Kayaking the River Thames

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.

Thames River Kayaking in London | Bearleader No.23

“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.”

Thames River Kayaking in London | Bearleader No.23

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.

Thames River Kayaking in London | Bearleader No.23

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.

Thames River Kayaking in London | Bearleader No.23

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.

Thames River Kayaking in London | Bearleader No.23

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

Taking Flight in Doddington

Since childhood I have been fascinated by falconeering. In particular, I remember being drawn in by early representations of falconeering in an art book at home, and whiling away the hours thinking about adventures that could be had with a flying companion. The idea of forging a bond with a bird of prey, a wild animal, still intrigues me.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

Evidence suggests that the art of Falconeering may have begun in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. The man responsible for bringing the practice to Europe was the Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250). He reportedly would have come in contact with Arabic falconeering through his connections with Tunisia’s Hafsid rulers. And upon obtaining a copy of an 8th century treatise on falconeering, he had it translated into Latin, and this resulted in the first manual for falconeering in Europe.

Historically, falconeering was not only a practical means of hunting prey too quick to capture by other means, but a popular sport. The ownership of certain kinds of birds was an important status symbol among the nobles of medieval Europe. Strict rules dictated what kind of bird you could own according to your station in life.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

Birds of prey had such importance that they occupied a special place at the table during nightly feasts. With the rise of firearms in the 18th and 19th centuries, falconeering gradually faded from wide use. Only recently has the public become interested again in the practice, due in large part to the success of the Harry Potter novels.

Evidence suggests that the art of Falconeering may have begun in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. The man responsible for bringing the practice to Europe was the Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen

Although it’s an ancient practice, falconeering has changed little over time. The key equipment required is virtually identical to what would have been familiar back in the 8th century; the hood that keeps the birds calm, the glove and the bell leather jesses. Only a modern radio transmitter has been added to the kit of tools for the modern falconer to help chase down errant birds.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

Modern falconeering is mostly on view to the public in sideshows for tourists at old castles. This usually involves bad actors in cheap Halloween store costumes, trying to get you into the spirit of medieval life; not interesting in the least.

So I began a search for a place where an amateur could truly participate in the sport. I was thrilled to come across The Hawking Centre in Doddington Place Gardens, Kent.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

The gardens alone at Doddington Place are wonderful. If you come with your family and not everybody is into falconeering, there is plenty to keep you occupied in the garden. The immense clipped yew hedges are worth a look. Left to grow unchecked during World War II, then owner John Oldfield decided he liked them better in their over-grown state, and now they are famous for their naturalist expression. They remind me of giant ground-dwelling clouds.

For this trip we took the train from Central London, leaving from Victoria station. We brought our bikes along for the four-mile ride from Teynham station to Doddington Place Gardens.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

Arriving on time, we joined in with the group; all from different walks of life but with our falconeering interest in common. It was a gorgeous sunny Spring morning when proprietor and head falconer Leigh Holmes arrived to give us a quick run down on what he had planned for our day. Leigh introduced us to his team; Laura, Katie, young apprentice Lewes and Jo his wife, who runs the wonderful tearoom.

Leigh started working with birds as a teenager and has never looked back. His dream to bring falconeering to a wider public really shows in his enthusiasm for the sport. His young son Edward joined in on the activities periodically, in between romps in the garden. He is already an accomplished falconer, following in dad’s footsteps.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

First Laura brought out Maggie the vulture and divided us into two groups. We took turns wearing the baited glove to attract Maggie’s attention. Whoever was wearing the glove in the opposite group, Maggie flew to. Back and forth from group to group, landing on whoever had the glove with some food. It was a bit like tennis; back and forth, back and forth. We each had a turn.

Vultures are not really trained for falconry, but seeing a full-grown vulture up close was a real treat. It was interesting to learn that vulture’s feet are rather weak, but they have very strong necks, the opposite of a bird of prey. Since they live off animals that are already dead they don’t need to hunt so they have evolved different strengths to suite.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

Then a quick tour through where the birds are housed. The care and maintenance of the birds is a lot of work, the most important aspect of which is their weight control. The birds need to be the right weight in order to want to fly and look for food. If a bird is too skinny it will not be able to fly. If it weighs too much it will not be interested in flying. So in order to get the right balance, each bird is weighed regularly to decide which ones are ready to fly each day. Also, each variety of bird has a different optimal weight. The constant care required to keep these birds healthy and performing well is what makes for such a close bond between bird and owner. It takes a special kind of personality to commit to caring for these beautiful, valuable and high-maintenance creatures.

In talking to the handlers, they all developed a passion for their birds quite young. And all said the same thing about their first encounter with falconry, they knew in an instant that they wanted to work with birds of prey. It was love at first sight.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

Next Laura took us on a walk around the wonderful Doddington gardens with one of the falcons. Again, we walked in two groups with the falcon flying between the groups, each time searching out the one wearing the baited glove.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

I have to admit that I found the experience quite enthralling. The first time the falcon flew towards me and landed on my hand I had a split second thought, “oh boy, what have I gotten myself into now?” but then I remembered that Leigh said not show fear because they can sense it and will challenge you. So I relaxed and went with it … bird safely in hand.

Arriving back at the tearoom Jo and her helpers had prepared a lovely lunch for us with sandwiches, tea and cakes. All homemade and delicious.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

After a good break we gathered in the gardens and Laura took us on a walk around the whole estate with one of the falcons named Jojo. As we walked through grazing sheep and lambs, and past the occasional horse, the falcon would fly ahead and perch in a tree. Then on seeing one of us with the baited gloved, she would swoop down onto the glove to feed. This falcon had quite a mischievous personality. She would often swoop down, flying so low as to just clip one of us with her wings on her way to the glove. Testing us all, I presume, to see whom the weak ones were.

Next we made our way back for the big finale, Margo the eagle. We headed out to the large meadow and Margo took off. First we thought she might head off for a long high glide on the stiff breeze. But instead she flew to the middle of the field, stood there with wings spread, just letting the wind blow through her feathers.

Falconeering at Doddington Place Gardens | Bearleader No.19

She is only seven month old and when she lands on your hand you can see that she is a bit like a puppy, not very certain of her skills yet and rather playful. She weighs 11 pounds so you need to summon all your strength to hold her until she takes off again to take food from another of your fellow participants across the field.

That was really the highlight of the day, and the perfect ending to a wonderful excursion to Doddington Place Gardens.

Back on our bikes, we rode to Teynham station, for the short trip back to London.


The Hawking Center is in operation from the 30th of March through the 30th of September. But check the website for the latest information and for directions to Doddington Gardens; www.thehawkingcentre.co.uk

For a more in depth experience you may be interested in the five day course.

For more information about Doddington Place gardens, check out; www.doddingtonplacegardens.co.uk

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger