A thrilling Tall Ships event

Copyright Rob Powell



What a success of the Easter gathering of Tall Ships moored along the Greenwich waterfront.  Eight vessels lay stem to stern, their tall masts echoing our historic past.  Four or five days of keeping a watch on their activities were indeed a joy to savour before they sail across the Atlantic – just like the fleets of yesteryear.

‘Wylde Swan’  – moored just off Highbridge Wharf – slipped off to convey her guests on the daily cruise between Woolwich and Tower Bridge.  Some of her number – hovering around the fireworks celebrations – joined in the chorus of ships’ sirens after the final bang – a real bonus for the legions of spectators.  I watched entranced as her crew hauled up the heavy sails prior to her sailing venture down the Thames and over to France and the Bay of Biscay.  The fleet gathers in Southern Portugal before crossing the Atlantic via Barbados and Boston, then down the great River of St. Lawrence to Quebec for the 150th celebration of their independence.

I was tickled pink to be able to purchase the blue and white Quebecoise flag from their sales tent in the camp of stalls gathered in the college grounds alongside the Cutty Sark, and I hoisted it on our flag pole to bid farewell on Easter Sunday.

Greenwich was really on fete – I have never seen so many stalls and funfair attractions gathered over the Bank Holiday weekend; just like similar Tall Ship events I had witnessed in Amsterdam, Cherbourg, Portsmouth and up in Newcastle when we joined the outward voyage in an escort craft – our return back to this City was so sad as all the colour and glamour also went out with the tide.

We have enjoyed so many visitors from far and wide and were pleased to welcome anxious parents who were to wave farewell to ‘Blue Clipper’ from Malta where their daughter was to be the galley cook for her great Atlantic venture.  The servicing of the anchored fleet is due extra comment as large passenger-carrying ribs run to and fro from Greenwich Pier, bringing crew and guests and, no doubt, mail.  The fire practice was sounded and the only chance for me to see how many crew were on board before their paying guests arrived.  Later a briefing ‘muster’ was also held for twenty or so, bringing these down from their rigging duties which are labour-intensive as sails are furled and made ready;  which reminds me to leave my desk to sketch all that’s going on!

With sounds of sabre-rattling around Korea, the news that the Russians have cancelled their participation with the withdrawal of their vast, three-masted training ship from Vladivostok saddens one.  It was fascinating to see the fleet awake and take porridge and coffee prior to a short religious moment when crew and guests shared the Easter joy prior to their voyage later in the afternoon.  Meanwhile the water boozer ‘Oasis’ filled the water tanks of each vessel.  Duvet covers streamed out in the short breeze as the bells of the ORNC chapel struck nine o’clock, the essential pre-sailing duties being carried out.

Our Open House event was most rewarding as folk purchased my ‘Guide to the Tall Ships’ which explained the purpose of the voyage and trans-Atlantic route.  Each ship was also illustrated, based on earlier research last month.  Both the £10 Borough publication and Greenwich Visitor published the official guide, which would have saved me a great deal of research!  The flow of visitors into the house and on to the deck to take in the river activity came from every corner of the UK.  Newcomers from the new housing developments were intrigued, and many old watermen and yachties enjoyed the event too!!  Multiple sea voyages were discussed by both young and old, stirring our past excitements – what fun we all enjoyed, every fleeting moment!


The fleet is in !!


One by one the tall ships proceeded up river in a most orderly manner – picking up their moorings with the help of attending watermen – the Dutch seem to be the most agile with superb seamanship as the strong tides hustled them into their allocated ‘parking spaces’ spread along the historic Greenwich riverfront. In the early evening the firework show – this time the firework barge was in an up river position attended by a bustling tug which whisked the hardy pyrotechnic crew into action with a young hasty departure back to base – our two neighbouring New Zealand young lads enthused and delivered ‘art works’ the next day!

Just as I turned in, ‘Wylde Swan’ dropped anchor and moored discretely into her allotted mooring right in front of our Thameside home – the duty ‘harbour master’ oversaw and aided this midnight operation. The mooring provided insight into their crew’s preparation of their sails as they prepared for the dressage sail past as others of the fleet paraded up and down the Royal Borough’s waterfront we both marvelled as this colourful and orderly enterprise unfurled before our very eyes!


We intend to have open house to show off the series of prints and originals which are available and to toast hot cross buns for passing chums!!


Happy Easter to one and all.

The Tall Ships are coming to Greenwich


Preparation by the PLA in laying moorings just in front of my studio promises some good views into the interesting variety of vessels due to arrive for the Easter Regatta.  ‘London Titan’ is the newest of the buoy handlers aided by ‘Driftwood III’, a much smaller bit of kit which is more of a familiar sight on the tideway.

