Thames: Cookham to Bells of Ouzeley 5 December 2016, 14 miles, five hours with breaks and tricky portage
7 Hamptoneers : Andrew, Val, Paul, Tamra, Mark, Sarah, Stephen
The sixth leg of the Thames from source to Westminster and a day for polar bears, with ice lying lightly on the jetty at Cookham Sailing Club. Why do we do it? A beautiful morning, paddling into the sun and past the woods below Cliveden (11 o’clock by the tolling of the bell) with the water pretty much to ourselves and the ducks. No flow.
After Cliveden, Boulter’s Lock by Maidenhead is a chance to take off layers. There was once an electric lift here to save small boats using the lock, long since replaced by a long-drop portage into the weir – no place for a wobble in near-freezing water.
Then onwards and under the lovely bridge carrying the Bath Road through Maidenhead and into countryside again, heading for Bray and Bray Lock. Once at the lock Paul, then Mark followed by the more timid of the party defy Andrew’s timekeeping and sit down for an unscheduled snack and a hot drink from the flask (who needs the Fat Duck?). With Andrew’s reputation in tatters, we bask in the sunshine before launching and heading for the racket of the M4 crossing and the sorry remains of Bray Studios where Hammer once made The Mummy’s Shroud and a dozen other horror films. The miniature and model filming for Alien was shot here.
A couple of miles from Windsor, on the opposite (left) bank and out of site from a kayak’s viewpoint is Dorney Lake, the Olympic Rowing venue. In summer this stretch of river is busy with boats and even today there are a few out and about, including a K2 in manic training for the DW race. Am I slow or are they fast? Demoralised but not beaten I plod on past Windsor racecourse while Paul, strong as ever, is furlongs ahead.
It’s a hard stretch before lunch but the river keeps us guessing, bending south and then east again. As the package boats raise a swell, we take the narrow right-hand channel past Windsor Canoe Club and in a moment up pops Windsor Castle and a busy promenade.
Here Andrew’s genius coalesces in the shape of Mamma Mia’s – the little cafe by the packet-boat jetty, yards from the water, warm and welcoming and with chips on the go. Perfect (and only 15 mins behind schedule).
From here we take a short paddle to Romney Lock. These locks really are challenging and Romney no different – another difficult portage and no margin for error. Andrew and Tamra are finding it especially tricky with the K2 which is lowered to the water at 45 degrees. But then there’s a view that few paddlers ever see – the Great Park and the distant Castle. But better seen then heard: the noise form aeroplanes over Heathrow is deafening, even disconcerting in a finely-balanced boat.
At Old Windsor Lock the light is fading. Safely through, and then the short hop to the get out on the right bank, 100 yards before the Bells of Ouzeley, at 3.30. The pub may not be great, but it does an open fire.