25 years after travelling the length of the River Thames with no experience, a man from High Wycombe has written a book about the ‘wonderful' 12-day excursion with a lifelong friend in his youth.

Phil Waterton and Kevin McHale, both 74, were featured in an article from the midweek Bucks Free Press in August 1999 as they prepared to set off on a 136-mile canoe journey up the entire length of the Thames in celebration of their joint 50th birthdays.

The two men, then respective deputy heads of Waterside Combined School in Chesham and Lee School in Coventry, decided to take on the challenge on a whim – spurred both by the thought of launching a fundraising campaign for the UNICEF charity and the copious riverside pubs that would populate their journey from Cricklade in Wiltshire to Teddington Lock in London.

A quarter of a century on, and Phil has finally realised a lifelong dream – to publish a book about those adventurous 12 days coasting – and sometimes battling – the UK’s most famous river in a two-man canoe with the man he still calls a best friend.

Despite a multitude of anecdotes – from being invited aboard ‘gin palaces’ to mishaps in learning to row – crystallising the experience in his mind, it took Phil two decades to whip ‘Paddling Our Own Canoe’ into shape and was a project that gained urgency when his eyesight began to fail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was very enthusiastic when I started writing, but it had started to become a bit of a joke that I would never finish it. Then, when I thought I might not be able to read it myself, I put a lot of work in and found a publisher who would accept it.  

“It did take some time because I wanted it to be a sort of guide for other people sailing down the river, with research about each stop’s history alongside the crazy experiences we had and the weird and wonderful people we met.”

The tone of the book – 12 chapters of which are dedicated to each day of travel, combining sketches of the surroundings and idiosyncratic quips with historical titbits – is set early on, with a story about the genuine shock of a canoeing instructor at the ineptitude of Phil and Kevin for the momentous feat on which they were about to embark.

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“We borrowed a Canadian canoe from the Marlow Canoe Club and went to Longwick to get some practice in before setting off – the guys working there assumed straight away that we were amazing canoeists and knew exactly what we were doing, but they sent someone out with us anyway, for insurance purposes.

“We were hopeless. I just about made it into the boat, but I was pretty wobbly, and Kev only got one foot in before it started to slide away, and he was left doing the splits. I had grabbed onto the jetty and was hanging pretty much horizontally on the water, then at the same moment, we both went straight in.

“We both floundered about for a good few moments before we realised it was shallow and we could stand up. The guy’s face was priceless – his illusion of us was completely shattered.”

While the trip itself turned out to be nothing but a pleasure, punctuated by sunny beer gardens, donations totalling over £2,000 and some tipsy zigzag-style rowing, putting pen to paper was much more a “labour of love” for Phil, containing multitudes of meaning both to his life and, he hopes, those of the readers it will reach.

“It’s so lovely to see a book with my name on it – I wish my mum could see it, she was a great lover of reading. I never wanted to write a book before that trip, but it’s been fantastic reliving it through those notes I made and my research.

“It taught me that life is a bit like paddling down a river. There’s a lot of crazy stuff that happens and you don’t know what’s coming around the bend, but you can deal with it. You’ve just got to keep paddling on.”