River of Fear

28 Jul

The River Soar rises between Lutterworth and Hinckley, then takes a northerly course through brownfield, cattled meadow, reedy margins, trailing willow, dreary town and many an idyllic village – as well as Leicester and Loughborough – to top up the Trent at Ratcliffe on Soar, two hundred metres east of Trentlock. From there it’s four miles downstream to Beeston Marina and, for the trip I have in mind, journey’s end.

Why, oh why, did I not do more thorough reconnaisance before putting in, Wednesday evening, at Langham Bridge a half mile upstream of Narborough Station?

It’s not that I did no homework at all. Earlier this year I made two scouting trips to Narborough, having settled on this olde village, now a dormitory town for Leicester to the northeast, as the highest feasible put-in. Further upstream is Croft, the Soar little more than a brook at that point; canoeable, just, but for the fact – I did walk a mix of meadow, dead factory and sixties semi to inspect – of its being blocked in many places by felled alder and willow. These span the river to trap the debris not only of the casual litterbug but the more calculated sociopathy of the serial fly tipper. Trashed armchairs, Amstrad era PCs and tractor tyres don’t find their way into a river through mere absent-mindedness.

Wiser heads might have thought to check that the same did not apply from Langham Bridge to Narborough. Mine did not, due on the one hand to limited access to the bankside, on the other to gung-ho optimistics. Ditto the stretches downstream of Narborough. This sprightly stream, I assured myself on no firmer basis than a few random forays where right of way allowed, would see me sailing northbound to have me home in three days tops.

With grid squares one kilometer apart, this is how far I got in four hours that first evening, after putting in just before six on Wednesday.

And this is why.

But I’m ahead of myself. In baking heat that afternoon – day after my latest court appearance (judge’s ruling awaited) in Roddis v Sheffield Hallam – I trundle trolley, canoe and kit out of the garage for the five minute trek to Beeston station. With railcard, a single to Narborough sets me back £7.70.

I have a twelve minute wait so, with juice at 90%, hook phone to solar charger and drape the three folding panels over a fence to drink up the dazzling rays beating down on platform 2.

Twenty minutes later phone and charger are still there, while I speed southwards. I’ve barely got comfortable in rear carriage before I realise. Fuck, fuck and thrice fuck. Hotfooting down the six carriages I find the conductor in first class at the front. Could he phone Beeston while I alight at Loughborough for the next train back?

A few minutes later I ease heavy rucsack and trolley onto the platform at Loughborough, where the conductor runs up to say no answer at Beeston but good luck. I thank him anyway, take the next train up the line, find items exactly as left. Not for the first time in respect of kit lost and saved I hear, over right shoulder, the discreet Jeevesian cough of my guardian angel as I plonk one sorry arse on a bench to await the next down train.

A change at Leicester has me in Narborough by four-thirty, the heat stultifying. A three minute walk to School Lane puts me on the No. 50 for a free ride to the Dovecote Inn, four stops on and four hundred metres from Langham Bridge.

I taste Cornwall by way of a pint of Doom Bar, kit parked on the grass outside the bay window where I sup. Just before six I reach Langham Bridge, above it the B4114 with its relentless stream of biker and commuter, trucker and white van man.

On my second recce I’d assessed this point and considered a dusk arrival. I’d inflate the kayak and sleep in it – the traffic above my only lullaby – for a crack of dawn put-in. Now, with close to four hours of daylight still to be had, that doesn’t make sense.

The view upstream toward Croft …

… and downstream towards Narborough. If the river stays like this, I’m in for a great ride.

It doesn’t and I’m not.

Don’t look back, they say. But I can’t resist.

My first obstacle comes in five minutes. I improvise and overcome, lifting the sapling, taut as a coiled spring, over my head. Its elasticity presses onto my back to push me forward and clear.

But there’s more, much more and much worse, to come.

Wading in water up to my crotch, else balanced precariously on floating willow branch, I soon lose count of the times I’m obliged to haul, lift, push and thread the boat past the likes of this.

What you have to realise is there’s no way back. Some of these barriers take twenty minutes to get past, and that’s going downstream. Retreating upstream doesn’t bear thinking about.

What you also have to realise is there’s no way out either; no way of giving up, pulling kayak up the bank to slink back to the Dovecote to lick wounds and call home for a humiliating pick up. I’m on my Jack Todd with no reverse gear.

Here, on an atypically clear stretch, is why. On either side the river lie; swamp nettled jungle, my oh fucking my.

If I’m using an incredibly rude word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet rather a lot, that’s because it features prominently in the running discourse the three of us – me, myself and I – are having all the fucking way down.

Worst moments? One, after seeing this family of swans ahead …

… I trap them round the bend, where the stream quickens and another felled willow dams it. I’m bearing down on the hissing group, paddle at the ready for an attack that doesn’t materialise. At the last minute ma and cygnets dive like beavers under the woody tangle, I guess to surface downriver. For his part, pa beats an upstream course to my left, presumably to regroup later.

Me, I’m relieved, but spend a good fifteen minutes getting through.

