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.