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  • Writer's pictureMal Grey

When the snow comes...go paddling

So, the Beast from the East's little brother was on the way. Stories of doom and gloom abounded, and no doubt supermarket stock controllers got a little bit scared about the incoming panic buying. Two waves of snow were due to cross the south east, where I live.

To me, this presented a simple choice. After gritting the communal driveway in anticipation of the overnight snow, I had to make the difficult decision between mountain biking and canoeing on the Sunday. The panic buying could wait. I put the canoe on the car, after all it would help keep the snow off the windscreen.

Morning came, and all was indeed carpeted in white, a couple of inches of nice, fresh snow. The temperatures had dropped below freezing, but not enough to cause icing on the water, especially as there was a strong wind, so it was off to the Basingstoke Canal in the north of Hampshire. This lovely rural waterway used to link the town it is named after with the Thames, via the Wey Navigation. Now it is a beautiful, meandering line of calm waters, passing fields and meadows, and slipping through many woodlands under tall trees. It was these trees which had decided my destination, for the wind was strong, gusting 30 mph, and in a canoe I would be blown this way and that out in the open, not to mention it making the temperatures feel like -7C instead of the -1C of the air temperature.

As expected, the main roads were clear, and once off our estate, the driving was simple, with a degree of extra caution. I'd picked Colt Hill Wharf as my launch spot, mostly due to it being easy to get to if there was more snow in the area. I parked up by the bridge, and carefully carried the canoe down the steep, slippery slope to the wharf.

There were a few walkers about but, strangely, nobody else on the water! Donning lots of layers, and with a full change in the dry bag, I stepped carefully into the canoe and pushed off.

I quickly left behind the houses of Odiham and entered the woodlands. Though the trees waved their tall limbs high above me, the wind hardly ever reached the canal, and the calm water showed barely a sign of a riffle. On the banks, a few surprised daffodils hung their colourful heads, whilst a wagtail fluttered around a small pool, searching in vain for something wriggly to eat no doubt.

As I paddled onwards, the quality of the sound changed as the woodlands thickened. Here in the deeper wood, the wind was hardly noticeable at all, only the tips of the trees danced gently. Everything else was quiet and calm, the thin cloak of snow deadening the sounds of distant traffic. It wasn't silent, though, for despite the return of winter, the birds were ready for spring. Everywhere was the sound of birdsong. Wrens flitted about on the overgrown canal banks, a buzzard cried mournfully somewhere above, and a thrush was bringing music to the woodlands.

Down on the water, I was contentedly paddling slowly along. As happens so often when I'm alone in the countryside, my pace naturally slowed. Warm now, I'd taken off my gloves despite the temperature, for the feel of the lovely wood of my favourite Downcreek paddle is always enough to keep the fingers from freezing. It always feels wrong to paddle in gloves, that contact between flesh and smooth, warm, wood is somehow part of the whole experience of paddling an open canoe.

There's a little bit of woodland about halfway between Odiham and Winchfield Hurst that is one of my favourite places. The canal curves through a cutting, the slopes on either side clad with majestic tall trees. Here badger cubs play in spring, tawny owls haunt the dusk, and I have spent many a quiet hour sat on a bench cooking up a little dinner on my firebox. Today was a little cold for that, but still this remains a magical place, and the snow-clad boughs were reflected perfectly in the chilly but calm waters below.

I passed through a section of open land, and here the wind was cutting and bitter, as I battled briefly with the swirling gusts. Quickly though, I entered the shelter of the Hall of Trees.

When I first paddled this place, I gave it that name. For then, nearly ten years ago now, the Hall was roofed with the mighty bows of ancient oaks, their limbs like the hammer beams of a great cathedral. Sadly, those trees are now gone, felled to protect the canal I believe, something that saddened me greatly at the time. Now though, especially having spent a good deal of time doing conservation work in woodlands with Surrey Wildlife Trust, I can understand the need to manage the woodlands for the longer term good, and this long section of canal beneath towering trees is still a lovely place.

I was nearing my turning point, and lunch spot, but first I had to pass through an exposed part of the canal, where it contours around a more open hill side past grassy meadows. Here I fought hard to control the canoe, as the gusts came at me first from one side, then from the other. At least this extra effort kept me warm, and soon I reached Barley Mow bridge where I stopped and stretched my legs, grabbed some food and poured myself some strong, hot, coffee from my flask.

I didn't stop for long, as the cold was chilling me upwards through my feet, and sideways from the wind. Back on the water, I paddled harder to warm up, left the open section behind me, and passed under the red brick arch of the a bridge to re-enter the shelter of the trees.

The return was just as delightful as the outward leg. There was still hardly a soul about, it seems everybody was sheltering indoors rather than getting out and enjoying the rare beauty of a southern English snowfall. The wildlife was less happy, I suspect, for the many ducks I passed were fluffed up with their heads tucked under their wings in an attempt to stay warm. Further on, I passed a pair of Egyptian geese with 5 tiny fluffy goslings, hoping they are hardy enough to make it through this cold snap and see their first spring.

Passing once more through my favourite woodlands, I could see tracks in the snow where the badgers had ventured out between snowfall and daylight. Here, the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker reached my cold-reddened ears. I stopped and drifted, turning my head to try and identify where he was. High up on a mighty beech I spotted movement, and for a couple of minutes watched this attractive little pneumatic driller hammering away at a branch.

The last half hour was a lovely relaxed paddle, my blade barely leaving the water as I sliced it silently back and forth, totally absorbed in the natural world around me. I don't really know why the human species finds snow so beautiful, when logic says we should dread and fear it as a time of hardship before the warmth of spring returns, but for some reason we do, and so many of us seem to get excited by its arrival and want to get straight out into it.

As I pulled up by the wharf once more, I was perfectly content. That's what being outdoors does to me almost every time. It takes me away from the humdrum of modern life, keeps my thoughts simple, and my heart and mind are cleansed.

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