I peered through the slatted blind to see what the weather was doing. A Mediterranean-blue sky was parked over the rooftops of Camden. Few people were out and about in the street early. I was the cab driver’s first fare of the day. He didn’t look elated to see me. When I told him where I wanted dropping and why, however, his face lit up and he whipped his cab through the empty City streets as if our lives depended on it.
About 200 punters were gathered at the Tower pierhead, waiting for a signal to board. Cheerful 50-year-old blokes in knee-length shorts and sunglasses, tattooed calves, tins of lager cracked open already. Everyone smiling in the sun. Even the Tower of London looking benign.
A long, mournful blast on a ship’s horn. Embarkation. We funnelled through the pier entrance and down a gangplank and there she was. My first sight of her. The PS Waverley, buoyant in the brimming Thames, patiently waiting for my friends and me to step aboard and make ourselves comfortable in her cosy wooden saloons and on her spacious sun-bleached decks; 239ft long; 57ft wide. Blue and white liveried hull. Rakish black, red and white funnels. Since 1979 the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer. It was love at first sight.
Our destination, three and a half hours away, was the end of Southend pier. We were on a traditional Londoners’ beano to the seaside — a piss-up, in other words. Even the mighty old HMS Belfast tethered to the opposite bank seemed to be looking on with nostalgia and affection at the smart little visitor with the gaily painted funnels. By the time the bobbing tug had manoeuvred Waverley’s stern away from the pier, and the two halves of London bridge were upstanding in a welcoming salute, everybody on deck was on their second pint and commenting favourably on the very reasonable bar prices.