Touring the Thames

Terrific Thames
Terrific Thames

If you fancy a super-relaxing ,stress-free, multi-day, kayak-camping ,flat- water, ultra-historical, heart-of-Engand kayak trip? And maybe a teeny bit of fishing?Then the Thames is for you.

It’s got it all. In 135 miles from Cricklade to the tidal limit at Teddington (which was my first big trip when I got my first sit-on-top, a Prowler 15, in 2007) it matures from a bottom- scrunching trout stream to a seriously major slab of water . Not quite the Amazon, but good enough.

There’s hardly any grotty bits even when it flows through the dowdy bits round the back of unattractive towns. Like past the gasworks at Reading where the Kennet and Avon canal joins the main river. It’s dodgy for only half-a-mile and then is transformed into the very attractive wooded and hilly approach to Sonning lock.P1070088

From a watery point of view it’s noticeable that the weirs don’t smell of disinfectant mixed with washing powder. On most of the other  inland rivers I have ventured onto by kayak its as if someone is trying to mask over a horrendous stink with a deodorant. But not the Thames. It’s all unbelievably clean.

Last year’s trip with my brother’s and three chums from the super-clean waters of Scotland was a four day camping trip from Bablock Hythe (great name) just upstream of Oxford, to Boulter’s Lock at Maidenhead.

Abingdon
Abingdon

Given the time limit this seemed like the best eighty mile section to do because it combines some excellent tranquil countryside sections with a few attractive historical towns such as Oxford, Abingdon and Henley. And the two most attractive locks on the river…Sonning and Cookham. And some great places to camp. And a load of riverside hostelries.

Camp at Goring
Camp at Goring

I’m still a bit uncomfortable with the  concept of two pub meals a day. Well actually we only did that once but the amount we consumed in the evenings, certainly in terms of calories, made up for the fact that on the other days we only had a ‘light’ snack of pies, cakes and cream-laden delicacies at lunchtime. And more for tea.

Henley Water Hole
Henley Water Hole

In fact this is the very first kayak-camping trip I have done where I have had to loosen my belt a notch upon return home, usually it’s adjusted the other way.

So if you like your gourmet comforts, and you enjoy flat water touring, and you don’t want to have the hassle of portaging a heavily laden kayak around any weirs or obstructions, the Thames is for you. Just buy an environment agency license before you go (or be a member of the BCU), and you are entitled to go through the locks. The lockeepers are in attendance during working hours; outside that time you can operate the gates yourself.

Camraderie in the locks
Camraderie in the locks

Fantastic..about as relaxing as it could be.

Fishing is restricted and I don’t think you are allowed to troll a lure but if you did you might well find yourself battling a feisty Pike like this one which might well jump clean out of the water and make your heart miss a beat as your are reeling it in , and then might bite a hole in your drysuit sock as your are attempting to unhook it. But better than a hole in your foot.

Power-packed Pike
Power-packed Pike

The wildlife encounters on our trip were much beter than I expected, especially the birds. Virtually every waterfowl had just hatched out a brood of ducklings/goslings/cygnets/ and probably had their work cut out trying to avoid their fluffy offspring becoming the Pike’s main course (it would probably consider my drysuit sock to be a dessert, or possibly even an appetiser, like dry toast with pate).

Mandarin duck and offspring
Mandarin duck and offspring

They are all pretty tame so you could cruise along quietly and get very close views without causing too much disturbance.

Gang of greylag goslings
Gang of greylag goslings

We had only one ‘difficult’ moment. After a long day’s paddle from Goring (near the pub) to Henley (near the pub) we were keen to set up camp (so we could go to the pub) and pitched our tents on the outskirts of the town. However we were moved on in a very firm but pleasant manner to an official campsite half a mile away up a hill and across the main road. What a fag it was to take all the camping stuff up there! Just to pitch our tents in the corner of a field. The only bonus was watching the Red Kites floating about effortlessly like…er…a kite, matched only by the colossal unfeasible flying bulk of the Airbus A380s stacking up on their approach to Heathrow.

Airbus A380
Airbus A380

There’s a couple of cracking backwaters between Reading and Henley which provide three or four miles of alternative route down small channels draped in willows, not navigable to larger boats. I remember seeing a load of water voles on these streams when I was a gangling youth….sadly they seem to have all gone.

Hennerton Backwater
Hennerton Backwater

Of course summer is the time to do this trip.Leave it a month or two.

Thames at its best
Thames at its best

 

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Watery Levels

somerset levels by kayak
somerset levels by kayak

I have given up hope of finding a new bit of water to paddle on within a two hour drive of home. I am more than happy to kayak along familiar routes but there is nothing like the excitement of a new coast/estuary/river/lake, or even canal when you don’t quite know what lies around the corner.

Then a new lake appeared in Somerset. A really big one, far bigger than Roadford Lake, south-west England’s biggest reservoir. In fact each ‘arm’ of the flooded area is as big, or bigger, than Roadford Lake, and it has as many arms as an octopus.

Vast lake
Vast lake

But I didn’t realise the extent of open water till we got there. Dave and I were heading towards the flooded patch to the south of Curry Rivel and as we drove up the side of a hill caught a glimpse of West Sedgemoor through the trees. Good grief. A good five miles of open water stretching away towards distant hills.

Launch lane
Launch lane

We launched our kayaks where the minor road became inundated and paddled off down the road, diverting down a flooded avenue of trees and then heading out into the open ‘lake’.

Bit of a chop
Bit of a chop

A howling following wind was creating quite a swell. This would provide a problem for the paddle back but also created the opportunity to be the first person to surf a kayak in Kingsbury Episcopi parish. We had to haul over the levees into the river Parrett at Muchelney pumping station and then headed towards Muchelney Abbey itself. Thousands of wild duck reeled about overhead as a peregrine falcon raked through them looking for lunch.

Amphibious pod
Amphibious pod

A couple of amphibious vehicles were supplying the cut off ‘island’ of Muchelney with provisions and transport. I dipped my paddle vertically to test the depth of the water. Six foot plus. It’ll take a month or two for that to go down.

Muchelney Abbey
Muchelney Abbey

After a constriction at Muchelney the flooded area broadens out hugely again beside the river Yeo, and near Long Load I encountered a floating a new Vauxhall Astra bobbing about.

U-boat Astra
U-boat Astra

And a nice encounter with a trio of Roe Deer in a sunny corner who didn’t seem to mind sharing their favourite field with a kayak, and didn’t even bother to get up.

Doe Roe Deer
Doe Roe Deer

I ticked off another kayaking ‘first’. Paddling down the A372 at Langport, the first time I have kayaked a main road.

A372, trying to keep within the speed limit
A372, trying to keep within the speed limit

Next trip was back to that mighty lake at West Sedgemoor.  A thirteen mile circuit without having to get out. Although I did once for a brief spot of breakfast, and trainspotting. Very deep water once again, and only a few barbed wire fences to scrunch over. Absolutely remarkable.

Another vast lake (in a different place)
Another vast lake (in a different place)

A total of 33 miles paddled around the flooded levels, and I havn’t even ventured into the really bad areas west of Burrowbridge. Think I’ll leave that alone as the whole village of Moorland is underwater. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA