In the Chelsea borough of London, you can embark on a river kayaking adventure, swapping natural vistas for historic cityscapes, white-water rapids for surging river tides. This is as interesting a water adventure as any—urban or wild.
When I first heard about river kayaking trips on the Thames, I thought, “Great, that would be a perfect way to get a different perspective on Central London”. Once under way, the Thames and its rich history became intensely vivid, and the importance of the river in the development of London came into full focus.
The Thames has always been central to the history of London. In the Neolithic age, humans were living along the river Thames. The British Museum houses a decorated bowl found in the river at Hedsor, Buckinghamshire, dating back to the end of this period (3300-2700 B.C.) When the Romans under Emperor Claudius occupied England, the Thames became of major economic and strategic importance, with Londonium being its trading center. In 1066, when William the conqueror won control of the Thames Valley, it set the stage for him to invade the rest of England. William built the Tower of London, the same building where tourists still throng to see the crown jewels. And in 1215 when barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, it was on an island in the Thames at Runnymede. I could go on and on, but you get the idea of the importance of the Thames in the history of London.
“What about the water, is it safe?” you may be asking. That was my thought after we set off. The history of the cleanliness of the Thames is a checkered one, so although my concerns were unfounded, the Thames bad reputation was well earned.
Population growth in London greatly increased the amount of waste entering the river. That waste came from both human and industrial sources. According to historian Peter Ackroyd, “. . . a public lavatory on London Bridge showered its contents directly onto the river below, and latrines were built over all the tributaries that issued into the Thames.”
Between 1832 and 1865, four serious cholera outbreaks killed tens of thousands of people in London. In 1858, the Thames pollution problem reached such epic proportions that Parliament, located beside the Thames, had to be abandoned. The event was sufficiently dire to receive a name: the “Great Stink”. Some historians have attributed Prince Albert’s death in 1861 to typhoid spread in the river’s dirty waters flowing beside Windsor Castle. Following the “Great Stink”, a concerted effort to contain the city’s sewage began with the construction of massive sewers on the north and south river embankments under the supervision of engineer Joseph Bazalgette.
Today the river is rated as the cleanest inner-city river in Europe, and the return of bird life, including herons and cormorants, to the river banks is a sign that water quality has vastly improved. So you can rest assured that river kayaking today is perfectly safe.
The river kayaking London crew operates out of the Cremorne Riverside Centre, a well-equipped facility just off the Chelsea Embankment.
When I first heard about river kayaking trips on the Thames, I thought, “Great, that would be a perfect way to get a different perspective on Central London”
On the day of our outing, I set out on my old Armstrong 3-speed for the Cremorne Riverside Centre. Going by bike is usually the quickest means of transport for such short trips, however, on this morning, my chain broke and I had to push the bike the last kilometer. The chain was probably original so in retrospect it was not surprising that it failed.
Harry, the owner and our river guide, greeted me with a bracing dose of his Irish humor: “What pile of shit are you riding?” And he proceeded to produce the obscure tool required to fix the chain. In no time he had my bike fixed and had me fully outfitted for the day’s activities. All in time to launch with the outgoing tide.
We got a quick run down from Harry on how to navigate via kayak and what our journey would entail. We then hoisted our kayaks and made our way down to the river to push off. Once everyone was on the water, we began paddling towards Westminster.
Heading up the South side of the river, paddling at a steady tempo, Harry and his two instructors wrangled us like a gaggle of geese. Along the way, he pointed out interesting facts and snapped photos as souvenirs to document everyone’s experience.
Near the halfway point as we approached Westminster Bridge, we could feel the tide starting to turn, which required paddling with more effort. Tourists on the Westminster Bridge shouted and waved to give us encouragement. Just beyond the bridge, you get the best view ever of the Millennium Wheel. Sitting in your kayak directly underneath, it towers dramatically above you. On the north side of the river, you see Parliament House and Big Ben.
At this point, with the turning tide, we became part of the considerable traffic on the river and took in some of London’s iconic sights. We were soon being carried along by the river, relaxed and taking in the sights. First, was a glide along the full length of the Parliament. This is as close as you will probably ever get to this historic building. Then, bridge by bridge, we floated back to Chelsea.
Pulling the kayaks out of the water and carrying them back up to where we started, everybody was excitedly chatting. You could not miss the reality that we all had a wonderful time. We changed out of our gear and celebrated with drinks and chips.
This is a totally unique way to see the historic parts of London—river kayaking on the Thames.
For information and booking; www.kayakinglondon.com
A few things to keep in mind for your kayak trip;
– Best to come with a friend, Kayaking London’s fleet is mostly double Kayaks.
– Bring a second set of clothing to change into and a towel. In case you are in London on holiday and don’t have those things at your disposal let the team know when you book. They do have extra jackets available for you to use.
– Apply sun screen. The reflection on the water can be intense.
– River kayaking sessions run year round. If you are made of sturdy stuff, there are usually outings scheduled on Guy Fawkes day and around Christmas, where you sing carols along the way.
– River kayaking is safe and capsizing is very rare. Follow your group leader’s instructions and all will be fine.
– Very important, the session are timed to coincide with the tides. You absolutely have to be on time. They group cannot wait or they will miss the tide.
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger