Thames and Medway cruise 2001
by Julie Lancaster
The afternoon of Friday 13th July saw us trundling from Norfolk to London towing 'Blue Ice' as usual with our motorhome. Equipped with Chris Strickland's excellent instructions and map, we arrived, without mishap or delay at the Billingsgate roundabout.
Cranes and construction equipment were quickly moved to make way for launching in the British Waterways marina at Poplar dock and with Chris' help the boat was launched and trailer parked by about 1830. Our motorhome was secured in a corner of the marina car park, protected by combination locks and sensor keys at all the gates.
Construction work at Canary Wharf
The expansion and level of development of Canary Wharf surprised us and we had a fascinating walk amongst the new apartments and restaurants before coming across Chris & Helen by chance in the Tapas Bar. Joined by Gordon Compton later on in the evening we drank our way through a few bottles of red wine, and were the last to leave - surprising really because I think we were the oldest customers! We finally got to our beds after 2 o'clock in the morning.
Heavy rain woke us at about 7 am on Saturday but Gordon had parked his van next to us and after a bacon sandwich breakfast he and John helped the Saturday arrivals to launch, park and negotiate their way around the marina. During the course of preparations Jean Pierre Waroux phoned to say that he would be coming across from Belgium to join up with us in Chatham which would mean not only family cruising (there were to be five children with us) but an international gathering.
Running the gauntlet!
It was about 10 am when seven boats congregated around the British Waterways boatman in his refuse collection boat. He was to be our guide and lead the way past the construction sites, under the bridge and through the lock out into the Thames. Not only was the escort compulsory, but we were grateful for his helpful guidance and advice. The route winds through a maze of narrow waterways with overhanging cranes, JCBs and part completed buildings. We would not have managed on our own.
In the West India Docks lock
A photo and farewell from Chris at the lock brought us out into the river where the infamous Millenium Dome greeted us, just one of the several London landmarks we were to see. We were lucky in 'Blue Ice' because in addition to our friends Richard and Sheila (who had braved it on the East Coast Rivers trip and were gluttons for punishment) we had fellow RIBbers Brian & Jenny Thomas (their new RIB 'Kermit' is receiving final finishing touches) and they proved to be knowledgeable guides, pointing out all the sights.
Blue Ice passing Battersea Power Station
Greenwich soon came into view, a place I did recognise having spent 3 months there in the Sixties during its days as a Naval College; still a beautiful building.
Amongst the numerous pleasure boats we journeyed up stream toward Putney seeing on the way places like the MI6 building, the London Eye, Tower Bridge, Blackfriars, Norman Foster's controversial wobbly bridge, St Pauls and the Houses of Parliament to mention but a few. What struck us most I think was the extensive building that was going on all along the river with apartment blocks and flats of varying designs shooting up all over the place. The river's face had certainly changed since we last saw it some ten years ago. We were amazed to see the penthouse buildings with £2.3 million For Sale signs and fascinated by the intricate decoration on all the bridges - something that cannot be seen from the road.
Tower Bridge on the way back downriver
Rain showers continued all the way but didn't spoil our interest. There was even a little VHF work when we had to call Charing Cross Control for permission to pass the bridge because of construction works and oncoming vessels. Foreign Navy minesweeper crews in comic opera uniforms gave us encouraging waves as did the day tripping cruise passengers; a fleet of eight RIBS ('Blue Marlin' had by now joined us) was an unusual sight in the river I think.
Turning at Putney, we made our way back downriver to tie up, on Brian's advice, inside the pontoon at St Katherines Dock which allowed us a wait of an hour or so -- just enough time to have some lunch in the 'Dickens Inn'. Unfortunately, on the way back we had lost contact with two boats. It transpired that little 'Ruby' had run out of fuel and was being towed by Gordon in 'My Pleasure' to try to find some. They caught up with us just as we landed on the pontoon and although we waved frantically, they went skimming past without seeing us. The rest of us had a good lunch and the necessary beverage. The little children on board 'Blue Marlin' were dropped off to go home with Fiona whilst Chris continued with us to Chatham; we were on our way by 1430.
Blue Ice and crew with Julie on the back seat
By now the weather had much improved and we passed under the magnificent Queen Elizabeth bridge at Dartford in sunshine. Canvey Island and Southend whizzed by on our left and in no time at all we were entering the Medway where we saw the familiar sight of 'My Pleasure' coming our way, he had left 'Ruby' at the Gillingham Marina fuelling quay which is where we met up with them again. In the meantime 'Aladdin' unfortunately had trouble with one engine and was following up at the rear escorted by 'Hot Ice'.
The view of London from Phoenix
We all made it to Chatham lock however, where the very helpful staff directed us our allocated berths and told us that Jean Pierre and Desire in 'A'Mach' had already arrived and were in the Pub. Who would have guessed it?
Our boating kit was quickly stowed, and with overnight bags at the ready we were all ferried across to the hotel, the 'Ship & Trades', by John and Becky Kennett in 'Phoenix'. On one trip there were no less than 12 of us plus kit aboard. Drinks outside were the first priority after checking in and arranging a meal for 22 that evening, which after some negotiating of time and tables was sorted out to everyone's satisfaction. Jean Pierre and Desire had had good run across the Channel and in fact had been in the Medway since lunchtime.
No speed limit below Wandsworth Bridge!
The 2030 meal proved to be nearer 2200 which meant a long wait but it was excellent when it did arrive. The French chef was congratulated and spoken to in his native tongue by Jean Pierre. It was a very enjoyable evening and we slept well.
Brilliant sunshine woke us on Sunday morning so we were at breakfast early to find our Belgian friends already there. Their overnight accommodation had been unusual - nicely tiled and with several lavatories, washbasins and showers! We ate a huge cooked breakfast (we had to - it was included in the price) but we promised ourselves it would last until evening. 'A'mach' said their goodbyes and set off early for Ramsgate before making their way back to Belgium.
'Phoenix' again kindly ferried us back to our boats to stow our bags before taking a walk up to the Naval Dockyard Heritage Centre. We were delighted by the discount vouchers supplied by the hotel which saved half the entry fee.
After looking at the extensive collection of lifeboats and reminding ourselves of the great job that the RNLI does, we went on a tour of the submarine 'Ocelot' - the last to be built at Chatham dockyard. It was a fascinating tour with an ex submariner as our guide --- how these chaps could live in such a confined space under the waves is beyond comprehension. John Kennett couldn't even stand upright.
In the lock at Chatham Marina
Our R/V time was 1300 so that we could all be in the lock to leave having weighed and paid by 1330. We were all there on time and, having locked out had a splendid run up the Medway with 'Aladdin's' engine repairs holding up until part way up the Thames then it was back to one engine. We all met up at the QE bridge to ensure that we entered the lock together to liaise with our British Waterways guide.
Rain threatened again just as we prepared to recover the boats and sure enough we again got a soaking. With John K, Gordon and Mark orchestrating the recoveries it all went like clockwork. In spite of confined space and residents driving in and out, there was no problem.
Blue Ice locking back into the docks
Everyone was away by about 1800 having had a most enjoyable few days. Our thanks to Chris Strickland for the great launching and berthing arrangements, John Kennett for investigating river regulations (I understand the River police considered us as possible terrorists at one point - we were lucky to escape individual searches) and Alan Winnett for his arrangements.
Photos © John Kennett 2001