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All Quiet on the Waterfront (Thames, 10 years later)
London made worldwide headlines this week for rioting, arson and looting. Along with scores of others, our own high street got done Monday night, and next afternoon all the shops were closed, braced for a re-run that instead moved to other English cities. The map on the right only shows the bigger events in London up to Tuesday; many more passed unreported.
But Wednesday the tides were favourable and the weather were fair for a 17-mile cruise down the River Thames from Richmond to Tower Bridge. We’d planned the run before all this aggro kicked off as I’d not paddled through London for years and fancied doing it in the Incept. In fact we ended up paddling all the way to Greenwich, about 21 fast and briefly hairy miles.
Richmond is a prosperous suburb stuck under the Heathrow airport flight path; no rampaging here, thank you very much. Steve and I set off just below the town bridge at 1pm, right at the turn of the tide, even though 20 minutes earlier the water was still clearly charging upstream. In fact I read that in the upper tidal reaches, the Thames floods quickly and ebbs slowly.
Again, the K-Pump was used to inflate the Solar which Steve was using as his Feathercraft was in detention. I’ve found the K is much more effective at getting a firm fill than the squidgy Bravo footpump.
Maybe it’s a river and gravity thing, but when the tide ebbs with the mild Thames current, it’s on the move almost straight away. With the help of a strong southwesterly that day, very soon we were cruising along at an easy 5 or 6 mph, and that speed barely relented until the very end when we took out just before low tide at Greenwich.
The 15-mile run-up to Westminster initially feels quite rural in places. Riverside willows swung their tresses in the 15mph breeze as we passed the handsome riverside dwellings of affluent west London with barely a high-rise in sight.
By Putney, home of the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, we were halfway to Tower Bridge and the greenery give way to urban development and the odd industrial site. Around here you get a few people rowing those slim Oxbridge rowboats, and it occurred to me later that for some reason they’re excused from wearing life jackets. A boy drowned near here in one of these rowboats, a week or two ago.
Near Battersea heliport the wobbling wind sock stuck out sideways like a road sign, pointing downriver towards banks of million-pound apartments built in the last boom-but-one to accommodate London’s growing class of needy oligarchs.
There were more barges and pontoons moored mid-river now. All easily avoided of course and just as well as the way the current was ripping along, their flat prows made a nasty hazard; like an an upside-down weir, that might easily pull a kayak down and drag it along under the entire length of the barge.
At Vauxhall Bridge, by the snazzy MI5 secret service HQ, we saw one of the London Duck amphibious tourist barge-buses drive down the bank. It submerged itself into the river and chugged past (left), managing to look as ungainly on the water as it does on land. The Ducks do a token 10-minute sweep of the river past Parliament, but having gone on one years ago, I can tell you it’s a hot, noisy ride. I reckon they are more fun to watch than to be in.
We grabbed a few shots as we passed the Houses of Parliament (that how HP Sauce gets its name), and I thought it was going to be a smooth, quiet passage through the busy two-mile section of the river from Westminster to Tower Bridge, as it had been last time.
But as soon as we passed under Westminster Bridge alongside Big Ben, the character of the river changed and waves were standing up to 5 feet high. The flow gets constricted and backs up by the pier supporting the London Eye which, along with the masses of tourist boats, effectively halves the width of the river, while the current and tide pushed through, exacerbated by the wind. I’d heard of these waves below London Bridge but had never seen them this big. We’d come down so fast from Richmond that we’d hit the busiest section of the Thames, packed with manoeuvring tour boats and jetties, at the peak of the tidal flow. Suddenly the river was rather lively.
Rush hour on the river
As always the best kayaking shots are the one you’ll never see: of Steve in the 10-foot long Solar teetering over wave crests and my long bow rising and then slapping down into the troughs. What pics I grabbed were pretty mild. Holy moly, you don’t see all this looking down from Waterloo Bridge with a flat white and a Telegraph in hand, but it may only last a short time or be limited to certain conditions. It’s worrying too, how you’re quickly transfixed with dealing with your own predicament; if one of us had tipped in here, the other would have had real trouble turning back in the current and traffic. But we got through (I’ve probably exaggerated it all) and even got used to the more manageable standing waves, if not always the cross swell flung out by the wake of passing tour barges. These wide, twin-hull Thames Clippers can really shift, accelerating up to 15-20 knots, although it’s actually the older, mono-hull tour boats that punch out a wake you want to watch out for, and is probably why their speed is limited. As it is, I read there’s no speed limit on the tidal Thames below Wandsworth, merely common sense is required, plus a risk of a big fine from the PLA.
