There’s something about rivers, that turns even the most cynical among us into budding Zen Buddhists. Constantly moving yet permanent, bending and responding to the landscape, reflecting the sky above one minute and allowing you to peer into the depths another… they are also an excellent cure for a hangover.
On day two of my weekend catch up with my good friend Chris and still reeling from the sledgehammer of multiple pints the night before – I found myself being forced to make an unsteady leap of faith into our open topped canoe as it rapidly ploughed downriver having been launched from a near vertical bank with rather more enthusiasm than skill or thought – in some ways like a metaphor for the entire weekend itself.
And as I unfolded myself from the bottom of the canoe, laughing like a fool, I was reminded of the wise words of Ratty in The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
Simply messing… about in boats — or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it.
Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”
And this, in essence is the appeal of spending a couple of days meandering down on the Wye River, thanks to Wye Valley Canoes, at Glasbury, from whom we were renting our craft.
The company boasts a fleet of canoes, single and double kayaks and mountain bikes to hire. There is also an excellent cafe and a bunkhouse catering for up to 26 people.
Canoeists are provided with a waterproof barrel each to pack away your possessions, a laminated map of the river and some quick advice about how to navigate the rapids like a pro. And then, with a splash and a cheery wave, you’re off.
And as the canoe centre receded into the distance, we were left with the tranquility of the river, which meanders, unspoilt for mile after tree-lined mile through the stunning Wye Valley. Along the way we spotted the neon flash of a kingfisher, the low level acrobatics of the swallows skimming above the water to catch insects, the submerged head of what I imagine was an otter and some kind of massive brown feathered bird which I’m too ignorant to name – but it could well have been a seagull.
The tranquility was occasionally broken by the rushing sound of approaching rapids, which demanded that we cease our inane chatter and man the oars – to avoid running into hidden patches of rocks or running too close to the bank.
At one point, through a combined lapse of concentration and lack of any real boatmanship, we smashed full-tilt into an overhanging tree, tipping the entire boat at an unnerving angle and threatening to fill it to the brim.
Somehow, thanks to panic induced strength, we were able to push away from the bank and were unceremoniously swept through the rapids and ejected into the calm waters once again.
We pitched up on the river bank to recover from our ‘near death’ experience and spent an unproductive hour, half heartedly reading newspapers, eating and arguing about our favourite musical sub genres.
These were agreed to be Contemporary Alt-Americana, Classic Rock circa 1966-74, West Coast psych folk, and the groundbreaking jazz of the early 60s.
We didn’t get on to cheese choices as we were a little pressed for time because we had to head off for another aquatic meander. Eventually we pitched up at Hay on Wye to nose around the myriad of bookshops (I found a book called Success with Carp) before heading back to our boat.
Our campsite was in the back garden of a pub – The Boat Inn at Whitney on Wye – where we were served up with an artery-challenging full English breakfast by the robust patron who possibly jokingly enquired: ‘You are normal aren’t you boys? You don’t want any vegetarian breakfasts do you?’ It felt a little bit like the movie Deliverance. Even though neither of us were veggie, Chris suggested that we should probably play it safe and order extra black pudding if we wanted to make it out of there alive.
Happily we retreated back to the boat without having to engage in any banjo duels for the final leg of our epic trip – an eight mile stretch of yet more unspoilt river leading us to the final rendezvous where the Canoe Centre had sent a minibus to retrieve us.
We were sad to leave and return to our humdrum lives and responsibilities – like waking from a dream. It’s fair to say that over the two days, we had become so attuned to nature that it was difficult to tell where we ended and the river began…
Either that or we both had very wet trousers.
Probably that actually.
For more information contact Wye Valley Canoes 01497 847213 or log on to www.wyevalleycanoes.co.uk