Skip to content

A 135-mile Canoe Trip Down the River Thames by Andy Garland

From Source to Sea (well, almost)

A 135-mile Canoe Trip Down the River Thames.

(Andy Garland and Linda Smith)

This tarp is really good, innit?” I said, for the umpteenth time. Linda and I were lounging around, in the pouring rain, under a tarp on a sodden campsite in Lechlade, Gloucestershire. In the morning we would start our journey down the River Thames – a nine-day tour that would take us through Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Greater London. The source of the Thames is a spring near Coates in Wiltshire, some 18 miles from our wet campsite. However, until the river gets to Lechlade there is normally not enough water in it to float a boat. Our planned endpoint would be Teddington Lock, which marks the transition from freshwater to the salty tidal part of the Thames. Hopefully, it would stop raining before we got here.

A tent on grass with a wooden poleDescription automatically generated
A tarp is very useful in the rain.

The morning turned out to be on the decidedly damp, and the river was flowing with gusto. We launched and were pleased to be carried along by a swift current. We soon reached our first lock, hauled our boat and kit out of the water, and completed our first portage. There are 45 locks on the Thames, and our canoe and kit weighed in the region of 55kg. Therefore, we would have to carry a combined total of about 2.5 tonnes to get around all of the locks – My back started to ache just thinking about it.

A person in a boat on a riverDescription automatically generated
On the water at Lechlade

In the afternoon the sun came out (yay!) and we pitched our tent in a lovely spot beside Rushey Lock. That evening a boat came through the lock and we watched the crew open and close the lock gates. “Ah” we thought, that’s how you do it!

The next day Linda took on a new persona. She became ‘Linda the Lock Keeper’. At each lock she would masterfully twiddle wheels or push buttons to operate the sluices and gates. She was most disgruntled if an ‘official’ Keeper was on duty who insisted to do it all for us.

Passing through each lock took quite a bit longer than portaging but we preferred it because:
(i) The strong flow in the river meant we were moving very fast and we could take it easy;
(ii) If we didn’t slow down we would arrive at our campsites before the local pubs were open and;
(iii) Linda liked working the locks.

(If you’re thinking of doing this trip yourself, bear in mind that you need to have a waterways licence to use the locks. This is included with BCU membership, and lock keepers asked to see our BCU membership card on several occasions).

A person in a canoe in a canalDescription automatically generated
Waiting for Linda to let me out of a lock.

We soon got into a rhythm – get up, pack, paddle, put up tent, eat, sleep, repeat. We ambled past Abingdon, took in the dreaming spires of Oxford and ogled with disbelief at the monstrously expensive houses around Henley and Marlow. We also took in a bit of history – we visited the site at Runnymede where bad King John signed the Magna Carta, we peered through the gates of Hampton Court Palace (which used to be Henry VIII’s gaff) and we floated past Windsor Castle which was founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and costs an arm and a leg for the entrance fee.

A close-up of a gateDescription automatically generated
Gates of Hampton Court Palace

We cruised through Kingston and finished our trip at Teddington Lock. We were met by a contact of Linda’s from Dragon Boating circles, who had let us leave our car at his place near Teddington while we completed our trip.

It was an excellent journey, traveling 135 miles through seven counties, 45 locks, and more than a few pubs. Oh, we also had a close encounter with an otter. How good is that!

A person sitting on a dock next to a body of waterDescription automatically generated

1 thought on “A 135-mile Canoe Trip Down the River Thames by Andy Garland”