Slipping down the Thames during Covid-19


At the beginning of August 2020 I travelled down the river Thames from the official Source of the River Thames to Teddington. The trip was driven partially by the need to get over the loss of my recently deceased father. But it was also something I’ve wanted to do for a lifetime, ever since reading Jerome K Jerome’s legendary novel ‘Three men in a Boat’.

Unlike Jerome’s characters, the two of us on the trip (no Montmorency) travelled downstream rather than against the current. And the first part was on foot, from the official source of the river to Lechlade, where it becomes navigable.

The river Thames near Cricklade

The Thames in 2020 is as glorious in summer as ever. The Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in a new fecundity to wildlife on the river, and it shows. With times returning to normal and more visitors, the birds, bees and even the fish have clearly benefited from the period of grace granted by lack of human activity.

Godstowe Lock, Oxford

We saw herons (even within the cities), egrets, owls, swallows and swifts, and red kites soaring continuously in the skies between Oxford and Maidenhead. More mundanely we also encountered growing numbers of Canada Geese, which have an unfortunate capacity to foul any section of grassy riverbank (including some expensive riverside gardens) where they are not discouraged. Which can make landing from a small boat a messy business.

And we witnessed how the inhabitants of towns and villages along the 150 mile journey are adapting to life under the new normal of Covid-19. From Cricklade to London, lives have been turned upside down by the virus. Many businesses remain closed, either unwilling or unable to adapt sufficiently to post-Covid conditions to make their trade or service worthwhile.

A fortunate few, such as larger pubs with gardens, have accomplished the transition more effectively. They have been able to set up table service (a novelty for the average English-pub garden), one-way systems and screened payment areas, as well as equipping staff with masks and gloves. But no-one really knows how, with more staff and fewer customers, they will continue in business.

Villa at Henley lock.

Yet there were clear differences. In a smallish gastro-pub in Cricklade, staff and customers paid lip-service to Covid; beyond taking contact details neither masks nor gloves were in evidence. It seemed Coronavirus was viewed as a problem for those other places, the city centres with their teeming populations. Since most of the staff and customers seemed to be regulars who knew each other, they may have had a point.

Large waterside pubs in places such as Maidenhead and Teddington went to the other extreme. Here the regulations were enforced more strictly, with separation of zones, one-way systems, table service, and customer-facing operations such as meal ordering and payments all taking place in the open air.

Early morning at a bivvy

The two of us had determined beforehand to simplify any virus risk by choosing to camp. However we failed to reckon on the Environment Agency not opening up any of the normally reasonably plentiful campsites on the river. Which left us with little choice but to ‘wild camp’, something to which I was not accustomed.

My partner in crime was more experienced however, and I quickly picked up the essentials, which were to eat out early evening at a pub or restaurant, then start scouting sites as sunset approached, only gliding in to our chosen camping spot at last light. Since this also meant being away soon after sunrise in order to avoid early-morning runners and dog-walkers, it was not an easy discipline to follow.

On the upper reaches of the river we managed quite well; even so I was glad to spend a night in a proper bed at Oxford. And a fully functioning campsite at Henley-on-Thames afforded most of the facilities of civilised life. Personally I found four days to be my limit for wild camping – after that the need for the normal comforts of everyday life becomes overwhelming.

With long days of sun on the river and some dramatic sunsets, the Thames post lockdown is more popular than I’ve ever known it. Cruisers and narrowboats patrolled the upper reaches, joined by rowers, kayakers and a new element, paddle-boarders, on the lower.

From Oxford downstream to Windsor, they were joined by swimmers, from the American nun I met in the Isis who blessed me on my way, to farmers cooling off at the end of the day near Appleford. And of course the inevitable groups of young boys jumping from bridges everywhere (not recommended, but has gone on for as long as I can remember). I have fond memories of swimming in the Thames as a child, so welcomed the fact that the river is considered reasonably safe to swim once more.

Goring-on-Thames
Goring-on-Thames

My last overnight of the trip, once inside the outskirts of London, was always going to be tricky. Wild camping as such does not really exist, this being the smoke. And I didn’t really fancy pitching in a riverside park, even though the tent was tiny.

Windsor Castle at sunset

So I was lucky to encounter near Hampton Court some young people on what appeared to be to all intents and purposes a floating junkyard. This vessel turned out to be an old Dutch barge, much modified to provide basic overnight accommodation for people in the area. It may have looked odd, but I found the people on board to be welcoming and helpful – in fact the whole setup reminded me of the kind of alternative communities that came to life with the hippies and have endured in various corners of the UK ever since.

Well, free love may have come and gone. But some of the other ideas, such as living simply, helping others and payment by bartering services, still endure. Thank you people. The boat may not have looked much, but the warmth was genuine.

Swans at sunset

Teddington, the last non-tidal lock on the river, was the end of my journey, 150 miles and eleven days after setting out from the source. Not normally known for being the most sporting of persons, I was proud and pleased with myself for accomplishing the trip. I also gained several (probably temporary) friendships, and lost around four kilos in weight (also probably temporary).

What were the highlights? One was visiting the 13th century church of St John the Baptist at Inglesham, near Lechlade. Although deconsecrated the church is a treasure, with original pews, wall paintings and, remarkably, a working pedal organ. We took full advantage, and I’m not ashamed to admit hearing a selection of classic Christian hyms performed brought a tear to my eye.

At the finish – Teddington lock. In my eagerness to celebrate finishing I forgot the Thames is tidal at this point and nearly lost the kayak. Thankfully a nearby fisherman spotted it as it was about to float away ….

But of course the real highlight was the river itself. The Thames remains one of the glories of England. Flora and fauna flourish even in the heart of the cities along its path, and the river’s sheer popularity among people of all ages, from tiny children to pensioners, is testament to its age-old attraction. As Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty (The Wind in the Willows) once said, “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

© Philip Hunt, 2020.

More info

Total distance from the official source of the Thames near Cirencester to Teddington lock (the last non-tidal lock on the river) was 158 miles. The trip lasted 10 days, plus 1 day’s break in Oxford.

My day-to-day diary of the trip can be found here.

I cannot pass without mentioning the service provided by RUKsport / Thames Canoe Hire of Tilehurst. They were obliging, helpful and very patient despite several complications in the trip which involved switching from one kayak to two, and various other assorted problems that emerged. A good company and good people. Thank you.

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