It’s not often that reality matches up to our yearning of how something might be. But today, floating down a tranquil river while mayflies pirouette in shafts of sunlight and swallows dart and dive over the shimmering surface, the dream and reality come pretty close.
There’s only one fly in the ointment. Canoeing is hard work. I’d had visions of myself snoozing on the deck, fingers trailing in the water. But paddling a 16ft canoe – with two nights’ camping gear and fox terrier Sid on board – is a full-time job for my husband Jeff and I.
Our trip begins at the Wye Valley Canoe Centre in Glasbury, a Welsh village perched on the southern bank of the river Wye. From here, we plan to paddle downstream to Hereford (crossing the border into England) – a distance of 34 miles, which we’ll cover in three days - spending nights under canvas.
Beyond the ‘border’ town of Hay-on-Wye, six miles downstream, there is just one shop and two pubs within reach of the river until Hereford, necessitating total self- sufficiency. This makes decisions about what to cram into our two airtight barrels and drybag all the more challenging.
Before we launch, we get a ‘paddle chat’ from Jane Hughes, proprietor of Wye Valley Canoes. Tracing our proposed route on a large wall map, she points out a few landmarks and hazards we’ll encounter, issuing nuggets of advice such as ‘steer into the ‘V’ - that’ll help you keep the boat straight,’ ‘communicate with each other clearly,’ and ‘make sure you know how to recognise your destination...’
The river is wide and flat at Glasbury – a forgiving environment for our beginner mistakes (paddling out of sync, over-correcting when we veer off course) – save for the amused spectators breakfasting on the deck of the River Café. But within 15 minutes we’re approaching our first rapid and, failing to heed Hughes’ advice, end up yelling at each other as we hit it side-on – (what she’d described as the ‘worst case scenario’).
We avoid capsize, though, and our silent recriminations soon evaporate in the sun. We’re also united by our dismay at the amount of ‘traffic’ on the river. On a May Bank Holiday weekend, it would seem the Wye is the watery equivalent of the M5.
A boat goes by blaring Abba from a tinny stereo. Teenagers in large groups shriek and take unnecessary soakings.
Human traffic aside, the river is awash with bird life – dippers and wagtails comb the pebbled shores, ducklings huddle in the shallows and swans shake their tailfeathers at Sid as we pass. We paddle in earnest to escape the jam and seek a quiet spot for lunch. We settle for a small, shady beach with an easy landing, and get the stove going for tea. Soon we are feasting on bread, ham, pickle and scotch eggs. Sid is elated to be back on dry land and, with aching shoulders and forearms already, I share his sentiments.
We consult the map and see that we’ve covered nearly 7 miles – leaving a further 5 to reach our camping spot for the night. We press on, switching sides after every 100 strokes to spread the load and help us keep rhythm.
By late afternoon, most of the day-trippers appear to be back on dry land, and I can feel myself start to relax. Even Sid is now draped across a sun-warmed barrel, rather than standing rigidly on the deck. We paddle along in a companionable silence, broken only by the rhythmic trickle of water from our paddles. Tension and irritability ebb away.
The pace and feel of the river changes constantly – a sluggish stretch suddenly giving way to fast-flowing rapids. We search constantly for the elusive ‘V’. With the river currently averaging 2-3 feet, a capsize would largely entail getting wet up to the knees. That’s not always the case, though. Over the past two summers, Hughes tells us, there have been weeks on end when the river has been running too high and fast to put canoes on at all. And there are pockets where the riverbed is 30ft below – prime real estate for salmon.
The egress (exit point) for our camping spot, a farmer’s field beside Lockster’s Pool, according to its proprietor Mrs Mason, is to be found within a ‘30ft gap among the willows on the right bank, just past the big S-bend in the river.’ We fail to spot it and have to work hard to paddle back upstream. It’s worth it, though. There’s not a soul there - just a springy field sloping down to the water’s edge. There’s even some firewood, left by campers the previous night. We pitch the tent, cook dinner and sit on our upturned barrels by the fire, drinking wine and listening to the owls hoot.
After the bottlenecks of the day before, we’d resolved to be on the river by 6.30am. But we don’t wake till gone eight, woozy and stiff. No matter, day two’s paddle is the shortest - 10 miles – and it’s blissfully quiet.
Quiet enough, in fact, for us to spot a mink scampering along the bank. We manage to stay alongside it for a good 20 metres before it plops into the water and swims away.
The river meanders through open countryside - rolling hills, orchards and neat yellow squares of rapeseed unfold beyond its verdant banks. With time on our side, we decide to take a long, lazy lunch and hold out till we find the perfect spot - a soft, grassy bank at the foot of a field. Sipping tea and nibbling a hunk of cheese, I feel like a character from Wind in the Willows. After lunch, I doze off and wake up at Sid’s low growl, to find a semi-circle of nonplussed sheep chewing silently.
We reach the campsite at Bycross Farm by late afternoon. It seems positively crowded in comparison to the previous night – but in reality, it’s just a few tents sent among the fruit trees. We still manage to find a pitch with an uninterrupted river view – and take a stroll to nearby Preston-on-Wye, for a pint at the wonderfully eccentric Yew Tree Inn.
The following morning, when we set off on our final 11-mile stint, it feels as if we have the river to ourselves. A heron, hunched over the rapids, hauls himself into the sky at our approach. Trees crowd the banks, dipping their branches into the water.
I’m secretly relieved about the lack of company, because we are about to negotiate the rapids at Monnington Falls. According to Hughes, there’s a beach where we can stop to inspect the water before we proceed, but although we hear the rush of the falls before we see them, we somehow miss this and pitch down the rock-strewn channel completely unprepared. Despite an ominous scrape along the bottom of the boat, we manage to stay upright and this time, we’re laughing instead of arguing about whose fault it is.
When I see a coke can bobbing in the water, it strikes me how pristine the river has been thus far. But suddenly, it seems there’s litter floating everywhere. It’s only when I’ve spotted the ubiquitous shopping trolley and clocked the traffic-clogged road bridge up ahead, that I realise we must be nearing Hereford. We pull in at the rowing club, our exit point, and stand on concrete for the first time since we left Glasbury. My legs feel wobbly. We haul the canoe up the steps and wait for our pick-up.
Three days on the river has felt like a substantial voyage, so it’s a bit of a shock when Jeff gently nudges me awake and tells me we’ve arrived back at the boathouse. I‘m reminded of the waitress at the River Café who, when we’d said we were paddling to Hereford, had joked ‘What for? It’s only 35 minutes in the car.’