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Messing about on the River

Posted 3/9/2017

Myself and Ryan have long dreamed of the freedom of paddling a kayak along many of the waterways and coastlines we enjoy sitting beside, though like many things it wasn’t something we ever seemed to get around to doing – until this week!

A neighbour of ours at ‘base camp’ suggested combining a trip up our local river with a spot of wild camping and well, as if we needed any further prompting in the matter… we were in!

In return for the loan of a craft for Ryan I offered to take care of the catering aspect of the trip, and we managed to find another kayak to borrow for myself to use. Needless to say a big thank you for that! ♥

I had last paddled a kayak as a child on a school adventure trip, and Ryan had a little more recent experience from around 10 years back, of course we have a healthy respect for water of any kind but we had chosen a fairly friendly river to rediscover the activity relatively safely. After a few last minute purchases (we both needed new sleeping tarps) we packed our camping kit, bagged everything we didn’t want wet, and hoped that we still remembered what to do…

Our ambitious trip began at Bromham in rural Bedfordshire a little after midday, just after the weir (for obvious reasons!) and we all found our way into the water with a little help and encouragement and most surprisingly without any of us falling in! A few tester strokes to rekindle our memory and we began our journey along the river Ouse. The destination was to be a patch of woodland set aside for community use as a wild campsite, no booking required, near to the popular Danish Camp at Willington. Of course the free nature of the site means that there may already be many people there, and the level of fire-wood available varies but we'd already taken the step to stash some wood and clean water at the site that morning to ease the pressure on the local resources. We took comfort in the thought that if all else failed, at least we could get a good breakfast at the cafe… ;)


The river winds a gentle path through the sleepy countryside, gradually increasing in width as it approaches Kempston and Bedford, though from our vantage point low in the water we didn’t see much beyond our secret realm of towering reeds and dancing damselflies. We soon got the hang of it and each found a rhythm, navigating the weeds, avoiding shallow areas, and successfully (well, mostly...) dodging the arms of the reaching willows. A myriad of Ducks hurried from our path, likely a wise move since my reactions certainly weren’t as sharp as they could be, and several families of Swan eyed us suspiciously as we slipped past, silent but for our chatter and satisfying splash of the paddle strokes.


Gradually we began to encounter more and more human life along the banks as we neared town and Bedford Embankment was as busy as we imagined it would be, a pretty stretch though the litter rather let it down - unfortunately to be expected of anywhere near ‘civilisation’ these days. Still I managed to catch up with a plastic bottle and a can bobbing in the current so there is at least two items less… I figure that future trips will include a litter picking aspect to give me something to play at as it was quite fun to have a ‘target’ to catch!

All the gear, no idea...? ;)All the gear, no idea...? ;)

 View of Bedford from the riverView of Bedford from the river

With our now comfortable arrangement of teamwork and steadying each others craft, we hopped out and switched to the canal stretch of water beside the Boat House and skirted around Priory Country Park with tiring arms and complaining shoulders. I was a little embarrassed at having Ryan and our friend carry my kayak during portage moments but couldn’t avoid the fact that it was just too heavy for me to lift by myself (with all our food on board anyhow), although stronger than ever I clearly still have some work to do. Those that know me, know how I like to be able to do things for myself but I can still admit when I need help!

The skies clouded over leaving the day a comfortable temperature and we got a great view of several herons up close, wildlife is certainly more trusting of a boat compared to a human on foot. Further downstream a familiar piercing whistle caught my attention and our friend was able to catch a glimpse of his first Kingfisher, bobbing it’s head on a branch before becoming the signature flash of blue.

Time constraints continued to play on our minds as we slowly but surely made our way, worrying that perhaps we had chosen to travel slightly further than was realistically possible for beginners and I was only getting slower – I gritted my teeth and pushed on one stroke at a time, determined to keep up with the guys and not to hold us up too much. Still I was clearly flagging and Ryan offered to tow me since his shoulders were still good, so begrudgingly I tied on and suffered the shame for the benefit of a faster pace.

 Last portageLast portage

A couple of fast moving boats blew past us causing us to have to carefully steer through the waves and hope for the best, but finally, and not without some relief, we come to our final portage at the lock and weir near the Bedford Bypass, meaning that we were nearly upon our destination. With a little consultation with the map we found the turn we needed, and paddled along the extremely narrow tributary that leads to the isolated Matchstick Wood and home for the night.

A few spots were particularly shallow and I found myself having to shimmy across the fine gravel with my fingertips but we made it in the end and wasted no time getting camp in order. No sooner were the tarps hung when the last of the daylight faded beneath heavier clouds and the rain began to fall, thankfully not heavy enough to dampen the fire too much and we settled into our comfy spots under shelter to stare at the flames, with the woodland to ourselves. I was reminded that I much prefer gazing into the depths of a campfire over watching TV any day!


With potatoes in the embers we scoffed the chicken legs I’d prepared earlier (pre-cooked at home to minimise the cooking time, tenderise, and to avoid the issues of raw meat) and washed it down with a mug of well earned wine and cider. A visiting friend, reminding us that we were still local despite feeling a world away, brought us some smiles in the form of marshmallows for toasting - now that’s how you crash a wild camping party! ;)

Later when they’d finally cooked, we each enjoyed a simple plate of baked beans atop a buttery baked potato, simple always makes for the best camping meals and there’s no better seasoning than hunger! Not long after we wriggled into our sleeping bags and swayed gently in our hammocks until sleep took hold, occasionally roused by our nosy wild neighbours rustling in the bushes nearby or the birds beginning the chorus at dawn. Ryan had illuminated all manner of eye-shine in the darkness with his head-torch earlier in the night including a deer and a wandering cat, and signs pointed to there being badgers about – a forest floor at night isn’t as peaceful a place as you might think...


My place of peace, with a belly full of bacon! :DMy place of peace, with a belly full of bacon! :DIn the morning we woke late to an overcast sky, and I pottered about camp getting water boiling for tea and cleaned the plates ready for breakfast. We moulded our bannock dough into patties to cook on the grill over the fire, filling the misshapen bread with plenty of bacon and lounging in our hammocks as it settled in our bellies.

After some discussion we decided that the forward journey was ambitious enough, and to expect to paddle upstream in our tired states (in anything less than 8 hours anyway) would be impossible, plus the rain that was increasing it’s patter would only make things harder. With relief our friend arranged a lift back to the van at Bromham so he could return to collect the kayaks from where we were, and Ryan scouted the river further downstream to find a good place to get out and carry them across. As much as I like to force myself to complete a task I’ve set myself, I still know when it’s sensible to call it quits amd I happily cleaned up camp!


After a quick pack down and general tidy up we were back on the water, noticing that at least the steady rain had topped up the water level in the shallow tributary so I only become beached once on the way out! We passed some fresher-faced folks heading to the site on our way out, with only a little awkward manoeuvring in the narrow waterway, before rejoining the main river for the short paddle to Danish Camp, I realised with dismay that my new-to-paddling shoulders had enough trouble doing even that journey so it was lucky we weren’t trying to return the full distance! After choosing a spot we helped each other out and up the slippery bank and got the van loaded once more to head back to Base Camp, tired but satisfied.


Despite the aches we all agreed that we’d had a great time and discussion soon turned to future trips and buying boats of our own, needless to say The Waki Way will likely be coming soon to a waterway near you… ;)

Sarah is a UK artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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