The idea of paddling the Thames to support The Rivertime Boat Trust, came to fruition whilst stranded in Henley aboard my barge during lockdown. Having just managed to complete the annual maintenance programme to ‘Rivertime,’ our adapted cruiser, there she sat on her mooring looking all shiny and new, full of hope that the start of the boating season would not be disrupted.
Whilst busy the previous summer, hosting river trips for groups of disabled and disadvantaged youngsters and adults, volunteer crew member Amy, kindly supported the charity by rowing from Lechlade to Henley. I knew her and I would do this again in the future, but twice the distance – the full 130 miles of the navigable, non-tidal Thames.
Neither of us imagined it would be happening so soon!
The dog walking fraternity in Henley was a welcome break to the constraints of lockdown and before long, my path crossed with local resident Peter, who bravely announced that he would be up for joining the 130-mile journey on his stand-up paddle board! Thinking he was a little ‘adventurous’ we arranged a meet up to check he could ‘keep up’ with the canoes. Embarrassingly, he ended up being our pacemaker for the entire journey – sorry for doubting you Pete!
We now had a runner joining us for the first couple of days, jogging 2 back to back marathons on the bank next to us. Relief lock and weir keeper, Justin, had kindly volunteered to operate the heavy beam locks whilst we refuelled on snacks and handed out leaflets to interested gongoozlers.
Having been out on a few trial runs, 18 miles seemed like a sensible daily goal. We accounted for extreme weather and secretly prayed for a few days of heavy rainfall prior to the challenge, to increase the flow rate. The itinerary began to take form, with passion and enthusiasm for our cause gaining in momentum. Offers from friends and family to supply team t shirts, print posters, transport our boats, photograph us from the bank, help us through locks and treat us to lunch and bacon butties, was overwhelming – there was no turning back now!
And so, on Friday 24th July our voyage began, launching at the Riverside establishment in Lechlade. For the entire day we were out in the sticks, following the rivers narrow winding course between low lying meadows and rushy banks. The upper reaches unspoiled and protected from large boats by the low 7’6” bridge in the centre of Oxford. We paddled past crayfish pots and gorged on the biggest juiciest blackberries. Our arrival at the Quaint riverside ‘Barefoot’ campsite in Northmoor was bang on schedule. Our South African team-mate treated us to a Braai.
The following morning began with a 7.40am live radio interview with Radio Berkshire. Some changeable weather was thrown at us on this leg of the journey. Towels were used as makeshift sails and bridges used as refuge from the persistent torrential downpours. We met some interesting characters in Oxford including a couple on a narrowboat who offered us all coffee and biscuits in the rain whilst we clung onto their boat avoiding the wrath of 15 drunk boys in a hire boat. We left a pair of girls in our wake despite them leaving Lechlade the day before us! The grim weather forced us to cut the day short, making the following day The Long One – a whopping 26 miles!
Over the next couple of days, we were navigating home waters, paddling to my mooring in Goring and Amy’s riverside amenity plot in Shiplake. Friends and family came to support us from the bank and cook us hearty dinners. Opting to bypass Shiplake Lock and take the fast-flowing green back waters of the St Patricks Stream turned out to be an exciting move. We ducked under low bridges, did our best to avoid overhanging willow branches and dodged territorial swans and camouflaged fisherman.
Day 5 was Press day. We were well rested, carrying less gear and thankfully blessed with a full day of sunshine. The local papers came to interview us on Rivertime’s home mooring opposite the River and Rowing Museum and our sister charity Accessible Boating Thames, brought their wheelyboat ‘Rivertime 2,’ up from her base at Bisham, to chaperone us downstream. We stayed in Bray for the night, enjoying a meal and pint in the pub.
Day 6 – The river continued to grow in width and volume as we paddled through Windsor Staines and Laleham. The castle loomed massively above Windsor town and we hoped HRH would wonder down to her riverbank at Home Park to cheer us on. Afterall, she did honour us with The Queens Award for Voluntary Service in 2012.
The seclusion of the upper river had gone, but not without compensation. Riverside towns increased with size and frequency. Quirky houses and houseboats lined the banks – the riverside community was truly alive! Chertsey camp site was our resting place for the night and numerous friends and family surprised us with a celebratory gathering and well-deserved meal in the nearby pub.
Day 7 – The final day, the finest weather and our earliest start. We padded nonchalantly past the golden gates of Hampton court, took photographs of red London buses passing over Kingston Bridge and cooled down in the river one last time. We could almost taste the salty tidal waters below Teddington lock, our destination – the last lock before the tidal Thames!
Travelling this beautiful Thames journey to support The Rivertime Boat Trust has been an absolute pleasure. We have spread so much awareness of the benefits River Time can bring and captured the imagination of so many people. To date over £8500 has been raised. Thank you to everyone for supporting our journey – we couldn’t have done it without you.
Big shout out to paddlers Amy Etherington, Deanne Burkimsher, Peter Elliott, Katherine Steel, David Key, Justin Whitehorn, Darren Rosier and my 15-year-old godson Oliver Summerland. Thanks for making the experience so enjoyable and fun.