Welcome Home, sailor!

Returning home after a dramatic round-the-world voyage for the crews on board the 12 clippers was indeed a triumph for both professional and amateur crews; albeit tinged with grief as two of their shipmates had perished in unrelated accidents on separate occasions – mid-ocean committal to the deeps must have been so traumatic.round the world001

Sir Robin Knox Johnstone’s clipper fleet have sailed round the world over the years and accidents are fortunately rare as both amateurs and professionals participate in such a grand venture.  Each craft is reliant on sponsorship and is often associated with UK ports and institutions and welcomed warmly in all the ports of call.  An escorting fleet of passenger craft loaded with supporters joined them off Greenwich for the last leg of their journey.  Tower Bridge raised her bascules in triumph as they approached St. Katharine’s haven for a well-earned homecoming reception.  As a National Serviceman, I experienced a similar remarkable reception at Southampton Docks as the troopship arrived from Singapore to a welcoming military band playing ‘When the Saints come marching in’ – never to be forgotten by those who disembarked after years away from home!  Ah me!

Sir Robin, after years of maritime adventures, has taken to land-based ventures for many a year.  While serving on the Council of the Friends of the NMM, I enjoyed his wise and considerate chairmanship and realise the weight of responsibility of organising such a venture must have been.  I salute one and all.


Penny Matheson presents a PK drawing to RKJ on his retirementfrom the Friends of NMM



An unusual Naval training ship from Japan is visiting the capital.  Her crew of cadets lined the taff rails in a traditional manner as she steamed up river to lie alongside historic HMS Belfast.  London is a much-favoured port of call for cadets – no doubt much recorded for the folks at home!

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High Summer

Early mornings are a delight as the light breeze cools the foreshore after hectic party nights all along the narrow pathway.  Our recently erected scaffolding hasn’t helped, owing to the roofing works on our Crane street house.

Sunday morning was a relief – the ebb, laden with the recent high tide ‘flush-out’ of creeks and locks, brought flotsam and jetsam in the swirling eddies – a hazard for the early morning rowers too!

Our resident cormorants and visiting geese and a pair of swans, however, seem completely disinterested.  The intrusion of UK shipping surprised us all as a flotilla of work boats from the Firth of Forth and a tug from Cork chug up the Thames with a pontoon-mounted crane, aided by a brand new pusher tug bearing the SWS Walsh logo (based on Denton and Thurrock) which have become much more noticeable as outside help is much required on the Thames Tunnel engineering.  The vast new tunnel under Central London’s transport infrastructure is requiring work sites up and down the Thames shoreline, as can be seen from the DLR Lewisham line as it snakes over Deptford Creek.  There the Baselgette’s original sewage pumping station is also steeped in scaffolding, just like us!  This week our roofers have stripped the slate and are now installing much-needed insulation into our dust-ridden hidden cavities – no wonder we felt the winters’ cold!

Puffy clouds skit across the capital skyline obscuring the pattern of aircraft vapour trails as they carry vacationers around the world.

Our Friday visitors from Sydney and a young family of New Zealanders – one of my godsons, a master yachtsman, came to view after an excellent Zizi lunch on Greenwich Pier.  Staying in Central London, they just loved the tripper boat journey from Westminster Pier down to Greenwich through the heart of the capital – a complete contrast to their NZ home on a North Island Creek.

As the morning tideway narrows with the falling tide, an old Dutch houseboat chugs by outward bound.  Perhaps for a family holiday to the Medway and to see the treasures of Chatham Dockyard or perhaps the peace and quiet of an isolated creek!


The reality of uncertain weather was forecasted by lumpy, black clouds over the City.  A sudden breeze through the open window sent my model J class yacht flying; an elegant craft more suitable for the Solent, she had to be sailed down Romney Road from the Nauticalia sale – too big for the car and not welcome on buses either.  So I tacked along the pavements down into Crane Street, past the Yacht pub where previously a fine collection of Beken photos were once on display.  She now graces our top deck with dignity and elegance once again!



Just handing this piece to belle Helen Othen, who transcribes my scrawl into more literate form, I received a blog from Mike Ellis who had spotted a piece in the press re the forthcoming America’s Cup which states that the first recorded yacht race was from Greenwich to Gravesend.



However this Sunday Tony Othen, after months of early morning sprints around SE London, takes part in the Prudential Ride London 100 mile cycle event. The Kents wish him well. He tells me that he whistles down an empty Crane Street at the crack of dawn on his 20 mile daily practice run well before we are awake.

