Ed Note: Four Americans are walking, kayaking and canoeing the Thames across England, from source to sea. The two men are octogenarians and the two women are in the their late fifties. This is Katie McKy’s fourth dispatch from the river. Read her first, second and third posts here.
All the way down the Thames, the lockkeepers had waved us into the locks. That changed at the 45th and final lock when the lockmaster trotted out and reminded us that we could paddle no farther without a licensed guide.
John Stookey, 85, our leader, explained that were exiting right below the lock, and we were allowed through. Just downstream, we met Katy Hogarth of Moo Canoes, our licensed guide, and switched from canoes to kayaks. Together we paddled to London, through London, and ended our 175-mile journey at Greenwich.
Katy had the paperwork and walkie-talkie training; she was tide-savvy and knew the river traffic well enough to keep us from getting run over. She also helped keep our boats upright–not an entirely easy task when a six knots-tidal flow is wrasslin’ with gusts reaching 30 mph, which is exactly what happened during our first day on the tidal Thames. Additionally, the Thames in London is a big bathtub with its high seawalls. There are egress steps, but they’re slick with algae and greased with goose poop.
There were also the other boats: Thames Rockets, rigid hulls inflatables that jumped in the chop to make passengers squeal, and Thames Clippers, commuter catamarans who cut through the water but trailed a big wake. And blunt-nosed tows, plowing water.
There are no-paddle zones too, like MI6’s headquarters, which bristles with cameras, and Parliament, which has a barrier of buoys not to be crossed. The floating docks and moored barges presented a different kind of danger. They’re not the strainers we encountered on the upper Thames, but suckers, for the tide could suck you under them.
An antiquated danger was the Tower of London, which is right on the river. It’s where King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded for not producing a male heir. To justify her execution, she was falsely accused of witchcraft, incest, and adultery. Her response? She wrote in her final letter: “…for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.”
Her plush praise confused me until I learned that those words persuaded Henry to commute her sentence from burning to beheading. He even hired an expert swordsman from France. What a guy!
There were lesser crimes committed in the Tower too, like pilfering. England’s monarchs were a bit like the Egyptian pharaohs. To save time, a pharaoh would have his stonemasons chisel the faces of statues of earlier pharaohs into his likeness. Likewise, English monarchs would pilfer the crowns of earlier kings and queens, adding jewels to their crown to bring the bling. The result is a bigger and bigger crown until a tipping point was literally reached when Queen Victoria’s crown was too heavy to comfortably wear and she had a smaller, sporty crown also made. Shakespeare was right when he wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
On the river, our final paddle wasn’t a bit uneasy. The wind throttled back and the sloppy chop gently rocked us. Whereas a bird’s-eye view of a city is great, a river’s eye view is even greater, and the Thames gave us a unique perspective from lowest part of London. All the buildings were bigger and the swarms of selfie-snapping tourists were largely beyond our ken.
We paddled past the HMS Belfast, a WWII cruiser that played a key role in several major battles and on D-Day. There was also a WWI ship in dazzle paint, a gaudy style that optically distorted, making targeting it difficult. There were a bevy of beautiful bridges, Tower Bridge perhaps being the grandest, and glittering modern buildings beside the old stone.
Knowing the end was coming, we simply rode the tide the last two miles. We ended at famous Greenwich, sliding ashore beside the Cutty Sark, perhaps the loveliest ship that ever sailed. It looked gilded in that evening’s golden light.
–Read more on our TRAVEL page.