Just like John Masefield, I felt the same desire to climb the heights up to Blackheath and onwards following the Thames down to the sea.
As Autumn springs upon us, this urge increases as the threat of winter’s beastliness becomes more urgent. John Masefield, the poet laureate, once lived at our home at No.1, Diamond Terrace here In Greenwich, so likewise one must get up and go to revisit the Thames Estuary.
The low estuarial creeks and tideways have always appealed since my boyhood days on Mersea Island on the Blackwater – also to be found at Leigh on Sea where freshly-boiled seafood abounds in a settlement of sheds and slipways wedged between slow-moving tideway and vast areas of estuarial mud much loved by bird spotters and from the speedy commuter trains between Fenchurch Street and Shoeburyness, also passing the fortified artillery range where explosives echo guns of yesteryear protecting the capital during the German wars. Likewise, a string of abandoned estuarial forts recently visited by lucky day trippers on board the paddle steamer ‘Waverley’s annual trip.
My train day away from West Ham (Jubilee Interchange) sped me down to sunny Southend and back for a tenner. Here the central station is on the pedestrianised High Street which runs down the steep Cliffside to the mile-long pier with its toy train down to the very end.
Alas, the end of season atmosphere thinned the crowds except for adventurous pensioners armed with their travel passes who, like me, enjoy a day out to remind us of yesteryears’ many jaunts. Another bright October day dawned to beckon us down to Thanet where both Broadstairs and Ramsgate are both attractive seaside resorts.
The fast new road links beyond the M25 and down the A2 mean they are only just over 80 minutes away, following the Thames Estuary as one rises over the marshy River Wensum just by Reculver Towers which once guarded this navigational short cut for Roman galleys inwards to Londinium and a fort to keep Saxon invaders at bay with the higher headland of Thanet dominating the approaches from the English Channel.
Both Southend in Essex and Ramsgate in Kent are high on our once-a-year list as both enjoy cliff top views which fascinate. The end of the mile-long pier was just visible in the shimmering sunlight as it bounced off estuarial waters and gleaming mud banks bejewelled with fishing craft. Likewise, perched high above the busy Ramsgate Harbour, one had fine views of pilot boats coming and going and estuarial work boats as they squeeze through the narrow entrance channel into their sheltered pontoons and moorings.
The new lifeboat station and harbour master’s lookout points dominate both inner and outer basins which are usually packed with leisure craft. The Royal Temple Yacht Club perched high on the Royal Esplanade offers traditional, unrivalled amenities for both visitor and club members. Memories of unfortunate Dutch, Belgian and French flotillas of Dunkirk celebrants becalmed mid-channel creating hospitality problems for a postponed welcome party at the club where local volunteers were hastily gathered to host a replacement reception.
Lying close by in shore was the Trinity Vessel ‘Galetea’. Built back in 2008, she has patrolled and maintained the network of navigational buoys and lights essential for the busiest shipping in Western Europe. In May 2014 Trinity House celebrated 500 years with a Royal Carter to protect the safe passage of all sea-going vessels – and here at this very time ‘Galetea’ was on duty doing just that, as we land lubbers and seafarers expect!!
A pair of Thames barges – an Army cutter and fire float upon arrival at Ramsgate (taken in the dim and distant past)
The Port of London’s established deep water terminal at Tilbury attracts the latest and largest of the ever-growing luxury cruise ships designed to attract a more diverse cross section of punters full of visitor attractions, as featured in the media. The smaller, conventional and classic in design ‘Europa’ visited Greenwich’s mid river ‘Welcome’ floating terminal being just off Deptford Creek with its ever-growing rash of high rise apartment blocks.
In pre-war days German liners called just here which, in those days was a hub of maritime activity with working wharves serviced by flotillas of lighters and Thames barges navigating all the way up the tidal Creek as far as Deptford’s towering flour mills and granaries. Ship yards and warehouses served the East India Company and later the HQ of the General Steam Navigation Company founded by a local timber company in 1869. From here they operated a fleet of coasters serving the continent and Mediterranean ports and UK coastal ports. This was the home port for a famous fleet of paddle steamers which plied from Tower and Greenwich piers down river to similar piers including Rosherville, a purpose-built garden resort at Gravesend, which had remarkable views of shipping that filled the estuarial reaches to the ports of the world.
Nowadays, trial commuter services are being successfully run by the new Thames Clippers to and from Gravesend, Canary Wharf and the City.
