Inspiration flows from canoe journeys in British rivers
Suffolk writer Matt Gaw’s debut book The Pull of the River sets a riverine course well outside the comfort zone
Waterways great and small run through Britain as an intricate web of veins, carrying the life-giving and life-affirming H20 that is a prerequisite for a teeming multitude of existence - our own included.
And as the water courses through landscapes as varied as the flatlands of the Fens and the mighty mountains of the north, so has adventure coursed through the very veins of a Suffolk writer who has paddled hundreds of miles in what the strapline of his debut book calls a “journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain.”
Former East Anglian Daily Times journalist Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River is a travelogue shot through with the exhilaration, fascination and sometimes trepidation of being on, alongside and occasionally in the waterways of Britain. It is also much more.
It is a lyrical burst-on-the-literary-scene of a book that explores nature and friendship as much as the rivers themselves. It is a call to adventure, an inspiration to cast aside mollycoddled, often dreary, modern-day life and experience the beyond-the-comfort-zone thrill of doing something truly wild - outdoors, edgy and occasionally distinctly risky.
It shows that such life-enhancing experiences can be gained without resorting to Amazonian adventure or Everest-high expedition - it shows that here in Britain the opportunities certainly exist - you just have to have the desire to seek them out and the determination to carry them through to an ultimately triumphant sense-of-achievement end.
The spark that ignited Mr Gaw’s quest for such adventure first flickered when his friend James Treadaway built a 16ft wooden Canadian canoe in his garden. Both 37-year-old residents of Bury St Edmunds, Mr Gaw - who works as a media manager for Suffolk Wildlife Trust - and print-artist Mr Treadaway tested out the canoe’s river worthiness on the Stour.
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“We had no great expectations,” said Mr Gaw. “It was really a case of was it going to sink or not, we just needed to test it out. We did just that and it was amazing. I then started to think about the Suffolk writer Roger Deakin. I remembered his Radio 4 programme Cigarette on the Waveney from several years before about his canoe trip along that river. I did some research into it at the University of East Anglia and the idea for a book evolved from there.”
Deakin, who died in 2006 aged 63, is a much-missed and deeply revered environmentalist who lived at Mellis. One of his most highly acclaimed books, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, is credited with shifting public opinion on wild swimming and access to waterways, and leading a resurgence of interest in their quality and condition.
The Pull of the River pays its dues to Deakin’s outstanding work - Mr Treadaway’s canoe was named Pipe in a nod to Deakin’s Cigarette. Other literary classics are referenced, and the Pipe’s adventure gives rise to a book that follows in their wake while setting its own inspiring course.
East Anglian rivers were explored - the Waveney, the Stour, the Alde/Ore, the Lark, the Great Ouse, the Granta, the Cam and the Colne - the journey on the latter rekindling memories of childhood adventures for the Halstead born-and-bred Mr Gaw. Further afield there were expeditions to the upper and lower Thames, the Wye and the Great Glen - with solo trips for Mr Gaw in a smaller canoe on the Otter and the Severn.
In each case the connectivity with nature and the intimate characteristics of each river was strengthened by over-night camps, even in, in rudimentary hammocks - Mr Gaw’s described as “an amniotic sac, with the watery heartbeat of the river fluttering away outside.”
All the while, hardships and elation deepen the canoeists’ friendship. There were plenty of both in the extreme, not least as far as hardship is concerned in a near-tragedy on the Thames. In winter spate, with fallen trees and many a twist and turn, the upper reaches of the Thames overturned the Pipe and cast the canoeists into chill and churning waters before they were helped by a “Good Samaritan” family who lived nearby.
“It was terrifying,” recalled Mr Gaw. “I was just wearing jeans, a winter coat, a hat and gloves - and walking boots that were not ideal for swimming in. It was a reminder that we had to respect the water and not be too gung-ho. The conditions were far harder than we thought. We’d been a bit foolhardy but the lesson was learned.”
In a reflective passage of the book, Mr Gaw wonders if the journeys had been an “escape for me, about running away from it all.” He answers his own question: “These journeys have not been about escaping life, but making it.”
Beautifully written and highly engaging, The Pull of the River examines environmental concerns. It features little tributaries to the main narrative that highlight social history and natural history. And it cries out with a message from its pages - a message that life is an adventure and, if you have the physical capacity to do so, it’s best spent out of that armchair - outdoors, active and immersed in nature.
The Pull of the River is published on April 5 by Elliott & Thompson Limited, priced at £14.99.