Paddling the River Thames in the dark is something that has always fascinated me, so when I noticed an ad placed by Secret Adventures (advertising really does work!), I snapped at the chance. The first date in October was already full but the following November date, the last of the season, had a few places available, so we snapped them up.
By Peter Tranter
Photos by Peter Tranter and Dave White (http://www.davewhite.photography)
We arrived at Limehouse Basin at the allocated time of 6.30pm and were met by Alfie Hatt of Moo Canoes. Although we booked through Secret Adventures, the paddle itself is run by Moo Canoes on their behalf. We’d been advised to arrive in the clothing we intended to paddle in, as the location is under the railway arches with minimal changing room. On registering after arrival we were then provided with waterproof jackets and trousers plus the safety equipment – a buoyancy aid and a light. We also took a set of dry clothes – a really good plan, as inevitably you do get a little damp. Possessions safely secured in their office the adventure began.
A friendly but comprehensive safety briefing was given by our instructors with levels of experience noted, though none was required to participate. Then it’s off for a ten-minute walk around the basin until we reach the kayaks that are lined up in a narrow street next to the river itself.
Further safety instruction is given by Alfie and his two colleagues and we set up the flat bottomed double Perception kayaks for our sizes. Our group consisted of around eight pairs and there was quite an air of anticipation and excitement as we sat in the kayaks before carrying them down the steps and onto the small area of beach from where we launch.
Alfie is already on the water and the second instructor advises us when to push out as the waves are more than large enough to tip us over. As a wave comes in he tells us to paddle as hard as we can until we are out of the narrow enclosure onto the Thames and before the next wave has a chance to unsettle us. We meet up with Alfie and straight away you realise the conditions are a little choppier than you expect with us bobbing around all over the place, the darkness disorientating us for a minute or two.
However, whilst waiting for the other boats to launch, Anne and myself decide to orientate ourselves and start paddling in unison. Anne being in the front and having issues with left and right, there were a few times when we were definitely not in sync, but as the evening passed we seemed to find a comfortable rhythm, for the most part!
You very soon adapt to the conditions and surroundings and start to feel quite exhilarated and excited to be paddling the Thames in the heart of London at night. The kayaks being very flat bottomed are incredibly stable and surprisingly comfortable. Everyone launched safely and were given a little time to paddle around, getting used to the swell and admiring the twinkling towers of Canary Wharf in the distance, then we’re off.
Tonight’s paddle will take us west from our starting point at Limehouse Basin, under the Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London and turning once under London Bridge. We then paddle alongside HMS Belfast, back under Tower Bridge and onto the waterside pub where we alight for some delicious traditional pie, mash and liquid refreshment and then back on our way again, an adventure lasting roughly three hours.
As we set off we are given warnings to closely follow the instructions of the guides and to watch for low hanging items off small bridges and the large waves that the bigger craft on the Thames leave in their wake.
The first sensation that hits you is how eerily quiet it is down on the water, very little city noise that belies the fact that it is a very busy Friday evening just a few feet above. As well as being quiet – it’s also very dark, which despite the obvious fact that the sun disappeared nearly three hours ago is a surprise – just expected more artificial lighting. The peacefulness and darkness just add to the magic of being on such a busy river at night, snaking our way through one of the busiest cities on the planet and being almost invisible. A little like being Harry Potter – only slower and lower.
Periodically we turn head on to waves created by the large speeding tourist catamarans but by now everybody seem comfortable with their craft and there is not too much fuss. The only real danger is from one pair of paddlers who seem intent on colliding with every other kayak in the group – but we all laugh and shrug our shoulders.
By now we have passed the riverside homes of Helen Mirren and Graham Norton and the town of Wapping as we keep tight to the left bank of the river with the full light of the city of London now dead ahead. As we approach Tower Bridge, Alfie our lead instructor gathers us all up as we had become a little fragmented. He explains to us where to go and to keep tight to the left bank.
We’re now pretty close as a group as we slowly paddle beneath the huge structure of Tower Bridge with each and every one of us gazing up at this magnificent roadway decked out in all of it’s dazzling lighting. It’s an obvious place for a group photo and so we all gather together and give the thumbs up as we all take pictures of each other.
