“So how far you travelled then?” A topless man hailed me from the riverbank.
“About five miles.”
“Bet you seen some right fish ant ye?”
Feeling like a proper angler, I spread my opposing palms to demonstrate the largest fish I had seen, and replied, with the slight dumbness that comes from a day spent entirely alone.
“About this big.”
The half-naked man strolled away with a satisfied gait, and did not replace his shirt, for the sun had broken fully through the morning’s haze. The people of Retford were embracing the early summer heat with great joy, and a well-dressed man in sunglasses serenaded me with a song I’d never heard before, presumably called: “It’s fine weather for boating!”
It certainly was. On an arched bridge, a small crowd gathered to watch me slide down a tiny little weir in the middle of the park, spinning around in the modest flow. With one last watery pirouette, I left the town behind and waltzed back into the wilds of Bassetlaw, and the lonely lands of Robin Hood.
Almost every time I open my road atlas, I find a new river. Have you heard of the Swere, the Ver, the Isbourne, or perhaps, the Idle? Flowing through north Nottinghamshire, the River Idle is as tantalising as it is elusive; yet is well-known to canoeists for providing excellent river trips through some of the North Midlands’ most picturesque countryside. I planned to explore it by folding bike and raft, cycling to the top of the river and floating back to my start point, with the bike stowed as deck cargo.
I set out from Leeds in the early morning, under a clear blue sky which turned to haze above the cooling towers of Ferrybridge. It took just an hour to drive sixty miles to the village of Lound, where, midway down a nebulous track which coughs up dust like a beaten rug, is a nature reserve and the green and silky River Idle. The spot’s dusty remoteness is irresistible to the local boy racers, who like to arrive towards sunset, to spin up golden clouds as the birdwatchers go home to compare notes.
But as it was still early, the local wildlife was in dominance. While setting up my bike, I saw a kestrel hovering and four hares racing through a field like greyhounds, leaping and chasing each other and using the furrows as tracks. They were larger and whippier than rabbits, with a more intelligent and aggressive appearance.
Unable to cycle on the rocky track, I set out on foot towards the Chesterfield Canal, beside which I meant to ride as far as Retford. Earlier, I visited the canal trust’s website, which described the going in very apt terms: “a Brompton-style bike would be hard work”. Sure enough, I found the towpath heavily overgrown and too cracked, rutted and bumpy to offer any kind of swift progress. I returned to the road, passing through villages of worn red brick, where the occasional wisteria clung by its fingertips to cracks in the mortar.
After passing rapidly through Retford town centre, I turned south onto the old Great North Road (which ran between London and Edinburgh before the A1 was built) towards the village of West Drayton, where I planned to launch onto the Idle. The village lies just up the road from Markham Moor, which was the site of an unlikely battle in 2004 over fast food, fast cars, and a “hyperbolic paraboloid roof”. The protagonists were the road builders, who were desperate to demolish the famous structure (which once sheltered the country’s only “listed” Little Chef restaurant (probably)) and the locals, who wanted to preserve the building for posterity, citing its architectural importance and iconic status. Much hyperbole, as it were, did ensue. In the end good sense won and the road took a different course. But now Little Chef has moved on and the building stands forlorn and to let. To lose such a familiar landmark would be a great shame. Its striking silhouette, which reminds me of a buffalo’s horns or Stetson hat, really adds to the Wild West “road trip” atmosphere of this route; where cafés are run by “Babs” and “Flo”, and the greasy aroma of American food mixes with the hot slipstreams of passing juggernauts.
A slightly older piece of history, but still worth mentioning, is a stone marker post which stands beside the Great North Road itself, and is apparently inscribed with the date 1605. As the road itself was not built until 1766, this is rather odd, and I’ve been unable to find out anything about it.
But enough of roads. The cycling segment of my journey was almost done, and I turned down a quiet lane towards the Idle, which at this point is preceded by twin rivers, the Maun and the Meden. Rising some miles away in the foothills of the Derbyshire Dales, the tiny Meden hasn’t gained much in stature or maturity when it flows into West Drayton. Its estranged brother, the Maun, had a similarly lowly upbringing somewhere to the south-west of Mansfield, passing through an inauspicious area called Bleak Hills before rising to prominence and giving its name to the town of its teenage years. Together the two streams followed a sibilant course eastwards, dropping ever lower towards the flatlands, before merging here to form the River Idle. Making this altogether a family affair, they are quickly joined by a cousin, the Poulter, which descends from the great Nottinghamshire estate of Clumber Park.
To access the Idle, one must launch first into the Meden. There is a fine picnic spot just yards from the thundering motorway, and a low red brick bridge with two corrugated iron arches. From the gloom flows a bright little river, golden and gravelly, crisp and cloudless like a chalk stream. I folded my bike leisurely, inflating the raft in between moments of sunbathing and wandering up to look at the traffic on the A1, and contemplated a peaceful day in the countryside. Beside thickly blooming gorse, buttercups grew, shaded over by willows and nettles. White-flowering waterweed waved long green manes under the pitted surface, as little whirlpools broke from the current between the arches. Furtive fish darted from my shadow and demoiselle damselflies fluttered carefully, landing where they could on the islands of weed. This section of the river we will now call the Idle is perhaps its best. It is shallow but not scrapy, fast-flowing yet benign, and quite similar to the River Waveney in Suffolk. Before I reached the first bend, I paddled back upstream to do it all again, then squeezed the raft between tall rushes into a sandy pool at the mouth of the Maun. Here I sat and watched the current go by in the main stream, and thought what a perfect hiding place this might be for a fugitive. Perhaps they could sleep at night in this little corner, floating on a homemade raft, unseen and unknown. Barging back onto the Idle, I saw the shadow of a little white egret stalking in the shallows, then gliding away across a field.
After a few miles of fairly uneventful paddling I found myself back in Retford. The town’s name derives from “red ford”, as this was the colour of the water when the red clay river bed was churned up by wading horses. Today the Idle is still shallow enough to traverse on horseback, and passes through a park thick with trees which screen the river from its urban surrounds, giving the illusion of somewhere even greener and quieter. No doubt the man with no top was still wandering around somewhere. Perhaps he knew the author of this interesting piece of graffiti scrawled on a bridge: “earth is my prison and God is my goel”.
About a mile further on, in the Idle Valley Nature Reserve, is Hallcroft Weir; described in the canoeing guides as the only significant hazard on the Idle, but doubtless its most exciting feature. The weir appeared to have lost its shape and become more of a rapid, with four broad steps which looked runnable in the raft, so long as you avoided the tufty little island in the middle. After a few minutes of hesitating and planning, I “took the plunge”, paddled hard, missed the island, and bumped in stages down to the bottom.
It was quite late in the afternoon when I arrived back at Lound, having come “full circle” since setting out that morning. I had seen fish, rare birds, some of Retford’s rarest inhabitants, weirs and waterweed. I heaved all my gear out of the river and up a fishermen’s path back to the car. A filthy-looking saloon appeared on the bridge and roared off, throwing up golden clouds into the still evening sky. With a cursory glance at my road atlas, and noticing more little blue lines to explore some other day, I drove off the way I came in, towards the A1, and back to the north.