Mary Creighton heads for a spontaneous canoe-camping trip up the River Nene, and discovers zero preparation equals maximum fun!
Canoeing the Nene: smiles guaranteed, even in the rain
I’m standing at the bank of the River Nene with my husband John, plus our friends Sadie, Jonny and Jess on the outskirts of Oundle, Northamptonshire, contemplating the very wet canoe in front of me.
It’s raining, of course. When we arranged our canoe trip, oh, maybe 13 hours ago, the forecast predicated sunny skies. Even when we drove up the A1 two hours ago the sun was glaring down on us. But the moment we reached the riverbank the clouds came in and the rain poured. Which is fine, we reassure ourselves, we were going to get wet anyway.
The plan? It’s a simple one: load our canoes and kayaks, paddle down the Nene until we find a campsite, rustle up some chilli, play some card games, pass out, wake up and paddle back. Should be a doodle. Except, it turns out, we’ve failed at the first hurdle of packing light. Three tents, plus sleeping bags, mats, spare clothes, cooking equipment, food and quite a lot of beer seem to be rather on the bulky side. Especially with just a double kayak and three-man canoe to play with. Cue canoe/kayak Jenga.
Navigating the river Nene
Somehow, it all fits in and we’re off! After passing under a viaduct and (nearly) getting caught up in some ferocious looking reeds, we paddle away from Oundle and the Northamptonshire countryside opens up in front of us. It would hardly win any awards for dramatic scenery, but it’s very… English. All gently rolling meadows, hedges and farmland. I spend most of the year living in the Austrian Alps, and the easy-on-the-eye scenes as we paddle along is both refreshing and relaxing.
After about 30 minutes of easy-going paddling, we reach a lock, and our first portage of the day. Lifting a loaded canoe out of water, carrying it 25 metres up a tow path and carefully lowering it back from a precarious pontoon in was another thing we didn’t consider when we packed two cases of beer…
Portage after glorious portage
Portaging, it seems, is the most time-consuming part of our trip. We only paddle a few miles, but come across three portages, the trickiest of which, Lower Barnwell, includes a steep staircase round a tight corner to a wobbling pontoon… But it’s worth it for the calm serenity of the river: we don’t see anyone else, or hear anyone else, until we reach Oundle Mill an hour later.
The whole river from Oundle to Northampton is prime for canoe camping, but we’ve spontaneously pulled into the Indigo campsite, just outside of Barnwell, wet but happy. It’s my perfect campsite: just a big, open meadow overlooking the river with a couple of yurts (occupied by the quietest stag party ever – also paddlers), a kitchen tent and portaloo. We pitch up, dry off, and spend the evening around the fire, grateful to have found this quiet spot in the English countryside.
The campsite, complete with teepee, yurt and kitchen
The next morning is a relaxed one, complete with poached eggs and bacon bought from the campsite farm, and we don’t set off until 11. We’re all keen to paddle, but dreading the tricky portages at Oundle Marina. So, after checking the map, we decide to take a detour, portaging on the left side of the bank and canoeing around the back of the marina rather than the front. More paddling: less walking.
Except this less-frequented branch of the Nene is overrun by reeds and nettles, and navigation is tricky: one bad manoeuvre and we’ll end up with a face full of reeds. Which is exactly what happens. Twice. Who says a lack of planning can’t be fun!
For information on canoe hire in Oundle see Trek Kits.