This is the weekend they didn’t play golf. – Deliverance (1972)
Instead they decided to canoe down the beautiful Wye Valley along the river of the same name. They, being my good self, my usual partner in microadventure crime Andy Crozier, and the Gavan brothers up from Cornwall.
The concept for this little microadventure was simple; get two Canadian Canoes and some tents, then add in some transport 30 miles up river to where we could put-in and then canoe back down the river over following two days through the stunningly beautiful Wye Valley camping out all along the way!
Since being a very young lad I had gazed down upon the River Wye from the stunningly beautiful vantage point of Symonds Yat Rock perched as it is high up above the valley looking down below over the Herefordshire countryside. I had always wondered what it would be like to canoe down that river below, and imagined that one day I would possibly do it. Well that day had finally arrived, even though it was some 30 plus years later.
This blogpost started with a Tag-line from the movie Deliverance!, the seminal film about a canoe adventure into the back-country made way back in the 1970’s, the correlation’s between that film and this real life adventure were uncanny to say the least!
As in the film four suburban guys (that’s us) decide to escape the rat-race for a long weekend in the countryside canoeing down a beautiful river camping out next to nature and drinking beer along the way, just generally having a good old manly time with pals. As in the film the canoes we hired were of the same Canadian variety (see pic at bottom of post) and the trip was spread out over two days – as in the film. All the boxes getting ticked so far! Of course we would have no need to avoid any hillbillies in Herefordshire hopefully (well not too many) and the prospect of a male rape ordeal was pretty remote in our minds – but you never know for sure in these heady days…..
So it was with a spring in our step that we arrived at the small riverside campsite late on in the day amidst an early autumnal afternoon ready to pitch our tents as a base-camp for the next four days of activity. Bagging some prime real-estate slap bang on the banks of the river we looked forward to the prospect of unzipping our tent doors in the morning and soaking up the pristine views along the gorgeous riverbanks spread out in front of us.
With the tents pitched it was then time to take a small hike up and out of the valley floor, up to the viewpoint at the wonderfully named Symonds Yat Rock. The name is said to come from Robert Symonds, a 17th century sheriff of Herefordshire and “yat” as an old word for a gate or pass.
Symonds Yat Rock overlooks a spectacular gorge through which the River Wye snakes and through which we would be canoeing over the next couple of days. To see the river meandering below and stretching away to the horizon just added to the tangible excitement that we were all already feeling about this little adventure owe had come up with.
Hiking back through the dense forest that makes up Mailscot Wood and back down towards the river all the talk and chatter was about the upcoming events of the next couple of days. In the evening we sat around the campfire back at the tents gorging on flame grilled burgers and having a couple of beers as we looked up and toward the celestial show being put on by the Milky Way above us in the crystal clear night sky, life was good.
The morning came soon enough and as predicted the first views of the day from our tent doors were as sublime as we had hoped for as the mists cleared off the surface of the river, next we collected our canoes for the trip from our Outfitter of choice the renowned Wyedean Canoe Hire – the leading Canoe and Kayak Hire Specialist on the River Wye.
Scarily the silver canoes we hitched up on the back of the trailer looked almost identical to those used in John Boorman’s dramatic film mentioned above, all metallic, battered and heavy-looking, not to mention very seriously unsuitable looking for the task in hand. After a short pause and with the initial shock eventually subsiding we stowed the rucksacks away in the floating water-tight drums provided for us, all nicely packed away ready for the journey ahead and then simply off we set, some 30 miles north towards Hoarwithy up river ready for the great put-in.
As we drove northwards the conversation dried up as the realisation of what we were about to embark upon sunk-in! It really began to feel as if we were living out the film, very reminiscent in fact of the scenes where the boys go looking for the mighty river in the pick-ups and Burt Reynolds goes careering off down the backroads determined to see the river for the first time. Our own van and trailer lurched around tight country lanes, but still we could not see the river.
Next we bumped off-road, over a rutted and undulating lane leading through some fields just outside Hoarwithy village, leading toward the banks of our mighty river. The silence was golden, not just from us, but from the countryside all around us. We really were in some top grade countryside here, all rounded hills, green fields and hedgerows. The only audible sounds came from the gushing river beyond and the cows in the field next door.
Rather be-musingly we listened to a short safety briefing from our Wyedean Canoes representative and then in a blink of an eye our envoy disappeared with the immortal words “We’ll see you in two days time then, have fun lads” And there we stood, Four guys, two canoes and four floating drums packed with over heavy rucksacks!
“Jesus is that it, do we just go?” exclaimed Andy
“yeah I think so” came the muttered reply
“blimey that’s a bit brief” he retorted
So, conversation over, we put-in! I’m not even sure if that is the correct term but it seems to fit the description well enough. Barrel-laden and apprehensive we set off!
Tentatively stroking the paddles into the water we crept into the middle of the river. Then the current took a hold of us and we were off and running. The fear soon disappeared as the sheer joy of paddling in time within the canoe coupled with the feeling of freedom and exhilaration that comes from knowing something is actually going to work quickly replaced any misconceived ideas from beforehand.
Soon enough we all really started to enjoy this new experience of canoeing. Against all the odds the Canadian Canoes handled beautifully and we all began to refine our techniques for paddling as the countryside just grew more beautiful by the mile. We passed past places with great names like; Sellack Boat and Hole-in-the-wall as the river gently meandered through the Herefordshire countryside. Inevitably we started to whistle and hum the infamous duelling banjoes score from John Boorman’s film along the way until that is we all got annoyed enough with it and stopped.
Putting in at a convenient shingle beach we leapt ashore in a self-congratulatory mood and broke open our water bottles to refresh ourselves after an hour or two of physical exertion.
