OLD FATHER THAMES
Thousands of moored boat s a re tucked into every winding river, muddy creek or lonely channel through the marshes
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.
AROUND NORTH FORELAND
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.
THE ESSEX RIVERS
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.
U P TO T H E CA P I TAL
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.
ST KATHARINE HAVEN
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