Monday, 20 August 2018

Thames Pilgrimage Paddle: a brief summary

So, we made it: from the official source near Kemble as far as the tidal stretch past Richmond Lock: 150 miles in 7 days.
Ready for the off (10am Monday 13th August) and a 12 mile run along the Thames Path to Cricklade
...and after a pub lunch, it is goodbye to the Upper Thames support crew (Lesley-Anne) and into the Thames
At times, I wondered why I was doing this: the achy shoulders, neck and arms; the monotony of paddling; and the chill of Thursday morning in the constant rain when my hands were so cold that the river water felt like a jacuzzi!  But, the vast majority of time, there was nowhere else I'd rather have been - it was a great experience which I'll never forget.

The Thames has always been part of my life, a fact that only became apparent during my curacy in Beaconsfield - no river!  I missed it.  Hence, I am very happy to be in the Vicarage at Crowmarsh only 1/4 mile from the Thames.  This location brought about a new part of my life as it is perfect for dogs, so Ralph joined our family last springtime.  He is my dog and a natural companion for this mini-adventure: he is the reason why I've heard the words "cute" and "sweet" more than ever before, when he stands on the bow sniffing the air like figurehead, or just curled up at my feet.
Below Richmond Lock, 7pm Sunday 19th August

So, what did I learn and how will it change me?

1a) Life at 3 mph is possible and has its benefits.  This was particularly noticeable when going under the M4, M25 or M3 with the traffic rushing by (or queuing!) overhead.  Why do we choose the stressful way and can we challenge the worldview that "Time is money" - something that I certainly lived with as an IT Contractor, but need not apply as a stipendiary priest.
1b) It is not the most direct route: like a labyrinth, a single convoluted path, the meanders of the river allow you to revisit and appreciate the same landmark from different angles.  You can go round a huge oxbow bend, only to realise that 20 minutes of paddling brings you almost back to where you started... sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

2) A renewed appreciation of the natural world:

  • the ripples on the water indicating where to pick up or avoid the wind;
  • the changing weather, which way the wind was blowing and what was coming next;
  • the fish: those darting around in clear water, the skippers along the surface and the big ones that splash suddenly near the canoe, making us both jump!
  • the birds: kingfishers, herons, grebe, geese, ducks and swans - how close each type will allow you to come before flying off (or diving for grebes) and the various etiquette of approach and negotiating passage past them, e.g. swans are very territorial on the upper Thames and will normally swim away until the border with their neighbour, at which point we choose opposites sides of the narrow channel and pass... whereas on the lower Thames, even with Ralph on-board, they just saw us another opportunity for begging free food.  I took many photos of herons which I can now spot from 300 yards, including the video below where I managed to get unusually close...
  • the brown leaves on horse chestnut trees showing that summer is giving way to autumn.

3) The silence and stillness.  Being alone under a big sky surrounded by the natural, unspoilt beauty of the Thames Valley on our doorstep is certainly a gift from God.
Sunset from St John's Lock at end Day 1
Evening of Day 2 /(near Northmoor?)
Evening Day 5 (still an hour from Hurley)
Evening Day 7: Looking up towards Kew Gardens with Syon Park on the left - relative peace and tranquility in London, but will have to paddle this bit another time...
4) After the isolation, an increased appreciation for relationships and humanity: the hospitality of Alexandra G. at St Helen's in Abingdon or Chris G. at Hurley Church, dinner and a night back at home with my parents in Old Windsor, or being greeted by some of our best friends (and godsons) bringing beer to the lock and even just hearing their dad's familiar voice giving the commentary on the French Brothers boats around Windsor.  Even the bells of the Curfew Tower, where I used to ring regularly, seemed to welcome me back - well, 4 being rung down at least!

But most of all, what it is to be home again and to get a loving hug even though I smell of Thames mud at low tide (but not as much as Ralph!).