The care and attention is critical and the operation is carried out with passing fast ferries reducing their speed to a minimum.  The red and yellow warning flags are readily recognised and understood by navigators.  As I write, a length of steel piping is lowered down into the river bed to make sure that ‘London Titan’ is exactly at the correct position to install the mooring chain and bright yellow mooring buoys.  The crews of both craft are glad of their ‘high viz’ jackets and hard hats as their operation is hazardous with the lowering of ‘sinkers’ attached with taught cables.  The drizzle of passing showers doesn’t help!

Home, foreign waters and beyond


The tortuous and complicated waterways around Canning Town and the Greenwich Peninsula created both road and rail opportunities as the once-industrial brownfield sites became available for even more residential development.

Last week our lunch guests from Snowdonia were hoping to visit their grandson who had launched himself into work in the capital’s financial centre.

The availability of affordable flats recently completed seemed an obvious choice as the new cross-London rail link was coming to fruition.  Weekend closures on the DLR complicated the travel plan for these octogenarians, especially as they had already walked across Blackheath and Greenwich Park.  Viewing across the river from our riverside house with its amazing panoramic views across the open waterways, we realized that Canning Town was only two miles away as the crow flies so, drawing a deep breath, down the congested Blackwall Tunnel we went.  It was only then that I realised that these Dockland areas around East India and the Royal Group of docks had changed beyond recognition, as a new network of access roads weaved around the once-familiar road pattern.  Here I must explain that I had been exploring these dockland areas over the years in order to produce topographical records for the now-defunct LDDC.  This Saturday, with trepidation and an ancient A_Z, we plunged our way off the A13 into this once-quiet LCC residential estate, not far away from the mighty new Canning Town interchange offering rapid transit into the capital.

To explain to travellers who now use the underground and DLR links into Docklands and up to Stratford – those massive residential developments on both sides of the Thames are taking shape in and around Canning Town.  The additional Cross Rail stations are making these once forgotten areas into much sought-after residential zones in the near future.

Explorers beware as the infrastructure of road and rail links are devious owing to lack of clear-cut signage.  Take a compass with you!

Medway developments 2

Last year, Rob Powell and I witnessed the demolition of a Medway landmark – a power station chimney which could be seen for miles.

Now Rob – a keen member of the Greenwich Historical Society – also keeps me aware of down-river activities.

His calendar project is wonderfully illustrated with Thames happenings.

A recent sighting of a heavy lift ship alongside Tilbury Power Station (coal fired) tells the tale as the specialist cranes and plant are to be removed ready for a new port terminal.

Proposals as illustrated – thank you Rob.


Time and Tide

The full force of February’s storm Doris clipped London town but provided a fascinating spectacle for us as wind over tide provided a sea-like surprise for us at Greenwich Reach.  The short seas provided a real challenge for a trio of dare devils as they hung on tight to their airfilled bouncy rib, leaping from wave to wave.  They certainly enjoyed their exhilarating ride up and down the tideway.  The wind was so gusty that all the lofty construction cranes abandoned work to avoid wind damage over in Canary Wharf and at the numerous oncoming schemes on Greenwich Peninsula.  Sailormen, however, still went about their business in spite of their craft being submerged from time to time by the waves and the flying spume.

Similar weather conditions brought back vivid memories of crewing sailboats large and small – Thames Sailing Barges, and especially Robert Thorling’s ‘Joyce’ – a Drascombe lugger which he dearly loved.  Alas his stroke some 19 years ago well and truly grounded him but didn’t stop him having a pint in Royal Hill’s ‘Tolly’;  also being a welcome member of the GYC and the Whitstable YC which he still loved to pop in to.

Their brilliant retirement move to their Seasalter new home gave Robert extraordinary panoramic views up the Swale and across the Thames Estuary.  There he died in his sleep.  The adjacent WW2 mess hall of an ‘ack-ack’ battery provided a magic venue for his wake.  Sara and family devised a joyous celebration of his life which still brings a tear to my eye.

Strangely the Kent family had a beach hut of similar vintage for many years at West Mersea, surely just in view across the estuary and the extensive Maplin Sands as described and illustrated in Archie White’s ‘Tideways and Byeways in Essex and Suffolk’ back in 1979, which I have adapted to illustrate this piece.  Our Mersea hut also played a role in WW2 as a similar, new battery necessitated its removal to Colchester.  It then became an IARP control post at Colchester’s Royal Grammar School close to our family home, where John Kent – my dad – played an active role also as an air raid warden, becoming a keen member of the ATC while mum ran the canteen.

‘Berwyn’ returned after the hostilities to dear old Mersea on the mud!  (That’s where I met Archie White who convinced me that, armed with a pen and brush, one could provide a living.)  Also a good base for teenage activities – including sailing – which has rubbed off on my son Ben and Emma down at St. Mawes.  All four of my grandchildren are following in my muddy steps!!

You can see from the book jacket below that Archie White set the pace for my ‘River Watch’.  Thanks to Sara Thorling for editing the many articles which appeared in the Blackheath Guide for many years, also to Tony and Helen Othen who translate my input into this blog with similar kind encouragement over the last three years.

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.