Limehouse Basin to Barking Town Basin
Friday 9th July
If you have a boat which floats and has a functioning engine then you simply MUST join one of the St Pancras Cruising Club’s flotillas along the Thames Tideway – put it on your “to do before I die….” list. It’s a magical experience. If you haven’t got a boat, or yours is moored too far away, then ask the club if they can find you a ‘crew’ space.
Honestly, it is the most fantastic thing to do, especially the trip to Barking Creek, which is a unique experience.
WARNING: This is a really long post……
We arrived on Indigo Dream on Friday night, revelling in our new home – the marina felt very pleasant after being alternately refrigerated on the over air-conditioned train and then scorched on the tube and DLR. I was anxious, we’d had to bring the dogs with us as our weekend dog-sitting arrangements fell apart at the last minute. Not a problem in Limehouse but distinctly tricky in our destination – Barking Creek – but I’ll come back to that later.
One reason that the St Pancras flotillas are so good is that they’re immaculately organised and the club commodore, Andrew Phasey, does a very informative briefing on the night before the cruise. We got lots of information, a chance to ask questions and an opportunity to get to know other flotilla members over a meal and a drink at the Cruising Association. In preparation for lending a hand on the August cruises, we were down to be ‘tail end charlie’ – watching that we didn’t leave anyone behind, picking up stragglers if there were any engine or prop problems and generally herding the convoy forward from the back. Nb Doris Katia, with the ever reliable Andrew and Frances Phasey, were to take the lead and set the pace – time and tide wait for no man, or narrowboat!
The briefing was great but we had to cut short on the socialising as we needed to drive home quickly to get the dog’s painkillers (long story as to why they weren’t in my usual on-board pharmacy!). Our latest round of vet’s visits now suggest that Blue may have something chronic going on with his back – he has to have an X-ray next week – poor boy…..
Anyway, we got back to the boat at midnight, having done a late night Tesco shop as well. It was worth it though, the tides were particularly kind to us and we were on for a very leisurely start on Saturday. The marina’s great – we felt secure enough to sleep with the hatches open, which was a big relief!
Saturday 10th July
Car in Limehouse Cut....
We had a lazy start to the morning – we had to be at Bow Locks by 11am and it’s just a short hop up Limehouse cut. We had time for breakfast, coffee, filling the water tank, doing the engine checks and generally getting ready for an encounter with the tideway. But the forecast was good though and we didn’t expect much turbulence.
This was the first time we’d manoeuvered out of our new mooring – it’s tight, very tight. We estimate that there’s 62ft of wiggle space for our 60ft boat, and the ‘target’ opposite is probably the most expensive craft in the marina – a 3-storey floating palace whose giant TV probably cost more then Indigo Dream. We’re going to have to work on our technique. Richard got out flawlessly today but we’ll need a contingency for the wind (probably catching the back rope on our mooring pontoon and springing round)! Either that or go out at full revs.
We enjoyed our trip up Limehouse Cut – it’s been ages. It may be my imagination but I think that the surroundings are gradually being gentrified as the Olympics draw near. Mind you, that didn’t stop someone from reversing their car right through some iron railings, over the towpath and straight into the canal! Apparently it happened on Friday and was a genuine mistake – oops!
In Bow Lock....
We met the rest of the convoy at Bow Locks and mooched around while the tide gradually overtopped the cill. It was a good opportunity to give the dogs a little rummage, take photos and catch up with the inimitable double-act of Lenny and Annie – the lockies. Annie is greyhound mad and she properly admired Blue and Lou, as she did when she saw them the last time we came through. She herself has two rescue lurchers – lovely.
Note: There is room to wind a 60ft boat under the railway bridge above Bow Locks but be sure to stick the bow into the reeds and the stern towards the towpath as it’s too shallow to turn the other way.
We were due to into the 3rd locking – we’d sadly lost one boat, whose engine had conked out in Limehouse, but we were still a convoy of 10. Our lock was jam-packed – we shared with 60ft nb Barbara – no problem there, but it was very tight for 36ft nb Castor to fit behind us. The lock-keepers kept a close eye on proceedings and we locked out without incident, though nb Castor jiggled around a bit.
There was plenty of water in Bow Creek – it turned out to be a spring tide which was slightly higher than expected so we didn’t get that whole “who pulled the plug out” feeling that we got the last time that we raced up here. We were punching the incoming tide at this point so it made for a smooth and controlled trip.
bow creek and the looming landmarks of the Thames....
