Autumn Tints on the Thames

Club Trip Saturday, 25th October, Autumn Tints on the Thames

It would be unrealistic to expect fair weather for paddling at the fag end of October and any trip taken at that time could only be regarded as summer’s swansong. But since the club has a history of inspecting nature’s artwork at this time of year, and that the whole of the preceding week’s weather forecasts for Saturday had promised unrelenting sunshine with light, balmy breezes, it was really a trip not to be missed.

Seven of us, Jenny, Amanda, Stuart, Andy, Mark and Dave under the leadership of Phil packed our drybags and headed off from Bell Hill to Boulter’s lock on the Thames just upstream from Maidenhead, to paddle upstream to Marlow, taking in the Autumn sights and breezes. We were away for an early but punctual start at 9.00am and arrived at Boulter’s car park and were unloading 45 minutes later.

Once on the water just upstream of the lock, we progressed past the Jubilee River inlet and onto the reach below the Cliveden estate which promised to be the most picturesque part of the journey. This stretch of the river has been described in Jerome’s ‘Three men in a Boat’ as
‘… unbroken loveliness this is, perhaps the sweetest stretch of all the river…’  The slope of the wooded right bank here soars up 200 feet above the river and Cliveden house, shrouded by trees, can be glimpsed at the highest point and reflected in the undisturbed mirror-like water.

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The present Cliveden stands on the site of a house originally built for George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1666. This is the third house to occupy this scenic spot as two previous houses were both destroyed by fire. Now owned by the National Trust, it was given to them in 1942 by the Astor family. It is probably now best known for its connections with the Profumo affair in 1961.

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The autumn tints turned out to be somewhat muted. Unfortunately the weather was not playing ball with its forecast and the sun remained obstinately blanked out by rather overcast conditions when direct sunlight was needed to bring out the colours of the trees.
Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant first couple of miles with only one or two motor boats to disturb the tranquil scene, after which we encountered Cookham lock. We portaged here successfully, but not without a little difficulty due to the high sides and overhanging
rubbing-strip ledges of the access walls, an unnerving and potentially disastrous combination for this paddler at least.

We warmed to the task and paddled against a steady current and a stiffening breeze past Bourne End and then a further two miles along seemingly endless, broad straights. We encountered very little motorised traffic and as the weather brightened we were able to enjoy much of the river uncluttered by waterside dwellings. Almost at the end of the outbound leg we took a small detour past a large ‘Danger’ sign to examine a waterside property which is built within its own concrete caisson which allows the house it encases to float vertically upwards in the event of local flooding. Featured in the ‘Grand Designs‘ TV program I expect that this may become a more popular concept in the future given the recent Thames flooding.

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Returning to our journey we soon had to portage Marlow lock with similarly high landing walls as at Cookham and then give a very wide berth to the adjacent weir where the water was running quite fast, just before landing under the span of Marlow bridge. Leaving the boats under the bridge we took a short walk towards the town centre and our lunch stop cafe. Here we rearranged some of the furniture and parked our BAs and a couple of paddles under the chairs before sidling into the queues to order our lunches and tea, leaving only the occasional wet footprint. And very nice the meal was too.

Almost an hour later we gathered our possessions together and moved on back to the boats to return past Marlow’s weir and through the lock. The wind was now with us but had taken on a bit of a chill forcing some of us to break out the cagoules. That didn’t last long though as we heated up rapidly under the afternoon sun and the cagoules came off again.

We could not help but be aware that we were straying into rowing club waters as we were continually being passed by numbers of rowing singles, pairs and fours mostly going our way.  We were dumfounded though when at one point we were assailed from the towpath by a gentleman with a loudhailer who advised all of us ‘canoeists’ that we were about to run head on into ‘hundreds’ of racing rowers. After another mile or so we eventually came across about fifty boats spread stationary across the river, each waiting their turn to be started off
singly back down their course for some sort of time trial. We passed by in a single file as unobtrusively as possible.

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And so back to Cookham lock which we were going to attempt to go through rather than around, and as it turned out, where the lock keeper was at lunch. We all parked up in the lock chamber and our leader went to operate the self-service controls. He succeeded in
closing the upstream gates entombing the rest of us inside and hanging on to the edges. After a while it became obvious that the thing wasn’t going to drain out, although a drop of about six inches, probably through natural leakage received a rousing cheer . We enlisted the help of some hapless individual who, it turned out, knew even less about chamber emptying than we did, but were still unable to get any significant drop in the water level. After about ten minutes we decided enough was enough, and portaged in the time honoured fashion. (It turned out the sluices at the up stream end were not properly shut – disabling the downstream sluices!)

Two miles later, after passing the Clivedon estate again, which now  had the benefit of the afternoon sun, we arrived back at Boulters after covering almost thirteen miles to pack up and head back to Bell Hill. All in all a very pleasant way to pass a very late summer’s
afternoon.

Dave Kew

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