Remember Water Chariots? The greedy company who hoped to clean up on river-based transport during the Olympics? They blundered in with an over-optimistic business model, hiked up prices beyond the heights of reason and promptly sank into administration before the end of the Games. Good riddance. But there was one unfortunate consequence of their demise, and that's the absence of a legacy service. Water Chariots were awarded their initial contract on the basis that they had the best plans for a post-2012 waterbus service, but it's now 2013 and we don't have one. You can hop on a narrowboat from Camden to Little Venice or grab a cruiser down the Thames, but the Lea remains stubbornly passenger-free.
A dozen of Water Chariots' former fleet have ended up further upriver and now belong to the Lee and Stort Boat Co. They've transformed most of their firesale stock into "luxury holiday boat's that are built in the most modern contemporary design", but use other craft to run waterbuses and party boats between Hertford and Ware. A niche market perhaps, but yesterday they sent a boat down to Bromley-by-Bow to show what a post-Olympic waterbus service might have looked like. A couple of itineraries were available as part of the Fun on the Green festival, one south to Bow Locks, the other north to Old Ford Lock. And both free of charge, which has to be a better deal than Water Chariots mercenary £95 return.
So what's the River Lea waterbus experience like? Is there a potential leisure market for this sort of thing, or was Water Chariots' legacy plan pure bluster? I couldn't resist being taken for a ride.
That's the first time in two years I've ever seen a boat pulled up at the Three Mills water bus stop. This was built with money from British Waterways and the Olympic Delivery Authority, and boasts a lovely metal sign depicting the nearby mill buildings. But lo, there was the former Water Chariot low in the water, with most of its previous branding removed but still with "Fast Track Express Hospitality Service" painted on the side. This is no luxury vehicle, as I've long suspected. It's more a cavernous space with a metal floor - easy to mop should any partygoer ever throw up - upon which are laid out rows of very ordinary blue chairs of the kind you might find in a church hall. The best seats are the curve of wooden benches in the prow, so well done to you if you grabbed those. Meanwhile a counter near the entrance sells drinks and bar snacks, but only if people are interested, which it seems they're generally not.
There are two reasons you might ride a water bus. One is to travel to somewhere else, and the other is to enjoy the view. In this case we were on a round trip so it was the view that was all important. Unfortunately, due to potentially inclement weather, all the window spaces had been covered by protective plastic so the view was pretty poor. A little blurry, a little drippy, a little smeared - and absolutely nothing worth taking any photos through. There were a couple of breaks in the plastic surround, so a tiny number of people could congregate here and look out properly, but everyone else missed out. Perhaps the crew feared it might rain horizontally partway through the ride, or perhaps they thought we were all wusses who'd not survive outdoors except in a floating bubble. But as an observation boat in lockdown mode, sorry, this former Water Chariot sucked.
We headed off slowly, oh so slowly, towards the Olympic Park. We passed the back of Tesco's car park and a graffitied wall, the first of many along the way. A vista opened up towards Stratford, but only because acres of warehouses have been levelled and nobody's yet got round to building flats in their place. It was nice to be down at water level, close to passing swans and several moorhens nesting in the reeds. It was less thrilling to stare at the undulating iron barrier that lines most of the edge of the Lea Navigation, but this is potentially crucial flood protection for my part of London so I'm not complaining.
The bridge at the Bow Flyover is very low, beneath flat concrete slabs which would prevent anything much taller than a narrowboat from making its way upstream. Further demolition is taking place beyond as Crossrail destroys increasingly more of what used to be Cooks Road. They're making up for that by digging a new tunnel portal, which now extends into the river itself behind a protective cofferdam. Even at the weekend there were half a dozen workers here, standing on the scaffolding and removing barrowloads of spoil from somewhere down deep. "PIES" screamed a sprawl of graffiti round the next bend, beneath a flurry of inelegant rail bridges. The area remains more post-industrial than green, although thankfully it's not yet blandly residential throughout, and there is still wildlife aplenty afloat.
A commentary would have been nice, I thought, if the crew could have thought of anything to say apart from "oh look, there's the Olympic Stadium". That's best viewed from further away before it disappears behind yet another brick wall and metal security fence. On we ploughed towards the back of Fish Island, overtaken by several bikes and the occasional walking group. And at last we dipped beneath the Northern Outfall Sewer to our final destination at Old Ford Lock. This provides a natural barrier to any water bus service, because to proceed through the lock and then have to come back again would be a lengthy and pointless activity. Instead we turned round slowly in the basin, without ever stopping at the mothballed Water Bus Stop alongside, and started our return trip.
I tried to imagine that I was seeing the waterside for the very first time, rather than for the hundredth, to try to infer the route's likely tourist potential. It's not the worst stretch of river in London, not by any means, but it lacks anything I could readily describe as a highlight. The underside of the Bow Flyover and an imperfect view of a 2012 arena are never going to attract a substantial body of visitors to the water. There's surely no long-term business model here, no all-year waterbus option, not even on the longer run past Bow Locks down the Limehouse Cut. Even a fiver a ticket would be pushing it, I reckon, given the lack of stuff to see. But I'm still pleased I've finally been for a pleasureboat trip along my local river, however hard it was to look out through the plastic and properly enjoy the ride.