We’d already agreed that the convoy would keep in touch via a mix of VHF and mobile phones. Nonetheless I was surprised to actually get some calls – Andrew from the front checking how the back was doing, and nb Ketura telling us that nb Leda had broken down in the creek. More phone calls followed and we were all set to brest up and tow nb Leda, but as we approached they managed to repair the fault (a loose jubilee clip) and her engine sprang to life. Phew, we were back on track.
Now, there’s enough interest on Bow Creek – there seemed to be less industrial dereliction and more swanky office around; it was nice to wave at the sweltering commuters waiting for the DLR at Canning Town (one waved back – result!). The flocks of waders that we’ve previously seen here in abundance seem to have disappeared – presumably they’re winter visitors. We looked out for seals but we didn’t see any today. As we negotiated the creek’s twists and turns, we caught glimpses of the crown of struts around the O2 arena and we knew that the Thames was drawing nearer. But even if you closed your eyes you’d know the great river was close by. Bow Creek was sluggish and calm, but gradually the swell increased and that feeling of restlessness under the helm grew until there it was, the vast Thames tideway. Well, it’s vast here but nowhere near as wide as it was at Barking Creek Mouth.
Here comes the Clipper....
The turn onto the tideway was as awesome as ever as we crept out from Bow Creek and right across the tideway, keeping a lookout in all directions. Just as well, a Clipper ferry dashed between nb Barbara and nb Leda – it made for a dramatic photo but there’s more than enough room for everyone. We’ve found the commercial traffic to be very considerate along the tideway.
We let our lead boat, nb Doris Katia, know that we were all on the tideway and off we went, heading for the Thames Barrier. Nb Doris Katia was putting on a fair pace in the hope that the rest of the convoy would get the hint – they knew how little margin we had to get through the tidal barrage in Barking Creek. We chivvied along at the back but there’s no rushing 8 narrowboats, especially if you’re enjoying the awesome views. We heard Nb Doris Katia on the VHF obtaining permission for the convoy pass through the barrage. The VHF radio has been invaluable, especially around the Thames Barrier, where it was easy to pick up on ferries coming up behind us by the fact that they’d just obtained permission to go through. There’s no substitute for keeping a 360 degree lookout though!
One of the barrier spans was closed this weekend – what a great sight. It’s very rare for all the barriers to be in ‘defence position’ – but just to see one span closed was tremendous.
Indigo Dream passing through Bravo span of the Thames Barrier...
The Tate ‘n Lyle wharf was empty today – their gigantic sugar ship had left for foreign shores yesterday (I say foreign, as you’d be hard pressed to find sunnier shores than we had here!). But we didn’t have time to study the sugar wharf, there was the gauntlet of the Woolwich Ferry to be run. Working on the optimistic basis that no-one on the river really wants to sink anyone else, we approached the ferries with some confidence. But they are BIG. One ferry had crossed in front of us and the other moved behind us as we went through. There were ferry passengers on deck so we gave them a big wave. Today we had the leisure to wonder how deep drafted the ferries were – they’re enormously wide and would have looked stable even it they had a 6 inch draft!
It was with some glee that we then went past the entrance to the Royal Docks. This has been our destination on previous adventures and I’ve always wanted to go further. We got to see the other entrance to the docks today, though the second lock is unlikely to be graced by narrowboats as it only leads to the yacht club. I was taken by the juxtaposition of the yacht masts and the gantries carrying City Airport’s approach lights – plane passengers must get a tremendous view as they land.
By now the river seemed gargantuan and the narrowboats less significant than bits of flotsam. The river is over 600 metres (or just shy of half a mile) wide at Barking Creek Mouth – the turn across the tideway seemed to take an age. But it was a grand sight, 10 tiny narowboats strung across the tideway (there was no other traffic – just as well!) and turning in almost perfect formation towards Barking Creek.
It's coming to get you Richard.....
But if the narrowboats were dwarfed by the sheer volume of the river, then they were squashed into oblivion by the imposing towers of the flood barrier at Barking Creek Mouth, looming 34 metres above the water (that’s to the bottom of the flood gate suspended above); the distance between the towers is 38 metres; the flood gate weighs 320 tons. The flood barrier is such an emphatic landmark that I can’t believe that you could ever get away with cruising down to Dartford, say, under the premise that you’d missed the turn!
There had been a bit of swell on the Thames, made up of tidal flow, a bit of wash from other boats, and the gentle propulsion of a light wind. Barking Creek was like a millpond, calm and sluggish, like it’s western counterpart in Bow. There’s an interesting contrast here – the emphatic concrete bank on the right is full of industry, including a huge scrapyard – the wharves look as if they’re still used to transport the metal. On the invisible left bank there are lush reed beds, which we found out later may be part of a water purification system.
