A new high-speed patrol vessel has recently been introduced by the UK’s Border Force to protect the estuarial approaches to the capital.The spread of shallow waters off the Kent and Essex coasts can provide a secret and fast way into the capital for human traffickers, drugs and gun runners.
The new ‘Eagle’ of the Thames can outpace these smart alicks who twist and turn through the estuarial approaches. She showed her paces off to the press and media and also took me by surprise – she gave hardly any time for me to reach for my sketch book! She will be based at Wapping, the HQ of London’s maritime police. From here conventional patrol boats are stationed and maintained using fast rib patrol boats capable of transporting platoons of commando-like coppers with speed, flashing lights and sirens, just like their land-based counterparts. Regular practice runs are a sight to see as well as their smaller conventional craft which have plodded up and down the tideway for donkeys’ years. Fast reaction is now the name of the game, and closure of conventional water-based police transport.
The Greenwich police station and residential facilities just off Royal Hill have recently closed their doors, but the alarming passage of police cars out on a ‘shout’ still prevails causing young and old to leap out of the way!!
The UK’s first marine police were based along the Thames since 1798 to protect the vast amount of shipping which lay in the tideway awaiting space to unload at the licensed quays where HM Customs could raise extensive import duties. Pressure from the East India Company and similar great trading companies forced the opening of further police stations downstream from Wapping to the Isle of Dogs and North Kent.
Nowadays the Metropolitan River Police cover the Thames from Teddington through Westminster, the City and Docklands to the Dartford Crossing, where both Kent and Essex protect the Estuary with their specialist marine divisions. HM Customs, Trinity House, RNLI and other institutions keep a weather eye open, with the Royal Navy taking responsibility for the open sea with HM Fisheries and Border Control craft playing a more significant role.
The security situation is for ever challenging and has always been so. That’s why Lord Nelson – after his 1821 success at Copenhagen – was then drafted into protecting the East Coast and Thames Estuary with the formation of a fast reaction fleet manned by sailormen who traded in these waters. Trinity House created a cross-river barrage with their craft at the height of the threat. The so-named ‘fencibles’ fitted the bill to form a defensive flotilla organisation controlled by the Royal Navy and the City of London Corporation. The rowing and ‘boatie’ community still volunteer!!
Recording the birth and growth of London’s Docklands has indeed been a privilege for an octogenarian whose artistic endeavour has been focused on the transformation from sad demise of the up-river port to joyous rebirth into a virile and energetic quarter of our great city.
As a student armed with the necessary pass, I had gained admittance to all of London’s Docklands and sketched the extraordinary change of use, and feel charged to comment on what I can now see from my Greenwich studio looking cross-river into the heart of Canary Wharf as it grows and grows.
Regular journeys of discovery armed with a pensioner travel pass has enabled me to get up and go.
Well, I have discovered the kind heart of those who worked and lived there. Like old people do, I took a tumble while alighting from one of the buses which criss-cross the estate. Instant concern and help from fellow travellers got me upright and dusted me down – even offered to see me home!! The kindness of a young teaching assistant from George Green School should be specially mentioned as she spotted my travel pass on the bus floor and immediately got off two stops further down its route and ran back to return it to me. Meanwhile, a kindly street Gurkha polished a nearby street bench for me and kept guard while I recovered.
By chance, this incident took place outside one of the first office buildings on the site, bravely occupied by a firm of solicitors – Littlejohn Fraser at 1 Park Place and a temporary home of the Docklands Business Club which was breathing life into the new business community. Now it was being redeveloped by Canary Wharf into a 60-storey landmark of striking diamond design which I had been monitoring since site clearance!!
West India Docks
Aerial photo showing previous proposal for No.5 Park Place
Another aerial picture showing completed building
To the right is Hertesmere House, now also demolished, next to Museum of Docklands – note DLR train at site of Canary Wharf’s grand station.
The artist records construction of Canary Wharf
Drawn to the UK by a weakening pound, hordes of tourists have hit London Town. Nowhere better to see this than at Westminster Bridge Pier, where the photo opportunities are at their most inviting as crowds pass through the Bridge and river pier, where tourist boats gather to convey passengers to view London’s most eclectic landmarks from the upper decks’ elevated viewpoints. In particular, the unexpected view of Big Ben, now clad in a gigantic network of heavy-duty scaffolding which is likely to obscure the Palace of Westminster from public view – no folks, nothing to do with the gunpowder plot or the drama of Brexit which might well last for ever!!
The capital, however, is changing rapidly as large-scale civil engineering projects are taking place on and under the river. Giant tunnels are being built under the tideway, with huge depots built to convey new materials and spoil serviced by a new breed of strange looking tugs and cranes. The only way to see this enterprise is from a passenger craft. City Cruises run a fleet between Westminster and Greenwich; the open top deck provides that opportunity for iconic panoramas of Old Father Thames and the brash new high-rise structures on both sides of the river, all at a reasonable pace. The speedier Thames Clippers glide past at a rate of knots in an enclosed environment not dissimilar to the comforts of an airliner! However, lofty cranes show the hot spots of construction. The now-familiar high rise landmarks are being obscured by even more projects as far downstream as Woolwich, while upstream we see similar blights to the bucolic tideway as far as Battersea and Chelsea – go and explore!
