Words by Mark Anders and photos by Martin Hartley
"Sorry we're a bit late. We tried to text you," Martin tells Greg, the dockmaster at the Trout Inn in the tiny Gloucestershire hamlet of Lechlade-on-Thames.
"Texting me is like texting the queen," the jolly silver-haired man laughs. "You've got no hope of getting through."
Still, Greg didn't seem at all bothered by our tardiness. His mellow demeanor seemed to mirror the pace of life on this tranquil stretch of the Thames.
A quaint hodgepodge of old brick and stone buildings, the Trout is a truly ancient pub and inn that's been serving guests for more than 700 years. Greg walks us past the pub's faded wooden benches, a stack of empty kegs, strings of Union Jack flags and a large photo of the queen and then ushers us across a muddy field to a storage shed, where our paddling gear and kayaks await.
We'd arranged to have our things delivered to the Trout in preparation for our five-day, 150-mile paddling trip from the headwaters of the Thames to downtown London. Our expedition was to be a freeform affair, with only one hard-and-fast rule: If we see a pub, we stop. We wanted to make an authentic connection with the people who live along the river, and since pubs are the hub of social life in Britain, a floating pub crawl seemed like the perfect way to meet local folks.
Though the pub rule was my idea, my two paddling partners bought in immediately. Brad Lally is one of my oldest and dearest friends from San Diego, and Martin Hartley is an English photographer and renowned polar explorer whom I'd met years earlier on a surfing trip in France. They hadn't met before, but I knew they were kindred spirits, each equipped with adequate paddling skills and an anything-goes attitude. The promise of paddling and pints (and in Martin's case, an expedition with virtually no chance of frostbite) was all it took to coax them onboard.
We explained all this to Greg the dockmaster as he helped us drag two kayaks and my standup paddleboard across the field to the river. "As a rule of thumb, there's a pub every two hours," he said, but getting to London might not be so simple. Security was at fever pitch for the London Olympic Games, set to begin just 40 days hence. Greg said that all pleasure boat traffic would be turned around at the Teddington Lock, just outside the city.
"We'll make it into the city," I say. "Plus, what are they going to do to us? The police in England don't even carry guns, do they?"
"The British are an understanding people," Greg says with a chuckle, "and probably too lenient."
With that, we launch onto the Thames. This close to its source, the storied river feels more like a quiet country stream than the iconic waterway it will become farther downstream. The river is never more than 60 feet across, and traces a serpentine path through the patchwork green countryside. The weather is cool and cloudy with a threat of rain, typical June weather in southern England.
We paddle quietly past ancient farms, families of swans, herds of curious cows. We stop to examine abandoned World War II pillboxes, concrete fortifications built during the Blitz to turn the Thames into a line of defense against the expected German invasion.
Two miles in, we reach Buscot Lock, one of 47 such locks on the Thames between the source and London. This one, built in 1790 and made mostly of stone and timber with heavy steel doors, is the smallest on the river—about 110 feet long and just 15 feet wide.
The three of us paddle into the lock, and the lockkeeper closes the upstream gates behind us with an ominous CLANG. He then begins to turn a massive iron wheel, as if he's steering the world's largest tractor, to release the water from the lock. This is old, muscle-powered technology, and the lockkeeper leans into his work. We feel like toy boats in a bathtub, bobbing around as the water drains. After a few minutes, the water level in the lock equalizes that of the far side, the lockkeeper opens the downstream gate and we're off.
For centuries, barges used the river to transport goods like cheese, meat, coal, stone, timber and wool to and from London. The lock system was integral to making the Thames the main thoroughfare for British trade. Back in the 1800s, a downstream run by barge took about five days through all of the locks and into London. We'd given ourselves the same amount of time to make the journey.
Just four miles into the trip—true to Greg's 'pub ever two hours' rule of thumb—we reach the Swan Hotel. We pull our boats onto the pub's dock, and refuel with massive home-cooked platters of roast turkey, beef, and lamb, potatoes, cauliflower and gravy, all washed down with pints of good English lager. With our bellies full, we head happily downriver in search of our next pub.
The countryside is peaceful. And our pace is equally slow and relaxing. Our first day, we pass many canal boats. These long, narrow motorboats are the floating equivalent of an RV. Most are vacant and moored along the riverbank. We see only two canal boats actually underway.
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