The 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. Bow 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 the 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.
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.
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.
Urban canals have long been rediscovered as quaint, idiosyncratic backwaters for boat dwellers, joggers and cycle commuters, or have seen adjacent industrial wasteland redeveloped into glitzy apartment blocks or waterside business parks complete with mouth-watering eateries and amusing sculptures. The old cliche of filthy neglected ditches where joy-riders dumped scooters and drunks hurled traffic cones or shopping trollies is outdated, at least in central London.
These days, if Doctor Who needs a grotty urban canal to stand in for a toxic sewer where evil Cybermen are spawning The Invasion (1968; 00.57), they’d probably have to go abroad or something. All of which means that, once you include London’s excellent transport links, the capital’s fascinating canals make for great packboating.
The 200-year old Regent’s Canal is inner London’s best example, arcing nearly 9 miles across London from near Paddington eastwards to the old docks at Limehouse on the Thames. It starts at the dreamy, willow-rimmed mooring of Little Venice, passing Regents Park’s neoclassical mansions and the chattering apes of London Zoo before turning for Camden Lock Market where Jimi Hendrix bought his first Rosetti Airstream. Here the canal drops down a few locks to unrecognisably redeveloped Kings Cross, home of Google UK and where giant Victorian-era storage tanks have been converted into luxury flats. East of here, your water-level view flits between bohemian, suburban, light industrial and even rural parkland, until you arrive at the marina of Limehouse Basin by the Thames. On the way you’ll have portaged 13 locks and two tunnels (marked in red on the map below).
The Regent’s Canal
Britain’s canals helped kick off the world’s first industrial revolution. Canals linked or added to long-established river navigations and enabled inexpensive and reliable cross-country transportation of heavy or bulky commodities. At this time the decrepit road network was still suffering from 1500-years of neglect following the Roman era, couldn’t handle the demand and proved too costly. Around 1805 the Grand Union Canal linked the burgeoning industrial heartlands of the Midlands with Paddington – then a village on the western edge of London. The advent of the Napoleonic Wars, including attacks on coastal shipping, necessitated secure inland transportation links to help provision the war effort. (The Wey-Arun Navigation linking London with the navy fleet at Portsmouth, was another example). The Regent’s Canal followed London’s northern perimetre to link the Grand Union with the tidal Thames to Limehouse (above) near the new West India Docks. Here, lock-controlled ‘wet docks’ were regarded as more efficient and secure than London’s old bankside wharves. The map below is from 1830 and shows that even a decade after the canal opened, most of it passed through open countryside. Within a few years railways gradually brought about the demise of commercial canal transportation. I pinched most of this information from Jack Whitehead’s detailed version.
Time to go. I was on the bus before sunrise.
Bear with me, I’m still waking up.
Cables and cladding at Edgware Road tube.
New apartments, offices and the Fan Bridge at Merchant Place in Paddington Basin, the ‘Paddington Arm’ terminus of the Grand Union from Birmingham.
The canal ahead of the lifting Fan Footbridge is cordoned off so you can’t actually put in here. Along with the similar Rolling Bridge nearby, a cynic might say these are eye-catching engineering solutions to non-existant problems. The bridges make scheduled performances on weekends.
The Paddington Arm of the Grand Union. Regents Canal actually starts by the former barge turning-point known as Brownings Pool; today’s Little Venice.
Just up the way below a footbridge is a strange retracting weir whose purpose may be to keep the scourge of duckweed from spoiling Paddington Basin’s clear-water vibe.
You can put in anywhere around here but…
Maida Hill Tunnel Before you start assembling your boat, know that in about 5 minutes you’ll need to backtrack from and portage around the 250-metre-long Maida Hill Tunnel which is closed to ‘non-powered craft’. And it’s not a quick 250-m hop-around either. Because of a private towpath along Blomfield Road, and closures for repairs, currently it’s nearly a mile before you re-access the water below the Casey Street footbridge east of Lisson Grove. Knowing this, you may prefer to do as I did, and walk to (or start from) Casey Street Footbridge, about half a mile north of Marylebone tube. See map below.
