I met Claire at Richmond Station after work one September evening. She was loaded with two deflated paddleboards, camping gear and two train tickets to Reading. I halved her burden and we staggered down to the platform like a pair of hermit crabs idling along the seabed.
The station was packed with a flurry of Friday night commuter traffic as we shuffled into a clear space, away from the fed-up tuts of those that couldn’t get around our sheer bulk. I was eager to get out of London and spend the weekend on the tranquil Thames, far from the madding crowd.
At the start of our big adventure, we had a look of wide-eyed excitement as we stood at the gateway to the unknown. Neither of us had spent more than a couple of hours on a paddleboard but over two days were attempting to power ourselves 50 miles down the Thames from Shillingford to Windsor.
And that wasn’t our only challenge. With six minutes until our train, I saw a sudden a flicker of alarm dart across Claire’s face as her eyes scanned our luggage.
‘Erm, where’s the second paddle?’
I turned to look at our pile of baggage only to see one prominently poking out from our bags. Frantic at the thought that one of us might literally be heading up the creek without a paddle, Claire went on a search to see if it had fallen out as we’d walked to the platform.
She returned empty-handed and with our city-mentality, we both jumped to the conclusion that it must have been nicked out of Claire’s hermit shell. Flagging down a nearby Community Services Officer we rattled off our statements which were pretty patchy seeing as neither of knew for sure if it had been packed in the first place. Our adventure had got off to a rocky start.
It was 11 pm before we arrived at a dark field near Shillingford Bridge where we would camp for the night. Thanks to a detour to Active 360 in Kew to get a replacement paddle, we were so late arriving at Reading our only option was to take a black cab to get to our campsite.
I wondered if there was anyone in the history of the earth that had ever arrived at a campsite in a black cab.
With head torches lighting our way in the night, Claire pitched the tent whilst I set about pumping the boards ready for launch at dawn. As I rolled out the second board flat on the grass, I let out a long sigh. Lying mischievously in the middle was the missing paddle.
The next morning our alarm went off at 5:30 am and I lolled around in my technically inadequate sleeping bag like a weary frankfurter with a lifejacket for a pillow. I think I’d had about three hours sleep, waking up regularly from the cold, my hips feeling bruised by the hard ground. It was dark and misty as we poked our heads out, mole-like and temporarily reluctant.
We began the process of getting our gear and ourselves onto the river. Over the course of the weekend, this process would get more streamlined but our first launch onto the water was fairly disorganised. We both had a huge bag each strapped to the front of our boards which contained food and drink supplies, our camping gear, the pump for the boards and one redundant paddle.
Claire and I eventually pushed off the side of the bank and onto the water where we would spend the next two days. We glided onto its glassy surface at the very moment the sun peeped over the mist and immediately remembered why we made the effort.
Claire and I are old pals from university. Over the years we’ve built up a collection of stories from our adventurous mishaps, often fuelled by beer. We have a history of challenging each other to do crazy things and are both too stubborn to say no. As a result, it’s quite common to find us in unusual situations with little contingency planning and often in extreme danger. It’s a great friendship.
As adventures go, aside from the debacle with the paddle, this was as simple as it gets. Two friends, two boards, a tent and other survival items, slowly paddling in the direction of London. It was a megamix medley of Wind and the Willows, Swallows and Amazons and the Famous Five rolled into one and adapted for two women in their thirties.
I have done a lot less in the way of endurance challenges this year. After a high-octane 2016 my body was knackered and I needed a break. And as a freelance copywriter, I needed to make some serious money, especially with a wedding to pay for next year.
So this adventure for me was like a shot in the arm after a long period of being chained to my laptop trying to build a business, retain clients and pay the bills. The fact that is was 48 hours of pure endurance gave me such a thrill after months of inactivity. The idea for this trip was Claire’s and it came at totally the right time. She has always been motivated by adventure and now as the mother of two young girls, she wants to inspire them to respect and explore the great outdoors as they grow older.
Seeing the world from the river outwards opened our eyes to a whole scene of British aquaculture that you just don’t notice from the banks. My biggest observation was just how accessible this part of the Thames is. The river was open for exploration, we didn’t need a license, just common sense, a bit of base fitness, life jackets and joie de vivre.