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Thames Paddle Updates

Apologies to those waiting for updates on my Thames Pilgrimage Paddle.  Updating the blog from my phone has proven challenging without WiFi or a good phone signal, but I will be posting my Travelog here once I’ve had time to process it all.  In the meantime, progress updates can be found on my Twitter feed (no sign-up required): @revkevbeer

I can say that the schedule was rather ambitious and would have been fine for a proper canoe, instead of a rubber dingy with pointy ends!

Sunday, 12 August 2018

A Missing Pensioner and Social Media

Sorry this post is a long text, not designed for entertainment.  Hopefully I'll be able to sleep soundly again having got it out of my system...

On Thursday morning, we first heard that Jim had not returned from one of his walks the previous evening/night.  As his memory had been deteriorating, this was not the first occurrence of him getting lost and being returned by various people who knew his situation.  The general expectation was that we would soon find him wandering around somewhere.  The police put out an appeal via their Facebook page and this was shared in various community pages and news spread quickly among those on social media.  Naturally, people began sharing information on these sites, including how they knew him, where they would usually see him as well as the usual well-wishers.

Soon, people began searching for him where they thought he might be and saying where they had looked.  Others began asking where they could helpfully search and various conversations were had in many threads across different local groups.  However, there seemed little co-ordination and Oxfordshire Lowland Search and Rescue (OXSAR) were approached to take a lead, including by me in this thread: (from Thursday p.m.)  the conclusion: they the were unable to coordinate a public search as well as their own and "unlikely" to share which areas had been checked by the police, on the basis that "areas can never be checked too many times" - this is certainly true whilst Jim may still have been mobile, but as time passed this seemed increasingly unlikely.  A subsequent conversation revealed that the main reason for not wanting to coordinate members of the public was due to "Health & Safety" reasons, i.e. what if a member of the public was injured on a search that they had initiated?  A rather sad reflection on the state of our society that this could outweigh the potential benefits of coordinating many willing volunteers.

But others were taking a lead.  The Wallingford Piper (a closed group) was used to arrange an informal gathering which set off from the Town Hall at 6pm on Thursday.  Where I had found other shares of the original missing person info in other community sites, e.g. Brightwell, I posted a comment along the lines of "...trying to co-ordinate a search plan and probably easiest to do it here.  If anyone wants to take responsibility for a specific road, public area, path, etc including any surrounding undergrowth then reply to this... then we can target whatever is left."  This may have helped a little to focus minds and began to organise the data.  In between my trips out to re-check all the churches and a visit to Jim's family, I followed the threads and began to think how else we could improve access to all this useful info that was being accumulated (I was formerly an IT Consultant after all!).  First I created a Google Map and began plotting the paths and marking out areas which had been checked.  This looked like it had great potential, but I soon started hitting limitations on how many layers could be used.  Also, even though it could be shared for updates, the process for marking areas was probably beyond most of the general public, so after a while I ditched this idea and went back to Facebook.

The main requirement was to consolidate all the threads in one place.  An obvious solution:  create a dedicated group, as open as possible to everyone, to share information.  A quick review of the group settings was made to make it as open as possible (i.e. most options set to "Anyone in the group" and the name change from the random string to something short and memorable, and so within 2 minutes the group was launched in the early hours of Friday morning and links to it placed in all the other threads to invite all interested parties.  I still couldn't sleep whilst Jim was missing, so I then set about creating a document to summarise all the areas which had been known to have been searched to date, grouped by the Town/Village and/or type such as Churches, Schools, Riverside, etc so that as much info as possible was available when everyone set out again on the Friday morning.

One immediate issue was that I had to approve each individual request to join the group, which was what I considered to be an unnecessary distraction and encouraged others to share this responsibility.  I was up again at 6am, and seeing how the group was presented on my wife's ipad, I set about giving early joiners "Approver" status so that the join requests were more widely shared - a quick fix that allowed me to spread this load.  Useful posts started coming in various different threads/conversations.

The next issue was how to minimise the "white noise" of social media?  I quickly updated the intro to the group to emphasise the need for facts rather than arm-chair detectives and well-wishers, so came up with "A group to consolidate information of areas searched in our efforts to find Jim. Please let's focus on the search here rather than creating unnecessary noise and speculation. Nothing is ruled out and areas can be usefully rechecked...".

