30 years ago

Zeebrugge always sends a shiver down my spine as, by pure mischance, a busy cross-Channel car ferry capsized while leaving port in normal weather conditions.  Somehow or other the main doors were left open and, as she gathered speed, she ran aground on a sand bar and capsized in no time at all.

Passengers had just left their vehicles on the car deck and were sorting themselves out for the 2-hour cross-Channel passage to Dover.  Their whole world was turned upside down as the fast flowing sea rushed in.

Recalling this dreadful loss of some 193 passengers who could easily have been any of us and who wanted to visit the marvels of medieval Bruges, then a lunch, stock up with vino and head home.

A visit to Teddington to the National Physical Laboratory with a party of friends of the National Maritime Museum helped to build a startling picture as a model of the ‘Free Enterprise’ was put through a precise re-enactment through their wind tunnel test lab.  BY coincidence there was also an architect’s layout model of Canary Wharf testing the wind stresses and strains, seen well before construction.

By chance, as a guest at the Old Bailey for a rapid but traditional luncheon hosted by both sheriffs of the City, I was seated next to the distinguished Lady Butler-Sloss who had been well-briefed of my maritime interests.  My host John Taylor (who was also a Friend of the National Maritime Museum) suggested we should attend the afternoon session of the formal inquest on the circumstances and loss of life.  The reality of the cross examination pointed to a horrendous situation beyond imagination; especially when one recalls the jollies of a coach bound day trip from Blackheath, packed to the gunnels with good friends.

Pile footings inspected …

Every weekend the Globe Rowing Club rowers have to open the heavy steel floodgates to give them access onto the foreshore.  Today’s Baltic wintry blast with its intermixed snow shower stirred me from my slumbers to go down to join them to inspect the pile footings that support our small wooden deck.  Further upstream, as recently reported, the authorities have had to add a large area of defensive sacking to counter the scarring of the sandy foreshore from the effects of the wash from the fast ferries as they speed up to town!


Once breakfasted, we enjoyed the snug warmth of our little Toyota as we zoomed down to Bluewater to search John Lewis for brighter lighting so that I can enjoy the pleasure of writing this scrawl.  Whilst down in those parts we drove down a mile or so to view the wintry tideway at Greenhithe’s little hamlet, snugly sited for centuries as an active riverside port where Everards coasters were once based.  The narrow, characterful High Street still remains in spite of being surrounded by brand new housing estates, squeezed in between the miles and miles of industrial warehouses which crowd both sides of the Dartford Crossing, jam packed with M25 traffic.


The roof tops of Greenhithe’s little settlement used to be covered with snow-like cement dust from the deep chalk workings where sparkling new Bluewater’s shopping centre buzzes with activity and modish gear for one and all – a blissful retreat from the Dickensian gloom of the tidal Thames so close by.

The curious might like to take a pint at the historic Pier pub where once seafarers used the existing wooden slipway to come ashore.  For years, merchant navy cadets were educated on board an ancient naval hulk, the TS Worcester, and also had to use their rowing skills to get ashore.  The other waterside pub, recently renamed the John Franklin, recalls HMS Erebus’ loss in the search for the North West Passage.  The locals gleefully recalled the morbid cannibal accusation.  I sulked out into the gloom in respect!





Here in Greenwich ‘Death in the Ice’ is the dramatic title for a new exhibition at the NMM opening here mid-summer.  This will, no doubt, receive much hype in the national press as this joint Canadian Museum of History with the NMM exhibition opens on 14th July – the story of Franklin’s final expedition in 1845.  The press release explains more, including Nunavut input.


Ships that pass in the night

Deep in my slumbers, the sound of ship engines awoke me and, raised with curiosity, I could only just make out the silhouette of a man of war escorted by a pair of tugs.  Upon return from her visit to the Pool, her tall mast and electronic gear made me realise that this German naval vessel was a communications spy ship!!  Pre-Brexit visit to the Square Mile or high tech business in Canary Wharf I ask myself!!


riverwatch-fgs-oker-peter-kent-1Thank you Rob Powell for this photograph of Peter doing what he loves to do, and that is watching the river traffic!

Westward Ho! Sail to Quebec Tall Ships Regatta – 13th to 16th April this year

Writing this in sunny Bristol, I would like to report on maritime adventures old and new.   This is the home port of John Cabot’s ‘Matthew’ which left for the new world replicating a discovery voyage to Newfoundland captained by a Portuguese navigator empowered by Bristol Merchant  Venturers  back in 1497…



After a dramatic re-enactment back in 1997 I was indeed privileged to be on ‘MV Balmoral’ as she returned to a memorable civic reception after escorting ‘Matthew’ up river under Brunel’s iconic Clifton Bridge.  Memorable as the crew spun the tale of their dramatic trans-Atlantic crossing to a packed congregation in St. Mary Redcliffe.