The Thames sailing barge ‘Will’ slips downstream as elegantly as the feeding swans – what a contrast! ‘Mein Schiff 3’ arriving at Tilbury’s Cruise Ship Terminal, as reported in my recent ‘Riverwatch’.
Meanwhile, no news on the proposed Terminal downstream from Greenwich – handling the numbers of passengers into Central London could be a problem.
Just like John Masefield, I felt the same desire to climb the heights up to Blackheath and onwards following the Thames down to the sea.
As Autumn springs upon us, this urge increases as the threat of winter’s beastliness becomes more urgent. John Masefield, the poet laureate, once lived at our home at No.1, Diamond Terrace here In Greenwich, so likewise one must get up and go to revisit the Thames Estuary.
The low estuarial creeks and tideways have always appealed since my boyhood days on Mersea Island on the Blackwater – also to be found at Leigh on Sea where freshly-boiled seafood abounds in a settlement of sheds and slipways wedged between slow-moving tideway and vast areas of estuarial mud much loved by bird spotters and from the speedy commuter trains between Fenchurch Street and Shoeburyness, also passing the fortified artillery range where explosives echo guns of yesteryear protecting the capital during the German wars. Likewise, a string of abandoned estuarial forts recently visited by lucky day trippers on board the paddle steamer ‘Waverley’s annual trip.
My train day away from West Ham (Jubilee Interchange) sped me down to sunny Southend and back for a tenner. Here the central station is on the pedestrianised High Street which runs down the steep Cliffside to the mile-long pier with its toy train down to the very end.
Alas, the end of season atmosphere thinned the crowds except for adventurous pensioners armed with their travel passes who, like me, enjoy a day out to remind us of yesteryears’ many jaunts. Another bright October day dawned to beckon us down to Thanet where both Broadstairs and Ramsgate are both attractive seaside resorts.
The fast new road links beyond the M25 and down the A2 mean they are only just over 80 minutes away, following the Thames Estuary as one rises over the marshy River Wensum just by Reculver Towers which once guarded this navigational short cut for Roman galleys inwards to Londinium and a fort to keep Saxon invaders at bay with the higher headland of Thanet dominating the approaches from the English Channel.
Both Southend in Essex and Ramsgate in Kent are high on our once-a-year list as both enjoy cliff top views which fascinate. The end of the mile-long pier was just visible in the shimmering sunlight as it bounced off estuarial waters and gleaming mud banks bejewelled with fishing craft. Likewise, perched high above the busy Ramsgate Harbour, one had fine views of pilot boats coming and going and estuarial work boats as they squeeze through the narrow entrance channel into their sheltered pontoons and moorings.
The new lifeboat station and harbour master’s lookout points dominate both inner and outer basins which are usually packed with leisure craft. The Royal Temple Yacht Club perched high on the Royal Esplanade offers traditional, unrivalled amenities for both visitor and club members. Memories of unfortunate Dutch, Belgian and French flotillas of Dunkirk celebrants becalmed mid-channel creating hospitality problems for a postponed welcome party at the club where local volunteers were hastily gathered to host a replacement reception.
Lying close by in shore was the Trinity Vessel ‘Galetea’. Built back in 2008, she has patrolled and maintained the network of navigational buoys and lights essential for the busiest shipping in Western Europe. In May 2014 Trinity House celebrated 500 years with a Royal Carter to protect the safe passage of all sea-going vessels – and here at this very time ‘Galetea’ was on duty doing just that, as we land lubbers and seafarers expect!!
A pair of Thames barges – an Army cutter and fire float upon arrival at Ramsgate (taken in the dim and distant past)
The Port of London’s established deep water terminal at Tilbury attracts the latest and largest of the ever-growing luxury cruise ships designed to attract a more diverse cross section of punters full of visitor attractions, as featured in the media. The smaller, conventional and classic in design ‘Europa’ visited Greenwich’s mid river ‘Welcome’ floating terminal being just off Deptford Creek with its ever-growing rash of high rise apartment blocks.
In pre-war days German liners called just here which, in those days was a hub of maritime activity with working wharves serviced by flotillas of lighters and Thames barges navigating all the way up the tidal Creek as far as Deptford’s towering flour mills and granaries. Ship yards and warehouses served the East India Company and later the HQ of the General Steam Navigation Company founded by a local timber company in 1869. From here they operated a fleet of coasters serving the continent and Mediterranean ports and UK coastal ports. This was the home port for a famous fleet of paddle steamers which plied from Tower and Greenwich piers down river to similar piers including Rosherville, a purpose-built garden resort at Gravesend, which had remarkable views of shipping that filled the estuarial reaches to the ports of the world.
