Archive by Author | RiverWatch returns

Exploring Maritime Britain and Ireland by Sail, by Jonathan Winter 2020

Out of the blue, I was delighted to be asked by an Oxford couple to illustrate a travel log of their circumnavigation of our islands.

We first met at Oxford coach station and, over coffee in its canteen, discussed the possibilities of drawing up some illustrations for a glossy book to be published as soon as possible for fund raising.  I had prepared some ideas of illustrations depicting their voyage in a light-hearted sketch form with a flowing pen line of a broad cross section of boats in action, which would contrast with the lively, coloured photography appearing throughout the clean, tight typography.  A hardbacked, square shape would look good in a cabin boat situation as well as in a book store.  This would suit the quality and artistic nature of the maritime subject matter.

these ISLANDS, founded in 2017, is a think tank amd forum for debate. They carry out research to enable well informed discussion.
The Mission for Seafarers provides practical, emotional and spiritual help to 1.5 million crewmen and women to keep trade moving and economics afloat. It was founded in Bristol in 1835

Living by the River, life is never dull.

The Globe Rowing Club’s customary preparations on the foreshore by chance coincided with the passage of a flotilla filming a tug and lighter bearing a replica of a massive Burberry handbag. 

Also, it’s Doggetts Race Day up at the Inner Pool where four young watermen compete at midday to race up to Chelsea’s Cadogan Pier – remarkable for being the oldest annual contest event in the British sporting calendar.  Today competitors have trained in our neck of the River from the Globe Rowing Club.  The course is 4½ miles long from London Bridge, takes about 30 minutes and needs expertise to navigate through the bridges.

The prize is quite handsome, as the winner is presented with the fashionable Doggets Coat and Silver Badge to be worn on his sleeve, and which gives him the right to attend many City and fashionable social events in the capital.

The Globe members turned up to support, and I believe their captain was skulling up to Fishmongers Hall, which is, indeed, a mammoth row.  The Kents were on one of the fine Silver Fleet launches to support Tom Woods win – indeed a day to remember!!

By chance I went by ‘Uber’ to Tower Pier to deliver an idea I had for a statue to be placed here in the Royal Naval College in honour of the late Duke of Edinburgh.  My rough sketches were addressed to the Princess Royal who is the present Master of Trinity House and who attended the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum highlighting Trinity’s 500 years serving the mariner around our shores.  Founded in Deptford in 1512, their HQ on Tower Hill at the heart of maritime London is adjacent to the National Memorial for the Merchant Navy – lest we forget!!

As I write, ‘London Titan’, the PLA’s foremost floating crane, passed upstream with the crew smartly kitted out.

Never a dull moment.

The joy of living next door to a Rowing Club

Early in the morning, the crunch of wellington boots heralds the rowing fraternity as they catch the incoming tide from low down on the beach.  Having carried their craft from the boat store, they launch into a rising tide giving the crews the maximum time on the tideway. 

Crane Street has never been busier, the rowers navigating this narrow section of the Thames Path alongside pedestrians, cycles and pushchairs,  traffic volume increasing to meet demands for exercise during the year-long shutdown.  We old folk coming out of our house need to take maximum care.

Riverside pubs and restaurants are now fully open, meaning businesses should return to normality.  New coffee houses and riverside facilities are springing up to service the anticipated recovery. 

The Trafalgar Rowing Club, with its riverside amenities, is open again after such a damaging closure.  The Trafalgar Rowing Centre serves both the Globe and Curlew clubs, although their facilities are out in Docklands alongside City Airport (non-tidal but very exposed to the other elements).  Membership for both is very lively, a very  diverse and jolly group who live far and wide and come from many countries, joining together for the joy of skulling on the tidal Thames.  Sometimes son Ben and his fellow rowers come to 15 Crane Street for coffee and biscuits, keeping us well-informed and much amused.  Most have come to London to work in the City and/or Canary Wharf.  Our riverside deck provides stunning river views, and at low tide the ‘mudlarks’ take over, still finding items of interest as the tide scours the beach below.

