Two Men in a Canoe – Day 2

We awoke on day 2 of our trip to a bright morning after a refreshing nights sleep. As we made morning tea Ring Necked Parakeets flew across the site from tree to tree, their range now stretching across Hertfordshire and beyond out from their original population in West London. The shorter paddling day allowed for a trip into Henley for a full english breakfast and provisions for the day.

We were on the river bank and ready set off by 11am, continuing north towards Temple Island, the start of the Royal Henley rowing course. The temple is a folly built in 1771 buy architect James Wyatt as a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court, supposedly the inspiration for Toad Hall in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. Fawley Court’s history dates back to before the Norman Conquest and was given as a gift by William I to Walter Giffard, a leading compiler of the Domesday Book. Rebuilt and added to many times in the following centuries, its current incarnation is largely the work of William Freeman who had the house largely built in 1684, with gardens and landscapes designed by Capability Brown from 1764-1766.

Five or six Red Kites swooped above the water meadows to our right. One of the most beautiful british birds to watch in flight, their re-introduction to the Chiltern Hills north west of London has been one of the great success stories of wildlife conservation in the UK. Twenty years ago in 1989, ninety birds were introduced from Spain to the area and with great local support numbers have now risen to 500.

Historically Red Kites were a common site above towns and cities in the UK and were welcomed as scavengers who cleaned stinking refuge from Britain’s Medieval streets, but in the 16th Century a series of Government Acts classified the kite as vermin. Its extermination followed until in the late 18th Century the last birds had raised young in England. They were constant and majestic companions on our journey, always providing a good reason to stop paddling and watch their twisting acrobatic flight as they scanned fields and hedgerows for carrion, worms and small mammals.

Second prize in the journey’s beautiful flyers contest went to the Common Terns who worked the larger stretches of the river, often accompanied by Black Headed Gulls. It was easy to spot the difference even at distance, in the same way as you can between a Ferrari and a Vectra – the tern has evolved into a supreme flying machine with sleek lines and edges and a highly efficient and powerful wing beat that moves them from northern to southern hemispheres with the seasons.

We continue round the bend in the river, passing huge mansions with rolling lawns down to the water’s edge. This was definitely the posh side of Henley. Our next lock, Hambledon, was soon in site and we entered it in the company of a huge gin palace. On exiting we discovered that it isn’t a good idea to get too close to the back end, as it sprayed us with water on firing up its engine! Out of the lock and we were soon alone again on the river, enjoying the solitude. Another Heron stood still as a statue and tolerated our gentle approach before swooping away with huge wing beats to find another place to rest before fishing trips.

Our next waypoint was Medmenham, with its memorial to a successful legal battle to keep the public ferry open many years ago and an old priory now used by Thames Water as a Water Research Centre. Pulling away from Medmenham we were treated to one of the highlights of the trip; a close up view of a kingfisher in its irridescent tourquoise blue plumage. We were lucky to see four in total on the trip, mostly watching them fly arrow like across the river a few inches above the surface. This one posed for us .

Next was Hurley Lock before lunch on the river bank and then the final push eastbound towards our destination for the night. The clouds became more broken through the afternoon, bringing the beauty of Bisham Abbey to life as we approached. The long time home of the England football team for training camps its secluded riverside location must have been a welcome restbite from the goldfish bowl life of the professional footballer.

Having frustrated a wedding photographer by getting in his shot as we paddled passed (!) we pushed on to Marlow accompanied by occasional rowers and canoeists, one of whom I now realise after a bit of research was naturalist/climber Steve Backshall. He and the others put us to shame with their speed through the water, but we comforted ourselves that ours was a leisurely paddle over 3 days and not a training session!

Finally we passed under the bridge at Marlow and into a our final lock of the day. I’d marked the location of our stopover site on the map, located using the postcode in Google Maps, so we headed for the location only to discover that it marked a riverside mansion. A quick call on the mobile soon put us right and we paddled downstream a little further and pulled up at the Longridge Outdoor Centre in the late afternoon sun.

After checking in at reception we pitched our tent in a secluded spot by the river and changed for dinner, ambling into Marlow. After a quick reccy of the town and its restaurants we decided The George and Dragon (part of the Table Table chain) suited our purposes best, so we settled in for a few pints and a steak which I finished off with a bowl of Eton Mess. I pilfered a few sachets of sugar for a late night cup of tea and we returned along the lanes in darkness back to Longridge and continued our conversation long into the night.

to be continued……

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