Kayaking the River Roding & Barking Creek, from the Thames to Ilford

by Ian Tokelove
Kayaking below the Barking train bridges

The River Roding rises in Essex and flows through East London before joining the Thames at Barking Creek. We kayaked upstream from the Thames on a rising spring tide, reaching Ilford before returning.

As curious kayakers we weren’t rushing; the total journey time was roughly three and a half hours.

We launched from the steps at the tip of Barking Creek Park, at the mouth of the Roding. We used to be able to park on River Road, right by the park entrance, but River Road is now edged with double yellow lines. Some parking is available on nearby side-streets.

Kayaker about to paddle Barking Creek. Image credit Karina Townsend.

Steps lead from Barking Creek Park to the river. Barking Creek Barrier marks the mouth of the River Roding. Image credit Karina Townsend.

Launching within two hours of high tide is recommended. If the tide is lower, you may encounter mud. The Barking Creek Barrier dominates the landscape, towering over the river like a huge guillotine. During high tidal surges this drops down to prevent flooding in East London.

Barking Creek

The River Roding may look grubby here, but it is a valuable feeding and refuge area for a variety of fish species, including flounder, eel, smelt and bass. Look for colourful shelduck and big-beaked shoveler on the water. You may even spot a seal. Smaller waterfowl and waders take to the air, noisily announcing our unexpected presence.

Sunken boat on Barking Creek

Sunken boat on Barking Creek

Beckton Sewage Treatment Works is situated just to the west of the creek. Sometimes it smells, but the water it discharges into the Thames is much cleaner than some of the pipes which enter the Roding upstream. Antibacterial hand gel is a sensible kit addition for this trip.

The eastern shore of Barking Creek is an industrial one. Some wharves are still in use, others have been converted to warehousing. The river walls are high, fringed by mud, rubble and reeds.

At a twist in the river, tucked away on the right as you head upstream, a concrete flood-prevention wall marks where Mayes Brook feeds into the Roding. The brook feeds the lakes in Mayesbrook Park, but no access can be made here.

The river passes under the A13 and residential apartments start to appear, far enough from the treatment works to avoid most downwind aromas.

Kayaking under the A13 on Barking Creek

Kayaking under the A13 on Barking Creek

Residential apartments begin to appear as you head up Barking Creek

Residential apartments begin to appear as you head up Barking Creek

The Barking Barrage and River Roding

The river now meets the Barking Barrage, which we were able to paddle over, taking care. Much of the upstream flow heads towards, and between, nearby houseboats. If you’re not used to ‘wobbly’ water it is wise to portage the barrage, using the jetties on the eastern bank.

Barking and Dagenham Canoe Club are based here, using the river, the creek and the lakes in Mayesbrook Park.

The River Roding, just upstream of the Barking Barrage

The River Roding, just upstream of the Barking Barrage

Sunken boat on the River Roding, upstream of the Barking Barrage

Number 12 at the Barking Barrage. Note the current boat owner, just above the doorway.

A series of large houseboats, overlooked by apartment blocks and new development, lead to the Mill Pool. A sizable fishing fleet of more than 200 smacks once worked the Thames from here, but declining catches, due to sewage and industrial pollution, saw a rapid decline in the 1860s.

A barge with green, living walls and roof

Upstream of the Mill Pool, this must be the greenest barge on the river.

Underground, Overground

The river winds on, flanked by warehouses, reedbeds and more development, before reaching three linked rail bridges. The District line, Hammersmith & City, c2c and Overground trains rumble overhead. Below, pigeons scatter when interrupted by kayakers.

Kayaker on River Roding approaching rail bridge

Approaching the rail lines over the river

Kayaking below the Barking train bridges

Kayaking below the Barking train bridges

Just after the railway bridges a mysterious tunnel carries a tributary from the east. This is the largely forgotten Loxford Water, which still forms a lake in Barking Park.

Loxford Water used to join the Roding farther south, via two tributaries. These appear on maps until at least 1938 but were re-routed to allow the development of Barking.

