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Competition on the Thames.

Woken by the sound of oarsmen boarding their light craft on the crunchy foreshore – our next door neighbour is the Trafalgar Rowing Centre, home of Curlew and Globe Rowing Clubs. They are always early risers and they bring welcome activity even at low tide when there are less big ship movements and a spacious launch pad.


As a family we used to camp by the Thames at Remenham during the Henley Regatta which is being rowed as I write. Alas the rural atmosphere of yesteryear has been commercialised to such an extent that we keep miles away from the dense traffic and the crowded towpath now full of stalls and fast food.

Perhaps one should go to the picturesque Marlow which holds a town regatta or down to Gravesend where the club house is set amongst a wonderful promenade (at high tide the movements of shipping in and out of the docks is at its busiest).

The historic Thames waterfront downstream from the town pier is full of architectural interest and marine artefacts with a curious canal lock and basin which once linked the Thames to the Medway at Rochester. The fortifications provided a lethal cross fire situation with its twin across the river at East Tilbury – both worth a visit.

More action on the river on 13th July when the annual barge driving match takes place with the midday-ish start off the Royal Naval College – this traditional Water and Lighterman’s event echoes the days when craft were reliant on a large sweep (oar) and a muscular crew and the incoming tide to carry you through all the bridges to the finish at Westminster.


Remember to add the Great River Race to your diary for Saturday 7th September. The start is best seen from Pepys Wharf, Deptford – from the footbridge linking the South Bank or up at  Richmond with the finish at Ham – it attracts over 300 rowed craft.


Triumphant celebrations up in Windsor as the whole of the Royal family has a day out on ‘Gloriana’ – the 18 oared state barge was used for the first time as it was designed – a river conveyance which is most suited for the upper reaches. Lord Sterling’s dream has at last come to reality – a lasting legacy to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And to have such a glorious summer’s day as well – do you remember the 3rd June 2012 appalling conditions? Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh literally weathered the storm to be with her people all the way downstream to take the salute on HMS President – Bravo!

As mentioned earlier, another river celebration will be rowed out on Saturday when the Thames Watermen and Lightermen compete on board their traditional steel lighters on the rising tide to pass under the capital’s bridges propelled and steered by the use of a great sweep oar.

Hopefully one of the keenest of the PLA’s crew will witness his crew’s departure from Greenwich Pier recovered enough from his accident of last year which kept him hospitalised for some 100 days.

Mike Russell was crushed while helping out when a large Dutch barge became out of control. I wish him well and look forward to see him out and about on the Royal Tideway.

Holiday Ferry memories through the years

Our recent series of vehicle crossings across Cornwall’s River Fal stirred memories of previous crossings such as in Malaya where a motorised pile of logs transported a crowded bus over a swirling jungle stream.

Perhaps the Townsend Thoresen tragedy was the worst incident one can think of. A visit to Feltham’s tank testing facility spelt out, in model form, how carelessness in closing the main bow doors allowed water to sweep through this modern ferry and caused it to capsize. I heard the case being tried at The Old Bailey – so sad.

Ferries have always intrigued me  – the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, the Venetian Vaporetto – the Staten Island Ferry , to name just the most glamorous that I have travelled on.

Now on London River we have the sleek Thames Clippers which originated in Sydney, Australia – one can now catch a Clipper from Blackfriars Pier (next to the new cross-river station) up to Putney – a commuter service which also serves Chelsea and the massive new developments on the south bank at Vauxhall.

Dear old Greenwich relied on ferries once – prior to the foot tunnel and, of course, the Blackwall Tunnel.  Watermen were outraged as their trade was depleted. Down by Deptford Creek ferries thrived – the horse drawn ferries to the Isle of Dogs on the site of Wood Wharf served the ever growing docks at Millwall. One remaining pedestrian-only cross-river ferry still plies between Canary Wharf and Hilton Docklands (for Canada Water). I wonder if this was once the Ford Ferry boat between Belvedere and Dagenham.

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A less publicised ferry runs between the O2 and Trinity Buoy Wharf where the Thames Clippers are based. The Woolwich Free Ferry mustn’t be forgotten – a great family treat when it was steam propelled!

Countless watermen plied their trade within Docklands as well as to and fro amongst the shipping in the River.

The Gravesend – Tilbury ferry is an essential pedestrian link – years ago I can remember our family Vauxhall being carried on board (pre Dartford Crossing M25) on our way to Newquay in Cornwall!

For a cruise from Gravesend up river to Greenwich phone 01732 353 448.

I wonder if there will be a ferry for workers at the new Thames Gateway Port across to Gravesend?

