This trip from Rainham explores the wild, industrial nature of the Thames. As we paddle, oyster catchers call from broken wharves and huge cargo ships slide past, their holds laden with Tate & Lyle sugar and Dagenham diesel engines.
The concrete barges at Rainham provide a good access point to the Thames, as long as you don’t mind a little mud. The small car park is free but closes at 7pm. We paddled this on a rising tide, allowing six hours to kayak to the Barrier and back again.
Carrying our kayaks to the Thames path, we followed the footpath upriver for about 150m. A metal gantry bridges the path and rough concrete steps lead down to the Thames.
Sheep once grazed the rough, riverside meadows of Rainham Marsh, but industry now dominates the northern banks of the Thames. The silos of Tilda Rice slip past, then faceless warehouses, crouching low behind the river wall.
Some wharves and piers are active, others are long dead, abandoned to nature, arson, and rust. If kayaking here, you need to be alert to the traffic around you. The Port of London Authority asks that paddlers alert London Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) if paddling these waters. Notification is essential if paddling after dark.
Passing Dagenham, what appear to be rolling, green fields are topped by rising apartment blocks and towering cranes. Barking Power Station once stood here, a series of three power stations built on former saltmarsh. All have now been demolished and the land is being redeveloped as Barking Riverside, a development of 10,800 homes.
As we were paddling here, a seal popped up from deeper water to check us out. Sometimes they come close, often sneaking up behind, but this one seemed more intent on fishing.
Rounding Barking Point, the River Roding joins the Thames, flowing under the massive Barking Creek Barrier. The Barrier is part of London’s flood defence system, falling like a slow-motion guillotine to protect east London from tidal surges.
Beckton – new and old industry
A sensitive nose will have picked up on the aroma of Beckton Sewage Treatment Works by now. The outfall, just beyond the Roding, is remarkably clean, but as with any Thames paddle, you don’t want to be licking your fingers or drinking the water.
A pier now stretches out to a wharf which has been partially converted to suck water out of the Thames. This may seem unusual, but the Beckton site contains a huge desalination plant, capable of treating the brackish river water and providing drinking water to almost a million people.
The blue intake pipes are guarded by mesh and are best avoided. The plant is only intended for use in drought so is largely idle, but Thames Water test it every year.
Upriver, monumental derelict columns rise from the Thames. These are remnants of the Beckton Gas Works Piers, water-locked testimony to Victorian design. Some traces of the gas works remain inland, but in time these columns may be all that is left.
Moving on, we pass Gallions Point and the twin entrances to the Royal Docks. London City Airport lies just inland, straddled by the Docks. On our paddle, the airport was hushed and still, all flights grounded by coronavirus. Thankfully, exercise was allowed, and social distancing on the river is easy.
Rounding the river bend, and with the Woolwich Ferry in view, two slipways provide an opportunity to stop. If you intend to pass through the Thames Barrier call VTS now. They will need to know you are coming and will tell you which span to use.
Usually, both Woolwich Ferries are operational, so care must be taken in passing. We continued to the huge Tate & Lyle plant, which can also be very busy, then crossed with care.
The Royal Iris
The Royal Iris beckoned. This grand, ruined wreck is bound to the riverwall, roughly 400m downriver of the Barrier. Settling into the river mud, she lurches at an angle and floods with every tide. The Royal Iris was once a popular Mersey ferry, serving Liverpool, and played a part in the Mersey Beat scene of the early sixties. The Beatles played upon this ship.
The boat ended up here in 2002, awaiting a possible refit. Time passed, squatters moved in, and eventually she began taking on water. The Royal Iris is now completely derelict, slowly rusting into the river.
The turning tide
With the turning tide, we began our paddle back. The southern embankment is much less industrial, the river flanked by Woolwich and Thameside housing.
The sheer river wall gives way to reinforced slopes, green with vegetation. A broken wooden slipway is visible at lower tide conditions, and shortly afterwards, a concrete WW2 pillbox comes into view. This may have been a mine-watcher’s post, one of several along this stretch of the Thames.
During the war, enemy planes would drop naval mines into the Thames to disrupt and destroy shipping. Spotters would watch for the falling mines and mark their locations for the mine disposal units.
The riverside is pleasantly green along this stretch, traced by the Thames Path. Inland, a large area of landfill has rewilded, giving a countryside feel. This is now the ‘Thamesmead and Abbey Wood Opportunity Area’ and is due for regeneration. Soon, this foreshore may also be overlooked by housing.
Another mine-watcher’s post is passed, and the river walls again become vertical. Rounding Cross Ness, marked by a red navigation tower, the sweeping architecture of Crossness Sewage Treatment Works comes into view. This is a warning to steer clear of the works outlet, which discharges torrents of dark, treated water into the river.
Back to Rainham
The Thames embankment starts to get industrial again, and we crossed with care. The middle of the river is not a place to linger in a small boat. We hauled out onto the rubble and mud of the foreshore and returned to the car park, knackered, sunburnt, and happy.
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 white water kayaks in May 2020. Thanks to Liza S for kayaking alongside me and sharing this urban paddle.
We set off from the barges about three hours before high water at North Woolwich.
Tide levels link: https://tidepredictions.pla.co.uk/
Safety tips on paddling in London