Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A return to the river

Back to form, writing an article for Canoe monthly about She Who Dares:

She who Dares are an inimitable group of like minded women who meet weekly to have a go at a variety of outdoor pursuits. Some attend regularly, others, hampered by the joint distractions of work and family, occasionally. In over twenty years of the group’s existence we have undertaken everything from Kayaking to abseiling, climbing to coasteering, pole dancing to pole walking, gliding to waterskiing and more in-between. We’ll have a go at most things regardless of our level of fitness or experience. Canoeing is a favourite. Some of the group have gone on to be experienced paddlers, instructors on duty for major events like the Olympics or Sport Relief swims.

On the day we meet Helen and Peter of Woosh Explore in Grantchester, our rag taggle bunch is devoid of experts, most have some experience, others, very little. We gather near Orchard Tearooms with its small museum dedicated to the poet Rupert Brooke, a canoeist himself who would regularly take the trip up from Kings College. We’re in illustrious company, Virginia Woolf and other members of the neo pagans gathered to skinny dip in nearby Byron’s pool.

In Grantchester, In Grantchester
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly lordship swims his pool
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont or Styx
Dan Cahucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill

(Grantchester, Rupert Brooke, 1912)

I had considered bringing the wetsuit, there is a long tradition of swimming the river near this spot, The Granta Swimming club began an annual event in 1934 from Grantchester Mill to Cambridge and we do pass a swimmer later, gliding parallel to the bank. However, later events prove that it was wise to stay out of the water on this occasion.

The day is bright but chilled with an early spring sniff in the air. After a winter of drenches, floods and cold, the river looks peaceful, restful after the storms. We gather by the roadside corseted in tight buoyancy aids and engage a team effort to bring the boats down to the water and clamber in, one paddler at the bow, one at the stern. Or if you’re lucky, like me, and get the middle seat for a while you can coast and watch the scenery.

Sliding away from the bank we paddle over the deep, cool, unseen world beneath the surface with the odd bubble and burp of life from below. Three women in a boat, canoeing along as part of the secret river world, gliding over the green water in a flotilla of seven canoes. Ducks scatter into the reeds, buoyant dogs flounce along the river bank and the meadows rest as butterflies dance. A lone tractor ploughs a field. Time slows, as do we, contemplating a pillow in purple case perched in a nearby tree. Could be a place to take a nap? Further on, frayed ropes hang from sturdy trees opposite a well-worn bank. In the heat of summer this must be a crowded place. Lush trees stretch over the river, some splintered by the winter storms. The water is not as high as we thought given the recent rainfall, and there is some warmth to the sun. Losing focus momentarily our boat drifts to the bank and we’re caught under low hanging branches. I’m pinned to the seat in a limbo stretch backwards.

We get closer to the city, spotting spires that reach above the overhanging willows. The river Cam is the beating heart of Cambridge and we sneak in past a wier and moor up alongside a row of punts, floating like planks. A swan finds herself trapped between our boats and watches placidly as we share out the chocolate and biscuits, necessary fuel for the paddle back against the current.

It’s hard work, harder when the sky blackens and breaks with hail. The water peaks into tiny waves, ruffled feathers on its surface and the swan disappears. We bear on against the weather, paddling with hoods up as we’re battered by hail and wind. Finally, soaked and frozen we reach our mooring, and sit squelching in the boats while Peter collects his camera. The smiles may look forced, but despite the weather it was a lovely trip, encouraged as we were by the efforts of Helen and Peter and made all the more satisfying by the hot soup in the Orchard Tea Rooms after.

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