Thames Travelers

My mid morning coffee break was taken on ‘top deck’ with its large picture window which gives an amazing panoramic view of the tide from Convoys Wharf in Deptford down to the Greenwich Peninsula and the O2 with Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs across the other side of the River ( the latter provides dramatic night views as well). The top deck is on our fourth floor and easily accessible by the mini lift which we had installed a year and a half ago – all because of my ailing knees.

Just as I write, a yellow skiff with two rowers and a cox come ashore on the ebb tide – a most unusual sight. I bellowed out a welcome and thinking that no one from the next door rowing club would be around, I went down to the foreshore to welcome them, but all was OK as pre-arranged stowage for their fibre glass craft in the Globe boathouse smoothed their arrival. With a tray of welcoming tea I found out that they had rowed all the way from Oxford – having previously tackled The Rhine. Father had rowed at the Curlew and Globe when at Eltham College and now lived in California – the two strapping boys are off to Trinity and Berkley in the Fall. Their voyage down the historic Royal River with dad at ‘the wheel’ was a memorable part of their European Tour which included ferry hopping in the Cyclades.

cox and sons

I was very pleased to tell them that my son Ben had been to Eltham too but had learnt his rowing skills at Boston, USA on the River Charles. There he met his wife Venetia a cox while at Caius College Cambridge – one never knows who one will meet on the water!!

Meanwhile another youngster wearing knee pads and wellies is dodging the  in-coming wake breaking on the foreshore. Armed with bucket and trowel he investigates the waterline for curious creatures and perhaps abandoned treasure – not an unusual sight as parties of mudlarks are often seen on both sides of the River clearing up people’s chuck outs – a welcome sight.

Later in the day a much larger arrival at East Greenwich. Victoria Deep Water Wharf is the extensive aggregate complex which was once a container port for the short sea trade. The Arco Avon, an aggregate and sand dredger arrived on the incoming tide – she swung around ready for a quick departure. Crewmen at her stern cast lines ashore to a waiting stevedore or landsman in his yellow high viz jacket – just as well as the mooring lines were hastily wrapped around the mooring point.


Her starboard side conveyor belt crane swung over the pedestrian Thames Path and shot wettish sand into the designated area. An awaiting grab crane manoeuvred into position to attempt to divert the incoming cargo into more orderly heaps.

The unperturbed cyclist and runner dashed under this moving conveyor belt with little concern.

Extraordinary to think that this material was excavated out in the estuary’s designated dredging channels and remains salt water damp until it is made into mini mountains where it eventually dries out just like a beach. No doubt this trade has boomed as high rise flats now crowd this once unfashionable reach of industrial South East London.

An unexpected bus ride to Belvedere’s depot gave us both an insight into the urbanised hillside where once great woodlands thrived. Our Victorian forebears certainly knew how to cram their terrace developments further up to the higher ground away from the marshy lowlands which have now been exploited into vast industrial and distribution estates.

Downtown Woolwich has new life injected into its sorrowful state in and around the Arsenal.  A quintet of 13 storey flats, at birth betrayed by their give away lift cores proudly numbered for all to see, loom over the ever approaching CrossRail – just like the impact of the first electrified trains and the wonder of the DLR cross river links bring fresh hope of employment and manoeuvrability of population to Canary Wharf and the City of London.

A strange coincidence comes to mind as I write – the last visit to Belvedere’s riverbanks was to draw the Ford works across in Dagenham – now closed. The workers from the Kentish side commuted by a ferry link with plenty of parking too. As I sketched I hailed a lone traveler on a sail board as he came into view. Full of curiosity I hailed “ where are you bound” the lone punter replied “Southend” – “where are you from” – “Weston-super-Mare he cried!!


I have never worked out which way he came – via Bristol?- the Kennet Canal and then the Thames? – who knows?

Downstream memories

Just beyond the revamped Cutty Sark pub with its riverside cluster of ‘picnic tables’ is a surprising private garden.

Peering through the railings is a joy as each season provides interesting planting, including handsome trees. It was cultivated by a knowledgable horticulturalist who had landscaped St Katherine’s Dock. Her riverside greenhouse lies just in sight, but I do remember the adjacent ivy covered out building which has attracted various artists who loved to depict the ever changing river scenes from various lookout points.

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Ann Christopherson and Terry Scales just adored the barges, lighters and cranes that once crowded Lovell’s Wharf. The tall tri legged Scots cranes dominated the shore line where construction steel was stored.

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The sign-written Lovells Wharf denoted where Pipers used to build lighters and other small craft including the famous sprit sail barges which were such a feature of the estuarial Thames.

Peter Piper came from a long line of who had prospered while the port was still swinging – well remembered for his general hospitality as Master of the Waterman’s Company.