The temporary towpath closures (left) are to repair electric cables stemming from the power station at the end of Aberdeen Place at the tunnel’s eastern end. When it reopens the portage distance will halve, but that may be a while. So, you can paddle up to the western tunnel entrance from the Little Venice end (paddleboarder, below left), but you can’t get out here onto Blomfield Road because of a locked gate to the moorings. You have to backtrack to Little Venice, but it’s probably still worth it for a peep into the short if forbidden void.
In 2018 the Canal & Rivers Trust (formerly British Waterways) provisionally opened the 250-metre-longtunnel to paddle-powered craft. (Consultation document.) According to their own regs, any straight canal tunnel of less than 400m can be paddled. At Maida Hill you can clearly see the other end, anything coming at you will be silhouetted or lit, and the whole drama takes a couple of minutes to paddle, including taking pictures.
But to saves costs the tunnel is narrow and without a towpath (barges were legged through by ‘walking’ off the walls). Passing isn’t allowed or even possible, even in a slim kayak. Or a boat operator may not notice low-in-the-water kayaks, even with the mandatory headlight. Tour boats run via the tunnel daily from 10am between Camden and Little Venice.
‘Thank you for your enquiry. We do not allow kayaks through the Maida tunnel unless it is part of a special event”. Three months notice is preferred for your special event and solo transits are not allowed anyway. The website additionally warns: Non–approved unpowered craft shall not transit the tunnel eg. rafts and other types including inflatable arrangements designated for ‘fun’ use.
Clearly, they’re no more clued-up about modern IKs and packrafts than the BCU, or assume we’re all intoxicated pillocks goofing about oninflatable unicorns.
What could possibly befall a typically open and unsinkable IK, canoe, packraft or iSUP board in the tunnel? Do they assume such boats are inherently more dangerous than a beginner capsizing mid-tunnel in a tippy hardshell? Maybe the CRT has had problems with ‘inflatable arrangements’. Who knows, but I’ve also encountered this anti-inflatable prejudice on PLA media about padding the tidal Thames. I suppose it’s too much to expect these officials to know the difference between an Intex bin bag and a €3000 Grabner, but the common denominator must surely be the required BCUlicence (or a more expensive and limited pass direct from the CRT). I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a canalised version of road-tax paying car drivers [cruise operators] vs freeloading pushbikes [kayakers]. The resentment the former feels towards the vulnerability of the latter generates irritation.
Here’s a suggestion: mount some traffic lights at each end on a 5-minute turnaround, and perhaps some low-level motion-activated illumination inside. That way the Maida Hill Tunnel could be safely and easily open to all users. Apparently, it’s currently being considered.
Long story shortened a bit, I enjoyed my exploratory walk and finally got to air-up my MRS Nomad below Casey Street footbridge looking down on the Lisson Grove Mooring (aka Marylebone Wide).
The canal surface was thick with a lush carpet of floating pennywort or, as I prefer to call it, Hydrocotyle ranunculoides. This lurid green matting covered the canal from bank to bank just about the way to Limehouse. At times it was so thick birds easily stood on it, but it didn’t noticeably impede my paddling…
… because an MRS Nomad doesn’t exactly slice through water like Poseidon’s scythe. Once on the water I paddled back west, under the Lisson Grove or Eyre’s ‘tunnel’…
… for a peek at the eastern, ‘Doctor Who’, end of the Maida Hill tunnel. It didn’t look that far or that deadly.
Then I paddled back, passing nesting coots…
… and preening fowl. By 8am I was on my way to Limehouse.
Under the Chiltern Line rail bridges and Park Road (A41).
And into the bucolic enclave of Regent’s Park, passing elegant mansions and accompanied by a phalanx of pushbikers and joggers dashing and dodging other joggers and pram-pushing nannies.
At London Zoo all was quiet. Not a squawk, a yelp or a roar.
