Hampton to Westminster, rain, wind and waves on the tidal Thames

Last Saturday, 28th February a group of nine Hamptoneers took to the water to paddle from Bell Hill to Westminster. There were five K1’s crewed by Mark, John Freeman, on a visit from the chilly climes of Scotland, Phil, Peter and myself. We had two K2’s crewed by Andrew and Norma and Tony and Adam.

An early start for some meant that four cars were waiting for the group up at Vauxhall at the end of the paddle. We all assembled at Bell Hill soon after 8am and were ready to go onto the water at 9:15am. Andrew gave us a quick briefing beforehand on the special rules which apply to rowers and paddlers on the Thames between Putney and Richmond. These allow boats going against the tide to cut corners and move over to the ‘wrong’ side of the river. This means boats going with the tide must paddle down the centre of the river on this stretch of the Thames to avoid the oncoming stream of rowing eights, of which more later!

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All looked fine apart from a grey, overcast sky and drizzle. It soon became apparent that our budding Devizes to Westminster paddlers were having a little problem with their steering. A stop-over at Thames Ditton Skulling Club was enough for them to do a temporary fix on their rudder cable that hadn’t been reset after a new footrest was fitted. The drizzle stopped and we all paddled on with a merrier temperament, having recovered from the unearthly early start to the day. There was a strong flow on the river which gave us a quick ride down to Teddington lock.

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The portage at Teddington was a chance for a drink and snack before getting back into the salty water of the tidal Thames just after high tide. The ebbing tide helped whizz us on our way downstream past Ham House, Eel Pie Island and Richmond to Isleworth. We arrived at The London Apprentice at the exact time that Andrew had predicted in his email 11:30am on the dot – how does he do it? A gravelly bank and boat ramp below the pub provides an easy place for canoes and kayaks to get on and off the water.

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A short break for some lunch taken in the pub garden followed by a little refreshment inside was all we had before setting out again to relaunch our boats from a much lower point. At Kew Bridge the water got much rougher and we had to put up with the many waves created in the wake of a group of launches who were preparing for a rowing regatta. Those were the first of many on this leg of the journey along with a strong headwind which was stirring up the water even more. Just before Hammersmith Bridge Andrew had to sort out a boy’s school coach who was telling his crew to row straight into our group.

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There were plenty of rowers out all the way to Putney but they were much more considerate. We pulled over on a gravelly beach to have a final leg stretch and snack just below Putney Bridge. From here on it was really quite calm and the wind was dropping. A lifeboat crew were having fun dumping and rescuing a dummy. I consoled myself with the fact that if I did capsize in their wake or any of the rhythmic waves that were coming upstream they would know how to get me out pretty quickly although I wouldn’t want to be thrown down on the deck like the poor dummy.

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Famous London landmarks now started to appear in the distance, the London Eye Wheel, The Shard, Canary Wharf, and then much closer, the MI6 building which was our get-out point. We finally arrived at Vauxhall Bridge and 5 of us carried on to get a closer view of the Houses of Parliament from the water. We drifted down towards Westminster bridge and took a few photographs before our return upstream.

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Now the real work started. We were headed by the wind with strong gusts and now paddling against the full force of the ebbing tide trying to push us backwards! We all made it back to the beach by the MI6 building and climbed out of our kayaks. It was here that I found out there are worse things than getting a leg cramp as you try to move – it was a cramp in the pectorals – what agony! Luckily it shifted after a short while and I was able to get my gear up to the others with some help from Peter.

The boats were loaded onto cars and we all popped around the corner for a well deserved coffee and custard tarts in the cosy Madeiran cafe. Phil’s gadget told us it was a 23 mile paddle with about 4.5 hrs of paddling. A real achievement and not one capsize from me – that’s a turn-up for the books! Many thanks to Andrew for organising a brilliant trip, and to the shuttle drivers for transporting our kayaks.

Derek Heath

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