I have a vivid recollection, with Peter, was viewing the wrecked ‘Marchioness’ pleasure boat which was hauled up into his yard for investigation after she had been run down by ‘Bow Belle,’ an aggregate coaster one dark night in 1989 under Southwark Bridge – (a memorial in Southwark Cathedral commemorates the 51 party goers drowned).

Believe it or not, while viewing the wreckage, the Bow Belle chugged past – still in service in spite of the ongoing coroners investigation – her distinctive engine beats still echoes in my mind.

The operation of the slipway and two floating docks passed on to Paul Deverell – the working yard still continues to servicing Dutch barges, tourist launches et al.

Mike Turk, another enterprising waterman had built, in Turkey, a replica of Hornblower’s frigate which features in film and TV productions. Deverell’s  floating dock was used for its annual upkeep – I was asked to produce drawings of ‘The Grand Turk’ suitable for a guide book to this facsimile period ship. An experience I will never forget is being on board by myself surrounded by marine impedimenta of that period – looking out to the Royal Naval College through the cabin’s slanted windows surrounded by instruments and rifles ready for action – it was surreal. The gun deck below with cannons and hammocks, the tables set for sailor’s ‘square meals’ were all to be illustrated as well as d detailed layout plan – how many artists get the privilege of stepping into a living maritime treasure?

grand Turk cropped

The unique floating dock and working wharf are threatened with closure and I prepared a series of drawings showing different alternative proposals of a new shipyard further downstream. This is now built and ready for occupation.

Meanwhile the rest of the second phase of Greenwich Wharf is now under construction. The handling of the landscaping of the first phase closest to Ballast Quay is almost rural – the first two completed residential blocks have an unusual massing which gives angular balcony layouts providing excellent river views.

BPTW, the local architectural firm, commissioned me to prepare illustrations of Greenwich Wharf – an overall redevelopment of 4 once working wharves (Lovell’s, Granite Badcock’s, and Piper’s wharves)

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Courtesy of BPTW

An interesting Flemish style of 18th century water mill was discovered during site clearance which I enjoyed viewing and attempted to visualise how it worked – part of the original paddle wheel was discovered as well as chunky wooden foundations – it is believed that much of the machinery was re-erected elsewhere – (a useful bit of kit).

Yellow sand amongst the rich brown history!

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For centuries ballast was essential for sailing craft which had just offloaded their diverse cargos from every port in the world.

Gravel ballast was the easiest to obtain and store where needed – however stones of all shapes and sizes came in as part of a cargo – down alongside of Blackheath in Hyde Vale a diverse collection can be seen holding the boundaries of the heath from washing away especially into the conduits which abound here.

Adjacent to Dead Dog Bay alongside Granite Wharf lies a boundary wall composed of the most diverse collection of stones, more than likely from Mowlem’s yard.

Ballast was not only moved around in lighters, as it still is today, but also in spritsail barges which are peculiar to the Thames and its estuaries. These barges use leeboards for direction of steerage being essential for such a shallow draft. These were the ideal craft to move up to the heads of the estuarial creeks to off load London rubbish – which was used by farmers as manure.

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Such craft were built at Piper’s Wharf where, back in 1870 Maudslay, Sons and Field even built two iron sailing clippers similar in size to the Cutty Sark. (Both Halloween and Blackadder competed in the China and Australia trade routes.)

As a lad up in Colchester, I used to cycle down to The Hythe, an ancient wharf used by the Romans.  Trade, in my cycling days, included the import of special clay from Holland used in the manufacture of specialist fire bricks.  Coal and coke from Newcastle came in by Everards coasters – a two-way grain and fertiliser trade and, of course, aggregates from nearby Fingringhoe (opposite Wivenhoe on the River Colne).  The Priors still use revitalised craft to bring building grains from their extensive sand pits way up the Thames and into Deptford Creek.

I wonder how much of the neighbouring giant building schemes were reliant on concrete from nearby Brewery Wharf.  Those who visited Stratford in the pre-Olympic days might have noted how much of the material arrived at the nearby rail sidings.  However, the anticipated barge traffic somehow never really materialised.

Europe’s biggest civil engineering projects such as Cross Rail and the proposed sewage tunnel will be heavily dependent on a two-way transport system  Both new and old traditional companies are girding their loins for such a competitive trade.  I have spotted new vessels on my riverwatch surveys, including tugs and barges.

