The Day the Thames Disappeared

Man in a Palm Tree.jpg

So, I arrive in Richmond to go canoeing one morning, stroll happily along the towpath, and I look down. And the river’s gone…. What? Ok, some bits of are there obviously - its banks, exposed like a skeleton, and the boats lying about in the mud. But there’s barely any water. Docks have dropped and hit river-bottom, walkways are all drooping at 45 degrees, and there’s just a ribbon of water in the middle.

I’m told it is the natural level of the Thames. Actually it could be even lower, but this is how it flows when it is held only by the ‘half tide lock’ at Richmond Lock. Apparently for three weeks each November it is kept like this to allow work. Quick reminder – don’t throw your murder weapon into the Richmond section of the river in October because it will probably surface in November….

Still, it turned out to be exceptional morning's paddling. It was one of autumn’s first really cold days and wisps of mist rose from what remained of the water. We set off upstream, into some of the calmest water I have seen. It was certainly odd, paddling eight feet lower than normal, in the bowels of the river, well below the embankments. The piles for floating docks emerged from the mud and stood like 25 foot black pencils

And eerie too. With the guts of the river exposed – the stone and concrete banks, barges and boats sitting at tipsy angles, their dirty hulls exposed, and the usual river-bottom detritus of upside-down chairs and car tyres poking out of the water – it could almost have been a post-apocalyptic movie set. Perhaps a desperate man, or a Richmond zombie, would wade out to get us.

But equally it was still and calm, and exceptionally beautiful. The mist still hung around us on the land. The Star and Garter Home, normally proud on the ridgeline, wasn’t even there. It was simply lost in the mist. On the other hand, the wildlife was suddenly more visible, without greenery to hide it. Tall gulls and small gulls congregated in lines on the mudflats. Divers disappeared as we approached. And reappeared. And a cormorant stood, wings out-stretched, waving them gently to dry its feathers. Either that, or it was bragging to its mates – ‘Yeah, that fish I caught, right. It was this big…’.

‘Yeah’, said the cormorant, drying its wings. ‘That fish I caught, right. It was this big...’

At one point, at a pinch in the river, we found ourselves working harder. The current was flowing faster in the constriction, but the water was still unruffled. This was the best of the Thames in its natural state. And it got better. Near Teddington Lock I could actually see the bottom. Yes, that's in the Thames. It was only three feet below the surface and pretty muddy, but there it was. I wonder how many people have seen the river bottom this century. And then a two-foot fish passed beneath us...

In places the water was glass flat, so the wake thrown off my pointy bow described lazy curves as I made my strokes. The bow wave was etched perfectly in uninterrupted water, a sinuous arrow, lines thrown a degree or two left and right.

Oh, I forgot, this was supposed to be training, concentrating hard on technique… though of course I would only ever whisper it only in this column of non-training. So we set off downstream again, legs cycling to give purchase as the paddle reached left and right away from the boat, straight arms swung by a rotating core (that's the theory, anyway).

I don’t seem to get much sense of speed in a kayak. This is partially because I am still paddling a bit of tub, so perhaps it will come one day. But at the section where we paddled hard upstream I cast an eye at the bank and found I was actually moving quite quickly for a change. What had taken 35 minutes upstream, was done in 20 on the way down.

And as we arrived back, tramping over the muddy steps to get the canoes up to the towpath (over a discarded Blackberry carcass in the mud) we could just see some upstream movement seeping back towards us. Phew, I thought. It’s all right. The river hasn’t gone forever. It’s making its way back on the tide after all.