For some twenty years or so we have endured a weekend treat as the Globe RC next door prepare their fragile craft for an early morning outing on the tideway, adjusting their blades as they board gingerly from the foreshore into the tidal Greenwich Reach of Father Thames. Soon they are a tiny speck out on the broad tideway which is bounded by enormous new structures on the Isle of Dogs and on Greenwich Peninsula.
Both Canary Wharf and down towards the O2, giant cranes lift building materials high onto the new, lofty structures which are forever growing, providing fast business in the financial sector in spite of Brexit fears!
Likewise, we are in need of an occasional outing away from my self-imposed studio commitments. A 50-minute trip down the M2 brings us to our ‘R & R’ retreat located on the broad, open estuarial reaches of the Thames at Faversham – a historic market town and ancient port. For some 50 years or so, we have retreated to a tiny ‘two-up two-down’, built for workers in the nearby gunpowder ‘field’ which supplied both the Army and Navy with the necessary – convenient for the 1918 trenches (lest we forget) and nearby Chatham Naval Base. They were reliant on local shipping for safe convenience. Local quays and wharves played an important role. Thus a regular inspection over the winter months is necessary to see how our end-of-terrace cottage is weathering the elements; also to clear away the excessive circulars which soon mount up over the quarterly bills which demand our instant attention.
One of our delights is to visit our favourite waterside pasta restaurant, delightfully sited in a provender mill with much Neapolitan charm and nosh. As we arrived we were greeted with extra broad smiles with the news that we were the first customers to experience their latest makeover: newly varnished, glossy wooden floors, new colour scheme and totally new tables, chairs and benches. Soon to be crowded with family birthday celebrations, we ordered our usual pasta vongole and reviewed the changing ambience. Shame the chef was still on Christmas leave!
Driving through an empty capital on Christmas Day was indeed a pleasure – hardly a soul about as we crossed the Thames at Tower Bridge, just a few tourists peering into an empty tideway. Then round along Lower Thames Street and even up into the Embankment and on into Trafalgar Square and the little Cockspur Street near Admiralty Arch with Lord Nelson still on guard. Here the great shipping companies once had their booking halls with absolutely splendid liner models – now all gone. A few of them are still displayed at the NMM here in Greenwich, but I bet there are many more stored away in their brand new reserve collection in Kidbrooke, well away from peering school boy eyes! The giant blue shed can be seen from the A102(M), and has no identification on it as yet!!
Back at sea: MV ‘Balmoral’ is a regular visitor in the Thames, as is also the paddle steamer ‘Waverley’ based on the Clyde which also visits London each summer. Another interesting summer visitor is the Princess Pocahontas from Gravesend, which does day trips. All three ships publish their summer programmes.
‘Balmoral’ is based in Bristol’s expansive Floating Dock, surrounded by craft and port features, and is a regular Kent attraction; for this last Boxing Day stroll, there was a welcoming, atmospheric Pump House Pub just by the lock gates which we both recommend. After splendid festivities, we chugged through the snow over the Marlborough Downs which looked spectacular. Again, almost traffic free, we headed into town via the Chelsea Embankment along the Thames to Battersea, where the great Power Station is in the midst of a significant redevelopment. A new ferry stop is planned under the giant coaling cranes (now being restored elsewhere).
At Nine Elms, the South Bank is introducing yet another landmark upstream from the giant Efra tower block with its company of apartment blocks abutting the MI5 HQ at Vauxhall. Constructed here is the extraordinary new US Embassy, overlooking the Thames and Westminster beyond, due to be opened by the President himself early in January. Here again, a strong statement of power and influence, creating yet another US-dominated neighbourhood after its 1960 HQ in Grosvenor Square. Its Mayfair presence influenced this part of town for many a year – and being relegated to Vauxhall is, indeed, a challenge: these old railway goods yards and giant cold stores were transformed by the quaint fruit, vegetable and flower market once in fashionable Covent Garden, now forced to relocate once more. The lesson given by the Normans to erect a giant, white fortification to dominate London’s unruly citizens has been taken on board yet again. This 12-storey fortified cube has its structure and façade well protected from a possible assailant. It even has a deep moat facing the Thames with defensive ditch all round to protect its Nine Elms access ‘lane’.
I remember how impressed I was when the Eero Saarinen design dominated Grosvenor Square back in 1960 included a vast, open lobby which had a series of water channels to keep the populace in order while seeking their visas. The lower exhibition areas were the basis of the new American Museum in Bath, which still displays the best of American colonial artefacts.