Next up was Morning Prayer, a much needed oasis of calm in the storm, praying for a good outcome for Jim and his family.  Then back to the master document, add new areas as they were declared "no sign of Jim".  I released an updated version at 11am as many new areas had been added, and tried to answer the "Has anyone been around / checked nnnnn yet?"  As I had hoped, the group didn't need me.

After lunch, having heard through FB that OXSAR were co-ordinating their operations from Wallingford School, we popped by so that I could introduce myself and suggest that they make use of the FB group.  I hung around watching all the activity, admiring their maps and IT setup and generally waiting around to see if anyone would speak to me as the FB group had around 500 people, with many actively contributing or standing by.  My hope was that they would take it over and share some of their useful info, but that didn't appear to be within their operating procedures.  Therefore, we carried on getting it all 2nd hand... "helicopter now hovering over nnnn", just seen the OXSAR team in nnnn", etc.  At times it seemed like they operate within an impenetrable bubble of professionalism.  After a phone call, I was told that our former Mayor and well-known local councillor Lynda A. would be heading up the co-ordination, but would be using a different medium.  I immediately PM'd Lynda, giving her Admin rights of the FB group with a plea to use what was already working rather than start again from scratch, (which it turns out she had no intention of doing).

I was in the process of refreshing the master list for a Friday mid-afternoon update, but received a call from Jim's family with the sad news that his body had been found and that the announcement was imminent.  Obviously, there was no need to pre-announce the news on Facebook.  So, the day job took over once again as I went off to a wedding rehearsal.

So, what lessons can be learned from all this?

Firstly, the FB group could have been more useful with a few initial posts so that information could be shared in dedicated threads, such as:

1) Search Updates (e.g. we've just walked the dog around the 2 bridges walk - no luck)

2) New suggestions:
a) has anyone checked the schools yet, given that they may be empty during the summer holidays?
b) we'll be cycling the country lanes around.... setting off at 4pm from the pub if anyone wants to join us.

3) Known haunts & Recent sightings: (e.g. we would often see Jim walking late at night along the Wantage Road towards Brightwell and Slade End...)

4) Publicity & Awareness, e.g.:
a) We've produced a Missing Person Poster which you can download here or collect printed copies from...;
b) We've just alerted the... [insert local land owner / business / institution, e.g. Earth Trust / Post Office / Biffa / Donkey Sanctuary...] and they are taking responsibility for [notifying all staff /  searching their land / etc]

Secondly, this could have been done within 5 minutes and could have been launched at the same time as the initial Press Release.  This would have saved 24 hours of having much useful information scattered widely over Social Media, including closed groups.

Thirdly, who should do this?  My hope would be that the OXSAR or their regional equivalent would take all this on-board and take responsibility for it [Addendum: OR the Thames Valley Police if there is a delay between the Missing Person announcement and calling in OXSAR].  Surely one self-taught geek (like me) could be spared from the team who were doing street to street door knocking, allowing them to communicate with 500 people rather than one random household at at time?  They could do this without suggesting anyone goes anywhere, but just to keep a listening ear and to acknowledge receipt of useful local knowledge.

All all it takes is a few clicks to unleash the power of social media...

P.S. This is not intended as negative criticism of all those who gave their time and efforts to find Jim, not least the professionals and trained volunteers who I again publicly thank here.  Indeed, I believe there are many individuals locally that would like to Join OXSAR through this experience.  Having been heavily involved on the social media side, I submit this as my personal experience in the hope that if improvements can be made, then perhaps more lives can be saved in the future, which is surely the most important motivation of us all, whether general public or professionally-trained.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

A New Leaf

A challenging day trying to help a depressed, confused and potentially-suicidal homeless man, eventually referring him to the police and hopefully ongoing help from New Leaf. I didn't exactly break the confessional seal but am grateful that he accepted that we were all there to help him and he went off with them peaceably (not what they were expecting). A powerful reminder of the power of the Gospel in giving hope where none remains. New life is always an option - also available before death...