Regents Park was built around the same time as the canal, and one reason the canal didn’t simply cut directly east from Paddington towards the City along today’s A501 Marylebone Road (called ‘New Road’ back then, blue below) is because the well-connected park developer objected under the Tudor Statutes of NIMBY. The dirty canal diggers were forced to burrow like badgers through Maida Hill before swinging off on a northerly arc, all adding hugely to the cost and completion time. Funding the canal was a real stuggle.
At now-filled in Cumberland Basin (red, above), by the famously top-heavy Chinese pagoda restaurant the canal, appropriately, takes a left turn into the borough of Camden. Soon I arrive at Camden Lock Market but it’s too early on a weekday morning for the place to be busy with beret-wearing tourists.
There are three locks here in less than 300 metres, so I line the boat along the bank like a Yukon voyageur. I paddle away from trendy Camden and soon pass under the deafening Eurostar rail lines at St Pancras before entering what they now call Gasholder Park. Old Kings Cross is long gone and some of the gas storage tanks have been turned into flats. Welcome to trendy Kings Cross.
In the Eighties when I squatted near here, trendy + Kings Cross were not recognised combination. This was probably the seediest corner of central London, the real thing: junkies, prostitution, porno studios – a far cry from quaint, touristy Soho. One time we used the gas tanks as a backdrop for an article I’d written about a bike running on Nitrous Oxide or laughing gas. Fans of Mad Max will know about that. Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988) was filmed around the corner. Funnily enough, the story of a lefty-slacker moto messenger, his woebegone mum and some pantomime-vile yuppies. Oh happy days!
A lifeboat houseboat. No worries about rising sea level or tsunamis here.
The Word on the Water floating bookshop.
I can’t quite square where I am with what lies around. I think perhaps it was all once a huge goods yard behind high walls. I swing into Battlebridge Basin but the museum isn’t open yet.
I move on but it’s high time to…
Up ahead is the 880-metre-long, Islington Tunnel. Again, as straight as a pick-axe handle but closed to hand-powered boaters for similar reasons as Maida Hill. I was kind of hoping a barge might rock up and let me hook on for a lift, but the only things I’ve seen on the water are wildfowl, plastic bottles and Spirodelapolyrhiza. The museum organises boat tours through the tunnel two days a week. Maybe they’d agree to some slipstreaming.
I read that the portage follows helpful plaques set in the pavement. Cross the A1, Upper Street and head for Duncan St. It’s about a kilometre and would be somewhat of an arseache in a hardshell. Either way, I emerge at the eastern portal…
… and in need of a waterside snack at City Road Lock. It’s only 9.30.
By 10am I’m refreshed and on the move again. I put back in below the lock with a plop.
The canal turns north into Haggerston where, just after the Whitmore Road bridge, there’s a handy knot of cafes on the left. A better choice than City Lock if you want more than coffee and cake. It’s all yummy mummies round here, not the snarling bottle-throwing punks I’d feared.
Kingsland Basin to the north, with a somewhat baffling kayak slalom course. Soon you pass under the Kingsland Road bridge, edging ever closer to south Hackney.
The canal is actually about 4 feet deep. near here I can see traffic cones and other junk on the bottom. But a prod with the paddle reveals two centuries of anaerobic silt, so don’t expect to be able to stand if you fall in.
A populist ambush. These Eastenders are such wags.
Swan narcissus. There’s a fairy tale in there somewhere, a swan that fell in love with its image and was turned into an ugly duckling.
Another trickling spillway below a lock. I’ve lost track where.
Nosferatu guarding someone’s tent. Sure beats a shopfront on the Strand.
More gas holders near Cambridge Heath Road. You always find them near waterways as the huge tanks need to float on water.
They’re actually like an upside-down cup resting buoyant on water and are as much about producing an even pressure as storage. Gas from a nearby factory is pumped in to the cavity above the water depending on demand, and the weight of the lid keeps the low pressure steady as it’s released out into the network (in an era before regulators).
New graffiti; 28-speed revolutions.
