“This cruise will include all the sights of Central London and will allow enough time to explore further downstream passing the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Naval College and the Thames Barrier often called a triumph of modern engineering and the eighth wonder of the world. 14th – 19th June”
This email reminder from Lee, our Thames and Kennet Marina Manager, caught my eye when it pinged into my inbox on June 1st, as I hadn’t taken on board that there was a Tingdene Cruising Club, and we immediately signed up even though it was primarily intended to be for cruisers. Reading is 56 miles and 19 locks upstream from Teddington where boats can enter the Tidal Thames and we needed to catch the high tide there at 6am on Saturday 16th. Even with some help from the river flow, for us to get there would take a good 14 hours cruising plus 5 hours for the locks – so, as the sun was shining, and the Cabbage Van had delivered our Ocado groceries bang on time, we set out a day ahead of the others on Wednesday 13th June.
Day 1. T&K (Caversham) to Henley. 8 miles, 3 locks. 11.45am-3.45pm (1hr20 lunchbreak).
When I say the others – we were in a very select group of three; db Helianthus (Dave with crew of Tim, wb Argey Bargey) and cruiser Bermuda Blue (another Tim, due to join us at Windsor) being the other two boats. We spent the first night moored on our own in Henley at Mill Meadows (£10 per night, no services) after a gentle and very pleasant afternoon cruise, having moored up for lunch on the Great House Hotel and Coppa Club private moorings (free mooring for 24 hours) in Sonning.
For us, one of the attractions of the cruise was the opportunity to visit the Windsor Racecourse Marina (we get free mooring there as a Tingdene Annual Moorer) and a special effort was made to fit us in for a night both on the outward and return journeys. The outward journey coincided with Pam’s birthday and we made an early start from Henley hoping to make it in good enough time to have a celebratory meal at GOGO’s Waterside Restaurant in the Marina.
Day 2. Henley to Windsor Racecourse. 20 miles, 7 locks. 8.50am-4.30pm (1hr15 lunchbreak).
On the way we passed by The Waterside Inn at Bray (3 Michelin Stars) where on a previous visit we had ended up sharing our post-prandial coffee with some ducks in the black Gazebo (pictured).
This is altogether a beautiful stretch of river cruising, full of beautiful houses, gardens and boats to keep one entertained.
The Windsor Racecourse Marina is accessed down a very narrow, winding and tree lined stream for about half a mile off the main river – we were relieved to have only met canoes – and we made it there in time to get the last table available at 6pm.
Pam enjoyed her birthday meal which included her favourite lobster tail – good food in a great location. GOGO’s is a very popular South African themed Restaurant and Bar, a new dining experience for us, and their specialty, spare ribs cooked for hours in a Braai, were mouth-wateringly tender and tasty.
Day 3. Windsor to Teddington Locks. 26 miles, 9 locks. 7.30am-5.00pm (1hr lunchbreak).
We woke up early and it was another bright and sunny morning so we headed out at 7.30 am ahead of Bermuda Blue, whom we had spotted at the end of our pontoon but not yet had a chance to say “hello” to. The Thames locks can be operated on ‘Self Service’ out-of-hours, when no lock-keeper is on duty, at any time, using simple to operate push button electronic controls. This does give boaters huge flexibility when it comes to journey planning (and there are no lunch-time closures as we have become used to in most of France).
By lunchtime we had reached Chertsey Lock where we tied up on the waiting lay-by for lunch and whilst eating were caught up and passed by our two companion boats. This lock was on Self Service (no Lock-Keeper in attendance) and we noticed was taking ages to fill and empty even though only a 1.2m depth. Most of the locks we passed were under a 2m fall and so in theory can be passed through in 5 minutes if left in one’s favour, with no other boats in either direction, but it is not uncommon to take nearer to 30 mins locking through from start to finish.
Bermuda Blue was already moored up in Kingston for the night (for local guests) when we passed but we had left Helianthus behind at Shepperton Lock where Dave had stopped for lunch and a visit to the nearby Nauticalia Chandlery. He wasn’t far behind us though and after we had each checked in with the Teddington Lock-Keepers, paid our respective £9.50 overnight mooring fees, and discussed locking times for the morning, we had a drink aboard Xenia (Tim had abandoned Dave for a party of his own locally) and studied Dave’s tide timetables. However we calculated it, it meant an early start in the morning and a full day on the Thames tideway. An early night, after a long, and for us quite tiring, day was in order.
Day 4. Teddington to the Thames Barrier to St Katherine’s Dock. 33 miles, 2 locks. 5.30am-4.00pm. (3 hour lunchbreak – of a sort!)
We were through Teddington Locks on a very high tide without any need for the lock-keeper to even open the lower gates – a phone call to London VTS advising number on board and destination and keeping a listening watch on VHS Channel 14 – and we sailed past Richmond Lock (generally you can pass through the sluices for 2 hours either side of high tide) with a full English breakfast in the making in the galley. There was no traffic of any description at this hour of the morning so it proved to be a relaxing and very pleasant 3 hour run down to Tower Bridge. A little overcast but warm enough even so early.
