Day 1; Cricklade to somewhere near Kempsford 4th June 2023
( I wast unable to write blogs while on the river - phone signal and the impracticality of trying to type lengthy posts on a phone got the better of me, as well as the lack of time in the evenings. So I am doing it now.)
Myself and Theresa hadn't actually met in person since I floated the idea ( No pun intended) when she stayed at mine for a weekend between ferries late last year. All communication was via Whattsapp, and so it was with a growing sense of excitement and slight trepidation that I headed off down to Swindon to pick her up from the train station with my newly oiled canoe glistening on the roof of the car.
Theresa had arrived at our agreed rendezvous some hours earlier then taken off to deliver her van to our hoped for end point at Greenwich, before returning by train.
It felt rather surreal in some ways, that the daft adventure cooked up in a hot car on the way to a knapping day at John Lords was actually happening! The finishing steps of both our builds had been necessarily last minute- fitted in between Theresas busy course schedule and my diary of school workshops and prep for the Canada trip earlier in the year; I'd had persistent though unexpressed doubts that we'd be able to pull it off.
We had decided to start from Berrycroft hub, partly because it is a very convenient 20 mins from the start point at Cricklade and partly because it was a good opportunity to drop in on Sally Ann. Much of the evening was spent going through kit with a lot of "I've got x, have you got one too? Which shall we take, do we need both?!" I devised a very satisfactory way to wrap up my sleeping gear into a proper bedroll bundle using a large 'upholstery' hide, (my old guide leader would be proud, I even used the right knots!) and distilled the rest of the kit down to some degree ( it still looks like a lot!) With that out of the way we settled down to an excellent session of tasting some of Sally Anne's liqueur collection.
Despite not technically being allowed to leave the house due to recent surgery she was hellbent on following the trip as long as possible, and so we started the trip officially with an interview in her teaching room, a fascinating place full of ' things'- flint tools, feathers, bones, shells, bugs.... i could spend hours in there- In fact I would happily pay to go on one of her excellent courses just to be able to spend more time in that room!
Next morning we were up relatively early but the final faffing swallowed an inordinate amount of time so it was much later than we'd hoped by the time Sally, Bill the two of us and our boats ( all stuffed into a livestock trailer) trundled off towards Cricklade.
This was a nervous moment, as neither canoe had actually been IN the water ( at least not since it was separate skins..) The glue might've failed, the seam could have burst the frame could implode in a hail of wood splinters...... But no! The boats floated beautifully, like a dry leaf on a puddle and apart from a small seepage through the seam appeared fairly watertight! It was quite an emotional moment- The realization of having made a ' thing' that could take me on a journey. At that moment it almost became a living being, an as yet unknown travelling companion. I imagine Horsey people might feel the same on meeting a new steed...
The next hour or so was consumed by experiments with loading, trying to work out where i should sit to paddle from ( since the boat had never been in the water I had based my thwart placements on guesses, and on comparisons to my faithful Novacraft Prospector. By luck or judgement I had managed to get it fairly close, though I was already wishing I'd made it easier to move the thwarts- one of several things to remember for next time! I was unwilling to move the thwarts based on a few minutes experience, so I elected to cobble together a sitting place from my bedroll, and a large wooden bowl and see how I felt by the end of the day.
I had originally planned the seats based on my Modern Prospector Canoe, which would have meant that when paddling tandem one end is the bow, but when paddling solo as I was on Day 1, you actually paddle 'backwards' but only one end had ended up a really nice streamlined shape, so it made sense to leave the seats as they were, and paddle it with the well formed end as the bow. This had bearing on the seam, as i'd originally planned for the boat to be reversible, i hadn't considered it *that* important which way the overlap of the seam faced, with the result that as the glue wore off, it acted a little like a water scoop. This was not apparent immediately however- the seepage of water was very minor, and I decided to just acccept it . On reflection I think it would have been worth trying to smear the glue ( just warmed by the sun would have been enough) to fill the seam more effectively. Hindsight etc etc! Our start place is strangely anticlimactic, the River Thames at this point looks like any good sized stream and the 'putting in' point is a weathered concrete ramp out the back of a housing estate. I remember this same feeling from the trip with mum, it doesn't seem possible that this tiny waterway will transform into the huge river that was an artery for the worlds wealth! Seeing, ( feeling really) that change in character of the river was something i was struck by before, its indescribable, elemental... Like witnessing the growth of mountains. We were joined by a journalist who will be writing up our trip for a magazine later in the year. One of the things I've noticed in talking to people about the trip is how peoples questions show what the collective general pool of understanding is about a subject. She wanted to know the whats and whys of what must have seemed a ludicrous journey... It was interesting that most of the perceived problems were relating to the boat and the stone age kit, whereas most of my worries were more about things beyond our control- the weather, availability of camping spots and the inability to harvest possible repair materials in a world owned by people! In may ways I had a sort of sublime faith in the 'Rightness' of the boats- they floated, we have repair materials and everything else is just a matter of working it out. Such is the adaptability and universality of ancient technology. You really can make whatever you need- its just a matter of time, knowledge and practice. Although that sublime faith was edged wit worry that I was ignoring a lot of 'known unknowns' but then, known unknowns ( and unknown unknows) were part of the reason for the trip! Once we were out of sight of the slipway we were in and out of another world, another time... The water was brisk even with the relatively low rainfall ( until immediately before the trip, when there had been a week of heavy rain) and the paddling was fairly easy...
