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One step closer I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Trip Three: Gaining the Thames

UNITED KINGDOM | Thursday, 2 July 2009 | Views [530]

Gaining the Thames: Only two months later than expected.

Coombe Station to Wolvercote (North Oxford)

 

It was started where it finished, by the water meadows of the Cotswolds.  The sun benevolently beaming being down its warming rays.  The plants not quite as verdant as previously found, as the heady days of early summer had sapped the vigour of spring, the stalks of the meadows began to lighten to that golden hue.  The atmosphere of lethargy began sang as the choir of Nature began to sing its sweet lullaby to those who listened; the stream flowing over the pebbles of the riverbed, reverberating under the sweeping arch of the enduring Cotswold bridge; the low humming buzz from the busy insect-life among the flowers of the riverside. 

The vegetation line at the side off the river channel suspended above the waterline highlights the recent fall in the river flow due to the suns pervasive influence, as transpiration and evaporation take their toll on the watershed.  

The river weeds that grows out of the river, no doubt helped by the fertiliser run off, were slightly higher that the previous month.  The river weed that grows the most abundantly in the fast flowing shallows is like a submerged mat across the river; increasing the drag of the boats and glutinously clawing at the paddles as they are dipped in and out.  The nimble little Moorhen, light in mass, flit across these floating islands a head of our more ponderous approach.  The reed-like stems of others reach out of their watery channel, grasping upwards for the sun filled sky.  The nests of departed water birds clinging precariously, tell of their vernal use now obsolete, as we brush through.  They rear up nearly two meters high from the river, some times barring the whole channel in their exuberance; like a think luxuriant forest nodding backwards and forwards in the rivers flow.

This growth conspires against any easy navigation.  To those of you imagining a wide hansom channel to canoe down you are much mistaken.  Don’t think of the channel as a river, more a giant grow bag with a small stream of water running over the top.  The reeds and weeds grow out of any site where they can get enough purchase to send down roots in this most competitive of growing environments. The whole ecosystem of the river is vast and varied.  Much more, I suspect than some of the farmland surrounding it.

Best practice to breaching these forests is to build up speed and scythe through brining the paddle in line with the canoe.  If this momentum fails to brink you out on the other side then a complex and highly annoying procedure takes place as the absence of space precludes the use of the more conventional paddle stroke.  It’s best described as a cross between pruning, punting and what I am going to coin as the helicopter manoeuvre.  The punting option relies on there being a hard base to be able to push through; the pruning option to try and clear a path.  The helicopter manoeuvre, the most useful, bespeaks of a highly controlled and mechanical exercise. It is not.  It is more a thrash as you wield the paddles trying to gain a purchase on any weed, reed, water or bank that will offer enough purchase to propel the craft forward.  I doubt that they teach this in the canoeing textbooks.  Then again I often doubt the protagonists’ sanity.

Little aides like this increase the ‘river worthiness’ of the travel; the ability to overcome blockages with out impacting on the time too much.  Originally blockages were tackled with abject dejection; finding a point to get out.  This is never straight forward as most of the river bank is thick with nettles.  The exiting points are either deep where any false moves ends up in a dunking or a shallow area where the glutinous mud greets your feet, don’t stop, or bash through like an ice breaker.   The first flight of many immature ducks was witnessed that day.  Over the course of previous trips we had seen the duckling grown from small chicks that duck under the undergrowth on your arrival to now immature ducks not quite flown.  Many of these luckless birds panicked at the arrival of such an unusual craft into their lives and stream and so set off noisily flapping down river.  Most were new to this form of exercise and only now driven to it by fear and looked even more bemused as their flapping finally propelled them into an ungraceful flight.

We are the intrepid explorers of the Evenlode valley.  The sense of isolation and other worldliness that a river provides can cut you away from your usual thinking.  Battling through the growth of the river roots you more to the immediate spot, trying to progress. Travel is no way near as fast or convenient as the modern world is used to.  It is you against Nature, trying to create your way with your own hands and basic equipment.   This sense of isolation, naturally engendered by river travel, and overcoming the natural barriers of the river soon enable the more imaginative to fancy they adventurers of the Victorian ilk; brave, strong and noble in their endeavour.   The overhanging foliage of trees and shrubs dip their limbs in the limp creating a fetid atmosphere where only the nefarious can survive. These bushy bastions transmit the bugs and beasts that they support on to the intrepid explorers as they pass.  The journey down the fabled Styx overcoming all that Hades can throw.

