Riversong Pt.1 - Thames River from source to sea on foot

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With a hiss of pressure the doors slide open to the warm train carriage and I step out into the crisp air of Kemble station in the heart of the Cotswolds. I am here to find the source of the Thames River and follow it all the way to the sea on foot: A journey of 200 miles.

It was my aim to see the river from a more natural perspective and immerse myself into this adventure as much as I could. I would walk it’s full length to sea, I would sleep on the banks, experience the sunrises, wind and rain and totally absorb myself in the temperament of the river. I would attempt to do this walk over 4 long weekends.

Other than the Thames being the famous arterial waterway that carves our great city in half the only other basic knowledge I’d gathered over the years was of its importance to the history and development of London through Roman trade routes and ship building. Until now, I had never fully considered its origin, its growth or its route to London.

As I left the station all I knew was the official source of the Thames started in a dry meadow 1 mile north of the sleepy village of Kemble, Cirencester. I had an ordinance survey map tucked in my trouser leg pocket, a circle drawn in pencil marked this illusive spot. After a 30-minute walk over walls and stiles I found my position on the contours of the map. When I dropped to one knee to scour the meadow I noticed a standing stone no more than three feet high and two feet across, tucked under the tree in the far left hand side of the field. Approaching the stone i could see that I’d found what I was looking for. A carving on the stone read:

“The Conservators of the River Thames 1857 - 1974. This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames”

I had to touch the stone. This would signify the start of the journey. I noticed a dry canal, 8 inches across, that left the base of the stone and ran the length of the meadow, its indentation visible. I would follow this until I found water. Putting my back to the stone and looking east into the sun, it was now 200 miles to the sea.

As my feet crunched on the morning frost, my eyes scanned the field in front of me. I came across the first sign of water in a small culvert that lead into a tree line. At this point the water was pooling rather than flowing, its direction meandered towards a tiny stone bridge in a small forested area. Excitedly walking towards the crumbled bridge I saw the first signs of water movement. As if coming from nowhere it now had direction and life as if it knew where to go, like a magnet pulling it onwards. As it trickled from the side of a small hill it began to create a 1 metre wide stream carving a small route through the meadow out in front of me. It was hard to believe that such an important river to the history and development of England came from such humble beginning.

For the next 4 hours I followed the river past the bare winter trees, through tiny villages, over walls and through muddy fields as it meandered effortlessly through this exposed English countryside. The wet browns and winter greens of the bank, no higher than two feet, held the rivers unhurried pace. For miles it was desolate, not a person in sight and intensely peaceful until I passed through the chocolate box villages of Cricklade and Letchlade. 

As the sunset on the first day I rolled out my sleeping bag next the river. The stove was boiling my first pot of hot water as I put on my warm jacket and settled into my bag ready to eat my homemade butter flapjack and freeze dried Pasta and Bolognese. As I lay on my back, the restful tones of trickling water to my right, I looked up through the trees at the stars. It would be a cold, restless and sleepless night until I saw the sun again.

From inside my sleeping bag the green aluminous glow of my watch told me it was 7am. When I peered out I could see the clear skies had given way to a grey miserable start. In some ways I was happy with this; cloud meant a rise in temperature and also a night warmer than the last. As I adjusted the straps of my Osprey rucksack I knew today was a marathon distance day - For me to make Oxford the following afternoon I had to push on beside the river until sunset.

As I continued through the flat muddy fields, following this majestic and still modest river, I past scattered Cotswold towns and beautiful old bridges. There were times when my route took me away from the river, it didn’t feel right not to be able to see it, yet when I returned to its banks it felt like seeing an old familiar friend. After 26 muddy, frustrating yet beautiful miles I arrived in darkness at Shifford Lock. Looking at the met centre forecast on my phone I could see there was the threat of rain then a sharp fall in temperature so tonight the tent would go up. As I sat listening to the bubbling water boiling on my stove, I squinted through the beam of my head torch at the map that lay out on the grass in front of me; I still had 17 miles to go.

On Sunday I was awoken to my tent awash with golden light. Sitting up and re-adjusting my eyes and ears to where I was I could hear the wildlife alive and vibrant outside. Peering through a tiny gap in the tent I could see blue skies and the hushed river beside me. Excitedly I fought with the zip of my sleeping bag and climbed out to see one of the most beautiful mornings I had seen in a while. The skies had cleared during the night and the temperature had dropped to -2. A veil of frost cloaked everything around me. Although I had slept badly and felt fatigued I was grateful to be the only person here to see this. This is exactly why I was on this journey and what I’d hoped for. I wouldn’t have seen this at home. 

After breakfast I crossed the bridge at Shifford Lock and took the first steps towards Oxford. The mist was hugging the still water of the river as I passed the old and time-worn villages of Newbridge and Eynsham. The frost, melting in the morning sun yet lingering in the shade made the river look more beautiful that I’d seen in recent days. Arriving at the outskirts of Oxford I could see the rowing teams practicing their unified strokes. At 2:30pm I sat at the station platform with tired shoulders and a hot latte in hand waiting for my train to arrive to take me back to Paddington. I was muddy, fatigued yet thoroughly happy that nobody had a clue of the 56 mile adventure I’d just been on. I just looked like I’d been drag through bushes, repeatedly and sideways for all they knew.