Back on the river and now anglers became the main obstacles of the morning as they stealthily sat at strategic positions dotted along both banks doing their best not to be spotted by man or beast – or in this case fish and canoeists! Spotting the lines glistening in the morning sunshine became a dark art in its own right and avoidance became a skill quickly leant by necessity.
Lunch was an anti-climax as we all made the rookie mistake of bringing stoves with us but no method what so ever to light them with, not even a match! So our appetising looking boil-in-the-bag meals (no honestly they looked good) went for a burton and we were reduced to processed sandwiches instead – not very Bear Grylls, but survival is all about adaptation – right!
The afternoon was made up of several hours of sublime river paddling and enjoyable canoeing until eventually we sighted the small market town of Ross-On-Wye and our spot to camp at overnight.
We were camping in a field between the Old White Lion Inn and the river herself and a better place could not be imagined. We dragged the canoes ashore pitched the tents and then made straight for the beer garden and several pints of real-ale. For some this would count as a near perfect a day as one could possibly have.
Day two promised even more spectacular scenery to canoe through than the day before! The stretch from Ross to Symonds Yat is considered by many to be one of the most picturesque parts of a river to canoe along anywhere in the country.
Although now running through a more populated region beyond Ross-On-Wye the river begins to cut through even more spectacular hilly scenery than ever, eventually ending up meandering through the ever spectacular Yat gorge area. The Yat Gorge is a gorge made out of Carboniferous Limestone which through erosion has exposed some impressive cliff faces, some of which are used for rock climbing these days and are quite well renowned on the climbing circuit.
We were now in the land of the woods; Cannocks Wood, Oldcastle Wood, Thomas Wood and Bishopswood. The river banks became covered in trees as they rose ever more steeply now on either side of us. Put-in-points became less frequent and the current increased in its’ pace.
Goodwich Castle soon came into view standing gloriously a top the prominent hill overlooking the river below. Gazing up at her ramparts it was impossible not to wonder and imagine what it must have been like hundreds of years ago keeping lookout over what was then frontier land with the rebellious Welsh tribes chomping at the bit to kick your butt and kick you out of their lands.
After some more paddling and a distinct lack of places to berth our canoes we came across a welcome sign hanging from a tree proclaiming ‘Good Food’ & ‘Good Beer’. Sold I thought to the tired, hungry and thirsty chaps paddling two Canadian Canoes for 30 miles along the river.
Attempting to hit the target concrete jetty at Lower Lydbrook though to partake of food and drink was no easy task as overshooting was a very real danger in the now quite speedy currents. But it is amazing what the lure of food and drink can do to a man, and we fought like never before against that current to land our canoe!
Man-handling portage style the heavy canoes up two dozen tricky steps to their resting place in a field in front of the public house only created more thirst, which in retrospect is a good ploy for selling yet more ale by a riverside pub to the poor and tired passing canoeist!
All fed and watered we donned our life-jackets once more and ventured outside to renegotiate the tricky steps back down to the river with canoes in hand. Embarrassing accidents avoided we put-in again ready for the last slap down the river.
The scenery unbelievably ramped up the ante yet more as the gorges of Yat came into view for the first time on the trip. My God! this part of the country is truly spectacular! This is the point that I can truly say I became a convert and a believer. The only – the only – way to see this scenery was from the river. There were no roads or any real paths along this part of the river and the only way to get up close and personal was by canoe or other form of river transportation.
We pulled in on the only shingle beach around, berthed the canoes and gazed up in wonder at the beauty and magnitude of the landscape we were venturing through.
The toil of the trip was worth this moment alone, but there was more to come as we carried on around a large horseshoe bend in the river through even more spectacular gorge scenery. Photos really would not do justice as I was shooting into the sun at this point so below is a photo taken from above a day before, hopefully it conveys some of the awe we were experiencing.
The small iron bridge which we now passed under was (we had been told) our marker for 45 minutes left to the Canoe Hire Centre and our adjacent campsite and the end of our particular trip.
We all paddled along, now masters of our canoes, in quiet contemplation of the journey we had all been on. I am sure we were all smiling inside at a job well done, an adventure enjoyed and the revelation (I am sure we all felt) at just how good canoeing a river can be. The scenery had been top-notch, the river challenging, but never really beyond our mixed abilities, the watering points and camping had all come up trumps and the entire trip had been a hoot.
We pulled in at our tents that we had left two days earlier at the Symonds Yat East Campsite. There they all sat, just as we had left them, oblivious to our little adventure. We hauled the canoes out for the last time, almost sorrowfully. Handing them back to the Canoe Outfitter was harder than I’d imagined it would be.
We all shook hands, the Gavan brothers, Andy and myself then we all walked the small distance along the river to The Saracen’s Head Inn which sits in a spectacular position overlooking the river above the famed rapids at the start of the trickiest section of the river to navigate. We ordered our four pints of Real Ale and Guinness to mark the end of the adventure then Andy and myself wandered outside to look at the river one last time.
We looked long and hard at the rapids all frothing and awesome sounding on the river below, we convinced ourselves that we could navigate them, and we duly promised ourselves that we would be back very soon to have a good old bash at them.
Four suburban guys had just completed a four day canoe and camping trip escaping the confines of everyday city life. We had avoided capsizing, being raped by hillbillies and come out the other side unscathed (unlike in the aforementioned film Deliverance!). We had lived the dream – if only fleetingly – and proved that anyone can have an adventure if you know where to look for it. The lad who once looked down from the rocks high above at the river down below and wondered what it would be like to canoe it had finally canoed it.
For more pictures from the adventure check out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157631557504615/