We also learnt that the river unites people. From tanned couples sipping white wine on Sunseekers and gaggles of teenagers in Thames Skiffs to seasoned long boaters and a wooden dinghy full of terribly smart blokes on their way to Henley for lunch. Practically everyone we passed gave us a hello or a friendly wave. But it was the fleet of charity kayakers who proved our biggest river allies that weekend (and who later that day came to our rescue).
A quick note on slow travel. This isn’t a fast-paced sport. Bank-side pedestrians on a leisurely walk looked like Concorde compared to us. In addition to being onboard a vessel that has a top speed of a three-toed sloth, the Thames is peppered with locks. Paddleboards are too wobbly to pass through the chamber so Claire and I had to walk all our gear and the boards to the other side. This took about 15 minutes each time and is particularly tiring if, like me, you have breadsticks for arms (I’m a leg-sport girl).
The ancient Thames is also just so wonderful, you can’t help but get distracted. We were often awestruck as we floated past multi-million-pound properties including the 17th-century mansion of George and Amal Clooney. We marvelled at how ever-changing the scenery was, how diverse the wildlife and how some parts of it felt like we could have been paddling down the Mekong or the Mississippi (with a little artistic license).
The slowness was something that Claire and I had slightly underestimated on this voyage. When it got to about 4 pm, it became clear to us that we weren’t going to make to our intended campsite in Hurley before nightfall. We had been paddling for around 11 hours and were low on food and energy. With two hours still to go and all the campsites in Henley fully booked, we faced the prospect of a risky wild camp and a scavenge to find dinner.
Our morale began to wane with the fading light but the river soon responded to our call. As we turned the bend into Henley, we spotted the friendly charity kayakers from earlier, setting up camp on the private lawn of a boat club. Claire and I looked at each other for a brief second before she leapt off her board onto the pontoon to seek refuge from these kind strangers. They didn’t hesitate to welcome us and this act of generosity felt so poignant against the prospect of a hungry night in obscurity.
We made a donation to their charity, the All Hands Foundation and enjoyed a warm shower, a hearty dinner, shared our river tales and slept soundly in our safe pitch.
Learning our lesson about slow travel, the next morning we set up at the very crack of dawn (or at ‘sparrow’s fart’ as my dad would say). Headtorches on to light our way in the early darkness, we pulled our paddles through the inky water before the sun soon turned the sky and water pink. It felt like we were the only ones awake with the misty river all to ourselves.
But as stunning as it was, Claire and I were well aware that we still had 25 miles worth of paddling ahead of us.
Shortly after sunrise, the weather made a turn for the worst. Unlike Saturday’s meander, this was going to be a head-down effort to get to Windsor. The mirrored surfaces and butter-knife paddling descended into a battle of headwinds and choppy waters. Where the river had welcomed us the previous day with sun-kissed warmth and serenity, today it had tired of hosting its guests. It required more effort, strength and balance and the reality of this paddleboard ultramarathon was very present in our minds.
Luckily the stolen hours of the morning had served us as well, as did our new-found militant approach to locks and feed stops. Our arms quivered, our backs ached but we were determined to get to Windsor and complete our mission.
We pushed on through Marlow, Maidenhead and Dorney, following the most direct line we could without breaking river rules. At last we went under one final bridge and saw a little rain-jacketed girl waving to us from the banks. It was Elsa, Claire’s three-year-old daughter accompanied by her husband Tim and baby Beatrix, beckoning us to dry land and looking impressed by her mummy’s show of strength.
For the entire two days, Claire and I had managed to stay upright on our boards. But on seeing our welcome party on the banks, I got really excited, lost my concentration, crashed my board into a stone wall and fell backwards into the Thames.This resulted in a broken toe, a course of antibiotics and much teasing from my co-paddler.
This hiatus did nothing to dampen my spirits (although I was very, very damp) because Claire and I had stuck to our guns, we took on a challenge with naive ambition, faked it til we made it and added many more memories to our adventure bank.
Board, paddle, pump, lifejackets hire: Active 360, Kew
Start point: Shillingford Bridge
Overnight point: Henley
Total distance: 50 miles
Average paddle time per day: 7-13 hours