Readers, it is time for me to indulge you once again in an odd hobby of mine, paddle steamers. You may have previously read my report on the 100th Birthday of the PS Melbourne in Australia last year, and whilst in the UK one of the things I’ve wanted to do was travel aboard one of their 3 remaining and traditional operating paddlers. After a bit of research I found out that the Waverley, the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world, would be visiting London and cruising from Tower Pier to various locations. One cruise coincided with my day off, so last Monday I set off bright and early for a pleasure cruise.
While paddlers are built for various reasons, the ones I’m most used to were originally built as towing and cargo boats. Australia had a few passenger steamers, but Waverley is completely different. A pleasure cruiser and ferry, she would transport passengers from one place to another. She’s decked out with lounges and bars, and benches for seating, and this isn’t a recent tourism conversion either, this is what she was like. The vessel was originally built in 1947 (which I consider rather late in the paddle steamer game) to replace the original PS Waverley which was sunk at Dunkirk.
She’s also of a scale I’m completely unused to. I got lost on my first trip around the multiple decks (both above and below) trying to work out where would be the best spot to perch myself to travel under Tower Bridge. I ended up getting a wet butt by sitting on the top deck for a bit. There were multiple bars, lounges, a restaurant, souvenir shop and even a post box on board.
The paddler beat down the Thames towards Southend, with a cruise narration by a crew member pointing out the local sights, canal entrances, and interesting tid bits. We passed the Thames barrier (below), Greenwich, and numerous vessels. Also a significant amount of old sewerage and waste disposal facilities of various kinds. Ahhh river life. Glorious.
A few hours later (it was a very generous amount of cruise time) we pulled up at Southend Pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world at one and a third miles long. There I disembarked and took the small pier railway (because no one wants to walk that far) into the beachside resort town. Much of Southend was closed, because it was a Monday, and the recent school holidays had ended. Eerie closed amusement parks and arcades sat motionless along the bank, making for interesting photos.
I stopped for a quick bite of lunch with two fellow paddlers, before returning to explore Southend a little more. I ventured to the beach, which was made of pebbles rather than sand, my first experience of that style beach. Sorry Brits, but that’s weird, and I don’t like sand.
Then I rode the pier train back out to the end of the pier and awaited the return of the Waverley and my homeward bound cruise to London. It got darker and darker as we approached London which made passing the O2 Arena and Canary Wharf spectacular, as they were all lit up. Nothing compares to a well designed piece of city sky line lit up at night. We also passed under the laser projected meridian line a number of times due to twists in the Thames which was pretty special.
As the night got colder I tried to find more places inside rather than outside to curl up and keep warm, nodding off a few times in the forward bar. I fixed that problem with some chocolate from the souvenir stand.
By far the most spectacular part of the evening though was travelling under the Tower Bridge at night, fully lit. What a marvel to watch it open for us, and the hordes of people standing atop it waving at us. A moment I’ll never forget.