Right now it’s a great time to kayak the Thames through London. It’s only April but due to Covid, the Westminster tourist barge scene is dormant, making that brief but lively stage a bit less fretful. Down at water level we may be hyper vigilant, but can the bloke doing a U-turn in his heaving tourist catamaran see us fending off the standing waves and refracted wakes? As a barge-tourist in a Union Jack bowler hat asked me last time; ‘Is this allowed? Yes it is chum, but a kayak on this part of the Thames is still an incongruous sight. The congestion and the standing waves pushed up by some bridges at certain times can feel a bit like skateboarding in a gale on Runway 3 at Heathrow.
Downloading the PLA’s mammoth 130-pageTideway Code is enough to put anyone off, but I do believe this edition (dated October 2020) is less anti IK than a previous version I read. At the time I recall seeking clarification from the PLA’s media person, and got an arsey corporate riposte. Has last year’s IK consumer surge turned the tide on the PLA’s prejudice? It’s the old problem of misconflating a clueless beginner in £49.95 Aldi bin bag with an alert and well-equipped paddler in a decent high-pressure hybrid. The former far outnumber the latter. I say: pick your tide, keep right and be observant. For me the biggest peril was dodging the horizontal scythes of the Putney rowers who seem to go up and down across the whole width of the river as they please. They do need a lot of space.
All hands to the barrel pump! The day will be long, sunny and warm. High time to tick off ideas matured over the winter months of Lockdown. First on the list: the River Wey from Godalming to Weybridge in Surrey. Or should I say, the historic canal called the Wey Navigation which is paralleled in places by the old river. It’s one of England’s oldest navigations (commercial inland waterways) which once connected the Thames with the Navy base in Portsmouth. At the time a safe way of transporting stuff, including munitions produced near Godalming, without risking encounters with Napoleonic marauders in the Channel. For years I’ve been unsure whether the Wey was a dreary canal with more locks than the Tower of London, or a grubby, semi-urban river with weirs and other obstructions. Turns out it’s a bit of both but better than expected. All I had to do was RTFM!
Compared to the similarly popular Medway, which I’ve done loads of times in IKs and packrafts, summer and winter, the Wey Nav feels less agricultural, more scenic and has an interesting history if you slow down enough to look. But it lacks the Medway’s unique canoe passes which scoot you down the side of each lock (right), avoiding up to three laborious carry-rounds per mile. Parts of the original river survive in places to either side of the canal, which is what caused me confusion. I now realise the Navigation (managed by the National Trust) gets priority in terms of water levels and maintenance. As a result the occasionally nearby River Wey might be shallow or chocked up with fallen trees or rubbish. But you can combine both to make loops like this.
I fancied a full dawn-to-dusk recce: as much as I could fit in from Godalming (where most paddlers start) before my tank ran dry. I might even reach Richmond on the Thames, a section I enjoyed last December in the Arrowstream. That is actually quite a haul: 20 Weymiles plus another 15 on the Thames, including no less than 17 lock portages on the two rivers. But the great thing about ending a paddle in an urban area is I could air down when I got worn out and rail home. Thirty-five miles? Dream on, bro! I’ve only paddled two days since September so was far from paddle fit. Then again, the pre-dawn brain wasn’t on top form either: I set off in the right general direction, but on the wrong train.
Oh! Mister Porter, what shall I do? I want to go to Godalming And they’re taking me on to Hoo [k], Send me back to Woking as quickly as you can, Oh! Mister Porter, what a silly boy I am!
After backtracking, I decided to catch up with myself at Guildford, 5 miles downstream of Godalming and missing out 4 of the Wey’s 14 locks. I dare say I’d appreciate that later.
