In Autumn 2008 I took a small trip on the P.S Waverley. This is the only working sea going paddle steamer in the world, and is a delight to travel on.
The Waverley was built in 1946, in fact she was the second ship to bear this name, and was built under war reparations, the original Edwardian boat had been sunk by the Germans at Dunkirk in 1940. Although built in the ‘40’s the design echoes shipbuilding in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Weighing in at 693 tonnes, she is quite a large boat, and features a diagonal triple expansion engine produced 2100ihp, enough to propel the vessel over 18 knots, although normal cruising speed is reduced to about 14 knots. Originally she was used too ferry passengers on the Clyde, but in the early seventies she was withdrawn from service- too costly to operate, and was no doubt replaced by a throbbing diesel powered abortion.
At this point the paddle steamer preservation society stepped in, and purchased the Waverley for the sum of £1. Neither side believed she would be steamed ever again. Since then the Waverley has undergone extensive work, and has been carrying passengers on pleasure trips throughout the UK. The tickets to travel are not unreasonable when you consider fuels costs for this boat peaked at about £4000 per day last year (yikes!).
During the Autumn months, the Waverley works routes along the Thames and Medway. I booked a route from Tower Pier, which is adjacent to HMS Belfast and just West of Tower bridge to Southend Pier, which is still the longest pier in the world at some 1.341 miles in length. A couple of hours to hike it down the pier, grab a bite to eat and then back to greet the Waverley for he return voyage back to Tower Pier.
Cost for the return ticket was £30, the outward trip began at 9:00am, and it isn’t wise to be late- the Waverley’s crew keep excellent time and don’t hang about for late arrivals- you quite literally ’miss the boat’ if you’re tardy.
I arrived at Tower Pier at about 8:50 just in time to witness the Waverley come storming through an opened Tower bridge, which would need to open twice more before the days end.
Yours truly wasn't swift enough with his camera, so you'll have to make do with an image pulled from the net in this instance.
Moored up at Tower pier, the 'Glass Gonad' in the background
Once moored up, passengers were allowed on. Once everyone was aboard, with the assistance of a Tug the Waverley was turned around in the middle of the Thames to commence her journey.
One of the first things you notice about travelling on a large steam vessel is the complete absence of any vibration or noise. Steam is totally quiet, and the soothing ‘whump-whump-whump’ of the paddle wheels is all you can hear. Unlike stream trains, with their belching smoke stacks, the Waverley burns oil, and through the efficiency of its new boilers, a gentle ripple of hot air is all you see exiting the twin funnels. As we approached the opening Tower Bridge Waverley sounded her impressive steam whistle, which thunderously echoed around the tall buildings of the city. I noticed some were already partaking of refreshments from the onboard bar. The Waverley in fact has two bars, forward and aft, but the only the forward bar was open on the day I travelled. One suspects that the rear bar is opened when the boat is packed to the gills.
Appropriately for a Clyde built vessel, a large range of single malts were available, alongside several ales and a couple for draft beers, at normal London prices. I settled for a coffee- too early in the day for boozing, that could wait until later.
Steaming down past the Isle of Dogs, the Waverley cuts quite a wake, and attracts envious glances from passengers in more modest vessels. A light, but not overbearing commentary was given on points of interest along the way, and passengers are free to roam around the vessel, including the impressive engine room, which takes up the centre of the boat. This is quite something to watch, a huge engine effortlessly pulling around the twin paddles, with an operator controlling from one end, responding to commands from the bridge via a bell telegraph and blower.
The Waverley passed Greenwich and Woolwich barracks, through the Thames barrier towards our first stop off point, a somewhat anonymous jetty at unremarkable Tilbury. One passenger alighted here, to a round of applause from fellow passengers bewildered at why anyone would want to get off here! A further 40 or so passengers got on for the remainder of the journey.
Underway once more Waverley steamed under the QEII bridge and out into the Thames estuary. We moored up at the end of Southend pier at about 12:30. Waverley continued on to the Medway for a two hour cruise, I had opted out of this as by this stage I had been on the boat for 3 ½ hours and wanted to stretch my legs and get a bite to eat.
Approaching Southend pier.
I decided to walk the boards of Southend pier, it had been a long time since I had done so. It’s had a chequered history with at least two major fires over the years, which has damaged its structure. Limited investment still trickles in and somehow the pier manages to stay open.
The sheer length of the pier was designed to accommodate the shallow estuarial tides at Southend, and permitting vessels to moor up without being beached on the sands.
After lunch I had just enough time to take a brief stroll along the sea front before hotfooting it back to the end of the pier, and rendezvous with Waverley at 3pm for it’s return journey to London.
Waverley approaching the piers jetty
Starboard paddlebox working overtime.
As the return journey was a repeat of the outward trip there isn’t much to say. By this stage I was sampling the variety of beverages in the forward saloon.
Waverley arrived back at Tower pier about 6pm, quite a long day, but a very enjoyable one.
I thoroughly recommend a journey on the P.S Waverley, if you get the opportunity. Single or return journeys can be purchased online, and you can find out more about the ship and it’s sister boat, also steam but screw driven instead of paddle wheels at this website- http://www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk/ and more about Waverley here- http://pswaverley.org.uk/