It wasn’t all mud. But mud did impose itself on this trip: grabby, sucking, gloopy, deep, mauvy mud.
Day after day April was dry, warm, sunny and crystal blue. I had 88 miles left of the River Severn before getting back to salty paddling on the Severn Estuary. If I averaged 25 miles a day and then some I could “finish” the river so Amy could be there for the Severn Estuary before starting a new job. Sue was up for it too. We’d make a great trio.
The stretch from Bridgnorth to Bewdley is particularly beautiful. There are tight bends through steeply wooded banks and, with the river unusually low, there are even a few rocks and ripples. The train line starts to cross and recross. In the 19th century the train carried pickers out from Wolverhampton for the cherry harvest. Way back in 1472 there was a Cherry Fair in Bewdley every July and it continued through the industrial revolution. In 1886 over 110 tons of cherries passed through the market. It must have been a wonderful sight. There are still cherry trees left in the valley and for my pleasure they were in full flower against a blue sky. Three days of this would be a treat.
I haven’t paddled below Bewdley before. The river from Stourport is “managed” as a navigation. The main difference for me would be locks. People had warned me of undertows and strong currents. I wasn’t sure if I would have to lug my boat out and portage. This would be hard work on my own and would slow me down. I reached my first lock in late afternoon. “I’ve never done this before,” I called up to the lock keeper. “I’m kind of nervous!” “Don’t you worry” he called down with the softest Worcester accent. “You just paddle half way up the lock and sit tight. It’s going to drop 6 feet mind.” Not all in one go, I hoped. I could hear the water swooshing out behind me but kept my eyes strictly forward. I started to enjoy myself enough to admire the lock and the fine cherry tree by the lock keeper’s house. Not a bad job being a lock keeper in such a quiet place. And then I was on my way and looking forward to the next lock. There’s nothing like a bit of a chat up routine to lighten up a journey. He told me about a young woman who paddled the whole Severn last year in a coracle she made herself. She did it to counter depression. He was impressed and so was I.
Stourport had some unexpected pleasures. I’ve never seen pirates, sharks and funfair rides from the river before! No punters but lots of noise and the smell of chips and candy floss.
Once into the managed navigation the banks were consistently higher, 10 foot and more above the water level. This posed a serious challenge to me, quite simply, it was hard to find anywhere I could get out. There were no river beaches. There were simply very occasional shelves of mud. An SCC friend, Chris Humphries, had generously sent me guides to each section of the river and a magic key that would open every water, shower and waste facility on the waterways. The guide showed welcoming riverside pubs all the way down my route where I planned to eat. Maybe one of these pubs would let me put my tent in their garden? But their jetties were too high for a solo kayak. I sat alongside gripping on to a mud coated pier. If I stood up in my kayak and kept my balance the jetty would be just below waist height. People were sitting at pub tables drinking beer and eating chips. The smell of food flowed down to me. If I got the manoeuvre wrong then I would be in fast moving muddy water. It wasn’t worth it. Maybe the next pub would be more kayak friendly. But that wasn’t the case and I drifted on as the afternoon shadows lengthened. And then a kayak appeared paddling upstream against the flow. Fellow traveller, kind face, everyday angel. Steve Green from Worcester Canoe Club showed me that rare and wonderful thing, a river beach and stayed alongside while I landed. Thank you Steve, you have no idea! Steve and his brother used to be a slalom C2 team back in the day. I thought I could remember him and his brother from around 1993/4 when I spent half my life time keeping on the Tryweryn and he thought he could remember my daughter Rosie Goolden when she spent all her life in a slalom boat. Once Steve had paddled off it was fast work for me: boat up, kit hung out, tent up and a huge cup of tea. There was just enough water left for a drink in the morning and my lunch, which I hadn’t got round to eating did well for supper. I was right below the footpath but I doubted if anyone would have time to care before night fell. 27 miles, asleep by 8.30pm.
Day 2. Frost on the tent. Weird breakfast including tea made in the same pan as I had scrambled eggs in. Wild camping by a muddy river rather cuts down on washing up possibilities. Bright blue skies. It’ll warm up once I’m moving.and the first upriver rowers arriving as I start to pack the boat. I hang the tent over the nearest kissing gate to dry it before packing. Worcester is a really nice place some walkers told me. So I would stop there, padlock the boat, explore, fill up with water and have a second breakfast. Soon enough I came alongside a pontoon, got the boat out and asked a posh young man at the boathouse if I could fill up with water. He said no. Then he said yes. But it was clear I couldn’t hang about. Back on the water Worcester did look lovely. But not really welcoming. The only other pontoon I saw was hosting a swan convention. They’re a bit fierce at this time of year.
