Kayaking Dartford Creek & Crayford Creek, a Thames Estuary adventure

by Ian Tokelove
Kayaking back towards the Decima on Crayford Creek

Dartford Creek is the final stretch of the River Darent, which flows from near Sevenoaks to Dartford, before continuing to the Thames.

The Creek meanders between the Cray and Dartford Marshes, where the Darent is joined by its final tributary, the Crayford Creek. This once busy river marks the border of Greater London and Kent, but few boats now stir its surface.

The River Darent

Exploring Dartford Creek by kayak

Kayaking Dartford Creek requires tidal planning and some commitment, as public slipways are few and far between. We launched from Greenhithe into the Thames, taking the incoming tide towards the Creek.

There is a public slipway behind the Pier Hotel, with limited public parking for six cars. Additional free parking can be found along the nearby Eagles Road, close to the car park which is currently closed.

Kayaking towards the QEII bridge

The Dartford Crossing spans the Thames

The old wharves at Greenhithe are now private residential estates, but working piers still jut into the Thames, mounted on rusting legs. The QEII Bridge, or Dartford Crossing, rises high across the river.

Tidal waters churn around the huge concrete stanchions, as the heavy hum of traffic floats down from above.

Thames industry

We stuck to the southern bank of the river, rather than cross to the northern bank, where incoming river traffic is channelled. Across the water, two ro-ro cargo ships (roll-on / roll-off) were berthed at the busy Purfleet Thames Terminal. Other jetties and wharves along this stretch are long abandoned, their structures slowly eroding into the river.

Kayaker on the Thames with Purfleet Terminal in the distance

Purfleet Thames Terminal

The tide took us past the former Littlebrook Power Station, where the skeletal-white frame of a massive logistic centre is now rising.

The neighbouring Longreach Sewage Treatment Works is often easier smelt than seen. The works discharge treated wastewater into the Thames here. At low tide levels the water bubbles and erupts from an underwater outlet pipe, a dark fountain which attracts gulls and other wildlife. The discharge doesn’t smell bad as the water has been carefully filtered and cleaned, but you may wish to give the outlet a wide berth.

The Thames now traces the shoreline of the Dartford Marshes. You may hear sporadic gunfire, as there’s a shooting club on the other side of the river wall.

The Dartford Creek Barrier

The entrance to the Darent is guarded by the Dartford Creek Barrier, spanning the river on massive legs. When high tidal surges threaten to flood inlying property, a portcullis-like barrier slowly descends to block the incoming waters of the Thames.

The Dartford Creek Barrier rises over the Darent

The Dartford Creek Barrier

Beyond the barrier, and the gritty industrial park which tips the Crayford Marshes, the landscape is largely rural. On a high spring tide, the steep muddy banks of Dartford Creek lie hidden below the silty water. Reedbeds and saltmarsh slip past, under a wide sky.

A kayaker on the River Darent, with saltmarsh in the background, under a big, blue sky.

Dartford Creek and the Dartford Marshes

After about two kilometres the River Cray, or Crayford Creek, enters from the right. We continued towards Dartford, paddling below the rumble of the A206. Shortly after, the West Kent Main Sewer passes under the Darent, carrying much of Bexley’s wastewater towards the treatment works.

A strong odour drifts from an overflow outlet here. During high rainfall the sewer can back up, and this outlet allows the excess wastewater to escape into the river.

Friends of the Dartford and Crayford Creek

We spotted another craft ahead, powered by a small outboard motor. This was piloted by a friendly guy called Tim, bemused but happy to see kayakers exploring here.

Tim told us that his barge was moored on Crayford Creek, and how a local group, the Friends of Dartford and Crayford Creek, were seeking to restore navigation and moorings to the creeks. Other groups are similarly active along the Thames’s tributaries, bringing life back to the rivers.

Moving on, an Asda warehouse on river right marks where an old tannery once stood. The modern housing beyond marks the location of the former Dartford Paper Mills. The modern balconies look over the Darent and towards the green expanse of the Dartford Fresh Marshes.