As we approached the right turn towards the Barking tidal barrage, we were greeted by cries of welcome from the balconies of the adjoining blocks of flats. The resident were out in force, smiling, waving, taking photographs, videos – it was at one and the same time marvellous and somewhat sureal – we’re only narrowboaters, not visiting royalty.
Approaching Barking Creek flood barrier...
The grand treatment continued as we cruised into Barking town basin, winded and sorted ourselves out with moorings against the residential barges. Now these barges were at a much more appropriate scale for the river – once again the narrowboats were dwarfed. We’d explained the situation with our dogs, Bill Blaik, who owns the boatyard and moorings, and his guys were helpfulness personified. They recommended a mooring next to three barges which were roughly of the same height with a ramp up to the shore and helped us to turn Indigo Dream in the channel so that the stern would be in better position for offloading the hounds. Now, the result was a greyhound agility/assault course that we wouldn’t have chosen for our two arthritic hounds, but it was the best available and we’re grateful for the resident’s thoughtfulness.
But this is a thoughtful place – the residents were so delighted to welcome us to the moorings. Bill Blaik himself is a delightful man, whose credentials were much enhanced by the fact that he is besotted by his dainty lurcher, Gipsy. We got the dogs off for a walk and studied the logistics along the way. Now this is a boatyard not a marina, so it was full of the messy assortment of stuff that you might expect in a working yard – old oil drums, bits of timber, wooden sleepers, palettes – all sorts. You can tell that narrowboaters don’t live here – that wood would have been sacrificed to their stoves long ago 🙂
The upshot of this was that Richard managed to construct a sturdy gangplank linking Indigo Dream to the first barge – previously the most dodgy stage of the landing. I can’t say that the dogs approved, but I was a little less anxious – it made it easier for me to get on board as well!
Barking tidal barrage...
Once we’d got the dogs sorted I had time to muse on the incongruity of our mooring – the barge immediately next to us was a rusty hulk which had recently been bought, presumably for restoration. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t know where to start – there were big holes in the deck leading to who knows what in the stygian hold below. The next barge along was in much better order, though it seemed bare – I don’t think there’s anyone living there at the moment. The third barge, nearest the shore, was magnificent.
It was 3.30pm by the time we got settled and by now it was absolutely roasting – the temperature in the boat reached 33 degrees and although we’d hosed the dogs down when we took them on shore, Lou and Blue were panting alarmingly. Richard delivered bowls of iced water to their beds (gratefully received) and I fussed around getting the fan into optimum position and prayed for a breeze. They did cool down eventually, and once I’d satisfied myself that they didn’t have heatstroke, I settled down for a snooze. Lou, Blue and myself needed to conserve our energy for the evening’s social; Richard diligently sorted out the day’s photographs – all 250 of them!
At 6pm we clambered back to shore – the residents here are simply the most hospitable bunch of people that I’ve ever met. They’d laid on a barbecue and there were enormous amounts of food and drink. We took our own contribution, but really they’d laid on enough for themselves and their visitors. Blue and Lou settled quietly on their sheepskins and graciously received donations of sausages, burgers, and, from the generous crew of nb Peace of Pearce, about half a pound of steak.
Our mooring - if you look carefully you can just see Indigo Dream's 'nose' past the prow of the barge in the centre of the picture....
We had a very convivial evening – the residents were chatty, the local dogs and children played with abandon in the dirt, finding joy in the simplest of toys – a plastic cup, dust and water! Richard’s work on the photos paid off – he’d managed to copy them onto CDs and gave them to our cruising companions. In the meantime we relived the day with our cruising companions by browsing the photos on-screen.
As dusk drew in, we decided to take the dogs back on board along the obstacle course before it got dark. Once I was onboard I decided to stay too, but Richard went back to the party for a little longer. I can’t get over the tolerance of the local boaters, the residents of the swanky barge were very pleasant about our clambering along their deck with the hounds, weaving our way through their many guests lounging on lavish moroccan rugs. Lou took a fancy to their luxurious lounge, but although the residents seemed pleased to have the greyhounds on the roof, they didn’t seem quite ready to adopt one for the night!
We’ll post some more photos tomorrow when I have a faster connection at home, then there’ll be the photos of the return trip……
The fine folk of Barking Creek - thank you so much for your kindness and hospitality.....