Just before the GPS packed up at Basingstoke canal junction, I was averaging 5.5kph on the move. Pretty good with no current to speak of. On the livelier Thames I estimate I was moving at up to 10kph before I withered. Same as in the FDS Shipwreck in December. My tall BIC backrest (left) initially felt great then collapsed on itself. Usual story: needs a stiffer insert. I was trying out my new footrest tube attachment points which worked great. Only when one heat-welded strap broke near Addlestone was I reminded how essential footrests are to comfort, efficiency and stamina. I jury-rigged something up between two D-rings which have been staring in the face all this time.
My 2021 Wey Survey of UK Paddling Trends
Hardshell canoes: 1
Hardshell kayaks: 1 (+ 2 K1 racers)
Hardshell SoT: 1
Vinyl IKs (cheapies): 5
PVC (bladder) IKs 3
iSUPs: 10+ (mostly women on iSuPs, too)
PFDs worn, almost none then again, mine’s more of a handy waistcoat)
FDS spotted: none (interesting as readers here are mad for that page)
Shipwreck is the latest contender in self-branded full drop-stitch (FD-S) IKs customised in China to an importer’s specifications. With the ArrowStream – not a bad name – you get all the kit including two four-part paddles and a two-way barrel pump. The box it came in weighed a staggering 29.5kg – I could barely get up the stairs; it’s twice the volume of my Seawave 2. But once unwrapped, the whole kit: everything in the bag, weighs 25.4kg.
The bare boat itself is only 17.8kg, and with one seat and footrest, the splash vizors and the skeg comes in at 19.7kg on the water (plus pump and bag) according to my kitchen and suitcase scales. By comparison, had I kept the stock seat and footrest on my Seawave 2, it would have been 17.7 kg on the water, so that’s not as bad as the bulk – about 90cm x 70cm x 35cm boat alone in the bag – might suggest. According to my tape it’s 431cm long and 83cm wide. That gives it an LxW ratio of 5.19 which, compared to the table here is also pretty good. And don’t forget the maximum width is measured high up on the outward-angled sides; the actual width at the waterline is around 60cm or 23.6 inches – fairly slender by IK standards. More on that later. The big advantage with these slim, 10cm-thick side panels compared to round tubes is loads more space inside. The interior width is 45cm at floor level and 66cm at the top of the sides.
The seats include a hefty 9cm-thick seat base incorporating a firm, 6cm foam block which can be zipped out. I can see that foam feeling a bit hard sat on the hard, 10psi floor after a few hours, but it could be easily replaced with something softer or lower. Or you could even zip an inflatable cushion in there to reduce the packed volume. The backrest is tall and wide, with loads of tensioning straps to get the position and angle to your liking. You can reposition a solo seat in the middle, a big benefit with any open tandem IK.
The footrests add up to a couple of 4cm ø hard foam tubes. This diametre is too small for a secure foot placement and they squidge once you push on them. For the test I replaced it with a section of 10cm PVC drainpipe. There are two pairs of D-rings on the floor to attach the tube, presumably with the two packing straps supplied. But that means adjustment is only forwards, away from each seat. So if they’re too far away for your feet you’ll need to adjust the seats forward which may not ideal for trim. However, in the tandem video above the attachment D-rings appear to be in the right spot, even if the trim at 2:09 appears a bit front-heavy. For my solo paddle I joined the two straps into a loop (above left) to use the footrest pipe. Pushing off a proper footrest makes sitting more comfortable and less slouchy. The important thing is the D-rings are there.
Flexible plastic splash visors slip under the rims of the short decks, and the slot-in skeg is the usual (for this type of boat) 9-inch monster. There are handles at each end and a pair on the sides.
The supplied mesh-sided backpack is commendably huge: big enough to get everything in. There are cinch-down straps on the sides and the top, and a big zip plus a clear pocket on the front. The mesh sides will help a wet boat air off. But considering the weight it’s carrying, you do wonder if the shoulder straps will survive too much heaving on and off on public transport. I know my Gumotex backpack didn’t, and neither did the similarly huge Kokopelli Moki bag.