On the train home I couldn’t help but think that I’d found something more beautiful and more remote that I had originally thought. There was definitely something magical about following a river from its source, especially a river that i’d grown up around in London and my dad had fished on his whole life, it felt important to me. To see it flourish and grow at such a measured pace from its humble beginnings as a puddle in a meadow had made this all become a very intimate experience and an adventure I couldn’t wait to get back on the following week..

Hunters Moon - Changing climate, shifting culture

"I sit in my cramped seat, safety belt buckled tightly; I look down at my plastic cup of tepid water, the juddering turbulence shaking its volume. As I look out through the scratched Perspex window, I watch the rapid rotation of the propellers and the buffeting of the small wing tips.  For a second as the plane momentarily dips below the grey cloud line to reveal the Arctic Ocean beneath, my eyes widen and from my high altitude vantage point icebergs the size of houses pepper the ocean appearing frozen in time. I write in my journal “even from high up you get the feeling this is somewhere special”

It’s approaching two years since I made my way to Greenland to spend time with the Inuit hunters. Every day my memory conjures up revolving images of a timeless and ancient way of life and it’s adaptation to the modernity of western influences. For the Inuit, their culture, identity and psyche is firmly rooted in their partnership between dog and man, landscape and wildlife.  For much of the year this magical balance and perfect partnership coexists with the brutal and enigmatic patterns of Greenland’s weather system. For centuries the Inuit’s success relied upon working with the weather, not against it, to thrive as a culture. Their strength and resilience as a group of people can undoubtedly be traced back to the ancestors and the ancient wisdom and religious duty passed down generation to generation. Yet in my heart I can’t help but fear times are slowly changing.

As the earth and the fragile climate have continued to warm, nowhere does it affect more dramatically than the Arctic. Ice once thick and passable has become thinner and softer resulting in an earlier shift in the spring months. The Inuit’s current subsistence lifestyle, dependent on the abundances of Arctic wildlife, is on the verge of irrefutable change. The Arctic, notably Greenland, has seen a temperature rise twice the global average. With that, the once concealed and frozen permafrost is thawing at a greater rate with each coming spring and the methane discharge into the atmosphere is steadily on the rise. This circular perpetuation of a shifting Arctic climate, encouraged by human and natural forces, will mean the ancient and magical partnership between dog and man; landscape and wildlife will have to change and adapt with it.

The strength of the Inuit people springs from the relationship to the land and the wildlife that inhabits it. Older communities centered on the preparation for the hunt, thus becoming the most important activity for the survival of their culture. In modern times this ritual and the outcome doesn’t necessarily mean life and death but the tradition and ceremony still beats on the drum and in the heart the Inuit people. Certain cuts of meat are still delivered to the elders as show of respect. The valuable skin is still awarded to the hunter who spotted and killed the animal. But what is a culture that relies on this vital relationship, without their animals in their natural habitat? What if they are forced to the mainland towards the economic market place, what for the culture then? Will these beautiful traditions nurtured and perpetuated in time, from hunter to son, through song and dance, poetry and drawings be inevitably lost to either time or the modern progress of coming generations? It’s possible that once that link with nature is broken it could be catastrophic for the people.

I have a growing concern for the future of one of the most unique and diverse environments in the world. We have a global duty to make the conscious environmental changes in our own lives that will support the ongoing awareness for climate change. This is not just for the Inuit but for all cultures, especially those that directly rely on their natural environment for subsistence living. Cultures are a breath of the human spirit, a reflection of our adaptability and strength as a species.  We have inhabited nearly every major region of the world, but what can a culture and environment truly teach us if it’s not there anymore, driven to the dusty pages of a history book, with us partially to blame.

Only so much.

 

Riverwind - A 100 mile canoe descent of the Wye River, Wales

As I sat there rubbing my hands in front of the small vehicle heater I somehow couldn’t shake the feeling that my tired eyes were playing tricks on me. I knew I was in Wales, I’d seen the sign, but this preserved and primal backdrop of winter greens and dusty browns reminded me of something closer to Canada. My warm mobile vantage point afforded me the first glimpse of the river we were to descend, through the tree line its green rolling watercourse twisted amongst the wildness and solitude of the Wye valley.  

At its source deep in the Cambrian Mountains the Wye River is still, shallow and gravelly. I’d heard stories of this river and it’s beauty long before I’d arrived. People had spoken of it being the lifeblood of the countryside, an ancient artery of commerce for the local land. They also spoke of its protected landscapes, dense native woodlands, gorges and sandstone plateaus. For friend and canoe guide Aylwin and myself it would provide the perfect multi-day opportunity to hone and refine the much-needed skills for the Yukon descent.

With the front of the canoe pointing up river, we nudged the green Old Town canoe from a flat tongue of gravel into the oncoming flow. Under a bridge near Glasbury the first arms of the river surrounded the canoe and we turned downstream, our paddles angled to straighten and project us down the central flow. On my lap I had the dog-eared pages of a small binded river map, its blue meandering route plotting our southerly course. The air temperature was a frigid 6 degrees, it was just past noon and it was 100 miles to the sea.  

