Grand Union Canal from the back of the pack…
24 January 2015
‘The Paddington Arm is one of London’s best kept secrets…slicing through West London providing a green corridor frequented by both people and wildlife’ read the bumf on the Canal and River Trust website. I’ll talk more about trade descriptions later on, but with that write-up, how could I resist?! So on a very crisp, but beautifully clear Saturday morning, myself, Andrew, Phil, Peter, Pete, Stephen, Jenny, Charles, Dan, Mark and Stuart loaded up the cars and headed off towards Southall for a little jaunt.
We arrived in good time and quickly got on the water. The first group paddled off looking strong and healthy. The second followed shortly afterwards leaving Peter and I faffing around with our boats. Now, those that know me will probably describe me as patient, quiet, and generally very tolerant, so it will come as a great surprise to hear that I threw a hissy-fit when I had to swap boats with Peter because he didn’t fit the one that had been allocated to him. But I’m not one to bear grudges, and shortly afterwards all was forgotten as we started paddling.
To say the morning was crisp was actually an understatement. The first group was forced to act as ice-breakers, carving up the surface ice to leave a clear path for those behind. It was my first experience of paddling in those conditions, and hearing the grating noise as boat and paddle went over patches was quite exciting!
As well as ice we had to deal with a huge group of gangster swans who were not impressed that a rather loud bunch of kayakers were interrupting their breakfast. I had no idea before I started kayaking just how big these birds are when you are at their level in the water. They are literally the size of a family car. Literally. No, actually I’m lying. I wouldn’t know how big they are as I have my eyes closed when I go past them relying entirely on the boat’s momentum and the god of kayaking’s goodwill to get me through those evil creatures… Anyway, I digress…
Fortunately we survived the swans and as I opened my eyes I realised that Peter and I were at the back of the pack due to my slow paddling (an off-day, usually I am a champion athlete). A couple of times I thought I saw the glint of sunlight off a paddle in the distance, like a promising oasis in the desert, only to find out it was a mirage and I was hallucinating – probably due to lack of electrolytes. Peter was equally unimpressed with my slowness, resorting to asking a long boat occupant what year we were in. I laughed through gritted teeth and made a mental note.
We finally rounded a corner and there was the pub at the halfway point. Everyone was gathered in a shivering huddle in the garden as the pub was closed. Andrew, displaying years of touring experience, handed me a cup of warming rooibos tea – just the job. The rest of the team were tucking into fruit rolls and shortbread and itching to get back onto the water. It’s incredible how fast you go from super warm when paddling to really cold once you stop. It’s worth keeping some supplies in a dry bag like an extra layer/change of clothes, a thermos, and the all important biscuits for these wintery conditions.
We promptly headed back off on the return journey but I was distracted by Charles who was doing his best womble impression and collecting the floating debris to dispose of responsibly later on. Sadly this stretch of the river is full of rubbish and desperately needs a clear-up (refer to earlier comment about trade description). The Canal is a great place to paddle – no flow, calm and safe in nice surroundings, but marred by a large amount of discarded bottles and cans.
We carried on peacefully until Andrew and Stephen, who were in the K2, saw a gap in the group and powered through, leaving the rest of us in their wake. They slowed down shortly afterwards though, and we all paddled together in a tight group for a while. It was during this that someone on the bank shouted out “Touché!” when we passed by. With no other hard facts or apparent reason for him to shout it, I presumed that this is the collective noun for a group of kayakers and that he was merely shouting out in delight at the sight of us. And with no-one to tell me otherwise, that’s what I’m sticking to.
Having managed to join the main group on the way back, I soon found out what I’d been missing on the first leg. Jenny was regaling everyone with stories of a blister she’d got from a previous trip. Nothing exciting there you might think, until you hear that it was on her bum! Others soon chipped in as apparently bum blisters are not uncommon in the paddling world. As for the rest of the group, Charles was singing whilst collecting rubbish, Peter was taking photos, and Phil, as trip organiser, was subtly ensuring that everyone was safe and not taking a dip. Generally there was a lot of smiling and laughter with everyone enjoying themselves, and I would definitely recommend to other members to get out and join one of these tours with the club.
So as we reached the end point just after midday, I had to agree with the Canal and River Trust website: ‘…if you’re simply looking for an escape from everyday life, this stretch of canal will have something to offer’. Thanks to Phil for logistics and general sorting out!
Pictures by Stephen, Peter and Phil