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Busting out the summer bike and canoe

Esther Lafferty on her first bike ride of 2016 and her exploration of the River Wye via Canoeing with The Significant Other
Esther Lafferty is the anchor of the hugely successful Oxfordshire Artweeks festival and a keen triathlete.

"We discovered it was actually more efficient to get out of the kayak and tow it upstream"

As spring burst forth, I decided it was time to bust out the summer bike. This isn’t like whipping out the summer wardrobe when something with short legs becomes appropriate and looks good teamed with diamante flip-flops. Unfortunately, my lycra leggings-jacket combo isn’t nearly as pretty.

In the cold wintry weather, my slim-line road bike is rather like a single ice-skate and although I still dream of being a Russian Ice Star when I grow up (and learn Russian), my talent on the rink is somewhat underdeveloped: the only way I could elicit a full set of tens from a passing judging panel would be with an entirely inadvertent series of dramatic tumble turns precipitated by a kamikaze toddler.

So my first ride out this year was a mixed success. I set off with the wind whistling in my ears at a speed that would surely have had people proffering me the Tour de France Yellow Jersey if only they could have caught me. Clearly, I thought, my ‘hibernation’ approach to cycling prowess was an undiscovered secret. It had left my legs terrifically well rested and the Olympics were within my grasp. Rio, get ready!

Filled with the confidence of the finely honed athlete I had clearly become, I chose to head home over The Downs. And that was when discovered I’d made two terrible misjudgements. Firstly, The Downs are badly misnamed and wouldn’t stand a chance in court against the advertising standards authority. Why did no one ever mention any ups?

And secondly, the valley between these unexpected Ups channels wind towards you with the ferocity of a giant’s bellows. I nearly learnt land-sailing (the tarmac equivalent of kite-surfing) there and then as my jacket ballooned like a spinnaker. For a moment I was certain I was going to lift clean off the road and pedal into the sky, a backwards ET, wailing “Esther, Go Home” every bit as plaintively.

I had a similar experience with kayaking, though admittedly the river doesn’t have the inclines of The Ridgeway. Having been lulled into a false sense of security by the relatively calm water of the Upper Thames, The Significant Other and I decided it was time to push the boat out (literally) in a neighbouring county to explore the River Wye, a hotbed of canoeing through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. What could be more lovely? After all, it’s a renowned fun day out for first-timers, families and hen parties who carry a hamper in their Canadian canoes and swig Prosecco with their picnic.

Now we’re no fools (or maybe you’d like to reserve judgement) and as hardened outdoor adventurers we know that if you set off upstream, once you turn around, the way back will be easier. Simple! What we didn’t know is that the Wye flows rather more vigorously than the Thames, and at Symonds Yat, a spectacular gorge where the river narrows, it becomes faster still – Sherlock would surely have spotted the clue in the phrase ‘the rapids’.

We didn’t. We launched the two-person kayak, with good level of fitness and buckets of enthusiasm. However, the boat stayed steadfastly level with our launch point despite a monumental effort. After two hours of furious battling, while day-tripping toddlers and octogenarians drifted lazily past us barely waving a paddle, we discovered it was actually more efficient to get out of the kayak and tow it upstream, wading waist-deep through the white water torrents. This is an entirely different sport called canyoning, the travelling through river valleys and canyons by walking, scrambling, swimming and other more technical methods (though they don’t generally involve towing a boat).

A fortnight later we returned with a camper van, the kayak and two bikes, dropping the kayak up-stream, driving to our end point, cycling back to the start, paddling to the finish and driving to collect the bikes. It sounds so wonderfully straightforward in a single sentence: the reality was more akin to the old riddle of the fox, the chicken and the sack of grain trying to cross the river. Fortunately, we’d booked dinner in the pub.


- Esther Lafferty


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