Go with the flow: Commuting by river could be the cleaner, greener way to get to work
Thursday 07 February 2008
Sweat streamed down my back as the Tube train came to another faltering stop somewhere between Oval and Kennington, on another masochistic morning commute. After more than a decade of resentment against London Underground, I ran past stoic-looking passengers and instinctively headed towards the river Thames. As I stood on the South Bank, I watched as a single kayak glided serenely under Waterloo Bridge. This riverside epiphany got me thinking. Surely the Thames could provide the perfect solution for my travel frustrations. Why not use it to travel to work in east London? Living in Tooting, I'm within cycling distance of the river. Couldn't the Thames be my cleaner, greener and serener way to commute?
Curious to find out how easy it is to access the Thames, I drop in at Westminster Boating Base, across the river from Battersea power station. Chief instructor Kevin Burke tells me that, unlike the rest of the European Union, you do not need a licence to navigate the tidal Thames from Teddington lock to the Thames barrier. "Theoretically, anyone could get in a boat and row, canoe, sail, and navigate the Thames," he says, "but it's advisable that people are experienced and take sensible precautions, such as not going out on the water alone." Burke runs a four-day sailing course which enables participants to be reasonably competent to take a sailing boat out on some sections of the Thames.
The first leg of my commuting plan becomes a reality when Kevin offers to get me to work by river. The following day I excitedly make my way down the sloped walkway leading to a 50-year-old blue speedboat, lovingly restored by the Westminster team and rescued before it was crushed in a scrap yard.
Fulfilling my favourite James Bond fantasy, Kevin allows me to drive the boat as we speed past the MI6 buildings, and I suppress the childish urge to shout out "live and let die". Incredibly, there are no speed limits once you get past Wandsworth Bridge moving back towards the City.
We pass the hidden Tyburn river, which runs into the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge, and glide into the beautifully Dickensian St Saviour's Dock, which is impossible to see other than by boat. This conjures images of gas lamps and tidal fog in a bygone age. Along the river I gaze awe-struck at coots, mallards and confident cormorants, and then Kevin waves me off at Wapping. I walk the remainder of my journey into work with a spring in my step. On a good day, Kevin tells me, and without the tourism, we could do this trip in a mere 15 minutes.
The next day of my river commute I am greeted by perfect clear blue skies as I head towards Putney Bridge, having managed to blag a lift to work on a barge. As I cycle past Tooting Broadway, hundreds of disconsolate looking passengers pour out of the Tube station issuing torrents of abuse to the long-suffering staff as a result of "severe delays". I realise that river travel might not be the slowest method of getting into work after all.
As I arrived at Putney Pier, the impressive-looking Tidy Thames Recycling Barge chugs towards me, carrying its cargo of recycled paper and bottles. Colin Murphy, the skipper, and Bradley Ling, the mate, help me and my bike aboard, and then present me with a steaming cup of tea in their warm and cosy cabin.
The trip turns out to be an environmental education. Colin says: "More businesses along the river are starting to use recycling services, as it works out to be a more cost-effective method of refuse disposal. The Recycling by Water project has significantly reduced users' waste going into landfill sites. The positive environmental benefits of using the Thames are that it reduces traffic and pollution by taking greater quantities of waste per boat trip than conventional road vehicles".
As we work our way up river, passing under Wandsworth Bridge, Colin describes some of the wildlife he has witnessed on the river: "You often get seals sunning themselves along the shores near to Chelsea Harbour." He says some Thames residents do not understand that the Thames is still a working river and have complained about the noise of his barge. He dismisses this intolerance as "one of those things", and I suspect Colin's laid-back resignation might have something to do with the tranquil environment in which he operates. There seems to be very little evidence of white van man syndrome out on the water. I'm dropped off at Blackfriars Pier and cycle on to my next meeting.
My barge trip was pleasurable, but not practical. But what if I could rope in some of my fellow commuters to travel to work by river together. I decide to gather volunteers for a "boat share", in which 12 local acquaintances who normally travel the same direction to work will leave their cars at home and commute from Chelsea to Tower Bridge. Michael O'Keefe, who operates Flying Fish Power Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs), is happy to oblige and sorts us out with a lift to work. No sooner have I sent an email looking for crew members than I'm flooded with requests from fellow battle-hardened commuters, desperate to book a passage.
