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Yellow sand amongst the rich brown history!

20th June003

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!!