Bristol to London Paddle (How did it go?)

Apologies for the radio silence, but I thought it was about time I got on and told you the story of how the Paddling went- if you didn’t know it was happening, click here for the Pre-paddle post.

On the Friday night, after work, we hopped on a train to Bristol and hauled our heavy bags to the Airbnb we were staying in (highly recommend). The next morning, after a lovely breakfast, we took ourselves round the corner to the Marina and pumped up our boards. It was a lovely sunny morning, but a little chilly. Being September, it was the very end of summer- it we had done this any later we would have been pretty chilly. We didn’t go and touch the lock, which I consider to be coast to coast, because we wanted to get on, but we did start far enough west that we paddled past the SS Great Britain, and past the centre of Bristol, so we didn’t cut off too much distance. Being so early in the morning, the city was asleep, and there was a nice air of possibility. Whether that’s from our excitement about starting a big adventure, or knowing that we were seeing the city from an angle that not many do, it filled me with joy. Having been so couped up during lockdown, this felt free.

The buildings funnelled the wind along the river as we passed Castle park, making our route much more zig zag , but it wasn’t long until we were out of Bristol Harbour and heading towards Bath. The first lock was a little surprising though, there was no access to the water on the upstream side. I knew there had to be a way but at the time it felt like we had been scuppered at the first hurdle, and we had many many more locks to go! Adam found us a way in to the river, bashing the brambles and nettles out of the way so we could get down the bank, but it was very slippy and I nearly ended up in the water!

It felt like it took and age to get out of Greater Bristol, most of the time along the bank we were behind industrial estates and it wasn’t very clean water, but eventually we got to the Chequers pub for a hearty lunch. Our plan was to use pub lunches as our big meal of the day to make our evening pack downs quicker and give us an extra boost to delay the afternoon flag, this was quite successful, apart from that I would need a wee exactly an hour after lunch every day because the pint of coke would go straight through me. Turns out that going for a wee off a paddleboard is much easier for boys, so I mostly had to bank and then get back on after.

Day 2 we awoke from our tent somewhere west of Bath. There was mist over the water and we were tired and achy having been kept awake for a large chunk of the night by the passing trains and an owl who seemed to have settled in the tree directly above us. That was the only night we left our boards in the water, tied up, but were relieved to find they were still there in the morning. As we packed up, this now being a sunday morning, we were passed by groups of rowers, so we knew we didn’t have far to go to get to Bath itself. Still, somehow my sunglassess fell off my head in the interim and I wasn’t able to fish them out quickly enough for them to not drown.

The coffee stop was most welcome when we got into town, and Adam got chatting to a local SUP tour guide while I bought the sustenance, before we moved on to start with the first flight of locks of our trip (so far we had just done individual ones). The stuff was so heavy that I couldn’t carry my board, paddle and kit all at once and was constantly shuttling stuff one lock at a time, while Adam could do it as a one-er. Being a lovely sunny mid-morning by now, there were lots of people around, but luckily all our kit remained together and safe. We figured out how to use the water taps (you need a key) before heading off along the Kennet and Avon Canal. We were finally off the river, but this meant that there were many more other water users around.

This is also where we started spotting floating food. From Kiwis to strawberries, carrots to onions, we paddled past an entire ratauille recipe one ingredient at a time.

Day 3 was dominated by Caen Hill Locks. For those of you who don’t know, this one of the longest continuous flights of locks in the country with 29 in one go at the steepest section. As they were so close together, it wasn’t worth us getting in and out for each one, so once we arrived at the bottom, we offloaded, did a little rejig of the gear so I had most of the weight in a backpack, and then started hiking up the hill. In the end I think it took around 2 hours to go just 2 miles, the handle of the board was shredding my hands so I got really bad blisters and Adam stormed off ahead so he could come back and help, but it was a bit demoralising. On the other hand, it was a really good day for donations to our charity pot, as people could see how difficult we were finding it and we were close enough to have a chat about what we were up to.

This really helped Adams confidence in talking about his Dad’s recent death and about the charity we were raising money for, as it seemed like practise made perfect. Almost everyone we spoke to had lost someone in one way or another, and were really supportive that we were out doing this so soon after.

The next few days were less eventful, and we spent a fair amount of time just thinking, and I think this was a really helpful healing time for us both. We were able to quietly weep without worrying that anyone would see or judge us, but also just take in the amazing nature around us.

We were often preceded by kingfishers, so small and fast it would be easy to miss them if we had been walking, but by being on the water, we could sneak up on them, keeping our disturbance to a minimum and when they flit away, they would often follow the line of the river up to the next tree so they would stay within sight for their entire flight. Herons also flew across our path often, although we tried to give them a good berth.

Unfortunately on the Monday and Tuesday though, the pubs had been shut, so we had had to eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. A helpful riverman near Great Bedwyn pointed us in the direction of a fish and chip bus which was very much needed in the evening.

Day 5 and we got to Newbury, the town with the lowest swing bridges we came across on our trip. This meant lying prone on our boards so we could fit underneath them. For one of the bridges, I even had to take the gopro off the top of my bag because it caught on the underside of the bridge!

Each lock we went through now seemed to be taking us on and off the river, avoiding the unnavigable sections. But we found a nice spot to camp, just outside Aldermaston. The Locks here had earth arched sides which is really unusual, and we enjoyed reading the history of the lock and its rebuilding on the nearby signs.

On Day 6 we passed through Lock 100. Having spent so much time listening to Cricket podcast- Tailenders – over the summer, Adam of course likened it to a cricketing Century. We were also now properly on the river, which meant we were going downstream which made a big difference to our speed. Reading was really fun, to go through the centre of town, you have to press a button at traffic lights. Then when it goes green you can go. We didn’t know how long the section was or how much time we had, so we paddled it quite quickly, but t turns out it goes straight through the middle of the shopping centre, which is shaped like an ampitheatre, so there were people sitting outside having a cocktail or just sitting on the steps chatting as we paddled through. At least we made people smile and wave. It was quite a nice boost. After a quick stop off at Tesco, we carried on paddling out onto the Thames. Suddenly the river was much wider, the boats bigger and the windy stronger. It felt like it took an age to get to our Airbnb for the night, but the owner was lovely and gave us a hand getting our gear back to the house, and a really good recommendation for the best local takeaway. Adam’s board has sprung a slow leak, so he took the opportunity to add some glue around the valve.

It took a surprisingly long time to get to the centre of London from Reading. Because the M4 is so straight it feels like it should take approximately the same distance as Bristol to Devises, but it was much much further because the Thames is far from straight. The currently massively helped get our speed up, but there were still some directions with a strong headwind to be paddled agianst.

The last full day was incredibly long, we paddled dawn till dusk and it was fully dark by the time we got out at Teddington lock. The next day, as we were fitting around tide times, we allowed ourselves a lie-in, although we did then still end up leaving an hour late. Due to Hammersmith Bridge being closed (it’s not structurally sound at the moment) there was very little traffic on the River. Apart from a few rowers and a kayaker we had the whole place to ourselves, which was a massive relief as we had been quite worried about the levels of chop or wash we would need to deal with on this section. We even saw a seal!

At the end, our friends and family had gathered at a pub to cheer us in, and it was all quite emotional. Adam’s dad would have been so proud, that to do this in his memory got us all choked up.

And after all that, it only took two and a half hours to get home again on the train…

After a while, I did make a video of our trip, which you can see below. We managed to raise over £2300 for the MSA Trust, but more is always welcome if you are able: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/bristollondonpaddle

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