With the summer we are having it was never going to be easy, even after the wet spring we had had. Everybody involved in the Wye, from the guys at the canoe hire to the fishermen we encountered along the way, they all said they had never known the river so low. So low, in fact, that it was deemed impossible for us to launch at Hay. We would be much better launching five and a half miles up stream at Glasbury, making our first day, potentially, very long.
Despite the signs telling people not to launch until 10am we made preparation. Apparently this rule is so that the salmon can rest! Unable to wait until 10 we embarked upon our 84 mile journey down the Wye. We did not come across any complaining salmon, but we did encounter a lot of shallows where all we could do was climb out and drag our canoes through into deeper water.
It took us two hours to reach our previously designated launch spot in Hay, and ironically, a guy from another company directed us down the channel which we understood to be impassible. It was entirely so but by now we were well used to wading through ankle deep water dragging a canoe. It meant that we had not only lengthened our distance by five and a half miles but by late morning we had still only reached our starting point with a full day of paddling still ahead of us.
It was proving to be hard work, not just the dragging, but the river, where it was deep enough, was giving us no assistance whatsoever. There was no discernible flow and we had to work hard all the time. I found it particularly so as I was travelling solo. At least when travelling in pairs you can take a rest while your partner maintains some forward travel. That said, I was enjoying the additional challenge of propelling myself downstream.
The river was very quiet. There were no fishermen, they being dissuaded by the poor conditions of the river. There were plenty of heron but they were so timid by our presence on the water, that they flew off long before we drew level with them. There were very few kingfishers. Either that or our eyes had not yet adjusted to spotting them as they dart from bush to bush at the water’s edge. The good weather had brought people out, and just before Bredwardine we came across some naked sunbathers on the river bank, who plunged into the water as soon as we had passed.
More often than not on a journey of this nature your horizon is the river bank. Occasionally, where it rises further you can see splendid houses with sweeping gardens down to the water’s edge. On this stretch of river the Black Mountains rise sufficiently high for them to be visible for much of the journey. Against a clear blue sky the summits of Hay Bluff and Twmpa stood out clear and proud.
Under normal conditions I would have expected to reach camp at Bycross by about 4.00pm but with the difficulties we had faced and the sluggishness of the river, we did not reach camp until 7.00pm. We had been on the water for about ten hours and covered about 23 miles. It was a tough introduction to paddling on the Wye for those who had not done it before.
As the second day was potentially our longest with 29 miles needing to be travelled to Hoarwithy, I was keen to make an early start. Despite getting up at 5.30am it was still two hours before we got on to the water. Nic had warned us that he was not a morning person. I discovered that the best way to get him going was to take him a cup of tea in bed.
Immediately we were on the river we were faced with our first challenge, Monnington Falls. This is a section of fast flowing water, squeezed at times when water levels are low, into a narrow channel with a large area of bedrock exposed to one side. This proved to be straight forward but gave us a bit of momentum at the start of our day.
It was twelve miles to Hereford and we made reasonable time, arriving there by late morning. We had had less difficulty with rapids and there was slightly more flow to the river than yesterday.
We stopped on the steps to Hereford Rowing Club for a brew and a snack. I took a little time out to consult the guide book. I was already concerned that Hoarwithy was still some seventeen miles down stream and that in the heat of the afternoon it might be too far and too long a day on the river. There was an alternative, we could stop at Lucksall Caravan and Campsite about eight or nine miles beyond Hereford, if they could take us. It would mess up the booking I had made with the pub in Hoarwithy, but that could not be helped. It was important that everybody was enjoying the experience and not overwhelmed by it.
Leaving Hereford, we continued downstream, seeing very little of the city as we passed through it, just glimpses of the top of the cathedral tower, a few industrial sites well camouflaged by trees, and, on the outskirts, a number of large houses, which made the most of their riverside position but failed to enhance it with their rather gauche appearance.
Passing the confluence of the River Lugg, which provided nothing more than a trickle to the dwindling waters of the Wye, we eventually reached Lucksall at 4.00pm, a much more acceptable finish time if they could take us. They could. Lucksall Caravan and Campsite is excellent. We had lovely flat pitches looking out across the river. The facilities are excellent and included a shop, bar and restaurant. Guess where we spent most of the evening.
The following morning we were greeted with yet another cloudless sky. Ducks had gathered around our tents, making enough noise to encourage us to get up, even Nic. Early morning steam rose from the glass-like surface of the river. It seemed a shame to destroy it with our ripples. But destroy it we did.
It took us three hours to reach Hoarwithy, which confirmed that it was the right decision to truncate our journey the day before. We stopped on the stony beach at the foot of the steps up to Tressick Farm campsite for a brew and some energising flapjack.
The journey from Hoarwithy to Ross takes in a stretch of the river where there are few views beyond the banks. There are no villages, only the remnants of old railway bridges and plenty of signs warning us against landing. Occasional herds of cows were standing knee deep in the water, cooling off. There were fishermen and in places, where there was only a narrow channel of navigable water, we had to encroach on their space. On the whole they were understanding and friendly.
We reached Ross at the now acceptable time of 4.00pm, giving us plenty of time to get ourselves organised before going out. We were sharing the field with a group of D of E expeditioners from Kelly College, in Devon. They were a delightful group of young people and seemed to be managing themselves much better than a group we had seen on a similar expedition further up stream.
That night we treated ourselves to a meal at the Royal Hotel overlooking the river from a high vantage point. England v Croatia was on in the bar next door, allowing us to appreciate England’s demise in the World Cup.
Day four brought about a change. As I surfaced from my sleep, I was aware of spots of rain falling on my tent. Or was it an insect caught up between the layers of fabric? It was rain. After so long without it it was quite refreshing.
All was going well until we reached Kerne Bridge. We were managing to average 3.3mph. I reached the bridge and the rapids on the other side of it first, the other two canoes a little behind me. As I went through the first narrow, sweeping little rapid my canoe made glancing contact with a sawn off branch. The other two canoes came through together and while Peter and Ann-Marie passed the branch safely, Nic and Natasha were too close behind to be able to react quickly enough. They hit the branch full on, catapulting Nic into the water, closely followed by Natasha. I wish I had seen it. They needed to dry off and change delayed us a little.
We were now passing through the most beautiful and dramatic section of the river with steep, forested slopes and exposed crags of limestone, home to Peregrine Falcons. It is stunningly beautiful and it does not matter how many times you paddle this stretch, it’s beauty never diminishes.
We were also entering the busiest stretch of the river with a corporate group whom we saw on several occasions, others paddling towards us from Symonds Yat and, by the time we reached the popular beauty spot motor launches carrying day trippers up and down the river.
Having lunched at the Olde Ferrie Inn at Symonds Yat West, we approached the rapids. They were hardly any more challenging than some of the others we had encountered up stream, and we were certainly over and through in the blink of an eye.
Once through, we enjoyed the dark water with its overhanging woodland and dead tree trunks lurking like mythical monsters in the shallows on either side.
The final straight up to Monmouth can be difficult with a prevailing wind coming straight at you, but there was no wind at all. The rain of the morning had been replaced with hot sunshine, and the run up to Monmouth was the easiest I have known. There we disembarked and loaded everything into the waiting minibus and the canoes on to the trailer.
It had been a fabulous four days in perfect conditions, apart from the lack of water, although that was not really an issue after the first day. It is a trip I could repeat again and again. I probably will!