On 11 May 2016, adventurer Lizzie Carr took the first strokes of an immense challenge: to become the first person ever to paddleboard the length of England via its canals and rivers.
Not only was the 650km (400 mile) three-week journey a gruelling challenge of physical strength and endurance but it also serves an environmental purpose: along the route, Lizzie documented all the plastic pollution she discovered to raise awareness of the crisis faced by British waterways.
Cancer-survivor Lizzie isn’t afraid of a challenge. The idea for this feat came as a result of her own interest in paddleboarding, which started a couple of years ago.
She explained, “Paddleboarding was a great, low-impact way of being active, exploring and being outside. When I started paddleboarding in London, where I live, it was the first time I truly realised how much pollution there was in our waterways. I was getting plastic caught up in my paddle and I’ve even seen a coot’s nest that was made of as much plastic as twigs. It really saddened me and the idea stemmed from there.”
650km is an incredible distance for one woman to complete on a stand up paddleboard. The thought alone of 10 hours straight paddling each day (at the very minimum) is completely exhausting – made harder by the fact that Lizzie has to carry all her equipment and tent with her throughout the journey; hauling it all out the water at each loch before climbing back in on the other side. Even during our phone interview she had to call back a couple of times as she reached different points in her journey where she had to get herself and all her kit out of the canal and carry it further along the waterway before she could continue.
She was just a few days from the finish line when she talked me through her journey so far; the soothing splish splosh of the paddle in the background as we spoke. She started paddling from the River Way – the most southerly point of the UK’s connected network of waterways. She had travelled along the waterways past Woking, Staines, Reading, Oxford, Coventry, Stoke, Lymm, and Wigan.
At the time I spoke to her she was enjoying the sunshine not far from Preston, having had glorious sunshine up north for the past few days while Londoners were battling the cold and torrential rain. Her aim was to reach the most northerly point – the Lancaster Canal – in three weeks.
Although hard work, she’s had lots of support along the way; from people live-tracking her progress on her website to strangers sharing their own plastic sightings on social media and even locals or dog walkers chatting to her as she paddles at walking speed alongside them on the canal.
Lizzie has been highlighting litter hotspots along the way. She said, “Initially, this was all about awareness. Although it’s a global problem, It’s really important to get people thinking about the issue of plastic pollution on a local level. 80 per cent of plastic in the ocean comes from inland sources. This has given me a way of documenting the problem in a way that would make people realise we’re under threat and need to change.”
The results from her plastic plotting can be found on her website. Throughout the challenge, Lizzie has taken GPS-tracked pictures of rubbish or plastic in the water which are then uploaded onto a map to show exactly where they are: “When I plot plastic I showcase it on social media with the hashtag #PlasticPatrol. Seeing it visually on a single journey like this makes it much more impactful and I want to bring to life for people how much plastic is being left in our rivers.”
To cover 650km in three weeks, Lizzie had to endure between 10 and 12 hours of paddling each day. She said: “It’s really tiring because you don’t really give yourself the chance to rest. I didn’t realise how tiring it would be. I’m exhausted!”
Not only did she need stamina but also a huge amount of strength. There are 193 lochs during the route. At each one she had to lift her board, paddle and equipment out of the water which adds another layer of difficulty. To prepare for this she did intense strength training to ensure she was able to lift her own body weight.
From plates to potties
Lizzie has seen a huge variety of plastic items discarded in the UK waterways. She said, “I’ve seen a real mish mash of stuff – things like plates, kids potties, buggies, umbrellas, helmets, plant pots with plants still in them to traffic cones and dismantled scooters. All sorts of crazy things you wouldn’t expect to see and that shouldn’t be in the water, really. Nothing really surprises me anymore!”
During her three week challenge, Lizzie gained a unique perspective into our countryside. She reflected: “I think the most special thing about my three weeks on the water has been the little moments when you’re on your own. There are those moments you really treasure. Being in these really beautiful isolated places; just you, your board and paddle – for me, that’s priceless.”
…and the lows
It hasn’t all been plain sailing: “Any tidal sections are seen as quite dangerous. Even on narrow boats it can get a bit hairy so there’s always some element of danger! I haven’t fallen in so far but never say never – you can’t get complacent as that’s when accidents happen. I really don’t want to fall in as it’s very cold!”
This has been both a physical and mental challenge for Lizzie. She said, “Physically it’s exhausting but the hardest part has been that it can be quite lonely. It can be quite daunting when it’s just you and the water.”
Lizzie is raising money for two charities: “I’m raising money for Water Aid, which transforms lives by giving people access to clean drinking water, and Water Trek who get people to engage with pollution problems on our canals and rivers by taking up watersports such a paddleboarding. This charity really appeals to me because it has been very much my journey. Experiencing this problem first hand made me protective of what we have and want to preserve the beautiful British countryside.”
When Lizzie’s recovered from her epic trip, she’s going to have some interesting data on plastic pollution to review. She told me: “When I get back I want to look over what I’ve found and come up with a plan of action and see what else I can do to raise awareness of the cause.”