Words: Jon Carr
Pics: Lucy and Jon Carr
My wife Lucy and I were in the pub when she said: ‘about our summer holiday next month…how about an adventure?’ So our last minute package holiday plans changed. ‘I was thinking we could go on a paddle board trip’, she said. Within two weeks this had morphed into a 10 day UK holiday, paddle boarding down the Thames from Lechlade to Teddington, with our two children Freddy, eight, and Scarlet, four, on the front of our boards.
I’d been paddling for a year on a 10’8” Osprey Paddle Board and had just purchased another. I liked the huge volume that the length, 33” width and 6” depth of these ‘fat boards’ give and knew it could handle the additional weight of a child. Lucy had only been paddling a few times so I suggested she might want to do some training as we’d complete around 13 miles a day. ‘Training? I don’t do training!’ was the response. OK, this was going to be interesting.
We decided to camp three out of the first four nights by the locks for ease as the first part of the river is quite isolated, and then used AirBnB home stays for the rest of the trip. Initially I would pull a dinghy full of our camp gear and then we would downsize to just two bags strapped onto my board – we would have to travel light that’s for sure.
Prior to having children we had travelled the world together quite extensively and the planning and organisation of this trip started to make us feel like we were travelling again. Our two kids have always enjoyed the water, but the question was would they sit still on the boards for five hours a day?
Come the end of August 2016 we soon found out. We started our trip at The Trout Inn, just outside Lechlade. We unloaded all the gear, got the kids into their wetsuits and life jackets and then we were off, no turning back now. Although when I realised how inefficient it was going to be towing 30kg with the boat behind the board I have to admit I was tempted to!
There are over 40 locks on this stretch of the Thames and as we had the kids on the front of the boards we decided that we would portage around each one. This took some time as we had to get the kids out safely and then get all the gear out of the boat and then walk everything round. However, it gave us and the kids a good break to stretch our legs and enjoy our snacks.
The trickiest bit was that sometimes the mooring places were three to four foot above us, which with our four year old was not ideal. We used the small ladders provided and took our time and in the end the kids really enjoyed this part and the lock keepers were very helpful.
The waterways were absolutely teaming with wildlife everywhere and a variety of passing boats that were mostly respectful of their possible wake as they past. We got to our first campsite at Shifford Lock (thus named as the original depth of the river crossing was shallow enough for a sheep to pass) at 7pm with rain just starting to make us all cold. Luckily, the weather was very kind to us after this first day.
Following day one we were all very tired, so after a cooked dinner using our small stove we were in our sleeping bags by 8.30pm listening to an audiobook of Three Men and a Boat. We’d taken a small three man tent in order to stay as light as possible but the reality of two adults and two children sharing meant sleep became an interesting concept. Morning came all too quickly and the kids, having kept us awake most of the night, slept peacefully well into the morning. We then cooked porridge for breakfast and sorted our bags in a hurry to get back on the water.
The kids were so tired they actually laid down on the front of the boards most mornings and went back to sleep. So Lucy and I were able to enjoy the beauty of the river in peace….. until a speed boat passed and soaked the kids! We saw many kingfishers and herons on this beautiful stretch before ending at Eynsham Lock campsite.
The next day was the toughest as we were sleep deprived and it turned out to be the hottest day of the year. We had a feisty headwind, which is never ideal when touring. In addition the information on distances between locks from the web often seemed inaccurate. This resulted in us completing 13 miles through Oxford and onto Sandown-on-Thames by 5pm, but with another five miles due till our Abingdon AirBnB stop. I had to admit we were not going to make it before dark. We called a taxi company to order the biggest minibus they had! They turned up with a VW transporter and after some time trying we managed to shove in all the boards, kids and gear and were soon in Abingdon (we’d have to go back and complete that stretch another time).
After a good night’s sleep in a proper bed we all felt much better and we also knew that we just had one more day carrying the camp gear. This day ended at Benson and luckily we got the tent up before a thunder storm rumbled through. The beautiful Waterfront Café came to our rescue and the next day we were down to carrying just two dry bags.
We then settled into a lovely daily pattern; on the river by 9.30am, complete a few locks, have a long lunch, a few more locks and arrive at our destination by 6pm. The kids loved the wildlife, boats and the changing scenery and shouted to everyone that passed that we were paddling to Legoland. It was a great chance for all the family to be together without the distractions of any screens and we met some truly lovely people who were happy to help us.
We stayed at Whitchurch-on-Thames, Lower Shiplake, Cookham and then Windsor meeting friends and family on the way. Going through Reading while the music festival was on was fun, the party atmosphere meant an increase in speed for all the boats and water taxis which caused lots of cross waves and was a real test of our balance and technique. We met Steve Backshall who was kayaking near Henley and he was kind enough to shake my son’s hand, he will dine on meeting his hero forever.
Windsor on the bank holiday weekend had a lot of boat traffic causing issues again with wake but the views of the castle from the river made it all worthwhile and our day off at Legoland went down well with kids. Though bizarrely we got land ‘sickness’ after so many days on the water.
On the final day we managed 15 miles to Hampton Court by 7pm, five miles short of our end goal Teddington Lock, where the tidal Thames starts. Again we decided to stop before dark and will have to return to complete that final section. The kids had been disappointed that no-one had fallen in during the entire trip, so 100 meters from our last lock we let them both jump in which was great fun and a great end to awesome trip.
We’d love others to be inspired and realise that even with young kids, paddle boarding can be wonderful. This stretch of the Thames can be a safe area to explore with lots of variety and for us. The question for us is: where next?