Canoeing the Thames: Narrowboats and a Tumble

Dispatch no. 2 from the source-to-sea paddle

Ed Note: Four Americans are walking, kayaking and canoeing the Thames across England, from source to sea. The two men are octogenarians and the two women are in the their late fifties. This is Katie McKy's second dispatch from the river. Read her first here.

There are times on the Thames when the weeping willows and latte-colored water are familiar enough for me to pretend I'm on some sleepy southern river in America. Then we round a corner and I see two things to disabuse me of my imagining: narrowboats and locks.

narrowboat Thames
Nick and Linda Allen, owners of the Melodeon narrowboat. Photo Katie McKy

'We've been all over the world on holidays, but when the sun is shining, the only place we want to be is on this river on this boat.' — Nick Allen

Much like the arctic fox, with its winter white fur coat, the English narrowboat has been shaped by its environment, being two inches narrower than many of the locks found on over 2,000 miles of canals that connect England, Scotland, and Wales. (There are 45 locks on the Thames River too, but they're wide enough for two narrowboats to fit abreast.) With the canals' locks at 7 feet and the narrowboats at 6 feet 10 inches across, they're really just-narrow-enough-boats. The narrowboats were built in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries to transport passengers, cargo, and mail. Once pulled by horses, they are now powered by chugging engines with the pilot standing a few feet from the stern, typically gripping a gleaming brass tiller-extender to put some distance between a careless step and the churning prop.

narrowboat Thames
Narrowboat in a canal lock. Photo courtesy Nick and Linda Allen

Today, over 30,000 narrowboats colorfully freckle the British canals and riverways, many sharing the color palette of the equally vagabond, but largely gone, Roma wagons of Europe. For many narrowboats, their brass shines as brightly as ever, their lace curtains swaying in the waters' chop, and their rococo paint popping from the bow to stern, outside and inside, and even applied to pots and pans. Their owners use them to holiday or retire, two being Nick and Linda Allen, 70 and 60, who own and love the Melodeon, an especially comely narrowboat that we happened upon in Abingdon, just ten miles downriver of Oxford.

Nick said, "We've been all over the world on holidays, but when the sun is shining, the only place we want to be is on this river on this boat."

The Melodeon was built in 1983, commissioned by a friend, and when they had a chance to buy it, they jumped. The Allens had that opportunity because they owned a boatyard and marina and thus had polished the Melodeon for years. Now they polish it for joy rather than pay.

Nick said, "I've been on over a hundred narrow boats and I've never seen one quite as lovely."

The interior is finished in solid mahogany and the only plywood is the shelves and bunk bed platforms you can't see. They're retired to the Melodeon because not even 48 years of working on the Thames was enough for Nick.

thames narrowboat
Music on the Melodeon with Nick and Linda Allen. Photo Katie McKy

Linda said, "He never wanted to be anywhere else than on the Thames."

However, life on the Thames is also about pub life just off the Thames.

Nick said, "The best time is the evening when we've finished five or six hours of cruising and are walking to a pub."

Linda added, "You have to go to pubs that sell real ale, not the rubbish stuff from the big breweries, but the real stuff from the local brewers."

They've also passed on television.

"It's like going back in time," Linda said, "so we didn't bother with television."

They do, however, carry older entertainment as melodeon is a synonym for accordion, so the Allens carry a melodeon on their Melodeon.

Adapting to the narrowness of their narrowboat took a little time. "You can't be claustrophobic," Linda said.

Nick added, "You get used to it."

The Allens cruise from May through September and when asked to share a funny moment, they told how a friend fell into the water at a lock.

Laura Stookey-Stuart operating a lock on the Thames. Photo Katie McKy
Laura Stookey-Stuart operating a lock on the Thames. Photo Katie McKy

"It was only amusing afterwards," Nick said. "It wasn't funny at the time, but we had a good laugh later."

Our canoeing quartet could relate, for one of our own party, Laura Stookey-Stuart, 57, fell into the first lock. The locks of the upper Thames are manually operated, spinning wheels to open the sluice that let water through and out of the lock gates and then opening the gates themselves much like a draft horse, straining on a lever to pivot them open and shut. Laura had done all that, opening and closing sluices and gates in an English spring rain and was returning to the canoe down a set of steps, inset in the lock wall, slick with algae, goose poop, and rain. With one foot in the canoe and one on the stairs' bottom step, her stairway footing gave way and she was suddenly swimming. The recently arrived lock keeper, an angelic Sebastian, ran for a ladder and Laura climbed up. Sebastian pressed Laura to accept tea and some time in his warm, dry lock house, but Laura knew we had miles to go and promises to keep.

A bit of paddling and drying sun and we too were laughing about her tumble.

 Laura after her tumble. Photo Katie McKy
Laura after her tumble. Photo Katie McKy

More from C&K

Canoeing the Thames: Paddling England's great river with an architecture professor

Pub Crawl on the Thames River