Urban kayaking: East London

bowmapThe plan was simple. Put the IK in at Limehouse Basin where I finished up last week, and take an easy canal-paddle up around what are collectively known as the Bow Back Rivers threading through the Olympic Park, then portage over Three Mills Lock onto what becomes Bow Creek. Here, we’d ride its tight meanders on an ebbing tide down to the Thames at Trinity Wharf. Hard left and, keeping on the north bank (naughty), for what looks like an easy beach take-out at Lyle Park, a mile downstream.
The whole 8-mile run included just two locks to portage. Compare that to 13 locks and two closed tunnels for the similarly long Regents Canal I pack’ed last week.
Things didn’t get off to a great start, but next day we were back and on the water before 8am. We set off up arrow-straight Limehouse Cut. Dating from 1770, it’s London’s oldest canal, built to evade the Lee River’s final twisting meanders on Bow Creek which we hoped to paddle on the wat back. (Very detailed history of this river). Two miles on, a thick mat of spongey duckweed backed up around Bow Creek Tidal Locks. Tendrils of weed caught on the paddles and flicked all over the boat.
eastlondonBow Creek ebbs and flows right alongside the near-stagnant Limehouse Cut/Lee Navigation, but this was surely once a single river system. The River Lee’s (or Lea) source is in the hazy Chilterns of north Luton, and reaches the Thames via Bow Creek, 42 miles later. The Lee River Navigation is paddlable from at least Hereford (Mile 27.5). In England, a ‘navigation’ in fluvial terms means a public right of way for all craft, with a precedent going back centuries. Not all rivers in England are a navigation.
This whole underused wasteland between Strafford and Hackney was massively redeveloped for the 2012 Olympics, including the two new tidal locks mentioned. Before that, on the spring tide you could paddle up Bow Creek all the way to Hackney Marshes for some fish and chips. But while great for towpath activities, it seems the developers behind the refurbished network of waterways and new bridges didn’t consider paddleboat access either side of the locks. Odd, seeing as it was the Oh Lympics and all.

Our first trial came at Carpenters Road Lock (booking required a week in advance). It has a unique radial design with gates lifting a bit like a bulldozer blade. The CRT is very proud of it. Even though it’s permitted, as a single kayak I wouldn’t expect to use this or any lock; portaging is always quicker. But I would expect it to be fairly easy to get out and portage around a lock, just as I did 13 times or more last week on delithe Regents Canal. Maybe I’m going soft, but clambering up a 12 feet of rungs set in the canal wall, hauling the boat up, and then carrying it half a kilometre to the next accessible put-in doesn’t encourage paddling. What next; the cliff climbing finale from Deliverance (right)?
Two miles downriver at Three Mills Lock, (which I read was closed for repairs) we had to get up an even-higher ladder jammed behind a derelict? barge. To access the tidal stretch downstream of the lock, the only way was another long wall ladder, but it was behind temporary barriers. I could have wandered on to the Channelsea River to look for an easier put in, but where it joined Bow Creek (right), a cable or pipe to the crane floated across the surface, blocking the way. On a wild river you portage as long as necessary, sometimes miles. But either side of a lock on an urban waterway, how far do you go?
To be fair I’d timed the tide all wrong. I thought (correctly) that mid-ebb could be a fast run on the Bow, but in my greed for speed I’d failed to appreciate that at the tidal extent (the lock and adjacent Three Mills Island, left, 3 hours before LW at Bow Creek mouth), mid-ebb has already gone shallow. You’d need ropes to get down to a boat.
I suppose the easiest way to do Bow Creek is to paddle up with the tide and then let it take you back –  this must be what local hardshellers do. With a packboat you can dodge such backtracking. But not here it seems. And whichever direction you do it, once you’re in Bow Creek, I don’t think it’s easy to get out of the high-walled channel.
Our East London paddle occurred during a mini-heatwave with temperatures up in the mid-30s. What better place to be than on the water. But not in it: that morning the news reported a staggering three drownings yesterday, all on the Thames and all separate incidents.
Lacking the hoped-for thrill of the Bow Creek finale, the route we took wasn’t so interesting from the water, though would be a nice walk or cycle if you’ve never seen the Olympic Park in real life. From the water, you see a lot of high rises or backs of factories or construction to make more of the former. Even with its dozen or more portages, I found the Regents Canal much more diverse and interesting.

Below, some pictures from our day out.

Limehouse Basin 7am.

A week earlier, covered in duckweed.

A normal-height floating jetty on the east side of the Basin. More of these needed upriver.

Up Limehouse Cut, London’s oldest canal.

Thick weed clogs Bow Docks which drop to tidal Bow Creek for the Thames. But there is no easy way to access Bow Creek from the bank. You must book the lock in advance.

Three Mills Island complex – there’s been a tidal mill here since Saxon times they say. There’s a cafe.

Under the Bow Flyover. The Lee is the notional boundary between the East End and East London. In some pubs it pays to know the difference. Aabout 1200 years ago in Alfred the Great’s time, it was the frontier between Danelaw (Vikings) and Wessex (Anglo Saxon England).

Loads of building all around. London will be utterly brilliant when it’s finished.

How deep is a canal, you ask? This deep, but often less on the sides.

Belladonna and blackberries.

Old Ford Lock (Lee River Nav) to the left. Just after, Hereford Union canal leads back west to the Regents Canal near Victoria Park. We follow the Swan right under the footbridge along the Old River Lea, passing below the stadium. Note the two different spellings of Lee/Lea, Ley being the original Medieval spelling. I realise that nearby Leyton + Leytonstone have the same derivation.

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Nesting heron.

Carpenters Road Lock. How do you get up there? How indeed.

Actually quite easy out of an open IK. Don’t drop the lead!

We could have turned south here under this bridge and taken City Mills River back to the Lee River Nav just north of Three Mills Island and so back down to Limehouse (see map below). A closed loop with no locks which would be an OK canoe or even a SUP. You can rent Moo Canoes at Limehouse.

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Instead, we portage for 500 metres to the Waterworks River. A superb trolley surface.

9am – time for brekkie in a park before crossing the bridge. There are a couple of snack huts here.

Round the corner from the lock, yard-high put in on the west side of Waterworks River. Gate by the steps locked for no reason so down the ramp past a site entrance. Below the bridge is a short ladder and the gravel riverbed is only a few inches deep.

The Swan Highway Patrol.

The famously elegant Mittal sculpture – and some twisted red thing on the right.

Once a quick way to tart up old flats, cladding removal now in progress.

You want your water bottle or what?

Awkward and mucky take-out at Three Mills Lock. This is where your 3-metre lead comes in handy.

 

Good thing with IKs: light and bouncy.

I walked off for a recce all the way down to Bow Locks but found nowhere to put in – not even ladders. This spot above was about the easiest place, but still required clambering over fences to get to a walkway 9 feet above the bank scrub. With all the attendant construction and secretive film studios, you’d need to be quick to dodge the hi-viz jobsworths. This point is just north of the Three Mills complex where…

…you’d pass almost immediately under the Mill building. There’s a very shallow weir at low tides; maybe nothing at higher water.

View downstream on the bridge above that mill race. This is 3 hours before LW at Bow Creek mouth, but even at HW access is still awkward.

Reluctant to retrace the nearby Lee Nav back through the weed morass and down the Cut to Limehouse, I wipe off the duckweed and roll up.

We set off for the hot two-mile walk back to Limehouse.

Wouldn’t be an urban paddle without one of these!

 

 

 

 

 

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