Way back, in art school days, I took a summer job as a deck chair attendant at Clacton on Sea. I was expected to have my stock ready for the hordes of trippers arriving on board the Golden Eagle inbound from London. My problem was to clear the beaches as high tide approached to cover them. I devised a method of flight on to the sea wall next to the hut, so deck chairs remained dry! Later, while at Regent Street Poly, a summer outing to sunny Southend was much enjoyed, providing my first sight of Greenwich from the river which I will treasure. Surrounded by rowdy students, I glimpsed the waterfront and the Crane Street house where I now write and sketch – Hurrah!!
Even more joyous memories as the Scottish paddle steamer Waverley on her annual visit to our tidal attractions – loaded to the gunnels with day trippers – approaches, the distinctive beat of her willing paddles announces her passage and a rush to the window as she proudly steams by.
The Port of London’s established cruise ship terminal at Tilbury celebrated its largest and longest vessel to ever come alongside. The newly-built German tourist ship ‘Mein Schieff 3’ towered over the landing stage; while here at Greenwich Tier, another German ship ‘Europa’ rested at a mid-river mooring which was a pre-war favourite just off Deptford Creek. A medium size cruise ship, ‘Europa’ has the classic styling and ambiance favoured amongst conventional passengers of yesteryear. Indeed, it was also a regular port of call for pre-war shipping and, no doubt, photographed and documented pre-blitz!
Just as I was heading off to the O2 ‘Lord Nelson’ slipped past, crowded with crew and supporters including two red uniformed Chelsea Pensioners no doubt viewing how the other half once lived in the ORNC on the South Bank here at Greenwich. Then my monthly inspection of The O2 and the Peninsula to keep an eye on the rapid changes of new high rise structures, and got home just in time to see ‘Europa’ slide by outward bound.
General Wolfe’s acclaimed panoramic view of changing London has been eclipsed at The Point, where landscape gardeners with the help of members of the Greenwich Society have created and renewed a forgotten vantage point overlooking the capital from West to East following the twists and turns of the Thames.
Drawn over the summer, my detailed overview has changed radically as unexpected high rise developments have obliterated views over the Creek and Greenwich Reach.
Photo by Rob Powell
At the ‘Grand Opening’ I felt obliged to offer a new pound coin to those who could spot the hidden waterways which might well be exposed again as trees shed their leaves! The paddle steamer, with its red, white and black funnels, would have helped those spectators on this Tuesday afternoon as she passed downstream out on an evening cruise. It’s a joy to hear her distinctive passage as her paddles beat away.
‘Gloriana’, the Queen’s royal barge, also passed by towards Gravesend to her winter moorings – still no news of her permanent home.
330 traditional rowed craft gathered in the tideway for the annual Great River Race. Their annual pilgrimage to the Thames starts from Millwall on the Isle of Dogs on the rising tide, rowing or paddling through the iconic bridges from Tower Bridge and up beyond Richmond Bridge to the water meadows at Ham with its least altered 17th Century House and Gardens.
Here the gathered fleet disembarks after the strenuous 21-mile row through the heart of the Capital, loading on to their trailers to take their craft home around the coast where enthusiasts have been preparing for this river marathon.
By chance, we had been in Putney the evening before and had spotted competitors arriving before the start. At the very top of the evening tide we had embarked on ‘Jupiter Clipper’ on her maiden week joining the fleet. The Putney Pier is the furthest point of the commuter service. We whizzed downstream, then slowed with caution to squeeze under the bridges groaning with heavy rush hour traffic. A keen, sharp breeze with threatening clouds scudding over the capital was indeed stimulating. The express service to Canary Wharf was far from packed – however, a medic practising in Chelsea Harbour was on his way home to King William Walk in Greenwich, a true enthusiast whose speedy commute was a delight. Let’s hope his enthusiasm will gather more punters to secure this visionary concept.
While travelling at speed, we had time to take in the astonishing amount of riverside development under construction, many with riverside piers. It seems a century since two of us rowed down to Cannon Street from Chiswick in order to provide a safety boat for a group of Poly art students having a Coronation party on board a Thames lighter. Then Thameside wharves were still in use. Although there was no hint of the future development avalanche, meetings were being held by the London River Association warning us of this intrusion about to hit these empty but useful wharves. Surprisingly, a new demand has popped up as construction depots are required for the Thames tideway super sewer – attracting Open House visitors!
Trial runs have been held on a commuter service from Gravesend Pier up to Central London. I spotted the radar scanner spinning around on a clipper which would, indeed, be essential down amongst the shipping lanes. We hear reports of successful trading down on the Thames Gateway Container port where even more cranes have been installed. Its neighbouring BP petroleum complex has been rumoured to have fallen to Chinese ownership, just like the vast residential developments on the Greenwich Peninsula, once owned by British Gas.
