Because of the traffic, the Thames can be very busy in central London, busy and dangerous. I’d heard that there was virtually no traffic on Christmas day, which made the best day to sail through the centre of town.
So, Christmas Day 2013 arrived and I thought I’d take the car for a swim. I drove to The Isle of Dogs and went in using the public slipway beside the Poplar Rowing Club, opposite Greenwich Naval College. I think you can see The Cutty Sark on the right.
Then I tootled along towards the City. Somewhere near Canary Wharf tourist pleasure cruiser passed me.
Usually skippers and crew of other craft are friendly. As a chum of mine says “Always be nice to other people on the river, you never know when you might need them to pull you out.”
However, a member of crew came out on deck and looked really quite agitated. I was well away from him and the only word I could distinguish of his shouting was “Starboard!”. After he’d gone I decided that he must mean I should be on the starboard side of the river, which seemed overly officious as I was in shallower water than him and well out of his way.
Shortly after moving to the other side, a Police boat appeared and flagged me down. They asked me who I was and if I had a two way radio (which I do, but, ahem, I hadn’t brought it) so he wrote down a few details. He was also concerned that my little boat car might get overwhelmed by the wake of the tourist boats. I told him I was fine and in Venice Lagoon (okay, I was showing off a bit there) I’d gone past some pretty big ships without any trouble. I thought it best not to get into an argument, but I am of the opinion that small craft being allowed on the Thames (you see dingies and canoes quite a lot), it is the responsibility of the big craft not to tool up and down being a danger to the river going public. You wouldn’t see a traffic cop stopping someone in a Mini and saying ‘Watch out for those big tourist buses playing silly buggers up ahead’. Well, you might, but the bus drivers would be booked.
I would like to say at this point that I am specifically not complaining about the police. Clearly they had been told there was someone doing something silly on the river and so it was their duty to investigate, which they
did in a courteous and professional manner. It was whoever had mislead them that I am complaining about. And, since I’d only interacted with one other vessel, the field of suspects is rather small.
Anyway, not having a radio I mentioned that I had brought my phone. Before we parted company the policeman asked me for my name. I actually began to ask him if he wasn’t able to tell from my number plate, but, while speaking it occurred to me that police boats probably aren’t equipped with the gadget that police cars have.
They don’t often come across boats with number plates so there is little point being linked to the big computer with all the info on the drivers, and if they come across a car in the river they probably have a lot more on their minds than to run a check on whether it is taxed etc. Anyway, he also took my phone number. I had a feeling that it wasn’t because he fancied me.
We waved goodbye and parted company on good terms. I chugged on to Tower Bridge.
I don’t think I’ve ever been up in town on Christmas day, but it turns out there are quite a lot of tourists there. I imagine that they were all a little disappointed that there was no snow, and no street urchins pressing their noses against the windows of rich people and there isn’t a reformed miser on every street shouting out of the window to a passing lad as to a) what day it is, and b) had he seen the huge turkey in the window of the poulterer in the next street. Also, I imagine they’d be somewhat disappointed that almost everything is closed and that the few places that are open are naff and overpriced.
So, the tourists waved to me, and I waved to them, and we were all very cheerful. The only camera I had with me was in my phone, so the pictures are all a bit wide angle. I snapped the Tower and attempted a close up of Traitors’ Gate. This was on the north side of the river – starboard in the direction I was going.
Then there was HMS Belfast, which sticks out into the river a bit.
Then there was London Bridge, and, just after that, I spotted the Golden Hinde (well, a very good copy, the original having disappeared into historical oblivion centuries ago).
It was on the south bank, which meant, in the direction I was travelling, on the port side of the river, so I crossed carefully (not that there was anything about, as evidenced by the stillness of the water) and took a picture. So, technically, that was probably okay as long as I went back to the starboard side before moving on, but not much further on was the rebuilt Globe (Shakespeare’s theatre – is anything in London still the original thing?) so I wanted a picture of that. Then there was Tate Modern (an old power station now used as an art gallery). And from that to the other side, where you could see St Paul’s Cathedral and the wobbly bridge so I got a nice pic of that, with lovely reflections etc. And then there was the London Eye.
