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Another Kentish Outing

Earlier in the week we visited Monks Hill Farm located a mile or so inland from Seasalter on the Graveney Marshes. Well worth visiting as it has a dramatic 360° panoramic view of North Kent’s marshland and the fruit growing region around Faversham.

The extraordinary view across the Thames Estuary towards Essex and the Isle of Sheppy provides those armed with binoculars the ever growing expanse of wind farms clustered around. I have always sought a good lookout spot and this recently opened school farm boasts not only a coffee shop but suitable bench tables to spread out charts and the like.

Shipping movements could be viewed as the port of London and the Medway still attracts vessels of every type. The giant Thames Gateway deep sea container port is certainly coming along as Europe’s largest logistic park takes shape. However, this is too far upstream to view but be warned as the A13/M25 and Dartford is going to be hit by the growth of container traffic.

Reading ‘Shipping Today and Yesterday’, a glossary monthy (£3.85) reports that the latest 18,27U TEU Triple E container ship has been launched. This Maersk owned colossus is now the world’s largest ship – recent press photos of the massive DP World Container port illustrates the massive container marshalling facilities for both road and rail dispatch – now taking shape – one of my previous blogs described the arrival from China of four of the massive cranes.

Foodies could well enjoy a visit to Macknade’s emporium on the old A2 Canterbury Rd out of Faversham – much prefer it to Harrods or Fortnum’s. When hungry in Faversham a creekside converted mill/ warehouse provides a delicious maritime viewing point as well – loacted to close to the Shepard Neame Brewery in a little back streetin the once industrial part of town.

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The Start of a Global Voyage some 40 Years Ago

My previous blogs have described how redevelopment has taken off with high rise buildings becoming the ‘norm’. Looking back to the Greenwich we first knew when the Isle of Dogs was a vast waterway system which the Kent family loved to explore. How different it is to describe the vast tracks of quayside devoid of cranes, ships, barges, vast empty warehouses and broken up residential streets which were once buzzing with humanity. A vivid memory of a special occasion comes to mind – which conveys an image of yesteryear – The reports of a global adventure starting from the Isle of Dogs with the blessing of the Duke of Edinburgh bidding them bon voyage wasn’t all plain sailing. Vital equipment had gone missing somewhere in Docklands (not musical) and the ‘Benjamin Bowring’ had to ship back into her base berth. Intrigued by this news, the family set out in our Morris Traveler on a ship hunt and only found a distraught Trinity House pilot. This smoothly uniformed gentleman asked if we could help him find his ship – so off we all went attempting to keep Dickens our spotty dalmation under control , his malting white fur was already firmly attached to his immaculate maritime turn out. So we chugged over bridges, locks and railway lines till at last we found this bright red vessel with an anxious crew waiting to off again. The jolly pilot was sure that  I would enjoy the first leg of this global outing following the prime meridian across the oceans and continents. The family was reassured that I would be dropped off with the pilot at Gravesend where a sea pilot took over – so as guest to this temporary skipper I was shown the ropes to how a global adventure should begin!! The compass was swung just off Crossness – a brief whiff of the adjacent sewage farms kept us on the move – the Dartford tunnel main air vents were pointed out as was Greenhithe riverside port – the home of Everards coastal shipping – this was before the QEII bridge spanned the tideway. Power stations marked the way downstream dominating the occasional lighthouse beacon and buoys marking the once busy channels that once sign posted the way to the greatest port in the world. The young bearded crew, led by a New Zealander admiral were getting everything shipshape prior to the pilot change over at Gravesend echoing many a previous historic adventure – as arranged my anxious family waved welcome from the Victorian Pier, Dickens going daft as usual singing in time to the beat of his wagging tail.

