Riding the tide…

by Ian Tokelove
Kayakers on the River Thames head towards Battersea Power Station
Kayakers on the River Thames head towards Battersea Power Station

Kayaking towards Battersea Power Station, with central London behind us.

Several times a day the Thames switches direction. Millions of tonnes of water shifts into reverse and sweeps first one way, and then the other. Last Sunday myself and two friends, Sean and James, decided to take advantage of this huge conveyor belt and hitch a ride into town.

We left my car in Battersea Park and then drove to the foot of the Isle of Dogs, where the gleaming skyscrapers of Docklands face the maritime heritage of Greenwich. At Ferry Street there is a wide slipway down to the river, with good Sunday street parking nearby.

The tide was low and slack, and a brisk, chill wind whistled towards us from central London. But the sun was shining and the water surprisingly warm. Thames water is heavy with silt and the colour of over brewed tea. I wouldn’t want to drink it (well, it’s salt water for a start) but I’ll happily paddle on it.

As we headed off we spotted other kayakers on the low water beach which forms at Greenwich. In their slick sea kayaks they quickly gained on our slower creek boats. We chatted and they told us they had set off from Shadwell, paddled to Greenwich for ice creams and were now heading home. We watched slightly enviously as they paddled on, their streamlined craft cutting easily through the water.

As anyone who’s seen the Eastenders opening sequences will know, the Thames does not flow in a straight line through London. As we paddled along the curving expanse of the river, landmarks like the Shard seemed to be first on the left bank, then on the right.

We stopped to stretch our legs on a beach below the river wall at Wapping. A boy and a bull dog, both about thirteen years old, came over to look at our boats. The dog cocked his leg against my kayak and marked his territory. Nice. I risked a bite and moved him on, and he was harmless enough – lots of barking but no bite.

All along the river we kept to the hard right. The river was busy with Thames clippers and ferries. When we came to active jetties we paddled behind them, close to the river walls. We didn’t want to risk meeting one of the high speed catamarans which shoot up to the jetties, where they disgorge passengers before ripping back out into the river. The wash from the clippers was often pretty chunky, leaving us bouncing around on confused and choppy waves.

The river traffic kept us on our toes all the way through the city – but the views are well worth it. The bridges and walls were crowded with tourists and Sunday strolling Londoners, and it was lovely to see the kids smiling as we paddled past below them.

After a short break below Cleopatra’s Needle, still in our boats but sheltered from the waves, we headed on towards Battersea. It was a long paddle, even with the tide behind us. I wondered aloud what time the park closed, and we put a little more effort into our strokes. After three hours we finally approached our destination, a set of ancient, broken and slippery stairs below Albert Bridge. Having managed to get off the river, we then had to negotiate the spiked park railings, not a place you would want to slip.

After changing into dry gear and loading the boats onto my car we headed back to the Isle of Dogs. As we passed Tower Bridge my radiator blew, producing an impressive amount of steam. Having got the car off the main road, I attempted to affect a repair whilst Sean took a taxi to get to the other car. An attempt to tow me failed in spectacular fashion, so in the end my friends reluctantly left me to wait for the RAC – having first bestowed me with essential provisions (a bottle of coke and a Ginsters pasty). I got home about 11pm, towed back by an entertaining East European mechanic who had plenty to say about Londoner’s bad driving habits.

I guess I’m now looking at a £200 radiator repair job, but it was a great day out which we all enjoyed, and which we won’t forget.

For more information on paddling the tidal Thames, see https://canoelondon.com/places-to-paddle/the-tidal-thames/

Image credit: Sean Clarke

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