The whole assembly of the boat is very clean – that’s the wonder of heat-welding compared to messier rubber gluing. An exception are stray thread ends inside where a tape covers the floor–sides cavity (left). Once inflated I could see no blisters in the D-S panels which, with threads every 5mm, adds up to an estimated 4 kilometres metres of space yarn! Maybe that’s what explains the bulk, but once vacuum sucked down, I don’t think so. It’s more that the stiff but soft-textured PVC can only be loosely folded over, not rolled up. Half the bulk is just air. The supplied four-part 220cm alloy paddles weigh only 950g and have blade-angle adjustment holes 45° either sides of flat. The blades also have little hooks cut in the sides which are actually quite handy, now I think about it. Assembled, there’s quite a lot of slack in the three joints which will only get worse with use but they’ll certainly get you moving until you decide to upgrade.
Pumping stations Pumping up the ArrowStream to an indicated 10psi measured by the 1.7-litre barrel pump’s built-in manometer took less than 90 seconds for the floor and a minute for each side. The pressures may be high but there’s much less volume here than a tubed IK. The pump comes with a nifty red cap which you easily unscrew to switch to downward-action-only to help attain higher pressures. I actually managed those times on double action all the way to 10psi. It’s manageable, but others will welcome the lighter pumping option as pumping effort increases. Checking against my accurate Bravo hand manometer, the 10psi figure on the dial was spot on. Good to know.
One good thing about the 64cm tall pump is that, I at least, stoop less compared to my 45cm Bravo. That makes pumping a whole lot more comfortable, though conversely shorter pumpers may find the height awkward. As mentioned here, a barrel pump suited to high D-S pressures needs to be relatively tall but slim. The raft valve nozzle on the end of the hose had the bridge inside to press open the inflation valve once clamped on, so as to ease the pumping effort. This also enables sucking the boat down to maximum compactness. I’ve only just realised these nozzle bridges are the key to compact suction packing, as long as you have push-push valves. After shrink-packing, as you quickly remove the nozzle the valve closes and virtually no air in sucked back in. One thing you don’t get on a self-branded boat like this is a conformity table stating recommended pressures, HIN, payloads, ISO rating, CE stamp and so on. But there’s a one year warranty against manufacturers defects.
On the Water
I’ve been speculating about these boxy, hardshell-stiff full drop-stitchers for years and finally had a chance to try one. I picked a 21km (13 mile) section of the Thames from Shepperton to Richmond with three lock portages on the way. From where I live it’s an hour and a half by train, then a 20-minute walk to the river: a good test of real-world packboating. All I had to do now was sit back and wait for a sunny, mid-December day. In the end I settled for a dry day and once I got there, it dawned on me I’ve not been to my local train station for 9 months or more. To spare the mesh backpack, I used an old folding trolley. It can hack rough treatment but these days most London stations have lifts, so the whole trip was rather effortless.
A 15-minute walk from Shepperton station, I’d located a perfect put-in off Google maps: a paved dock down a bank tucked between trees and just a foot above the water (left). As so often happens when setting up in the more populated south, as I set up a passing chap was curious about the boat. Little do these people know they’ve stumbled upon the UK’s self-styled inflatable guru! A comprehensive exultation of The Packboating Way may have been more than they bargained for.
The planned route broke down as: 4km to Sunbury Lock; about the same to Molesey Lock; another 8 to Teddington and 4 or so to Richmond. As I wrote recently in an IK guidebook (out later): first time in a new boat choose a quiet, safe and easy spot and if in doubt, do the tippy test before you let go of the river bank. Perched on the thick 9cm seatbase, the ArrowStream felt wobbly on its relatively narrow hull that’s about 60cm wide at the waterline where you sit. At a guess my Seawave 2 might be 70cm or less at the water level, but the difference must be that the Seawave sags a bit and leans over onto round side tubes (below right) which vaguely maintain the waterline width; the Shipwreck’s super-stiffness and near-vertical sides are what I’ve decided to call a ‘flowerpot’ profile (below left) which quickly narrows and has less to support it as it leans over.