Trinity House who have provided pilot, lighthouses and lightships for centuries in the Vic are looking forward to their 500th anniversary of their foundation next year. An annual inspection of these are undertaken and it is a great honour to be mooted to join the Elder Bretheren of Trinity House to undertake this very special occasion. Tom Bowring, a well respected ship owner in the city was thrilled to accept his invitation – a neighbour and fellow dog owner, he shared his joy with me – he alas knew he was not long for this world – but his enthusiasm of going to sea again could not be put off in spite of his illness. Tom’s American wife knew that to fly the family flag on his garden flagstaff was most significant – as when lowered to half mast we all knew that the inevitable has taken place – Amen

Launching of ‘Daffodil’ in Faversham Creek

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After four years of construction our neighbours at Oare completed the overall fit out of the Dutch work boat – Daffodil. The 7 ton lifeboat type vessel had been found in Faversham Creek and bought by Peter Philips as a retirement project – the Hinterland of Faversham Iron Wharf is choc a block with craft of all types awaiting refurbishment. Alan Reekie and his wife set up the ideal yard for both amateur and professional shop repair enterprises. The mobile crane plays an essential role with other useful bits and bobs to hand including two lighters converted into floating docks, one of which was being used by the ‘rival’, a Dutch barge which was having it’s bi annual scrape and paint. We had previously enjoyed a voyage up the Thames to Pangbourne from her winter moorings at Surrey Docks – 80 miles in all a journey we will never forget.

Immediately up stream in this tidal creek, Daffodil had just been ‘launched’ and we were both invited to wish her well. It was a thrill to see her settling into her muddy berth while last minute essential adjustment had to be undertaken before her next day short voyage into the adjacent creek of Oare – where the final fit out was going to be undertaken at the end of the creek wharf which was overlooked by the Philips and our own end of terrace cottage.

On a beautiful summers evening other folk came down to look over their new floating home and to wish them well. Peter, an engineer, had been working as a boiler repairer on a series of ancient steam locomotives – such as famous as the Flying Scotsman – knowledge of various engines took him to many corners of Europe and even to Rotherhide where he installed a replica chimney at Brunel Engine House – we hardly recognised him besuited, as the Duke of Wellington was going to cut the ribbon which would restart the pump – we wish them well – bon voyage indeed.

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Upstream Treats

The impact of London’s ever growing population is best seen and understood from the Thames.

The vogue of living by the river has generated massive residential developments where once working wharves lined the tideway. For instance the height of the Vauxhall  tower blocks can now be compared with oriental cities – obviously our city planners have lost control as the same old riverside developers seem to be acquiring the prime riparian sites and piling high rise schemes in West London’s fashionable locations. Dolphin Square in elite Pimlico set the style providing dense blocks for the trendy thirties – recalling a European style of apartment living. Now this once dominant group of buildings, complete with restaurants,swimming pools and gymnasiums has been overtaken in dominance by a whole rash of expensive schemes.

The skipper’s commentary as we travelled upstream from Westminster towards Kew says it all – accuracy in detail garnished with a cockney accented anti establishment theme was a delight – the usual appeal for his rewards is made in good time before docking- an old sailor’s cap or Ice bucket is proffered as one disembarks with his aid to help you safely ashore.

However, it must be said that the once decaying riverside hamlets ( the so called ‘string of pearls’ as commentators once proclaimed them to be when riverside accommodation was far from fashionable)  with their characterful pubs, rowing and sailing clubs look amazingly prosperous in spite of this so called recession.

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With summer threatening to slip away we clambered onto the regular ferry from Westminster Pier to Kew – far from packed its prewar design reminded us that this very craft was one of the small ships that helped the B.E.F back from the military defeat at Dunkirk.  The skipper was keen to point out to us the elegant and luxurious craft that are still to be seen moored alongside expensive moorings –  are also part of the Little Ships Fleet which are still maintained by wealthy enthusiasts.

They provide us with a gentle reminder of the elegant state barges which conveyed the great and the good from their palaces that once lined the river. Last year’s great river pageant produced yet another elegant replica, “Gloriana” is still rowed in style on select great river occasions such as at Henley Regatta – Lord Stirling’s generosity is still being called upon in order to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed.

Cheating by taking a bus from Kew Bridge to Richmond’s riverside town gave us time to enjoy, yet again, a lunch in the elegance of a riverside Argentinian steak house which cost me an ‘arm and a leg’.

My humble beer was served with great pride as it was brewed in Royal Greenwich by you know who !!

Alas time did not allow us to make the return journey by river. but the ‘Overground’s’ North London line took us in a circuitous journey over many railway connections in air conditioned comfort. The journey from Richmond to Stratford shows off the real London with its fascinating backyards, markets, prisons et al – finishing up at the remains of London’s Olympics with its amazing transport hub where main line trains interconnect with undergrounds (Central and Jubilee) and the new comer to the DLR system. Amazingly crowded as new Londoners and their families head for home amongst the latest generation of high rises which grace Docklands and its environs. Quite a trip !

