A day out on the Thames estuary experiencing huge skies, surprising wildlife and bizarre barges.
For this trip, launch into the Thames at the mouth of the River Roding in Barking. This is on the north bank of the Thames, east of London City Airport. Park on River Road next to Barking Creek Park and carry your boats along the footpath to the most southerly point of the Park. Here, steps lead down to the foreshore.
With the Barking Creek Barrier looming over you like a huge guillotine, access to the river is made down a jumble of large rocks, which reinforce the river wall here. You need to get on within two hours of high tide; as at lower water a wide expanse of deep, sticky mud makes access difficult. If you get on the river as the tide ebbs, you can use the current to power you east, away from London and towards Kent and Essex.
Paddle, with caution, over to the south bank, keeping a good look out for oncoming boats. Like all river traffic, kayakers should generally stick to the starboard (right hand) channel of the river, based on their direction of travel.
Harbour seals in the River Thames
At any time of year, but especially in the summer months, you may see seals. We have seen them hauled out on the beaches at Thamesmead, and these intelligent mammals will often come to have a closer look at kayakers. They often pop up behind a kayaker, so it pays to have eyes in the back of your head (or to paddle backwards if you suspect you’re about to be checked out)!
After Thamesmead, the futuristic sweep of Crossness Sewage Treatment Works leads to a stretch of industrialised river bank leading down to Erith. As with much of this trip, the river wall here is high and access points are few and far between.
After Erith, the River Darent joins the Thames, bordered on either side by low-lying, wildlife-rich floodplains. The curious sound of gunfire (Dartford Clay Shooting Club) leads to another sewage works and Littlebrook Power Station, before we reach our destination, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, towering high above the river and dominating the landscape below.
The perfect beach?
You should be able to haul out here, just after the bridge, but do expect a little mud before you can reach firm ground. On a warm summer day a sloping shingle beach provides the perfect lunch stop, bird song mingling with the rumbling of cars and lorries as they pass overhead, some 200 feet above you. This is very much a Thames Estuary landscape; in summer wild flowers grow amid flotsam and jetsam and bees buzz, while across the river, the view is of oil storage tanks and busy piers.
You need to time your stop for low tide if you can. Allow the water to start creeping back up the beach before you set off; but don’t set off too quickly, or you’ll arrive back at the River Roding too early, and find a much slippier and muddier beach awaiting you.
For the return trip, cross to the north bank (again with caution) and let the incoming tide push you back towards the distant, glimmering skyscrapers of London. You will soon be kayaking past Rainham Marshes, a RSPB nature reserve. You can stretch your legs here (again, expect some mud) and from the river embankment you can enjoy good views over the nature reserve, while in the background Eurostar trains speed past, shuttling between Britain and France via the Channel Tunnel.
Concrete barges and the Thames
Paddle on past a large landfill operation, a burial ground for London’s waste, and you will come across an unexpected sight. A small flotilla of Thames barges have been scuttled on the northern mud banks, but it is their construction which is surprising. These are concrete barges, boats that have literally been made from reinforced concrete. These barges played an important, if forgotten, part in D-Day, carrying fuel and possibly forming parts of the Mulberry harbours and pontoon bridges that helped move men and equipment to the shore. You can paddle amongst them if the tide is right, getting a close-up view of these bizarre vessels.
Move on with the tide, past the heavily industrialised riverside of Dagenham, and back to Barking and the mouth of the River Roding.
Just beyond the mouth of the Roding, you may notice an outfall of water pouring into the Thames, flowing from Beckton Sewage Treatment Works. These days the outfall is clean, but when first built the sewage works was little more than a holding tank, regularly dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage directly into the Thames.
In September 1878 this sewage, along with that released from Crossness Sewage Treatment Works, on the opposite bank, was about to play its part in a terrible tragedy a short way up river.
The Princess Alice disaster
The Princess Alice was a pleasure steamer, returning to Woolwich from a ‘Moonlight Trip’ to Gravesend, and carrying many hundreds of passengers. She had recently passed by this spot, when she was in collision with the much larger Bywell Castle, bound for Newcastle. The Princess Alice was struck on the starboard side; split in two and sank within four minutes. More than 650 people perished, with many reportedly overcome by the heavily polluted water.
Pollution in the Thames remained a huge problem for many years, with the river declared biologically dead in 1957, but since then there have been huge improvements in water quality. Sewage does still enter the river, when the capital’s Victorian sewage system overflows during rain, but a new super sewer, the Tideway Tunnel, is under construction and aims to put a stop to that by 2023.
Take one last look at the river and marvel that as a kayaker you can experience and enjoy this river in a way that few others can. And don’t forget one last check for seals. The cleaned-up Thames Estuary now supports over 125 species of fish, so there is plenty for them to eat here!
Note: Fast tidal flows, sheer river walls, mud and fast moving river traffic can present significant problems for the urban paddler. These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced paddlers. We undertook this trip using white water kayaks in August 2017, if you use a sea kayak expect to make faster time and to get beyond the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge.
For more advice on kayaking on the tidal Thames see: Kayaking-on-the-tidal-thames