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Tales from the Riverbank

“Do not underestimate the power of Mother Nature.”  This is the first and clearly, most important instruction in the manual that accompanied our new kayak. Yes, we bought a kayak. An inflatable one. I know, it makes you imagine a vast yellow banana of a vessel or something shaped like a crocodile or dolphin. I assure you, it is a boat, a kayak shaped plastic boat.  We’ve wanted one ever since we watched a middle-aged couple skim past Cadgwith harbour some five or six years ago and finally we got around to actually buying one. We’ve got a paddle each and a pair of lifejackets. Oh, no sorry, you don’t call them that, you call them a ‘buoyancy aid’. I decided to call mine Bob.

“I am not getting into a kayak with you.” my daughter said, determined, she is a very determined young woman. “Because there is 100% chance of man overboard. You.”

My Pagan heart tells me I should confess at this point that despite being a Pisces I am hopeless in water. I have the buoyancy of granite and granite that has a lot of iron ore in it at that. In olden times I would have been stowed for ballast on many a creaky vessel. I didn’t learn to swim until I was eleven. This was because my parents didn’t swim much either as this was the 70s (there you go!) and exercise was frowned upon unless you were Daley Thompson. He didn’t do much swimming either to be fair.

So. With the kayak still in its cardboard box my husband and I began scouting for local launch sites. We decided on Bradford on Avon for our first voyage. It must be said that I was so nervous I had Bob the buoyancy aid zipped on before I got in the car.

We parked up and with our trusty stirrup pump the kayak was all puffed up and ready to go in about fifteen minutes.  The Queen was unavailable for this launch and so we were seen off at the Tithe Barn by some bemused French tourists.

Within moments they were wondering how Britain ever got a reputation as a seafaring nation as our little vessel zig-zagged and swirled its way onto the Avon.  We looked, with our dodgy steering and flapping paddles, like a hippopotamus attempting a synchronised swimming routine.

It took a few minutes but we got into the dip, dip and swing of it. As we scudded along a kingfisher flashed, blue and copper, from a bankside tree and, my Pagan heart decided, the augurs were good.

It’s a very different view of the river in a kayak. You’re quite low down in the water, unlike on a pleasure cruiser say or even the relative luxury of a rowing boat. We could see, as we paddled, the shoals, and I mean shoals, of fish in the reed, graded downwards from tiny fry at the sunkissed surface to the flitting teenagers in the midline and then, deeper still the spooky twists and glides of the parent fish. A heron sat in the highest branches of a tree, willows bowed into the water.

It was bliss. The sun baking down making the water glisten gold and silver. A family of buzzards tacking into thermals above the private woodland. (Alert, Alert, 70s reference approaching at speed) It was all very Hammy the Hamster and Tales of the Riverbank.

And then we heard the splashing sounds, getting louder and definitely nearer.  A glance to the bend showed us the Armada of the rowing club in knife thin sculls, their spike thin oars pounding their way through the water. There were shouts and the buzzing fury of a small motor boat that seemed to be heading straight for us. A voice barked orders from a loudhailer. The rowers, with a nonchalant twist of their oars, steered around us as we paddled for our very lives, digging in and diving for cover by a tangled willow as the boats whipped by, their wake tossing our little ship like a cork.

Another bend brought us to the sailing club where, as we approached a vibrant orange buoy, a small dinghy roared towards us with a shout  of ‘Stay away from me!’ just as the prow of his boat clipped us, as they say in the sea shanties, a broadside amidships. We all ducked for the jib as his sail whipped around and in a gust of wind he was gone, his keel rising at a steep angle. We watched as his boat rose out of the water and roused a flock of Canada Geese as it grazed along the banking for about a hundred yards before toppling back into the water and whizzing off, the wind cracking in the tall white sail. With his weatherbeaten face and his flimsy old t-shirt and safari shorts, he was clearly a seasoned sailor.

Onwards we floated, paddles digging deep so that I could feel my bingo wings tightening with every stroke. The world curved and turned, lapped and splashed. It was a very different perspective on where we live, a secret snickelway of water hidden from our everyday routes around town. Well, secret if you don’t count the rowing club and the sailing club of course. I thought of Bronze Age tribes in their dugout log canoes and was connected to the past by the simple tool of a paddle.

We stopped at the weir, taking a few minutes to ease our muscles and take in the grandstand view; A heron fished on a small pebble bank. A cormorant flew in over our heads to rest in the high branches of the trees. Fish slid and shimmied beneath us but the most astonishing spectacle was the dragonflies, they were legion, small blue, giant bronze, wings of black and flashed with gold, flitting and frittering around the reeds in an elegant dance, attracted in a flurry to the warm heat radiated from the stones of the old mill.

Do not underestimate the power of Mother Nature, the manual had said. How right that instruction was. We lost track of the number of kingfishers we saw en route.

Next weekend, we’re hoping we might see an otter. But probably not a killer whale. Not on the Avon at any rate.

 

 

 
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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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