I enjoyed a cracking tour on the Upper Thames earlier this month. We were a group of 11 plus a dog (six men, five women and Stella, not Montmorency!) and put on at Cricklade in distinctly dodgy weather – heavy rain showers and the threat of electrical storms. From the start finding a route through the abundant foliage proved a challenge. The infant Thames may be only 4-5m wide in places but with the willows in full leaf drooping into the water, reeds blocking the view and sometimes the passage, and brambles and Himalayan balsam overhanging the banks our route through was not always obvious.
We’d been paddling and fighting our way through foliage for about 20 minutes when we came to the first of what proved to be a succession of fallen trees. It was obvious that the EA haven’t cleared this top stretch for years! Numerous limbos and tight turns later our slow progress was finally brought to a complete halt by a large fallen willow with its substantial trunk lying across the water. The banks were completely overgrown and our only option was to climb and then drag our boats through the tree. Simon in his touring kayak went first and passed a sling back. Liz clipped the sling to our bow and stepped gingerly onto the trunk, I eased my weight back as she and Simon pulled the bow of our tandem canoe up alongside her. I joined Liz on the tree from where it took no small effort to drag our canoe- laden with food and equipment for our four-day trip – over the trunk and back onto the water. Two boats down, only seven more to go!
As we waited for the remainder of our flotilla to be hauled over and through the tree the rain started again. There’d been a heavy downpour earlier as we’d shuttled our cars down to our destination, Abingdon, and taken a (pre-booked) minibus back; this one started gently but within minutes turned into a deluge. We donned waterproofs and waited for all our boats to be safely past the obstacle. And waited. By the time all nine boats were safely on the downstream side of the tree there was a very large pool in the bottom of the canoe and we were soaked through. There was little option but to continue.
We were some two and a half hours into our journey when we reached Hannington bridge – considerably behind schedule – and the rain began to ease and then stop. We stopped too and took a belated lunch, thankful that we had cooking gear with us to make some hot drinks.
Refreshed and rewarmed we continued our journey. There were no more major obstacles but the minor ones – careful negotiation under and around trees and reed beds, not always finding the ‘right’ passage first time – meant progress continued to be slow. It was almost six pm before we reached Lechlade, some six hours and 11 miles from our start.
The rest of the trip was thoroughly enjoyable but tame by comparison to that first day. We enjoyed sunshine from Lechlade down to Rushey Lock and a fine evening at the lockside campsite. Our next day took us to Eynsham lock and a most convivial evening in The Talbot Inn. Our final day to Abingdon was largely grey and overcast – with a downpour as we passed through Oxford forcing a stop for a very good lunch at The Punter (formerly The Waterman’s Arms) at Osney.
It was only after the trip however that we appreciated how important that first day had been in ensuring the success of the whole expedition. The shared challenge had been a real ice-breaker, forcing the group to co-operate in a way that had been unforeseen and enabling those who’d previously not known other group members to do so, fast. Our fight through the trees had given us all a deep shared experience and a story that will only grow with each re-telling. It had been a truly shared adventure and, at the end of the day, that surely is what adventure is all about.