Onwards and upwards then as we pass the Tower of London on the left and I stop to take a photo of Traitor’s Gate. Although what I should say is the signage for the gate as the actual opening is lying beneath the water as the River Thames is now at full tide. It is this tide that will start to flow outwards that the instructors know will give us a fairly leisurely return leg helped by the current.
Now gathered beneath London Bridge, Alfie gives us the pep talk for crossing the river. Basically just paddle as fast as you can when he tells you to as the tourist catamarans travel at quite a pace besides all the other traffic. Whist we are all together beneath the bridge, Alfie gets his mobile out, asks us all what we want to eat and phones ahead to the pub for the food order – nice one!
All done and without incident we are now safely gathered on the right bank of the river and start to make our return as we paddle within feet of the huge hull of HMS Belfast. The 14,000 ton WWII cruiser took part in the sinking of the mighty German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and I for one wouldn’t argue from this perspective. It’s only at this point that some people high above on the shore seem to have noticed us and begin shouting down at us. Can’t quite make out what as they sound a bit Brahms and Liszt but it seems friendly and jovial enough – time to move on.
As we pass back under Tower Bridge, it is noticeable how much easier it is as the tidal current starts to pick up and some are happy to just drift along. Not for long though as we now approved the riverside pub where we will take our dinner break. The Mayflower in Rotherhithe, is one of London’s oldest pubs and has as you would expect, is very atmospheric and a very historical background to boot.
However, getting into the pub from the Thames isn’t quite as easy as walking through the front door and nor should it be really. Only one kayak can go in at a time and this involves much twisting and turning to get lined up with the stairs and then exiting the kayak and climbing over the rails, sometimes with hilarious results. Meanwhile on the Thames, the other kayakers are now having to paddle against the tide so as not to be carried down river as they patiently wait for each person to exit their kayaks and the instructors to tie them up.
Having previous paddling experience we waited whilst most of the others landed and 20 minutes or so later we got in ourselves. By now of course we were a little damp and cold and after brushing past more than a few raised eyebrows in the lounge we reached the tented area at the back of the pub and all headed for the outside gas heaters. Everything was pretty much clockwork as far as the food and drinks went. Each paddler had a meal and a drink included in the price of the paddle and as far as I could make out, everyone was perfectly happy with what they had and just as we were starting to dry out and warm up it was time to get back in the kayaks.
I must admit that when I looked over the Thames from the landing at the rear of the Mayflower pub I didn’t much fancy it. It looked cold, dark and uninviting and once you have stopped moving and reward yourself with a full belly it’s even harder. According to the pub’s website, it may well have been from this very spot that the Mayflower captain, Christopher Jones, tied up to allow some of the pilgrims aboard to avoid mooring taxes before sailing for the US 400 years ago. With that in mind I thought, what have I to complain of? They had a perilous winter crossing of 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean in a clapped out sailing vessel just 90-feet long and 25-feet wide in cramped conditions and killer diseases. In contrast, I had to paddle less than one kilometre across the Thames and back to base.
Which is fine except for some reason when we all re-launched our kayaks in turn – Anne and myself found ourselves in someone else’s boat and it was flooded! Not too sure how they had managed to get so much water into the hull but after pumping out the excess there was still a few inches left. So after keeping relatively dry for the first 7/8ths of the paddle, we returned very soggy. Still as I mentioned before – can’t complain!
The beach was much larger on our return due to the outgoing tide as we straggled in one by one. Alfie and the instructors were great as they insisted we leave our boats on the beach for them to clear later and walked us back to the arches to collect our belongings, where some with towels in place, managed to get changed. I chose the toilets at Kings Cross, otherwise I would have got some strange looks on the train home.
All in all it was a memorable and fabulous experience. So unique that even some experienced kayakers and canoeists thought I was trying to pull one over them when mentioned on FB. They didn’t think that paddlers would be allowed on that part of the Thames because it is so busy. However, with three excellent instructors, professional but friendly and really good fun throughout the whole night – they guided us expertly all the way whilst relaying info with the London Port Authority on our whereabouts it all went without a hint of drama. If you want to see central London from a different perspective – you’ll struggle to do better than this – highly recommended.