THE JOY OF CONCRETE
Researching rivers in the South West for the new guidebook 'English White water', Chris Wheeler talks about his experiences in the South East.
I'd been 'volunteered' to act as one of five regional co-ordinators helping Franco Ferrero with the production of a new guidebook, 'English White Water'. A long overdue project I thought- I'd love to help- but how much work would it involve? Looking at the map, I quickly realised that the region I'd been asked to cover (the South East, East Midlands and East Anglia) appeared to have been arrived at by drawing a line around all the areas completing lacking in decent white water rivers. Hmm. So that left Hurley, Holme Pierrepont, the Nene and a couple of other weirs. Easy. However, it soon became apparent that there was more to the project than at first met the eye. First of all, I realised that I didn't really know what there was in the way of white water (play boating venues or Grade 2 rivers) beyond my home territory, the Thames Valley. Secondly, I realised that there were in fact numerous play boating venues in the Thames Valley and I had never paddled half of them, because I'd been too busy paddling at Hurley.
Surfing the Net
Before I surfed a wave I was going to have to 'Surf the Net'. I posted messages on web site message boards and sent press releases to the magazines, publicising the guidebook, explaining what we were doing and asking for help. Was there a 'Hawaii sur Medway' in deepest in Kent? Was there an Essex Grand Canyon? The response was underwhelming. It soon became clear, as expected, that the region was devoid of genuine Grade II rivers, in other words, rivers with rocks in, as opposed to shopping trolleys. This left the man made sites- the weirs and artificial courses.
The joy of delegation
I'm a self confessed Thames Valley paddler through and through. I was born and bred in a World of concrete. I love the stuff. It was clear that I would need help from other paddlers, as well as a Psychiatrist- I knew my limitations. After writing guides to Holme Pierrepont and the Nene, I passed on the East Midlands to the local experts, the boys at Desperate Measures, and Norfolk to Jasmine Walters. They knew of further weirs that most people south of the Watford gap, myself included, had never heard of. Good, I could now concentrate on my first love, the Thames weirs.
But what about slalom?
There are two types of paddler in the South East who are desperate for white water- play boaters and slalomists. You can train for slalom on any stretch of moving water, however, I had to be selective, after all, all weirs create moving water and there are countless weirs. I had no way of knowing where slalom poles might be set up and most training courses are set up on flat water. In the event, I decided to focus on venues where not only was there accessible moving water but also where retentive play boating moves were possible, in other words, cartwheels or flat spins. Those interested in slalom could easily obtain further information, on active slalom clubs and training venues, via the BCU.
Time to talk to other Thames play boaters. Luckily, James Farquharson had recently taken on the task of developing and improving the website developed by Gareth Spargo to serve Thames Valley play boaters, www.thamesweirproject.co.uk. He wanted to re-vamp the weir guide by including every Thames weir. What if, by some miracle, there was a 'Hawaii sur Thames' that, somehow, no-one had noticed? Time to delegate. Again. We put a team of 6 together to go and check out all 45 weirs at all water levels. I took on 8 weirs from Mapledurham to Temple, plus two weirs on the River Kennet in Reading.
You don't have to travel half way around the World to go exploring
Now we all got to pretend to be Indiana Jones, the intrepid explorer, battling through the undergrowth, boldly going where, well, no play boater had probably ever ventured in the middle of Winter, and with good reason. Sometimes the weirs were only accessible by boat. Sometimes the roads to the weirs were flooded. So, what did we find when we finally espied our long lost weirs? A play boaters' City of Atlantis? Our Holy Grail? Our Shangri La? Erm, not exactly.
Weirs from Hell
The white water kayakers' nightmare- the walled in hole- lots of them. Ironwork, debris, barbed wire fences, all combining to give the unwary a long, lingering death. Fluffy, cuddly, Hurley was clearly a freak, a one off.
At last! I get to go paddling!
What we did do, however, is learn a lot more about the known weirs. We paddled Marlow weir for the first time. It was desperately cold but we enjoyed it- after all my years of play boating, I was paddling something new in the Thames Valley. Whilst Marlow might not rival Hurley, it does provide some nice (albeit shallow) waves and holes when Hurley and Shepperton are too high but Mapledurham too low. We discovered that when Marlow works, Boulters can be worth trying and that the 2nd wave is a perfectly good, surging, natural breaking wave. We worked out exactly when the Mapledurham wave works and that when even Mapledurham washes out, there is one final weir of last resort- Slough Weir, on the new flood relief channel, the 'Jubilee River'.
We also tried out Hambleden, to see whether the new underwater ramps had worked. A mixed conclusion- yes, the ramps, at their base angle of 15 degs, created a retentive wave, but only when the weir pool was fairly low. Too high and the wave was flushy; too low and an intimidating stopper formed. Teething troubles meant that the ramps could not be left permanently raised at a maximum angle of 30 degs, so the wasted journeys outnumbered the worthwhile ones.
So, there is more to life than Hurley after all, venues that are less crowded and better suited to coaching and larger club groups. Indeed, at the last count, we had identified 26 play boating/ slalom white water venues in the South East, East Midlands and East Anglia- far more than I had anticipated.
The future in the Thames Valley
It's all very promising. The BCU and Environment Agency are working more closely to ensure that as the EA program of weirs rebuilding continues, we are consulted to ensure that design modifications can be incorporated into the schemes.
Meanwhile, www.thamesweirproject.co.uk goes from strength to strength, bringing together the play boating community in the Thames Valley and bringing paddlers the latest news on water levels. The latest innovation is texting- where paddlers can text from the river bank direct to the web site. A role model, surely, for other regions? Maybe the same system could be developed nationwide, covering white water rivers?
We also have a new 'pied piper' of Thames Valley play boating, and worthy successor in that role to Shaun Baker, in Jacko (AKA Andy Jackson) of 'Kayakojacko.' Jacko is out on the water all the time, fussing around his young protgs like a swan around her ducklings.
As I write, the Editor of 'English White Water', Franco Ferrero, is trying to make sense of our draft guides, busy assembling the book ready for publication, we hope, in October of this year. So, next Winter, will copies of the guide book will be sliding back and forth across the dashboards of English white water paddlers' cars? We hope so. Will it have the impact that Terry Storey's old guides did in the late 1980's? That's asking a lot, but if it encourages people to discover new rivers and weirs, instead of doing the same old thing week after week, it will have all been worthwhile.
Jacko at Shepperton.