The disused lock is worth exploring, the rusting wheels and cogs long disused. Vessels sometimes still berth here, effectively blocking passage. The lock can be portaged, easily at high water, and with more difficulty at lower water levels. A low sill blocks the Dartford side of the lock. This isn’t an issue at medium to high water but would cause issues at low levels.

The disused Darent lock at Dartford

The disused lock at Dartford Creek

The final stretch

The river beyond is increasingly squeezed between reedbeds, before flowing under an old pedestrian lift bridge. The river could once be forded near here before the lock gates raised the water levels. An old slipway still leads into the river, overgrown and entangled with litter.

We had hoped to continue farther, but with the high spring tide there was insufficient headroom to paddle under the next bridge, and no way to portage.

High tide in Dartford

High tide at Dartford Creek

We grabbed a leg-stretching snack at the lock then headed downstream to explore Crayford Creek. The tide had begun to turn, and with a strong headwind our progress was initially slow, but we persevered.

The disused Darent lock at Dartford

The disused Dartford Creek lock system

Crayford Creek

A distant mast beckoned us, tucked close to a towering mobile phone mast. This is the Decima, an historic Thames Sailing Barge dating from 1899. Built from steel, she’s a rare and beautiful boat, moored next to an industrial wharf. Chatting to the owner, David, we learned more the boat and local moorings, before exploring farther.

The Decima moored on the River Cray

The Decima on Crayford Creek

The river splits, passing through the overgrown brick arches of the North Kent Line railway.

Railway arches and the River Cray

Paddling below the North Kent Line. This brick viaduct was built in 1863 to replace a timber structure 

The left channel leads to an old wharf, home to Tim’s barge. A distant culvert beckoned, but at high tide it was impossible to reach.

Looking under a pipe across a basin at high tide, towards a dark culvert at the end of the basin

Peering under a low pipe towards a branch of the culverted River Cray

In the 19th century there was a sugar works here, and later the Tucker Armoured Plywood Co Ltd, manufacturing metal-covered plywood from Canadian timber. The reinforced plywood was then used for the bodywork of lorries and vans.

Advert for Tucker Armoured Plywood Co Ltd

A 1930 advert for Tucker Armoured Plywood Co Ltd

Crayford Flour Mills

The other channel branches to what’s left of the Crayford Flour Mills, dating from 1817. These were water-powered until about 1914, the tidal water held back behind two sluices and then released to turn a huge, 8.5m diameter waterwheel.

Crayford Flour Mills were still producing flour in the 1980s, using grain brought by barge from the Tilbury Grain Terminal. The mills were partially demolished between 2004 and 2009.

Remains of Crayford Creek Flour Mill

Crayford Flour Mills, now home to a crane hire and training provider

We’d got as far we could on the Dartford and Crayford Creeks, so drifted back to the Decima and past the marshes to the Thames.

Kayaking back towards the Decima

Paddling back towards the Decima 

Kayaking under the A206 on the Darent, towards the Thames Passing under the A206 Bridge, following the Darent back towards the Thames

Kayaking along the River Darent to the ThamesDartford Creek, beautiful at high tide

The Estuary

Once on the estuary, a stiff breeze at our backs sped our return to Greenhithe, although we had to work hard to stop our kayaks from windcocking. A seal kept us company for a while, watching us from a safe distance, as the sun drew low. We were back at the slipway for sunset; the trip taking us five and a half hours.

The Thames and QEII Bridge at sunset

The QEII Bridge spans the Thames between Essex and Kent

Note: Strong tidal flows, mudflats, exposed conditions, pollution and river traffic can present significant problems for the paddler. These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced paddlers. We undertook this trip using river-running kayaks in August 2020. Thanks to Karina Townsend for kayaking alongside me and sharing this semiurban paddle.

We set off from Greenhithe about three hours before high water at Erith.

Tide levels link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast-and-sea/tide-tables/2

Safety tips on paddling in London


Port of London Authority guidance on paddling the tidal Thames


Edith’s Streets http://edithsstreets.blogspot.com/2010/01/cray-tributary-to-darent-and-thames.html

Tucker Armoured Plywood Co Advert via https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Tucker_Armoured_Plywood_Co with more information at http://archive.commercialmotor.com/article/3rd-january-1928/61/plywood-for-body-construction

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