Downstream

For years we have had a bolt hole down the A2 to the North Kent coast overlooking the extensive marshes twixt Faversham and The Swale where it meets the sea.  The simple two-up two-down end of terrace cottage was built for gunpowder workers who were part of the vast ammunition works which were tucked out of the way from environs of this historic Cinque Port.

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Well it’s ‘blog’ time and I had a notion to write about Thames Sprit sail barges which happily still frequent these creeks as well as the refined St Katherine Docks – often chartered for eveing supper trips past our Greenwich home.

Invited to lunch on higher ground near Seasalter where we not only enjoyed a lively party but also were able to survey the extensive oyster beds for which Whitstable is so renowned.  The unusually low tide provided a stunning panorama up the Swale and across the Thames estuary to distant Essex – the low lying distant shoreline punctured by Southend’s lofty office buildings.  The incoming tide also provided a steady stream of shipping including a recognisable newsprint ship, which used to dock down at Convoys Deptford Wharf – how I miss the comings and goings of these handsome, gleaming white vessels!

Having negotiated the steep cottage stairs and surveyed Oare Creek, I realised that two familiar Thames barges were moored further up the creek – their burgees streaming out in a stiff breeze in the failing light indicated they belonged to the Thames Barge Sailing Club.  Before the Dutch reclaimed much of the extensive salt water marshes, it is said that the bottom of our steep garden was once the sea shoreline.   Close by, the high-pitched whine of an electric saw down in the builders’ yard at the foot of the garden suddenly reminded me of the old saw pit once there.  The adjacent blacksmiths and builders’ yard with a deep saw pit would have been very useful to maintain the fleets of tan-sailed barges which conveyed the local made gunpowder up to the Arsenal in Woolwich and up the Lea Navigation to Enfield.

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Our local marshes at Oare are now a renowned bird sanctuary breeding ground, but were once covered in low-lying sheds where locals filled shells for the Great War.  A light railway conveyed the girls to and fro from the town to these lonely, isolated factories.  Alas, in 1916, a summer grass fire got out of control and blew up 108 of the returning work force.  A trail around the historic works close to the new Sainsbury’s will fascinate young and old – our children used to play around these ‘jingly’ structures not dissimilar to Burma!  The remains of this Tudor industry can still be viewed in Faversham’s Tourist Information Centre and along the Swale, where the purpose-built wharves and vessels can still be seen, providing a fascinating excursion.

If you need a beer and enjoy excellent food, pop into our local owned by Shepherd Neame – The Three Mariners is a favourite with creek walkers as well!

Lighter Times on the Thames

When we first came down to Greenwich, the river was crammed with strings of lighters waiting to be employed carrying cargoes off merchant ships lying midstream.

A visit to the National Maritime Museum will show you how it was – or even better go to the Museum of Docklands sited in a great warehouse by the dockside of West India Docks.

My first introduction to lightermen was in Coronation Year when, with the boldness of youth, we approached this extraordinary character who repaired iron lighters just alongside Cannon Street Railway Bridge.  The Regent Street Poly had an art school on the top floors utilising the conventional pitched roofs as a light source.  That is where we gathered on sunny days watching the rebirth of the West End.  The large illuminated rosettes were coming down awaiting disposal.  We were desperately looking for a summer party venue and there it was before our very eyes, just where we held our sketch club.  “I say chaps, how about using the rosettes as decorations within this vast, empty lighter”.  Arrangements were made for a small fee for the overnight hire – our lighterman couldn’t have been more helpful saying that he would fix the floor (deck), put in some ladders and a temporary canvas roof!  But, he said, you must have a safety boat.  Easy, we said, and borrowed a skiff from the Putney sports pavilion.  The rosettes were acquired also and loaded onto the caretaker’s wheeled cart which we pushed down Regent Street, across Trafalgar Square and along Fleet Street and on to the empty bomb site adjacent to the watermen’s steps.