Two, discovering a leech – those brown and yellow jobs: the worst – on my thigh after enforced wading. It hasn’t yet clamped on. I press right forefinger into tip of thumb, then with a savagely catapulted flick send the fucker skyways.

Three, standing on a floating willow trunk a foot diameter, holding for dear life onto a slender branch overhead, free hand gripping paddle and painter rope. When handrail sways, and trunk spins, I have a dilemma worthy of an undergraduate seminar. Do I let go painter and paddle to forestall a plunge through floating trash for the full immersion I’ve thus far avoided? Or stick to base principles and keep contact with my craft? In the event I steady myself, but it’s yet another test of nerves; one more moment of less than total contentment.

And so it goes, all the way past Narborough with ne’er a clear run above fifty metres. Look at this one. The quick of uptake will gather from angle of exposure that the happy snapper is not on board.

Ah, here he is!

Yes: lamentable focusing technique, I know. I’ll never forgive myself.

You get the idea. So when, with big hand at eight and little at ten, I beach boat and scamble up the east bank onto open meadow at Merrydale Farm, with the aptly named Narborough Bog Nature Reserve on the west bank, I’m done in. It’s down on bended knee for a quick prayer of thanksgiving. Well not quite, but it’s deliverance of a kind, with Appalachian retards, crossbow bolts and duelling banjos the only things missing.

With light draining from sky I’d happily sleep on this vast meadow – by keeping a literally low profile I can stay out of sight of the farmhouse – but half a mile away a large herd of tan steers, bullocks as it turns out, munches toward me. For the wild camper cattle are bad news. Bovine curiosity triggers unusual behaviour to tip off Farmer Vigilant that summat’s up.

I’m sodden from river water south of the belt line, sweat to the north. I’m filthy; arms and legs a criss-cross, hatch mapped and throbbing, of cuts, scratches and nettle stings. Oh, and my left hand’s puffed and swollen. Does we got poison ivy on this sceptered isle?

I deflate and roll the canoe after ten minutes of clearing out armfuls of willow twigs and leaves, then strap to my trolley. The OS map on my phone tells me a two mile walk will take me out of the meadow, onto dimly lit streets and finally a narrow unlit path to the Grand Union Canal at Whetstone.

Just kidding. It gives me directions only, not the lighting conditions. I arrive well after dark.

At the lock where footpath crosses towpath, west of Blaby Bridge, I reinflate by torchlight, put in and glide through the gloom, looking to overnight at the earliest op.

Which proves better than I could have hoped for: the next lock, where Soar joins Grand Union in Mid Nowhere. Perfect. No chance of sleeping on the boat; it’s dripping wet. Choosing a strip of mown grass, already dew sodden, atop the well of the lock across from the tow path, I unfurl sleeping and bivvy bags for a night with the stars, kit below upturned canoe. I floss and brush teeth of course. You gotta have standards.

I’d kill for a shower. For one insane moment I stare down – in contemplation not of ending it all but of hygienic plunge – into the dark slickness of the lock. A big carp rolls and I step back. It’s a scruffy me that sheds wet clinging garments to ease into the timeworn silk liner, ripping it as I go. Fuck. That’ll be forty quid and then some to replace. It’s been one hell of a day but there’s more to come.

That’s another story though, told in part two.

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16 Replies to “River of Fear

  1. Crikey that looks tough going – and a real challenge to morale when you realise that you are over committed with no choice but to force your way through. I am reminded of Eric Newby’s disastrous decision to take a short cut across to an adjacent Appenine ridge by dropping down into the intervening valley – only to find himself in a desperate battle with creeper and brambles. At least you didn’t emerge with your clothes literally in tatters!

    Looking forward to the second half.

    • Don’t think I wouldn’t have quit, Bryan, had that been an option. I had a towel, but nowhere to throw it!

  2. Something to add to kit list: machete? Practical but imagine the headline in the local papers If spotted hacking your way out

  3. After a trip down the Trent similarly encumbered I struggled to Beeston station and collapsed on a bench overlooking the wet paint sign on it as the bloke who’d painted it pointed out..pointedly. I bet us riparian explorers get talked about

  4. Not so much as an accident waiting for somewhere to happen as disasters waiting for you to happen on them. I know this wasn’t funny but I couldn’t help laughing. Talk about “Carry on Canoeing.”

    • Asked the secret of her successful life, Dame Edna Everidge confided, “I’ve always had the ability to laugh at other people’s misfortunes.”

  5. I don’t claim to be infallible but stuff like this happens to me occasionally at the interface between civilisation and the wilds eg public transport. I’m usually well into the red by the time I get to the station with folding kayak and camping gear after a multi-day trip.
    A disaster to a hapless commuter, perhaps, but us commando kayakers are made of sterner stuff. A bit of paint of paint is nothing to us, and it was a very discreet sign

  6. Je, what a story… reminded me of a hiking in June (rainy season) in the himalaya personal nightmare (leeches invasion type) which I don’t wish to rescucitate since I worked real hard to erase it from my memory. I had a good laugh at yours tough since… you survived it unscathered (kind of) 🙂

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