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Thames Paddle Schedule

For those who may be interested, here is the provisional schedule:

Monday 13th August (38.5km / 24 miles - 0 locks)
Arrive at Source around mid-morning and run to Cricklade High Bridge (12.25 miles) for Lunch then paddle to Lechlade (11.7 miles) for overnight camping stop.

Tuesday 14th Aug (34.9km / 21.7 miles – 7 locks)
Lechlade to somewhere around Pinkhill (camping)

Wednesday 15th Aug (26.1 km / 16.2 miles – 8 locks)
Pinkhill to Abingdon (St Helen’s)

Thursday 16th Aug (31.5 km / 19.6 miles – 6 locks)
Abingdon to Wallingford (late lunch?) and on to Goring+, overnight / re-supply dog food etc at home

Friday 17th Aug (41.5 km / 25.8 miles - 7 locks)
Goring to Hurley (Church)

Saturday 18th Aug (32.7km / 20.3 miles – 9 locks)
Hurley to Runnymede (overnight at Old Windsor)

Sunday 19th Aug (31.6km / 19.6 miles – 7 locks)
Runnymede to Teddington [or 36.8km / 22.9 miles – 8 locks to Richmond]

Saturday, 21 July 2018

My Thames Pilgrimage Paddle - 13th August until...?

Clergy are encouraged to have an annual retreat to recharge our spiritual batteries.  As an active person, instead of retiring to a quiet monastery for contemplation, I prefer to find God in the natural world – therefore, I will be taking a week out to follow the Thames from its source to where the river becomes tidal at Teddington Lock, a total distance of around 150 miles.  This will involve running 12+ miles from the source to Cricklade and then paddling my inflatable canoe with stops along the way, sleeping mainly in a tent.  The journey is downhill, so the only complication will be that I will be accompanied by my Springer Spaniel, Ralph, who will no doubt be in and out of the canoe as the mood suits him!
A practice run approaching Shillingford Bridge
If you would like to sponsor me (or Ralph!) in aid of either Brightwell or Crowmarsh churches, please fill in the form at the welcome desk in church, or email me for a form.  (Unfortunately, online sponsorship providers don't recognise small churches as they are statutory charities and therefore don't have a charity number to validate).  Sponsorship forms can be downloaded here for Crowmarsh and Brightwell.
Exploring the Thame towards Dorchester

Update: We recently had a second day's test run paddling 13 miles down a beautiful stretch of the River Wye through Symonds Yat to Monmouth.  This is perfect for canoes with a bit more excitement than the Thames in the form of some mini-rapids - all good fun, although my wife didn't quite share my enthusiasm for spending hour after hour in the canoe.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016 update for my prayer partners:

I had my meeting with the consultant yesterday.  The cancer was not just one type but had varied strains within the 30mm lump, mainly non-seminomas,including teratomas, embryonal carcinomas, yolk sac tumours, as well as seminoma - if this was bingo, this is almost a full-house!  Unfortunately, it doesn't make me such a useful research guinea pig as it makes tying any particular type down to a specific set of genes more difficult.

…but for me the outlook is looking good - it is even more of a relief to know that it has been removed as there are some pretty scary names in that little lot!  So, I'm now under surveillance for a while longer as one of the tumour marker proteins in the blood (the AFP) takes a while longer to get back to normal, having a longer "half-life" than the others (it was 48 at the time of the operation, falling to 23 after a week and then 11 last Friday, so all heading in the right direction to <1 as we would hope; the other one which was raised (HCG) fell from 36 to <1 within the 1st week.  The CT scan was clear, although they will be monitoring some (only very) slightly enlarged pulmonary lymph nodules in my chest (which is probably just normal), with another CT scan before I can be given the all clear.  However, the conclusion is that is there is no evidence of the cancer spreading, i.e. it was only Stage 1, which is wonderful news!  Next update will be just before Christmas, so hoping that it will be a very happy one...

Thanks for all the prayers, cards and well-wishes.  I feel the love and it helps a lot - God bless you!
Love, Kevin