We'd planned to camp, but a nagging afternoon drizzle has left the three of us bone-chilled and tired. The crackling fireplace of The Rose Revived, a small 16th century riverfront pub and inn, draws us inside and holds us there. That night we sleep between sheets, as a steady rain pounds the Rose's windowpanes.
The next morning dawn is cold, windy and still rainy—not ideal paddling conditions, to say the least. But if we want to have any hope of reaching London, we need to get going. I pull the miniature umbrella out of my pack with a flourish. It was the lone luxury I'd allowed myself in my ultra-light camping kit, and I feel pretty darn smart as I rig it to my hydration pack so that it shields me from the rain while keeping my hands free to paddle.
The smug feeling doesn't last. Just a mile or so downriver, the gusts begin rudely popping my little black umbrella inside out, making it look as though I'm wearing a satellite dish on my head. Worse, it acts like a sail, catching the headwind and pushing me back upstream. Martin and Brad seem entertained by my good idea gone bad.
A couple miles after abandoning my satellite dish, we hear a distant cry through the rain. The bleating grows louder and louder until we finally spot a young sheep struggling in the reeds along the muddy riverbank. She has apparently fallen into the river, barely holding on with her two front hooves as the swift current threatens to pull her downstream.
Brad steadies my board as I wedge a paddle under the sheep's butt, trying to give her a nudge up the hill, to no avail. The sheep is terrified but quits bleating and seems to know instinctively that we're trying to help her. We need to try something else, so I gingerly step onto the steep bank. My feet instantly sink into the mud while sharp reeds and stinging nettles tear at my legs.
After a dozen attempts to lift her up the bank—she must weigh 85 or 90 pounds—I manage to grab a fistful of wiry wool and pull the sheep to safety. She immediately rushes off and nuzzles up to what appears to be her mother.
"I think we should celebrate our successful rescue with a pint, boys!" I call out across the water.
"And a bowl of lamb stew too!" Martin yells back.
A couple of hours later, we spot a pub. Right on schedule. Opening the door to the Ferryman Inn and Freehouse, we are greeted by a stern, "What do you want?"
"A few pints?" begs Martin.
Turns out, the bark is much worse than the bite. The barmaid, a sweet gray-haired lady in her late 50s, welcomes us with open arms. By early afternoon the Ferryman's crowd has quadrupled. Average age 72, all of them residents of a nearby riverside carpark (read: trailer park). It's as if we've stumbled upon a British version of Cheers, and the three of us are the guest stars.
Brad sips a hot toddy (tea with Jameson's Whiskey) while Martin and I put away a delicious cask ale. We're having a hoot hanging with this geriatric party crew, and they beg us to stay.
"Don't go downstream. Stay here with us," says a bald man they call Kojak. "We're nice folks here, just commoners."
Alas, we have to keep moving. As we paddle away, our newfound friends pour onto the Ferryman's back deck to bid us farewell, waving the Union Jack while singing God Save the Queen, the British national anthem. Between the wind and the choppy water and the beer, I'm honestly surprised I don't fall into the drink immediately.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. And a BRRRR.
The rain and wind only worsen and we give up trying to stay dry. By the afternoon I'm very cold. When packing for this trip I guess I was a little too optimistic, choosing to bring only surf trunks. Now I'm wishing I'd elected to pack a pair of warm pants instead of that silly umbrella. Brad and Martin had been smarter, having packed full rain gear.
"There are times when one should wonder about one's sanity!" the portly lockkeeper at King's Lock calls out to us as we paddle up, totally drenched.
He warns us the river is on the rise due to heavy rains in the region and has just posted a bright yellow sign on the lock: "CAUTION STREAM INCREASING."
"It's my responsibility to warn you of the dangerous conditions," he says, handing us a printed warning card that says, "We advise users of all unpowered boats not to navigate and users of powered boats to find a safe mooring."
Greg had told us to expect such warnings, and advised us to ignore them. "They can't stop you from paddling," he'd said. "The river is the Englishmen's right." In fact, the right is enshrined in various documents going all the way back to the 12th century. The lockkeeper, however, is concerned with documentation of more recent vintage.
"I assume you have your permit?" he asks.
"Yes, of course," Martin responds quickly. "It's packed away in a drybag just here. I'll get it out for you if you'd like."
"No need. Just as long as you have it."
In fact, we don't have a permit. Martin and I had each meant to arrange one prior to our trip, but never did. We'd already lied about it to the lockkeepers at the past six locks, so we couldn't come clean now.
The three of us don't talk much over the following hours and miles, mostly just pressing on through the rain trying to make it to our next stop: Oxford. Along the way, we do break a few times to chat with folks living in houseboats on the river. For the most part these boats are vacant (like vacation homes) but there are a few hardened river folks who live on their boats year-round. We visit with one man who's been living in a slender black lacquered canal boat for the past 16 years with his wife and a huge Rottweiler, which has a head the size of a medium pizza and seems poised to leap onto my standup paddleboard.
Around the bend, we meet up with a cheerful hippie named Ollie who is bailing out a handmade wooden canoe alongside his massive steel tug, painted bright green, where he lives with his wife and two young boys.
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