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Thames paddle 2022

It was never intended to be a solo paddle-  but  when my friend had to pull out at the last minute and I decided to do the paddle anyhow- well that's how it worked out. So In June 2022 I paddled the entire navigational part of the River Thames from Cricklade to Teddington in "Swampy" my little red 13ft Enigma.

People have asked me which was my favorite bit - but I don't have one. Every day I thought this is just lovely, then the next day would be the same or even better.  I saw Otters, Terrapins, what I'm sure was the Thames' biggest carp, scruffy little black balls of fluff (coot and moorhen chicks), cygnets with attendant parents who were either being overly-protective and hissing or approaching to beg food; and gosling nurseries aplenty. One of the funniest sights was a couple of Geordie campsite managers trying to stop geese and goslings eating grass (and more importantly pooping it out again) on their riverside campsite field- they used a vehicle or a tirade of choice Geordie delivered while windmilling their arms  to move the geese along but as soon as they turned their back and there were the geese again chomping away.

I saw Willow and Hawthorn turn to Alder then Field Maple then Lime, Chestnut and Oak. I saw a river full of Hemlock Water Dropwort that deadly beauty, and Bittersweet Nightshade in hues of purple and gold. There were Beautiful Blue and Banded Demoiselles all along the river and patches of Giant Golden Ringed Dragonflies near Clifton. There were Reed Buntings, Red Kites, Pterodactyl-like Herons watching immobile from their half-hidden perches,  and Cormorants who commanded the river like the Great Divers of the North.

So the trip was wonderful- but I do also take away lot of questions and anger around our rights as members of the public to our rivers, our riverbanks and our nature. Throughout my journey I was met with barbed wire, signs urging us "do not land"  and "keep away", barricades, fences. private property, more wire, fences that reached all the way into the river, bridges and walls with spikes and glass...  There seems to be a division between those living and travelling on the river- and those living by the river- a division that I suspect is as old as the Enclosure Acts themselves. 

The Thames is still a public navigation, but by being on the river it seemed as though we become persona non-grata, belonging to that broad category of travelers and vagrants - part of an ancient community of outsiders.  From my canoe I travelled past posh houses, immaculate  gardens and beautiful prep schools; but also the many rusty river barges that were guarded with angry dogs and manikins with toy guns, whose tattooed occupants glared at me without emotion as I paddled past. There were inbetweeners too- those passing between the two worlds- the lock keepers, vicars taking tea on the big cruisers while uniformed crew as servants for the day steered them downriver. I  saw models doing bikini photoshoots on speedboats -and rowers, everywhere rowers, with their megaphoned speedboat coaches- and their assumed rights to the entire river. The river was empty thanks in part to escalating diesel costs, and as the angling season only started when I was past Windsor I went for hours with only barbed wire for company.

The paddling is not technical, but I was surprised by the cumulative repetitive strain effect of paddling consecutive days and had a little bit of trouble to find the optimum daily distance- that turned out to be 20-25km. I more or less found this out through trial and error but when I asked the right person (JY) he confirmed that his experience has been to plan to paddle no more than 12 km in the morning and 12 in the afternoon. So within the bounds of distances between campsites that's what I tried to do after  my epic 32km day down to Wallingford.  Paddling a canoe means using only one blade and is therefore inherently less efficient than kayaking where two blades are used - at least I think that's why kayakers can do this trip in a few days while I took 10. I imagine a tandem canoe crew could comfortably cover longer daily distances.

My canoe is tiny and has a payload of 110kg, and not much space, so I removed both airbags and used two waterproof hold-alls, one at either end of the boat, for the best trim. Without airbags the little Enigma does sink however- it tends to go straight down even when empty and then pop up somewhere else and then float just below the surface. Without airbags I therefore can't self-rescue.  Without airbags and fully laden I would need to swim to the side and sort it out there. I therefore did not tie in any bags and my plan was that they would float enough to be retrieved later. The barbed wire and fences that is intended to keep river folk like me from landing would have made life very difficult indeed had I capsized.

I'd brought long tapes to act as painters specifically for lining my boat through the deeper locks and that worked well and was entirely necessary as  many of the locks are around 4m deep. I devised a system of using two very long tapes for the purpose of painters, lining through the deep locks and acting as swim lines. The stern tape was about 15 m and the bow tape about 9m, and I clipped these onto the lifting handles/thwarts to avoid any additional drag of the tape in water.  I used a small stuff sac to keep the tapes neat and clipped these onto the thwart also. JY invented a great system whereby if one end of the tape is attached to the boat using a crab, you can measure out a free section to act as a normal painter  from the other end (measure 1.25 times the boat length) and tie this painter section off with a quick release knot (truckers) also on the crab (NB ensure the quick release is the right way round- the free painter part should be solid when pulled on and used as a painter, but the quick release should free the full length of tape when pulled the other way so that the swim line will play out in full with just one tug). This sounds complex but works very well and serves many functions- I used yellow tape which was useful to see in the water. Note that no part of the tape is attached to the stuff sac (but do clip the stuff sac to the boat rather than letting it lie loose in the bottom or you will lose over the side it as I did on the first few locks).

