal box on the front of the house that says Titan on it?

    Canoes are fun, just don't both of you ever paddle hard on the same side at once! I learned my lesson the hard way along time ago, in a narrow Grumman aluminum model, and ended up in the drink as the canoe rolled over. Fortunately the water was only four feet deep in that part of the lake, so we were able to retrieve most of our gear from the bottom.

    Melissa XX

  4. I've seen the film and that's not Marlon Brando.
    I did a wander with my boys down the Ouse recently and you're dammed right about fisherman. Not even a flicker as the eldest jumped up and down shouting "Come on fish! Up you come!"
    There are more photos in this post than the last one which has more promises of photos than photos and I was wondering if that was a new literary device you were trying out. But it appears not.
    I am with you on the lock thing, and glad it was uneventful. I was on a boat in a lock in China once... long story. But it was the Yangtze (I'm not being competitive here) and I swear to you we sank the distance of a twenty-storey building from above it to below it. I have since been terrified of the smallest locks in our friendliest waterways and would never have been coaxed to try it in a canoe. So I enjoyed the vicarious thrill.
    A day out's not a day out unless you're pressed for time at the end. I reckon.

  5. glad you made it home in time. I don't like locks, Especially the descending part.

    When I was small my granddad told me to always be quiet around anglers, they don't like you to fighten the fish away (so that they can catch them and thow them back in again!?)

    You always seem to meet such helful people.

  6. It's a burglar alarm, Melissa. V common over here. I didn't realise that Grumman made canoes, until now anyway. I suppose Wildcats looked a bit canoe-ey, now I think of it... my canoe is quite wobbly, but so far we've managed to avoid capsizing it, apart from a botched beach launch into surf in Pembrokeshire once, very dramatic...

    There might be a bit more mileage in the no-photos thing, Federay; after the event, I was struck by the way I'd not taken pictures of so many things that I wished that I had done. Including a comprehensive set of photos of The Cyclists Of Abingdon, which strikes me as being a v good thing to do.

    I just had a look at some pictures of Yangtze locks. Crikey.

    Have you got a canoe now, then, or were you walking?

    I do, don't I, Anji? I think it may be something to do with boats. They can bring out the best in people. And sometimes the worst. I am always careful and considerate with fishermen, paddling quietly and giving them lots of space, and they still glower. I get the impression that they go and sit on their own on riverbanks because they want to get away from women and children, and rather resent an intrusion into 'their' space.

  7. Grumman canoe? For some reason I started to think about drop-tanks.

    As I read this post I was thinking "Surely she's talking about a different river", then the answer came, you did this on a weekday, didn't you. I associate the river below Oxford with wall-to-wall gin-palaces, but then again I tend to see it at the weekend when all the idiots come out. Hang on...

  8. coincidentally... our day-out-at-the-seaside in the 60s was always Fleetwood, Lancs, and the boating lake had little catamarans made out of paired drop tanks, with holes cut in the top and seats, so that they could be paddled along by two people, in our case my brother and me... all part of the creative use of leftovers from the war, I guess.

    We sometimes used to see the wives and children of the fishermen waving goodbye as the Arctic trawlers set off. Now the trawlers are gone, and there is a statue of a family group waving goodbye, on the promenade. And I feel ancient...

  9. On the Ouse: we were walking. (Oh for a canoe!) On the Yangtze: we were in the tiniest passenger ferry you could imagine. This was 1983/4... and you've got me going now. I shall have to blog the rest... speaking of ancient...x

  10. You can sometimes get lucky with unwanted canoes on Freecycle... I see that there is someone making origami canoes too, though it may be more fun to make your own entirely if you have the time, which by the sound of it you probably don't :-)

    I look forward to the tale of the Yangtze! Even the biggest of English rivers are v small comapred with Forren ones, as I realised when I crossed the Loire for the first time and thought "Blimey! It just goes on and on!"

  11. Good of you to give Maud the experience, Dru. I was probably her age or a little younger in the mid-50s when we lived near a lock on the C&O Canal adjacent to the Potomac which has some Great Falls about there. You could see why they built a canal. I waited till my son was a Boy Scout before river canoeing---with him as my teacher--on the Delaware, and much later the Des Moines.

    The unidentified flowers look like Lythrum salicaria, Purple Loosestrife (Purple Willow Herb, Blooming Sally, etc.). They were brought to America from England and are common along many streams. Check out your favorite herbal for more info.

  12. I had to look up the Cheaspeake and Ohio Canal, Larry. It seemed somehow surprising to see what looked so like an English canal, in the US. Here are a couple of local(ish) canal features in these parts

    Thank you for the plant ID! I shall add an edit to the post.