As I close, the Lowestoft Drifter slips down on the ebb to continue her summer cruise, having enjoyed weekend jollies at Rotherhithe – part of the ‘Light up Thames’ festival as bridges shine with splendid illuminations.

As reported earlier this year, June brought the second half of the Mayflower celebration which was finally played out on the Thames at Rotherhithe this Friday afternoon, June 4th.  A flotilla of craft joined the Lowestoft Drifter to re-enact the departure of the Pilgrims’ ‘Mayflower’ as the President of the USA visited our shores down in Cornwall at the G7 Conference.  Judy and I spent a pleasant hour or so in this delightful, characterful port savouring the atmosphere of yesteryear with a gathering of river folk, there to wish bon voyage to those onboard for their journey upstream on the  flood tide to Westminster for a welcome from the Speaker and other dignitaries from across the sea in New England.

The Thames springs to life again

The first flotilla of yachts inbound head upstream after the completion of the shutdown, heading for   Central London marinas.  Oh yes, our loved riversides are open again.  The Kents celebrated by lunching at Frank Dowling’s Trafalgar Tavern, watching waves pushing the tide up.  What a treasure house of maritime art surrounds us as we admire his lush dining rooms.  Riverside views and through to spanking new kitchens with chefs back at work!!  Frank – a New Yorker – fell in love with Greenwich while working over in Canary Wharf constructing two skyscrapers.  He decided to persue further enterprises over here with great imagination.  The narrow Crane Street entrance gives you a hint of what’s to be seen throughout his refurbished landmark, and a hint of further development here abouts.

Life certainly has returned to the leisure industry as tripper boats return.  The newly rebranded City Cruises bring tourists back into Greenwich, while the speedy fast ferries have extended their routes both up and downstream through the Barrier and up to Battersea, also with a rebranded fleet of Uber Boats – aka Thames Clippers – all repainted in sharp new black and white, each identified with a different coloured flash on the bow.

Likewise rebranding is to be found in the freight trade, with strong fleet colour identification – even the rubbish lighter containers have been spruced up, as well as the water bowser and buck minerals lighters and bright orange tugs, the bright yellow giant crane barge from Holland and a foreign inbound coaster on a repeat visit from the continent.

Also Livetts Launches, with their luxurious paddle steamers and fashionable traditional launches have diversified beyond guest care into the provision of film and television support craft, and knowhow to supply the most sophisticated requirements.  And many traditional boatmen have also diversified into supplying tugs, lighters and cranes to the civil engineers working on the new rail extension and the ever-demanding super sewer tunnelling and disposing spoil up and down the river and out into the estuary and beyond.  Much for Riverwatch to report!!  Your splendid tideway awaits!!!

A busy rowing season approaches

The Thames Path curls its way round the back of the Trafalgar Tavern, the Yacht Pub and past the Trafalgar Rowing Centre which houses both the Curlew and  Globe rowing Clubs, past our house and across the watergate which gives access to the tideway from the Curlew Rowing Club with its large boat store and first floor gym.

During the recent shut-down, the club premises have been closed but will be reopening as promised.  Often crowded with runners, walkers, tourists and cyclists, with rowers gaining access to the sandy, firm foreshore, the Thames path has often become very crowded!!  The launching area on the foreshore slopes gradually to the tideway providing a firm foothold for the crews.  On weekdays regular outings take place for all the various craft from length ‘eight’ to solo.  The passing tourist is sometimes shocked to find the footway crammed with sportsmen, and making exit down our front doorsteps slightly hazardous for us oldies; care is required by one and all.

The quaint, terraced passageway is very humble compared to the grandeur of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital with its narrow, railed path and formal steps giving access to the ‘beach’ – very slippery when weed is at its full growth.  In the ‘Navy Days’, formal salutes were exchanged from ship to shore, and sometimes this continues by the uninformed!  My son rows with The Curlew on the tideway and occasionally in the Royal Docks adjacent to City Airport’s runway which have recently been far from busy.  Whilst providing stretches of water for interclub events, it can be very smelly with jet fumes when fully operational.  Now that Covid restrictions are changing, we hope to welcome our son’s fellow rowers and their  worldwide clubs.

