The Tall Ships are coming to Greenwich


Preparation by the PLA in laying moorings just in front of my studio promises some good views into the interesting variety of vessels due to arrive for the Easter Regatta.  ‘London Titan’ is the newest of the buoy handlers aided by ‘Driftwood III’, a much smaller bit of kit which is more of a familiar sight on the tideway.

The care and attention is critical and the operation is carried out with passing fast ferries reducing their speed to a minimum.  The red and yellow warning flags are readily recognised and understood by navigators.  As I write, a length of steel piping is lowered down into the river bed to make sure that ‘London Titan’ is exactly at the correct position to install the mooring chain and bright yellow mooring buoys.  The crews of both craft are glad of their ‘high viz’ jackets and hard hats as their operation is hazardous with the lowering of ‘sinkers’ attached with taught cables.  The drizzle of passing showers doesn’t help!

Home, foreign waters and beyond


The tortuous and complicated waterways around Canning Town and the Greenwich Peninsula created both road and rail opportunities as the once-industrial brownfield sites became available for even more residential development.

Last week our lunch guests from Snowdonia were hoping to visit their grandson who had launched himself into work in the capital’s financial centre.

The availability of affordable flats recently completed seemed an obvious choice as the new cross-London rail link was coming to fruition.  Weekend closures on the DLR complicated the travel plan for these octogenarians, especially as they had already walked across Blackheath and Greenwich Park.  Viewing across the river from our riverside house with its amazing panoramic views across the open waterways, we realized that Canning Town was only two miles away as the crow flies so, drawing a deep breath, down the congested Blackwall Tunnel we went.  It was only then that I realised that these Dockland areas around East India and the Royal Group of docks had changed beyond recognition, as a new network of access roads weaved around the once-familiar road pattern.  Here I must explain that I had been exploring these dockland areas over the years in order to produce topographical records for the now-defunct LDDC.  This Saturday, with trepidation and an ancient A_Z, we plunged our way off the A13 into this once-quiet LCC residential estate, not far away from the mighty new Canning Town interchange offering rapid transit into the capital.

To explain to travellers who now use the underground and DLR links into Docklands and up to Stratford – those massive residential developments on both sides of the Thames are taking shape in and around Canning Town.  The additional Cross Rail stations are making these once forgotten areas into much sought-after residential zones in the near future.

Explorers beware as the infrastructure of road and rail links are devious owing to lack of clear-cut signage.  Take a compass with you!

Medway developments 2

Last year, Rob Powell and I witnessed the demolition of a Medway landmark – a power station chimney which could be seen for miles.

Now Rob – a keen member of the Greenwich Historical Society – also keeps me aware of down-river activities.

His calendar project is wonderfully illustrated with Thames happenings.

A recent sighting of a heavy lift ship alongside Tilbury Power Station (coal fired) tells the tale as the specialist cranes and plant are to be removed ready for a new port terminal.

Proposals as illustrated – thank you Rob.


Time and Tide

The full force of February’s storm Doris clipped London town but provided a fascinating spectacle for us as wind over tide provided a sea-like surprise for us at Greenwich Reach.  The short seas provided a real challenge for a trio of dare devils as they hung on tight to their airfilled bouncy rib, leaping from wave to wave.  They certainly enjoyed their exhilarating ride up and down the tideway.  The wind was so gusty that all the lofty construction cranes abandoned work to avoid wind damage over in Canary Wharf and at the numerous oncoming schemes on Greenwich Peninsula.  Sailormen, however, still went about their business in spite of their craft being submerged from time to time by the waves and the flying spume.

Similar weather conditions brought back vivid memories of crewing sailboats large and small – Thames Sailing Barges, and especially Robert Thorling’s ‘Joyce’ – a Drascombe lugger which he dearly loved.  Alas his stroke some 19 years ago well and truly grounded him but didn’t stop him having a pint in Royal Hill’s ‘Tolly’;  also being a welcome member of the GYC and the Whitstable YC which he still loved to pop in to.

Their brilliant retirement move to their Seasalter new home gave Robert extraordinary panoramic views up the Swale and across the Thames Estuary.  There he died in his sleep.  The adjacent WW2 mess hall of an ‘ack-ack’ battery provided a magic venue for his wake.  Sara and family devised a joyous celebration of his life which still brings a tear to my eye.

Strangely the Kent family had a beach hut of similar vintage for many years at West Mersea, surely just in view across the estuary and the extensive Maplin Sands as described and illustrated in Archie White’s ‘Tideways and Byeways in Essex and Suffolk’ back in 1979, which I have adapted to illustrate this piece.  Our Mersea hut also played a role in WW2 as a similar, new battery necessitated its removal to Colchester.  It then became an IARP control post at Colchester’s Royal Grammar School close to our family home, where John Kent – my dad – played an active role also as an air raid warden, becoming a keen member of the ATC while mum ran the canteen.

‘Berwyn’ returned after the hostilities to dear old Mersea on the mud!  (That’s where I met Archie White who convinced me that, armed with a pen and brush, one could provide a living.)  Also a good base for teenage activities – including sailing – which has rubbed off on my son Ben and Emma down at St. Mawes.  All four of my grandchildren are following in my muddy steps!!

You can see from the book jacket below that Archie White set the pace for my ‘River Watch’.  Thanks to Sara Thorling for editing the many articles which appeared in the Blackheath Guide for many years, also to Tony and Helen Othen who translate my input into this blog with similar kind encouragement over the last three years.

30 years ago

Zeebrugge always sends a shiver down my spine as, by pure mischance, a busy cross-Channel car ferry capsized while leaving port in normal weather conditions.  Somehow or other the main doors were left open and, as she gathered speed, she ran aground on a sand bar and capsized in no time at all.