There are times when any reality nastily cuts into the minds imagination so forceful that even Don Quixote cannot ignore the reality.  After battling the growth of the river and climbing over fallen limbs you can suddenly arrive into a perfectly manicured garden that belongs to a gentrified Mill House.   The mansion mill that you suddenly come across, scrubbed of its character and a garden manicured oppressively to death; there is no accounting the taste of those with money.  You can go from intrepid explorers in the wilds of nature to furtive scallys as you dart across the perfectly coiffured lawns transferring from the mill stream to the main channel; from champion of your world to cautious crawler in someone else’s.

A large pool that is usually found in the streams meander appeared immediately ahead.  Then suddenly the banks that were never more than four or five metres apart, disorientatingly open up to reveal a large channel.  This turned out to be the Thames.  The Thames gained at last.  A feeling of achievement washed over the pair as they had finally reached what could be regarded as the beginning of the way to the Thames barrier.  The feeling of disorientation is quite overwhelming as your horizons open up from meters in to miles.  Going from battling through the little stream with its blockages to floating on a canalised river, dredged and order for our navigation, was quite tangible. Previously meeting any people in passing on the Evenlode was unthinkable but within 1 minute of reaching the Thames a convoy of holiday barges chugged past with helmsman drawing long sips on cans of beer a throwing languid waves of acknowledgment..  It was the Amazon adventure no more; it was the Costa del Thames.

Judging that the sense of achievement should be properly celebrated the two stopped for a picnic. At this point it is obligatory to fall in, discovering that dredged rivers get very deep very quickly.   Releasing buoyancy aids with a ping of the strap revealed that humans can support a surprising amount of bugs; a veritable ecosystem created as the beasties from the over hanging trees earlier had found a good substitute.

      Oxfords announced its proximity as the two past under the busy road bridge that supplied the cities commuting life blood.  The old red brick bride lying adjacent resplendent in its retirement, overshadowed but not overawed by it larger contemporary neighbour. 

      The first incremental weir hove in to view; one that you can shoot safely with a fibreglass kayak.  For those not used to such actions shooting a wear can appear dangerous.  Floating at the top of the weir the heart rate picks up and you stare down the drop like a bungee jumper peering into the abyss.  Steel the heart, follow the impulse and paddle flat out over the edge.  There’s a one second ‘rush’ as you slide down, the adrenaline threatens to kick in, but it’s over, over too quickly.  Looking back what appeared a mighty drop from the weirs zenith looks little more than a mere bump in the river.  A feeling of slight disappointment surfaced.  When you steel yourself for such an action you expect a bit more adrenaline in repayment.

The speed picks up dramatically on the easily navigable Thames and the slow barges can easily be overtaken by canoes if you really want to aggravate a competitive boat owner.

The luxury of the locks Godstowe and Kings Locks was far too easy.  I half wanted to scale the pound gates and drag the canoe over to placate the sense of guilt at the ease or it.  No need for that here though.  You simply swan up wait for the lock keeper to open the gates paddle in wait a little more for the water to fall and that was it.

A ruined abbey or monastery on the western bank stood derelict looking onto the river, the bank thick with day-trippers walking along.

There was no bucolic finish as previous. The finish of this leg was on a large meadow on the outside of Oxford.  It was unsurprisingly popular with many people on a warm day like this.  The people were an eclectic mix stretching from chavs skimming stones, yards away from the canoe and families taking advantage of the space to play games.

 

 

Wildlife:

 

  • Numerous kingfishers
  • Two herons surprised but more seen – their haste into flight could not rush their customary, languid bearing as they took to the skies at our arrival.
  • Flotillas of geese.
  • Reed warblers on the Thames banks.
  • One pair of swan’s encountered and a wide berth given.  In fact they are the only impediment that necessitates having to get our and drag the canoes around anymore (bar the mill). One adolescent moping around on his own was quite happy to let us pass by with out the need to protect any brood of his.

Tags: canoeing, river

 

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