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The Cranes Come Down

One by one, having reached their zenith some time ago, the new tower blocks which we see across the tideway near completion – their surrounding scaffolding is dismantled leaving the brand new building exposed to the elements.  The bold and somewhat stark façades stand out, with only their corner balconies and window frames finished in smoked glass.  The adjacent brick apartment blocks look older than their newcomers and provide the river frontage with a kind of variety which one has come to expect for marketing purposes.  I hope the newcomers will enjoy their Thameside outlook as it twists and turns down towards the sea. It seems strange to me that even the great, white cruise liners seem to provide passengers’ cabins with their own private balcony – it was this week that Silver Cloud passed by Greenwich from the Pool of London;  well worth a visit by DLR to Tower Hill to see the great, white whale alongside HMS Belfast.

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The panoramic view from Trinity House and the old PLA HQ reminds one of yesteryear glories when the fruit and butter was unloaded by  cranes off ships moored up against Tooley Street’s great warehouse.  The towering Shard, City Hall and More London Place office blocks puncture the once familiar South Bank.

As we returned from Tower Pier by Thames Clipper, we sidled past the ‘popsie’ stewardess’ greeting Silver Cloud embarking passengers.  Full of anticipation as the baggage porters wheel their luxury baggage onto the ferry which whisks them across to HMS Belfast’s gang plank, then up on board for their two-week long accommodation in utter luxury.

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However, we arrive back in Greenwich to see both escorting tugs return  to nurse her through Tower Bridge’s raised bascules and tow her downstream off Rotherhithe, where Silver Cloud is turned around to face the sea adventures ahead.

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The gleaming, white ship slides past the changing Greenwich waterfront – many of the passengers wave farewell from their balconies, the same size as many of the new builds ashore!  The newly arrived tenants no doubt shyly return the ship-board greeting – the etiquette for this not easily explained.  Alas, I await someone to notice that we are both waving like mad as she disappears around the floodlit O2 and the Manhattan style of Canary Wharf’s illuminations.

Later, as I write, the incoming congregation to the Royal College Chapel is welcomed by a tolling bell which has invited landsmen and sailors through the generations.  The incoming tide brings up a bevy of yachtsmen who might well think it’s for them alone!

Newcomers would be well advised to explore historic Greenwich with its splendid institutions and artistic happenings in the town which are promoted to give a richer experience to one and all!

Information about Silver Cloud

Luxury accommodation for about 300.  75% have teakwood balconies best suited for discerning, well-travelled passengers – especially American – who will be calling at Dublin, Fowey, Leith (Edinburgh), Invergorden, Portree, Falmouth and Southampton.  Sounds a nice trip!

Kents Gone West

It’s holiday time and the Kents went down to distant Cornwall to stay in St. Just in Roseland, overlooking the 13th Century church set in its unique, semi-tropical garden and adjacent creek.

Relaxed at last after the long car journey (especially as I had to double back from Bristol to reclaim those essential pills left at home!).  As soon as you cross over to the beautiful peninsula by King Harry’s car ferry you are in a world of yesteryear – the deep water channel is where the Americans boarded their tank-carrying craft for the D Day Normandy landing.  Just a mile or two away is St Mawes Castle with its commanding views of Falmouth’s important port, also linked by ferry.

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Falmouth is a working port with all the cranage required for such a strategic location. ‘Packetboats’ once plied from here carrying the mail far and wide.

The new National Maritime Museum is well worth a visit.

The ferry from St Mawes provides a regular and interesting crossing.

Still an important service point for big ships, tankers, bulk freighters and HMS Argus were being bunkered in the bay.  Meanwhile, here in St. Mawes, the annual Regatta for the traditional working fleet was being competed for by 20 or so oyster smacks – a delight for the eye as they weaved in and out of St. Mawes’ harbour in a background of rich woodlands and rolling pastures.

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It was a joy to watch both my grandchildren at the helm of tiny Optimists, learning the ropes just as Drake and Raleigh did on these very same waters.  We oldies spent our day relaxed portside in a more leisurely manner, hobnobbing with the Harbour Master about other sailing friends alas now long gone.

A most encouraging chat over future projects with the waterside gallery owner will spur me on to yet another maritime pictorial series – perhaps focussing on The Roseland and St Mawes Sailing Club which boasts various classes in unusual numbers.  Luckily we were there at the right time to see them preparing at the start and finishing just in front of their portside HQ, with the officer of the day hard at work.  Each of the oyster smacks had an easily identified top sail which could be recognised from some distance away.

