16 September 2018
Usually on a Sunday morning the fast boys are up early and out running somewhere. Normally somewhere off road and muddy, as my washing machine can attest. This Sunday was a little different. Actually it was a lot different. Someone, possibly Rob, had the bright idea to go kayaking instead of running. Obviously this was something I couldn’t possibly miss, even if I had no plans to actually get into a kayak, being seriously deficient when it comes to balance and agility and not inclined to swin in the Itchen. As it turned out, watching the kayakers was the most fun I’ve had for ages and I got a nice walk into the bargain.
We met up with John, Rachel, Rob, Kim, Nicole and Mark at Woodmill. Rachel, Kim and I would be staying firmly on land but the boys and Nicole all looked a touch on the nervous side as we waited outside for Julian, the expert, to arrive. I can’t say I blame them one bit. It was a warm day but I was fairly sure the Itchen would be freezing cold.
When Julian arrived, looking very well prepared in a proper wet suit, we all went off to find the kayaks. For me, this was especially interesting as it meant going inside Woodmill. There has been a mill on this spot since medieval times but I have only been inside once, and that was just to buy coffee. In fact, at one time, there were once three mills here, two corn mills and a mill for making wooden naval blocks, built by Walter Taylor in 1781. All three were destroyed by fire in around 1825 though and the building we entered this morning was built soon after as a flour mill. The mill closed in the 1950’s but the building is still a landmark, being the lowest lock on the river and the point where the salt water and fresh water meet.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much chance to look around but we were led to a small room at the back of the mill and the kayakers paid their money and filled in forms. Hopefully this was not so their bodies could be identified later. We were then taken outside to the grassy area I’ve often peeked at over the wall as I walk through the mill. This gave me a whole new perspective on the river and the mill building but, frustratingly, not much chance to take photos of it. The kayakers were given a worryingly brief briefing on how to use the kayaks and then it was time to go.
Until this point everyone had assumed they’d be going down the slipway and onto the saltwater part of the river. There’d even been a few jokes about heading for the Isle of Wight and battling against the tide on the way back. The tide was out though, leaving the seaward side of the mill ensconced in mud, so they all had to drag their kayaks across the road to the freshwater side of the river. At least I didn’t have to worry about Commando being lost at sea.
This was when we learned that dragging a kayak behind you isn’t easy, especially if you don’t want to knock anyone nearby off their feet. With some difficulty they all manoeuvred the kayaks out of the gates and along the narrow path beside the mill. There was then a short pause while everyone crossed the road. Getting across the road here isn’t easy at the best of times so I was feeling fairly pleased I didn’t have a big red kayak to pull behind me.
Thankfully everyone made it across in one piece. After some more instructions on how to use the kayaks safely, it was time to get into the river. This was where I’d have been getting acquainted with the fish. With a little help the kayaks went into the water. With a lot of help the kayakers managed to get into them. Unbelievably, no one fell in although it looked very touch and go a few times and I had the camera ready to capture any spills. Only Mark and Julian, who’d both done it before, got into their kayaks with any degree of elegance.
It took the non experts a few moments to get to grips with their paddles but soon they were off, albeit fairly slowly. Rachel, Kim and I walked alongside, easily keeping up with them. This was the point when I felt a stab of jealousy and regret. Part of me would have loved to be on the water getting a swan’s eye view. Another part of me knew I’d have more likely been in the water or paddling backwards by accident. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to take any photos.
Before long they seemed to be getting the hang of it and started moving upstream a little faster. We could still keep up with them without too much effort but now we were walking at a more normal pace. There was a fair bit of wibbling and wobbling as everyone got used to steering and a few ducks dashing for cover but, apart from the water dripping off the paddles into the kayaks, no one got wet.
About halfway between the mill and the riverbend a fisherman cast his line across the water just as the kayakers were approaching. He almost caught more than he bargained for but, more by luck than judgement, the boys managed to avoid getting entangled. They were looking more professional now and it wasn’t long before their competitiveness took over and they began racing each other. Water and ducks were flying everywhere. Sensibly, Nicole and Mark stayed out of this madness and just kept sedately paddling onwards.
Pretty soon they’d reached the first bend in the river and, despite all the mad paddling and racing, Kim, Rachel and I were easily keeping up on foot. Of course, we were probably not having quite as much fun but we were certainly expending far less energy and staying dry.
Before long we were all approaching the final bend before Mansbridge. On the bank there was some discussion about whether there’d be enough time to pop into the White Swan for a coffee if the pub was open. Then the bridge came into view.
Thinking I’d be able to get some good photographs from the bridge, I ran on ahead. This was probably a mistake on several counts. Running is not my forte and doing it in front of a whole group of runners was only inviting ridicule. Thankfully they were all kind to me and no one actually laughed, at least not out loud. There was no real need to run either. Even at my stupidly slow pace, I reached the bridge long before the kayakers. There was even time to catch my breath before they all paddled beneath me.
Once they’d passed I returned to the path and we all followed them under the new road bridge towards the pub. We lost sight of them just as a group of paddleboarders came in the opposite direction. Thankfully, the pub was open. We three walkers piled inside, bought coffees and sat in the pub garden waiting for our kayakers to return.
We had no idea how far upstream they’d gone but we’d finished our drinks and had quite a chinwag before they finally appeared again. After a brief chat over the flood defence wall, they set off to paddle back to Woodmill and, with some reluctance Kim, Rachel and I left the pub to follow them.
Paddling downstream proved to be far quicker than going in the opposite direction and, as they had more time than they’d expected, they went backwards and forwards and round in circles for a while, showing off their newfound skills. Then it really was time to head back to the mill.
The final test of the day was getting back out of the water. So far they’d all managed not to fall into the river but, it seemed to me, the getting out of the kayaks was going to be a lot more difficult than getting into them. First John got out. It didn’t look easy but he didn’t fall in. Then came Rob. He made quite a meal of it and the sight of his soaking wet bottom as he struggled almost made me cry with laughter.
Julian made it all look very elegant and simple. Commando was far less graceful but he got out without getting wet or losing his kayak, which was far more than I would have done. Then there was only Nicole and Mark. Ever the gentleman, Mark helped Nicole and more or less leapt out himself. Somehow they’d all managed to spend an hour messing about on the river without anyone falling in.
All that was left was to take the kayaks back to the mill. This did at least give me the chance to take a few sneaky photographs. Given how much everyone seemed to enjoy their afternoon of kayaking, I’m fairly sure this won’t be my last glimpse of the back of the mill. In fact, Commando is looking at the price of kayaks right now.
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