The first challenge for kayaking the tidal Thames is getting on the river. Public slipways are rare. Public slipways with nearby parking are even rarer.
Thankfully, there is free on-street parking at Carnwath Road SW6 on Sundays, close to Broomhouse slipway. This allows easy and welcome access to the River Thames.
The Broomhouse slipway at Fulham. The red gantry cranes on the other side of the Thames belong to the Western Riverside Waste Authority Recycling Facility. Just to the right of the facility is the mouth of the River Wandle
We launched into a falling tide, allowing 2.5 hours before low tide at London Bridge. This was an unrushed, explorative paddle. If you want to paddle non-stop, you’ll get a lot farther than Westminster, encountering ever busier waters.
We began by paddling over to the south bank of the river and into the tidal creek of the River Wandle, which joins the Thames here. Weirs prevent upstream progress at most tidal levels, although I’ve paddled down the Wandle towards the Thames on several occasions. The Wandle is relatively unpolluted for London but still carries a slight aroma of soap and detergent, characteristic of treated wastewater from upstream sewage works.
The River Wandle as it approaches the Thames
Returning to the Thames we spotted a large seal below Wandsworth Bridge, actively hunting the waters below. The seal checked us out, at a distance, but was clearly more interested in catching that day’s dinner.
The seal’s in the picture, honest! Unless they choose to come close they can be very hard to photograph, especially when they’re hunting
New apartment blocks crowd the south bank, expensive real estate replacing the old warehouses and wharves. The London Heliport was unusually quiet, its affluent customer base presumably sticking to the ground and online meetings.
St Mary’s Church and Chelsea Creek
We passed the beautiful St Mary’s Church on the south bank, dating from 1777. There’s a public slipway here, but no easy parking. Across the river, at Chelsea Creek, more apartment blocks are soaring into the air from the old gas works site.
The Lots Road Power Station (1904) is an empty husk, its four brick chimneys echoing Battersea Power Station. It too is being repurposed as pricey apartments.
Paddling past Battersea Park, towards Chelsea Bridge
Chelsea Creek is now a dead-end, and so choked with mud that it’s impenetrable at low tide levels. This was originally the mouth of a stream which arose several miles inland at Kensal Green. The Creek was extended to create the two mile long Kensington Canal in 1828, which was once lined with busy industrial wharves.
Little trace now remains, the entire canal repurposed and buried. With water you can paddle as far as the old canal entrance, where the stone walls bear mute witness to so much lost history.
Paddling on, we crossed over to the north bank by Battersea Bridge, where the branches of a mature fig tree droop down towards the river. This year they were unadorned with fruit, but it is possible to pluck ripe fruit from the branches, if the tides and season are right.
The rapidly changing Thames embankment, with the tubular Vauxhall Tower in the distance. I call the tower the Aerosol Can but my paddling buddy reckons it looks more like a Nose Hair Trimmer. And she’s right.
The south bank at Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms is also a landscape undergoing rapid change. The US Embassy’s glass-faced, cubic HQ is set back from the river, visible through gaps in the riverside apartments.
Facing the embassy across the river is the much friendlier Westminster Boating Base, a charitable watersports club with a stunning location. A great place to enjoy dinghy sailing, powerboating and kayaking, whatever your age.
Prehistoric treasures of the Thames
In the shadow of the towering Vauxhall Tower, inshore of the public pier, the river holds one of London’s oldest secrets, a series of Bronze Age timbers which supported a jetty or bridge here about 3,500 years ago. Any bridge would not have spanned the river, which was much wider and shallower then, but would have reached out to an island. The waterlogged timbers can only be seen at low tide and are protected by more modern wooden posts.
Carefully checking out the Bronze Age wooden posts at Vauxhall, which are mostly submerged at this level. The large and obvious posts are more modern additions to the foreshore
Not far away, on the other side of Vauxhall Bridge, even older timbers were discovered in 2010. These have been dated as being almost 7,000 years old – making them older than Stonehenge and the oldest man-made objects found in London. The location, under the watchful eyes of the M16 building, is close to where the now lost River Effra once met the Thames.
The Effra was incorporated into London’s sewage system long ago, although rainfall regularly overwhelms the system and polluted wastewater flows from huge, gated outlet pipes. The new Tideway Tunnel will put a stop to that, and for now, its Vauxhall works is putting a stop to any close-up exploration in the area.
We paddled on, past the Tamesis Dock, a 1930’s Dutch barge which is permanently moored here as a walk-on bar and events space. The Romans knew the River Thames as Tamēsa or Tamēsis, a name presumably echoing in the naming of this barge.
Shortly downstream, we pass the London Fire Brigade pontoon – home to the capital’s two fire boats, Fire Dart and Fire Flash. The boats don’t just put out fires; they also support the RNLI and Marine Police Force in helping vessels that are in trouble and rescuing people from the river and foreshore.
Hidden docks below the Albert Embankment
Approaching Lambeth Bridge, two dead-end docks lie hidden below London’s busy Albert Embankment. Laden barges once delivered clay to the famed Royal Doulton pottery works, which stood inland here. The pottery closed in 1956 and has left little trace, but at low tide you can paddle or alight into the docks. The Thames tides leave a cargo of thick, sticky silt, so progress on foot isn’t easy.
One of the two Royal Doulton docks which lie hidden below the Albert Embankment. On most days, the tides fill these docks to their roofs
Beyond the bridge, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben dominate the northern bank. We took possession of a tiny isle of broken stone and brick, abutting the southern river wall. We pulled our boats up and then explored the mounded river rubble, looking for clues from London’s past.
There were plenty of river-washed bones, evidence of the old city’s butchers and slaughterhouses. Smashed red roof tiles mingle with fragments of cracked crockery and the snapped white stems of tobacco pipes. The best find was a 17th century pipe bowl, not an uncommon find, but definitely an historic one. Note that you need a licence to mudlark, or search, the Thames foreshore.
Our private beach opposite the Palace of Westminster and Parliament. The chains on the river wall can be seen along much of central London. They were fitted after the Marchioness disaster in 1989, in which 51 people drowned. The chains provide something to hang on to, if you’re in the water, until rescue hopefully arrives.
The paddle home
With the tide turning, we returned to our boats and began heading home. The river was quiet, and the sun drew low. We carry lights, a necessary precaution for night paddling, and we fixed those for safety. Paddling the river in the dark is lovely, but obviously comes with higher risks.
Approaching the Albert Bridge at dusk. Note the lights we carry on the bow and stern of our kayaks.
We were back at the Broomhouse slipway after about five hours on the water, including several breaks and foreshore wanders. An afternoon well spent, exploring London from a unique perspective.
Note: Strong tidal flows, sheer river walls, pollution and river traffic can present significant hazards for the paddler. These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced, well equipped paddlers. We undertook this trip using river-running kayaks in September 2020. Thanks to Karina Townsend for kayaking alongside me and sharing this urban paddle.
We set off from Fulham about 2.5 hours before low water at London Bridge.
Tide levels link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast-and-sea/tide-tables/2
Safety tips on paddling in London
One last look at the River Thames from the Broomhouse slipway, before making our way home