During these short, dark, drizzly winter days, I’ve spent a lot of time curled up in front of the fire dreaming and reading about adventures. I’ve become slightly obsessed with riparian adventures - travels down, up, on, beside and in rivers. We’ve got a couple of potential river walks in mind for 2016 and (hopefully) a really big, exciting one in 2017 . . . stay tuned! In the meantime, here are nine things I like about river journeys. (Supported by evidence in the form of books, mostly. But also some TV.)
Find a river. Follow it. What could be more simple? Olivia Laing’s To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface is a gentle exploration of the River Ouse in East Sussex, a walk taken one hot summer week. It’s a musing on the meaning of rivers as well as a bit of a history of this area and those who have lived in and loved it, with a particular focus on Virginia Woolf (who lived in the area and drowned in the Ouse). Laing stops along the way to lie in fields of long grass and take dips in the cool water. The UK’s rights of way network means she can follow footpaths for most of the route, including the Ouse Valley Way, a signposted long-distance walk. It’s more a rambling holiday than an exciting adventure. It sounds delightful.
Find a river. Try to follow it through ravines, jungles, deserts, cities, war zones . . . it's not always a walk in the park. Levison Wood walked the length of the Nile (well, most of it) a few years ago. Wood’s 6,850km (4,250mi) trek took him from Rwanda to Egypt via Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan. The documentary series shows danger on all sides: from humans, wild animals and from the environment itself. He’s robbed on the road, encounters hippos and crocodiles and narrowly avoids being caught in the gunfire of civil unrest. The fighting means he has to abandon part of the walk. In all this high drama, the mundanity of the scene in which Matthew Power, one of Wood’s travelling companions, dies of hyperthermia (heatstroke) is quite shocking. But Wood experiences some incredible sights, stays with hospitable people and visits some fantastically interesting places. Watching his dash into the sea at the end almost makes me want to do it myself. Almost.
Are your river fantasies are more Wind in the Willows than Wild West? I like the idea of recreating Three Men in a Boat (as Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Briain and Rory McGrath did for TV a few years ago) or hopping aboard a narrowboat and exploring the UK’s waterways, following in the wake of L.T.C. Rolt, who helped revive interest in Britain’s canals in the mid 20th Century. There’s also a huge river network in Europe. Who's to say that taking a steamer up the River Yenisei to spend a miserable season in the Arctic coldness of Dudinka - like Colin Thubron does in In Siberia - can’t be a kind of depressing adventure, too? If your ideal journey involves a bit more physical work yourself, take inspiration from the women who attempted to kayak the Amur River from Mongolia, through Russia to the Pacific Ocean, try paddle-boarding the Thames like Mel and Michelle, kayaking the Murray like Rod Wellington or packrafting down the River Spey like Alastair Humphreys and Andy Ward.
Rivers have been used as trade and transport routes for millennia. In Meander: East to West along a Turkish River, Jeremy Seal travels 500km on foot and in his fold-away canoe. He travels through fields and along highways, he finds traces of cultures, wars and mass migrations winding back thousands of years. At one point, Seal reads the history of a mound of earth and sees “the early people who had settled by the tributary banks 6,000 years ago, the Arzawans and the Hittites, the Phyrgians, the Persians and the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines, the Mongols and the Tartars, the Ottomans, their dead sheikh entombed where the past broke surface, and, finally, an agricultural consultant . . . pondering Anatolia’s present troubles.” Later, he moors up beside an island, tying his canoe to the remains of a fluted column rising from the water and is accosted by goats as he eats his lunch among the ruins.
Travelling along a river, either upstream or downstream, is a bit like playing detective. Each new day sheds light on the day before: why the salt is creeping upstream, why the fish are abundant (or not) this year, why farmers have stumbled on hard (or easy) times, or why local attempts to clean up the river are facing an uphill battle. Following a river can give you an insight into the into the environmental effects of climate change, intensive (mis)use of water, damming, waste disposal and agriculture. In the four part series The Mekong River with Sue Perkins (and this will come as no surprise to you clever readers) Sue Perkins travels up the Mekong River. The series touches on the history, cultures and environmental impact of river users in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, China and Tibet. Near the end, it’s a shock to be confronted with the construction of the enormous Xayaburi hydroelectric dam, which will block the flow of the river.
You don't need to save up, quit your job and get on an international flight. Find a short river somewhere near your house and block out a day in your diary to explore. Last year, we spent a day walking and driving the length of the River Cuckmere in East Sussex - starting at the sea and ending at the source (or one of them). On the way we visited chalk carvings, churches and a reservoir and learnt more about the history of the area. The biggest surprise was the source itself: a bright orange, iron-rich spring bubbling out of the ground. There are many of these shorter rivers in the UK (Roger Deakin dabbles in a few over the course of his brilliant book Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain - recommended reading).
Africa has the Nile, the Congo and the Niger; South America has the Amazon and the Paraná; Asia has the Mekong. But you have to travel a significant way down the list of the world's longest rivers before getting to one that flows through continental Europe: the Danube. In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off to walk across Europe to Istanbul. His journey is documented in three books, published in 1977 (A Time of Gifts), 1986 (Between the Woods and the Water) and - unfinished, posthumously - 2013 (The Broken Road). In December 2012, Nick Hunt set off with apparently very little preparation beyond reading Fermor's first two books and setting up a Couchsurfing account to retrace Fermor's steps and find out what had changed in the intervening eighty years. Hunt's book Walking the Woods and the Water, published in 2012, is an account of that journey, often along the Rhine and the Danube, through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It’s not only an interesting account of a very long walk, but a great little introduction to contemporary European politics and cultures.
