Thames Tideway Poetry

Maggie was so taken with the experience of our trip along the Thames from Limehouse to Brentford in August that, inspired by Terry Darlington, she was moved to write a poem in blank verse.

Tidal Thames

Three boats wait anxiously in the lock.
Silently and almost imperceptibly the water drops
As a narrow slit of daylight widens between the vast gates
And we see our first glimpse of what lies beyond.
Before the waters have chance to equalise, the gates are open
And the lock water rushes down towards the great river.
The tide surges past, and the slight breeze catches the waves
And creates a rough chop.
Suddenly from downstream a ferry rushes by,
Adding its wide wake to the turbulent waters.
Amidst all this, bobbing about like a cork, a friend in his inflatable,
Buzzing over the water
A reassuring presence.
Suddenly we are off, out into the maelstrom.
We pitch and toss as we turn into the tideway.
As we cut through the chop, spray breaks over our bows
And for a moment we retreat behind the safety of the cabin doors.
“Can we stand two hours of this?”
“Are we going to be seasick?”
“You’re braver than I thought you’d be!”
Why do we laugh so much when really we’re scared stiff?
We emerge and look back towards the jagged skyline of Canary Wharf receding into the distance.
Then suddenly, ahead of us, “It’s Tower Bridge!”
Pale and huge against the leaden clouds.
We try to focus our cameras as we rock and roll our way beneath its enormous structure.
The Skipper and First Mate study their charts and plough on.
We are just beginning to enjoy this.
Then it’s City Hall where Lucy works, the Tower of London, The Eye, all seen from a fresh angle.
And the first narrowboat, forging ahead, floats like a matchstick on this mighty river.
When we reach Westminster, our spirits are so uplifted that we sing patriotic songs.
“Rule Britannia, Britannia rues the waves...”
“ And did those feet in ancient times..”
On through the City we sail, steering to cut through the wake of countless larger vessels,
Each bridge greeted with a shout of recognition,
So familiar from above
So imposing from below.
And bus passengers and pedestrians going about their daily business
Look down from above and wave or smile,
not knowing how our hearts race down below.
Gradually the river widens, and the waves subside
As we follow the bends out of the wind.
We realise we may actually live to tell this tale.
Then ahead it’s the Albert Bridge and Narrowboat Albert and her crew
glow with pride as we glide beneath.

The battle is over and our little flotilla reassembles
As we head for the safety of Brentford Lock.
Our two companion boats sail on towards Teddington
And we wave our goodbyes
And express our thanks for their moral support.

Afterwards it’s a group hug and a cup of tea
And a photo to mark this momentous trip.
Will we ever do it again?
The skipper’s face looks doubtful.

But perhaps it’s like childbirth,
It’s not the pain you remember,
It’s the joy.

Maggie Parkin, August 2008

Opening Lock Gates Automatically

When we were travelling down to the Thames this summer, on the Grand Union, we came across Richard Horne who operates working narrowboat Arundel carrying aggregate from the conveyor at Denham to Hanson's wharf at West Drayton. The last time we were down that way, in 2003, we saw the then new Land & Water barges that were specifically designed to fill Cowley Lock operating through Cowley. This time we saw Arundel reversing back empty from the winding to its wharf at Denham to fill up at the coveyor and later, after we had moored, watched her descending Cowley Lock.

Richard, who operates the boat as Phoenix Canal Carriers, was operating single-handed and was using an interesting technique to open the lower lock gates. It was a version of a technique that I had not seen before but had read about in Waterways World in the mid 1990s. The technique consists of using the boats motive power (i.e. horse or motor) to automatically open the lock gates when the lock is empty. The description I read in Waterways World described a pair of horse boats going down Hatton Flight. I remember finding it very hard to follow the description; I read it through several times before I began to understand it. Seing a modern version with just one boat made it easier to follow but I have to say it was no less impressive in terms of ingenuity.

I took a video of the technique on my Nokia N95. I hope you can follow what is happening. The process involves putting a line from the towing mast around the lock gate rail and selecting reverse on the motor. When the water levels are equal the force on the line which over the gate is sufficient to open it. Once the gate is open the motor engine is put into neutral via a line to the engine-hole. Richard gets on board and then leaves the lock, retrieving the line to the gates in the process. Obviously the gates are left open in the manner that prevailed during the days of full-scale commercial carrying.

Richard Horne automatically opening the gates of Cowley Lock using the engine of NB Arundel, August 1st 2008

I discussed how much aggregate Arundel was carrying with Richard. He had on board a very impressive 30 1/4 tonnes. As he pointed out, it just demonstrated what could be carried when canals are properly dredged. It appears the section between Denham and West Drayton has been dredged to 7ft.

Steve Parkin