All set up for the party which aroused the interest of the River Police who promised to keep an eye on us, much to the relief of all.  Well it was quite an evening, especially when the tide went out and left us jiving on the tilt.  Once we had cleared up in the morning, we had to row the safety boat upstream to Putney and return the hand cart to the Poly bearing an empty pin of beer.

Lighters were also built and repaired on the Greenwich waterfront at Woods Wharf.  The other local lightermen were the famous Piper family – traces of their barge yard are still in evidence.  If I remember, the whole family were involved, and another party to savour was the installation of Peter as Master of The Worshipful Company of Watermen & Lightermen at Waterman’s Hall close to the old Billingsgate Fish Market.  Both Wood Wharf and Pipers were a hub of activity.

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A stroll down the Thames Path past Ballast Quay will take you to the last remaining working repair yard left on this side of the river.  Take note of the two floating docks and maritime artefacts on either side of the corrugated iron fences.  Not far along the pathway a new facility has been built by Victoria Deep Water Wharf awaiting the removal day!  Take a peek through the extensive site boundary of the building site, and you could have seen the ruins of a Flemish Water Mill!

As I write on this wonderful Saturday evening, party boats come and go – even a jazz band under the tan sails of a wonderful Thames Sailing Barge.  In contrast, the smoothest dining experience on board the Silver Sturgeon adds sophistication as she slips past in time to a saxophone strain sidling across the tideway.

How things change!

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Footnote:

On Sunday evenings in August there is a beautiful river trip that leaves Greenwich pier at 7.00pm  (returning at 9.00pm) This is a wonderful way of seeing London at dusk. For us oldies the cost is only a fiver!

Greenery Amongst the Building Sites

Have you noticed how Docklands planting is maturing so well?  Avenues of trees and parklands are softening the once-sterile scene.   On perhaps the hottest day of the year, the Trinity College of Music’s Thursday lunchtime concert at St Alphege’s was as refreshing for the soul, but I sought the solace of shade and a welcome breeze – so off to Island Gardens where the wonderful tall trees attract not only shade but a welcome zephyr.

Perhaps I have been over critical of the massive redevelopment of the south bank of the Thames bordering each side of the Old Royal Naval College – similar to gross bookends.  But seen from the riverside benches I wondered if any of the local town planners realised what a compromise the new builds would be to the elegance and proportion of Wren’s masterpiece – a difficult challenge but go and see for yourselves.  I extended my DLR venture to view some of the major changes to the new landscape and architecture of Docklands, which we have become used to!  Strategic Crossrail construction sites are worth a visit by DLR – the elevated viewpoints.

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At West India Dock the enormous Canary Wharf station can be viewed.  Yet again we are losing the open waters which are such a feature of London’s docklands – the vessels moored opposite the Museum of London’s showpiece Dockland Museum are entrapped – a tiny canal still remains open for craft to navigate past One Canada Square into the Thames  from Poplar Dock which has become a waterland home for residential barges.  The main link into the Thames at Blue Bridge still accepts amazingly large ocean-going ships, including visiting naval vessels, as we saw over the Olympics when some of the world’s most ritzy yacht-ships gathered for the great and the good to enjoy last year’s amazing events.

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A view from the new Emirates Cable Car is entrancing and deserves several ‘flights’ to take in all that is going on around Canning Town, with Crossrail engineering just below.  On your return trip the view of the O2 and its Canary Wharf background will be radically changed when the 18-storey hotel is completed, changing the power and scale of the O2 – just like other high risers have done to the London panorama.

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Be sure also to look down Albert Dock towards City Airport where Chinese interest, with the mayor’s backing, is to build yet another financial centre.  I await further details!

Crossrail construction can be viewed from Canning Town DLR tracks as the line dives under the Royal Docks and under the Thames to Woolwich Arsenal.  A keen eye will be able to follow the route close to City Airport where the new tracks follow the old LMS line especially near the giant Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, still in production but under a different owner!  The industrial Purafood plant on the River Lea isthmus has been completely cleared as the tidal stream nears Trinity Buoy Wharf at Leamouth.  Further closure downstream includes the vast Ford Motor plant at Dagenham which I was asked to draw for the Port of London Authority’s farewell to a once very active maritime client.  By chance I sketched a ‘Cobelfret’ Ro Ro ferry leaving laden for Belgium.  The renowned Dagenham Dock was the last working upper river wharf to handle oth imports and exports (do you remember what they were?). Tout lá change… (gear boxes actually!)