For six cold hours our first day descended through the quaint Hay on Wye, Witney on Wye and Bredwardine. The subtle motion of the canoe and the reassuring sound of paddles through water brought on calmness I’d rarely felt. To our east, through the bare winter trees we could make out the rolling wooded landscapes and to our west villages with white smoking chimneys occupied the horizon. We soon found an efficient paddling rhythm of regularly switching strokes, sides and positions. This rhythm momentarily halting as we gazed up at the passing of an abandoned bridge or the sight of a soaring falcon. Later on we sat around our tents in a small dark orchard speckled in mistletoe eagerly absorbing the warmth from a searing fire. We noted how history permeated everything along this river; in the architecture, landscape and geology.

As we slid the canoe back down to the river on the second sunrise our stomachs were full of warm oats, fruit and nuts. The soon to be morning ritual of surveying the rivers temperament was observed high from an overgrown bank. Her flow was like a memory; steady, churning and rolling. The first bend brought us a set of harmless rapids before turning us into a driving headwind and shallow stream beds. With help from the clearing skies and a warming winter sun we soon became accustomed to reading the river’s natural flow hundreds of yards upstream. Standing in the canoe and searching ahead, we’d watch the river in silence, choosing our line. Whether rapids or steady flow we’d point the bow (nose) into the turn and commit the boat to our decision, making minute course corrections with the paddle as we went. In the quietness between conversations, my mind correlated the likeness of paddling a river to that of the ebb and flow of life.

The next morning we awoke in Fownhope to a biting frost that cloaked the landscape. Overnight the skies had cleared and the temperature had plummeted to below zero.  As I rolled in my warm sleeping bag I noticed that my body was hurting. My wrists and hands we strained from the thousands of continuous paddle strokes and physical effort of the last three days. My knees, being posed in static positions into an unremitting cold wind, felt stiff. I knew this would pass. A tremendous sizzle brought me round as my stove water boiled over. This wasn’t a time for whining about age and failing joints, especially to a 19-year-old sprightly Aylwin, it was a time to suck it up as today the river became deeper and ever dangerous, boiling into a wild and beautiful section of water.

As we blew the cold morning cobwebs away, the warmth of our rhythmic paddling oozed through my veins, comforting the stiff cold extremities. Past Hoarwithy and Ross on Wye I noticed continued stacks of huge trees cascaded in piles against the stony uprights of bridges, simply torn like weeds from the soil and deposited downstream in flood. As the slow pace drifted us from reaching bend to run down relics we noticed how the river itself was free of human occupancy. Apart from one small group of paddlers in the upper reaches, a few dog walkers and the odd camouflaged fisherman tucked secretly into the riverbank, we’d been the only paddlers descending the river for three days. That night, we slept to the patter and tickle of rain on the tent and the intricate communications of river wildlife.

After the excitement of the rapids of Symonds Yat had settled, I looked up to find a horseshoe bend in the river framing the steep narrow cliffs. On both sides dense woodland clung to the narrow rock faces creating an enclosed, jungle like appearance. The paddles soothingly massaged and directed the canoe as we drifted down stream; the narrowing river shedding its skin once more to reveal a wilderness to which we were the only witnesses. Over my head, the long broad shape of falcons soared between the cliffs and at river level herons, buzzards, cormorants and woodpeckers elusively appeared and disappeared. The beauty and temperament of this section was unreachable, every turn felt as if you were plugging into somewhere different, somewhere far from Wales.  By now Aylwin and myself were in sync, driven by an unspoken rhythm from days of paddling, thousands of combined strokes and a little friendship. Moving at such a speed surrounded by such dramatic natural influences has such an effect. Simply boiling down to harmony and adaptability.

As our last sun rose we passed King Arthur’s Cave high up on the hill at Little Doward. I later found out ancient remnants of hyena, rhinoceros and lions had been discovered there. It appears we weren’t the only ones who came to love this section of river. Passed Monmouth, Bigsweir and Brockweir the river now changed its emotion for the final time as the tidal influences of the Severn Estuary began to show their teeth. A once deepest green, the river colour now silt brown; a once fightable headwind now becoming a coastal gale. The incoming wind channeled by the river valley created a wind tunnel forcing us to fight for every metre of progress. As the hours and energy depleted, we revered in the calmer moments, resting and drifting, yet with a burst of intensity and power when faced with the turn of a corner and an oncoming wind. After four and a half days and over 77,000 paddle strokes later we drifted exhaustedly under our finish point, the Chepstow Bridge.

s I sat back in my warm mobile vantage point for the final time, I flicked through the pages of my weather beaten river map absorbing the memories. Turning to the last page I noticed a passage I hadn’t read before. “The Wye is clothed with forests or broken into cliffs. In some places they approach so near, that the river occupies the whole intermediate space, and nothing is seen but woodlands, rocks, water and wildlife; the character is of wilderness and solitude. No river perhaps flows for so long a course through well cultivated country, the banks of which exhibit so few habitations.”

After seeing this for myself over the last four days it would be easy, I thought, to be drawn into this net and move here tomorrow.