By foot, canoe and kayak, Katie McKy saw England in a whole new light.
I concluded my Canoe & Kayak magazine interview of former captain of industry John Stookey with one of my standard questions: “Where would you still like to paddle someday?” He followed up his answer — “I’d like to paddle the Thames from source to sea” — with an invitation.
And so, a year ago this month, I walked, canoed and kayaked across England with three near-strangers: Stookey, 85, a former Fortune 200 CEO with a lifelong proclivity for paddling; his daughter, Laura Stookey-Stuart, 57; and their friend Lo-Yi Chan, 82, a New York City architect.
Plane, bus, train and eventually taxi delivered us to Kemble, the town nearest the source of the river. While England was wet, as advertised, the only water we found at the source was rain. We followed the dry streambed 14 miles on foot along the Thames Pathway to Cricklade, where we put in our rented watercraft.
For the first three days, the lush land belonged to us and the lambs along the riverbank. We didn’t spot another boat.
But then the river deepened enough for narrowboats, built for the 2,000-plus miles of canals that crisscross England, Scotland and Wales, and we gladly shared our waterway.
The comeliest of companions in their harlequin paint and polished brass, these floating gypsy wagons — many manned by retired folks, who use them as seaworthy RVs — could barely slip through the canals’ 7-foot-wide locks. But in the 45 larger locks along our way, there was plenty of room for their cheery owners and us.
As the river grew beneath us, we were joined by slender sculls, Dutch barges and even punts, the shallow, wooden boats that one propels while standing. Along our way: the grandeur of Oxford, Windsor Castle and Westminster Cathedral.
In London, England’s aorta was no longer bucolic. It bustled. We shared the river with blunt-nosed workboats, wave-jumping inflatables (aptly called Thames Rockets) and 13 high-speed commuter catamarans as wakes ricocheted back and forth between the sea walls.
From our small boats, we had an ant’s-eye view of the city’s glory, including Parliament, Tower Bridge and even a battlecruiser. London’s beauty overwhelmed us, for no one cranks up the swank like the Brits. Big Ben was even bigger, and its gold trim more glittery, than we envisioned. We rode the tide for the last two miles, paddles on our laps, not wanting to hasten our 175-mile journey’s end. We sadly slid ashore at Greenwich, where the grand, white buildings of the Old Royal Naval College effervesced in our final day’s last light. The Cutty Sark, the swiftest and most famous clipper ship, is docked there, and the world-famous observatory overlooks it all. As did we — with gratitude.
Katie McKy ’76 is a freelance writer and children’s book author. A gardener as well, she wishes hers was an English garden with mossy, ancient walls.