The 18th of March will forever be remembered as the day the boats were launched. With a shout of command and a concerted heave, we shifted the mighty wooden behemoths along a series of log rollers, to line them up with the placid inky black water of the reed swamp ahead of us. This moment was 2500 years in the making. With a silence-breaking crash, the oaken canoe slid into the water. Moments later the beech one was bobbing alongside it.
We knew they would float. They had to. Hours and days and months of hard work had culminated in this point. What we hadn’t anticipated was how magnificent they looked. Floating effortlessly in what one should call, their natural habitat, all they needed was someone to take the metaphorical plunge and climb inside. We nervously, looked among ourselves and nominated the first to get in. Life jackets were donned, paddles were passed down, the crew clambered aboard and within minutes they were out in the open water. Perfection.
It was almost exactly a year ago when Richard and I braved the heavy mist and rain of the Blackdowns to view the fallen beech tree destined to be this boat. It was nearly two years ago since we first ventured into Burridge Woods on Exmoor to pick out our oak log. Uncountable work-hours, axing, adzing, draw knifing, splitting and caulking had followed. Blood, sweat and tears had definitely been shed. This day had been a long time coming!
I opted for the oak canoe, nicknamed ‘the sieve’ by some, for my first paddle. It looked slightly more cumbersome, with its protruding log out-rigger, but this was the prototype- our first vessel, the one we learned our mistakes on, but still the one I was most proud of. A year sitting in a peaty pond had stained the wood almost black, making it look that much more fitting. I climbed into the narrow coffin-like hull and positioned myself to paddle, my knees were already wet. The others were happily drifting around almost intuitively. Mine required more patience and perseverance- it tended subtly to one side, the drag from the outrigger required me to heavily over-compensate just to stay on a straight course.
I headed away from the gathered crowd and out into the marshes. The reeds hid the modern world from view, allowing me a tiny, but profound glimpse far into our shared past. It was a bit gurt lush.