Tuesday 20th January
The dream by moonlight
As often happens when we need to get up early, I was awake a little before the alarm just in case I missed it! 5.15am – it was dark but the sky was a deep, deep navy studded with the few bright stars brave enough to outshine the local street lighting. There was a half moon hanging above us and there was no weather to prevent us from moving on.
We’d all been pretty warm overnight under our various wrappings, though getting out from under the duvet was quite painful.The temperature had dropped into single figures in the absence of heating. We optimistically tried the Webasto again and were rewarded with clouds of white smoke billowing from the exhaust. We hadn’t realised at the time but our fellow boaters were quite concerned, thinking that our engine was spontaneously combusting!
City Airport just coming to life
Richard managed the near miracle of getting the dogs out of bed; considering that they wouldn’t normally get up before 10.30am at home this was quite an achievement. But we knew that once we set off, the dogs would be confined to the boat until we arrived at Bow Locks.
At 5.45 we left our moorings with the rest of the convoy and cruised down the silent docks. Now, you could argue that any body of water with 6 diesel powered narrowboats could never be silent. But there was such a stillness, a muting of our normal experience, as we cruised along darkly, marked only by our twinkling stern lights. As we set off, a thin layer of cloud covered the moon and completed the sense that we’d been transported to another land. As we moved along I was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of comfort, of home, of, of porridge? What? I shook my head and came back to the present and the delicious smell of golden syrup pouring thickly from the turrets of the Tate ‘n Lyle factory and spreading unctuously over the docks.
Waiting to lock out of the Royal Docks
But although it’s unheard for us to be up and out that early, there was life in the dock – the shaded blocks of flats were randomly punctured by lights as commuters got ready for the daily toil on the railways. In the meanwhile, we cruised by unnoticed.
But in all fairness it was dim rather than pitch black on the water and we were in no danger of colliding with other members of the convoy or the ghost of the Navy warship being towed towards the lock ahead of us. As well as our stern lights, we had the headlight on and the light from surrounding buildings carried a long way over the water. This was especially true at City Airport which was brightly illuminated – from the yellow flashing lamps on every vehicle right through to the floodlights on the runway.
The airport was the reason that we had to set out so early. They really don’t like boats. They’d insisted that we had to get past the end of the runway before their flights started at 6.30am. So we ended up moored on an old dock wall just outside the lock for an hour or so. Funnily enough, where we moored for the hour was very near to the end of the runway, about a mile closer than we had been in our original mooring spot – go figure! I didn’t begrudge the early start though, well, not much, ok, I might forgive them one day…..
A new alien to go with the new Doctor Who???
Richard, in the meantime, enjoyed every bit of it – he was entranced by the darkness, loved the reflections of the lights, the way Canary Wharf glowed in the distance, the strangeness of the moon etc etc. He seemed quite disappointed when daylight crept up on us while we were waiting for the lock. One of his great ambitions is to cruise up the Thames just before dawn and experience the thrill of being overtaken by a swell of rising sunshine from the East.
We put our waiting time to good use. The dogs had sensibly gone back to bed so they needed to be wrapped in blankets again. We needed our major stimulants, bacon rolls washed down with coffee; we chose a full strength coffee variety which soon slapped me into wakefulness. We checked the boat yet again and sorted our lifejackets (Blue and Lou were not impressed at being made to get up for this procedure).
Blue and Lou all wrapped up warm
I think this sequence of checks was being repeated in all of the boats, and for most of us, our craft were fine. But Fair Fa’s engine wasn’t at all well. Diesel first-aid failed to resurect the ailing mechanism and although they called an engineer it was obvious that they wouldn’t be fit in time to join us on the tideway. We were so sad to leave them behind as we cruised into the lock but we were already late and it was touch and go whether we catch the tide.
Here’s the plan, we needed to lock out of the Royal Docks on a rising tide in order to catch Bow Creek with enough water to get us into the Bow Locks. There was a backup plan of moving on to Limehouse instead but we’d need a fair bit of water there as well. Unfortunately the warship insisted on going out first and it took a long time to get them organised with their escort of tugs and various paraphernalia.
Instead of leaving on the rising tide we got out onto the Thames at around high tide. This meant we really were on a deadline and pushed our boats against the falling water.
Panacea dwarfed by the Woolwich Ferry
We really didn’t want to end up on the mud outside Bow Lock but our anxieties were blown away by our enjoyment of the river. I’m sure that you’ll get fed up of reading about it – “it’s big” you’ll say, “it’s the Thames Barrier” you’ll add, “so what, get over it it” you’ll yell. Because I can’t ever imagine that we’ll tire of this trip and we’ll always be fascinated and amazed by this great river’s immensity. Just as Indigo Dream is a tiny mote on the river’s surface, so we are in its long history. This river has seen it all and will flow unheeding through the time and space long past our adventuring days.
But enough with the lyrical – there was less chatter on the VHF today so when the Woolwich ferries started out we had no idea what they were doing. But we just kept a lookout and we managed to dodge each other nicely. I wonder what the pilots of these huge vessels make of our tiny boats bobbing about? Maybe that’s why the VHF was so quiet – they’ve kept their riper comments for a private channel 🙂
Passing unseen under the gunwhales of the Caribbean ID
This time we passed right under the Tate & Lyle ship being unloaded. Ok, I’ll say it again, it’s so BIG. It looked pretty large from the other side of the river but we had no idea, really.