It’s that Nosferatu again. You just can’t get rid of him.
I’m approaching Victoria Park near Bethnal Green or South Hackney, it’s hard to tell. The precise name of your neighbourhood is very important to Londonders.
By Old Ford Lock (named after a car they dragged out of the canal) are the first canalside public toilets I’ve seen. Good to know. A nutty, bin-rumaging vagabond in a top hat has a quick chat and warns me of heavy weed ahead.
Is that a real turtle on the sunken kayak or a rubbery Hacknean joke?
On the left the Hereford Union which leads two clicks up to the rejuvenation Olympic Park and the River Lee Navigation. We’ll be exploring there shortly.
More of yer Acne ‘umour? Someone report these ratbags to the CRT, pronto!
You won’t see such frivolity in la-di-da Little Venice.
Architecture-spotting: new, old, industrial, domestic, elegant, ugly – is all part of the fun on the Regents.
I probe a weed-clad lock. Locks are creepy places.
Canary Wharf ahead – the former Docklands of London which was the Regents’ very raison d’etre.
And here we are at Limehouse Basin and the first actual moving boat I’ve seen since Paddington.
A lot of weed to clean off.
All wiped down and rolled up.
I set off to walk upstream along the Thames for a bit.
The river looks really quite choppy and a strong spring tide shoves an abandoned kayak upstream towards Wapping.
Bored [sic] as a coot? Not on the Regents Canal! Thanks for reading.
We had a good look, then shot this underground weir and were spat out the other end, grinning and alive.
Years ago I recce’d South London’s Wandle ‘River’ from Merton Abbey Mills to the Thames at Wandsworth – a varied urban run of just a few miles – and all from the safety of my pushbike. It’s not far from where I live but I decided the Wandle held too many elements which played to my watery phobias, not least near the end where the current sucks you into a series of sunless tunnels (left) under a shopping centre and former brewery. Sounds like a perfect setting for a macabre Gothic horror story.
But not everyone is so timid. Tim from Longshore International went down there with a couple of his boats. Full story with a description of the real hazards and more photos on the Longshore Blog.
The other day a friend relatively new to yaking invited me and a mate to paddle a river near her home. The Colne runs between the edge of Greater London and the M25 motorway just a stone’s throw from Heathrow airport. Looking at a map (far below) and more so at a sat image, it’s hard to distinguish the actual course of the Colne among the many waterways, reservoirs, overgrowths and the Grand Union canal which all fill this part of west London’s perimeter, but Lois had already recce’d a route which included half a dozen fun weirs and other challenges along the way – all up a run of around six miles. Chief among these tests was what must surely be an urban paddler’s nightmare; a weir drop inside a low tunnel that passed under a kebab shop and which we dubbed TheKebab Death Tunnel Weir (the word order is interchangeable). The thought of being spun in a dank, sunless hydraulic or jammed against a rusting grate as clammy kebab fat dripped onto your forehead from cracks in the overhead brickwork was surely the makings of a deleted scene from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. All that was far from our thoughts as we bundled over a bridge parapet and inflated Lois’ Sunny IK which Robin was borrowing. Lois was using her newish hardshell Dagger and I was in my Yak packraft. Lois quite rightly rationalised her controversial IK betrayal by explaining that as she lived on a canal she just wanted a boat to hop into anytime (her Gumos having sprung slow leaks). I can relate to that though I wouldn’t go as far as actually buying a plastic coffin. We swooshed off under the bridge and downstream on a lovely autumn’s day, along what transpired to actually be a proper river with a kosher current, far from my expectations of a concrete lined culvert awash with urban detritus and pestilent scum. We passed under a huge arc of brickwork supporting the westbound mainline railway and soon sidled up alongside the Grand Union canal. Not that we could see it. Even the OS map gets quite confusing, marking rivers or other waterways passing across lakes and wetland reserves. But once on the river the way ahead was usually obvious. At one point what looked like thick mat of giant watercress carpeted the river bank to bank (actually pennywort, a very troublesome weed I am informed). Up ahead Lois’ Dagger ploughed into the vegetation (left) which amazingly proved to be paddleable, although with my wide, flat-hulled ‘packa I found reaching out and tugging on the floating wortrug worked best. Soon we came to our our first weir, a drop of a foot or so but where we did the right thing and hopped out to check we weren’t tipping over onto some gnarly boat spike. All clear so Lois slid over effortlessly into some shallows, then Robin beached himself inelegantly on the rim in the possibly under-inflated Solar (right). Knowing this, I sped the Yak up to warp speed and scrapped over with a splash. More riverine bliss ensued with barely a crisp packet to sully our glide. Delicate foot bridges led to cosy cottages. Another double weir looked deadly from above but recce’d from below was no drama. No having yet recognised the benefits of spray skirts, Lois’ Dagger was taking a cockpitful on some of these weir drops. The Solar too scooped up some swill, but this was the first occasion where I zipped on the Alpacka’s spray skirt – mostly to keep my legs warm but also proving it did what it was supposed to.