And then my phone rang. It was the duty officer of the Port of London Authority, and he didn’t sound in a very good mood (the having-to-work-on-Xmas-Day-thing again, I expect). I got a telling off for being the wrong side of the river. Now, this was true (although I was clear of the navigation lane), but I could hardly go back across each time after I’d taken the photo and come back again a few yards later for the next one, and I was in a pretty safe situation. (For one thing, as you can see from the photos, the water was very calm – this was because of the lack of traffic which usually makes that part of the river really rough.) Apparently I had also gone under the wrong span of a bridge, but seriously, I really hadn’t seen a red light telling you the span isn’t navigable. Well, as before, best not to argue, I went back across the river.
So on to the Houses of Parliament.
Just before Westminster Bridge, though, three tourist boats (all from the same company – which included the one that obviously had so ungraciously reported me in the first place) passed me. My little vehicle could deal with their bow waves easily in open water, but passing under a bridge at the same time was scary as the last thing you want in a small boat is a big wave smashing you into a leg of a bridge. This was Hungerford Bridge , the one before Westminster. They all seemed to want to dock at Westminster Pier. There was already one there, so four big boats were farting about, turning from the centre of the river to the starboard side, and backing up, making unpredictable manoeuvres. The obviously safe place to be was the far port side of the river, which I had already been told off for being in. So I sat around waiting for them to leave a clear path (and I’m sure they were annoyed that I just sat there – but I didn’t want to do the obvious and move over to the the wrong and risk getting into further trouble, despite it being the clearly sensible thing to do.
So, onwards and upstreamwards.
I got a nice pic of the Houses of P. After that the landmarks aren’t so well known, but I chugged along.
As it is the part of the year with the shortest days in the northern hemisphere, the light was getting weaker, even though it was still pretty early. I thought it best to put in at the next opportunity.
The next opportunity was the slipway that the Duck Tours used to use (until one caught fire in the autumn of 2013, and the passengers had to be rescued and they stopped using it for a while).
This happens to be right beside the building that is the headquarters of MI6 (you know, of James Bond fame).
Here I should manage expectations a bit. The story ends without me being taken into custody, being interrogated in a windowless room and there were no guns (that I could actually see). So, to continue… Although the weather had been good for a Christmas Day in London, the sun was getting very low in the sky and I was still only a bit over half way home. I thought it would be a good idea to put in at the next available place while there was some daylight available, just in case. The only slipways I know of between Putney and the Docklands are: the one at the end of Broomhouse Lane, Hurlingham, which, despite it supposedly being a public right of way, Hammersmith and Fulham Council have thoughtfully erected a gate in front of it that they keep locked at all times except by prior arrangement; the one by St Mary’s Battersea and; the one in Vauxhall beside the MI6 building that the ‘Duck’ (aka DUKW) amphibious tourist trip service used. As I could already see the MI6 building, this last one was the obvious choice.
It was the other side of the river from me, so, fearful of being told off again, I looked very carefully both ways several times, and then made across the river as straight as the incoming tide would allow. I fiddled about about a bit with the controls that change the number of wheels that are powered by the engine. Step on the clutch, into neutral, press the various buttons. No change. I had suspected this as I had found after first going into the water I had been unable to turn off the back wheels so I had had to make the journey with them turning which only serves to create tiny whirlpools and increase petrol consumption. I wasn’t too worried as I had had this before and, although it makes it harder to come out of the water, it hadn’t seemed to have made it that much harder. Also, the 1960s built Amphicars were built with only rear wheel drive and I’d seen them get out of water in tougher conditions than this.
