Weekend Canoe & Kayak Touring Trips on the River Thames

Flowing through England’s capital city has done a lot for the profile of the River Thames. It is celebrated in a wealth of literature, to say it has played some important roles in English history would be an understatement and is the longest-serving character in the BBC’s Eastenders. For kayakers and canoeists, though, the main appeal of England’s longest river is possibly not that which flows past through the centre of Europe’s most populous city!

From Gloucestershire, where it begins its 218km journey to its non-tidal reach, passing through Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey – where it passes through Teddington Lock and becomes subject to fluctuating tides – the Thames is a magnet for users of boats of all sizes and methods of propulsion, not least canoes & kayaks. Taking a jaunt on the Thames in a small man-powered craft built in popularity throughout the 1880s, which culminated in – and was exacerbated by – Jerome K Jerome and two friends deciding to undertake such a jaunt, an account of which was published in the form of the novel Three Men in a Boat*. Over twenty years previous to this John McGregor, the man widely acknowledged as being responsible for popularising canoeing amongst the middle classes, had set up the Royal Canoe Club – the very first of its kind – also on the Thames.

Today, taking to the water on the Thames in a canoe or kayak you may well believe that you’re on the river that was at the heart of the rise of river touring in small un-powered craft, and that was chosen for the site of her Majesty’s, and indeed the country’s very first canoe club. But as you pass through the tranquil leafy stretches that swathe a path through rolling green countryside, and stop for a drink at a waterside pub in one of the many idyllic historic market towns the river passes through, you’ll feel like you’re very far away indeed from the industrial river that is the iconic star of aforementioned soap opera…

Suggested Put Ins

The following is a by no means an exhaustive list of possible put-ins and trips along the non-tidal section of the Thames.

Cricklade

For a narrow and thickly-vegetated Thames experience, put-in at Cricklade, less than 50km from the Thames’ official source. Look for a car park with a convenient slipway that is located down a narrow left turn from the road that leads into the town centre from the bridge over the river. The first couple of kilometres are liable to becoming overgrown at the height of summer, and fallen branches can sometimes be found making a nuisance of themselves. This is a beautifully quiet and tranquil part of the Thames, however, and the channel size here restricts access to larger boats, meaning that canoeists, kayakers and other small unpowered craft users have it to themselves to at least as far as the picturesque town of Lechlade, about 16km downstream.

Short Trip: If you’d like to do a short “there and back again” style trip, perhaps in the absence of a shuttle, you could very easily try setting off from Cricklade in the morning, and easily expect to reach Castle Eaton, six or so kilometres downstream, by lunchtime. The Red Lion Pub in the village here is well-recommended. Remember not to over-indulge in their selection of real ales if you intend to paddle back to Cricklade after your meal!

Longer Trip: If you’d like to extend your paddle down from Cricklade, Eynsham represents two very reasonable days of paddling. There are a number of possible camp sites to break up this trip. Kelmscott village is home to Kelmscott Manor, famous for being a writer, textile designer and prominent socialist thinker William Morris’ summer retreat. On some days of the week the house, which contains a lot of Morris’ work is open to the public and well-worth a visit.
Alternatively, another 4km or so downstream is Radcot village, also with camping available through speaking to the staff at the Swan Hotel. Radcot was the place where much of the Cotswold stone used to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London in 1666 was loaded onto barges and ferried downstream.

Oxford

There is nothing so quintessentially Thames in than on a summer’s day boating around Oxford. The canalised stretch downstream from Folly Bridge is often packed with an eclectic mix of canal boats, rowing eights, large passenger vessels and of course canoes and kayaks; a scene barely altered from what it would have been in the late 19th Century, except for maybe the contemporary version having a little more roto-moulded polyethene, and the Victorian version a tad more straw-boater and pinstripe. It is the scene – a river teaming with leisure-seekers in small boats – that Jerome and his friends paddled to on the very last leg of their journey from Kingston-Upon-Thames, and which finished at the still-functioning Head of the River Pub at Folly Bridge.

Short Trips: There are a number of short trips around Oxford. Wolvercote is the put-in for the Wolvercote Circuit, which takes in the river and the Oxford Canal in a leisurely paddle of around three hours. The Cherwell flows into the Thames in Oxford, and a short paddle up to around as far as the Cherwell Boathouse makes for a diverting afternoon, and takes in some of Oxford’s most beautiful university buildings. The best put-in for this trip is probably the Riverside Centre at Donnington Bridge. You can also paddle downstream of here and after a short distance will come across the Isis Tavern on the river right – a fine place for a drink on a hot afternoon.