Had it been a lovely summer’s day in a shallow pool, it would have been interesting to push the tippy test past the limit. And also find out how easy it was to re-enter the ArrowStream from deep water. But it was a cheerless mid-December day on the Thames. I suspect the Shipwreck is more stable than it feels: what they call low primary (upright) stability but good secondary (leaning) stability, though some think latter concept is bollocks; a kayak either feels stable to you or it doesn’t. As for deep-water re-entry, like a canoe, the tall, thin sides may make that tricky, depending on how well you can dolphin-launch yourself up and into the boat without pulling more water in. Luckily I had the option to zip out the 6cm foam block from the 3cm padded seatbase envelope and sit nearly on the floor. I could try the block later when I was more accustomed to the boat. Sat lower, the boat felt normal. It can be rocked side-to-side more readily than my Seawave and you have to make sure you sit right on the centre line. As others have said it may tip off centre but it won’t go right over, at least on flat water.
On this first stage, in the interests of analytical rigour I planned to use the four-part paddle before switching to my trusty Werner. In fact it worked perfectly well for an alloy straight-shaft. You don’t really notice the slack joints, though the width of the boat’s high sides caused the paddle to brush against them. It was the same with my Werner later, so it might be an idea to tape this area against wear. Sat on the seat foam block or other added padding would get you higher for more paddle side-clearance. Once I got on the move the biggest problem was as anticipated: the tendency of the ArrowStream to track straight as an arrow. Normal inputs to fine-tune the direction had no effect and progress became an annoying succession of straight lines broken by occasional hard hauling or jamming in a stern rudder/forward pry (it’ll all be in the book!) to get it on track. This was the same issue we had with the Moki a few months back. Is it the stiff D-S floor? Is it the huge skeg? The sculpted hard plastic bow and stern prows? Read on, but I got to Sunbury in less than half an hour which was a pretty good 5mph with help from the current.
Here I didn’t think to investigate what had looked on Google like a fish-ladder/mini weir on the left of the lock. I now realise it was a very handy canoe roller ramp: a slopping drop which would have made portaging near effortless. I’ve never seen these before; with a little more excavation they could be made into chutes as found uniquely on the Medway but perhaps the Thames’ current gets too strong for them. Instead, I hauled the kayak up onto the towpath, carried it past the lock and clambered back down a dockside ladder. Grabbing one side-handle, a solo paddler can rest the boat on the hip and carry it a short distance.
Paddling off with the weight (trolley, pump, spare paddle) now in the back and my Werner in hand, progress improved. A favourite paddle of 15 years fits like a well worn pair of boots, except boots would never last that long. I still hadn’t got to grips with steering nuance. There is just no way skipping a few strokes on one side will make any difference: the Arrow Streams full ahead like a rocket sled on rails. Of course, it’s better that way round than the other. Somewhere downriver a mate who lived nearby was standing by to grab some drone footage, but you’ll see better video at the top of the page. A few stills below.
With half an hour spent chatting or in a holding pattern while the drone buzzed overhead, annoying all in earshot, I wondered if I’d left it too late to get to Richmond before dark. At Molesey Lock I nearly made the same portaging mistake had not a kayaker catching up scooted down the ramp (below). They may not be as much fun as a chute, but with shallow water on either side, you can hop out and portage in a minute, even without using the rollers. It’s probable the day’s three locks (plus Richmond’s tidal barrier, just downstream of town) are the only such roller-ramps on the Thames’ 45 locks.
From here it was an 8-km stretch to Teddington where I thought I might bail if I felt tired. That’s the great thing with a packboat: you can change plans as you go. After passing rows of cute riverside dwellings and many seemingly abandoned boats, from here on the river was less grubby and urbanised as it passed the vast grounds of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace. Right from the start I’d been surprised at the number and variety of birds on the Thames, not least the hordes of swans (which were protected by ancient royal decree until 1998). I noticed one had a cunning way of fluffing its wings out into a pair of downwind sails to tale advantage of the tailwind.