I was shocked as I sipped my morning coffee to see half of the Pier’s pontoon slide down on the ebb tide to Walsh’s mooring just off Ballast Quay. A pair of Paul Deverell’s tugs took control to edge her into their floating dock just downstream. The Port of London’s ‘Triton’ cranes had engineered the move from the pontoon’s usual moorings.
A pair of river services ‘Ambassadors’ were posted to control the restricted comings and goings of passengers onto the Thames Clipper ferry service up to town and the hardy tripper craft which run from the O2 up to town – also down to Woolwich at rush hour and upstream to Putney. Their comings and goings at the crack of dawn until late at night service the O2 (where a fascinating array of tennis players and entertainers keep their punters happy), and there’s a regular swish and swash as the passing clippers create a sea-like serenade by day and night, waves hitting the foreshore and immediate structures.
Meanwhile, reinforcement of the stone work embankment is being undertaken upstream just around the projecting bluff of the pier. Fine craftsmanship by the stonemasons is a joy to see, continuing the expert attentiveness of Greenwich Hospital to its waterfront cast iron railings, in spite of the ever-increasing pounding by the powerful clippers’ wash.
Down on the foreshore extra protection has been placed by netted containers of rocks to ease erosion of the historic embankment. The sandy mud has been washed away to expose the ancient wooden pilings which formed the Tudor staging where watermen of old delivered the great and the good to the Royal Court and the Greenwich Town market. Nowadays the DLR, buses, trains as well as ferries disgorge tourists who throng the market and shops.
One of the attractions is a continental-style, tented Christmas Market sited on the extensive paving that surrounds the Cutty Sark in its expensive glass enclosure, her rigging dressed overall in twinkling lights with a sparkling star at the top of the foremast.
Walking along the riverside path in front of the floodlit Old Royal Naval College is a foretaste of further illumination designed and planned for Thameside’s embankment and bridges early next year.
A brand new reception and pier is due to be opened soon for Woods Luxury Launches from their newly-aligned pier just opposite the Savoy Hotel, where a pair of stylish river cruisers will provide the great and the good with haute cuisine dining facilities in these luxurious vessels by day and by night. The ever-changing startling architecture of riverside developments not only up in town but both up and downstream provide a really remarkable experience not only for Londoners but visitors alike.
London’s string of pearls of historic and new structures will amaze, and are a must for next year’s visitors too!
Visitors to the Dome at North Greenwich will be astonished at the pace of development around the extraordinary O2 venue. A cluster of high rise apartments along the river are well under construction. The ‘stepped’ design provides spacious balconies, landscaped to make garden-like seating areas providing spectacular views across the river. Knight Dragon – the developers – are creating a ‘tranche’ of high rise structures linking the O2 towards the ever-extending Millennium Village.
The high rise Intercontinental Hotel and its neighbouring lofty apartment block provide dramatic cross-river views onto Canary Wharf. The recent international tennis tournament provided an additional tented village for the occasion on the riverside open space, best seen from the Emirates cross-river cable car.
Major redevelopment of the prize-winning underground concourse will re-jig it to provide glazed structures at each of the four corners spanning over the tunnel entrance towards the river. A new Crystal Palace indeed, providing even more restaurants, cafes and living accommodation at the heart of this new city, with its excellent Jubilee Line underground system.
Plans are also been proposed for a new ‘Lunar’ experience to be sited where the Prime Meridian crosses the Thames, which will be best viewed from high rise buildings on both sides of the river. The remote site alongside the Thames Path is just where the Greenwich Pavilion stood during the Millennium celebrations.
Close by is the threatened Gas Holder, which has stood forlorn since the demolition of the massive gas works. The usual debate is heating up, just like the proposed neighbouring Cruise Ship Terminal site (recently purchased by another large corporate).
The relocated ship yard just by Victoria Deep Water Terminal is as busy as ever, as is the extensive aggregate wharf handling the massive tidal Thames new sewerage system which requires constant tug and barge movement for the massive slurry spoil coming from the giant new engineering works tunnelling under the river from Brentford to Crossness. River passengers will spot the various sites on both sides of the river – a new wharf at Norman Road will bring more barge traffic back to Deptford Creek just like in the old days when coastal traffic buzzed with activity.
The view from my riverside house is fascinating at dusk as Canary Wharf is ablaze with light, and really bright warning lights flicker on all sides as construction cranes mark the ever-increasing development sites. The dignified illumination on the Greenwich waterfront is worth inspecting from the Thames Path adding to the on-coming festivities in our streets – we have promised to create an Advent window to be viewed by passers-by in humble Crane Street.
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.