Canoeing the Thames

Paddling England's great river with an architecture professor

Paddling past a pillbox on the River Thames, part of Churchill's "Stopline Red."

Paddling past a pillbox on the River Thames, part of Churchill’s “Stopline Red.”


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 first dispatch from the river.

At its source near Cirencester, the Thames is a couple wheelbarrows of bowling ball-sized rocks in an eight-foot divot. From there, the intermittent stream can be followed even when the streambed isn't apparent, as the Thames Path parallels the river all the way to the Thames Barrier, a storm surge-stopping, London-protecting structure in New Charlton that looks like someone disassembled and scattered the Sydney Opera House.

Humble Beginnings: The Thames headwaters.

Humble Beginnings: The Thames headwaters.

We walked the Thames Path until Cricklade, where our two canoes were delivered. Our first two days of paddling were lovely as coots, swans, magpies, mallards, grey herons, and terns abounded, but most of all, swans, some with cygnets and a couple parentally protective, one flying within arm's reach right at us, its great wings drumming the air. It's also bucolic (We've been warned the bustle awaits), with enough strainers to keep us engaged, as well as watch towers and churches. One of the quartet is Lo-Yi Chan, a distinguished, retired architect and campus planner who also taught master classes in architectural design at Cornell, Columbia, Harvard and MIT, and has lectured widely. Chan has also traveled widely and since this is my first time in England, I figured I'd see the structures through his eyes.

He explained the windows on one watch tower we found long abandoned in the woods along the Thames Path. They were vertical slits with wider openings on the inside. "This way, its defenders could fire in multiple directions while presenting a smaller target." That window design was something we saw again and again, as the Thames was designated by Churchill as Stopline Red, the English line in the sand to Hitler's millions of minions. Every quarter to half mile, the English had built a pillbox to stop the Germans had they invaded from France, the pillboxes being ironic as they were invented by the Germans in WWI. With walls up to 40 inches thick, they're tiny castles with the slits similar to the ones in the watchtower, but my eyes were drawn to the churches, with their elegant flying buttresses and arched ceilings.

Retired architecture professor Lo-Yi Chan in his element.

Retired architecture professor Lo-Yi Chan in his element.

Chan explained that the Normans and Anglo Saxons who built the churches borrowed from the earlier invading Romans, who made the arch the foundation of their aqueducts and Colosseum.

"I love the arches! They're beautiful!" I gushed, seeing them everywhere, between the interior columns, in the flying buttresses, and the ceilings.

"They're not just about beauty. They're also about strength. A flat ceiling would fall. The arches between the columns further support the ceiling, transferring the load to the columns between the arches. The arches of the flying buttresses keep the walls from falling outward."

"Ah," I said, "seeing the practicality of the ubiquitous arch. Well, I do love the paned windows on the houses. So quaint!"

Chan explained, "They couldn't make large panes, thus the small panes."

"Well, at least I love how the second floors of the houses jut out. That's so cute."

"That's so the night soil wouldn't hit you when it was chucked out the windows."

"Night soil?"

"Human excrement."

I was slowly realizing that the English forms were all about function and I wanted Chan to understand that I was learning this lesson well. I pointed to an arched window in a church and said, "So, that arch at the top of the window helps support the wall."

Chan smiled, arched an eyebrow, and said, "Actually, that window could have any shape at the top. They just used an arch because they like the shape."