With low water at Tower Bridge due at 10.00am we had a good hour or more of outgoing tide and so carried on past St Katherine’s Dock (just downstream of Tower Bridge on the left bank) which we had been told we would be able to lock up into on their first lock on the incoming tide at 2.40pm.
This left us more than enough time to reach the Thames Barrier (a farther 7 miles) and beyond for those wishing to go on out towards Broadness.
Helianthus took the lead and was soon way ahead of us passing through the Barrier before 10.00am at which time we decided to turn round, having just passed under the Emirates Airline Cable Car, but within sight. We now had the somewhat daunting prospect of treading water for at least 4 hours as we could not get off the Tideway and had not identified anywhere to tie up. The fast ferries were now in full gear roaring past us one way or the other every 10 minutes or so and frequently crossing our path between stops on opposite banks. Things were beginning to rock and roll and the tide was turning! Bermuda Blue passed us, still on her way out, and Tim was set on doing some engine tests (speed trials) beyond the Barrier.
Just upstream of West India Dock I spotted a floating works platform attached to an Admiralty buoy and although it was half our length I thought we had a reasonable chance of mooring alongside. Although there are buoys outside St Katherine’s Dock they are on a very busy stretch of the river, where life can become decidedly uncomfortable between the steep walled banks, and we had been warned off using them. We had now been cruising non-stop for 5 hours and I was getting tired and after a bit of juggling around as the increasing tide swung us round we were able to put our feet up and eat some lunch. We must have been quite well hidden from view as Helianthus came past us without a word and a police launch passed by too without comment.
I dearly needed to have forty winks – the increasingly early starts over the last three days were catching up with me – but not only were the twin hulled ferries regularly rolling us but the wind was getting up against the tide and there was quite a chop developing. The ‘Thames Experience’ RHIBs were racing by at top speed and cutting a deep wash which was really causing us discomfort (if not actual danger) and increasingly we had to move remaining items from shelves before they flew off of their own accord. If it was going to be rougher by Tower Bridge then we certainly didn’t need to be hanging around there and I called to check the locking up time, which had now been changed to 3.15pm. The 5 miles back upstream, with several hours of incoming tide behind us and facing into a near Force 4 wind were, to put it mildly, rough. The RHIBs came faster and closer and there were more of them as we came to the Lower Pool. Pam was feeling quite sea-sick and I was wondering just which wave was going to roll me off the stern deck. The buoys outside St Kat’s were all taken bar one – which we discovered had lost it’s floating rope as we manoeuvred gently round it, pitching and rolling, trying to avoid hitting the group of cruisers tied to the others but I managed to get a stern line attached by leaning over the side –Pam holding on to my life jacket straps! This however was not a success as the tide swung us around only far enough to completely obstruct the boats now wishing to exit the lock – we had to move, and a nearby cruiser in fear of its life gave up their buoy for us. Mercifully though, once we had cleared the path for boats coming out of the lock we were called in (VHF Channel 80) to lock up.
After signing in at the Port Office and getting various leaflets and general information we were released from the lock and shown to our overnight moorings just opposite and in front of Zizzi in the Central Basin. Leading off from here there are two further basins, West Dock and East Dock, with a total of 185 floating berths and all surrounded by restaurants, hotels, apartments, The Dickens Inn and the Tower Hotel – quite a lively spot, especially on a Saturday evening.
With no time to waste, I set about putting the insides of the boat back together again and generally cleaning up whilst Pam went off to the nearby Waitrose to get some finishing touches for supper – and I think we looked fairly presentable by the time very old friends Andrew and Amanda arrived at 6pm. We even had a moment to spare to watch an old Thames Sailing Barge gently making its way out of the West Dock and down through the Lock onto the river.
Aboard Helianthus Tim had clearly promoted himself from ‘crew’ to ‘Purser’ and ‘’logistics” were being discussed with Captain Dave for the timings of a series of visits from Tim’s ex-partners and current friends (all female). Our own dinner party was livened up considerably by the ‘goings-on’ next door with a visit from three very exotically dressed ladies bound for a nearby cabaret act (allegedly themed on the advantages of getting older). Bermuda Blue, with family aboard, kept a low profile, celebrating no doubt the successful speed trials which had taken them to well over 30 knots that afternoon beyond the barrier.
Day 5. St Katherine’s Dock to Hampton Court Palace. 24 miles, 2 locks. 3.30pm-7.30pm (No break).
We slept well! And we had all morning to explore and to shop after a hearty breakfast. The early drizzle soon dried up. After lunch we cleared the shelves again – hoping for a less rough ride this time – and were ready and waiting at 3pm for the call for the first lock, which was to be just the three of us boats going upstream the 19 miles to Teddington. Martin (Humber Keel Mimo, our T&K neighbour) arrived in the nick of time to be the second crew and head-photographer aboard Helianthus. Once in the lock we each had to settle our bills – for an 18m boat at £8.53 per m per night + electric at 21p per kwh cost Xenia £160.19; a record mooring fee for us making the Arsenal in Paris (€75 in July 2014) look cheap!