P.S. Paddle steamer Waverley is in and out of the Thames on day trips which are great fun, visiting unusual harbours, ports and piers!
A last minute invitation to join a party of US Navy retirees touring English naval bases and sea ports was far too good to miss. Brian Lavery’s Maritime Tours in late summer had two places suddenly available as two of the American enthusiasts dropped out owing to ill health – lucky us!!
Judy and I have been part of similar Friends of the NMM visits to Holland, Germany and the USA through the years, including a tour of Scottish maritime attractions at which Brian had been the maritime expert – a renowned author of numerous historical books and a professor emeritus of the NMM.
The tour explored the naval bases at Portsmouth and Chatham, also the historic ports of Southampton and Bristol, travelling by mini bus and staying at landmark hotels with evening briefings and lectures. It was aimed at the American nautical enthusiasts who were astonished at the depth of excellence of Brian’s presentations. I will certainly treasure his illustrated notes for future reference.
It was indeed worth celebrating the recent arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside HMS Victory and, guided by one of the original divers, the ‘Mary Rose’; also the 1860 Thames-built ‘Warrior’ at close by at Canning Town. Dining in the newly-opened Spitbank Fort Restaurant perched on Portsmouth Point was enhanced by the passage of outward bound shipping. The next evening we sailed past on board the Thames sailing barge ‘Alice’ to view the Solent and the buoy marking where ‘Mary Rose’ lay for so many years before resettling alongside HMS Nelson in a brilliant, purpose-built gallery, which we had visited earlier that very day.
A ‘Titanic’ visit to Southampton, then on to Bristol where we stayed in a hotel overlooking Brunel’s fantastic bridge spanning the landmark gorge. A tour of ‘SS Great Britain’, and then a ferry up and down the Floating Harbour up to the very end and River Avon locks. On board a glass covered launch (in the Dutch Amsterdam style), then dining overlooking the Avon Gorge. The journey back to the Greenwich base took in Eton Riverside and a devious route through South London, then a meeting with the Director of the NMM received as well. The last day of the tour took us into the Chatham Dockyard with its upgraded galleries and ships to view. Locals from SE London should certainly revisit their excellent collection of ship models in their new home. Spacious car parking and a new ‘Hearts of Oak’ exhibition uses the latest high-tech presentation skills to create a family favourite – it’s a great place for children!
Upon return to Greenwich we had a Deck party here in Crane Street prior to dining in great style at the Trafalgar Tavern with oarsome views over the tideway. A wonderful holiday helped by use of a wheel chair propelled by volunteers press-ganged to get Kent around the extensive points of interest. The pieces of literature prepared by the Laverys are a triumph!
(By the way, I took my sketch book to inspire projects for the oncoming winter.)
(By the way, I took my sketch book to inspire projects for the oncoming winter.)
The terrible impact of the Dunkirk Drama as brilliantly portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s astonishing film, contrasted with a more recent two days at the seaside down at Whitstable.
There at the Thorling home built into the sandy cliffs at Seasalter, a sense of calm and peace returned. The gathered company of neighbours provided us with merry company after an enjoyable day wandering around Whitstable Harbour Day’s jollies exploring the diverse vessels gathered there for the annual Harbour Match, which hovered just off-shore, becalmed in a tidal battle.
The gathered fleet echoed the brave endeavours of the little ships which ventured across the channel’s hazards to save the BEF from a humiliating defeat. The late Robert Thorling would certainly have joined the flotillas of weekend sailors if called upon. His memorable wake was held in an old army barrack but set in the sandy dune just below their prime seaside frontage, with commanding views across the Swale and Thames Estuary.
By chance, son Ben was afloat with family sailing from nearby Hollow Shore, while Emma flew in to Southend from an Adriatic cruise in company with another yachting family. Perhaps they would have been called to join the thousands of weekend sailors summoned to the colours.
A second viewing of ‘Dunkirk’ was necessary to identify the various craft which included local fishing boats, coasters, spritsail barges ‘et al’, also to remind me of my National Service days clad in prickly, damp khaki uniform and heavy and cumbersome kit, always at the double!!
I return to my pen to record the endeavour of a visiting Dutch yacht fighting against a falling tide and failing light to make her upstream mooring. This reflects the determination of small boat owners way back in 1940. A splendid hard-backed book of all those involved appears in a page-by-page account of many craft selected from a card file of 700 little ships: ‘The Little Ships of Dunkirk’ was first published in 1989 by Collectors’ Books. I am proud to own a copy which I will read again with even more respect – Bravo!