On a sharp winter venture into the floating dock area we spied ‘Matthew’ in dry dock for her annual refit.


Tall Ships Regatta – 13th to 16th April this year

This Easter a fleet of Tall Ships will leave Greenwich bound for Torbay.  Some will be sailing on to Sines in Portugal prior to a trans-Atlantic crossing, via the Azores or Bermuda, to Boston Massachusetts.  Then they proceed in company up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Quebec for the festival commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation.


Be sure to watch the sail past as the fleet of 30 tall ships leaves Greenwich on Easter Sunday;  perhaps viewing the scene from General Wolfe’s statue high on Observatory Hill, or from along the Greenwich waterfront leaving Deptford Creek at 5:00pm, or perhaps even from Island Gardens with its astonishing panorama of the Greenwich waterfront.



For your Diary

‘Royal Greenwich Challenge’ 6th May 2017 – Traditional Waterman’s cutter rowing event.

Muster at Globe Rowing Club – start of race at midday from control buoy at Trafalgar Tavern, then downstream around the O2 to finish at Greenwich Yacht Club.

3 races in one event with 1 minute interval timed starts – 2.5 mile pull.


Be amazed by a new burst of development at Canary Wharf

In sharp contrast to the winter gloom, Tuesday’s bright sunshine spurred us on to take yet another probe into the Westferry situation at Canary Wharf.  As reported in my recent blog of January 14th, I thought it necessary to explore further the profusion of high rise proposals bordering Westferry Circus, West India Dock and South Dock.

Catching a bus from Island Gardens DLR to Westferry Circus was an important orientation exercise.  The dramatic elevated view point to the East towards Marsh Wall highlights a series of high rise development sites under construction.

The Canary Wharf development of high rise offices and residential can be easily seen, while the major riverside site is on hold.  The extent of the lower levels have been excavated and developed up to ground floor level, clearly marking the extent of the site.  Just across the road where the Heron Quays mini circus with its multi-coloured light signals is where the diamond shape residential high rise is sited next to a major HQ office tower which will be the second tallest on the Isle of Dogs peninsula (just a floor or two lower than No. 1 Canada Square).


Meanwhile, on South Quay itself, two other major schemes are being marketed.  Wardian – a twin tower scheme by Ballymore – is under construction.  A visit to their iconic sales gallery will impress, located in a purpose-built design cube at 76 Marsh Wall.  While there, I suggest a visit to Berkeley Homes South Quay Plaza to view their show suite on site.  Their scheme competes directly with these other residential developments in the same neighbourhood and further schemes to the east of Canary Wharf existing estate.  Note the angular frontage to the Dock and be sure to look at their plush letting books – see sketch map for all four schemes.


The mid-winter river scene across the two-mile stretch of Greenwich Reach is a lonely place and attracts only the enthusiast to poke about the tideline for some hidden treasure.  Yet on the this gloomy Monday morning, three crouching figures scan the outgoing tide line while speeding Thames Clippers could well douse the unwary.  It was only yesterday evening in the Parish Hall of St. Alfege’s that such an enthusiast displayed his own particular treasure trove to the SANRA parishioners.  Warren Silk from Tunbridge Wells displayed his Thameside finds and described in detail the joy of the hunt for items hidden in the silt of the ebbing tide.  His favourite patch is undisclosed but could be guessed from his demand for easy access onto the foreshore from an undisclosed neighbouring free parking bay.


Armed with a flask of hot coffee, he described his dawn ‘raids’, pre-planned with the aid of a tide table.  His issued licence gives him permission to do this very personal endeavour – he records each ‘minutiae’ from dressmaker pins, garnets, coins, medieval pottery shards and even the humble clay pipe discarded perhaps by a Greenwich pensioner as he mused about his own adventures of yesteryear.  The intricacies of pre-Victorian fashion demanded much use of the humble pin to hold the elaborate gown together fresh from a fashion plate.

The recent East Coast storms and flood threats to the estuary and Thameside are largely secured by the Woolwich Flood Barrier when, after a telephone warning, we prepare our humble defences.  I even venture onto the Highbridge foreshore while the next door rowing club venture out onto the tideway.  Taking advantage of the opening of the steel floodgate, I beat the bounds of our own particular historic beach which was once a favoured mooring place of coastal craft and even Venetian galleys.

