This feature appears in the autumn/winter issue of Lost in London
I couldn’t quite believe it was true when I first heard about it. Surely not, I thought. But I was intrigued and had to find out for certain. I persuaded a friend with wheels – the two wheels of a silver scooter to be precise – to play chauffeur, hooking him in with tales of a city spectacle that we just had to witness. Living in north London, it took us a while to get all the way west to where the Thames sits in Twickenham but it was worth it.
We were pulled to the river at this westerly point to see the effects of the annual November draw-off. Or, in other words, to see what the Thames looks like without any water in it. Every year the weirs at Richmond Lock are lifted to allow the Port of London Authority to carry out essential maintenance works on the lock, weirs and sluices. The weir being lifted allows the semi-tidal river between Richmond Lock and Teddington Lock to drain naturally at low tide, creating a short annual opportunity to access the lower shore.
The draw-off leaves behind the lowest of low tides, with the river around Eel Pie Island emptying to almost nothing, meaning you can literally walk into the riverbed. We parked the scooter and headed straight in. It’s quite a sight seeing a river without its water, especially a river as mighty and iconic as the Thames. Round these parts London is quite leafy – this is rural Richmond not industrial Barking – but the still urban river is a sight to behold without its usual rushing gush. The act of walking into the Thames was both bizarre and brilliant.
The water leaves behind a thick, glossy mud that’s punctuated with large, gravelly puddles. It’s definitely wellington boot territory. We visited on a drizzly Sunday afternoon and had the empty river pretty much to ourselves. We slurped around in the ooze for hours, crunching over hundreds of shells and sifting through all kinds of debris. There were bricks, shopping trolleys and general mess aplenty, but also many fascinating creatures to spy on in the freshly exposed landscape.
I was looking out for an elusive European eel but didn’t get lucky. I did see numerous shrimps and mussels though, plus lots of birds. A bony grey heron stalked across the wet mud, no doubt feeling rather disgruntled that the water he usually fished in had disappeared. Ubiquitous coots and gulls bobbed in the meagre shallows. Boats, which seemed twice the size they usually do with their bottoms out, listed at awkward angles. A rusting buoy sat looking dramatic on the end of a heavy chain, all slicked over with green weed.
The draw-off provides a unique, month long window to observe river wildlife and record what species are there. It’s also a chance to more generally assess the waterway’s health and cleanliness. Organisations like the Thames Landscape Strategy, the Zoological Society of London and the Marine Conservation Society survey the river during the draining, and are especially keen to monitor invasive species like Asiatic clam, Chinese mitten crab and zebra mussel. Thames Discovery organises public explorations, walks and litter picks. The draw-off is an excellent opportunity for some serious tidying up.
Thames fishermen also enjoy a good draw-off. It gives them a new perspective on an increasingly abundant river – over 125 species of fish are found in the Thames these days – and a chance to retrieve lost tackle. Islanders, like those that live in the idyllic lost lands of the Eel Pie, know the draw-off is no maritime myth, as do boat owners. London sailing societies offer much advice on what to do with your vessel when the waters subside to such an extent.
This year the draw-off will happen between the 31st October and the 28th November. Twickenham Station is the closest if you’re travelling there by train. The Port of London Authority’s website is a good place for practical information, and keep an eye out for special events run by the Thames Landscape Strategy and Thames Discovery. Or just head down there solo and have a muddy adventure of your own making in the middle of the Thames.