The Royal Hospital School

The Royal Hospital Foundation for seamen was established by William and Mary in 1694. The Royal
Hospital School founded in 1712 has made a significant contribution to the Royal and Merchant
Navies. Until 1933 the School was housed where the National Maritime Museum is sited now. Part
of the hands-on education were replicas of fully rigged ships located just in front of the Queen’s
House, in which senior boys lived (as illustrated). The School was moved to Holbrook in Suffolk in
1933 and still provides all-round education for boys and girls.


I have just heard the sad news of the death of Baron Greenwich – a gentleman who was a trainee
officer here at the Royal Naval College and also enjoyed the majesty of the grand architecture and
splendid ceremonial occasions in which he so often took a leading role.

He also enjoyed the simpler
facilities of the humble Yacht pub next door in Crane Street, known as ‘the wardroom’, which
became his watering hole in contrast to the Painted Hall. His affection and support of maritime
matters included the Royal Thames and its historic ceremonies in which he relished playing a role.
Royal Greenwich will surely miss his enthusiastic support of the NMM and as Master of Trinity House
and its traditions. Farewell Lord High Admiral.

A suitable statue placed in front of the Queens House
would be welcome as a reminder of this extraordinary world leader!


The cosy ‘Yacht’ was fully panelled and had a wardroom atmosphere where chaps could relax from
their studies.

Get lit up in Rotherhithe

A welcome bit of news is today’s official return of the fast river ferries renewing their speedy service after the shutdown of the craft which ply from Battersea downstream to Woolwich with intermediate rush hour commuter service.  Their presence has been sorely missed!!  Let’s hope that this welcome return won’t be closed down – if only for economic reasons, the Thames needs to be busy!!

Living alongside the River Thames usually gives on a grandstand view of spring activities along the waterfront.  This year fewer and fewer events to report, however we did see the return of the annual Naval visit of a pair of patrol boats as they motored up into the capital.  These traditional craft are utilised by sea cadet crews and are welcome back in our tideway to show the flag again.  The white ensign has been missed by us Thamesiders too!  The cadets would have been given a wonderful panoramic view of the Pool of London as well as Greenwich Reach and Canary Wharf, passing Deptford and Rotherhithe where a pair of French designed sail boats were in training with youngsters who learn basic seamanship under the instruction of skilled watermen.  A fine sight to see as they tacked up and down on an unusually quiet waterway.

As well as Deptford, Rotherhithe is a base for training craft and a venue for other maritime events such as the recent Mayflower celebrations which marked the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ great venture, as previously reported in Riverwatch.  This historical riverside settlement is full of maritime buildings and structures as illustrated in the accompanying handsome photos.  It is easy to get to by London Transport via Brunel’s first subaqueous rail tunnel – Rotherhithe Station has a fascinating museum alongside which is well worth a visit.  I was privileged to help in the design and first installation under Nick de Salis’ guidance and enthusiasm some 30 years or so ago!!  (Thank you Rotherhithe and Exhibition organisers!).  This year I hope for the return of the ‘Thames Alive’ celebratory cruise up to Rotherhithe from the Houses of Parliament, which was played out last year in spite of river closure. 

This time we hope to celebrate the flood lighting of Rotherhithe’s Village central landmark, as beautifully photographed for the Thames Guardian last year – well worth a pleasant river walk which will be a must – more news anon.

Last year I devised a riverbus trip up-river to coincide with the parliamentary outing to Rotherhithe, which also introduced me to Battersea Power Station Pier for the first time!  By luck more than judgement, my passage both up and down coincided with the ceremonial events. 

Today Judy and I invited our ‘editorial board’ to a small get-together out on our deck as this brief spell of spring needs to be remembered.  Both Tony and Helen Othen agreed readily to a light lunch on our deck just in time to see the top of the tide!  Hurrah!!

