“So have you kayaked before?” my instructor asks as he hands me a lifejacket. Well yes, once, on a gently flowing river in Norfolk so shallow I kept beaching the kayak. But never on anything quite this wide, this deep and this cold.
It’s 10am on a frosty November morning and I’m at Cremorne Riverside in Chelsea, looking queasily down at a muddy, fast flowing stretch of the Thames. We’re preparing to paddle three miles up one of the river’s most iconic sections from the Albert Bridge to Big Ben. I’m starting to wonder if it’s really such a good idea.
It’s not until you’re bobbing about in a tiny kayak in the middle of the river that you begin to appreciate the sheer scale of the Thames and the buildings that surround it. Once it reaches central London, the river broadens out dramatically from 250 metres wide at Westminster Bridge to over 700 metres at Gravesend. Our group instinctively huddles close together as we make our way upstream.
As we navigate under numerous bridges and around static barges, it’s striking how quiet the waterway is. Occasionally a tourist ferry or police patrol will appear around a bend in the river at alarming speed, forcing us to scurry to one side, but on the whole we have the river to ourselves.
The Thames was a bustling trading route for hundreds of years and once would have been packed with vessels, all vying for room. However, since the 1950s it has become more of a recreational space. It’s also increasingly a home for wildlife, following a long period of heavy pollution when the river was declared ‘technically dead’.
As my focus gradually shifts from street to river level, I begin to notice how much birdlife there is. Black backed gulls loiter on the roofs of house boats, long necked cormorants move smoothly through the water on the lookout for their next snack and there’s the just detectable stocky form of a heron camouflaged among the reeds.The occasional fish breaking the surface is a reminder that the river is now home to over 125 species of fish and 400 types of invertebrate.
Passing Chelsea Embankment, we spot a large opening in a brick wall exposed by low tide that leads to the river Westbourne, one of several ‘lost rivers’ that flow underneath London’s streets. By the MI6 building in Vauxhall, a bright yellow, amphibious boat joins the river via a secret slipway that I’ve never seen before. At Lambeth Bridge we spy a peculiar pair of pineapples adorning the tops of the end pillars. According to our instructor, they’re a tribute to the royal gardener John Tradescant, who grew the first pineapple in Britain. We’re witnessing a secret side of the river, which we share only with those willing to slow down to paddling pace and merge with the water’s ebb and flow.
We finally pass under Westminster Bridge and emerge into a cacophony of noise and bustle. Buses and taxis pass overhead and crowds of tourists mill around the Southbank. Surprise at seeing a multi-coloured pod of kayaks against the dramatic backdrop of Westminster’s gothic spires means our little group starts to attract attention. In a fleeting moment of connectedness, visitors wave at us and take our picture.
The Thames is often portrayed as a forbidding and dangerous place, and it remains true that the river environment must be treated with the utmost respect. However, if you step away from the commotion of the embankment and get down onto the water, you will discover a fascinating, endlessly changing natural space that’s accessible to every Londoner who chooses to explore it.
© Juliette Dyke 2012