Southend to Tower Bridge on Paddle Steamer Waverley

In the 60s the family used to urge the old Wolsley over the Carter Bar into Scotland and visit our relations on the Isle of Arran, which involved taking the ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick.

As a special treat we would take one of the Clyde Steamers on a day trip around the Clyde estuary, visiting Rothesay, Millport, Gourock, Dynoon, Largs and even Campbeltown.  The Queen Mary and the Waverley were the two most regular steamers and even in those days they seemed like a window to an Art Deco world which was fast slipping away.

A couple of weeks ago I had a trip down memory lane with a quick road trip to Arran and I was delighted to find that the Balmoral was operating pleasure trips, although not when I was there.  I totally missed the fact that the Waverley would be back on the Clyde in October, let alone the fact that she would be operating on the Thames this weekend.

It must have been fate which took me to her website and on Saturday morning I dropped everything and headed to Southend pier, the longest in the world, for a stunning trip back up the Thames into the Pool of London, to Tower Pier.  A trip back to Southend was another memory jogger as I lived there in the 80s for a few years, and it sure seems that nothing much has changed, apart from a few more fires on the pier.  I didn’t have time to explore my old haunts so went straight down to the end of the pier just as Waverley was arriving.

After 40 years I immediately recognised her presence – she glides along almost silently, a row of heads on the upper deck, two funnels and the gorgeous wooden bridge being all you initially saw as she drew up to the end of the pier on low tide.  70 feet of water on the landing stage at low tide apparently  and shallow enough to stand up on the other side.  The engine telegraph clanged again as the engines were reversed and soon some 1000 people were disembarking up the slippery old steps of the lower deck of the pier, which are so rarely used these days.

Just as quickly we were boarding and departed bang on schedule in a flurry of paddles whipping up the sea and a couple of blasts on the steam whistle.  She is one of the very few craft which deliberately drops her ropes into the sea on departure – theres no propellors to foul, although we very nearly brought part of the pier with us as the stern line refused to drop off the rotting old woodwork into the water, but all was well.

Time to look around – Waverley is immaculate with varnished wood, polished brass and painted metalwork.  Little changed if at all since the 50s.  Theres a coffee shop, two bars and a restaurant so theres plenty to keep you fed and watered, and I was pleased to see the bars stocked Arran beers and a range of malt whisky too, keeping the scottish connections well alive.  The lower deck bar must be unique in that it spans the space between the paddles, with portholes along the waterline which give a strange view of the thrashing water outside.

The engines are on full display to the public, just like they used to be, and you can almost reach out and touch the pistons as they turn the two paddle wheels.

Outside the Essex coast was zooming past at an impressive speed and we made our way through much larger ships on the esturary, arriving at Tilbury pier to drop off a few passengers and even pick up a couple.  I’m not sure where the estuary officially ends and the Thames begins, but I was surprised how narrow it actually is, as well as a surprising number of twists and turns – somehow I imagined it to be a straight line to the sea!

The highlights of the 3.5 hour trip were going below the massive QE2 Bridge which carries the M25 high above the river just as the sun was setting, then up through the floodlit Thames Barrier, past the O2 Arena, around Canary Wharf, past the entrance to Limehouse marina (and therefore the canal system) and finally the most amazing spectacle of Tower Bridge opening specially for us.  What a fantastic day out this was.

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