Thou­sands of moored boat s a re tucked into ev­ery wind­ing river, muddy creek or lonely chan­nel through the marshes

Motorboat & Yachting - - Cruising -

By con­ti­nen­tal stan­dards the Thames is a small river, yet over the cen­turies it has helped shape the char­ac­ter of Eng­land, and much of the world. Vik­ing long­ships fol­lowed their lode­stones here and traders flocked to the Pool of Lon­don. The Royal Navy com­mis­sioned fight­ing fleets at Chatham, while barges car­ried straw and hay up­stream to feed Lon­don’s car­riage horses.

The wide, fun­nelling es­tu­ary looks tricky on the chart, with sand­banks fan­ning far out into the North Sea. Yet for east coast boats th­ese are clas­sic cruis­ing grounds within easy reach of Lon­don. To those in the know, the whole place is a par­adise of chan­nels and fair­ways, spits and shoals, nifty short cuts and se­cret an­chor­ages left by the tide.

Al­though the Es­sex, Suf­folk and Kent coasts can look de­serted, thou­sands of moored boats are tucked into ev­ery wind­ing river, muddy creek or lonely chan­nel through the marshes. There are comfy mari­nas on both sides of the es­tu­ary, but also the rarer lux­ury of find­ing a stretch of wa­ter to your­self. Ashore, you’ll find a warm and homely wel­come that is typ­i­cally English.


Most south coast boats vis­it­ing the Thames make for Rams­gate first, with its two outer mari­nas and cosy in­ner basin. North of Rams­gate you pass an evoca­tive stretch of chalk cliffs be­fore turn­ing the cor­ner off North Foreland, whose white oc­tag­o­nal light­house was the last to be au­to­mated in the UK.

Around the Foreland, the lower north Kent shore is unas­sum­ing be­tween Mar­gate and Whit­stable, but from a use­ful chan­nel in­side Mar­gate Hook you see the im­pos­ing twin tow­ers of a ru­ined me­dieval church at Recul­ver. Beyond Whit­stable, the charted en­trance to the Swale is nearly three miles wide, but at low springs only a nar­row buoyed gully leads in round the Isle of Shep­pey past the muddy mouths of Faver­sham and Conyer creeks. Fur­ther west you can en­ter the River Med­way and me­an­der up to Chatham, with its ex­cel­lent ma­rina, im­pec­ca­bly re­stored wa­ter­front and dock­yard mu­seum. Fur­ther still, Rochester has an im­pres­sive Nor­man cas­tle, an old cathe­dral and the lin­ger­ing Dick­en­sian feel of a slightly grimy work­ing port where pick­pock­ets and press gangs once roamed.


Across the Thames, the Es­sex shores have dif­fer­ent vibes, a blend of quaintly up­mar­ket, slightly brash and pleas­antly or­di­nary. Burn­ham-on-crouch has its trendy re­gat­tas and au­gust yacht clubs, Mal­don its Thames barges and jel­lied eels, while Brightlingsea rev­els in the fore­shore fishy­ness of smacks and oys­ter sheds. You en­ter the placid ex­panses of the Black­wa­ter be­tween Mersea Is­land to the north and Brad­well power sta­tion to the south. Brad­well Ma­rina hud­dles be­hind a coastal dyke and on the Mersea side you can fol­low a snaking ti­dal chan­nel up to Tolles­bury Ma­rina – a real Es­sex treat.


Lon­don is one of Europe’s great cruis­ing ar­rivals and, as with the Elbe and Seine, you should carry the flood in your favour. In Sea Reach the river starts tak­ing shape be­tween the dry­ing flats of Southend and Grain. Then above Can­vey Is­land, the banks draw to­gether to form a straight­for­ward but quite fast-flow­ing ship­ping wa­ter­way. You pass some fa­mous names – Gravesend to port, Til­bury’s cruise and con­tainer ter­mi­nal to star­board, then Dart­ford’s grace­ful Queen El­iz­a­beth II bridge, with 200ft clear­ance for large freighters.

Near Wool­wich you en­ter the Thames Bar­rier Con­trol Zone and should call Lon­don VTS on VHF 14. The metropoli­tan vibes are stronger now, with Gal­lions Point Ma­rina, City Air­port and the Royal Docks to star­board. Opened in 1984, the Thames Bar­rier is an im­pres­sive feat of en­gi­neer­ing, with its clever ro­tat­ing gates and strange, space-age pro­file. Beyond it the river swings round Black­wall Point and back again be­tween Green­wich and Ca­nary Wharf. At the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory you cross the merid­ian into west­erly lat­i­tude and op­po­site the Isle of Dogs bend are the three soar­ing masts of Cutty Sark.

At South­wark, South Dock Ma­rina is a sur­pris­ing oa­sis of peace in at­trac­tive sur­round­ings. Lime­house comes next, once a war­ren of opium dens but now a re­spectable ma­rina with links to Lon­don’s canals. A mile fur­ther west you can lock into St Katharine Yacht Haven, just be­fore Tower Bridge.


This de­sir­able city ma­rina has grown over the years but kept the rest­ful vibes that make it spe­cial. It al­ways has an amaz­ing range of boats to see, from su­pery­achts to sail­ing barges and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. De­spite all the cafés and bistros, the wa­ter­fronts are civilised. On Mar­ble Quay the Dick­ens Inn has a fine old tim­bered bar. Years ago I worked in the City and we’d stroll down here af­ter work and fin­ish the day with pints of Lon­don Pride on the ter­race. I’ve been fond of this salty re­treat ever since.

St Katharine Yacht Haven and the Dick­ens Inn. Opp­po­site, left: Chatham Ma­rina

The Lon­don Eye gives amaz­ing views of the UK’S cap­i­tal city

Su­pery­achts are a com­mon sight, this one at Ca­nary Wharf

Leafy ru­ral moor­ings on the up­per reaches of the Thames

Wind farms abound in the outer Thames es­tu­ary

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