It had been the wettest April for a hundred years. We knew that, but we’d been planning this boat trip for months. We were going to take an open Canadian canoe, tents, cooking gear and a retriever called Millie upstream from Oxford to the source of the Thames. By mid-May the unseasonal rain had swollen the river as far up as the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. What should have been an easy glide on almost still waters had turned into some sort of triathlon event.
The Thames was not living up to its description of ‘a pond between locks’. When we set off, from Pinkhill Lock near Oxford, the sun had come out, but the ‘lay-bys’, landing stages where you step ashore to open the lock gates, were flooded. Waterlilies, normally sunning themselves on the banks, were drowning in the deep water. Further upstream, the Environment Agency had opened weir gates to relieve the upper reaches, and the current was swirling and strong.
It didn’t help that everyone – lock keepers, fellow canoeists passing us on the down leg, walkers on the Thames Path hailing us from the bank – all told us the same thing: we were going the wrong way. To add to our exertions, Millie was restless, jumping from one to side of the boat to the other to look – and sometimes bark – at cattle, geese and swans. Trying to balance the weight in the boat from a sitting position was like a week-long Pilates session.
In drier times, canoeing and camping must be the most free and eco-friendly and certainly the most pleasant way to see the seclusion of the Upper Thames, which flows through largely empty countryside. Even walking the Thames Path you must sometimes leave the river and walk inland – in fact there is a long stretch above Lechlade where you do not see the water for miles – but in a boat you have no choice but to follow every caprice of the river.
So we got to see the little inlets, the deep pools, the feeding of the young river by the Colne and Leach and Evenlode. We floated past nesting swans and moorhens, and crumbling wartime ‘pillbox’ forts overgrown with brambles and ivy. We took a ten minute detour to the three-arch medieval bridge at Radcot, and poked the boat’s nose up the Windrush, the largest of the river’s tributaries until the Cherwell joins it downstream from Oxford. We also took a break from our struggle with the current to land and explore William Morris’ Elizabethan manor house at Kelmscot, and have a pint at the village’s olde worlde inn, the Plough.
Canoeing is a skill, but an easily mastered one on these usually tranquil waters, even with an excitable dog as a passenger. As with all boating, it is a matter of constant tiny corrections. A light touch on the paddle to steer is all that is needed – but it IS needed, since not correcting a wayward course can slew you off into a patch of bullrushes or a prickly encounter with a low hawthorn. Canoeing with two people, with one paddle each, also teaches you a co-operative, almost telepathic teamwork. That is, unless one of you is a large dog.
It’s a good workout for the upper body, but very relaxing. In a canoe your mind and body are forced to slow to a speed of a few miles an hour, within the bounds of your own determination and muscle power. You are in tune with the natural rhythm of the river, and the almost hypnotic metronome of the ripple of your paddles in the water. You also lose all sense of urgency, rarely looking further ahead than the next lock or the next riverside pub.
The place names on the Upper Thames all seem evocative of a vanishing rural history : the villages of Kelmscott, Shifford, Buscot, Bampton, all close to the river, although they tend to avoid its marshy banks; the well-tended locks and weirs at Northmoor, Grafton, Rushey, Pinkhill; Tadpole Bridge, Ha’penny Bridge, Tenfoot Bridge and Old Man’s Bridge cross the water, often following the course of a long forgotten right of way. Even the waterside inns usually, if not always, lived up to the promise of their names – the Swan, two Trouts at Lechlade and Radcot, the Rose Revived, and the Ferryman at Bablock Hythe, an important river crossing for a thousand years and once familiar to poetry readers in Mathew Arnold’s The Scholar Gypsy.
The river in May responds to the beauty of these names in kind: white mayflower on the hawthorn trees, the new green of the weeping willows; even the sickly-smelling oilseed rape, bursting out of its planted fields and now dominating great stretches of the riverbank, caught the eye as it flaunted its own vivid yellow against the hard blue sky. The Thames is still a young river before it reaches Oxford, but also a surprisingly wide and strong one, with deep pools and generous curves. Open meadows and fields of grazing cows flicking their tails at flies give way to tree lined stretches where the willows drape their hanging branches into the water, and rows of poplars make a green enclosure of the river, like a temperate tropical paradise.
It’s a young river, but one with an old history. The sandy coloured Cotswold stone bridges of Radcot and Newbridge, which date back to the 13th Century, were once of strategic importance – major skirmishes were fought at both during the English civil war by glamorous figures like the Royalist cavalry leader Prince Rupert. And of course the Thames has been used for centuries to transport people and goods. Lechlade, now a sleepily picturesque tourist destination, once sent cheese and stone down to London and received spices and other goods back. There are also reminders of the past at Northmoor Lock, whose weir is still operated not by machinery but by the old fashioned ‘paddles and rymers’ which are raised and lowered to control the water flow – even if the old wooden paddles are now made of fibreglass.
The Thames here is rich in wildlife, and the best way to see it is from a canoe, at water level and making almost no noise beyond a slight ripple as your paddle dips into the water. We saw great crested grebes diving for food; herons motionless on the bank; cormorants venturing inland from the overfished ocean, the fluorescent blue flash of a kingfisher; hovering kestrels, buzzards wheeling on thermal currents in the warm air; and the red kites with their distinctive forked tails that are now a common sight over Oxfordshire.
Mallards, ducks and drakes, exploded from the sedge and reeds on the bank, while moorhens and coots quietly watched us go past from their nests (which look like becalmed river flotsam). Damsel flies and mayflies dawdled over the water, and swallows and martins swooped low and dived for insects in a non-stop aerobatic display. We heard curlews and skylarks and once or twice we even glimpsed a slim cut on the river’s shining surface : the sleek head of a water vole, a species making a modest comeback after being threatened by feral mink.
We were also a sight in our own right. Drinkers in waterside pub gardens and groups of serious looking be-sticked and booted ramblers laughed, waved, pointed, told us that Millie was not pulling her weight and advised us that we were going the wrong way. The moorings at Bablock, Radcot and Lechlade, full of river launches with landlubbery names (Thisledome, Bilbo Baggins Too, No More Bets, ‘Hi Jack’) speak of the crowded river that high summer will bring, but we only met a few narrow boats and, once, a party of Saga-age canoeists, enjoying themselves hugely. They were going the right way: downstream. ‘Go with the flow!’ one lady advised us as she floated happily past, steering in the current as we laboured. Millie wagged her tail and then rushed to the other side of the boat to eye up some goslings.
We spent three and a half days paddling hard against the current, camping at Northmoor, Rushey Lock and the Trout Inn at Lechlade, and then ran out of time before we could reach the Source past Cricklade, still more than 20 miles away. Our turning round point came a mile or two upstream past the town of Lechlade, near a strange round tower originally built as a lock keeper’s house for the long since closed Thames and Severn Canal. It took us an easy day and a half to canoe back, steering rather than sweating. We pitched our tents for one night at the Swan Hotel’s rather overgrown campsite by Radcot Bridge and had a pint in the May twilight, as house martins swooped in and out from the eaves of the old pub.
At tea time on the fifth day we were back at Pinkhill Lock, where Miranda, my friend’s wife, would come to collect the dog. The sun was still out. Oxford’s spires and towers were just around a curve or two of the Thames, behind Wytham’s wooded hill. Millie, after five days’ leaping excitedly from one side of the canoe to the other, hurled herself onto the bank to greet Miranda, shook herself excitedly and ran off up the towpath without a backward glance. Finally, she must have thought, she was going the right way.