Not so many years ago, when the cross-river panorama was a scene of depression, many wharves were derelict, lacking the graceful cranes which were once busy around West India Dock. The cross-river foot tunnel was once an essential link to the acres of working docks. The extraordinary sight of a floodlit cruise ship importing bananas contrasting with the acres of dereliction as trade moved further downstream to the realm of new container ports.
I can recall taking my mother to board one of Fred Olsen’s ‘boats’ for a winter cruise to and from the West Indies. Nowadays giant office blocks are still under construction lining the once-busy wharves. Since then we moved down to Crane Street, a humble section of the Thames Path contrasting with the glory of Wren’s great masterpiece, now a thriving university campus. Tripper boats from London turn about just here, ideal for tourists a glimpse of the gorgeous Trafalgar Tavern, the humble Yacht pub and rowing club next door.
Alas, the wild weather had diverted regular rowers to exercise in their new facilities’ purpose-built gym next door across the alleyway. Care needs to be taken to traverse the busy cycle way and exercising runners, popular even in the worst of storm ‘Dennis’, which threatened our trip to Oxford to celebrate Caroline Dixon’s 80th in the Ashmolean Museum. It was great to see all the family and friends from yesteryear. We used to meet up with the Dixons at Henley Regatta for a dip and supper after the racing had finished. The Thames Valley in high summer provides a bucolic scene beyond compare. Once a Greenwich neighbour, Stephen Dixon was a keen rower, a member of the Poplar Blackwall and District Rowing club on the Isle of Dogs close by the Greenwich foot tunnel with its own riverside club house and slipway.
The Ahoy Centre in Deptford has its own facilities for rowing and features Thames traditional craft for enthusiasts who wish to take part in the traditional race up to Richmond and beyond each summer, a race which attracts some 250 craft – an amazing sight.
Living on the riverbank of the Thames is full of surprises. By day and by night, the tides sweep in and the strong winds compete with gusto. Dawn is always too early as the bright office lights of Canary Wharf financial centre shine right into the heart of our house.
Incoming freight of engineering supplies bound for the numerous upstream construction sites of London’s new super sewer utilise the incoming tide in order to navigate alongside the new wharves. As soon as they are off-loaded, they return with the tunnelling spoil for downstream landfill sites.
Last Wednesday I was taken down to Maldon in Essex, home of numerous Thames sailing barges, in order to collect a load of spring potatoes and other seeds from the High Street emporium bound for the Cross family allotment in Greenwich, which is the pride and joy of Anthony and Sarah Cross.
David Patent – Master Shipwright of Maldon – with PWK discussing retirement
We enjoyed a light lunch with a local shipwright at a Creekside pub where the crew of ‘May’ were applying the red ochre stain to the canvas sails stretched out flat on a concrete quay space which is not available at their London base in St Katherine’s Dock.
The Kent family have sailed from here in ‘Repertor’ and on ‘Ironsides’ to take part in barge matches on the rivers Blackwater, Colne and Orwell, also on the Swale and Thames Estuary… So memories come flooding back of happy family times.
Now a sharp wind plays havoc with tarpaulins stretched over next door Trafalgar’s spring clean to the ancient roof; at the same time to the council flats in nearby Eastney Street. Believe it or not, seven Union Jacks fly from neighbouring buildings in Crane Street as well as a startling floral display on the flank wall of this historic watering hole!
History repeats itself as yet again as Greenwich plays yet another role in power sharing, when yesterday the majestic setting of The Painted Hall just across the road hosted PM Johnson explaining his post Brexit strategy.
PS Be sure to pop into the ‘Traf’ with its spectacular riverside bar, splendid in historic artefacts and paintings collected by landlord Frank Dowling – Bravo!!
It’s great to take it easy, armed with my binoculars on the ‘top deck’ overlooking the incoming tide with its white horses as the wild wind from the west attempts to impede incoming craft , creaking bow waves and spray as the super-wide barges are pushed upstream to service the numerous super sewer working wharves.
A whole new fleet of gaily painted lighters and their attending pusher tugs. This huge project has necessitated the Thames watermen to re-equip with new, purpose-built kit and, of course, fully trained crews – a real stimulus. The vast number of Tideway super sewer projects is dependent on skilled watermen to keep the tunnellers going on this massive enterprise.
Dodging this traffic, waterfowl patrol their food chain. A flock of cormorants gathered to celebrate their annual courting event at this busy stretch of water (just off Enderby Wharf). They show off to one and all their white flash of feathers just aft of their wing ‘mountings’ as they dip and dive before the oncoming fleet of tugs. Amongst all this activity, a family of four swans traverse the river walls feeding off riverside plants. By chance I came across the same family up at the head of Deptford Creek just where fresh water of the River Ravensbourne reinforces the saline tideway at Deptford Bridge. Having had a Sunday lunch at Efe’s café in Trafalgar Road, a homeward bus bound for Peckham gave me the opportunity to inspect the new Creekside gardens, part of a Fairview residential development open to all! This was the subject of a public meeting convened by the Ashburnham Residents’ Group to put pressure on planners to adopt this type of public garden to all of the new Creekside developments.