Greenwich is London’s busiest aggregate transit centre – just by the O2 or down in Charlton, which has its own rail sidings at Angerstein Wharf where sea aggregates are imported on a regular basis.  The material is sorted and washed for use.  I was once presented with a mammoth’s molar tooth but not one of the many bombs and shells which have been dredged up.  While studying Rich Sylvester’s excellent East Greenwich History map, I found I am overlooking a V2 bombsite which landed just off shore near the Trafalgar Tavern.

Harping back to barges and lighters – traces of ship builders’ pillings can be seen on our Highbridge foreshore.  Bob, our old river friend, had to clear these every day after the tide had tried to obscure them with the ever-changing sand and mud coverings – clear enough to allow welders and the like to maintain the hundreds of lighters which were essential to the Port of London’s once extensive trade – ah me!

Downstream towards the O2

Traces of the old working Thames can still be seen beyond The Old Royal Naval College downstream to the giant Victorian power station and beyond to the Georgian terrace of Ballast Quay.

Downstream towards the O2002

One by one working wharves, cranes and all equipment have been swept away ready for redevelopment. The East Greenwich Peninsula was once an industrial hub. Do you remember the cluster of giant grain silos and the magnificent cranes along Lovell’s Wharf serving the once busy waterfront where lighters and coasters plied their trade?

Downstream towards the O2003

However the last working wharf at Victoria Deep still attracts impressive aggregate ships, and a fleet of tugs and lighters transfer their cargos to up river wharves. From my studio I keep a friendly eye on arrivals and departures, which are reliant on the right state of the tide to make a move. I am much impressed how fast the self off loading gear can empty a ship and how quickly mountains of stone clippings can grow – interestingly these change to a darker shade of grey when rained upon.

Downstream towards the O2001

Back to the river and shoreline – it’s become noticeable that the combination of a stronger tide/current together with the multi hulled Thames Clippers mean that dramatic changes are happening to the river bed at low tide levels up towards the embankments or river walls. The scouring effect of the double wash from the fast moving craft is exposing long forgotten structures and wreckage. One must remember that their excellent service up to town has been extended to a rush hour service between Blackfriars and Putney – so more traffic. This new service utilises the ‘old river bus craft’  which haven’t the same glamour as the two types of fast ferry. These Australian craft were, surprise surprise, banned from operating in Sydney Harbour for the very same reason as my moan… – the remainder of the fleet are in Bangkok!

The Thames Clipper depot is at Trinity Buoy Wharf just opposite the O2 – the Putney service starts in the early hours from here in order to catch the early birds in the upper reaches – which reminds me that Canada Geese have adopted our beach as a nursery , which is a welcome sight as we watch the families progress, reliant on tides to fulfil their sleeping pattern – all huddled together as the foreshore becomes available when the tide drops away – more of this anon!!

News from the frontier

There have been dramatic changes to Deptford’s historic waterfront along the Creekside and the frontages to the River Thames – once derelict wharves and areas of wasteland.

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A far sighted West End property agent, Len Wallis, realised the potential of such a water side frontage. Upon a visit to his office amidst the remains of the Deptford Power Station, fronting historic Stowage, I was lucky to be shown what he had in mind – now one can see the reality of his dreams.

The award winning Laban Centre for Dance fronts the creek in a dramatic way – I was invited to provide presentation sketches for a press visit – alas the piles of scrap and waste obscured the site – this is where the Borough had one of its waste disposal yards where one could dump old beds and the like!!  I highly recommend a visit to the Swiss designed theatre and studios – they make very good coffee so you can admire the dramatic architecture and the youthful dancers!!

Back next door a set of high rise apartments – stylish as well – have attracted new residents to this once forlorn area which was once a chemical dye fixing plant using copperas shipped in from Whitstable of all places!!

Further down the creek development looms over Faircharm Estate once full of artists and such – Cockpit Arts however still thrives – their periodic open days are a must!!

The Creekside Education Centre alongside the Halfpenny Hatch footbridge supplies a  ‘hands on’ Creekside experience.

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Brewery Wharf still supplies Essex mined aggregates for the adjacent cement making plant which was handy for the adjoining development sites at New Capital Wharf and at Paynes & Borthwick  – I take great pleasure in watching the Prior fleet of little ships bearing the golden sand from my boyhood River Colne where I used to cycle at speed through puddles and up the mountains of excavated sand with great glee.

Creek Road has seen a mini boom of cafes, pubs and of course a bicycle shop!!  The heart of Deptford has changed dramatically – the smart new flats at Paynes & Borthwick  Wharf are now on the market and worth an inspection – blessed with great cross river views and the interesting Twinkle Park. While visiting take note of the great Dockyard Wall which obscures the historic Master Shipwright’s Palace which featured in most historic paintings of the King’s Yard – the birth place of the Royal Navy.

