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Written by Toby Carr

Shadwell to Gravesend 

Friday 28th June 2013

Start Time: 18.45

Finish Time: 23.15

Distance: 45km

It was with slight trepidation that I signed up for this trip, the distant memories of a cold and wet December version with a biting westerly wind on the way back, a difficult paddle against the tide for the final stretch and a premature finish. Memories can be fickle things though and in this case the chance to sneak past ships taller than city blocks in the middle of the night after a gourmet dinner from a kayak hatch was too good to miss, anyway it’s summer – right?

After the usual frantic scrabble to leave work with a kit list including a whisk, we launched from the ladder at the basin onto the river at high tide.  The plan: to follow the tide out to the estuary and stay overnight in Gravesend, a possible trip to Canvey Island on Saturday, returning to London with the tide on Sunday.  So far, so good and as London geared up for a Friday night we dodged the party boats and clippers circling in the river at Greenwich, and left the bright lights behind us. We were soon through the barrier and into the low lying flats of Rainham Marshes and Purfleet enjoying the sodium discharge lamp sunset under the QEII bridge and the feint smells of hops and grain hanging in the muggy air. 

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Now officially outside city limits we pushed on past spit and buoy, under the power lines at Thurrock and through some choppy water in Fiddler’s reach to Grays. As we negotiated our way through barges and grain wharfs we were greeted by cheers from shift workers loading gravel into boats on the quayside and a spectacular fireworks display marking the end of our journey at Gravesend.  From our low vantage point riding the falling tide, we passed the town piers where Friday night was in full swing and were escorted by a friendly/confused harbour master as we disembarked safely on the rowing club jetty.  Having hauled our boats up the jetty and along the promenade we established that luckily the key Natalie had been given was indeed for the sailing club and as if by magic a man appeared out of the darkness and offered to open the bar. It was about midnight and the sailing club were holding their annual race to Shivering sands and back with an early start at 6.30am. The man – who was the race officer promised to sound the starting claxon quietly, surely an oxymoron but a very considerate gesture nonetheless.

Saturday 29th June

Gravesend to … Gravesend

Distance: < 1km ?

Agreed departure time: 10am for a paddle downstream to Canvey Island and towards the Estuary proper. Something about best made plans of mice and men should go here but I have forgotten the connection, anyway with a forecast of force 5 westerly winds, we may have got there quickly but the probable headwind on the way back could have zapped our energy for the return to London that evening.  So it was time for some oil city blues a shower for Alan and a slightly longer breakfast than planned.  Lower Hope, Mucking, Scars Elbow and Deadman’s Point will just have to wait until next time.

We were not destined to be land lubbers for long and had soon boarded the ‘Duchess’ for a short ferry crossing (£3 return) over the river and so to Tilbury Fort where we found free elderflower wine and raspberry curd for (a second) breakfast courtesy of English Heritage.  The fort has impressive outworks of moats, bridges and ramparts and a long history. Sadly the only bit of which I can remember was that Scottish prisoners from the battle of Culloden were once kept there, the people of London travelling up the river with perfume scented hankies to mask the smell and paying sixpence to sneak a peak at the men in kilts. 

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We returned to Gravesend with a band of Saturday afternoon shoppers from Tilbury, had a pint in the Three Daws where from our vantage point in the beer garden we could see the vast Hamburg Sud leaving Tilbury ladened up and heading out to sea.  The wind had dropped by the afternoon in time for a sunny snooze on the benches outside the sailing club as the crews returned from their race and wandered what on earth these funny pointy boats were doing there and who let tramps into the sailing club.

As is now becoming tradition, we ate well before our departure at 1 am the following day. A meal of roasted vegetables, antipasti, chilli pesto, godfather pasta and freshly made pizza was started with a chilled aperitif and finished with Tiramisu.  After some pyjama clad boat faff, we were in bed by 8 for and early start for the trip back to London.

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Sunday 30th June (just)

Gravesend to London

Start Time: 1.30am

Finish Time: 7.30am

Distance: 45km

With bleary eyes and dubious amounts of sleep we started the kayak packing rituals and the procession to the jetty.  We were watched eagerly by a couple of drunk but interested Gravesenders who helpfully reminded us that the river is not like a road and it’s not like you can stop at a service station if you get tired and need a cup of tea.  They also decided that kayaking could be good as they were often looking for things to do at night (we chose not to point out it is more usual to do it during the day).  Our new supporters followed us to the jetty despite warnings not to and with their shouts or good luck and ‘see you later gaw-jus’ to Natalie, we were back on the river.

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Having crossed the river and started on our way, the VHS crackled and London VTS announced ‘six kayakers have entered the terminal’ as we slipped quietly past the container giants loading up in Tilbury Docks, literally like ships in the night. 

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The misleading sight of the towers of Canary Wharf from Erith seemed like a mirage as it disappeared amongst the grain silos, pylons and chimneys as quickly as it arrived not to be seen again for several hours. As we turned the corner, a cluster of motionless bulldozers, silhouetted against the bright pink sunrise sat quietly atop the landfill at Rainham and the calm water reflected the early morning sun, it was 4am with a high tide at Shadwell at 8.

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We pushed on past Barking Creek and the barrier to watch the long haul flights banking high in the sky over the empty strings of the cable car, starting their final descent into Heathrow.  A Heron slapped by with its oversized wings and lanky legs whilst gangs of Shags flanked the gulls who were lined up on pontoon railings like spectators. As balloons and coconuts floated past us down the river, the serene stillness of the river and a calm, hot Sunday morning in London combined and somehow felt odd and familiar at the same time, like a distant memory.  Then I realised in my tired and delirious state – it felt like summer!

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Great trip, thanks to all and to the Gravesend Sailing Club

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