It’s seven thirty in the morning at the club. Two minor miracles have already happened. Janet and my twenty year old son, Ben, are both up, making sense and on time. Roger is sorting kit out. Jodi is eating. We need another miracle, we have to meet Brian at the get in. I’ve been there before but always as a passenger. I put on a confident face and we set off.
It’s just after nine and we’re done with miracles. We’re in Cricklade, Brian has reluctantly put his book down and joined us. Ben is packing our boat. Jodi is on her second breakfast. Janet examines the river for snakes while Roger checks the sport on his mobile. He’s going to have to go cold turkey in a minute and he’s doing his best to get a fix big enough to get him through.
The river doesn’t look like much. It’s hard to believe that this is the mighty Thames. We’re at a ford and we know we are going to have to wade downstream a bit before we will be able to float. Janet seems to be very interested in where the pubs are en route. I gather everyone together for a team photo only to find that Brian has already left. We join him.
The river feels like a glorified ditch. The banks are high and the stream is narrow. We can feel the bottom with our paddle blades on every stroke. We gather beneath the bypass bridge and set off. The sounds of traffic quickly fade and we are alone. If the weather were better it would be like paddling in the Amazon. Reeds encroach on all sides. Trees dangle over the river forcing us to find routes through their branches.
We’re only a small group but the front paddler is often out of sight to the back one. Sadly this isn’t the case inside my Canoe where my once small son’s back view is often all I can see. We haven’t paddled together since he left school. It doesn’t take long until we are paddling like a well established crew – each in tune with the other’s every move and blaming each other whenever we get it wrong.
The flow is swift, the obstacles minor, the banter is witty and never personal (much). After an hour we pass a couple with a Canadian full of camping gear and spaniel. They pull over to let us through. It’s the kind of river that needs passing places. We exchange pleasantries and wish them well.
At eleven we reach Castle Eaton and the Red Lion, a pub with a sign that welcomes canoeists. Janet is suddenly galvanised into action and leaps out of her boat, bouncing up the bank only to throw a temper tantrum when she finds that it is closed. We have to explain why she is lying on the bank kicking and screaming when the Spaniel’s boat comes back past us.
We pass the Spaniel again before Hannington Bridge. We’re beginning to get to know them. We’ve been on the water for three hours now and they are almost the only people we’ve seen. I’m not counting the two fishermen. Not least because when we compared notes it seems that at least one of us isn’t actually capable of counting. I think it might be me.
When we reach Hannington I am reminded that I also have been failing to count the number of times that Jodi has asked whether it’s lunch time. The next pub is quite a long way off still, in Lechlade, so we find a pleasant spot and produce enough food to feed the world. The Spaniel and his crew pass us again. Is it a race? I wonder what they must think of us. They’re probably right.
The river is wider now. There have been streams and ditches joining us regularly since we started. The reed backs have pulled out leaving more river to paddle in but trees are still low. In many places they stretch low across and even under the water. When Tess, Ben and Janet, chatting animatedly run into a submerged branch we discover that Roger and Jodi behind us don’t know how to stop their canoe. We have to duck and battle through in places. In others the way through is unclear until you are right on top of it. There is much anxious checking for spiders after brushing through the low hanging foliage. Tess admits to photographing Brian’s fly (please check the photos...). Brian later meets a swan and is surprised. The swan was almost as shocked.
But the river is winning. There is more water and less obstruction until suddenly we realise that we are through and there is a house ahead, followed soon by Lechlade and the pub. This is where the cruisers tend to get to. The wild stream we followed has been tamed and turned to man’s use. It is like being on another river. We fortify ourselves for the change with beer, wine and cider. Roger gets another fix of sport from Sky.
It is a merry band that paddles through the town to St John’s Lock. This is a new experience for most of us. There are those who say that we have sunk pretty low already, but as we sink to the lower sill, they would be proved wrong. We have to work out which side of the river we are supposed to paddle on when our first cruiser comes by. Ben and I are on the wrong side when we nearly collide with another canoe coming the other way. Disaster is neatly averted and we have clearly evolved as crew when I can’t pin the blame on Ben.
Janet and Brian are surprised when a diving duck surfaces between them as they chat. It must have been an interesting conversation. At Buscot Lock there are firemen practicing water rescues. We almost miss the lock watching them. We are saluted by two RAF Tornadoes flying low over us. Brian evades being targeted because his wooden boat doesn’t show up on radar.
At Kelmscot we have three miles to go and Jodi is getting hungry again. We distract her by pointing out where Rory Bremner lives. He’s got a canoe. We don’t see him though.
Finally we arrive at Radcot and bypass the pub to keep Janet focussed and to pass under the oldest bridge on the river. Bryan, who is Tess’ dad, a river dweller and a regular Doggy Paddler is waiting in a field with a fire for warmth and a gas barbecue. We leave Janet, Jodi and Ben to cook some food while Bryan takes the rest off to collect the cars. It’s a brilliant way to end a day on the river.
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