I was momentarily freaked out by all this, but although I didn’t dare glance back or try and take photos, Steve seemed to be keeping pretty cool in the tiny Solar. I’d not applied any of the mods I’d lavished on my old Sunny, and with its crap seat and soggy footrest offering little support, paddling the Solar in heavy conditions was a bit like balancing on a midstream log. This was all at times more intimidating than anything we’d done on the Class II Ardeche a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking it really was high time I slipped on my Incept’s thigh braces. We stopped off for a breather at the South Bank and enjoyed a coffee and lemonade for only £5 each while tourists wrote messages in the sand of the now exposed river bed.
On to Blackfriars, Southwark and London Bridge, where mid-stream there were ranks of frothing, churning whitecaps. We didn’t want to go there, and kept to the right, looking for less speed and flatter water behind the HMS Belfast tourist warship and on to Tower Bridge where all was calm and it was no drama to pass under the middle, as more tourists above waved.
It may sound like a scene from a James Bond movie, but in 1952 a #78 double-decker bus successfully jumped a three-foot gap when one of the ‘bascules’ lifted unexpectedly. The postcard (left) dramatises the event. Having got to this point so fast, we decided we may as well carry on the hour or so to Greenwich, as we knew down here the river opened out, tourist boat traffic dropped off and there were no more bridges or other fluvial furniture to cause weird wave formations.
Out past Wapping and Rotherhithe, the Thames is lined with converted warehouses or new apartments, shielding the less glamorous council estates of the East End. Soon we’re passing Canary Wharf, once the Port of London, now a mini-Manhattan of office blocks built in the 1980s when the financial boom kicked off in London. Those guys weren’t having such a good week either – one trader on the TV news was filmed swatting his Perrier off his desk in frustration at that day’s collapse, but at least they weren’t running amok and setting fire to their ties.
The river meandered south putting us into the wind, but it was good to crank up some solid effort. Even here the odd Greenwich-bound tour boat still threw out their mini tsunamis which crashed with a roar along the banks behind us and were fun to negotiate up to the point where you thought, ‘ooo-er, hold on a minute, am I’m surfing here!?’ Otherwise, the broad river gets a bit dull along this section and soon enough the wooded hill of Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian peeped out from behind a bend. Steve was a bit pooped for spinning the ill-fitting Solar along at Incept speeds. And having used my huge Werner Corry paddle, I too was suffering from some elbowitis. We came ashore by the Cutty Sark tea clipper, lifted the boats carefully over the broken glass and gravel, up over a fence, aired down and headed for the station.
We did this 21-mile run on a neapish tide of just 3.8m – they drop to 3.5m and rise to 5m this time of year at Richmond (it’s about a metre more at London Bridge). That took us only 4 hours actual paddling which must be the fastest 20 miles I’ve ever done in a paddle boat. Slowed down by locks, inland of Richmond the freshwater Thames can be a bit boring, but I wouldn’t fancy coming through Westminster at the height of an ebbing spring tide on a busy summer’s day with a backwind. At such times it’s probably not a place for total beginners in tippy hardshells, but as long as you’re ready to get stuck in, it is of course good fun and you can be sure of a big audience. Just make sure you clip on a Go Pro to catch the action!
The tidal Thames starts at Teddington Lock, about three miles upriver from Richmond. You need to time Richmond Lock just downstream of the Twickenham Bridge (A316) correctly, 10 minutes downstream from our put-in at Water Lane. I did not notice it as it’s flooded at HW when it’s just another bridge. It’s actually a barrage to hold water upriver around Richmond once the tide turns. There’s a roller pass for kayaks on the left, if you find it closed.
You don’t need any sort of permit or BCU membership to kayak the tidal Thames, as you technically do upstream of Teddington. As long as you’re wearing a pfd, keep right and stay out of the way, the police patrolling the river will probably ignore you.
A fun shorter packboating section would be the 8 miles from Putney to Tower Bridge, both with good transport links and passing all the classic London icons which people of my age will recognise from the idealised Thames TV logo (left) from the 1970s. Once the tide drops enough, exposing the sandy riverbed, taking out is easy enough with a packboat, even if it means climbing up a vertical ladder as we did last time (above). Elsewhere there are several steps or jetties.