An octogenarian river watcher reports yet again from his Greenwich eyrie

Unexpected swings of weather extremes are certainly making a mark as London, yet again, reacts to them.  New panoramas open up as great storms rearrange the usual grey outlook which citizens associate with March, and spring threatens to burst upon us revealing storm-cleared vistas through the trees prior to the welcome return of a leafy London.

The tide line is also rapidly changing as once-hidden pier pilings and extensive chalk reefs are exposed by the increased speed of river traffic and tidal flow, once used by our forebears to utilise level riverside moorings.  Riverside moorings, once used by our forebears, have fast become obscured from sight as riverside loading into the once-crowded warehouses is now replaced by vast new distribution centres linked to the M25 hinterland.  New developments rely on a hard, modernised, concrete waterline, and we see the original tidal marshland acres rapidly disappear.

On once-marshy Greenwich Peninsula, the last giant gasholders are unpicked for redevelopment as this busy spine is readdressed for a network of new cross-river tunnels, and access roads attempt to relieve the dense traffic trap of the essential north-south Blackwall Tunnel.

Alas, the ancient river crossing at Woolwich is being frustrated by manning problems as new vessels have been introduced.  Especially relevant as giant new residential areas, due to be served by the proposed DLR extensions to the east, loom over the old Dockland zone around City Airport – perhaps snarling up the giant new wholesale markets planned to ease Smithfield, Billingsgate, Covent Garden and such.

Just now, the view from my studio window towards Canary Wharf is remarkable well beyond the Dockland dream, as skyscraper office buildings contend with neighbouring new residential skyscrapers to outsmart the City of London, Mayfair and Dubai!!

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One cannot ignore London’s ancient river superhighway as Father Thames provides a rapid ferry service for both passengers and cargo.  New craft abound, recently built especially for the conveyance of spoil from the riverside tunnelling complex for the new super sewer’s construction sites all along the tideway and waterway network serving the capital, together with additional passenger piers serving new residential schemes both upstream and downstream right into the heart of the capital.

 

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Across the tideway

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.BRWEC5C68B2947C_000285

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.

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High winds on the home front!

 

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.

Tall ships

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Boris at RNC 3

 

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!!

 

Sunday on the Tideway

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.

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Welcome Sailors

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.

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12 ports

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 (nova@poplar.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!!

Ancient and Modern

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.

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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.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

 

PC from Islay

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!)

PC from Islay back

 

 

 

Estuary watch

 

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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.

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High Summer on the Thames

As I write, the cruise ship ‘Silver Wind’ slips past Greenwich on her way up to HMS Belfast in the Pool of London – a regular port of call for ships in the Summer.

Likewise, the ‘World’ came to Greenwich Ship Tier, a residential ship for the super-rich. Cutty Sark Gardens became a cosmopolitan eating house for visitors to Maritime Greenwich – stalls for those who prefer not to eat in our town centre eating houses!
Across the river, the Isle of Dogs is sprouting skyscrapers as investors flock to London prior to Brexit. Canary Wharf and the Square Mile compete with each other for punters with cash to spare.
When we first came to Greenwich some 50 years ago, our view across the marshes were full of empty docklands as containerisation was not welcome here. By chance my sketch of the Greenwich Peninsula was the site of the first container wharf – although there wasn’t adequate space to store the land-hungry boxes.IOD skyline001

Part of the site contains Deverells Shipyard, its floating dock serving the ever-growing demand for maintenance of the ever-increasing fleets of tourist boats that now throng central London. Victoria Deep Water Wharf became an aggregate hub for all the massive development sites and, as I write, a new hub is under construction to advance this facility.

Beyond lies the great whale washed ashore, serving as a music hub: the O2 deserves a second look as a retail hub on a mezzanine floor wraps around the hole in the dome which lets out the foul air of the Blackwall Tunnel!

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I spotted the steam tug Portwey undergoing work on her historic hull. She can still be seen under steam on her brief outings on the tideway – she sits on a pontoon in the Royal Docks awaiting a permanent home.

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I must thank Rob Powell for his colour photos extracted from the splendid calendar which he publishes every year. He must have been very vigilant to see Portwey at Tower Bridge and there’s a grand shot from the Wolfe statue in Greenwich Park of the ‘Silversea’ cruise ship showing the Canary Wharf and developments in construction beyond.

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A brief message to those on board the Yacht ‘Nova’, half way around the UK – BRAVO!! It seems a long way from Oxford and St. Katharine’s

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Still time to catch a workshop or two…

 

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Westward Ho! Going with the flow!!

It’s good to take a break by the seaside – especially in Roseland – a remote peninsula in South Cornwall.  Fortunately we are staying in a charming cottage overlooking a creek, part of Carrick Roads – Falmouth’s ‘extensive’ harbour which is reached by a 3-mile ferry ride from St Mawes..

 

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It’s always fascinating to see so much marine activity around this once-famous deep water port – the furthest west, also the first and last of many a voyage where all-important mails were exchanged.  The extensive shipbuilding and repair yards are still very active.  We explored the River Fal up towards Truro on another small, historic ferry up the Carrick Roads, passing anchorages for large ships and the departure point for the D-Day American landing craft, with its narrow lanes and peaceful creeks.  The iconic King Harry Ferry, one of the few chain ferries in England, provides a short cut of 27 miles for visitors and locals alike (cars and vans too).

Our 4-hour train journey from Paddington raced through lush river valleys at an amazing pace.  I should have brought a map with me to explain some of the landmarks, among which were the extraordinary Brunel bridges over the Thames and at Saltash overlooking Plymouth Naval Base and the River Tamar (the Devon/Cornwall county boundary) as we charged through undulating landscape and past beautiful water ways, following gradual gradients with only the occasional tunnel.

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Our speedy Great Western train, with brand new rolling stock, lapped up the miles in great comfort.  We were met at Truro and driven to the King Harry chain-driven ferry on to Roseland – a remarkable rural peninsula with beautiful creeks and harbours.  Our week-long break hadn’t the best of weather, being early in the season; but we were fortunate to see the traditional start-of-season sail past by a variety of sailing craft from the numerous harbours and marinas just before the rain storms returned.  One is struck by the full moorings and the variety of craft in this delightful part of the world.

Back to the realities of life with a day at Lewisham Hospital for a clinic involving long waiting in the delightful new riverside reception with views of the River Ravensbourne and park beyond.  Ducks, moorhens and even an egret flutter about as the fast-flowing stream heads for Lewisham, Deptford and the Thames beyond – all aboard!!