The Thames is not wild country - there are provisions to be had en route - but as I could not guarantee that those places would be accessible, open or have any suitable foodstuffs for camping I was self-sufficient, using pubs and cafes and sausage-roll shops as a welcome bonus rather than a necessity. Paddling solo with a laden canoe meant that unless pubs and shops were close to the water I had to leave my boat and packing - locking them up with a long bike lock and hoping for the best. I had a little bumbag with my valuables and emergency bits and pieces that remained attached to me at all times even when not wearing a BA in the heat.

I paddled during summer and after the first few days of rain the daily temperatures were in the high 20's and we were in a heatwave. Lock keepers were often amenable with water even if there was no drinking water tap at the lock. Some even had a very welcome side hustle selling Cornettos and cans of drink for a quid each, making full use of the time of our captivity while we were in the lock to do a little business.     

With a laden boat and paddling solo, I went through most of the locks either behind other boats, or often lining the canoe through and operating the locks myself.  Mostly that worked very well. Above Kings lock they were manual and tiny, but quick to operate. The lockkeeper at St John's told me to remember that the red is the tap - tap up (on) or tap down (off) - and from that you work the rest out. On the middle Thames the locks were automated but big  - I found a tell tale sign was when there was no lock keeper- that usually meant the locks were broken or had no power.  Benson and Culham especially took at least an hour each to go though, and that's despite Culham having power. However I found the locks added a level of uncertainty to the trip - you always need to keep a reserve of energy and time in case you need to spend an hour manually winding a big lock! Invariably that happens just as you glimpse camp and the nearby town at the end of the day.

On the lower Thames many locks had canoe portages but these were often tucked away and hidden from view with no signage - the lock keepers pointed them out when asked. The ones with rollers were great, the ones without were sometimes doable. I had wheels but got a puncture- and most locks seem to equate portaging with steps so wheels are not very useful for locks, but I did use them when I made an unscheduled exit in a posh marina and had to move the boat and my stuff (rather quickly!) onto the road for my lift home. I also used them In Purley to get my boat and kit to my friend's house. I think you need either to have wheels and be happy using them or be able to portage old school on a yoke -  bearing in mind that if you are going solo then doing so will mean leaving either your boat or kit unattended as you return for the rest of the kit and paddles etc.

Lock keepers on the Lower Thames were generally not very happy operating their big locks for me and my very small canoe, even if there was no easy portage. They tended to stall, waiting for a big boat to come along to make it worth their while. So days with 5 or 7 locks added significant time to the day. I did also question the sustainability (or was I being an eco-fiend?) of using so much electricity to open the lock gates just for me.

Most of the boaters were friendly and helpful, but some nearly squashed me against the lock walls with the back of their big boats despite the lockkeepers best efforts, and one boat thought that clearly they should ram the closed lock gates to get in to the emptying lock. Lock keepers were lovely and friendly, but as some were older and hard of hearing- no amount of hollering or waving paddles would get their attention so it was a case of getting out and talking to them- that worked the best and saved time. Perhaps a big flag on the back of the boat would be an idea!

Note too that locks only operate during the day and so if, as in my case there is a heatwave, and you elect to paddle during the cooler part of the day, there is no-one there so you have to either portage or operate them yourself and line the boat through.

I used the guidebook by Mark Rainsley "Paddle the Thames",  the Go paddling info website and talked to as many folk as I could including lock keepers. Post-Covid I found most of the guides to be out of date however, and while Rainsley's book provides loads of interesting information it does not translate well to a multiday trip, but would work well for car shuttles and day trips.  The main factors are the distance you can paddle in a day, the available camp sites, and how far from the river you are prepared to go to reach the campsite. Most of the lock campsites were closed, either temporarily or permanently, and that combined with the M4 widening which has also closed campsites while that work is underway, leaves a significant problem around especially Eton / Windsor and also Mapledurham/ Reading.

There are however plenty of spots for cheeky wild camps if you are a group, or solo and more courageous than me,  and don't mind roughing it. Some of those might be to use a  paid permitted mooring for a bunch of canoes and camping on the bank- though how permissible that is I don't know. There looks to be camping also beneath some of the bigger road bridges too but safety, road noise, rats and existing homeless residents might be an issue. An alternative is to contact the canoe or rowing clubs en route and leave your boats there, or make use of a luggage transfer service for Thames path walkers. That might mean what the paddleboarders referred to as  "visa camping" or "posh paddling".