City to Countryside and back by rail and boat


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Most summers we try and take a ‘tripper boat’ from Westminster upstream to Richmond and even as far as Hampton Court. It’s the only way to keep up with the ever-changing landscape. This wet summer has benefitted general greenery and especially tree growth, never mind the extraordinary impact of riverside construction. We also witnessed the chaos of suburban railways, especially at Waterloo as timetabling was re-jigged to the whims of rail unions. A slow departure gave us a chance to view the spate of high rise developments between Lambeth and Clapham Junction, many to compliment the relocation of the US Embassy and, of course, the massive works around the Battersea Power Station redevelopment.

Happily, Richmond certainly addresses the Thames with a new but traditional river frontage with elevated terraces and tree-lined riverside walks which have been so lovingly retained and maintained – a delight to return to. Alas, our short visit was over as we gathered at the humble pier to board the packed double-decked launch for our 90-minute journey downstream to Westminster. The launch paused to pass under the elevated tidal barrier and fortunately our voyage was enhanced by the high tide providing us with semi-elevated views across the adjacent park land and into the riverside communities.


One short pause at bucolic Kew Pier to collect keen but tired ‘gardeners’ on their return to the capital and astonishing change of landscape at Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea and Nine Elms, with Vauxhall too!

Under surveillance

Living by the river is indeed a privilege but essential upkeep occasionally requires a network of scaffolding to get up to the roof to effect basic maintenance, which we thought we ought to do while we are still able to cope with builders and roofers. Our exposed location recently came under surveillance when ‘Maplin’, the PLA’s survey catamaran, cruised up and down inspecting the foreshore. As recently described on Riverwatch, increased river traffic maintaining the capital’s infrastructure is always scouring the tideway’s shorelines as mud and silt is disturbed by the wash and undertow created by everyday river traffic.

In our 20 years here in Crane Street we have had to rebuild the deck – ‘not fit for purpose’ according to the PLA – which protrudes out into the river by some 6 meters was an expensive exercise involving barges and floating cranes and the expertise of engineers who are used to building along the Thames in exposed situations.

Our next door rowing club has to deal with the installation of a heavy, steel portal to get to and fro from their boat house, and a recent slipway constructed to aid their activity has disappeared from sight, buried under sand and gravel. Likewise, maintenance of the river wall also needs constant attention. The ancient Watergate steps leading up to Trinity Hospital and river wall is yet again under siege, and ‘Maplin’ has been in attendance. Our recently erected scaffolding would have been noted and no doubt monitored along with our lunch time sandwiches – (I jest!). However, historic reflections of the craft which have moored here through the centuries provoke romantic dreams of Venetian galleys which the Doge wouldn’t permit to enter London’s piratical upper reaches. Thames sailing barges and traditional lighters are two a penny as well as colliers and Dutch coasters.

The purpose-built cast iron wharf serving the iconic twin-halled power station attracted sail- and steam-driven ships which came up river to feed Greenwich Power Station as well as many similar at Blackwall, Battersea and Lotts Road Chelsea, to name a few. The gracious four chimneys still dominate our local river scene, and I wonder if the fancy new all-steel-latticed chimneys which have slipped in beside Tunnel Avenue to power the giant Peninsula developments will do as well.


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By the way, on our recent up-river trip we only spotted one of the Battersea iconic four still standing, new being dominated by high rise apartment blocks!! As at nearby Deptford too, where Mr. Ferranti managed to send his power to light up the West End too – bravo! – what wonders running along the rail arches to Charing Cross and beyond.


Christening a boat or two

It’s always an uplifting occasion to welcome new build vessels as they go through the time-honoured custom. Down at Maldon up in Essex – a port with historic and modern connections with Thames Sailing Barges, the ‘work horses’ that plied in shallow waters transferring goods from ship to up-river wharves.

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The sun shone at the gathered company assembled on the Hythe quayside to welcome a brand new sprit sail barge to the fleet. A guard of honour mounted by sea cadets and Royal Marine lads set the tone as this purpose-built barge especially for young people to learn the ropes was christened ‘Blue Mermaid’.


