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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 !


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.


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.


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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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!


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

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!