I did most of my paddling before the start of the angling season- prior to that time the river banks are emptier making wild camping easier. For solo paddlers note that the lock campsites are often either or both remote and empty and often there is no lock keeper on site overnight either. Fabulous riverside campsites for solo paddlers are the Trout Inn at St John's lock;  Pinkhill and Eynsham locks (though these two are very remote you are hidden from view on the weir island - personally unless you are in a group I would avoid Rushey where camping is very visible); other really lovely camps are Wallingford Riverside Park; Embers camping site just beyond Henley, and the quaint and archaic Laleham Camping Club. The big gap is therefore Windsor (between Marlow and Chertsey).

The biggest surprise? How this paddle has totally changed my view of land ownership, privilege and rewilding. For most of the Upper Thames paddlers are actively kept on the river by barbed wire fences on both banks of the river and barriers where the cows drink. I tried to access a small riverside Anglo-Saxon church with famous murals above Lechlade but was unable to land anywhere.  In terms of safety It is probably important to realise that while the river is narrow here there is no way of accessing the bank or landing- even in an emergency. I will probably carry bolt cutters if I was leading a group on the Upper Thames from now on.

Lower down the Thames there are private properties and inaccessible banks- but there are always places to land- nowhere has it felt as hostile to canoeists as on the Upper Thames. Even near Windsor Castle where the security man (somewhat cliched in his black Range Rover, black shades, buzzcut and tight black t-shirt) came to drive alongside me for a while to check me out (I had been photographing a cormorant!)- but even here where section 127 of the 2005 national security act prohibits landing or approaching land, I could probably have landed on the other side of the river - or I expect I'd have been rescued within 90 seconds by a gang of ruggedly handsome security men (though I did not test out that theory).

Many of the big properties on the river were clearly attempting to do some rewilding and conservation work- however I question whether these activities truly serve the greater good as they seem to be bypassing the needs of human and societal wellbeing in order to promote biodiversity solely for their owners' personal and moral wellbeing. Yes, nature and wildlife benefits from these activities - but in real terms these are private enclosed estates and gardens with their birdsong, biodiversity and clean unpolluted air - and everyone else remains crowded into areas where the benefits of such places to their wellbeing are tangible and probably mostly reduced to knowing that such places do exist in the world - a philosophical notion at best...

What I'd do differently?

I would probably try to go ultralight. I think moving away from the notion of canoe journeying as involving lots of packing would be useful and give a solo paddler on this sort of trip much more options and maneuverability. Ultimately these choices would translate to safety. To do that I would need to look closely at the big items: the boat itself, paddles, BA, repair kit, wheels, lock and waterproof bags; as well as the usual camping kit. I had a light tarp tent, and used a paddle as a tent-pole, a reasonable sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a stove that could have been more minimalistic, but to which I only added a small cup and spork. Kit-wise it all worked and what let me down in terms of the weight were the big items: my trusty Ainsworth paddle for example was far heavier than a wooden grey owl paddle, each of my waterproof bags was about 2kg empty and I still double wrapped my sleeping bag. The repair kit has two multitools and a roll of gorilla tape which makes it heavy - I'm sure with care I could make this lighter. my waterproof phone case is a heavy addition, I  may move to a waterproof phone in a waterproof bum bag.  My water bottle in its neoprene case was wonderful for keeping drinks cool, but unnecessarily heavy.  I will add a kit list with weights. When canoeing its tempting to carry more kit (in case of capsize) so I took three sets of gear ( One that I wore, one spare dry set for getting changed into in the evening (Pubs!) and one second (very minimal) working paddling set in case of capsize). Water sports are inherently different from land based hikes, but I might work on having a very minimalistic "capsize" set. One thing I will add to my kit though is a large outsized waterproof that is easy to put on over your BA. I have my eye on the Ocean Bothy. That's a heavy piece of kit as it's large but would serve many functions beyond being my primary foul weather gear. I don't know if there are any lightweight open canoe travellers around but I will look into it: I  think many of the principles of lightweight hiking may translate well to canoeing.

So overall it was a wonderful trip, and it was also a trip where the experience of paddling the Upper Thames was for me a revelation of a deeply systemic social justice issue where I as a paddler seemed to become a persona non grata and my safety, equality, and access to the land and heritage of this country were no longer self evident. As a paddler I was made to feel very much an outsider in this land and it's left me wondering whether the solution might not be a mass trespass to reclaim the riverbanks of this wonderful river. Let's go paddle- and let's go ashore!


The book of trespass by Nick Hayes

Three men in a boat- Jerome K Jerome

Table of distances and stops

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