In The Pull of the River two foolhardy explorers do what we would all love to do: they turn their world upside down and seek adventure on their very own doorstep. Showing that it is still possible to get lost while knowing exactly where you are, This book tells tales of escape and adventure on Britain’s waterways. It is a beautifully written exploration of nature, place and friendship, and an ode to the great art – and joy – of adventure. Here, the author Matt Gaw takes us out on the water.
Lowered beneath willow-slung banks, the land is lost as soon the paddles find their metronome rhythm. The muscles work unthinkingly, until both the body and brain are neither asleep nor awake. Floating. Suspended and soothed by the lulling shush of water on wood.
It is now two years since I first discovered how paddling could open a window into a different world. My friend James Treadaway had, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, decided to build a canoe. He beavered away for months in his back garden, a suburban Noah, bending, shaping and gluing wood to form a 16ft Canadian canoe, whose handsome curves and broad bottom he painted a joyous nautical red, the colour of Mae West’s lips.
One summer evening we decided to take her for a maiden voyage along the Stour in Suffolk. Having grown up nearby, it is a river we both knew well. I have walked it, fished it and swum between its banks. But as soon as we set out, I realised I had never really given myself to the river, never allowed myself to sense its timeless flow from source to sea.
During the next few months I travelled by canoe whenever I got the chance, both with James and alone. I studied maps, tracing the familiar network of blue lines around where I lived with my finger, realising for the first time how they represented miles of waterscape.
Perhaps, in some ways, our travels, particularly of the rivers close to us, the Lark, the Colne, the Alde, Granta, the Cam, was a re-mapping, a filling in of a huge gap in a country I thought I knew so well.
We ventured further afield too, seeking new rivers, new waterscapes. On our quiet adventures we paddled along everything from the smallest tributaries to stent-straight canals and broad-backed flows hurrying towards the sea. Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud. Through fields, woodland, villages, towns and cities.
The trips confirmed what I had first felt on that pollen-dusted stretch of the Stour. To sink wet-bottomed into a canoe is, just like wild swimming, to cross a boundary – to become something else. No longer land-locked but free. On the water you are not a journalist, a father, an artist or a friend: the salesman is drowned, the doctor turned to bubbling, wind-whipped foam, the office walls overcome and overwhelmed in a surging flood. Even time seems to melt away in the water.
Like many journeys, I wonder if escape played a part too. Rivers are often borders, both to counties and countries, and to be following them is to occupy a no-man’s land where the only law seems to be the push of the paddle against the current.
In the canoe, we are free to wander, alone and unchecked. Although there may be only ever two ways to go, the possibilities seem endless.
The Pull of the River: A Journey into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain, published by Elliott & Thompson is out in paperback on February 21, 2019.