Last blast on the Thames

Passing beneath Tower Bridge remains one of Waverley's most exhilarating performances

Even Clydesiders acknowledge that Waverley’s passage beneath Tower Bridge is one of her most spectacular performances — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

As Waverley’s Scottish supporters welcome her home for a final weekend of sailings on the Clyde, Charles McCrossan reports on the paddler’s farewell to London, amid the contrasting sights and sounds of another great river.

It is five years since I last attempted a trip on Waverley on the Thames. In 2010 I had got as far as Tilbury, en route to the Medway, when the trip was cancelled due to weather, and buses took passengers back to London. On that occasion I opted to go looking for Queen Mary in Tilbury docks — or as much as you could see of her from a distance. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect her to be looking so good in Greenock six years later.

In 2011, walking down the slope towards Tower Pier, the missing two red, white and black funnels caused the heart to sink. Meeting her Senior Master and Chief Steward walking uphill, carrying their bags, and being told “she’s not coming today”, brought the disappointment and frustration of another wasted trip to London — although these feelings were somewhat tempered when I realised that they couldn’t find her either!

And so to 2016. The last weekend of Waverley’s Thames programme suited me best and Sunday 9 October dawned bright and sunny. With the sailing fully booked, I decided to get down to the pier early and was surprised by how many were already there not long after 9am. Within half an hour the queue was all the way up the pier ramp, and then some. The pontoon gives restricted access to Waverley, the gates being not much wider than the gangways, but with some heaving and hauling the crew managed to set up two gangways, and boarding commenced.

Devout guided Waverley in the restricted Pool of London -- copyright photo Charles McCrossan

Devout guided Waverley in the restricted space of the Pool of London, helping her turn and leading her through Tower Bridge, before dropping the tow line and bowing out as the paddler set off down the Thames — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

Shortly before 10am the tug Devout made fast and soon we were moving slowly upstream towards London Bridge, past HMS Belfast, and holding position in the Pool of London as we waited for Tower Bridge to open at the booked time. At the agreed signal Devout took the strain and hauled Waverley’s bow round, at what I thought was quite a pace. Waverley turned to face downriver, the bridge was open and off we went, with Devout still attached and leading through the bridge. Each downriver passage through the bridge that I saw over the weekend was marked with a long blast on the ship’s whistle.

Once through the bridge, the tug dropped her tow line and we were on our way to Gravesend, our first stop. Waverley had not arrived back from her previous day’s sail until 1am, but the crew had done a great job in clearing, cleaning and getting her shipshape for another busy day. Never have I spent so long in the same place aboard Waverley — but with the huge crowd onboard, it was the only way to have a seat all day.

The amount of movement and activity on the Thames is one of its attractions. Trip boats, fast ferries, tugs, workboats, pleasure craft, police and pilot vessels — a myriad of shapes, sizes and functions — all add to its vitality. The ever-changing riverside, with old dock building conversions, new-build living accommodation and the business world which is Canary Wharf, mean that one trip every year will show up changes, but a first trip in five years saw many more. Cutty Sark was viewed for the first time since its major rebuild. There was a new hotel next to the river, at the O2 site, and a first view of the Emirates Air Line cable car system.

Denny-built former Mersey ferry Royal Iris, long since high and dry on the Thames -- copyright photo Charles McCrossan

Denny-built former Mersey ferry Royal Iris, long since high and dry on the riverbank — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

Soon we were passing through the Thames barrier and almost immediately saw the rusting hulk of the Denny-built former Mersey ferry Royal Iris, which has remained on the same spot for many years.

Then it was on to the Woolwich ferries where, as it was a Sunday, only one (John Burns) was in service whilst the other two (James Newman and Ernest Bevin) lay moored to buoys in the river. Only a few hundred yards further downstream was another old Clyde friend, Soond – Western Ferries’ original Sound of Scarba, lying at her moorings. It would appear that she has not moved since arriving there about 10 years ago.

As we approached the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at the Dartford crossing we passed the RoRo terminals used by car and car component carriers, and then some tankers downriver of the bridge.

The riverside container berths at Tilbury, known as the London Container Terminal, had only two small feeder vessels and the 26,000-ton Maersk Northwood – a disappointing catch! There was a good passenger exchange at Gravesend, and we were ready to leave slightly ahead of time. Preserved Light Vessel 21 was moored on the inner berth and, directly across the river, the grotesque design of modern car carriers was epitomised by Glovis Companion.

After Gravesend the river begins to widen significantly and there were many tugs and other small craft moored outside the main shipping channel. Soon we had our first view of the new London Gateway container terminal. The 60,000 ton MSC Messina, the only vessel present, was preparing to depart: I had been hoping that one or more of the largest-sized vessels the port is designed to handle would have been alongside.

The rebuilt Cutty Sark at Greenwich

Cutty Sark at Greenwich: the legendary Dumbarton-built tea clipper suffered extensive fire damage in 2007 and has now been rebuilt — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

After the Southend call, we headed further downriver for quite a distance, with MSC Messina now almost abeam of us and heading out to sea. Eventually we turned to starboard and crossed astern of her as we steamed towards the Medway and picked up a local pilot before entering the river. In years past a Medway cruise took Waverley upriver, turning off Chatham. On this trip we began to retrace our course just off the end of the container terminal – we were hardly in the Medway before we were back out. It’s not just the river banks that have changed!

While Yeoman Bridge, which Waverley has probably passed several times in and around Loch Linnhe, was discharging stone at the aggregates terminal, the main interest in the short Medway visit was the preserved tugs Touchstone and Kent, which sailed to meet Waverley

Heading back to London the wind was quite cold and there was a distinct clearing of the decks as passengers sought shelter inside – a difficult task on such a busy trip. The thermals and extra layers from the backpack did their job, but once we got to Gravesend it was more sheltered. By Woolwich everyone was back out on deck to witness the magic of sailing upriver in the dark, starting with the illuminated Thames barrier, then the quirks of seeing the lights of Canary Wharf from three different angles, and finally the approach to Tower Bridge.

I made my way to the gangway with a chorus of “see you in Glasgow next week” ringing in my ears. Despite the long day Waverley was not finished yet. She still had a return sailing to Gravesend to do. A little group assembled downriver of the bridge to get the last of the last photographs, and when Waverley steamed through with whistle blowing, it made a great sight and sound. London 2016 was definitely over! 

For her final sailings of 2016, Waverley cruises from Glasgow and Greenock on Saturday 15 October to Loch Long and Loch Goil, and on Sunday 16 October to Tighnabruaich. Bookings at Waverley Excursions Ltd.


Queen Elizabeth Bridge

Queen Elizabeth Bridge

Emirates airline cable car

Emirates airline cable car

London Gateway terminal, with MSC Messina preparing to depart

London Gateway terminal, with MSC Messina preparing to depart — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

Former Western Ferries' Sound of Scarba, now Soond, moored just below Woolwich -- copyright Charles McCrossan

Soond (formerly Western Ferries’ Sound of Scarba) moored just below Woolwich — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

Waverley in the built-up surroundings of metropolitan London -- copyright photo Charles McCrowssan

Waverley in the built-up surroundings of metropolitan London — copyright photo Charles McCrossan

At Tower Pier on the evening of Friday 7 October 2016

At Tower Pier on the evening of Friday 7 October 2016