Up ahead, another clot of creswort choked the channel, but this had got thick enough to catch some crap so we hauled out stinky twigs and other rancid mush before hacking our way in. The rigid hardshell was best; my Alpacka (above) while broad was at least light, while the Gumboat put up a fight and Robin split his paddle all the better to dig his way through (right). Another weir with a drop of a couple of feet gave Lois a fresh rinse as we neared the outer London suburb of Uxbridge. Bankside trees gave way to razor-topped railings protecting the back end of industrial units and things turned decidedly less serene as we neared the gaping twin maws of the Death Tunnel. It burrowed under a parade of shops, the pride of which was unquestionably the broad, handsome frontage of the Burger Kebab Galaxy restaurant.
Two limbo-low bridges lead to an even lower rusty sewer pipe spanning the canal, and up ahead two arches reached into the watery gloom like a farmer’s rubber glove and where the rank stench of congealed doner fat choked the air. A chink of light marked the far end of the 70-foot tunnel (left) where the roof – strung with electrical piping, rotting rafters and mummified bats – pressed down to just a couple of feet right over the edge of the drop. Lois said last time the water was higher and they couldn’t even see the end, but they’d edged in anyway, slid over and survived. Even then, you never know when a burned-out scooter or half a tree might be poised to spoil your weir and anyway, Lois was sure this weir was higher than anything we’d done so far. So Robin and I clambered up onto the footbridge (right), walked round the far side and waded up into the tunnel as far as we could against the current. With the help of my camera’s flash I was able to get far enough in to see that the three-foot weir was actually a narrow 45° slide of about 3 feet, not a straight drop. Much less risky. Now reassured that I wouldn’t be pitched out of the packraft to smack, face-first into to a span of festering, greasy brickwork, back at the boat I squeezed myself under the sewer pipe (right) and let the speeding current draw me in, making sure to keep well away from a broad side tunnel which led off to the right and didn’t look like it had a happy ending. I didn’t want to end up being squeezed out of someone’s kitchen tap like rubber-boned Janus Stark. In the main tunnel the roof bore down and I stowed the paddle as I tipped down the chute, getting shoved against the right wall as I ran out towards the light like an emigrant from a near death experience. Lois came down next (faintly visible above left) and also got pushed right at the base of the chute and semi capsized.
Kebab Death Horror!