Well, what else would happen but the front wheels hit the gravel that had been washed over the concrete ramp and dug in. The car stopped without the rear wheels touching anything but water. I was stuck. Steering hard one way and then the other waggled the car about and finally freed it. I went back out and had another go. I went as fast as I could, but got stuck again. More waggling and a gentle lifting from the tide got me free. I had several goes in different places but each time I got stuck once further out than seemed right – there must have been a small gravel bank there. There is a walk way along beside the river that people were using for a bit of post Xmas lunch exercise. I was attracting an audience. As usual with an amphibious car, when something goes wrong, people turn up with cameras to document the misery.
And then, coming in at a very oblique angle so the slope would be lessened, both back wheels hit ground and I powered up the bank. And, just as I did so my phone rang. I ignored it as was doing a tricky manoeuvre, but once up on the bank I called back. It was the duty officer from the Port of London authority. He was much friendlier this time. He was asking where I was. I told him I was out of the water at the slipway in Vauxhall. I think he was relieved that I was, perhaps not on dry land, but at least not actually in the river. He told me that it wasn’t actually a public slipway so the gate to the road might be locked. Being beside the MI6 building security was sometimes an issue there. I had a horrid image of being locked in with boatloads of marines armed to the teeth zooming up behind me and the SAS abseiling down from the sky and a million rocket launchers zeroed in on me and my little car. But then the fact that there was a path between the building and the river that was so public that tourists were now videoing me made me think that MI6 weren’t too worried about the security risk. I got out of the car and trudged up the gravel and slipway and along the little laneway to the gate onto the main road. The barrier wasn’t locked and was light enough that I could lift it easily with one hand. I went back to the car. I had parked diagonally to the water, as that is how I had come out, driver’s door nearest the river. In that short time the tide had come in enough that I had to get back in through the passenger door.
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast so, relieved by the knowledge that the gate wasn’t locked, I fired up the engine with thoughts of being home soon and being able to partake in a little festive nosh. I moved forwards about a foot then the bloody wheels slipped and dug into the gravel and I was properly stuck. I did the rocking forwards and backwards and any other trick I could think of but I couldn’t move the damned thing, the sun was in the final stages of setting and the tide was coming in. Actually, the tide coming in was a help. I knew that eventually the car would float out of the gravel and I could have another go. So I sat there chatting to passers by, me shouting up, them shouting down, them taking pictures and me wishing they wouldn’t and having to put on a smile anyway. Day turned to night, the tide came in and finally the car floated.
I went out and came back in at full tilt (which is still not what you’d call fast). I was careful to aim for the ramp. Crunch. The gravel on top of the concrete did for me again. The front wheels lodged in it and I couldn’t either get up or back away. Previously a passer by had suggested pulling me in, but I was on gravel only and a car is a lot heavier than a regular boat of the same size, and at that point I was still optimistic of getting in under my own power. This time I was over the ramp, albeit with a layer of gravel, and getting more desperate. Plus, there was a gaggle of people who all volunteered to join in the pulling if I’d throw a rope.
I had had the good sense (yes, I do have some you know, oh ye of little faith) to string a rope through the tow eye at the front before going out. The eye is below the water line so it makes sense to do this just in case of problems before going in the water to save an unpleasant swim. I chucked a line ashore and a tug of war team took position. They heaved and grunted and my back wheels gripped and I revved and I got up the slope. I jumped out and thanked everyone concerned and started removing the rope and generally readying the car for the road.
As the passers by dispersed, a gate in the perimeter wall of the MI6 building opened and a young man in uniform (without any obvious identifying markings) popped out. He was friendly and didn’t appear to be armed. I mean, obviously even the building security guards at MI6 have berettas or walther ppks stashed away somewhere about their person, but nothing more threatening than a notebook and pen was on display.