Concerns were raised at Question Time about the rapid changes caused by fast moving craft such as the Thames Clippers which rush up and down not only creating a devilish wash but a secondary undertow every twenty minutes or so for at least 18 hours a day.  The original Clippers were imported from Sydney where the riparian authorities decided enough was enough.  The extension of the Clipper Service has the Mayor’s support as new piers at Blackfriars have recently been opened with the promise of more cross-river services planned serving Canary Wharf and the Greenwich Peninsula.

Reorientation on the river – soon


Regular travellers on the Clipper river commuter service will soon see dramatic changes to the Canary Wharf river frontage when two new office towers bang on the river front will obscure the famous iconic view of London’s highest office building.

river-soon001Out of this undeveloped riverside, two major office skyscrapers will change the famous Canary Wharf image which was part of the first phase of original development adjacent to the Pier at Westferry Circus.  It was here that the first river ferry services operated and that visitors got the major impact of the giant development which has matured into an international financial centre.

JP Morgan may well be the prime tenants and, no doubt, will attract many more international tenants.  As viewed from their present buildings adjacent to Heron Quays DLR, the once dramatic views up river towards Tower Bridge will also be obscured except from Westferry Circus which is such a critical part of the east-west concept.  Many wharfers will have to reorientate themselves as this giant scheme develops putting No 1 Canada Square somewhat in the shade.

Viewers from Greenwich Park up at the Wolfe statue will also be astonished as the balance of power changes.  Beware that to the east a whole tranche of high risers might well confuse too!


In celebration of Time and Tide to the minute!


For many a year we have been most fortunate in celebrating the arrival of the brand new year with good old friends, taking it in turns to host the traditional roast beef of Old England with a prelude of starters and, later on, all sorts of naughty treats.  Alas, Father Time has taken his toll and new celebrants are recruited to keep the ball rolling.

The venues are up in Blackheath or down with us in Maritime Greenwich where we have tried to maintain a traditional theme, this time greeting the New Year out on the deck (tide and weather permitting).  Once we used to celebrate the actual minute to the cacophony of ships’ sirens and hooters, with the occasional flare illuminating the dockland scenario.  Alas, even the skill of the pipeman has long gone, replaced by popping of champagne corks and an outrageous burst of rapid fire as swirls of fireworks break over our unique river scene from the O2 up and over Canary Wharf, and here in traditional Greenwich with its floodlit Cutty Sark.



Way upstream along the South Bank an unimaginable barrage of red fire punctures the low cloud as devised and orchestrated fireworks thunder away in a frightening manner all around the illuminated Shard with its searchlight necklace at the hub of things.  Eventually party boats return to their home piers where paid up passengers disgorge to the nearest tube, which is free this year for one and all.

Toasts and thoughts are expressed by one and all as our guests from far and wide readdress their emotion to the ever-changing scenario so close to the prime meridian which reassures us as to where we are now, celebrating the passing of time, not knowing whatever the future holds.

Happy New Year to all our readers.

Festive Season on the tideway


Sister ships unite at Victoria Deep Wharf during the festive season, when the construction business grinds to a halt and their North Sea aggregate dredgers take a well-earned break from their daily routine servicing Hansons deep water wharves.



The offshore dredging can be easily spotted from incoming aircraft as the tideway exposes the trail and twirl of dredged material which is excavated from the complex of sand banks and channels. Most of this material has to be washed to remove corrosive salts prior to cement manufacture. Chubbs Wharf at Denton just downstream from Gravesend has a lengthy pier head where imported aggregates are offloaded and washed prior to their transportation into Central London piers. A pair of Dutch type coasters is the result of family enterprises working to meet the ever-changing marketing demands. A fleet of ageing motorised coasters, however, are still seen on the tideway even though their Essex facilities at Fingringhoe have been finally exhausted and their wharf closed.festive002

The friendly Prior boats are diminutive in size, enabling them to navigate the smallest of creeks alongside their customers’ plant way upstream, just as their forerunners did – the Thames sprit-sailed barges renowned for their red tanned sails. The two-man crew, often with a dog, were familiar to Thames side and nearby continental ports and were much admired as they sailed in the tortuous creeks on a rising tide. I have been most fortunate in taking passage as their iconic barge marches through many a happy occasion at the command of an aged old salt, and successfully with a very confident sister from Black Notely Hospital.