...... on the every few stretches where there was actually clear water. At this point in the river it is no more than 12m-15m wide, and the current wove between dense patches of lilies, rushes reed beds and huge fallen willows. These presented a pretty significant obstacle. In a plastic boat you could have just got up a head of steam and bounced over them, but we had to be significantly more careful with our precious Hide canoes. In terms of potential damage this stage of the river, a mere 5-7km out of a total 213 represented the greatest threat ( Until the central London section)
In several cases we had to literally cut our way through with axes and saws. Although this section is spoken of as ' navigable ' by small craft, we saw no one. Apparently, by local tradition a bag of coal has to be got through to Lechlade once a year in order for it to be called 'OPEN'..... we were quite a lot bigger than a bag of coal! Luckily the water was fairly clear on this stretch, which allowed us to spot underwater dangers such as broken submerged limbs, and even horrible rusted pilings, like jagged underwater teeth! But hacking our way through the trees took a huge toll on our speed, and by the end of the day, we had only traveled about 8km- less than a third of what Mum and I managed. That delay stayed with us for the whole trip.
It's worth mentioning that had the water level been higher or the current swifter this section would have become a literal deathtrap. If you or your boat becomes trapped against a solid object like a tree branch or rock the pressure of the water pushing on you, (never mind the area of the boat) will crush you, and trap you there so securely that rescuers would need pulleys and blocks to release you. If the current should push you under the branch, you will die- trapped and broken against sieve like branches until time and decay set you free a piece at a time... Far from ideal.
At the end of day 1 we were both quite ready to stop- Theresa's center seam was leaking badly and the young river was offering us very few potential places to stop. In the end we found a bit of bank near Kempsford with a relatively easy ' out' and made camp for the night. I went and sourced some firewood ( cursing myself for not collecting some en route) and foraged a few greens ( thistle stems, dandelion leaves, Hogweed shoots- very nearly too mature) and a few other bits. These were cooked into a sort of gruel with various grains and some fresh meat I brought along and chunks of Chicken of the woods foraged along the way. We used the folding firepit to save us having to clear up a fire and perched the slab of basalt bought along for the purpose on top of the grille with one of the smaller ceramic pots. It was somehow very in keeping with the trip- the mix of ancient and modern.
The center seam on Theresa's boat had originally been sewn with intestine thread four years previously for the series Survive the stone age. The boat had been dried out very fast and damaged its original frame, so the skins had been reused. Theresa had repaired part of the seam before trip using the same Inuit waterproof stitch that we both employed, however that is not possible once the skins are back on a frame and tight, so she had to try another method- and this led to a brilliant and exciting discovery- a way to repair the boats, even patch them, in the field!
Saddle stitch ( this time with the ever expedient artificial sinew) worked brilliantly once coated with a waterproofing layer of fats and had a reassuringly solid look. All it took was someone holding a scrap of wood against the skin from the inside, while the holes were made with a sharp awl, ad a pair of needles could then be worked back and forth by passing them through! in some ways the fact that the skin was damp from its leaky first day helped- you wouldn't have got the awl through dry cow skin, and the damp made it flexible enough to get behind the pits of frame. And here in is the final observation of the day- we should have been more careful about lining the seam up where it was NOT hidden by a rib- I was guilty of this too....
My seam fared alright, except that the glue had been worn off by its passage over bits of tree. My hope was that it would dry enough overnight to be able to repair it... this was not the case, but because of the remaining hair around the seam, it was possible to stick glue to the area even when it wasn't perfectly dry. We slept in the open, not bothering to use the canoes as windbreaks or shelter. Looking back our set up of camp, and our routine was far from established, and that showed the next day, but we slept well, reletively unmolested my mosquitoes.