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Similar regattas and barge matches are held along the Thames Estuary during the sailing season.  Here again, the traditional tan colour is being changed in design and colour utilising corporate sponsorship – a bit of a shock for the traditionalist.  Even the hull colours are being brightened up!  Both Kent and Essex sailing smacks are to be seen competing in their own class.  Visually they are not dissimilar in design to the famous pilot cutters which were once very prevalent to the western approaches of English and Welsh ports.

For my previous ‘big birthday’, the Kent family crewed the Thames Sailing Barge Repertor from Faversham to compete in the Swale and Southend matches – a remarkable three-day event.  On the last night, anchored off Southend Pier, I was banned by my fellow crew to the upper deck because of my snoring, which echoed from stem to stern.  My all-night vigil was fascinating as the barge swung around with the tidal changes providing a challenge to my navigation skills separating moving vessels from the flashing buoys;  no wonder my 80th birthday family lunch was held on board the Dutch barge Leven Is Strijd  safely moored in static West India Dock.

Getting Out Onto the River

Each year we try to spend a day or two up on the upper reaches of the Thames.

Our favourite outing is by boat up to Kew, Richmond, Kingston and Hampton Court.  One has to turn up at about 10:15 at Westminster Pier to catch the regular ferry, leisurely enjoying the varied river reaches.  The skipper usually points out the principle sights but is more restrained in the rural stretches.

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A new and fast way is to catch the commuter river bus from Blackfriars Pier which will take you up to Putney where you join the Thames Path up to Richmond and beyond, even to Lechlade!

From Greenwich the fast Thames Clippers provide an all-day wanders ticket when one can stop off when and where you like.  Costa coffee and naughty biscuits to be had, but why not try a pub crawl which takes a little more planning.  Phone 020 7364 4900 for a copy of Waterside Gastronomic Guide published by Tower Hamlets, which I enjoyed illustrating in spite of being on the wagon!

At Kew and Richmond Piers there are delightful eateries only a pace or two away.  Kingston market and church are worth exploring too.  If you go the whole trip to Hampton Court you need to use the simplistic on-board bar, because you don’t get up there ‘til tea time (suggest you take the train back).

City Cruises from Greenwich take you to Embankment Pier where their handy Hispaniola floating bar and restaurant lies just upstream from the pier.  The Beckwith family from the Isle of Dogs built up their fleet for the millennium celebrations and have upgraded with continental craft.

The Livett family have invested in many different types of craft:  The Elizabethan, an elegant Mississippi stern wheeler (built in Greenwich) is great fun – Ben and Venetia Kent had their wedding reception on board – great photo opportunities during the cruise!  Their largest vessel Dixie Queen is a floating restaurant and night club based at Butlers Wharf;  when fully floodlit, it’s a very glamorous floating venue which we often see pass by in party mood.getting out001

The Woods family have the most sophisticated craft, which operate from their pier just near Temple Underground station.  Their monthly champagne lunch is the ideal impressive way to view the magic of London’s majestic waterfront.  They introduced the Australian-built Thames Clippers to Father Thames.  These local ‘watermen’ not only provide a living for river folk but also support the great occasions played out on the Thames, and have taken a leadership role dealing with the PLA Environment Agency and Mayor Boris’ lot.  Many historic craft have been upgraded to conform to even more rigorous safety regulations.

Other tripper boats ply their trade from Central London’s piers which provide a variety of services within the capital.  A short trip downriver to the Thames Barrier and back is available from Greenwich too –  a Sunday evening trip leaves Greenwich at 7:00pm and cruises up to Westminster returning by 9:00 – a friendly evening out enhanced by a drink from their bar. Many historic craft have been upgraded to conform to ever more rigorous safety regulations.

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Chartering craft for special occasions and voyages is fun.  Judy and I boarded a Dutch barge from Surrey Docks all the way up to Pangbourne – a memorable 7-day and night occasion, viewing Father Thames from an on-board deck chair with no responsibilities what so e’re.  A later holiday on hotel boat African Queen provided an ‘all-in’ experience.  The South African owners looked after 10 guests or so in a very special style (which we would like to repeat).

Years ago, son Ben and I with Ken and Rupert boarded the Thames Spritsail ‘tin pot’ sailing barge Ironsides for some memorable barge matches on the Blackwater and Colne rivers – our week-long voyage around the Maplin Sands and Thames Estuary.  A similar adventure appears in another blog.

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.

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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?

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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).