Then back to the Thames Barrier. This time I’d resolved to look up at Barrier Park and wave at any onlookers. I was disappointed that the park was deserted and went back to saying ‘wow’ as we passed previously unnoticed wharves and pilings in the centre of the river.We waved enthusiastically at a huge boat going the other way but they must have thought we were a bit of flotsam and didn’t wave back!
One of my abiding memories came after we’d passed through the barrier. We’d been overtaken by a Clipper Ferry much earlier. They’re very fast and often produce a prodigious bow wave. We’d been protected by the barrier but as soon as we emerged we saw a long wave, only about 18 inches high, moving across the water towards us. Our straight line of narrowboats turned our bows to the wave as one, precisely angled, perfectly synchronised, like an opening louvre. The boats rocked gently as the wave passed under us then we turned, as one, back into the main current.
Turning into the waves – a memorable sight
I was on the helm for most of the trip up the Thames and I know it seems obvious, but there’s a big difference in the feel of the helm compared to a canal. There’s such a sense of movement and depth beneath the keel. It wasn’t choppy on the river but the phrase ‘restless wave’ came to mind as the currents shifted and flowed beneath us.
I relinquished the helm by the O2 so that I could get some photos of the dogs looking at the stadium. Blue is a supermodel but Lou has to be dragged out by her collar. We still got some decent photos though – we have to plan for NEXT year’s calendar!
We turned reluctantly onto the Bow Creek – we LOVE the Thames. As we turned we suddenly became very aware of how low the tide had fallen. The water was rushing out of the creek at an alarming rate. The high tide mark was way above the water level and mud banks were emerging from the soupy water. We looked around for the seal but it wasn’t around today – I did think that maybe it had swum out with the tide. Those
Who pulled the plug out???
agile waders were around again – until we hear differently our friend, Steve, (who came on the trip down with us) has identified them as Redshanks.
It’s funny. but I’ve always been aware of the changing tides and how rivers empty dramatically. I’ve monitored the Thames closely from my old office; I enjoyed watching the Severn drain away to leave a new landscape. But there was a visceral immediacy to the draining of the Bow Creek. I was so aware that the water might be running away faster than I could drive up the river and that any minute we’d be grounded and stuck on the mud until the next high tide. We gunned the engine but politely stayed behind Doris Katia and Barnaby who were in front of us. When we got to the lock, Doris Katia and Barnaby were already in and Panacea were due in next, but they were way behind and out of sight somewhere behind Fulbourne. There was no time to hang around so we made a dash for the empty space.
In all fairness, the lock-keeper was desperate to help us all to get off the Bow Creek before it drained down to nothing. He was opening the top paddles as the bottom gate was closing and as the lock reached capacity was urging us forward to the gate so that we’d be out as quickly as possible.
Then all of a sudden our adventure was over. There we were back on the Grand Union. Doris Katia waited for the others to lock through, Barnaby was bound the Lee Navigation and we turned towards Limehouse.
We were filled with a mixture of elation and exhaustion as we cruised back towards Limehouse Basin. To say we’ve enjoyed the trip is a completed understatement – it’s been amazing. Maybe all the more so because we’ve had the blog to look forward to afterwards!
We’d booked ourselves into the marina and how quickly we got back to the mundane. I felt as if there should be bunting, and maybe a small brass band, and definitely a round of applause to celebrate our valiant return. But we just moored up at the service pontoon and pumped out our bulging toilet tank.
Richard got back into the bilges and pumped out the last of the effluent while I packed up. I was pretty speedy as the boat was freezing without any heat but Richard was as reluctant as ever to leave, even though he was involved in a pretty filthy job! But the real world was calling and we had to go back to it.
Thanks again to Andrew Phasey and the St Pancras Cruising Club for organising this jolly.
We plan to cruise back to Uxbridge over the next few weekends but it all depends on getting a Webasto engineer to fix the heating. you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find one! For reference, Pedro, an engineer who regularly visits Limehouse Basin, doesn’t do Webastos but is apparently very good otherwise! We got through to Max of PR Marine based at Chelsea Harbour and he will change our burner for us on Saturday providing that the parts arrive on time. Burner Service Kits seem to be a bit elusive but fortunately good old Kings Lock Chandlery had 4 on the shelf and are getting down south by special delivery.
Our vets were despondent – the credit crunch was finally taking hold as Blue and Lou hadn’t visited them in 2009 yet. They needn’t have worried. Last week we had our first visit of the year was with Lou who bruised her ribs when she cornered too sharply while chasing Blue and bashed into a garden bench. But the biggest bill of the year (so far!) belongs to Blue who has been badly bitten by a fox. In all fairness, Blue started it! But he now has 15 stitches in his face and is so bruised he looks as if he’s gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. His poor old face looks so painful I can barely look at it. Goodness me, is there no end to these dogs’ misadventures……
Waiting for the Navy boat to get out of the lock
Finally in the lock
One Woolwich Ferry
Fulbourne playing with the Woolwich Ferry (again)
Approaching the Thames Barrier
Getting burnt up by a Clipper
Through the Barrier
You never know what’s round the corner….
The front of the convoy entering Bow Creek
Back of the convoy still on the river