A last minute invitation to join a party of US Navy retirees touring English naval bases and sea ports was far too good to miss. Brian Lavery’s Maritime Tours in late summer had two places suddenly available as two of the American enthusiasts dropped out owing to ill health – lucky us!!
Judy and I have been part of similar Friends of the NMM visits to Holland, Germany and the USA through the years, including a tour of Scottish maritime attractions at which Brian had been the maritime expert – a renowned author of numerous historical books and a professor emeritus of the NMM.
The tour explored the naval bases at Portsmouth and Chatham, also the historic ports of Southampton and Bristol, travelling by mini bus and staying at landmark hotels with evening briefings and lectures. It was aimed at the American nautical enthusiasts who were astonished at the depth of excellence of Brian’s presentations. I will certainly treasure his illustrated notes for future reference.
It was indeed worth celebrating the recent arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside HMS Victory and, guided by one of the original divers, the ‘Mary Rose’; also the 1860 Thames-built ‘Warrior’ at close by at Canning Town. Dining in the newly-opened Spitbank Fort Restaurant perched on Portsmouth Point was enhanced by the passage of outward bound shipping. The next evening we sailed past on board the Thames sailing barge ‘Alice’ to view the Solent and the buoy marking where ‘Mary Rose’ lay for so many years before resettling alongside HMS Nelson in a brilliant, purpose-built gallery, which we had visited earlier that very day.
A ‘Titanic’ visit to Southampton, then on to Bristol where we stayed in a hotel overlooking Brunel’s fantastic bridge spanning the landmark gorge. A tour of ‘SS Great Britain’, and then a ferry up and down the Floating Harbour up to the very end and River Avon locks. On board a glass covered launch (in the Dutch Amsterdam style), then dining overlooking the Avon Gorge. The journey back to the Greenwich base took in Eton Riverside and a devious route through South London, then a meeting with the Director of the NMM received as well. The last day of the tour took us into the Chatham Dockyard with its upgraded galleries and ships to view. Locals from SE London should certainly revisit their excellent collection of ship models in their new home. Spacious car parking and a new ‘Hearts of Oak’ exhibition uses the latest high-tech presentation skills to create a family favourite – it’s a great place for children!
Upon return to Greenwich we had a Deck party here in Crane Street prior to dining in great style at the Trafalgar Tavern with oarsome views over the tideway. A wonderful holiday helped by use of a wheel chair propelled by volunteers press-ganged to get Kent around the extensive points of interest. The pieces of literature prepared by the Laverys are a triumph!
(By the way, I took my sketch book to inspire projects for the oncoming winter.)
(By the way, I took my sketch book to inspire projects for the oncoming winter.)
The terrible impact of the Dunkirk Drama as brilliantly portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s astonishing film, contrasted with a more recent two days at the seaside down at Whitstable.
There at the Thorling home built into the sandy cliffs at Seasalter, a sense of calm and peace returned. The gathered company of neighbours provided us with merry company after an enjoyable day wandering around Whitstable Harbour Day’s jollies exploring the diverse vessels gathered there for the annual Harbour Match, which hovered just off-shore, becalmed in a tidal battle.
The gathered fleet echoed the brave endeavours of the little ships which ventured across the channel’s hazards to save the BEF from a humiliating defeat. The late Robert Thorling would certainly have joined the flotillas of weekend sailors if called upon. His memorable wake was held in an old army barrack but set in the sandy dune just below their prime seaside frontage, with commanding views across the Swale and Thames Estuary.
By chance, son Ben was afloat with family sailing from nearby Hollow Shore, while Emma flew in to Southend from an Adriatic cruise in company with another yachting family. Perhaps they would have been called to join the thousands of weekend sailors summoned to the colours.
A second viewing of ‘Dunkirk’ was necessary to identify the various craft which included local fishing boats, coasters, spritsail barges ‘et al’, also to remind me of my National Service days clad in prickly, damp khaki uniform and heavy and cumbersome kit, always at the double!!
I return to my pen to record the endeavour of a visiting Dutch yacht fighting against a falling tide and failing light to make her upstream mooring. This reflects the determination of small boat owners way back in 1940. A splendid hard-backed book of all those involved appears in a page-by-page account of many craft selected from a card file of 700 little ships: ‘The Little Ships of Dunkirk’ was first published in 1989 by Collectors’ Books. I am proud to own a copy which I will read again with even more respect – Bravo!
A quick glimpse of a tall ship in the West India Dock from a DLR train aroused my curiosity as I had visited a similar training ship at the same berth which hailed from South America some 20 years ago. I tracked news of her from the Isle of Dogs Life – a similar site to this – which stirred my memories even more. I had been invited to a lunch reception on board by a naval attaché – in fact fellow invitees were all naval attachés from various countries. I recall an array of smart naval caps collected on a desk in iconic style by the smartest of lieutenants. The gathered company were welcomed with a series of schnapps-like toasts. The only other civy there was a delegate from Chatham House who knew much more of the naval customs.
