[ 17:44 sunday 18 june 2017 – roydon gravel pits, hertfordshire ]
yesterday morning i woke at 4am, showered and dressed, then sped on my bike through the empty streets to limehouse. the sky was already bright enough that i didn’t need my cycle lights. it spanned a gradient of chroma from deep azure in the west to cerulean blue in the east. the half-moon and venus were still visible. the air whispered the thrill of a blazing day to come.
winding through the narrow alleys i emerged onto limehouse basin. this area of water, originally called “regent’s canal dock”, was a pivotal connection in britain’s commercial infrastructure through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. this was the point where freight coming up the river thames was trans-shipped onto barges to continue its journey through the inland canal system. a couple of hours either side of high tide ocean-going ships could pass through a lock from the river into the basin. here they unloaded their goods into warehouses from where it could be transferred into barges. to expedite this process the world’s first hydraulic cranes were installed here in the 1850s. once loaded the barges either travelled up the “limehouse cut” to join the lee navigation canal heading north into hertfordshire, or up the “hackney cut” to join the regents canal to west london and beyond that the grand union network linking birmingham, liverpool, manchester, leeds and the great industrial heartlands.
the commercial dock closed in the 1960s and was redeveloped with (mediocre) housing in the 1980s. nowadays it is is a marina for motor yachts, but it still serves the same function providing a link from the canal system to the tidal river. so at 4.50am yesterday morning i chained up my bike, found my friends arthur and mathilde on their narrowboat “manatee” and prepared to untie from the wharfside ready for the slot they’d booked for the lock.
at 5am the lock keeper appeared, cheerful despite the unsociable hour, and opened the inner gates. we passed slowly into the lock chamber and made fast to cables on its side. the inner gates closed and pumps started evacuating water until the level was equalised with the river. the pumps stopped and the massive outer gates slowly swung open. in front of us was the open river, shimmering blue in the pre-dawn light.
at the exact moment we pulled out onto the river the first sliver of sun peaked above the eastern skyline and the buildings on either side of the river exploded into red and gold. we turned and began to head upriver.
at that hour on a saturday morning we had the river completely to ourselves. we passed the warehouses of wapping and rotherhithe then entered the realm of central london’s icons. passing under the traffic-free tower bridge with a cloudless morning sky above us and the empty expanse of river around us, it was hard to escape the feeling that it was there just for us.
i’ve travelled along the river many times in the clipper ferries. but zipping along at high speed in an air-conditioned cabin is a world away from standing on the roof of a seven foot wide narrowboat chugging upriver at three knots. there is an intense sense of connection with the river and time to appreciate every detail of the passing landscape. minute by minute the icons of central london unfolded around us and the sun slowly rose in the sky. the houses of parliament were at their best, the intricately carved stone glowing in the morning sun. the lock keeper at limehouse had taken a macabre pleasure warning us not to slow down in front of parliament since a narrowboat is apparently an ideal transport for a mobile rocket launcher and the security services are prone to get twitchy.
passing under the thames bridges was a revelation. from ground level they are all much the same with their tarmac, traffic and pedestrians. but seen from the water each one is individuated by its style, engineering and ornament; from the ornate gilt panels and bold scalloping of bazelgette’s cast iron battersea bridge of 1890 to the wonderfully light steel underframe of the grosvenor rail bridge from 1965.
after putney the character of the river changes with fewer buildings and more greenery lining the banks. by hammersmith the river’s width is halved from limehouse. on this stretch we began to encounter our first traffic, with rowing fours and eights out for practice on this idyllic saturday morning.
at 9am, four hours after leaving limehouse, we arrived at brentford where the lock keeper was waiting to usher us back into the canal system. from here we set off north on the grand union canal, mostly following the ancient path of the river brent. we passed through seven of the nine locks in the hanwell flight, which gave me some exercise, then we tied up. the water looked clean so arthur and i couldn’t resist stripping off and jumping in for a swim to cool off. after bidding farewell to arthur and mathilde i walked to southall station and took a series of trains to arrive back at limehouse where i picked up my bike thirteen hours after locking it up.
today has been even hotter with temperatures reaching thirty degrees. craving water, greenery and a breeze i took the train up to hertfordshire with my friend mathias and his pug sophie. half an hour’s walk brought us to the gravel pits where i now sit, surrounded by willows and oaks. we’ve spent the afternoon swimming and sunbathing in the swaying reeds listening to birdsong. this is my favourite swimming spot within an hour of london.
for a country boy like me, london in the summertime still has its charms.
: c :