I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.
Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.
I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.
So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.
Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.
Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.
Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.
I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.
I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.
On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.
Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.
The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.
The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.
The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.
Even the local Cormorants were impressed.
I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.
Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.
I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon. A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.
In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.
I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.
I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.
After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.
Thames trip over.
p.s. A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline: