Five years ago my wife and I set out on a canoe/camping trip on the Thames. It was a club trip I’d organised and over four days a group of seven of us paddled from Abingdon to Marlow. As we neared the end of that trip conversation inevitably turned to what we might do next. We had to wait a couple of years but in 2017 Liz and I launched our canoe at Cricklade, loaded with camping gear and food, for another four-day group trip to take us back to Abingdon. Over the two trips we paddled 98 of the 136 miles of the non-tidal Thames and we knew we wanted to complete the job.
The upper reaches of the Thames are an absolute delight for multi-day trips. Camping is permitted at many of the locks, the river is relatively quiet, and the hostelries along the route have charm, good beer and serve well-priced meals with plenty of carbs (chips!) for hungry paddlers. The next 38 miles are, logistically, not so easy, nor as scenic. Campsites are fewer, the banks more built-up and the river busier.
Nonetheless we had a plan and the remainder of the river was penciled in for the following summer. Those plans were unfortunately overtaken by other events and we managed only a single day trip in 2018 to add another 13 miles paddling our home stretch from Marlow to Windsor. The following year was devoted to bigger projects, culminating in our adventure on the Yukon (see The call of the wild). 2020 was going to be the year to finish the Thames!
A week in July was selected, potential paddling companions were sounded out and then coronavirus hit. As the UK went into lockdown in March we were hopeful that our summer schedule would still go ahead. When the river was reopened for paddling in May it was clear that continuing restrictions on group sizes and car sharing for shuttles, and the uncertainty around availability of campsites, pubs and restaurants, meant that the chances of completing the trip this summer as planned were low.
Coronavirus led to the cancellation of my spring/summer course programme and Liz too found herself with much less work than expected. The upside however was we had the flexibility to paddle more frequently and at short notice. A new plan was created based on there-and-back day trips paddling as a single tandem crew – keeping in our ‘bubble’ and avoiding car shuttles.
We started in Windsor in June and finished in Teddington last week. While each of us has paddled most of the Thames before either in canoe, kayak or SUP, it felt a really worthwhile ambition to paddle the entire length as a tandem touring canoe crew. It was certainly a different experience to paddling this section on the Devizes to Westminster race when my focus was on the river or the boat ahead with scarcely a glance at the banks.
Coronavirus gave us the opportunity to finish our Thames journey and spend some quality time together, exploring at our own pace, stopping to take coffee or photographs where and when we wanted. Paddling the last 25 miles as there and back trips was not without its pleasures either as you definitely enjoy a different view in each direction, noticing things on the return that you’d missed on the way out.
And next? We’ve already talked about going back up to Cricklade to repeat the experience on SUP.