The Sea Change Sailing Trust already charter similar craft to provide action-centered learning and seamanship training to disadvantaged and socially excluded young people based here at Maldon. The hull was built down in Cornwall and towed up to this Essex port to be filled out and fully rigged by traditional local craftsmen.

sea Change001

For years I have enjoyed the sight of their magnificent tan sails navigating the estuarial waters, and when they pass by our Greenwich house everything stops to observe these gracious craft sail past. Well, this is exactly what ‘Blue Mermaid’ will do as she will be engineless, which surprises one and all. The idea is that she will work the tides and wind just as her forebears which thronged the Thames Estuary and London river.


The gathered company that witness the christening ceremony will hopefully help to raise the necessary funds ready for next year’s season when young folk will be able to participate together in a unique bonding experience as they man this challenging new craft. I wish I was their age again!!

Earlier this year, the brand new ‘cruise ship’ came to Greenwich to be christened and launched into an extensive marketing exercise.

A new ro-ro Cobelfret ship in the Essex-Belgium run that sails from Purfleet also was ‘launched’ to international shipping folk gathered on board at Greenwich Tier. Memories of previous celebrations include both naval and merchant Navy new builds which just love Royal Greenwich’s maritime background for marketing purposes. Who can blame them?

Memories of similar naming ceremonies of new waterman’s cutters at Trinity House on Tower Hill and at Mark Edward’s Richmond boat yard – more private but as emotional as the Grand Reaper takes his toll.




On a Sunday spin


Today I saw ‘The World’ spin round on her axis just by the prime Meridian at historic Blackwall, where once emigrates joined their vessels for the new world. On searching for the Virginia Settlers’ monument I saw the incoming, vast, white ship pass by and calmly turn about aided by her escorting two tugs, in order to steam up Blackwall Reach to her moorings at Greenwich Tier. An occasion which seems to sum up the state of the nation as, yet again, we seem to be travelling up unknown waters!


Some years ago, I recall seeing the existing monument which once lay unloved hidden from public gaze, now replaced at the head of a newish residential development where once the giant Brunswick power station stood*. At the very moment that the tide was at its peak, a one-man canoe under sail passed by – a complete and bizarre contrast to the massive white cruise ship just beyond. The ship has now been converted to house the rich as they tour the world.

I was there to research the tale of Princess Pocahontas and the 400th anniversary of her journey homewards to her fatherland after a state visit to England. She became very sick and had to be landed at Gravesend where, alas, she died – more of this anon.

My first port of call on this Sunday morning outing was to Trinity Buoy Wharf – a fascinating settlement at the head of Leamouth and now an innovative arts centre and also the base for the Thames Clipper fast ferries, their latest newcomer painted in green and identified as ‘Fan Zone’, which was beyond my ken. Curious Kent was told it all related to the European Footie Championship and the Queen’s recent celebration!


It’s from here one can catch a ferry to the Millennium Pier, which is at the heart of a major development scheme encircling the great dome of the O2 – more anon too!


I then recharged with a bacon sandwich at a brand new wharfside café with a historic light ship (now a recording studio) parked alongside. Having identified my order by my Christian name, I was invited to share a table with a bright Yorkshire mum who was working overtime at a charity based just here. Revived, I sat with my sketch pad at the ready and, by luck, I saw ‘The World’ go by – one never knows what’s around the corner to be recorded!

boat003Just as I was enjoying a sundowner at home, a superb classical ‘steam’ driven yacht slipped past – on her way to the Med? Such elegance – I think she lives upstream near Richmond. The lady in charge was reclining in a fashionable deck chair right at the stern, perhaps with a Pimms ‘á la Henley’ in her hand – what a way to travel ‘tout seul’. I am sorry I didn’t catch her name.


*Close by East India Docks, Brunswick Wharf in Blackwall was once served by a direct rail link to Fenchurch St. Emigrant ships moored here, baggage handling and a hotel too. Later, it became Brunswick Power Station and, later still, a residential complex.

Pocahontas 400 – Trading through the centuries



Planning an international celebration in Gravesend to mark the 400th anniversary of Princess Pocahontas’ visit to and demise at this historic Thameside port, it is time to focus on early settlements in North America and the migration of English folk under the leadership of the Virginia Company to establish a trading base in a very competitive new world. Times don’t change!

For years, Gravesend was the first port of arrival into England and likewise for departure and arrival of passengers bound for the new world. About 25 miles downstream from London, here ships replenished their stores and took on board the necessary ‘vitals’ for their ocean voyages. Water is still an important factor, and bowsers still supply fresh water sourced from fresh chalk springs to shipping in general.

