The Great River Race and all that

Yet another remarkable day on the river full of tradition and innovation…  read on!!

As promised I gave two good friends from art school days and their disabled son a lift to the Island Gardens start of the Great River Race.

Stuart Wolf, the originator of the 26 year old event had offered them a place on the committee boat on the 26 mile long passage through London to the great Tudor House at Ham where this great flotilla finished on their marathon row. Local knowledge helps when finding the start where Millwall Dock enters the tideway – or used to as the lock has long since been firmly closed but happily provides a safe and gentle shelving launch ramp. Luckily I was able to drop them close by as their walking skills are like mine!! Happily I was in time to hear cannon fire denoting the start – fired from a beflagged sprit sail barge. As per norm the Dutch contingent of ‘ships life boats’ sped away – I hope to tell you anon who won!!

As usual, getting off the island was traffic bound and so I took the easy option and the opportunity of visiting Trinity Buoy Wharf at Leamouth. This one time navigational buoy depot provided the essential marker buoys for the once busy port. The great shed used to be a store for the essential equipment to maintain 35 miles of navigable waterways. Nowadays navigation is computer controlled and the once numerous visual aids not so essential. The fascinating charts were not only annotated with these but also prominent land marks – many of which have been obscured by modern developments. At Trinity Buoy Wharf you can see examples of, not only buoys, but also a light ship and even a light house used for training their keepers.

Great River Race001(click on picture to enlarge)

Trinity Buoy Wharf is also home and workshops for numerous artists, designers and studios for musical enterprises. Drinking coffee in a genuine American Diner parked alongside the Lightship led to a joyful meeting with a composer who told me he commutes from UK to Hollywood to feed his television and film clients. I was dying to see his converted container which was his studio and pied a terre and which is one of many that make up container city and where his young son could visit!!

The professor was trained in Greenwich at Trinity College of Music – he reminded me of the farewell service for Trinity College of Music (when they moved from the West End) in Westminster Abbey. Afterwards the musical flotilla arrived in great style at Greenwich Pier when everyone processed to the opening by the Duke of Kent with a service of dedication in the RNC here in Greenwich.

A fitting end to my day in docklands was the arrival of HMS Northumberland to celebrate an international shipping conference – also an evening tide departure of the cruise ship liner Europa which sailed on the ebb tide making a memorable sight for those energetic souls who climbed over the recently installed roof walk over the O2’s massive bulk. Meanwhile returning duty boats, that had provided essential escort duties for the Great River Race sped back to the estuarine bases.

Last week tall ships trailed up and down the river on repetitive outings – this week it was the turn of the oarsmen and paddlers propelling an amazing variety of craft never seen in such numbers before – the privilege of participating in such events will never be forgotten by the three thousand who will no doubt be suffering from their muscular input – Bravo.

Returning to the Isle of Dogs and talk of the crane erection – I decided to investigate the building site which is very close to Mudchute Park, a park which is in the modern style of horticultural management and has areas of wild planting.  Visitors to Cutty Sark Gardens will know what I mean – planting in the random style without the confines of neat edges and weed clear beds. I decided a visit to see the crane in its situation was just right – the erections crew were about to leave as the final testing was obviously taking place.

Upon arrival at the site I was told that the erection team had just left but later at their local cafe I was too timid to enter into conversation (unlike me) but I felt that I had done my duty by confirming to the men on the gate that the necessary flashing warning light on the crane jib was working last night – low flying helicopters in today’s low rain clouds certainly would be reassured as this summers accident at Lambeth killed the pilot who couldn’t see a similar crane on a high rise housing development.

The infill scheme in Cubitt Town which was originally developed by William Cubitt in 1850 – with a parish church (Christ Church), a pub (Waterman’s Arms) and various villas which would serve the diverse working population who worked in the riverside wharves and shipyards.

Gentrification in 1970 has produced a diverse architectural treatment of flats and houses, viewed from my Greenwich studio they give a medieval effect of city walls as they boast a series of battlement towers and roof levels bordering the river – protecting the wealthy high rise central Canary Wharf developments which sparkle away all night.

The highest high rise appartments overlooking West India Docks changes its illumination to a different colour scheme every night and indicates the hour with a flashing display worthy of Broadway!!

Looking backwards to the changing Greenwich river front especially towards Deptford  – high rise and hefty new buildings crowd the once busy industrial sites and creekside wharves which had seemingly been abandoned for many a year – as I write a tan sailed traditional yacht passes by upstream towards St Katherines boat rally – a tv crew shelters from the rain.

About RiverWatch returns

Peter Kent shares his Thames riverside studio viewpoint

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