Her paddle floated down towards me but before I could grab it the eddy caught it and floated it back up towards the chute. Meanwhile, soggy arsed Lois hopped out and dragged her waterlogged Dagger into the piercing daylight. Robin came down next (left), got pushed over but kept it together. It seems the tunnel weir had set up a long, thin anti-clockwise circulant or eddy which came upstream and looped back down just below the chute and explained why we’d all got pushed into the right wall as we came off the slide. But we’d survived the KWDT and soon cruised past a striking municipal bronze statue depicting a trio of naked nymphs grappling over a giant Christmas pudding (left), a scene plucked from the otherwise unexceptional Lost Chronicles of Uxenbride discovered not far from Kebab Galaxy in 1892. And here at last! A plucky South Bucks District Council dustbin uprooted from it’s roadside vigil and flung into the Colne by some beer-crazed revellers high on nitrous oxide. Now that’s what you call urban packboating! There was more to come. What is a paddle in merry England without getting a bollocking from a vexed bankside angler. We’d seen a few upstream who’d mostly ignored us (I don’t waste greetings on anglers anymore), but as Robin and I rounded a bend following another weirlette, some grumpy git wearing rubber up to his neck let us know his feelings, concluding with: ‘You coming back?’ (demonstrating his lack of understanding about how kayaks and rivers interact). ‘No sirree‘ ‘Good!’
His mate just down the way was more civil and explained ‘there’s no navigation on this beat, it’s in the agreement…’ pointing to a sign, rather ineffectively positioned downstream that merely said Private Fishing or some such. I didn’t know the paddling status of the Colne and maybe Lois didn’t either, but a quick Google later on showed up threads on the SotP and ukrivers that indeed suggested the Colne hereabouts had been leased by a bank side golf club to Uxbridge Anglers Club, and their £80 membership fee helped entitle them to exclude paddlers on parts of the Colne. What about the Magna Carta and all that? Which parts are off limits is hard to determine (there are fishing maps on the link above) unless there is a blanklet paddling ban. We certainly saw no ‘ No Canoeing’ signs so it all left a sour taste for a while, but that’s the way paddling is in England thanks to Edward the 1st’s short-sighted bequest to his loyal noblemen (or so the story goes). The last mile or two down to Packet Boat Lane passed without rancour as the late autumn sun seeped through the falling leaves. The current was speeding along by now and negotiating a squeeze around a fallen tree and some brambles, Robin managed to low side the unskeged Gumotex at exactly the point where Lois had tipped in on a previous occasion. Luckily he was also in shorts and hopped back in the Solar. Somewhere here there was a blockage of fallen trees and flotsam which we couldn’t paddle through and so made our only short portage. ‘Take out, rrrrrrriver left!’ yelled Lois, scarring the crows into the flightpath of several 747s lowering their landing gear. Incredibly, Packet Boat Lane (near Iver) is actually a drivable ford across the Colne, rated at no less than five stars by the peer reviewed wetroads.co.uk. Once back at Lois’ cosy houseboat Robin couldn’t resist nipping back and having a crack at the car-swallowing ford on his well-travelled trail bike. I stood in the middle with water halfway up my thighs and filmed the action, thinking, ‘rather you than me, mate – it’s a long push back to Crawley’. Sure enough, before he got even halfway his Yamaha spluttered to a stop and we pushed it back like a couple of spotty teenagers trying out their first stolen bike. Back on the barge the throbbing woodburner and a hot bowl of soup soon thawed our chilled limbs as we tried to analyse what the heck was wrong with Robin’s moto, other than acknowledging an engine can’t run on water like a kayak can. We left Robin to it, I rolled up my Alpacka and rode back home across London. Thanks to Lois P for organising a great day out.
London made worldwide headlines this week for rioting, arson and looting. Along with scores of others, our 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 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 is quiet and 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 row boats, 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 row boats, 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 (left), 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 Wheel 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 manoeuvering 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 (on the left) 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 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 (left) 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 (right) 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 (left) built in the 1980s when the whole recent 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 collpase, 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. Google Maps (sat view) shows a mysterious sluice called Richmond Lock just downstream of the Twickenham Bridge (A316), 10 minutes downstream from our put-in at Water Lane, but which I did not recall. Steve checked on Streetview which explained all; it’s an ornate old iron footbridge that’s only a barrage some of the time and there’s a slipway for kayaks on the left. At any other time it’s just another bridge. 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 profiles which people of my age will recognise from the idealised Thames TV logo (right) 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 (top left). Elsewhere there are several steps or jetties.
Gallery below. Click on the big picture at it goes to the next one. Includes pics by Steve L.