With my ration of three score years and ten looming on the horizon, winter dreams of the summer voyages ahead in my beloved gaff cutter Shoal Waters become more modest each year.
Joy and I have come to love lazy seven to 10-day trips, dropping down the River Blackwater at the start of a fine spell. Once out to sea, if there is any north in the wind we go south to the Crouch or the Medway, while the more usual south-west winds send us back once more to the exquisite Suffolk Heritage coast. Once there we explore our old haunts, taking the first fair wind home to mow the lawn and pay the bills.
Eventually, I suppose, we'll be limited to the River Blackwater itself, but one longish trip had to be done once more; the ancient invasion and trade route up the Rivers Thames, Lee and Stort tracing the east, south and western boundaries of the land of the East Saxons. In 1994, the Inland Waterways Association was holding its national rally at Waltham Abbey during the August Bank Holiday, so it was the obvious year to go.
The special British Waterways licence (£15) for 11 days in August included a rally at Limehouse Basin. Getting a small craft from the Blackwater round to the Thames can be a problem in strong winds. Allowing plenty of time is the obvious answer. The first problem is whether to go boldly outside Foulness Sands, or take the inshore tidal route via the lifting bridge at Havengore and cut across the southern tip.
We left our mooring off Blackwater SC in late afternoon with a gentle westerly wind and turned down the drying Rays'n to beach at sunset, later pressing on with the new flood to Burnham. After shopping in the town, we completed the trip to the bridge via the River Roach, the Middleway and Narrow Cuts, arriving ridiculously early, but content to wait in the warm sunshine among Maurice Griffiths's silent creeks.
The silence was shattered by a large speedboat. We indicated the speed limit sign (8 knots) but only got a rude sign and advice to buy a decent boat. The offender paused at the bridge to lower his aerial and then opened up with a roar and headed seaward. I watched him through my glasses with interest as he stopped after 500 yards where the creek shallowed to three miles of dry sand. I was still watching him two hours later when the bridge-keeper arrived to open the bridge as the tides from the Thames and the creek met on the Broomway.
Next morning, we took the flood round the back of Canvey Island - a lovely trip marred only by speedboats in a clearly restricted area. On Monday, after shopping at Hole Haven, we drifted out on to the Thames and over Blythe Sands. While waiting for the flood we drifted and swam to cool down. Breeze came in from the east with the young flood, and we picked up a buoy at Erith Yacht Club for the night. On Tuesday, we shopped from the town jetty and took the flood to Greenwich, picking up a drying buoy at the southern fringe of the mooring as it floated. On Wednesday, we took it in turns to explore Greenwich (we never leave the boat unattended these days).
Next day, we moved across into winding Bow Creek as soon as we floated. The mast came down at the first bridge. Readers who travel into London by train via Stratford may have noticed some dirty ditches at right angles to the rail track. These are Bow Backwaters. Once a hive of activity, they date from at least the 12th century. Some are tidal, including a main arm of the River Lee, which carries flood water after winter storms, judging by its steep, high banks.
The once-busy docks of Bow Creek are greening over now with Norfolk reed and purple buddleia bushes. My biggest surprise was to count ten herons. When I mentioned this to locals, I was told that the record was twenty-two. I have noticed when aground out in the estuary that comparatively big fish come scraping in over the mud and sand with the first of the flood, making Vs in the smooth water or even exposing a dorsal fin. Presumably, it's a case of the early fish catches, the worm. In Bow Creek these early fish apparently provide rich pickings for early herons!
Having no engine, the tide provided our main power, helped by a paddle in deep water and a quant in shallow areas. Early on the tide, historic Bow Locks stood high above us, but, in fact, they are covered at Springs with all gates open so that the canal up to Old Ford Lock on the Lee is sometimes tidal, together with an inner ring of Bow Backwaters.
We swept on past the massive Three Mills towards Abbey mills; turning off into Prescott Channel, the Three Mills Weir River and under Stratford High Street, past derelict City Road Lock on to the Waterworks river. After derelict Carpenters Road Lock, we carried on for another half-mile or so to Temple Mills and the A106 bridge, where we lost our nerve and anchored for lunch and waited for the ebb.
We should have carried on another mile to the filter beds, now a nature reserve, which once served East London with drinking water. Here the water was fresh with lily pads and I saw a terrapin alive and well.
