Three years ago I had a vague idea that I wanted to do a multi-day kayaking trip along the Thames. At the time, my experience of kayaking was limited to hiring chunky plastic boats and trying to make them go in a straight line.
Two years later I moved to Surrey, and joined the Wey Kayak Club in Guildford, hoping to improve my technique and make some new friends.The racing boats we used were slimmer (and more wobbly!) than what i was used to, but I loved how they moved through the water.
I quickly got into racing, moving up through the divisions, each time surpassing where I thought my limit was. I started training more, learning about sports nutrition, training plans and training diaries. Muscles popped up in places I wasn’t expecting, and I became stronger and faster.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to get into competitive sports in my 30s, and I did have to look up the definition of “athlete” before I proclaimed to my partner one day that I thought I had become one!
Suddenly the idea of paddling the Thames seemed like a possibility again.
“220km over five days seems challenging, but reasonable”, i thought. “I just need to convince a few friends to do it with me…”
Annual Leave allowances turned five days into four, but that didn’t deter us.
My initial plan was to be self supported, carrying all our gear, but anyone who’s ever seen the inside of a racing kayak will know there is really not much space!
After some huffing and puffing and convincing myself that it didn’t make it (much) less of an adventure, I conceded, and we contacted a baggage transfer company, who agreed to collect and drop off our kit at the three campsites we’d be staying at.
Day 1 – Lechlade to Appleton (30km)
On a sunny Saturday morning we drove to our start point in Cricklade, where my “Paddle the Thames” book confidently told me the closest navigable part of the river from the source was.
Obviously, with it being the driest, hottest June in a billion years, the water levels were ridiculously low. Not wanting to beach ourselves, we drove down to Lechlade and hopped onto the river there, meaning our day 1 paddle was significantly shorter than planned.
Just before we arrived at our campsite, we pulled into the very surreal experience that was ‘Country Western night’ at the local pub. I felt a little underdressed without my cowboy hat, and decided to give the mechanical bull a miss.
Day 2 – Appleton to Wallingford (57km)
Day 2 was the toughest day of the trip for me. The heat was relentless, with no shade and we hadn’t quite gotten into the rhythm of things yet. Our routine at the 14 locks of the day was: get out of boats, walk over to check the getting in point, walk back to the boats, carry bags and paddles back to the getting in point, go back to get the boats, bring boats to getting in point… We probably added 5km of walking doing this…
There were some highlights of the day though, including a gentleman seeing our boats and asking if there was a race on. We confidently said “no, no, we’re just paddling” and five minutes later we ended up in the middle of the Oxford Hasler kayak race alongside the division 3 paddlers! It was great fun cheering on the racers (as well as getting cheered on by well-meaning spectators!).
Day 3 – Wallingford to Hurley (56km)
By day 3 we had this ‘Paddling the Thames’ business nailed. We agreed we needed to sort out our portaging routine, decide which of the locks we would take as rest stops, and set ourselves targets of when we wanted to reach certain places. This, plus the lower temperatures, meant we finished our paddle 3 hours faster than the day before.
I think maybe subconsciously we thought we hadn’t done enough on that day, so we paddled straight past our slipway, getting out at one further along, only to need to walk 1km to our campsite, walk 1km back to the boats, and then paddle to the correct slipway… doh!
The aches and pains did start to kick in on the third day, and walking 2km in neoprene booties probably didn’t help that!
Day 4 – Hurley to Teddington (and then Royal canoe club) (73km)
When we woke up on our final day, we agreed we needed to minimise our morning faffing and get on the water early for our longest day of the trip (which coincidentally was twice the distance any of us had ever paddled before – we do love a challenge!)
Whether it was the taping our hands, lubing up bum cheeks, or just second guessing whether we had enough snacks, somehow we still managed to set off 45 minutes later than planned.
We made up for it with our focused paddling, distracting ourselves from the aches and pains by taking in the scenery. The Thames had suddenly become a big river, with more flow, more places we recognised, and many more obstacles.
We had rowers and children in play boats, sailing boats flitting across the river widthways making me feel like I was in a computer game (one where you have to sprint across a walkway before a big axe on a pendulum gets you), and let’s not forget the boozed-up motor boats…. I may have lost my cool with one of them.
Finally, at 19:30 we pulled into Teddington lock tired, achy, slightly delirious, but very happy. We took a quick snap, then paddled on to Royal canoe club to grab some very well earned dinner!
I’m so grateful to Kerry, Fiona and Sean for being bonkers enough to say “yes” to joining me on this epic adventure. There’s no better group of people to have done this trip with.
This blog post was written by Nadia Weigh, Community Leader of Adventure Queens and lover of hiking, camping, kayaking and all things outdoors.
Her next big kayaking adventure will be taking on the famous non-stop Devizes to Westminster race, one of the longest non-stop kayak races in the world that comprises a 125 mile course with 77 portages.