Special rowing boats speeded passengers to and from the capital, while cargoes were handled alongside ancient quays and warehouses and, of course, in vast London Dockyards of yesteryear. Now days Tilbury, just across the water on the Essex side, is a thriving port and cruise ship terminal, and the new Thames Gateway Container Port is playing a significant role in global shipping. A cross-river ferry of historic foundation still plies between the two communities. The ‘Princess Pocahontas’, a Gravesend-based tripper boat still plies the Thames up to Greenwich and Westminster or Tower Pier, exposing passengers to the secret world of the lower tidal Thames.


The launch of the Pocahontas 400 Programme presentation was held on board ‘MV Balmoral’, where a distinguished gathering of the mayors of neighbouring boroughs and county celebrities gathered to hear about the proposed events. The ‘Balmoral’s’ captain and crew provided an excellent buffet for the eighty or so invitees to hear of the planned events in March 2017.

mv pochantas001

The town pier’s pontoon has recently been installed to provide access into the historic town centre via the restored High Street. A fine statue of the Indian princess stands in the gardens of St. George’s Church, with an informative visitor centre close by. Gravesend Station provides access to London via the newly-installed express to London’s St. Pancras Station and stopping trains to North Kent. Ebbsfleet International station is served by an upgraded bus service (direct rail links to France and beyond).


Thames trade seems to be booming as the effects of the newish Thames Gateway Container Port seems to be more than flourishing./ I was thrilled by an overview of the low-lying marshes which can be clearly seen from the high ground at Cliffe Church, with a unique panoramic view over Lower Hope Point towards Corringham and downstream towards the port of Tilbury on the Essex side surprises one. Mighty new container cranes are still arriving from the Far East. I spotted a new pair which had off-loaded from a purpose-built freighter with another pair still on board at the Gateway. Recent TV programmes have been highlighting this massive new investment.

gateway port001

Thames Port, just round the corner on the Medway, is also earmarked for expansion. Container traffic on the QE Bridge at Dartford with new interchanges bear witness to the massive increase. Perhaps the newly planned downstream crossing could even have a railway to the nearby tracks which bear not only passenger traffic but also heavy commercial traffic. Alternative crossing routes are in discussion but I feel an iconic bridge, not a tunnel, would provide drama to the inevitable growth in the South East, and perhaps relieve the east-west commuter flow as well. I share Reg Ward’s vision of a new water city as tidal increase will require effective defences, especially as low-lying communication routes will need to be addressed.


Westward Ho!


Down to Bristol on a family visit, our favourite rendez-vous for lunch is the Pumping Station at the lock gate of the floating harbour, a Victorian edifice at the dock entrance to the Avon just upstream from Brunel’s famous bridge and the home port of ‘Balmoral’ who has graced our local waters during June as previously reported.


bristol city reunion001


From there we spotted another old friend who is also based and built here, the Cabot replica ‘Matthew’. She was doing a ‘turn around’, I guess like her Bostonian ‘Constitution’ which has to swap her weathered side around. Also another old friend the motor launch ‘Tower Belle’ returning from a morning trip up and down the Avon; as her name suggests she was once a familiar sight in the Pool of London during the ‘50s.

Over the years we have enjoyed ‘Matthew’ since she was being built in the shadow of st. Mary Redcliffe, designed by the renowned Colin Mudie on the lines of Cabot’s ‘Caravel’. Regular visits with the family meant we were able to keep a regular eye on ‘Matthew’s’ build which was arranged in such a way that Joe public, as well as thousands of school children, could monitor the traditional method of construction. Her major test was to sail to Newfoundland and back in 1997 and we were most fortunate to see her triumphant return on board ‘Balmoral’ who met her at Avon mouth and escorted her into Bristol at the head of a procession of welcoming craft. Most memorable was the Civic service held in St. Mary’s great church, packed to the gunnels and where members of the crew told their tale.

By coincidence I met the promotional team from The Jubilee Sailing Trust at Bristol Grammar School (where Lottie, my granddaughter thrives and also is a keen weekend sailor) in the Great Hall where gap year opportunities were being offered. There I met a crew member of the ‘Lord Nelson’ who had been on board on her recent London visit. By chance I had spotted a disabled member of the crew being hoisted up into the rigging in his wheel chair to get a better view of the Greenwich historic waterfront earlier this week. We exchanged waves and cheers with gusto! ‘Lord Nelson’ is due back in the Thames at Woolwich later this month.



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