Autumn on the Medway

Monday was the calm after the first big storm of autumn, a sunny day to packraft 8 miles along the Medway from Tonbridge to Yalding station. With recent heavy rains, I was expecting a noticeable current on the usually placid Medway whose flow is constrained by numerous locks.

I’ve been caught out on this river before by massively dropped water levels (usually during winter maintenance), so I remembered to check the river status on the website. Oddly it claimed all was normal, but the Medway was clearly up to the grass and I wondered if the five canoe chutes downstream may be closed. Oh well, each lock or weir has a handy low-level jetty so a little portaging will be some extra exercise. It wasn’t till I got back home that I saw they’d issued the warning you see above left.

The noise of the thundering weir at Tonbridge Town Lock put me on edge, and as I set off across the carpet of white scum the over-loaded weir had generated, I was mindful of the latest in a series of revelations about how much raw sewage gets dumped directly into English rivers and coasts by water treatment plants (it’s said fines are cheaper than treatment). A week ago it’s said public outrage had forced the government to reverse a vote against regulating raw sewage dumping.
In fact, it seems intensive livestock production is a greater threat to healthy, biodiverse rivers. A few months ago activist George Monbiot exposed how the Wye (which we packrafted last spring) was choking to death from the effluent produced by cattle, pig and chicken installations in its catchment area. The brown, flood-charged brown waters swirling around me now took on a different meaning.

The Medway was moving like a proper unfettered river at a pace I’d not seen before. Small eddies, boils and whorls spun up to the surface at each bend or constriction, and occasionally the boat got pushed or pulled about.

On arriving at Eldridge Lock, the very shallow-gradient chute had burst its banks, so to speak, and was twice as wide as normal, with the metal edges of the channel hidden in the brown murk. A little taken aback, I was too focussed on keeping the packraft in line to take a photo. Once down, the powerful eddies belting out of the churning weir right alongside the chute took a bit of digging to get across, before carrying on downstream through the frothed-up scum.
As a longer boat could have got crossed up and flipped over in the unconstrained chute,  you’d think think they’d have closed it.

Downriver, the gate was closed on the Porters Lock chute, which appeared the same as normal and perfectly straightforward. With the base of the chute separated from the adjacent weir’s turbulence, I slipped under the bar, as I’ve done before, and shot the chute with ease.

The next two chutes at the similar East- and Oak Weir Locks were also unflooded if flowing briskly within their sides. But the gates were too low to slip under, so I rolled out of the boat and carried it down to the jetty.

Sluice chute running a bit harder on another day

With the strong current and a helpful back breeze, I got to the final chute at Sluice Weir in what felt like no time. Branches and other debris obscured the entry point which, even at the best of times, is difficult to nose up to to check the chute was clear without getting sucked in.

Because you never know what may be jammed half way down the chute until you tip over the edge, I decided to cross over to the jetty on the other bank and have a look before hurtling down.

Just as well as, although the chute was clear and running shallow within it sides, the thundering weir alongside span a back eddy clockwise right into the placid drop zone. The packraft would have almost certainly skimmed over to the flow, but as I was right by the put-back-in jetty, the ‘dare’ didn’t seem worth the risk. Messing about near weirs can end badly. Maybe it was a matter of timing on the day, but it seemed ironic that two potentially dodgy chutes were open, while the three straightforward ones were closed.

All that remained was the last mile or two to Yalding Weir and on down the short, deadwater canal to Hampton Lock for a wipe, roll up and the 14:40 back to London.

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