Come boat-share day, 12 south Londoners gather next to Albert Bridge on a cold and overcast morning. The boat powers off at an alarming pace, then thunders along the Thames at more than 45 miles per hour. Suddenly, it turns on a sixpence, purely for our entertainment, causing a roller-coaster, stomach-churning effect on its human cargo and inducing ecstatic cries ranging from "Oh, my God" through to "this is brilliant". At the end of the journey there is a collective sense of elation, and commuter Adam Leaver enthusiastically observes: "I have always lived in London and wanted to get nearer to the water. This trip has made me want to use the Thames more. This was the ultimate travel-to-work fantasy."
This being our first boat-share, we took the time to make the most of the novelty. However, without any interludes, the total journey time from Chelsea to Tower Bridge would have been no more than 15 minutes. So could we make a habit of this? The cost of chartering the boat was £245 and so worked out at £20 for each commuter. While this is too pricy for everyday commuting, an occasional trip is highly recommended.
By Thames Clipper
There are, of course, those who already commute regularly by river. The following day I jump on to one of the London River Services (LRS) fleet of Thames Clipper boats travelling from Waterloo Bridge to Canary Wharf. After barges and speedboats, the Clipper is the height of luxury and I settle into the luxurious armchair, stretch out my legs with a good book and admire the view.
There isn't a more romantic and exotic way to get to work than by the river, and you experience a sea change from hot and bothered commuter to urbane traveller as the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye roll by. John Chapman uses the Clipper regularly for his commute: "I've always been fascinated by the Thames as it's the life blood of London. Commuting by water has certainly put me in a more relaxed frame of mind. This is one London's best-kept secrets."
The Clipper service carries 2,000 passengers a day and there are stops along the river at Bankside, London Bridge, Canary Wharf and continuing up to Woolwich. During the week, there is a boat every 15 minutes and the cost of a single ticket from Waterloo to Canary Wharf is £5.50. With an Oyster card, it falls to £3.60.
Managing director Sean Collins explains: "We are under capacity at the moment and so have increased the service by adding six 120-seater boats to our fleet. The trip from Blackfriars to Canary Wharf takes only 18 minutes, making it the fastest method of getting to that particular destination."
And unlike during rush-hour on the trains, you can take bikes on the Clippers, so this really is a practical option for anyone living and working within pedalling distance of the river.
The ultimate in carbon-neutral and self-reliant transport must surely be paddle power. Could I get to work by canoe? I thought it would be advisable to learn the ropes. Steve Williams invites me along for a Sunday paddle with Chiswick Pier Canoe Club, one of a number of associations dotted along the Thames for water enthusiasts. On a beautifully crisp sunny morning, I set off from Chiswick towards Putney with 15 Sunday paddlers as part of one of the club's extremely laid-back and accessible taster sessions.
On our journey up river we encounter herons and strange floating coconuts. Passing under Hammersmith Bridge, hearty shouts of "good morning" greet a couple passing above our flotilla. At the end of the two-hour trip there is a tangible sense of fellowship, and the psychological advantages of using the water are becoming obvious.
So could I commute like this? Steve Williams, the chief instructor at the canoe club, is doubtful. He says you could do it in theory, but highlights a few practical issues: "You would need to find a location to safely get in and out of the water. Secondly, the kayak and waterproof kit would need to be stored. Finally, you would have to work out the best times to undertake the journey to fit in with the tidal flows of the Thames and from a safety point of view it's advisable not to undertake the journey alone."
Maybe this one will take a bit more planning. But my journeys have opened up a new world of possibilities, where the river has provided a realistic, and often greener, alternative to road or rail travel, with the bonus of reduced stress and increased pleasure. Its waters have connected me to river workers, canoeists, water commuters and sailing enthusiasts, all of whom have a healthy obsession with the water.
I didn't expect the high levels of individual and collective euphoria after a speedboat ride, barge lift, boat-share or group kayak. Most surprisingly, was falling in love with the river Thames. So the next time you're flustered after being stuck underground for longer than is good for you, do yourself a favour and take a walk to the river.
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