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It is not surprising that John Penn’s shipyard next door fitted the newly invented steam power into existing wind powered frigates, which enabled men of war to go when and where they were required. The family run marine engineering works was located just off Blackheath Hill and many of the family lived close by in substantial houses reflecting their success in all things maritime.

Deptford’s innovations included the Trinity House depot for lightships and buoyage –  funded by the collection and sale of aggregates for ballast, essential for outward bound empty vessels.  P&O and General Steam Navigation had depots just here as well.  Ferranti’s giant power station had a long jetty ( which still remains) to offload Newcastle coal needed for the generation of electric power – which was distributed by cables using the newly built railway up to the City and into the West End’s theatre world – all dramatic stuff!!

The opening of the University of Greenwich campus required student accommodation and, here again, I was asked to provide drawings to illustrate the site and location in Creek Road.  Goldsmiths College, Trinity College and Laban enjoy this nearby facility adding new life to this part of Deptford.

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Looking forward to another Thames event

Planning next year’s Tall Ships visit to London must be well under way – I hope that, as last year, some of these splendid ships will be accessible to the public in West India Dock. The gathering of craft there for the Olympics was sensational.

Olympics at West India Dock

Mid river mooring in the Pool and Lower Pool could echo The Avenue of Sail honouring the Queen’s Jubilee – perhaps even mooring at the buoys just off the Royal Naval College and where the cable ships lay at the site of the proposed Cruise Terminal.

Avenue of Sail - master

The tour around on board is very much the essence of the occasion – vivid memories of Cherbourg, Amsterdam and Newcastle and the Festival of the Sea at Bristol and Portsmouth come to mind. The quay side musical events were magical. There is certainly quay side space at The Royals where the annual Boat Show is held – but a confined area is much more atmospheric. The cost of running such a show is even more pricey with our dominating Health and Safety regulations so I could imagine that a closed event at the West India Dock could be feasible – perhaps even a parade of sail through or beyond the Barrier – who knows!!?

Tall Ships and the Flotilla

Next year Trinity House – the lighthouse and buoy-age organisation celebrates its 500th anniversary:  another golden opportunity for me to visualise their diverse activities – watch this space!!

A German cruise ship Columbus II visited Greenwich recently – my attention to her was drawn by her wonderful klaxon horn announcing her departure speeded by Sargent Brothers of Charlton who look after fixing and loosening the mid river moorings – a pleasure I once shared from the safety of their motor launch.

Yet another German cruise ship arrived in the glorious bright early June weather – looking splendid from my studio window both day and night – with the tasteful flood lighting dressed overall in sparkling white lights.

Deutschland’s second visit this year – it was always a mooring spot for German cruise ships and I hope this pre-war tradition will continue.


Lest we forget – those in peril on the sea

Last week’s visit to HQS Wellington moored in Central London’s Embankment (just by Temple Station) needs to be recorded while it is still fresh in my mind. The WW2 sloop is open to the public only on Sundays and Mondays and it really is a privilege to view the convoys exhibition so skilfully displayed in London’s only floating Livery Hall – which is usually fully used as the HQ of the worshipful Company of Master Mariners – hence the rather odd opening times.

HQS Wellington

A unique opportunity to inspect the ship and its wonderful maritime treasures on board should be seen now. It’s interesting that the well tried convoy technique of protecting valuable cargos was first used by the East India Company.

In WW1 the disastrously successful German attacks mainly by U Boats horrify – where over 3,300 ships were lost with a loss of 12,000 crew still astonishes me, whilst in WW2 4,786 merchant ships were sunk and 24,000 men lost.

The convoy system managed to lower the onslaught – ships similar to the HMS Wellington escorted convoys from mid-Atlantic and off Freetown conveying essential commodities for the UK as well as the necessary troops and armaments to launch the D-Day offensive into Europe.

Back in Greenwich a fascinating memorial in the RNC chapel records the loss of naval personnel serving on board merchant ship coordinating the convoy system. On board Cutty Sark there is a significant memorial to personnel of the Merchant Navy worth inspecting.

The Merchant Navy now has memorials in many ports. The national memorial is in London’s Trinity Square Gardens close to the Tower of London and records both ships and their crews that were lost in both wars – a very sobering list of casualties can be viewed at Trinity House upon demand.

MV memorial Tower of LOndon

Upon returning I felt obliged to use the new Blackfriars Station as per my previous blog. There the famous gold incised European city destinations wall has been preserved and will amuse Europhiles. I decided to alight at the Elephant and Castle and crossed the road to catch the famously wandering 188 bus which also links Tower Bridge to Surrey Docks and Deptford to Greenwich and the O2 – all very useful!!