The Thames River Police are a helpful lot, so I left the kayak on their
Hammersmith pier and stayed overnight in a friend’s nearby flat. The next
morning I returned and made good use of the fest ebbing tide to get down to
Wesminster where, again, the river police let me use their pier. Now I had to
get serious; I had no equipment or food supplies.
I moved around through swirling rain collecting my stores. At Harrods I found a
fine Li-Lo inflatable mattress. The Boy Scots Shop provided a Silva compass, a
cooking pot and stove, a very cheap cotton tent and a spoon. At Woolworth’s, I
purchased a plastic Pac-a-Mac rain jacket and in the King’s Road, I bought an
army blanket and all my food – dry biscuits, powdered soups, tins of spaghetti,
sardines and condensed milk, and a good supply of tea and sugar.
By now I was down to ten pounds cash to see me through to my second semester at
the Naval College, starting in seven weeks. There I could look forward to good
meals again at Her Majesty’s expense. But, for now, I must enjoy my modest
victuals and make them last.
The next day, it rained intermittently while the wind tore through the streets
of London and whipped the surface of the Thames into whitecaps. There were
forecasts of gales at sea. In the afternoon the wind dropped and I took off
from Westminster Pier.
Nicholas was there to see off. He had made a deal with a London newspaper, The
Daily Express. “They’ve agreed,” he said, “that if you reach Paris entirely on
your own steam, starting from London, they’ll pay you 50 pounds for your story
I was astonished – and grateful, for as Nicholas had said, “You’ve got no
money, next to no clothes, and how in heaven’s name do you imagine you’re going
to survive in Paris when you get there? And how are you going to get back,
that’s what I would like to know?”
He was right, of course, and we arranged that he would send some clothes for me
to pick up at American Express in Paris. And we agreed that I would phone him
when I got there. A good friend.
So my journey began. As I passed the Houses of Parliament, my father appeared
on the river bank with his camera. He got a good shot of me leaving London,
thanks to Nicholas, who alerted him.
We passed under the Tower Bridge in great style. Traffic was stopped and the
twin spans were raised to the vertical. It wasn’t done for me and my kayak, but
for an empty cargo vessel displacing some two thousand tons, which towered
above me, riding high out of the water with its Plimsole line in full view. As
for us, we were displacing about 250 pounds, of which I weighed 150.
We moved with the tide and half of London’s flotsam down to Greenwich. From the
river I had a splendid view of the two small domes built by Wren in the exact
style of his masterpiece, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. He’d tried to build the big
one down here at Greenwich, but wasn’t allowed to because it would have
perturbed existing architecture: Elizabeth The First’s hunting lodge and Henry
the Eighth’s hospital for sailors were designed to be viewed from the River
Thames in perfect symmetry, even though the hunting lodge is set back a full
half mile from the hospital, which fronts the river. I knew all this because
the hospital is now used by the Royal Navy, and was my current home.
The river was getting much wider and behind its banks there were open marshes
instead of factories.
I got off the water at dusk. It had been raining on and off all this time and I
was soaked. My plastic Pac-a-Mac had lasted about an hour before it split. So
now I sat in the lee of a bombed out building to make some soup, and before
long, I fell asleep with my cotton tent wrapped around me. I had become an
At dawn, floating debris let me know it was time to follow it downstream, and
away I went down to Gravesend. But I got there much too soon, and its name says
it all. For centuries, ships have foundered on this reach of the Thames when
their captains found no room, for all the width of the river, to outwit its
tides and crosswinds. And I got a long taste of its black mud, too, when I left
the safety of the wharves and headed for open water. I didn’t know that the
forecast that morning had said, “Attention all shipping at sea, including
Thames Estuary. Warning is given of westerly gales at present force seven,
reported increasing to force nine.” And in these circumstances I set off from a
well sheltered corner of Gravesend into the shipping lane.
Well, my kayak was like a tiny sandpiper ripped off course in midair as we came
out from behind the ferry pier to be flung to Tilbury, on the north shore.
Without paddling, we achieved maximum hull speed and we headed like a torpedo
straight for a line of anchored ships.