The tunnel was tempting, but unable to see the end, and on a rising tide, we left it for another day.

Loxford Water, a dark culvert which disappears under Barking

The lost Loxford Water, disappearing into the dark below Barking

From here, the Roding is bracketed on one side by the North Circular, raised high above the floodplain, and on the other side by residential housing.

The trees and riverbanks are draped with river-borne litter. Dumping and fly tipping reveals how poorly many people value our rivers. For many, the River Roding is out of sight and out of mind.

Fortunately, there are groups doing their bit to clean up the river, such as Thames21 and the Friends of the River Roding.

Litter dumped onto the banks of the Roding

Litter dumped into the Roding

When we later returned, and not far from this stretch, we saw a large bird of prey, possibly a marsh harrier, perched low in a tree, being mobbed by a magpie. ID was difficult, but this was a large predatory bird, which flew off low. We also saw a kingfisher, bright neon blue against the drab winter trees and dark water.

The River Roding, lost below Ilford

In Ilford, the North Circular thunders over the Ilford Hill dual carriageway, and we paddle below both. At roughly this spot, wharves once stood on either side of the river, with boats busily plying trade up and down the river. Trade is believed to have ceased by the 1930s.

No obvious trace remains at river level; high rise apartment faces the roaring traffic of the North Circular, while below the roads, a few homeless shelter close to the river in tattered tents.

Paddling upstream into Ilford

Paddling upstream into Ilford

Ilford, as seen from the river below

Ilford, as seen from the river below

With a final twist the Roding flows below the great North Circular, and feels suddenly released, as if in the countryside. On the left is Ilford Golf Club, largely hidden from the kayaker by the shallow river valley. To the east, the North Circular continues to flow alongside the river.

Ilford Golf Course, as seen from the river

Ilford Golf Course

Another tributary enters from the east here, although the paddler cannot follow it far. This is the Cran Brook (hence the local name of Cranbrook). The Cran Brook is largely lost, but can be seen above ground in Valentines Park, where it feeds a lake.

Where it enters the Cran enters the Roding, via pipe and then culvert, the brook shows clear signs of sewage pollution, discharged when heavy rain overwhelms the sewage system.

A concrete, coffin-like structure in the murky waters of the culverted Cran Brook. Image credit Karina Townsend.

A concrete, coffin-like structure appears in the murky waters of the culverted Cran Brook. Image credit Karina Townsend.

When I’ve paddled the Roding before, without the help of a spring tide overlapping the Barking Barrage, there was insufficient flow to continue beyond the golf club. The water was clear, but very shallow.

With a spring tide we could easily continue, on a good depth of silty water, but we quickly found the river blocked by a fallen tree. This could easily be portaged, but it was time for us to reluctantly turn back, using the river flow and falling tide to kayak back to Barking Creek and the Thames.

High tide on the River Roding in Ilford, the river wide and banked with reeds and trees.

This is about as far as we got, looking downstream. With a high spring tide there is enough water to continue, although trees may be an issue.

Kayaker pulling their boat up the sloping river edge at dusk, where the Roding meets the Thames.

Journey’s end at the Barking Creek Barrier.

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 January 2020. Thanks to Karina Townsend for kayaking alongside me and sharing this unique urban paddle.

We paddled on a rising spring tide, with a tide height of 7.0m at North Woolwich. The river level of the Roding at Redbridge was 0.36m.

River level gauge link: https://flood-warning-information.service.gov.uk/station/7381

Tide levels link: https://tidepredictions.pla.co.uk/

Safety tips on paddling in London https://canoelondon.com/canoe-safety/

Barking and Dagenham Canoe Club https://barkingcanoeclub.co.uk/

More on the history of the River Roding https://londoncanals.uk/2010/02/05/the-roding-barking-and-ilford-navigation/

More on Loxford Water https://diamondgeezer.blogspot.com/2019/09/loxford-water.html

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