Like a weary traveller, I came upon a glittering riverside metropolis and for the life of me couldn’t work out where this was. Happy shoppers and joggers where cruising along the waterfront. Cafes, bars and patisseries were making the most of it before Covid restrictions ramped back up in a few days. Was Thames Ditton really like a mini-Manhattan? Or have I been cooped up indoors a little too long. I asked a passing boatman what was this place of wonder. “It’s Kingston, mate. Why, wherja think it was?” I hadn’t the heart to tell him.
As I paddled past, I clocked the distinctive slabby flanks of an Aqua Marina Tomahawk tucked between two raptor-like speed boats. That particular boat was about as good value an FD-S IK as you could buy until this Shipwreck washed up on the ebbing tide.
I drifted under Kingston Bridge which I must have ridden over scores of times in a past life, when the Miracle of Kingston delivered one final benefaction: the setting sun burst out from beneath the carpet of clouds which had smothered the London skies for the past week. The shock was so great and the light so stunning against the steel-blue clouds, it could not have been a better time for the cold to get to the camera’s battery. I managed to rub it into delivering one last shot of the stately riverside plane trees before it packed up for good. This illuminated setting invigorated me for the final lap to Teddington Lock and Richmond beyond, but three hours in, the old butt was getting sore. One good thing with the ArrowStream and similar is you can lift yourself up on the hard sides to aire le derriere. This turned out to be one of the nicest stretches on the Thames I can recall. The riverside sticky-beaking, enigmatic islands and doubtless loads of history if you care to investigate, makes me realise that without its sporty chutes, Kent’s Medway is just another ordinary, agri-saturated Southeastern drain.
Converging on Teddington Lock with a quartet of silver-haired sea kayaking ladies, like a well-conditioned lab rat, I knew the form by now: canoe ramp, river left. Here I decided to remove the skeg. Straight away I set off at a faster paddling rhythm and found the boat much more lively, but in a good way. Yes, small corrections were needed to keep track, but now I was off the monorail and could wander and weave around like a normal IK. I wish I’d done this earlier. As suggested elsewhere; the sweet spot must lie with chopping that dorsal fin down. At the lock I also slipped the seat block back under the seat … for as many nano-seconds it took to realise that was still a bad idea. Something softer but less thick is needed.
The trees of what I thought was Richmond Park (actually the near-contiguous Ham Lands) glowed orangey-red as I cruised below Richmond Hill and under another familiar road bridge to arrive at the ramp where Steve and I had set off for Greenwich nine years ago, just after the last London riots. Lord know there’s plenty more to riot about these days, but now it’s all conducted online which is much more hygienic. Like Kingston, twilight on Richmond waterside was throbbing with ducks and Christmas revellers. I took my time draining and folding up the boat (chatting IKs with another curious chappy), rather pleased I’d managed the distance in exactly four hours without ending up too knackered. Part of that must be down to a backwind and the Thames’ swift winter current, but most of it’s owed to the Shipwreck ArrowStream, a fast flatwater cruiser whose potential is released once you dial in the right amount of skeg which may be none at all. It’s hard to see that price of £550 lasting for much longer.
Drying The twin drain plugs at the back worked fairly well on the ramp at Richmond; a pint or two spilled out from the cavity formed between the sides and the floor and which will almost certainly not dry out fully. The mesh-sided backpack helped, but you could tell it would take more to dry the boat off fully prior to long-term storage. In our flat I left it in the warm hallway (with an appropriate warning sign) and gave it what I thought was a final wipe down, but folding it up more water splashed out from somewhere, possibly the hollow prow beaks at either end. If you have the space the best way would be to lean it inflated on a wall in a warm room (or out in the sunshine), let what’s in there run to one end and deal with it there. If you’re really serious about the side cavities, you might get to them from either end with a hose attached to a hair dryer set on low.
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.
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 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. 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 (left), 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 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 bankside 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 unless there is a blanket 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 flight path 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 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.