Take off time for our local birds

When the swirling tide ebbs leaving the foreshore empty except for the interesting morsels left behind which our local bird life loves to explore (picking over drains down by the waterline needs expertise to avoid the sea-like lapping waves encompassing them) – both the black-headed terns and Canada geese compete with local pigeons.

It’s been a joy to see the arrival in the Spring time of goslings in very close convoy behind their parents – a regular, quick count is necessary to see if they have survived the rigours of the ever-changing tideway.  Heaven only knows where they find suitable nesting ground far enough away from the damaging effects of ship wash – perhaps they nest amidst the abandoned wharves which have sprouted enough cover from invasive intruders.  But each year we marvel as they parade between their feeding grounds, taking advantage of an occasional nap on the foreshore pebbles, mum always – or is it dad? – on the lookout while their brood are dozing – a necessary precaution indeed!

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However, the seasons pass and yesterday’s low water provides an ideal sandy strip – just the place to practise take offs and landings.  Both the gull and goose families cooling their feathers in this heat wave, cavorting and swimming topsy-turvy, exposing their ever-expanding tums – fresh, feathering fluttering by as they show off to the other families who come to see what it’s all about;  a quick inspection, and off they are on their own sweet ways.

The sense of exploration, especially swimming cross river, leaves me aghast as speedy ferries flash past as they make their hazardous journey.  Soon they will take to the wing having flapped and flopped in attempted flight.  With their tried practices over, they will be up and away to God knows where, leaving us concerned spectators more at peace.  We know that great gatherings will take place up in the park later in the year, or on the heath with its ponds.  Let’s hope the rain tops them up.

The gulls are amazing as they cavort up and back the splash way, showing off to their seniors as well as their own sprightly chums, many who take it easy way down river riding the wavelets before they change their mind and fly to pastures new.  It’s a regular commute all year round – either up to town with its fast food outlets overspills, or down amongst sand pits and quarries which line the broadening estuary with its extensive marshlands running into the actual ocean with its swathes of sandbanks to the land of vast new wind farms which glitter in the haze.

Late at night one can still see the gulls on the move, swimming in vast flotillas.  It doesn’t seem to matter which way they are travelling and the tide rally sweeps them along.  Only Canary Wharf’s bright reflections reveal their passage as we draw the curtains and blinds prior to our static snooze ashore at home.

Lastly I have to report news of twilight raiding parties into the Isle of Dogs – a squadron of squawking, green cockatoos weave their way cross river – is it a reconnaissance flight to see how many nesting sites are available for their expanding population?  Or are they just showing their colours for a later invasion – they certainly like to chatter as they twist and twirl into the great unknown.  Perhaps they have heard that Canary Wharf is full of their more yellow cousins – dash it all, it’s now controlled by ‘Songbird  plc’.

PS – Our resident cormorants are a bit scarce – perhaps they are exploring new breeding grounds down by the seaside?

The reason why this blog is being written

Talking to Tony Othen this evening, I asked him why people would read such a jumble-mumble.

Well, it all started when we did a house swap from Diamond Terrace to this riverside house down by the Old Royal Naval College.  Desmond Pritchett, editor of the long-established Guide Magazine, popped down to see the reason why we had moved from the elegant villa just off Hyde Vale to this challenging, 4-storey house built on the Thames bank side.

I explained that the challenge of writing a column in his magazine might be of interest to his Blackheath readership facing the challenge of the new world across the river at Canary Wharf.  “You’re on” Des said!  So I produced a monthly article illustrated by a sketch.  Little by little, my new riverine lifestyle extended my interest in adjacent riverside locations, architectural comment and reflections on the rapidly changing scene.  So Riverwatch was born!

With editorial freedom for some 12 years, I found myself producing illustrated double-page spread articles covering a diverse range of subjects.  The publishers who acquired the magazine seemed happy enough but my lack of modern equipment meant that some poor soul had to convert my handwritten ramblings into print. [Now I have the pleasure to be that ‘poor soul’ – TO]

So be it – then I went global – drawing illustrated maps of Maritime cities remembered from old travels which formed the basis of an exhibition held in Tony’s Greenwich Gallery (see  http://www.peterkentgreenwich.co.uk)