Longer Trip: If you have all day, continue all the way downstream to the historic and picturesque market town of Abingdon. The Catherine Wheel Pub, Other than some locks, you’ll be paddling through the unbroken countryside, with the old towpath hugging the right for much of the way. The Catherine Wheel Pub, Sandford Upon Thames, is an excellent part-way marker where you might consider stopping for lunch if you are making this trip.

Abingdon

Ten minutes down the road from Oxford is Abingdon. With a claim to being one of the oldest settlements in England, Abingdon boasts a ruined Abbey dating back possibly as far as the 7th Century and remains of an iron-age fort have been found near the town centre. Although there are no visible remains of the Abbey (other than the 19th Century faux ruins built to attract tourists) the large area of meadowland through which the Thames flows is known as Abbey Meadows. Near these is a good place to put on, from the car park near Waitrose there is a Millstream navigable all the way to the main river.

Short Trips: There are some excellent short trips to be made from around Abingdon. By paddling upstream from the weir and lock towards Oxford, you can reach the entrance to Swift Ditch, the old course of the Thames before it was diverted. A slide-weir marks the entrance to the ditch (make sure you shoot the right one, there is a weir before you reach the actual entrance that descends into thick, impenetrable undergrowth, and normally doesn’t have much water going over it). The Ditch is a narrow, tree-lined and often-overgrown adventure of a paddle that will bring out the explorer in you. It rejoins the Thames downstream of Abingdon town centre, near the Marina.

For another narrow and green side trip from the Thames in this area, try driving up the River Ock a short distance, and paddling it down to where it flows into the Thames right in the centre of Abingdon. Follow the follow the Drayton road (B4017) out of Abingdon, and look for a right turning down Mill Road. Follow this until you run out of road, and descend the steep bank onto the Ock. You’ll meet back up with the Thames within a couple of hours.

Longer Trip: To extend your paddle from Abingdon, paddle down towards Culham and Sutton Courtenay. From here you can explore further to Clifton Hampden and Long Wittenham, each with their own very good pub, or pubs!

Reading

By the point that the Thames reaches Reading it has travelled well over 120km – more than half of its non-tidal length from its head of navigation at Cricklade. The wonderful canoe and kayak touring opportunities are far from exhausted, however, and putting on here offers an excellent mix of long and short trips. The retail park, a short distance from Reading centre has parking and is a great place to put-on the river.

Short Trips: An obvious, and absolutely must-see town on any Thames touring agenda, easily reachable in a half day’s paddle from Reading is Henley-Upon-Thames, a beautiful town with plenty of pubs and restaurants to choose from, and which exudes history. It’s a short journey down from here to Hurley Wier, a famous playspot that attracts freestyle kayakers from across the UK, but that is also set in a characteristically idyllic part of the Thames.

Longer Trip: The campsite at Marlow is an attainable 28km or so from Reading, and makes for an excellent break point in a longer trip, possibly to Windsor. This journey takes in the impressive suspension bridge built by William Tierny Clark in 1832 on the first day, and the popular Marlow to Maidenhead stretch, which incorporates a charming and alternating mix of small towns and undulating woodland, at the start of the second.

Hampton Court

Beginning at Hurst Park you can paddle a short way downstream to be rewarded with unparalleled views of Henry VIII’s residence for much of his reign, Hampton Court and its grounds. This return trip, maybe with a stop off at Hampton Court itself is a pleasant couple of hours. Carry on any further than this, and after 8km or so will reach Teddington Lock and the tidal limit of the Thames…

Beyond Teddington

There is no reason not to continue paddling further downstream from the tidal limit, the stretch down to Richmond from Kingston is a popular one. It’s also an experience to paddle through the centre of Westminster, which will give you a fresh viewpoint of the city. Watch out for large boats, though, and if you venture further downstream again, be mindful of the tides, so that your inland touring trip does not inadvertently become a sea kayaking adventure!

*It should be noted that Jerome and co. weren’t in fact, paddling a canoe, but rowing a small boat known as a Thames Skiff. We don’t hold this against him, though: it’s a very good book, which we highly recommend.

Useful Info

Further Reading

Pub Paddles, by Peter Knowles

Contains many excellent short trips along the Thames and other touring rivers in the south of England with detailed descriptions of get-ins, the route and other points of interest in the area.