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 third dispatch from the river. Read her first and second posts here.
Two night before, farmers quaffed local ale and sang bawdy songs into the witching hour. The following morning, we descended to the pub, hoping for the promised breakfast, but found broken glass on the floor, vomit in the bathroom, and dirty socks inexplicably on a chair. Eventually, the barefooted, smiling innkeeper arrived, her hair wet, and wearing only a towel.
The next morning, at another inn, our host fluttered about us, channeling June Cleaver in high heels and a shirt-waisted dress. There weren’t just jams and jellies. There were curds, Nutella, marmalades, and a yeasty spread called Marmite that seemed the essence of anchovies. Everything was seated on white linen and served with heavy silver plate.
I told her about our prior morning at the other inn, expecting a tsk or two or perhaps an arched eyebrow, but she said, “Well, it’s all good fun, isn’t it?”
She was right, of course. It is all good fun. However, it isn’t just the range of inns and pubs along the Thames that make for ranging fun, but the river itself, for it begins twisty and tight, as many rivers do, and ends up as London’s aorta. If the Thames were a character, its character arc would be a shepherd who slew Goliath and became a king.
The panoply of possibilities continue elsewhere. We paddled past the husk of a church, reduced to four walls. A lock keeper told us that naughty nuns had lived there, one the paramour of a king. Her fellow sisters indulged in some hanky-panky with neighboring monks. Predictably perhaps, that convent was closed.
We also pass manors with long, sloping, striped lawns and eventually reached the manor of manors, Windsor Castle, which towers. Towering is important to kings, it seems, as one of its residents added another thirty feet to the keep, its central tower, so it would be even more castle-y.
Conversely, we also passed a pirate camp of sorts, a stew-like fusion of rotting boats barely afloat, beached boats that would never float again, and steam-punk-esque thingamabobs. It was criss-crossed with cables and I expect, had we been foolish enough to land, that its residents would have zip-lined to its defense. It had a sign that instructed us to “Speed up,” which was a anarchic yawp in direct contrast to the scores of other Thames signs instructing boaters to “kill your speed,” but we did as we were told and paddled briskly lest we be boarded.
We also passed an ancient barge that was clearly a beloved home. It was gently, sweetly decaying, a clever cobbling of Thames flotsam and jetsam. If Tolkein’s Shire floated away and were forgotten for four score of years, it would be that boat come home.
If there is any common thread along the Thames, it is gardens.
One evening, one of my companions suggested we walk to a city’s garden.
“Isn’t all of England a garden?” I replied.
She has seen what I’ve seen and couldn’t argue. This is, after all, a country where they prune country hedges and trim the drooping stems of willow trees so that they look quite a bit like the Fab Four’s mop tops. Because the English have gardened for centuries, we’ve seen wisteria trunks as thick as hippos’ legs.
If you too want to paddle the Thames from source to sea, you’ll have to begin sans boat, for the Thames began for us as a dry ditch and took a score of miles to gather enough water to float a boat. Our captain, John Stookey, a former captain of industry as he served as the CEO of a Fortune 200 chemical company, rented our two canoes from Canoe Thames, which delivered them to Cricklade and will fetch them on the outskirts of London, where we’ll switch to Holstein-colored kayaks from Moo Canoe and fall under the watch of a hired, required guide, familiar with the tides and the harbor’s bustle and chop.
Stookey booked the B&B, inn, and motel rooms while still stateside so that we’d paddle ten miles or so each day and be guaranteed a room. However, camping is a possibility at many of the locks. If you pitch a tent along some pastoral bank, beware the occasional quicksand and if you happen to sink, double beware that your most likely handhold is the ubiquitous stinging nettles.
However, it’s all good fun!
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