The long way home

When’s the last time you took a detour on your way home from work?

Rich Baldwin


On a good day, with a tailwind and generous succession of green lights, I can cycle my two-mile trip to work in a little under nine minutes. A short commute can be a wonderful thing when time is precious, although the downsides have started to stack up.

The roads are typically choked with traffic, nose to tail as far as the eye can see. Weaving between cars carries risks whilst waiting in the queue and breathing in fumes is hardly a pleasure. Urban cycling can also be nerve wracking; most of the drivers I pass are sneaking glances at smartphones, while pedestrians step out into the road without warning. The whole endeavour requires constant alertness, 360 vision and the ability to second guess what everyone else is about to do. Whilst I’ve always loved the self-powered joy of cycling, the more euphoric elements of travelling by bike are elusive on a daily ride to work.

During one of these depleting journeys last year, I found myself pedalling past the River Trent, which weaves through Nottingham City Centre. Looking past lanes of stationery cars, I took in the broad stretch of water, its gentle current flowing north with no traffic to stem the course. A lone kayak glided over the glassy surface, moving freely and at an enviable pace. Wedged amongst the number plates and exhaust fumes, the idea for a new sort of commute took root.

Once a month, more often in summer, I paddle back from work along the River Trent. My mode of transport is a packraft – a robust, inflatable boat that weighs just over 5 lbs and is made to carry a sizeable amount of luggage. I’d originally bought the boat to paddle around remote islands and inlets in the Scottish highlands. Now, it’s become an essential part of my city life – my nine-minute dash can be exchanged for a three-hour detour into to the tranquil hinterlands of the Trent.

The slow commute

Pushing off from the water’s edge, the change of pace is palpable. There’s an initial feeling of weightlessness before the current pulls me downstream. I let a minute pass before I begin to paddle, adjusting to the tempo of the journey whilst the boat gently rotates in the wind. It’s an ideal opportunity to wind down after whatever the day has thrown at me; it’s almost impossible to feel stress at whilst floating at 3 mph.

I float under the Trent and Lady Bay bridges, each congested with traffic. The sight of an inflatable yellow boat, with a bike strapped to the bow, prompts bemused stares from the riverside. The hum of cars quickly fades, leaving only the sound of my paddles breaking the water’s surface. Only the sound of odd, distant sirens remind me I’m still within reach of the city.

Leaving the city behind, the journey becomes a joy for the senses. At first, the views are industrial: I pass rusted containers and half submerged shopping trolleys. But nature takes over within a few miles of the city, providing a landscape and soundtrack that evolves throughout the year. In spring, willow trees hang heavy with new leaves, reaching out over the water’s edge, and the air becomes thick with aroma of blossoms. Later in the year, military formations of screaming swifts emerge to catch insects on balmy summer evenings.

Moments stay with me long after each journey: that winter’s evening when I paddled past Radcliffe-on-Trent and a riotous cacophony of Canada geese filled the sky; the time I stopped to watch a watch a pair of herons crossing back and forth over the river at Netherfield Lagoon Nature Reserve, the slow beat of their wings hanging in the air. Paddling past Gunthorpe village and noticing a horde of vulture-like, shaggy black birds perching in a tree – cormorants, taking advantage of the clearer waters of the Trent to catch their supper.

For me, these occasional slow journeys home have become a meditation, an exercise in mindfulness. I notice the details: ripples on the water’s surface, trees moving with the wind, twigs drifting in the current. Thoughts come and go; often there are no thoughts at all. Floating downstream feels like free-wheeling. Often, I don’t even paddle, I just let the river take me – my legs hanging over the edge of the boat as I lay back to stare at the sky. For a few brief hours life slows down to the pace of the river. Commuting has never felt so good.

Travel safely

The following guidance should be observed when using any watercraft:

  • Wear a buoyancy aid at all times together with ‘splash proof’ clothing, even on the driest of days.
  • Pack spare clothes, a towel, a warm hat, a charged mobile phone, first aid kit and safety rope. Don’t forget your puncture repair kit, if you’re using an inflatable vessel such as a packraft.
  • It’s sensible to bring food and drink for the journey. Paddling is tiring and there are rarely shops along the river.
  • As with any outdoor pursuit, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
  • A license is required when travelling along canals and rivers, which goes towards to the maintenance of our canal and river network. There are flexible and affordable options for smaller crafts. Find out more on the Canal & River Trust website.