“Hello, can I help you sir?” He asked. I was okay at that point! We chatted for a bit. He took my name and number, even though I had the impression he’d already been in touch with either the police of the Port of London Authority, but still, I suppose it makes sense that he checked that he was talking to the same idiot the authorities had been talking to some hours before and not someone they weren’t aware of. They’d been watching my efforts of getting out of the river on video. Naturally, the building is a small fortress and they were much safer (and warmer) ensconced inside the building until they’d decided I was just a regular eejit rather than enything sinister. Plus, of course, they aren’t a car/boat rescue service, their job is to protect the civilised world from Al Qaida, SMERSH, SPECTRE and other miscreants, and read all our e-mails.(And read all our Facebook posts, too, I hope. I mean, c’mon, some of them are gold dust!).
The nice fellow said he’d get someone to open the gate for me. I knew it wasn’t locked and I could probably get out pretty easily on my own, but it would be a convenience having someone to hold it open and I thought it a good time to do what M!6 were expecting me to do. Whilst waiting I noticed the police boat had come down and was watching proceedings from a safe distance (again, appearing only after I’d got out of the water, which was best, really as I somehow think the friendly help of strangers and my own efforts better to rely on than expecting the authorities to waste public money on Garret’s Grand Day Out. Eventually two blokes looking very casual (do they have a pub inside there?) came around from the other side of the building and had a look at the control panel for the barrier. (BTW I don’t mean the blokes looked sloshed or anything, I mean that Christmas Day is obviously a very dress-down day.) They twigged that the power wasn’t on, but the thing was so light that didn’t really matter. Up went the gate, the blokes smiled and waved as I rolled out, and I smiled and waved in return, and then I was on the highway! Hi ho for the open road! Poop poop! I had only two thoughts. The main one was the Christmas Lunch a kind neighbour and friend was keeping warm for me (hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and, of course, I was far to late for lunch) and the other was that I was completely sure I would have not had that level of interest from the authorities, if any at all, if I had been out on a regular day, and not a very quiet Christmas Day when there is very little to do but monitor the amphibious antics of a wayward wanderer – but then again, I had specifically chosen to go out on Christmas Day, as it is the only time there is almost no traffic at all on the Thames making about the safest time to go, and all in all, it was kind of them to keep a watchful eye. I must find my two way radio. And few meals have tasted as nice as that re-heated lunch that I didn’t have until significantly after 6:30pm. And few glasses of wine have ever been that nice either. If only the Christmas episode of Doctor Who had at least made some sense, everything would have been perfect.
There was a small follow on. Later in the week I fixed the 2/4 wheel drive switching problem, or so I thought. When I tested it on the road it worked, but when I tested it in the river (just at Putney) it didn’t, so again I had trouble getting back in at the slipway the rowing clubs use. After a few goes I sent down to the very old one right beside Putney Bridge which has a much shallower slope. It took a bit of effort there, but I got in and drove off to Sainsbury’s to pick up a few things before it closed. I was just about to grab a basket when my phone rang. I didn’t recognise the number.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, this is the London Coast Guard.” My heart sank. He went on “Could you tell me where you are?”
“Is your vehicle still in the river?”
“No, it’s in the Putney Sainsbury’s car park.”
It was quite nice really, although embarrassing. An onlooker had decided I was in trouble and had called 999. The Coastguard (I would have thought it would be the RNLI but I suppose someone has to co-ordinate things) had, before scrambling anyone, decided to check with me that I was okay. Luckily I was so everything was alright. The embarrassing thing being that word must have gone out to all Thames authorities that if they hear of a weird vehicle in trouble the first thing to do is phone that Smyth bloke to see if it is him, his number is 07etc etc.
I’ve got to get those front wheels working.
PS I thought I’d mention my friends the Baker family that were so generous with Christmas lunch and so magnanimous and unphased at my being unable to make it due to being stuck in the river. The lady of the house is Eve Baker, hostess of Putney Writers’ Group and she is also the author of The Tea Planter’s Children (link for the USA here).