With the help of the ebb we retraced our steps to the lock, passed through and moored up to shop at Tesco's. That night we moved away from the busy towpath into the reeds against a deserted industrial area.
On Friday, with no tide to worry about, we left at our leisure to tow upstream under Bow Road and into Bow River to reach City Road Lock from the other side and pass under the railway into City Road River. On past Pudding Mill Stream, we reached the Lee Navigation, just below Old Ford Lock. This was the first time we had worked an electric lock, which requires a British Waterways key (price £3.75). Once through, we towed for half a mile along Hackney Cut and turned left into the little Hertford Union Canal, which has a delightful character of its own, with the greenery of private homes and parkland along its banks.
The three locks lifted us on to the Prince Regent Canal. Until the building of the Limehouse Cut (our only post-War canal) this was the main route into the national canal system. After a leisurely, lunch under leafy shade we towed down through Mile End, past abandoned warehouses and under the massive viaduct (which now carries the Docklands Light Railway) into Limehouse Basin, once visited by sailing craft from all over the world.
Half of the area has now been filled in, presumably for development, leaving some five acres as a marina run by the Cruising Association. The massive lock has been halved and the outer portion is now open to the Thames with pontoons where craft wait for the lock to open. A Dutch leeboard ketch and Thames barge gave a hint of salt water to the gathering narrow boats from all over central England.
We stayed on Saturday, but many visitors left early to go up the Limehouse Cut, out into Bow Creek, round the Isle of Dogs and back through the lock into Limehouse again. On Sunday, under a scorching sun, I towed up the Limehouse Cut into the Lee and the backwaters at Carpenters Road Lock to photograph narrow boats. In mid-afternoon we passed through Old Ford Lock again and joined the steady stream of narrow boats heading for the rally site.
Those with a living to earn hurried on to leave the craft on the site during the week. The rest of us took it at a leisurely pace. There was a solid carpet of duckweed. At one lock, the chap in the keeper's cottage told us that people from nearby TV studios had mistaken the duckweed for grass and tried to walk on it!
The towpath in the lower reaches was very good, due mostly to its popularity with the locals, particularly fishermen. Older fishermen were quite happy to duck as my towrope passed overhead, but youngsters looked in bewilderment when I called out: 'I'm using the towpath. Just duck!' Most had never realised why it is called the towpath.
On past housing estates, waterside pubs, ancient rowing clubs, abandoned wharves and cranes, new roadworks and a never-ending variety of examples of the bridge builder's art. Our unusual means of progress caused some comment.
When fishermen asked, 'Wouldn't it be easier with an engine?' I replied, 'Wouldn't it be easier to go down to the fishmongers?' That night we tied up below Pickets Lock, well into the green and pleasant Lee Valley park. Now we were into glorious countryside dominated by giant willow trees so different from the smaller regimented ones on our local Chelmer Canal, which are cut down after 15 years to make cricket bats.
At Broxbourne it was back to rural suburbia. The Lee is a many-channelled river. At the rally site there were two wide river channels. We turned right into the narrower River Stort. Unfortunately, the sun deserted us this day and we even had a shower or two which denied us the full glory of our rural idyll. Later it was like sailing through a Constable painting. Most of the way the towpath is overgrown so I quanted at least two-thirds of the River Stort. It is not such hard work as it looks unless there is a strong headwind.
Pleasure craft dominate the river with a large rural marina at Little Hallingbury, where we spent Wednesday night in the shadow of the massive watermill. This area, with nearby Tadnumbury Lock set in open meadows complete with roaming herds of cattle and horses, is probably the jewel of this rustic Utopia.
Later we passed out of a thickly wooded area and suddenly realised with a mixture of triumph and sadness that we had reached the outskirts of Bishop's Stortford. The gasworks had gone and been replaced by new houses, but Sainsbury's car park was unchanged. We tied up to the trees on the water's edge and took it in turns to enjoy the lovely old town. A dozen brightly painted visiting narrow craft and an ancient waterside crane, together with hungry ducks galore, helped paint a delightful picture for those busy shoppers with time to relax for a moment or two. We didn't set any records for speed or distance, but there can be few more varied, inviting and pleasant 12-day voyages.