A confluence of river enthusiasts

Matt Gaw paddled down many UK rivers and says each river left its own little tide mark on him. Rosy Eaton finds out more

Photo: Andrew Crowley

Matt Gaw learned to canoe by paddling rivers across the UK – an experience recounted in his book The Pull of the River. He has since become a Keen Clean Rivers and Inland Access campaigner.

The OSS’s Rosy Eaton is working with SAS, WWF and The Rivers Trust to scope out a project called Rivers Fit to Swim In and is an expert in environmental policy.

Here’s what two river obsessives talk about when they get together.

The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw is a book about two foolhardy explorers who turn their world upside down and seek adventure on their very own doorstep. In a homemade canoe, Matt and his friend James set out to float downriver. Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud; through fields, woodland, villages, towns and cities, they reveal many places that otherwise go unnoticed and perhaps unloved (although maybe not by swimmers!) finding delight in the Waveney, Stour, Alde/Ore, upper and lower Thames, Lark, Great Ouse, Granta and Cam, Wye, Otter, Colne, Severn and the Great Glen Trail. The book is an exploration of nature, place and friendship, and an ode to the great art – and joy – of adventure.

I loved that your book came from the perspective of someone learning to tame a canoe and read rivers. Your honesty about your fears and the joy of each success carried me along in a way that a book by an expert couldn’t have. What tips would you give to someone who wants to learn how to canoe?

Taking up these kinds of things can be quite intimidating, there’s a fear that you’re going to do things wrong or look silly (like wearing a bike helmet on a rapids). My advice would be to just get out there with a spirit of fun and have a go. I was lucky that we had a canoe so could learn as we went and, to be honest, when there’s two of you in a canoe you don’t really need that much technique – enthusiasm will see you through. If you don’t have a boat I would recommend popping down to a local club. Most of them will be happy to help you out, hire canoes or kayaks, and offer tips on what to do and where to go.

For me, one of the most fantastic things about outdoor swimming is the encounters with wildlife: the great crested grebe in a lake outside Berlin who let me swim right up to her as she dived for tiny silver fish to feed her chicks and the cheeky troop of long-tailed tits that shadowed me along the banks of the Frome at Fairleigh Weir. Your book is full of fabulous meetings with wild creatures. Which of these was the most memorable?

Like swimming, there is a change in perspectives and also a quietness, which allows you to get much closer to wildlife than you can plodding about on land. The kingfishers were dazzling and numerous, the herons almost became our talisman, but the experience I think about most is seeing a wild beaver in Devon. It was extra special as I saw her during my first solo paddle. Watching her nose through the water (I never realised beavers were such graceful swimmers) was when I felt I was “of the river”, rather than just on it.  

You write of moments in your journeys that bind you to a place, that “leave its mark… as water does on stone”. Which of the moments from the book left the deepest mark and why?

I think rivers are such fascinating, formative places: they shape both land and culture. It’s really hard to pick out a single moment, as each river left its own little tide mark on me. I also feel that I left a bit of myself hanging there in the water.

The Thames, both upper and lower, was amazing, there was a real sense of being part of liquid history, but also exploring the Lark in my home town of Bury St Edmunds was special. I think it was a reminder that adventure can be close to home and I had that child-like feeling that the world was suddenly bigger and more exciting.

..rivers are such fascinating, formative places: they shape both land and culture

Your chapter about the River Severn conjures up a fantastically powerful image of what the river must have been like at the height of the industrial revolution – an open sewer, wreathed in smoke and lit by the hellish glow of the blast furnaces. In other chapters sad pictures of pollution and plastic waste in some rivers are tempered with positive stories like the return of beavers to the River Otter. Based on your experience, what do you think is the biggest threat to our rivers today and what hope do you have for their future?

This is a tough one. There are so many problems, from abstraction to pollution with plastics, pesticides and waste water that contains hormones, anti-depressants and contraceptives. All of these things need addressing, but I guess the biggest problem is just a lack of awareness. In my home town of Bury St Edmunds, some people I spoke to didn’t even know there was a river (let alone that it’s one of only 200 chalk streams in the world). I think, if people aren’t aware of these special places, if they don’t access them, or are not allowed to access them, why are they going to care about saving them?

You write passionately in your book about the need for better access to rivers for canoeists. Better access to inland waters for swimmers is something the OSS has a group working on. Do you think that improved access to get more people in and on our rivers could help secure a brighter future for them?

Access to rivers is obviously good for human health, both physically and mentally, but it is also good for the health of river systems too. Canoeists and swimmers are the rivers’ eyes and ears are best-placed to spot problems. If we want people to love and protect rivers, first they need to be able to access them. I would like this to happen by having local rights of river access enshrined in law in England and Wales as it has been in Scotland, and campaign with the British Canoe Union for clearer access rights

You’re obviously no stranger to swimming in rivers. For you, how does the experience of canoeing on rivers compare to the experience of swimming in them?

Ooh that’s a good one. I think with both, there’s a crossing of a boundary: of moving into a different world. Rivers are often county lines too, so there is a freedom, a sense of exploring a no-man’s land. Swimming is definitely the more intimate experience of the two, you are literally immersed in the waterscape. But, you do still get that change of perspectives in the canoe.

I’m no endurance swimmer either, so the canoe allows me to travel much further than I otherwise could. I guess I also love the way canoeing lulls me, the dip of paddles and the glide of the boat lets the brain float as well as the body.

Bury St Edmunds, Matt Gaw's hometown (Alex Baber)

I think with [swimming and canoeing], there’s a crossing of a boundary: of moving into a different world. Rivers are often county lines too, so there is a freedom, a sense of exploring a no-man’s land

Since I had my daughter a couple of years ago I’ve searched for books that would give me a bit of escapism from the narrowed horizons of early motherhood and the rural idyll of long muddy winters on a clay-soiled Yorkshire farm. Co-incidentally I read a lot of books about river journeys! Without wanting to sound too much of a sycophant, yours is one of my favourites. Do you have a top 5 of books about rivers? And if so what are they?

Rivers are just the best escape, aren’t they? So, for me, Deakin’s Waterlog has got to be there. Waterland by Graham Swift, for its depiction of the fens and I also love Daisy Johnson’s writing. Everything Under really gave me a feeling of the escape I have in the canoe.  Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury is also a good riparian read. In terms of canoe inspiration, I’d also include A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe by John Macgregor. It was Macgregor who effectively introduced canoe touring to Western Europe and his book is of an age of Victorian exploration. His kit consisted of two suits and a straw boater tied on with ribbon.

If you could canoe any river in the world which one would you choose and why?

I would love to travel the Yukon across Alaska and Canada. I guess it is the sense of wildness that it offers and the physical challenge too. I also love the idea of how people have been pulled to that river by different things over the years: from gold rush to salmon rush. Having said that, I would love to canoe quite a few rivers in America. Maybe I could try a Stateside Pull of the River…  

The Pull of the River: A Journey Into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain by Matt Gaw is out in paperback now (Elliot & Thompson)

Beth Pearson