Visiting tall ships from maritime nations pay respects to host countries in similar manner – a habit much enjoyed by the Royal Navy over the years, who still realise the importance of this courtesy visit where ships are often open to the public. It’s not often that ‘capital’ ships are able to go alongside at the very hub of international business, and this is no doubt much appreciated by all.
This Peruvian training ship ‘BAP Union’ is only two years old, but built in a traditional style and very smart too. Traditions are very much the name of the game in many seafaring nations. This ‘A’ class barque is the second largest sailing vessel in the world and has a crew of 250 officers and trainees who certainly add colour to wharfers as they mingle in the delights of Canary Wharf.
The pace of high-rise development in and around South Dock is amazing. I remember miles of empty docks, devoid of shipping. A flying visit on the DLR will amaze as it’s almost continuous from Lewisham to Stratford where Olympic sites are being gobbled up for smart residential developments either side of the massive retail centre.
At least five major development schemes are in progress on the perimeter of the Canary Wharf Estate. DLR travellers passing between South Quay and Canary Wharf will surely be seeing significant changes from the carriage window on all sides of West India Dock as dormant sites spring into new life. Towering cranes denote the start of contractors’ works. Canary Wharf is itself extending east and west. A new tranche of residential developments along Wood Wharf will confirm its energies being focussed on top residential schemes bordering the north bank of West Quay and extending towards the Blue Bridge and the locks which provide access to the Thames. To the West, sites overlooking Canary Wharf pier will indeed obscure the once iconic river view across West Ferry and the No. 1 Canada Square itself. To the North, yet another high rise of 67 storeys will create 861 new homes on the Hertsmere House site (which was one of the first office buildings in new Docklands) located at the western end of West India Quay. If approved, this building will be Western Europe’s tallest residential buildings at 240 metres. The adjacent Cross Rail Station provides a real mix of restaurant and bars near to the DLR station – worth a visit even before the official opening of the Elizabeth Line with its new, speedy links to the East and across Central London towards the West.
Sweltering temperatures hit London town’s visitors with a vengeance as they coped not only with the heat but also the packed travel conditions on bus and train. Luckily, we Greenwich folk can head for the river where the change of tides often brings refreshing breezes. Better still travel up to town on the speedy but noisy Thames Clippers. Our favourite – but rare – bus number 188 can provide a door to door service to the West End, including the summer charms of Somerset House. Alas, more ambitious, jam-packed cross-capital routes with inexplicable delays give one an opportunity to gossip with fellow travellers face to face. The diversity of tourists from every corner of the world speaking English with ease amazes me: A Georgian family from Russia; a Shanghai couple who have escorted their daughter to a summer school up at Oxford; a young Harvard graduate facing the challenges of the Square Mile and thriving Canary Wharf practising his business speak…
A retired colonel of the Paratroop Regiment who has found peace here on our Greenwich waterfront told me of the jam-packed ferry from UK to the Falkland campaign. An informative dialogue with this ex-London harbour master, now based way up North on the Isle of Harris, added to my ferry talk knowledge gleaned from my monthly ‘Sea Breezes’ magazine. To share their good news, I include an article on a brand new British-built fast ferry to join their fleet of Australian-built craft based at Trinity Buoy Wharf just opposite the O2. Our neighbour Alan Woods was a founding partner with Sean Collins, who now runs the much-expanded fleet. Read on!!
Other welcome visitors included Jim from the States, who is the mayor of the town of Shelter Island and who lives on North Ferry Road. Also Sian and Mike from Sydney who enjoy returning to the UK whenever!
I couldn’t believe my eyes as the familiar shape of Gipsy Moth IV sailed upstream to St. Katherine’s. The last time I saw her under sail was back in July 1967 when Queen Elizabeth II knighted Francis Chichester at the Royal Naval College having only just completed his historic circumnavigation. I vividly remember the occasion with son Ben riding piggyback as I thought he should witness such a Royal event.
I also recall seeing this amazing craft being craned into a low loader bound for the Solent and new owners. That was on 17th November ’04 at 4:30 precisely – a small gathering toasted her with a glass of bubbly after so many years being stuck in her dock alongside Cutty Sark.
In my usual hearty fashion I greeted her with a boisterous ‘Ahoy’ which brought the crew to attention to this solo greeting from her old Home!! I am much relieved that she didn’t pause to see the scruffy gardens replacing this once iconic Greenwich landmark.
The Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers have been regular visitors to our Greenwich Reach, squeezing through the Thames Barrier with great panache! But no longer, as the new, giant HMS Queen Elizabeth sails outward bound for her sea trials. She can forget the Thames – I doubt whether she would fit under Her Majesty’s bridge at Dartford!! Let alone squeeze through the Barrier.
I note in this ‘Times’ photo that she flies the blue ensign prior to her commissioning the same as our visitor. The RFA ‘Argus’ is still at her Greenwich moorings, the Admiralty Police launch ‘Excalibur’ is on constant patrol by day and by night. I wonder if she will be given a piggy back on her return to Portsmouth?