Kayaking Deptford Creek and the River Ravensbourne

by Ian Tokelove
Kayaker on a river flowing between concrete walls and below a series of concrete bridges.

The River Ravensbourne enters the Thames at Deptford Creek, giving kayakers an opportunity to paddle the lower, tidal sections of this Thames tributary.

A calm river flowing between tall, graffitied concrete walls, with trees above the walls.

To access Deptford Creek we set off from the Ferry Street slipway on the Isle of Dogs, before kayaking across the Thames. On-street parking is free here at weekends, and the slipway provides free public access to the Thames.

An alternative get-on point is at Folly House Beach, on the eastern edge of the Isle of Dogs. Access from Greenwich or Deptford is possible but involves risky river steps, and parking can be tricky.

At low tide, the kayaker can’t get far into Deptford Creek, as water levels tend to be too low. However, the Creek fills with the incoming tide, enabling the paddler to explore beyond the Creek and into the Ravensbourne. We did this on a rising spring tide, using the high tide to enjoy an interesting urban paddle.

Deptford Creek and Brewery Wharf

The paddler first passes under a new pedestrian swing bridge which overlooks the Thames, and then the lifting road bridge. These bridges have to be mobile because barges still serve Brewery Wharf, on the left. The wharf here is one of London’s safeguarded wharves, protected from development and reserved for industrial use. The concrete works seems incongruous amid all the new apartment blocks, but the capital needs concrete as it continues to grow. A 28 storey apartment block is likely to replace the small office block currently next to the concrete works.

Deptford Creek. A view from under a bridge, looking towards modern buildings overlooking a wide river inlet. On the left, a large mechanical grabber is working on an industrial wharf.

Brewery Wharf and Deptford Creek

The new apartment blocks growing around the Creek feel bland and sterile, with very little planting or vegetation. Thankfully, down at water level, things are different. The old river walls may be dilapidated in places, but they provide a valuable foothold for wild plants and other wildlife.

An old river wall is festooned with green plants, thriving next to Deptford Creek.

Life flourishes on the river walls of Deptford Creek

HMS Ledsham: the Minesweeper

The luminescent walls of Trinity Laban Music and Dance college pass on the right, leading to a small flotilla of grimy boats on the left. Framing these is the fire-blackened corpse of HMS Ledsham, an imposing boat, even in death. The Ledsham was an inshore minesweeper from 1954. After retirement she was salvaged in 1998 as a popular artists’ cooperative, renamed the Minesweeper, moored here on the Creek. Sadly, she was destroyed by fire in 2017.

Deptford Creek. A large wooden boat tilts to one side. Most of the visible side has been burnt or cut away. There is no deck. Next to the burnt boat, several smaller boats float in the water. Modern buildings rise in the background.

HMS Ledsham, AKA the Minesweeper, with Trinity Laban on the left

Continuing with the tide, we pass under another lifting bridge, although this one has not moved in some time. The impressive structure still carries trains and pedestrians.

Looking up from the water at the Deptford Creek lifting bridge. The bridge is supported by four tall, latticed towers, which can lift the bridge vertically to allow vessels to pass below.

Deptford Creek Lifting Bridge

Just past the lifting bridge, an old slipway on the right now homes Creekside Discovery Centre. As well as keeping an eye on the Creek’s wildlife, they run family activities and organise low tide walks which explore Deptford Creek. If you’re inquisitive about urban rivers, I can recommend the low tide walk, for which waders are provided.

Deptford Creek. An overgrown slipway with a battered brick wall on one side, and modern apartment blocks on the other.

Creekside Discovery Centre © Karina Townsend

Deptford Pumping Station

The sinuous curve of the Docklands Light Railway now sweeps over the Creek. The Victorian buildings on the left are those of the Deptford Pumping Station, part of a series of stations which pump South London’s sewage towards the extensive treatment plant at Crossness. The station is currently being repurposed to serve the Thames Tideway Tunnel scheme, and is now known as Thames Water Greenwich Pumping Station.

Ornate Victorian architecture next to Deptford Creek, with abandoned boats in the foreground.

Deptford Pumping Station © Karina Townsend

More boats follow, some abandoned, some lived in. In a dead-end channel on the right, a small community of boat-dwellers have settled in, creating an off-grid settlement of assorted vessels.

A line of moored boats float below a modern overhead railway which bridges the river.

Boats afloat in Deptford Creek, until the tide goes out. Photo © Karina Townsend

Paddling on, we pass the impressive Mumford mill. This towering structure was built as a grain silo in 1897, serving the mills below. The building now houses luxury flats.

The channel leads to two weirs, placed on either side of an island. At high water, the weirs are well covered. Weirs can be extremely dangerous, but with a good metre of water below us we felt safe continuing. The weirs on this stretch of the river used to hold back the Ravensbourne, creating a large mill pond. The flow from this reservoir was then used to power the riverside corn mills.

The River Ravensbourne

The canalised river flows under the A2 at Deptford Bridge and past Broadway Fields. Amazingly, we saw a kingfisher here, a blaze of azure blue amid the concrete and graffiti. The river is generally pretty healthy here, but it can become polluted during and after heavy rain. With rainfall, contaminated runoff flows from nearby roads and there is a danger of sewers overflowing into the river.

Kayaker paddling along a river which is contained within concrete walls, with graffiti, and lush plant growth above the walls.

River Ravensbourne

As the river enters Brookmill Park it has been party re-naturalised, the concrete banks removed, and nature now flourishes along the river banks. In places, you feel like you could almost be in the countryside.

A flat, wide river. Looking upstream from a kayak. On the right, the riverbank is wooded. On the right, a concrete wall is largely hidden by vegetation.

Brookmill Park at high tide

We paddled to within sight of Elverson Road DLR Station, but the shallow water and downstream flow prevented farther progress. The water is culverted below the station in two channels. I would strongly advise against putting on above the station, as the river tunnels can be blocked by river-borne branches and trash.

Looking upstream from a kayak on a narrow river. On the left is a concrete river wall. On the right the riverbank is more natural, sloping with plants. Ahead, Elverson Road Docklands Light Railway Station crosses the river.

Elverson Road Docklands Light Railway Station

The River Thames

Heading back to the Thames with the now falling tide, and in no hurry to leave the water, we pushed up river. The disused, mighty wharves of the old Deptford Power Station and cattle market still stand proud in the Thames, breaking the flow of the river. Paddling against the current gets to be hard work, so we grabbed a mid-river eddy behind a trio of barges, then peeled off and ferry glided back to the Isle of Dogs and the Ferry Street slipway.

A kayaker on the Thames, looking across the river to the Isle of Dogs and the silvery towers of Docklands.

Back on the Thames. Docklands rising in the distance 

Note: Strong river and tidal flows, weirs, 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 November 2020. Thanks to Karina Townsend for kayaking alongside me and sharing this urban paddle.

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

A few more pics of Deptford Creek & the Ravensbourne

Kayaker on a river flowing between concrete walls and below a series of concrete bridges.

The River Ravensbourne, upriver of Deptford Creek

Kayaker below a concrete railway bridge, next to a sunken boat

A dead-end channel in Deptford Creek. This once channelled the water flowing from a sluice below a large corn mill, fed by an upriver mill pond

Autumnal trees reach out across a river, with a kayaker in the background

The River Ravensbourne in Brookmill Park

A river with a graffitied wall on one side, and vegetated banks on the other side.

The River Ravensbourne on a high spring tide

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