Passengers had just left their vehicles on the car deck and were sorting themselves out for the 2-hour cross-Channel passage to Dover.  Their whole world was turned upside down as the fast flowing sea rushed in.

Recalling this dreadful loss of some 193 passengers who could easily have been any of us and who wanted to visit the marvels of medieval Bruges, then a lunch, stock up with vino and head home.

A visit to Teddington to the National Physical Laboratory with a party of friends of the National Maritime Museum helped to build a startling picture as a model of the ‘Free Enterprise’ was put through a precise re-enactment through their wind tunnel test lab.  BY coincidence there was also an architect’s layout model of Canary Wharf testing the wind stresses and strains, seen well before construction.

By chance, as a guest at the Old Bailey for a rapid but traditional luncheon hosted by both sheriffs of the City, I was seated next to the distinguished Lady Butler-Sloss who had been well-briefed of my maritime interests.  My host John Taylor (who was also a Friend of the National Maritime Museum) suggested we should attend the afternoon session of the formal inquest on the circumstances and loss of life.  The reality of the cross examination pointed to a horrendous situation beyond imagination; especially when one recalls the jollies of a coach bound day trip from Blackheath, packed to the gunnels with good friends.

Pile footings inspected …

Every weekend the Globe Rowing Club rowers have to open the heavy steel floodgates to give them access onto the foreshore.  Today’s Baltic wintry blast with its intermixed snow shower stirred me from my slumbers to go down to join them to inspect the pile footings that support our small wooden deck.  Further upstream, as recently reported, the authorities have had to add a large area of defensive sacking to counter the scarring of the sandy foreshore from the effects of the wash from the fast ferries as they speed up to town!


Once breakfasted, we enjoyed the snug warmth of our little Toyota as we zoomed down to Bluewater to search John Lewis for brighter lighting so that I can enjoy the pleasure of writing this scrawl.  Whilst down in those parts we drove down a mile or so to view the wintry tideway at Greenhithe’s little hamlet, snugly sited for centuries as an active riverside port where Everards coasters were once based.  The narrow, characterful High Street still remains in spite of being surrounded by brand new housing estates, squeezed in between the miles and miles of industrial warehouses which crowd both sides of the Dartford Crossing, jam packed with M25 traffic.


The roof tops of Greenhithe’s little settlement used to be covered with snow-like cement dust from the deep chalk workings where sparkling new Bluewater’s shopping centre buzzes with activity and modish gear for one and all – a blissful retreat from the Dickensian gloom of the tidal Thames so close by.

The curious might like to take a pint at the historic Pier pub where once seafarers used the existing wooden slipway to come ashore.  For years, merchant navy cadets were educated on board an ancient naval hulk, the TS Worcester, and also had to use their rowing skills to get ashore.  The other waterside pub, recently renamed the John Franklin, recalls HMS Erebus’ loss in the search for the North West Passage.  The locals gleefully recalled the morbid cannibal accusation.  I sulked out into the gloom in respect!





Here in Greenwich ‘Death in the Ice’ is the dramatic title for a new exhibition at the NMM opening here mid-summer.  This will, no doubt, receive much hype in the national press as this joint Canadian Museum of History with the NMM exhibition opens on 14th July – the story of Franklin’s final expedition in 1845.  The press release explains more, including Nunavut input.


Ships that pass in the night

Deep in my slumbers, the sound of ship engines awoke me and, raised with curiosity, I could only just make out the silhouette of a man of war escorted by a pair of tugs.  Upon return from her visit to the Pool, her tall mast and electronic gear made me realise that this German naval vessel was a communications spy ship!!  Pre-Brexit visit to the Square Mile or high tech business in Canary Wharf I ask myself!!


riverwatch-fgs-oker-peter-kent-1Thank you Rob Powell for this photograph of Peter doing what he loves to do, and that is watching the river traffic!

Westward Ho! Sail to Quebec Tall Ships Regatta – 13th to 16th April this year

Writing this in sunny Bristol, I would like to report on maritime adventures old and new.   This is the home port of John Cabot’s ‘Matthew’ which left for the new world replicating a discovery voyage to Newfoundland captained by a Portuguese navigator empowered by Bristol Merchant  Venturers  back in 1497…



After a dramatic re-enactment back in 1997 I was indeed privileged to be on ‘MV Balmoral’ as she returned to a memorable civic reception after escorting ‘Matthew’ up river under Brunel’s iconic Clifton Bridge.  Memorable as the crew spun the tale of their dramatic trans-Atlantic crossing to a packed congregation in St. Mary Redcliffe.



On a sharp winter venture into the floating dock area we spied ‘Matthew’ in dry dock for her annual refit.


Tall Ships Regatta – 13th to 16th April this year

This Easter a fleet of Tall Ships will leave Greenwich bound for Torbay.  Some will be sailing on to Sines in Portugal prior to a trans-Atlantic crossing, via the Azores or Bermuda, to Boston Massachusetts.  Then they proceed in company up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Quebec for the festival commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation.


Be sure to watch the sail past as the fleet of 30 tall ships leaves Greenwich on Easter Sunday;  perhaps viewing the scene from General Wolfe’s statue high on Observatory Hill, or from along the Greenwich waterfront leaving Deptford Creek at 5:00pm, or perhaps even from Island Gardens with its astonishing panorama of the Greenwich waterfront.



For your Diary

‘Royal Greenwich Challenge’ 6th May 2017 – Traditional Waterman’s cutter rowing event.

Muster at Globe Rowing Club – start of race at midday from control buoy at Trafalgar Tavern, then downstream around the O2 to finish at Greenwich Yacht Club.

3 races in one event with 1 minute interval timed starts – 2.5 mile pull.