A slow adventure, paddling the length of the Thames
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
Stand Up Paddling: "slow travel" on water
Summer 2020 definitely brought lots of changes to our routines. In a normal year, I would have probably dedicated my holidays to traveling to far and remote places but in 2020, for obvious reasons, I found myself exploring destinations much closer to home which, over the years, ended up in my “to do list” probably because on paper they sounded less fascinating or maybe because “there is always time” to go there. Trying to find something positive about the year of the pandemic, I would probably say that the different circumstances in which we found ourselves, helped rediscovering local attractions and destinations and realize that adventure and wilderness can be found much closer than what we thought.
In my case, it was time to travel around England, a country where I have lived for several years and never really explored. Crossing the Thames on a paddleboard was one of those adventure ideas that had been on my mind for a few years and last summer, due to travel restrictions, an unusually sunny and dry season and a forced break from work, I decided it was time to put this plan into action.
The Thames starts in a field in Thames Head, Gloucestershire and, after flowing through London, it ends in its estuary on the east coast in the North Sea. It is about 346 km long, not all of them actually navigable: the firsts 30 km are just a small stream and, once in London, you can paddle it on a SUP without restrictions up to Putney Bridge (to get past this landmark you will need special permissions and authorizations which, personally, I didn’t really have the time or willingness to request).
I’m not new to organizing slow adventures however, considering it was my first multi day SUP trip, I didn’t really know what to expect especially in terms of distance to cover each day...paddleboarding is definitely slow travel: was my expectation to paddle about 40 km per day realistic?
As far as the other logistics were concerned, wanting to be completely self-sufficient, my kit was made of enough food for 6 days, a sleeping mat, a summer sleeping bag, a change of clothes and a tarp to use in case of rain: as essential as I could! In terms of sleeping arrangements, it would have been a mix of campsites (there are few along the river) and wild camping (not strictly legal but, providing I was going to leave no trace, I assumed it would have been OK)
In my experience, the first day of any expedition is always the most important one as it will set my mood for the rest of the trip and it’s also the moment when you find out whether what planned on paper, will actually work and if there is anything you have forgotten or underestimated.
Luckily the first day of my slow adventure along the Thames went nice and smoothly; finding a quiet spot to cook some dinner and crash on the river bank for the night was also relatively easy. The second day, which in my mind should have been the easiest one, turned out to be a bit of a battle. The headwind turned me in a sort of “human sail”, making my slow travel even slower and I ended up reaching my campsite only in the evening; far too late for the pub but with enough time to cook some dinner and get some rest, hoping that the following day would have been less windy. The following three days went by quite smoothly between swans (sometimes not particularly friendly), chats with boaters and the dreaded locks.
The Thames consists of a canalized system, built around the seventeenth century and long about 200 km: all the UK is actually crossed by a complex network of canals which, in the days of the industrial revolution, represented a sort of motorway for boats.
Over the days, I have developed a “love-hate” relationship with locks: in a way, they are a very useful point of reference, giving an impression of progression on your movement but, at the same time, whether you navigate them or walk around them, they definitely slow you down (walking is definitely the faster option, although quite tiring when you are carrying board and bags). The Thames has a total of 45 locks until you reach Teddington, in the outskirts of London, marking the beginning of the tidal section which can be quite tricky to navigate as the water level and direction of the flow will change depending on the conditions.
Having managed to keep a good pace, I got to this section on my last day and expecting the last 15 km to be a bit of a breeze, counting on an extra push by the tidal current. Unfortunately, although my calculations were correct, I probably underestimated the distance and I ended up reaching this section just when the tide was turning: the following 1.5 km, which I was forced to paddle against the current looking for an exit point, became a real fight between me and the river. With about 10 km to the end and, while I was looking forward to a celebratory drink in a pub, I found myself sitting on a bench on the river bank in Kew bridge, having to wait about 4 hours until the tide would have turned again! Luckily my friend Kevin joined me early in the morning and with his company these hours passed quite quickly: even if I had to wait for an entire day, there was no way I wasn't reaching Putney!
With the sun coming down, we got back on the river, hoping to be faster than the sunset! A few hours later than expected, I finally reached to Putney Bridge, marking the end of my slow adventure on the Thames. Paddling by Westminster and under Tower Bridge will have to wait for another time but, as a first trip, I’m well happy with my achievement!