This was a 31 mile day with little to see apart from increasingly steep and muddy banks. The moan and wail of big roads was a constant. Where were all the primroses? Where was the blue haze of bluebells? Nothing but mud and luscious, well fertilised grass. Chris’ guide told me of interesting tythe barns and fine old churches. I could see none of that. Above Upton on Severn I saw my first boat: a small scruffy motor boat coming fast upriver but reducing to walking pace as they came alongside. In the boat were a beautiful elderly couple romancing each other with close harmony singing. Now that was beautiful. At Upton on Severn I tied the boat onto an iron ring and hauled myself out onto thickly mudded steps. Outside the pub I hauled off all my layers of muddy paddle gear and hung them on the railings. People preferred not to notice. Taking off my paddle boots they slurped with gloop. But inside food and warmth and kindness. The publican did a good job of not noticing my muddy state.
At the last lock of the day, 9 miles above Gloucester, the lock keeper was unwilling to let me through. What was my BC number? What club did I belong to? Was my Buoyancy Aid good for the job. “Well” he said “I don’t think you should go through. It’d be better if your husband picked you up.” Why’s that? “Well it’s 9 miles and you don’t look strong enough. And that’s as far as you can go. The lock gate at Gloucester docks is being fixed.” I persuaded him to let me through and carried on for another five miles till a mud beach looked do-able if not exactly welcoming. Amy said she’d check out the Gloucester lock. That could wait tomorrow. As I landed a tirade of gunfire broke out. Not just rifles, machine guns as well. This wasn’t the best welcome but I was too tired to get back on the water. It’s illegal to shoot people. I think it was bird scarers as it happened about every half hour till nightfall.
Day 3 Back on the mud but only a few hours to go before meeting up with my lovely Col, Amy and Emma. So exciting. The lock into the docks would be closed and they’d help me get portage. Knowing I would soon be seeing them gave me confidence. That soon got me into trouble. The flow was speeding me along, the banks were getting steeper and the mud beaches thicker. What would it be like to get out on a small steep beach rather than a wide flat one? As usual I attached a carabiner and sling to the kayak deck lines, did a couple of draw strokes to get close in, felt the depth of the mud with my paddle. I sat on the back deck, braced my paddle from the deck to the bank and in I went. In seconds I was up to my waist in mud and sinking. I realised that this was the biggest danger I had ever been in in a kayak despite years on big seas. I couldn’t swivel my left leg which was completely stuck in the mud and I risked being pulled face down into it. I briefly and fiercely swam through the mud till I could brace the right side of my body over my paddle but that pushed my boat out into the flow. I shoved my left arm as deep into the grabby mud as I could and dragged and hauled myself sideways taking as much weight as I could on the boat. And so I managed to haul myself crab style up the slope still in possession of my paddle boots the boat and paddle. I breathed fresh air for a while, did a bit of cursing and got myself back into the boat and launched in a state slightly beyond fear. Things don’t go badly wrong just when and how you expect. I never go on the river without a phone and personal locator beacon or the sea without a VHF radio, phone and plb. It felt a bit daft – until today. Within an hour I was at the docks and pulled in waiting for my lovely pal team. The water was running very fast and only the front half of my boat could fit in to the enclave for the stone steps. No pontoon of course. I dug my beautiful carbon paddle into the thick mud and it held me like and anchor till they appeared all smiles and good nature. Thank you pals!
Mud caked me right to the skin all the way up past my waist. It would take 3 scrubs before my hands felt clean again, 3 rinses for all my gear and my cag and dry trousers had to be retreated! But what a day. What magic to see Col, Amy and Emma, what a treat to sit and drink coffee with them. Gloucester docks look quite something. I was too filthy to go sightseeing or to the museum but one day I’ll be back.
And so I was back on the water and down the Sharpness canal. I expected this to be a bit industrial and grim but in fact it was very pleasant. Wild flowers and trees in blossom lined the banks and I had good company. A young man from Gloucester club joined me and although I slowed him down in his flat water racer he didn’t seem too bothered and it helped me complete the 88 miles. Job done. Ready for the big one: the Severn Estuary.