Two Men In A Canoe – Day 1
Nick and I go way back. We shared our late teenage years, our love of cricket in our twenties and early thirties and over time have managed to sneek away together for the occasional adventure.
A conversation earlier in the year had pinned July as an opportunity to do something and the idea of a canoe trip on the Thames seemed to present the ideal combination of physical exercise, a bit of camping and some peace and tranquility to enjoy together.
provided lots of help and advice and some suggested camp sites and a plan started to come together; Canoe from Reading to Maidenhead with overnight stops at Henley and Marlow. Campsites were booked, diaries were cleared and last Sunday we made our way to Maple Durham, just west of Reading to pick up our canoe.
Following a briefing from the chap from Thames Canoes we packed our kit into the dry bags, donned bouyancy aids and set off after ensuring we had double checked in which direction we were to paddle – a decision with significant consequences. The first reach was thankfully quiet and reasonably wide as we sought to get to grips with the action of paddling, balancing our strokes and steering in a straightline. Visits to either bank and close acquaintance with overhanging foliage gradually reduced in frequency as we pulled with growing confidence.
After an hour we started to pull into Reading, Sunday morning strollers walking the river bank and dodging the light and occasional squally shower. Flocks of Mute Swans, Canada, Pink-footed and Egyptian Geese, interspersed with Mallard ducks populated the waters close to the cafe and awaited expectantly for paper bags of easy food. Under the bridge and the river quietened as we approached our first lock, the sound of an acoustic guitar from a riverside garden mixing with the light wind pulling at the leaves in the trees.
Lock etiquette and practicality mean that a canoe is last to enter a lock and so we did, joining a narrow boat and two motor cruisers as sun and blue sky started to peak through the breaking clouds. Another few minutes and we were out of Reading, happy to take a break to refuel on Lucozade and sandwiches. With the canoe under better control we were able to take in the surroundings and the beauty of a late Sunday morning on the river.
While the river was low on human traffic the birdlife was in abundance. Great Crested Grebes followed our progress, each stretch of water had its resident bird or pair. Egyptian and Canada Geese rested on the banks or edges of riverside gardens in between bouts of lawn mowing. Common Terns and Black headed Gulls quartered the water, hunting for rising fish. The occasional heron stood sentry on the banks, immobile and primeval.
We pushed on, navigating with our improving boat skills around canoe races and activities to the east of Reading before striking out towards Sonning. Having negotiated the lock, we pulled over for a pint and sandwich at at the The Great House at Sonning
hotel in glorious warm sunshine.
Our estimates suggested we were now about half-way through the Reading/Henley leg of our trip so we needed to get a bit of a move on. Refuelled and refreshed our strokes became stronger as we followed the meandering Thames north towards Wargrave and Shiplake. Beautiful riverside houses adorned the banks, their English charm unchanged for perhaps 80 years. Though we didn’t know it, we passed a house built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the location of another – Park Place, which was owned by General Henry Conway, first Governor of Jersey. Its grounds contain the Druid’s Temple, a neolithic passage grave transported from Jersey as a gift to the Governor. Unfortunately Park Place no longer stands having been destroyed by fire, but when the estate was broken up the Temple remained, now residing within the boundaries of Temple Combe.
My research also tells me that the parish church in Wargrave was burnt to the ground by suffragettes in 1914 as a protest against the vicar who would not remove the word ‘obey’ from the marriage service. We had no time to visit or ponder such issues as we pulled on our paddles, shepherded by Red Kites who floated on thermals above the river valley, constant sentinels on this part of the journey.
We were getting closer to Henley now and Sunday river traffic was growing accordingly. Day boats filled with groups of young couples drinking champagne interspersed the motor cruisers of varying sizes – we remained though the only human powered craft. Locks provided rest breaks as we pressed on for Henley finally sighting the town in the late afternoon.
Festival week, which follows Regatta week, was drawing to a close and the white tented hospitality village was sparsely populated as we came under the bridge and paddled up the famous rowing course.
Making for the bank we found a spot to disembark, pulled the canoe from the water and tied it to a tree, hiking inland a few hundred yards to the extremely well appointed Swiss Farm Caravan Park
. We couldn’t have timed our arrival better – we entered the bar and to our surprise Monty and Jimmy Anderson were still at the crease in Cardiff. An ice cold beer sated our thirst as England frustrated the Aussies for six long overs to pull off a famous draw in the first Ashes Test of the summer.
Our last task for the day was to pitch the tent and then get a shower before we headed out into Henley in search of sustinance, happy to find anywhere with food still on its menu before returning to the campsite as the sounds of Hey Jude drifted across the river from the last Festival party. The longest leg of the journey completed we slept well, looking forward to another day of tranquility on the river.
to be continued……