Wonders on your doorstep: A Wind in the Willows adventure in the Home Counties

Phoebe Smith
Phoebe Smith kayaked 300 miles of water around Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire - getty

You don’t have to go far for a true expedition. All Phoebe Smith needed was a kayak, a map and an open mind…

Mist drifted lazily across the water’s surface as the vegetation came alive with chirps of grasshoppers and frogs. Above, the night sky was an inky black so deep that all that was reflected in the river were the dots of twinkling stars.

Each stroke of the paddle looked as though I was plunging it into thick molasses. Were it not for the close-to-freezing temperature, I could have easily believed I had been transported to the Amazon or Borneo’s rainforest. 

But this was no exotic or far-flung adventure. I was kayaking in Berkshire, no more than a 40-minute drive by road to my house. It was night 10 of an unexpected journey that my friend, John Pike, and I had thought up just a few weeks earlier.

An emergency doctor for Thames Valley Air Ambulance, he’d wanted to raise money and awareness for the night-flying his team regularly undertakes, and, as an advocate for adventures on your own doorstep, I wanted to highlight that you don’t have to go far to enjoy a proper expedition. 

Looking at a map of the area his organisation covers – Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire – it became clear there was one prominent feature; all three were surrounded by waterways. And so the Night Vision Challenge was born – a kayak-based nocturnal adventure navigating 300 miles of water that ring the area, paddling mainly at night, and wild camping en route. 

The Thames near Cookham Credit: getty

We set out in November, and immediately faced a lock – one of 200 we would encounter. The locks were designed when the rivers and canals were used to transport goods – rather than pleasure craft and insane kayakers – meaning we had to portage over them, picking up the loaded kayaks and carrying them to the other side. By the time we reached the fourth (in the rain), the novelty had worn thin.

Until now, I’d never really taken the time to learn anything about the canals. That first night, I discovered Withymead Nature Reserve, near Goring, past the place where it’s thought Kenneth Grahame was inspired to pen Wind in the Willows (Pangbourne).

After around 35 miles, we called it a day and collapsed on to a small eyot (island) for some rest. It was hard to comprehend how much we’d seen in what would have usually been about an hour’s car journey. The next few days floated by in a similar fashion, and I discovered more about my immediate area than I had in seven years of living in it.

We transitioned to the Grand Union Canal and amused ourselves by reading aloud some of the narrowboat names as we headed towards Uxbridge in freezing fog; we sang Disney tunes to keep our spirits high as we funnelled through the city of Milton Keynes; and we both went into a mild delirium around the 22-mile marker post to Braunston. 

As we passed through Braunston tunnel, I heard John ask, “can you see them?”, his voice echoing against the bricks. I looked up and in my head torch saw a colony of bats. It was a little after midnight and we were quite alone, though every sound we made seemed to erupt loudly.

The route goes near Pangbourne, which is said to have inspired Wind in the Willows Credit: getty

We had a brush with hypothermia somewhere near Banbury; inadvertently joined a pub quiz in Upper Heyford (thanks to the Barley Mow) and experienced a breathtaking sunset outside Oxford. The blisters on our hands and heels were so impressive we compared them proudly each day, and the feeling of being wet and cold was endless.

But all the hardships just made the good things even more life affirming.

Like the stranger who came and met us with hot chocolates by a bridge somewhere in Oxfordshire, or the pub patrons who whipped round and gave us cash for the charity, or kingfishers that we tallied each time we saw their trademark flash of blue (total 19).

There was no doubt we had been changed by our experience. “Look! That makes 22!” I yelled to John, gazing skywards at a shooting star pummelling its way across the sky on our final night, as an owl hooted nearby.

“It looks like you’re breathing fire,” said John, as my breath dissipated into the beam of my head torch, and we seemed to fly over the water. 

Kingfisher spotting is a highlight Credit: getty

It had only been 10 nights, but it felt like we’d been away for years. By taking a map of our local region, borrowing a boat and heading out with open minds, we’d experienced the same highs and lows at the places in which we found ourselves as anyone gets on expeditions overseas – yet all within a short distance of home.

It may have technically been the same river that we started on, but the water that surrounded us had, like us, changed.

It’s all too easy to meander around your local area noticing nothing at all, but by taking the time to be immersed in it – whether for one night or 10 – you will be presented with more hidden depths than you thought possible. All you need is a little imagination.

How to do it

Go Paddling (gopaddling.info) offer a range of paddling equipment hire, including kayaks and canoes, across England and Wales. An online search will reveal a wider selection of local experts.

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