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Going with the flow

Eifon Rees

1st May, 2009

Financial slowdown? What about a holiday to match? Eifion Rees ditches the nine-to-five in favour of a stress-busting canoe trip down the river Thames.

Time seems to slow, canoeing on the Thames. Slipping on our buoyancy aids and pushing off from the bank at Henley was like signing a contract with the river, an agreement to go with the flow. With 12 lazy miles and a night’s camping to go until the town of Bray, our destination, the only sounds that Saturday morning were the plash of paddles, the dripping timpani of soft rain and a ripple of applause from a regatta dying away in the distance. Gliding along, the stress of the working week disappeared like the raindrops in the water. The river curled around to the left and suddenly there was nobody on it but us. It felt like breaking free.

Living the slow life From the Tweed to the Tamar, industrial Britain was built on its network of waterways and canals, though the demands of heavy industry have these days given way to the business of leisure. You can put paddle to water in any number of scenic spots the length and breadth of Britain, and England’s longest, most famous river is no exception. Eager to try out what has been described as a low-impact, high-satisfaction holiday, my girlfriend Jessie and I decided to put the Thames to the test. Armed with a canoe, tent, simple instructions from the canoe rental company (aim downstream, avoid weeping willows, don’t drink the water) and a willingness to give in to the languid spirit of the venture, we set off.

As weekend breaks go, it isn’t too pricey: we hired our cherry-red canoe from Thames Canoes for £65 per day; camping for the night set us back £10. We started from Henley at 8am on Saturday and were to be collected at Bray at 4pm on Sunday, but the company will drop off the canoe wherever suits – from Cricklade in Wiltshire through Oxford and Reading to Teddington, near Richmond – and pick it up at the end, shuttling you back to the local train station.

‘It’s tranquil, environmentally friendly and signifi cantly cheaper than going abroad,’ says Hila Coggans, operations director of Thames Canoes. ‘It’s about seeing the Thames and the landscape from a different perspective. People really buy into that new experience, whether they’re here to look at the amazing riverside houses or the abundance of wildlife. It’s slow living at its best.’

Locks and load The Oxfordshire countryside outside Henley is so beautiful it almost managed to distract us from the fact it was raining. The reeds and grass verges dripped with moisture, trees were shrouded in mist. A pair of swans passed by like white barques, sedate, professional paddlers. We had fl oundered in their wake before getting the knack: paddling on opposite sides, steering from the rear.

By the time we reached the first lock on our journey, Hambledon, one of 45 that dot the non-tidal Thames, we were drenched. The heavens had opened like the vast iron sluice gates before us. We hunkered down into our waterproofs, dropping with the water level, waiting for the lock to empty. The lockkeeper took pity on us. ‘There’s a pub in half a mile,’ he said through the rain, pointing downstream. ‘Good place to dry off.’ Jessie discovered an extra 20mph worth of effort.

At the Flower Pot pub in the village of Aston the locals are stuffed and mounted on the walls: a selection of prize freshwater fish. Anglers flock to this part of the world for bream, carp, perch, roach, tench and the other 20 species of coarse fish that frequent these waters. Our clothes steamed gently as we ate our guilty cod and chips. Riverside pubs are as numerous as locks, and it’s the ideal way to break up the day, especially when it’s raining.

After lunch and back on the river it was a different world, the sun out in a blue sky, dragonflies sparkling over the reflections of white clouds. A kingfisher darted obliquely from one bank to the next in front of our canoe. Great crested grebes with their chicks on their backs passed nonchalantly by; mallards and moorhens, bustling coots and stilt-legged herons. This really is the only way to see the river in all its rich diversity, natural and social: paddling under bridges, trailing hands in the water, gazing enviously into cosy houseboats, waving to walkers, swapping pleasantries with the straw-boater brigade phutting downriver for luncheon.

We glided through the parish of Medmenham, its 12th-century Cistercian abbey later home to Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club; through Hurley lock and Temple lock; beneath a magnificent iron suspension bridge into historic Marlow, on our way to the Longridge campsite – our accommodation for the night – on the other side of town. Pulling the canoe out of the water, we set up the tent, hung our socks out to dry in the sun and, with slight river legs, set off to sample the delights of the town.

One wedding and a funeral The good weather thankfully continued the next day. We unzipped the tent to birdsong and sunlight glinting off the river. After a leisurely breakfast we pushed off to continue

our journey downstream. Paddling along at nature’s level seemed by now less like exercise than therapy.

Our final morning on the river was spent marvelling at the mini-castles and mockTudor mansions that line the Thames beyond Marlow. The overblown epitome of olde worlde England, all that was missing from the vast lawns sloping down to the water were cucumber sandwiches and croquet. Boats of all shapes and sizes flushed through a succession of sturdy locks – Cookham, Boulter’s – manned by a succession of sturdy lockkeepers. Old stone churches with mossy graveyards appeared on either side. A newly married couple in morning suit and white meringue sipped champagne on a speedboat; further along a group of people huddled together on the bank, scattering ashes from an urn.

There is a whole world to see, canoeing the Thames, and the finishing line at Bray seemed at once too close and days away. But then it’s not the arriving that matters when you’re on the river – it’s the journey.

Canoeing around Britain

‘Manpower not air-miles’

Tipi adventure

01594 861666

A Canadian canoe expedition with overnight accommodation in large, luxury tipi lodges located in remote and exclusive riverside settings along the river Wye.

‘Leave only ripples…’

Canoe adventures

01803 865301

Eco-friendly paddling aboard guided 12seater canoes on South Devon’s rivers Dart and Yealm. Green Tourism Business Scheme gold-medal-winner.

‘Inspriring adventures’

Wilderness Scotland

0131 625 6635

A classic canoe trip down the river Spey, through pine forests and Scotland’s most famous whisky country, with plenty of riverbank camping available.

For more information call 01628 478787 or see

For more green holiday ideas check out the Ecologist Green Directory here


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