At the Friday evening meeting of Ashburnham Triangle residents (once an area of marshland adjacent to the Creek which forms a desirable residential zone full of interesting folk!!), Mick Delap – a poet and BBC World Service retiree – is still a great communicator and held his audience of 120 spellbound. Thus inspired, I have added a graphic illustration for those who don’t know the whereabouts of this hidden seaport of yesteryear.
Within sight are six skyscrapers near completion in Canary Wharf’s thriving business centre, their lofty cranes have completed their task. The original skyscraper at One Canada Square has lost its pertinent presence as its neighbours jostle in mostly over 50 storeys high.
It was a complete surprise to glimpse from my DLR train a gleaming white tall ship gliding majestically to her designated mooring at West India Quay – a rare sight indeed. So I doubled back to view ‘ARA Libertad’ with her cadet crew lining the taff rails, all anxious to get ashore to view the glamour of the occasion and the anticipation of shore leave after their mammoth journey across the oceans from Argentina.
In complete contrast, we had the privilege of having the ‘Winters’ to tea to report on their circumnavigation around the UK in their small white yacht, Nova. The Oxford-based couple had vowed to mark their oncoming retirement with a well-planned trip around England up the East Coast up to the Hebrides, then down St Georges Channel via Liverpool and Dublin, the Welsh coast around Lands End, and back home in the Solent (email@example.com). I enjoyed making sketch maps of this.
Meanwhile Father Thames has become more revitalised as new tugs and lighters are brought into serve the giant super sewer along numerous river and Creekside sites. The giant tunnelling machines exude massive amounts of spoil from their excavations deep under the City.
This contrast will not only be remunerative but will last for many years, the specialist tugs and lighters operated by traditional watermen.
The fleet of Thames Clippers, resplendent in new corporate colours, have been hectic shuttling tennis fans to and from the O2 – the vast sporting arena in the Dome. A new pier has been added to serve commuters for City Airport, and an additional destination may well be planned for the ever-extending network at Barking, as our capital keeps on expanding.
A big thank you to the Othens who have managed to read my scrawl and prepare my sketches for your pleasure over many, many years!!
Over 20 years or so I have been privileged to have had splendid views from my drawing board over the Greenwich Tier ship buoys at the entrance of Deptford Creek and onto Father Thames with Deptford Royal Dockyard beyond awaiting redevelopment on a massive scale for even more high rise residential development. Convoys Wharf was once a very busy newsprint import wharf serving the Fleet Street printing presses. It was a joy then to see large white Ro-Ro ships arriving from Scandinavia and Russia. Now this trade is run from down-river wharves at Tilbury, Gravesend and Chatham. Across the river on the Isle of Dogs rolled steel from the Ruhr once arrived regularly on purpose-built vessels. Now new housing dominates the scene.
My pen is now poised to illustrate the renowned Royal Dockyard at Deptford which was, indeed, the cradle of the Navy under the guidance of Brian Lavery – a renowned maritime historian and author who shares my enthusiasms. This summer Brian guided a small party of fellow enthusiasts for a 4-day visit around Portsmouth. Based at the heart of Portsmouth, a significant redevelopment brings new life to a fabulous collection of historic ships set in Gunwharf Quays just at the entrance to the extensive Royal Dockyards. We enjoyed stunning views of the Solent, the City and much marine
activity. The soaring Spinnaker Tower is at the hub of bustling activity in a shopping centre, restaurants, bars and the like – ferries buzzing to and from the Isle of Wight and the Continent.
From the penthouse HQ and on board historic ships Brian guided us through the centuries in his repertoire – Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the RN’s first submarine.
Meanwhile Jonathan Winter and wife from Oxford sailed out on a circumnavigation voyage around the UK reporting with witty post cards from time to time. A 12-port schedule is planned with regular reporting back. Their enthusiasm is infectious! See http://www.12ports.com. I wonder if they sighted the pair of new aircraft carriers which are undergoing sea trials and also collection of their 60 F35B fighters from the USA.
PC from Islay, west of Scotland, from brave couple sailing around the UK and Ireland. Enjoyed receiving voyage details (I supplied scamp sketch maps for rendezvous at various ports and marinas – one way of sharing the voyage!)
Being an Essex lad, the junction of rivers into the sea have always fascinated. Maldon in Essex, like Faversham in Kent, has been the been the birthplace of Thames Sailing Barges. These spritsail barges are more than suitable for carrying goods up creeks and then under bridges to upstream mills and wharves.
Living alongside a Greenwich wharf makes barge spotting on their way to and from the capital almost a daily custom. My home town at Colchester had the Hythe – a busy Roman sea port – which had always fascinated me (a short cycle ride from my town centre home). Likewise Anne Christopherson was able to pedal through Greenwich down to the Thames wharves which she adored, and I have just been given a depiction of Pipers Wharf which I will treasure.
A weekend stay with ex-neighbour Sara Thorling and family friend down at Seasalter gave us a splendid viewing of the Swale and Sheppey with the Thames running up towards the capital, Southend and the Essex coast and the ever-expanding container port of London beyond – just where Mayor Boris was intent on building the airport of his dreams. (No man is an island!!)
A further visit this week to Maldon with a coach party from Greenwich may well give me a firstsighting of a newly-completed sprit sail barge built there for youth training.