I was standing beside the Tower of London, looking down at the red poppies, picturing blood and 1914. Within seconds, an eager tourist had gifted me their smartphone, crammed all their friends onto the tiny screen, and was posing before the River Thames: a brown, pixellating streak in the background.
It may be the world’s most photographed river, yet much of the Thames is hidden. The watery reflections of Big Ben and Westminster, the New Year fireworks blasting off from the London Eye, and the Oxbridge Boat Race grab most of the headlines; but with the exceptions of Henley, Marlow and of course, the Queen’s fortress at Windsor, few ever consider what lies upstream of Chiswick Bridge. With my inflatable packraft, I headed west into Oxfordshire. To see the real Thames, you must seek out the backwaters.
Swift Ditch near Abingdon is the most literally-named place I’ve ever been. Abandoned by traditional navigators over 200 years ago, it is fast-flowing, sunken and deeply overgrown. I paddled here in summer, shortly after the remains of Hurricane Bertha swept across the Atlantic from the US, and fallen willow trees lay across the stream like obstacles in a limbo-hurdle race. Similar blockages are apparently commonplace – such is the scale of desertion and desolation on this secretive waterway.
To access the Ditch I left the Thames, passing a ‘Danger’ sign and portaging a small weir – dragging the raft overland through chest-high nettles and stinging every scrap of exposed skin. Sliding down a muddy slope, I fed the raft back into the river, which was a deep, dark, shadowy gulley running away beneath a rickety wooden footbridge. Sometimes in boating, when the path ahead looks uncertain you must take a leap of faith – so I leapt for the raft and landed safely on its cushioned tubes as the current began to sweep us under the bridge. There was no way back. For the next hour at least, I belonged to Swift Ditch.
Steering around logjams and ducking branches I continued, with little idea where I was or how far I’d have to paddle to meet the Thames again. This is one of those experiences – like walking a marathon – that the phrases, ‘retrospective enjoyment’ and ‘Type 2 fun’ were really meant for. I was enjoying the river, the outdoors and the solitude; but the satisfaction of an adventure completed would have to wait until I’d finally found a nice hot shower. Who knew what lurked around the bend, or how many hours it would take to tackle the next blockage? Balancing astride a floating log, heaving the raft across my lap, my toes dangling in the water, no doubt being nibbled by fish (people pay good money for this in town centres) I dreamed of easier days spent on calmer Thames backwaters…
St. Patrick’s Stream meanders around the village of Wargrave near Henley and into the River Loddon, before re-joining the Thames at Shiplake. My brother-in-law and I explored it –using inflatable boats – and it is one of the most peacefully enjoyable trips I’ve done. The stream is paved over with water lilies and styled with the same spiky prehistoric reeds I battled with on the Waveney. There are some very expensive and secluded houses – seemingly miles from the road – one bizarrely guarded by both a Staffordshire bull terrier and a turkey the size of a baby elephant. And it was the bird, not the dog, that ruled the roost.
The Abbey River at Chertsey is also worth visiting, and offers a very different ride to the roller coasters of nearby Thorpe Park. It was created by the monks of St. Peter’s Abbey and flows from Penton Hook Marina under the M3 motorway. Thickly packed with bulrushes, the level of isolation feels quite disconcerting when the only sign of the outside world is a small triangle of blue above your head. It is hard to believe that such a wild place really exists within the M25 motorway.
Back in Oxfordshire, I’d recovered from my reverie and reached the half-way point of my expedition – a circular pool, the heart of the Ditch, which is surrounded by sheep like a secret swimming spot or a place to conceal a pirate ship.
As I pressed on the sky darkened and the wind increased, whipping up the willow leaves and flashing their white underbellies at the gathering gloom. This was Bertha’s final sting. The rain started, each powerful drop pirouetting on the river’s surface like a miniature spinning top. I was wet and dirty, but at last I emerged into another pool filled with garishly-coloured kayakers on their first lesson. Ahead was the Thames and civilisation.
‘Look!’ they stared. ‘What’s that!?’
From their poppy-red faces I knew they’d discovered my secret: there’s a whole hidden world just waiting to be discovered by those who go down to the river in rafts.