We are nature people. We love the hills, mountains and coastline. Having traveled the world and lived across Western Europe I can hand on my heart say that the UK has some incredible coastlines and mountains and we enjoy nothing better to do on our weekends than to experience these wild places. So it was with trepidation that we moved inland to landlocked and flat Oxfordshire, a place so unfamiliar to the things we love that, despite the extensive countryside, we felt cooped in.
That's when we got hold of an inflatable boat. That’s when we discovered the rivers.
The waterways of England are the arteries of life. They are where wildlife roams freely and in much more abundance than from the perspective of landlubbers. I can't believe we wasted over six months living by the side of a river without a boat.
Our first trip was a three-day 36 mile voyage from Abingdon-on-Thames to Henley-on-Thames. The benefit of an inflatable canoe is that it all packs down and so driving down to Henley on the Friday evening with two cars we left one car in Henley to await our arrival three days later. Early Saturday morning we launched our canoe into Abingdon marina and were on our way.
An inflatable canoe has many advantages but two reasons stand out amongst the rest. Firstly they are a lot, lot cheaper than a rigid canoe/kayak and secondly they pack down and can easily be stored in a storage closet and transported without a roof rack or trailer. With advantages though come disadvantages. They aren't as comfortable as a 'normal' canoe or kayak, or as efficient or as spacious. So when you're trying to pack in camping gear and three days worth of equipment you must remember to leave room for yourself too.
The Thames is a peculiar river in that it is pretty much locked the whole way down. That means that there is almost no current which makes navigating easy but does mean you have to do all the paddling yourself. If we were passing through the locks without much in our canoe we'd happily portage our canoe around the locks which proves to be faster at any rate. However with a canoe laden with kit we awaited our turn to pass through the locks. Typically there is always room for a canoe at the back of all the gin-palaces which means you can bypass a long summer queue and it is a bizarre experience to be hemmed in next to those towering boats.
Our first camp was just outside of Wallingford, we had wasted too much time hanging out that we arrived in Wallingford as the sun was setting. Pushing a little further onwards we found a little spot out tucked out of the way that we moored up for the night.
Pushing of the next day at first light we had the river to ourselves, with the stillness and wildlife in abundance.
August bank holiday weekend when we completed this trip had record breaking temperatures and after a few hours canoeing in the intense heat it was only right to cool off in the waters - so long as you don't take massive gulps of river water, it is fine to swim in outside of the towns.
The second day proved to have some of the most striking scenery. The forested hills around Goring and Streatley feigned a giant unending forest. And, for those interested in how the other half live, plenty of enormous gardens and houses backing onto the river.
As the day disappeared on the second day we found a beautiful spot among the trees just before entering Mapledurham.
The final day was a very different experience. The river was much wider and much more built up. We paddled through the centre of Reading with giant buildings either side. The water was more choppy as the river increased in size. With more people came more boats and the traffic which was previously just a gentle trickle of boats was now something to be cautious of.
The further we got towards London the greater the traffic on the water and it was quite amusing to see such a concentration of people on the water when just a little further up it was pretty much empty.
We arrived in Henley in the late afternoon as the sun started to turn a little golden and shadows a longer. We moored up, deflated our canoe, shoved everything on backs and headed off to our car. 40 minutes later we were back in Abingdon.
36 miles, 12 locks, 12 herons, 3 days and one otter. Job done.
Near the border of Wales lies the gorgeous river Wye. We had previously canoed the upper section near Hay-on-Wye on proper rigid canoes but now with our new found freedom and having woken up on a Saturday morning with no plans and guaranteed good weather we decided to do another multi-day trip.
Ross-on-Wye to Monmouth is a short section of river, easily navigable in a day if leaving early enough but we split it into two half days.
We arrived in Ross at Saturday midday and launched from the Hope and Anchor pub on the river. The Wye isn't locked and there is a slow but steady current downstream to carry you onwards.
What makes the Wye such an awesome river to canoe is that it is generally too shallow to be navigable by motorboats meaning that between you and the other paddlers you have the whole river to yourselves. I haven't experienced this sort of solitude on the rivers apart from in canoeing in Sweden.
The 2018 summer has been incredibly dry and the Wye was very low, so much so that a few times we were grounded and I had to jump out of the canoe to get us back into deep enough water. Even the farmers had diesel generators running pumping water out of the Wye for irrigation.
Wild camping is a little more tricky on this portion of the river as unfortunately a lot of the land on both sides of the river is privately owned and until August the gravel beaches are fish nurseries and are not advised to being used. But pretty much half way along between Ross and Monmouth there is a YHA perched on the river with easy access to the water where we put up our tent for the night.
The second day took us through more spectacular scenery and the whitewater grade 2 of Simmonds Yat. We were expecting something quite exciting and interesting for our heavily ladened inflatable canoe and we ensure everything was secured down before approaching it but it was a very simple bit of rapids (albeit with very little water at the time).
In mid-afternoon we rocked up in Monmouth and packed down our gear. All our gear fitted easily on our backs and we hitch-hiked the 20 minutes back to Ross-on-Wye to fetch our car. Having left our home at 11am on Saturday we were back home by 7pm Sunday. A great (and cheap) way of spending the weekend!