There are loads of amazing books, articles, blogs, videos and websites dedicated to river journeys. And there’s Google Maps. Put it in satellite view, tilt it if you want, and take your own trip in a far-flung corner of the globe. I have a bit of an addiction to following Russian rivers - the Lena is one of my favourites and the Ob and its siblings also tickle my fancy - though I’m also partial to desert rivers (or riverbeds) like the capillaries of the Diamantina in Australia and the blue braided threads of rivers like the Rakaia in New Zealand’s South Island that run in almost straight lines from the mountains to the sea. Yeah, I can spend hours on Google Maps. I mean, if rivers aren’t enough for you, you can also check out the moon? Or Mars?
Trace a river back to its tributaries; follow one tributary up a valley to a tarn; climb beside a tiny waterfall to to the top of the mountain, to the edge of the catchment, to the watershed; listen to the squelching of mud and moss underfoot; turn your face to the cool drizzle and the clouds. Who is to say where the river really starts? Then follow it downstream, to the fingers of a delta or a long lagoon, a wide-mouthed estuary; to the point where it stops tasting of snow or starts tasting of salt; to the last town, or the last jetty, or the first breaker. Wherever you decide to start or stop walking, paddling, driving or cycling, I think river journeys are sure to live on in your memory for a long time.
What are your favourite river journey memories? Which river would you most like to explore - in your local area or further afield? Do you have your eyes and heart set on a particular river this year?
Being back in full-time work makes me realise all over again just how fleeting weekends are. Our cunning plan to make a weekend feel more like a weekend was this: we’d leave work on Friday, travel an hour or two in the opposite direction of home, spend the whole weekend (three nights) there and return to work on Monday, bright eyed and bushy tailed.
One Friday evening in January, we headed off towards Chichester in West Sussex, checked into Premier Inn and began our mini-holiday. Things kicked off with dinner at Efes, an unassuming-looking Turkish restaurant. It turned out to be a real treat: the meze plate was small but bursting with flavour, the halloumi in the halloumi salad was tasty, the salad was tangy. The vegetarian kebab was the stand-out: deliciously smoky veggies, with melt-in-the-mouth eggplant/aubergine and juicy mushrooms. We were stuffed. We came back to the hotel and I forced myself to have a nice hot bath. What a hassle!
Saturday morning dawned cool and misty. We wandered through the quiet town, getting our bearings and poking our noses down little laneways. Everything looked a little softer, a little more magical in the fog, especially the old Guildhall at Priory Park. When we (eventually) found a breakfast place that suited us, the town had woken up: there was a band in Chichester Cross and a constant stream of people flowing past.
After getting some important shopping business out of the way, we headed to the cathedral for a look around. There are a few intriguing bits and bobs inside, including a cut through of the floor to reveal a section of Roman mosaic beneath, eye-catching contemporary tapestries and glass, and some great old paintings. Just down the road is the Novium museum, which is built over the site of a Roman bath house - the remains of which take up a large part of the ground floor. It makes a pretty spectacular foyer.
All that shopping and sightseeing knocked us out, so after a tasty, wholesome lunch at St Martin’s Coffee House, we went back to our room and fell asleep. Luckily, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed before it got dark so we could drive down to the marina for a short walk. We had fun looking at all the dry docked boats and plotting punny names for if we ever own a sea-going vessel. Down beside the water of Chichester Harbour, trees grew in loops and twists. We wandered a little way from civilisation along the stony shoreline before scrambling up to the footpath and heading back.
The next morning, we were persuaded by the in-house marketing posters to try Premier Inn’s unlimited breakfast. (The posters had sparkles on all the glassware, syrups, fruit compotes . . . and also on the sausages. I know I’m vegetarian, but sparkly sausages are A+ marketing.) I proceeded to stuff myself with pancakes, fruit, yoghurt, crumpets and inoffensive coffee. We timed this well. First, hardly anyone else was about to see us making pigs of ourselves and second, I had an hour-long online meeting straight after, so we could go back to the room and loosen our belts.
It was cloudy outside, but the forecast rain held off as we headed to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. This is somewhere we’ve wanted to visit since watching Tudor Monastery Farm a couple of years ago - and it didn’t disappoint. I loved poking around all the old houses and getting interesting facts from the stewards, tasting leftover Christmas treats and hot griddled bread in the kitchen, admiring the hilariously dumpy sheep, seeing the in-progress thatched Saxon house and saying “just like on TV!”
One highlight was going on a tour of the massive Downland Gridshell Building. It’s fascinating to hear how the structure was put together, and cool to see how it’s used by the museum (e.g. for workshops and to look at the buildings that they bring to the site) . . .
. . . But it gets better! Underneath this amazing space is an even more amazing space: the artefact store. This is one huge room lined with stacks (like a gallery or museum archive), crammed full of all kinds of farm tools, domestic utensils, bits of machinery, clothes and other miscellany. The miscellany was very miscellaneous: a sink, wooden bosses, a horse-drawn hearse, bells, biscuit tins, artwork . . . it was brill!
On the way back we detoured through the fog to a lookout, which was unsurprisingly also completely enveloped by clouds. But as we sat there, the clouds drifted apart for a few minutes, giving us a glimpse of hills, valleys and the low coastal plains around Chichester. We’d spent most of the day at the open air museum, so when we got back we curled up in our room to read our books and have another bath. I love baths.
As we drove into the sunrise on the way to work on Monday, it felt like we’d had a proper mini holiday. Well done, Chichester. Would visit again.
Year of sleeping variously: budget hotel edition
And so we kick off our year of sleeping variously . . .
Budget Hotel verdict: 52%
Do you have any ideas of where we should head for another weekend in a similar vein? Ideally somewhere within an easy 2hr drive of Brighton? (Maybe . . . Brighton?!)
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