The River Ravensbourne enters the Thames at Deptford Creek, giving kayakers an opportunity to paddle the lower, tidal sections of this Thames tributary.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
A few more pics of Deptford Creek & the Ravensbourne
The River Ravensbourne, upriver of Deptford Creek
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
The River Ravensbourne in Brookmill Park
The River Ravensbourne on a high spring tide