Kayaking Architecture on the Thames

After a memorable paddle on the Saturday, we joined in the Shadwell Basin paddling festival on the Sunday and although we didn’t paddle that far we had an illuminating talk on the architecture and history of the area by Toby, from the Tower Hamlets Canoe Club.  Next time we visit the area we will be looking at the buildings through different eyes.
William Kidd was executed a few yards below Wapping Old Stairs, on May 23rd 1701.  Pirates were normally hung and then chained to a post on the foreshore for 3 tides, as a warning to others.  Today the pirate is commemorated in this riverside pub.
Wapping Police Station is the site of the oldest police force in the world, formed in 1798.  It was formed because of the level of crime on the river.  It was estimated that 11,000 of the 33,000 people who worked on the river, at the time, were known criminals.
Toby was really well prepared with numerous visual aids.  He would land and whilst talking about the area use the photographs to illustrate the history of this area of London.
 Crossing to the south side of the river our first stop was Butler’s Wharf.  Built between 1871 and 1873 it was supposedly the largest tea warehouse in the world at one time.  Today as the docks have moved downstream it has been developed with luxury flats and apartments.
Looking west towards the city skyline, which has changed significantly in the last few years.
 The design of Tower Bridge was the result of a competition.  A number of the submissions were a bit more unusual.
 The bridge was built between 1892 and 93 using granite blocks from near Liskeard, in Cornwall.  Many people are surprised that the bridge isn’t older.
One feature we passed over but couldn’t see was the Thames Tunnel.  It was built between 1825 and 1843 and was designed for horse and carts.  It now forms part of the London Overground railway system, between Wapping and Rotherhithe.  This was the first tunnel in the world to be constructed under a navigable river and when it was completed a banquet was held to celebrate the engineering marvel of the Brunel family.  Although we couldn’t see the tunnel we did pay our respects as we paddled above its route.

A capital paddle – London and its river

There is something quite special about paddling through the heart of one of the world’s great cities.  Over the years I have been drawn to urban areas, as diverse as, Paris, New York, Seattle, Vanvouver and Venice to dip my blades into the water and without exception have never been disappointed.  London is the city, which over the years I have paddled through most regularly.
Each year I have returned to London, to enjoy a weekend on the water with other members of the Jersey Canoe Club, in the company of Tower Hamlets Canoe Club.  The last weekend proved to be particularly enjoyable with perfect weather and tidal conditions, which allowed a number of options.
On the Saturday we paddled through the heart of London, from Shadwell Basin to Putney, where we took advantage of a riverside pub to top up our energy levels before heading back to the east end on the ebbing tide.

 Approaching Tower Bridge from the east.  It is interesting to see how the skyline has changed in the 5 years that we have been visiting London for a weekends paddling.
 Underneath Albert Bridge.  Most people have their favourite bridge, with Tower Bridge most people’s choice but the Albert Bridge is a very respectable runner up.
The main reason for stopping at Vauxhall is to buy some egg custards from the Portuguese restaurant across the road but today we were in the company of 4 statues.  The Rising Tide, by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, are 4 horses which become visible as the tide drops.  Their heads have been replaced by oil well pumps, which is apparently a statement on our reliance on fossil fuels.  The are part of the Totally Thames Festival which finishes tomorrow, 30th September.

 With a view like this, it has to be one of the finest day trips that it is possible to do in a sea kayak.  If you haven’t paddled through the centre of London, you should start planning a visit soon.
 The London Eye always looks spectacular when seen from the river.
 The OXO building was a river landmark from the 1930’s until it fell into disuse in the 1970’s.  Refurbished in the 1990’s it is now a vibrant area of the south bank of the Thames with shops, design studios and a delightful restaurant where we once had a memorable meal overlooking the Thames as the sun set over London.
 The old and new of the London skyline.
 Nicky passing the bow of HMS Belfast.
 It was a real surprise to see the PS Waverley, which is the worlds last sea going paddle steamer.  Built in 1946 she spent her working life on the Clyde, in Scotland before retiring in 1973.  Restored to her 1947 appearance she now operates passenger excursions around the British coast.
This was a real surprise to see Tower Bridge opening, to allow the Waverley through.  Although the bridge opens about 850 times a year, to allow ships with a mast height greater than 30 feet to access the Upper Pool of London, I think that this was the first time I had actually seen it open.

Paddling to Jerusalem

A mid-life crisis can be handled in different ways, some people change their careers, others take a lover whilst David Aaronovitch decided to paddle around Britain.  Not an easy objective for somebody whose previous paddling experience was limited to a none to positive introduction to the sport on the Bedfordshire Ouse over Easter 1966.
The decision to paddle around England came to him whilst paddling a large green plastic canoe across a lake at Center Parc’s.  Possibly not the most stimulating environment but one which proved inspiring.  The description of David Aaronovitch is not one which inspires confidence as an able outdoors person.  His observations on the cliental of gyms are particularly wry.  If his description of the kayaking tuition he received is accurate then the future of the sport is not on very secure ground.
Against almost universal advice he decided to embark upon the journey and a route through the heart of England evolved.  He chose the Pyranha Orca sea kayak as his craft and the route linked the canals and major river systems of England.  The Thames, Trent and Severn plus the Grand Union, Leeds – Liverpool and Shropshire Union Canals provided the liquid highways.
To most paddlers this would appear to be a particularly drab choice of route if compared to more dramatic popular sea kayaking regions.  Numerous writers, from Defoe onwards, have for hundreds of year described the journeys they have undertaken though the heart of England.  Some have proved to be accurate observers of the state of the country and Aaronovitch is one of these.
Heading through some of the major cities of industrial England, by kayak, is not everybody’s idea of a classic paddle.  What it does allow though is a different perspective on life in Britain at the end of the 20thcentury.  He is looking at England through the backdoor, roads and footpaths tend to show the front of buildings, canals the rear.
His “camp” on the first night of the journey was the Hotel Ibis near Heathrow Airport, not on the main sea kayaking route, not a particularly auspicious start.  Another bleak moment was his arrival in Burnley, not many hotels in the world would have the temerity to place the following sign above a bed; “We respectfully request that you do not iron anything on the carpet, as it will melt.”
In contrast to these somewhat depressing descriptions there are numerous positive encounters.  Unfortunately his wrists didn’t last the pace and he was forced to abandon his paddle close to Gloucester and he had to finish his journey to the Millennium Dome at Greenwich on foot, following the tow path of the Thames as opposed to benefiting from the rivers free ride as it heads towards the sea.
Overall this is an optimistic book and it offers hope for all of us who will never see the younger side of 40 again.  In contrast to so many sea kayaking books which are written by paddlers hoping to be writers, this is a book which is written by a writer who is becoming a paddler. It is well written, informative and amusing.  He didn’t really get to paddle on the sea but the use of sea kayaks doesn’t have to be restricted to the salt water environment.  There are many miles of inland waters which are suitable for sea kayaks and this book will help open your eyes to some of the possibilities which exist.  A delightful book, well worth searching out.