News about the Greenwich Tier Buoys

The sun sinks behind the twin domes of the ORNC, highlighting a brace of bare trees awaiting the oncoming Spring.  The brilliant sky, now bereft of morning fog, glimmers across the full tide just on the turn.  The vast, empty tideway curls around the Canary Wharf sky scrapers, all awaiting the Chancellor’s budget as the nation reassesses the pickle we are in, the press and telly full of forecasts while the serene Thames circumnavigates the Isle of Dogs in silence – except for the passage of a pair of tugs hauling the City’s waste paperwork down to the downstream terminals.  Joining the momentum, another bright yellow ‘tuglet’ hauls a vast, empty lighter.

The view upstream to Deptford Creek has had its annual refurb of its six buoys where super-liners and aircraft carriers used to move.  ‘London Titan’, now replacing ‘Crossness’, the PLA’s purpose-built mooring tender, has done its annual refit.  A hidden Creek waterway is now missing its prior coaster which used to deliver a daily supply of Essex bright sand from Fingrehoe’s waterside port – their comings and goings sadly missed – although a tug-led lighter squeezes its way up to Norman Road’s new Creekside wharf handling spoil and building materials from the vast east-west super sewer enterprise.

The unusual tidal calm allows space for the local duck and gulls to do their courting as dawn breaks across the expanse of waterway bereft of its historical shipping of old.  It seems ages since the luxury Viking cruise ships, tripper boats and elegant tall ships hit town, crowding our splendid landmarks and piers.

More to report, and thanks for many kind comments to the return of Riverwatch after my broken back incident.

A big thank you to all – Riverwatch returns

Apologies folks for the lack of recent reports from the river.  This old boy took a tumble and found himself upstream at Lewisham Hospital for a two-week stint investigating my damaged coxis (that’s the base of my back – not fun for an eighty-year-old).

Now I’m back on duty but taking things easy.  I was indeed fortunate to find myself on the top floor of the new wing of Lewisham Hospital, which overlooks Ladywell fields with its delightful riverside situation wedged between.  The view was upstream of the Ravensbourne and its valley-like location, with tall trees, tennis courts and landscaped surroundings all the way down to Deptford Bridge and Docklands beyond (too far away to sketch!!).

It has been an eerie return as my stretch of the Thames has never been so quiet – little or no commercial traffic, the occasional PLA and Police patrol boat, a fire float and rib lifeboat disturbing the majesty of Canary Wharf sky scrapers half empty, but signs of residential refuges behind cosy homes as their lights twinkle, all reflected in the still, still tideway – uncanny!!  Not an airliner to be seen queueing for landing at LHR or London City airports.

Marvellous spring-like weather encouraged a Chelsea launch cruise down  – a classic design of yesteryear.  Also to report a small flotilla of tugs heading upstream with a chunk of brow off to a new pier landing stage – no doubt able to navigate with ease through forlorn upstream bridges all bereft of any maritime activity.  But joy of joys, sailing barge ‘May’ of Maldon (the Essex base of such elegant craft) fully refurbished for a new season of hope on our local waterways.

First Riverwatch of the Year


London’s New Year celebration was switched secretly from Westminster down to the O2 area
around Blackwall. The usual ‘lighters’ launched the massive display near to Trinity Buoy Wharf with
all its celebratory facilities. The ever-active watermen were able to mount such a massive firework
display with expert skill extending it with an exciting use of drones giving global T.V. coverage an
unexpected thrill.
Guess what? The Kents had ‘turned in’ as fireworks had been popping off over all the festive season.
We were awoken by this extraordinary barrage so similar to the Millennium celebrations
remembered by the whole world!! Memories came flooding back of a packed ‘deck’ full of chums,
some with monster rockets to loose off as the century slipped past. What a memorable 20 years!! I
can report that our neck of the Thames is as busy as ever with so many docklands developments still
on stream mostly towards Silvertown, with the promise of a new cross-river toll tunnel adding even
more traffic chaos to the Peninsula. At least the tunnel spoil will aid river defence upstream of the
Barrier.


Chris Livett reports of exciting new events to come on the tideway for us to look forward to!
Meanwhile essential commercial trade continues with tug and barge traffic handling civic waste and
civil engineering on the Super Sewer project, which is vast!!
New Year Greetings to one and all.