Nowadays, trial commuter services are being successfully run by the new Thames Clippers to and from Gravesend, Canary Wharf and the City.
Way back, in art school days, I took a summer job as a deck chair attendant at Clacton on Sea. I was expected to have my stock ready for the hordes of trippers arriving on board the Golden Eagle inbound from London. My problem was to clear the beaches as high tide approached to cover them. I devised a method of flight on to the sea wall next to the hut, so deck chairs remained dry! Later, while at Regent Street Poly, a summer outing to sunny Southend was much enjoyed, providing my first sight of Greenwich from the river which I will treasure. Surrounded by rowdy students, I glimpsed the waterfront and the Crane Street house where I now write and sketch – Hurrah!!
Even more joyous memories as the Scottish paddle steamer Waverley on her annual visit to our tidal attractions – loaded to the gunnels with day trippers – approaches, the distinctive beat of her willing paddles announces her passage and a rush to the window as she proudly steams by.
The Port of London’s established cruise ship terminal at Tilbury celebrated its largest and longest vessel to ever come alongside. The newly-built German tourist ship ‘Mein Schieff 3’ towered over the landing stage; while here at Greenwich Tier, another German ship ‘Europa’ rested at a mid-river mooring which was a pre-war favourite just off Deptford Creek. A medium size cruise ship, ‘Europa’ has the classic styling and ambiance favoured amongst conventional passengers of yesteryear. Indeed, it was also a regular port of call for pre-war shipping and, no doubt, photographed and documented pre-blitz!
Just as I was heading off to the O2 ‘Lord Nelson’ slipped past, crowded with crew and supporters including two red uniformed Chelsea Pensioners no doubt viewing how the other half once lived in the ORNC on the South Bank here at Greenwich. Then my monthly inspection of The O2 and the Peninsula to keep an eye on the rapid changes of new high rise structures, and got home just in time to see ‘Europa’ slide by outward bound.
General Wolfe’s acclaimed panoramic view of changing London has been eclipsed at The Point, where landscape gardeners with the help of members of the Greenwich Society have created and renewed a forgotten vantage point overlooking the capital from West to East following the twists and turns of the Thames.
Drawn over the summer, my detailed overview has changed radically as unexpected high rise developments have obliterated views over the Creek and Greenwich Reach.
Photo by Rob Powell
At the ‘Grand Opening’ I felt obliged to offer a new pound coin to those who could spot the hidden waterways which might well be exposed again as trees shed their leaves! The paddle steamer, with its red, white and black funnels, would have helped those spectators on this Tuesday afternoon as she passed downstream out on an evening cruise. It’s a joy to hear her distinctive passage as her paddles beat away.
‘Gloriana’, the Queen’s royal barge, also passed by towards Gravesend to her winter moorings – still no news of her permanent home.
330 traditional rowed craft gathered in the tideway for the annual Great River Race. Their annual pilgrimage to the Thames starts from Millwall on the Isle of Dogs on the rising tide, rowing or paddling through the iconic bridges from Tower Bridge and up beyond Richmond Bridge to the water meadows at Ham with its least altered 17th Century House and Gardens.
Here the gathered fleet disembarks after the strenuous 21-mile row through the heart of the Capital, loading on to their trailers to take their craft home around the coast where enthusiasts have been preparing for this river marathon.
By chance, we had been in Putney the evening before and had spotted competitors arriving before the start. At the very top of the evening tide we had embarked on ‘Jupiter Clipper’ on her maiden week joining the fleet. The Putney Pier is the furthest point of the commuter service. We whizzed downstream, then slowed with caution to squeeze under the bridges groaning with heavy rush hour traffic. A keen, sharp breeze with threatening clouds scudding over the capital was indeed stimulating. The express service to Canary Wharf was far from packed – however, a medic practising in Chelsea Harbour was on his way home to King William Walk in Greenwich, a true enthusiast whose speedy commute was a delight. Let’s hope his enthusiasm will gather more punters to secure this visionary concept.
While travelling at speed, we had time to take in the astonishing amount of riverside development under construction, many with riverside piers. It seems a century since two of us rowed down to Cannon Street from Chiswick in order to provide a safety boat for a group of Poly art students having a Coronation party on board a Thames lighter. Then Thameside wharves were still in use. Although there was no hint of the future development avalanche, meetings were being held by the London River Association warning us of this intrusion about to hit these empty but useful wharves. Surprisingly, a new demand has popped up as construction depots are required for the Thames tideway super sewer – attracting Open House visitors!
Trial runs have been held on a commuter service from Gravesend Pier up to Central London. I spotted the radar scanner spinning around on a clipper which would, indeed, be essential down amongst the shipping lanes. We hear reports of successful trading down on the Thames Gateway Container port where even more cranes have been installed. Its neighbouring BP petroleum complex has been rumoured to have fallen to Chinese ownership, just like the vast residential developments on the Greenwich Peninsula, once owned by British Gas.
P.S. Paddle steamer Waverley is in and out of the Thames on day trips which are great fun, visiting unusual harbours, ports and piers!