Up the Creek with a Paddle Steamer


Mrs Blog’s grandfather, with help from a lot of other people, built ships on the River Clyde. He was a riveter on the Queen Mary (the 1930s art deco version, currently doing time with no remission as a heritage experience in California). I know this because Blogfamily spent some hours a few years ago on board the beached liner searching for Grandad’s rivets.

When Mrs Blog informed me this year that her mum had, when young, worked on the Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer, I was naturally keen to hunt down her rivets in search of any inherited family “style”. This turned out to be a misunderstanding: Mrs Blogmum had indeed worked on the Waverley “doon the watter” but as a waitress.

That was good enough for me and this month, after a pleasant meal the previous evening with Blogdaughter at the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, saw the two of us boarding the Waverley for a day’s excursion on the Thames estuary.

While Mrs Blog has, in what she refers to as early middle age, taken something of a shine to cruising, she likes to see her ships furnished with stabilisers or whatever it is that reduces her propensity to share her lunch with the sea and the gulls. Hence the Thames for our excursion rather than, say, the storm-tossed Outer Hebrides.

This notwithstanding, Mrs B was clutching a double dose of Stugeron as we boarded at Tower Pier and I could only hope that she would be less than fully comatose for the day. Her four extra layers of clothing provided reassurance that – in the event of the captain inadvertently taking us into Arctic waters – she, for one, would survive any recourse to the life rafts.

Finding there was nobody to transfer our bags to our cabin – indeed, no cabin – we started to plan our day and looked forward to joining the captain at his table for a black-tie dinner, no doubt after an exhausting day at the onboard casino and art auction. Unlike our last shipboard experience, we received no drill to guide our response to attacks by Somali pirates. We could only assume that the captain’s laissez faire approach to security wouldn’t come back to bite us.

The day got off to a gorgeously sunny start with a full complement of passengers jostling for the best viewpoints as we passed under Tower Bridge, gazing up at the people who gazed down at us through the bridge’s glass bottomed walkway.

An excellent commentary as we passed downstream, taking in familiar parts of the city from an unfamiliar angle – Greenwich, the O2, the Emirates Airway —  was only marginally impacted by one group of passengers totally occupied in sharing their latest, fascinating office gossip at a full shout with no apparent interest in their surroundings.

Being obsessively and nerdishly geographical by birth and nurture I needed to follow our journey with the aid of a map – a real one, not a pretend one on a screen. This meant I had been faced with an awful dilemma. The best map I could find which would cover the whole journey was my national road atlas, cost £2.99 in 2008. For me to tear the two relevant pages from the atlas to take with me caused the kind of pain that only a fellow sufferer can understand.

We passed Tilbury docks on our left (I’m still learning to say “port”) side. It wasn’t possible to establish just where Queen Elizabeth 1 (not the ship) had made her “body of a weak and feeble woman” speech to the assembled troops in 1588 during one of our periodic tiffs with mainland Europe. One must assume that she perched on a stack of steel containers for maximum effect and to avoid any prankster handing her a P45.

We parked, if that’s the correct term, at the very end of Southend pier. This blog has long been a fan of piers – devised of course so that the English might feel they could safely put to sea without the unwelcome prospect of encountering the French. Piers are designed so they can be readily torched when the owner has brought the insurance up to date and is short of ready cash. Fires have occurred several times in Southend pier’s history but inconclusively, and it still stands today as the longest pleasure pier in the world.

The moving parts of the Waverley are clearly on display, both internal and external, and one doesn’t need to be into Meccano or car maintenance to appreciate the simple majesty and beauty of the wheels and pistons in motion.

It transpired that this jewel of Scottish engineering is the mark 2 version of the Waverley built in 1946, the original having been sunk by enemy action off Dunkirk in 1940 while evacuating troops.

While constantly and lovingly maintained in working order, unfortunately our Waverley experienced a minor boiler problem and suffered delay at Southend sufficient to mean that our intended hour ashore at Whitstable was cancelled.  Our planned “teacakes with strawberry jam and oysters” treat must await another day.

As our trip was to be almost the Waverley’s final journey of 2017, the crew were keen to urge our attendance at the onboard shop to seize the opportunity to buy overpriced wine gums, repackaged in a tiny Waverley plastic bag. We bought Waverley branded chocolate oranges “as Christmas presents for Scottish relatives”, then ate them.

The captain sounded Scottish and reassuring, the east European crew and catering staff were attentive and efficient, Sunday roast was excellent, Mrs Blog held hers down and a sluggish afternoon’s cruise back up the river was enlivened as night fell and the lights came up romantically on the Dartford crossing, the Thames barrage and Canary Wharf.

Mrs B felt that the toilets could usefully have been brought forward into the second half of the 20th century, especially with the sound of all that running water bringing its own issues. “Caite bheil an taigh beag?” as she put it so succinctly.


 The Waverley in her natural habitat