The unforgettable trip down the Thames was the brainwave of Dave Fuller, who started by organising the Tower Hamlets Canoe Club to come to Sowerby Bridge for a weekend on our white water course. The exchange was then set for us to go to London and paddle the Thames, not on a nice summers day but in November of all times!
The Tower Hamlets club is right on the Thames in a place called Shadwell next to King Edward VII Memorial Park.
So on a cold and snowy Saturday morning at 6am, we set off to London, we arrived at 11.15am. On arrival the Hamlet crew were waiting to meet and greet us, eager to get changed and set off for a paddle. Boats and paddles assembled, group leaders Michal and Natalie, 2 groups arranged, signals and river rules talked about, plus a radio talk with the PLA (Port of London authority) we launched into the Thames, from a small sandy beach, which are far and few between in London! We crossed over straight away, which had to be done quickly to avoid the clippers which seem to go very fast and high in the water and the tourist speed boats which went past every 5 mins.
Due to the conditions (strong winds) and tide, we went off away from London down to Greenwich, passed Canary Wharf and round the Isle of Dogs. With the tide and wind in our favour this was a short paddle about 3miles and over pretty quick, just what we needed to get used to the sea kayak boat and traffic on the Thames. The ‘get out’ was right in front of the Greenwich Visitors Centre and within sight of the O2 Arena.
On the lookout for a nice warm drink, we decided to go sightseeing, still dressed in our full kayaking attire, dry suits, boots, buoyancy aids and just a little bit wet!! Walking past the Cutty Sark we entered the visitors centre, even trying on a knight’s helmet to see if it would work with kayaking gear. We then exited the back and went to see The Old Royal Navy College to see the painted hall.
On entering we were quickly intercepted by a guide who told us all about the painting, we must have been a strange sight for many people!!! The guide actually thought we were bikers (strange)!?
Next we decided to find a warm drink, and headed down to Greenwich Market, now this place is a must if you’re ever down in Greenwich. The market smelled lovely, loads of stalls selling food, drinks and knick knacks, very nice. The group decided to split up and meet at the ‘get out’ in half an hour. Having got our drink we needed somewhere warm and out of the wind to eat our food, the best place we found was the Greenwich Tunnel entrance.
We got back to the ‘get out’ and because of the wind it would be too hard to paddle back so we decided to paddle straight across the Thames to the other side and paddle a little further down, this then was the day’s paddle over. A shuttle was ready for the drivers to get their cars, so the rest of the group went to the pub across the road and wait for their return.
On getting back to the club, boats were put back and kayaking gear put away, then the night activities could be started. This was a brilliant barbeque and beer session put on by our fabulous hosts.
This went on till 11pm and at this point it was called time, because we had to be up and on the water for 8am, sleeping above the changing room which can be described as a school hall, mats out sleeping bags done up we got some much needed sleep.
Up and getting ready at 6.30 Sunday morning was hard but what was going to be a great paddle it was worth it twice over. Our brilliant organiser Dave Fuller and Esther had made bacon and egg sandwiches for us. Brilliant!!! Most of Saturdays Hamlet group then turned up and we all got ready for our next paddle, wind had gone plus lots of blue sky. We launched from the same beach, but this time there was hardly any beach at all with the tide being much higher than yesterday, plus not so busy with boats. Problems discussed and signals talked about, plus the usual radio chat off we set. Within 20 metres there was a noose hanging from a beam over the Thames, right outside a pub called The Prospect of Whitby, must remember to tip if I ever go in there! Round the bend was a listed building with a huge old red crane on the side.
Next we went under a square building with bad décor plastered on the side. Someone told me this was where you ended up if you caused trouble on the Thames, made a mental note never to end up in there! Kayaking around the next bend was a sight you’d never tire of, the magnificent Tower Bridge, with The Shard in the back ground. Absolute must view from the river, we were told to be careful at this point because you can get standing waves due to the narrowing of the Thames. We passed under the bridge on the right hand side next to Dead Man’s Hole, which I was told is where bodies that fall into the river are normally washed up!!!
Next we could see the Tower of London, just after the bridge, on our right hand side. On the left hand side was the massive gun ship The HMS Belfast. At this point the Thames was getting busy with boats, police boats and Clippers. Luckily the Clippers have to go at a low speed on this stretch of river.
After that we reached London Bridge and a railway bridge, and you could hear the trains rolling over the tops of our heads. As we approached Millennium Bridge, we became quite a big tourist attraction with many photos being taken.
Just round the next bend we came across Cleopatra’s Needle, and on our left was the London Eye. But towering high in the sky was Big Ben next to the Palace Of Westminster, with its very high walls, which seemed to be all along the Thames which meant no real get out point for us anywhere?
Onward we paddled until we got to the Battersea Power Station and its chimneys, at this point we all got together and made a difficult decision: paddle another ½ hour to Chelsea or paddle back a little for some custards and drink. So you probably guessed the custard won! So first we had to cross over to the other side quickly again making sure that there was no traffic. On the other side there were house boats of all different sizes and styles, some old and some new.
We got out right next to the MI6 Building using a slip way which is used by the Duck Tour bus. Orders were taken and people dispatched to get the hot drinks and custards, what made these custards so nice are that they were the Portuguese custards. Whilst we waited Michal lined 3 buoys up which were lying around and then a throwing game was made, who can throw an item through the buoys. After the food arrived a duck tour bus, came flying down into the river and set off up the Thames. Usually Michal said we get told off for using their slip way but not today, the problem being is that there are no other get out points. So we got back into boats, and set off back. What we thought was going to be an easy paddle with the sights, was not to be! When we got past Big Ben the river seemed to start to come alive, the waves seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. It was just head down and keep paddling; now I could see why you needed 3 star and some sea kayaking experience. The waves where very bouncy and breaking, this lasted till we got to the HMS Belfast. With everyone grouped up Michal was trying to get the group under Tower Bridge in the middle section, but with the traffic being so busy it was not possible, so we took the right hand side instead. From this onwards it was an easy paddle back, until we had to cross over again this time in-between two tourist boats. So a fast pace was needed and a tight group. Then a short paddle back to a much larger beach, and then a get out. The actual paddle today was about 11 miles with some of the best views I have seen on a kayak trip yet.
So boats out, put away, a quick change and it was time to say goodbye. I must say that this was an excellent trip and there may be good news that this exchange will be done again next year. It is strange though because Tower Hamlets are envious of our white water but for me I am envious of their local water way.
Watch this space!