Out of the lock at 3.30pm it proved to be a bit rough at first, until we passed Westminster, and we were able to cover the 8 miles to Putney Bridge in an hour – despite a moment of panic under Wandsworth Bridge where a loud bang from the engine and a reduction in power had me lifting up the engine hatch and then solving the problem with a thrust into reverse; something in the prop which mercifully came free.
From Brentford we fairly idled along following Helianthus to reach Teddington Lock (passing through Richmond Sluices on the tide) by 6.30pm; high tide. We carried on to Hampton Court Palace where amazingly at 7.30pm there were vacant moorings. Bermuda Blue was already moored there and Tim and family were in the local Thai restaurant and I had to get to grips with registering our presence on line with Parkonomy for the free 24 hour mooring, no services, whilst we walked in to join them at Siam Paragon.
Day 6. Hampton Court to Windsor Racecourse. 22 miles, 9 locks. 6.30am-5.20pm (2hr lunchbreak).
Our objective was to get to Windsor Racecourse in time for the Monday evening Race Meeting and the first horse race at 6pm – so we left early before the others who planned to depart at 8.45am. We made good progress on ‘self-service’ locks reaching Staines by 11am where we moored up (free 24 hours, no services) on the town quay just downstream of the bridge outside the Slug and Lettuce Pub.
Helianthus and Bermuda Blue woke us from our nap with a toot as they passed at 12.30pm but try as we might we didn’t catch them up (for photo opportunities along the Runnymede stretch by Magna Carter Island) until they were already in Old Windsor Lock and they carried on as there wasn’t room for all three of us in the lock together.
The river here skirts around Windsor Home Park and on the way down we had spotted Prince Philip driving his very smart carriage (horse-drawn, but surely he is too old, I thought). This time though we only saw a convoy of 6 parked police escort motorbikes with their riders laying down on the grass in the sun – rather hot in those leathers I would imagine.
From Boveney Lock it took us just over half an hour to get into the Racecourse Marina, meeting only one small inflatable in the narrows, and we were moored up by 5.30pm – in time maybe to walk to the Racecourse but absolutely without the energy to move off the boat! Bermuda Blue was already moored and closed up. We settled for a stiff drink, an early supper and bed. I had been to a Monday evening Meeting at Windsor many years ago and was sorry to miss out on the fun. It is a good night’s entertainment – although probably not improved by a large screen showing the first match of the World Cup on this occasion.
Day 7. Windsor Racecourse to Temple Lock. 12 miles, 5 locks. 10.30am-4.00pm (1 hour lunchbreak)
After a water-fill and a 20 litre diesel top up – we had used about 80 litres of diesel so far over 30 hours which is average for us – we made a leisurely start. Helianthus had made it to Cookham for the previous night and was planning to reach Reading by the end of the day, but we had already decided to take an extra day as we were in no hurry and didn’t want to do another long day. We moored up for lunch on the lay-by (reluctant permission from the Lock-keeper) above Boulter’s Lock.
Passing through Cookham Lock, under the gaze of Cliveden House, we were rather gratified to hear from the lock-keeper, who often trails his small narrow-boat to central France, that he follows Xenia’s blog. Shortly after that we waved to Tony Soper (ex-Chair of DBA) whom we spotted in his garden at Spade Oak.
A seemingly casual enquiry as to our destination from the Lock-keeper at Temple Lock alerted us to the availability of an EA mooring on the lock island there –which we accepted with alacrity (£9.50, no services – but wonderfully quiet and peaceful and on our own).
Day 8. Temple Lock to T&K Marina. 15 miles, 5 locks. 9.50am-5.40pm (3 hours lunchbreak).
It was a dull start but quickly turned rather humid with some sunshine and we reached Henley by 12.00pm. The Regatta Racecourse was all laid out leaving a narrow navigable lane along the left bank with a flotilla of eights and fours doing practice laps on the stretch from Temple Island down to the bridge. We found plenty of space in Mill Meadows (free from 10am-3pm) and moored up outside the Rowing Museum (well worth a visit if you have the time – but we needed to shop at Waitrose in the town centre).
From Marsh Lock we had a clear run home through Shiplake and Sonning with no other boat traffic at all (although plenty of boats moored up at all the available moorings) taking just over 2 hours to complete this final stretch of 8 miles and 3 locks.
All round a great trip, 164 miles and 42 locks – and nice to have a bit of company along the way, especially on the tidal Thames – but next time we’ll take even longer getting there and back on the non-tidal reaches. The original cruise plan from Reading of 2 days each to and from Teddington was much too ambitious for us and even taking the extra two days we have come back exhausted. But what a great reminder this trip has been of the wonderful cruising to be had on the Thames – world class!