Exploring London’s Channelsea River

by Ian Tokelove
Kayaking on East London's Channelsea River

The Channelsea River is a hidden tidal creek in East London. Discover a secret island and an oasis for urban wildlife!

The Channelsea is one of the Bow Back Rivers, a series of man-made channels which date back to the 12th century. They were dug to drain the Stratford Marshes, now long gone and buried beneath layers of urban expansion.

Much of the Channelsea has been filled in and built over, but a stretch still survives. This hidden waterway is just a few hundred metres from West Ham Underground Station, but few know about it, or visit.

A kayaker explores the Channelsea River and island

Accessing the Channelsea River

Access to the Channelsea isn’t easy. At low tide there is far more mud than water, and just getting onto the water is a challenge. There are no public slipways, so we launched our kayaks from Trinity Buoy Wharf.

This is where the River Lea meets the Thames. Solid 19th century steps reach down into the dark, choppy waters, which lead to the Channelsea. We sought permission in advance, as this is a busy venue with on-site security, although parking is free.

If you wish to explore the Channelsea River by foot, a footpath between Three Mills and the Greenway gives limited access.


Bow Creek development

As we paddled up the winding Bow Creek, we were met by a cacophony of ongoing, high-rise development. Reedbeds line the river walls, but cranes reach to the skies. Here, the apartment blocks of ‘London City Island’ have crushed all traces of the former ship yards, factories & mills which once served the river.

The peninsular was once home to an isolated, poor community, cleared by early 20th century slum clearances. Now even a small apartment costs half a million, with residences marketed as an exclusive ‘lifestyle’ choice.

Bow Creek development

Away from the ‘island’ remnants of 19th century industry still remain, saved by preservation order, awaiting demolition or simply abandoned and forgotten. A beautifully decorated Victorian footbridge still rises on one bank of Bow Creek, all purpose lost with the passage of time.

Remnants of a 19th century footbridge over Bow Creek

Sand martins nesting along Bow Creek

But wildlife still lingers, just, and adapts. Shortly after the A13 flyover, we saw a small squadron of sand martins. They were hunting insects over the river, and snatching them from the surface. Amazingly, a pair were also nesting in a drainage hole, high in the metal piling of the river walls.

Sand martin nesting hole in the metal piling of Bow Creek


A few more turns of the river got us to the Channelsea, where a jack up barge currently blocks the river. Resembling a small oil rig, the barge provides a platform for contractors repairing the river path. Fortunately there was room for us to slip past and into the Channelsea.

Wildlife and the Channelsea River

Seals have been seen hunting here and I’ve previously seen kingfisher. Three little egret were roosting in the tree branches, their feathers a brilliant snowy white, in strong contrast to the brown, silty water.

The Channelsea River and island

The Channelsea encircles a small, unnamed island, where nature has run wild. Figments of mysterious, broken structures puncture the treetops, and the solitary footbridge is heavily fortified against trespass. Apparently the island was once home to secret military installations and chemical works which have stained the soil red. The thick vegetation of summer presents a formidable barrier, so we didn’t explore, but we were tempted.

Channelsea River Island

Beyond the island the river ends abruptly, although the Channelsea Path follows the river’s route as far as Stratford High Street. Here, at river end, a large Belgian barge is moored to the wharf of a razed chemical works, next to a small industrial unit and a utilitarian housing block.

We got talking to one of the barge’s co-owners, Al, who is a member of Surge Cooperative. This innovative start-up is aiming to create sustainable, affordable moorings for larger boats in London. This area has plenty of potential for moorings, and Al’s enthusiasm for the local wildlife was refreshing after the sterile dystopia of some of the downstream development.

View from Belgian Barge on Channelsea River

Heading back, we passed the multiple discharge pipes of Abbey Mills Pumping Station, where North London’s sewage is pumped east to Beckton. With even moderate rainfall, London’s sewers overflow into our rivers, and Abbey Mills is no exception. Al said it didn’t happen often, but when it does, he refrains from paddle boarding for a week. The completion of the Tideway Tunnel will thankfully see the end of such pollution incidents.

Cody Dock

The Docklands River Princess outside Cody Dock on Bow Creek.

As we paddled back with the falling tide we paused at Cody Dock, next to a former gasworks. The dock now hosts an inspirational, community-led project which is transforming the dock into a creative hub with eco-friendly gardens. There is a friendly café and on Friday evenings the Docklands River Princess opens to the public as a floating bar (5.30pm to 10pm). There aren’t many places in London where you can sup a beer and (maybe) spot a seal!

Back at Trinity Buoy Wharf we made a tricky exit from our kayaks and climbed the slippery steps back to dry ground. Rather than head into London’s rush hour traffic we lingered at the wharf’s Orchard Café, enjoying a tasty bite alongside the bright red Lightship 95, now home to a recording studio and an imperious tabby, who ignored all our attempts for attention or affection.

Note: Tidal flows, sheer river walls, mud and river traffic can present significant problems for the urban paddler. These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced paddlers. We undertook this trip using white water kayaks in July 2019.

Thanks to Karina Townsend for kayaking alongside me and sharing her enthusiastic knowledge of local community projects.

Trinity Buoy Wharf: trinitybuoywharf.com

Cody Dock: codydock.org.uk

Surge co-operative: surgeco-op.co.uk

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