After Work: An Evening on the Thames
Four of us were looking for an after-work paddle, but the canals in central London were choked with weed and many of the nearby rivers were running shallow. So we chose the Thames which always flows, regardless of how long and hot the summer.
Our plan was simple and we began it by cheating. Packrafts are designed to be paddled in, and carried out (usually in a backpack) however we decided to drop a car at The Albany pub in Thames Ditton, then ferry everyone upstream, to a dirt car park adjacent to Platts Eyot near Hampton. We then inflated our packrafts under the bridge and launched into the flow on a warm summer's evening.
This stretch of the Thames is flooded with history. In an otherwise fairly flat plain, Platts Eyot is a steep-sided and heavily wooded hill situated mid stream. It's man-made, created when they dug the nearby water treatment works and heaped the spoil high on it, leaving a beautiful island which, with the exception of the scattered remnants of boat building industry, has been gradually taken over by nature. Early electric powered launches were built in these boatyards. Then from 1916, the island hosted the secret manufacture of the Motor Torpedo Boats and an example is still moored here.
The river carries a varied community. Luxury yachts of the Thames Motor Yacht Club nestle just downstream from some listing hulks. Because modern boats don't rot and sink, they float on and are reincarnated on eBay. Each life getting increasingly more broken until finally the owner often abandons them.
At Hampton, we paddled past the Astoria Houseboat, built by Fred Karno and now owned by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who still uses it as a recording studio. Multi-million pound floating palaces hemmed the banks.
We speculated on the price of riverside property as the sun started to set behind us and we drifted past Taggs Island. At some point, they dug a lagoon out of the centre of this island, in order to fit in more houseboats. Each one was unique and many would be at home in the US Hamptons. Apparently houseboats aren't subject to the same planning controls as your average non-floating home.
And the owners like to decorate them. One had a life-sized dolphin and another an alligator clutching a severed arm... Living on a houseboat obviously does something to your sense of humour.
Then we reached Molesly Lock. Like children, we eyed up the polished steel dials, wheels and levers of the self-operated lock and briefly considered whether it would be appropriate to empty a 270 foot lock (the 2nd largest on the Thames) for four packrafts. Common sense prevailed and in seconds we'd carried our packrafts across the canoe portage and launched again.
As we floated past Hampton Court, geese repeatedly defied our attempts to photograph them, skimming in V formation just above our heads.
And then we were at The Albany. As he attempted to clamber out, one of our party let his packraft slip away from him, taking his feet with it, until he was left clinging to the underside of the dock in a sort of reverse push-up position. As is traditional in these scenarios, we had a good laugh at his misfortune, took a few photos (which it seems unfair to publish) and as an afterthought helped haul him onto dry land.
We found a waterside table for a fantastic evening meal with a few pints and made it home before midnight. Another great evening out on the water.