Towards the end of our Empire – Private Kent S/23179244 recalls his National Service in the early ‘50s
The troopship ‘Empire Fowey’ plunged her way across the wintery Bay of Biscay bound for the Far East. She entered a calm, blue Mediterranean with much relief for a thousand or so reinforcements on Her Majesty’s Service. A two-day refuelling break at Gibraltar gave the opportunity to overview the defined difference between the Atlantic and the emerald blue Mediterranean and check that the famous Apes still held sway and the traditional Gibraltar comfort stations were still open to all.
During the month-long voyage, the captain issued a clear cut, day by day guides to what could be spotted by the lower deck squaddies as well as our superiors on the upper deck. The Sunday morning service in the Grand Ballroom gave us a hint of the grandeur of this captured German liner compared to the head-to-toe three-tiered bunks in the troop accommodation of the lower decks.
The refreshing morning breeze was enhanced by the delightful smell of crisp white rolls issuing from the bakery, and the sight of flying fish as they skimmed the billows of the tropical oceans. Our passage through Suez was as expected, with Arab traders trying to free last week’s payday pittance before the Naafi swooped up the duty-free Indian Pale Ale.
The heat really hit us squaddies as we tumbled off a ship-to-shore dhow onto Aden’s dusty delights – the obscure memory of a dawn approach with a replica Big Ben welcoming us to this colony and crater city.
However, in sedate Colombo, one was able to take tea in the palm-lined Settlers’ Club Room, very aware of our recently-issued tropical calico uniforms which gave the game away – our nude un-suntanned knees for all to mock.
The magic of a tropical evening on deck well away from bingo, and deck sports as towering cloud formations rose into the heavens high above, with the flash lightning dramatizing the tropical scene. The magic quickly vanished as the ‘duty party’ later scrubbed the sticky floor with Izal (or some other foul-smelling detergent).
The Straits of Malacca gave us a hint of what was to come in ambushes in the Malayan plantations and crowded China downtown with the threat of riots never far away.
Then a dramatic dockside arrival in Singapore, lumbered with kit bags and prams, awaiting one’s turn and clutching a posting chitty (which was a mystery to customs military police). Eventually I was the only soul left behind – until I was dispatched under escort to G.H.Q. F.A.R.E.L.F – a lush, partitioned campus alongside the Botanical Gardens. After a 2-day wait I was picked up by an ancient Humber staff car and driven through Singapore’s many diverse and multi-cultural settlements, then out towards the Straits of Jahore and the RAF base at Saletar.
Sunderland flying boats – amazingly still in service – Meteors and Vampires lay around awaiting scrapping prior to the Brits’ departure. My work place was in a concrete bunker alongside the main runway where I was asked to interpret aerial photos taken at first light to catch the sight of bandit activity hidden away in the jungle. I was to check the flight path in order to record the exact location for military action by Commonwealth forces. This demanding intelligence gathering was essential to keep roads and railways bandit-free. My interservice unit demanded numerous and speedy sharp-eyed talent working on demand, except when conditions were foul and flying limited; then we were off-duty – free to explore and to enjoy the social life on which colonialists thrived. This was a shade embarrassing as, being non-commissioned, one wasn’t welcome everywhere! Generous leave permitted sea travel to Hong Kong and Malaya – the Life of Riley as we had to pay only for messing!
By the time of our return voyage to the UK, we had learnt the ropes of avoiding the most arduous duties. The ‘Asturias’ arrival at Southampton was most emotional as a military band let loose on ‘When the Saints Came Marching In’ – hardly a dry eye to be seen, no doubt because we had traversed the desert unscathed. The Suez action was played out well before and after our memorable 18-month detachment!!
This unobserved peninsula can be viewed from the Sportsman Pub perched on the junction of Faversham and Oare Creek, and the Hollow Shore Yacht Club. The access lane runs from the western end of Faversham (just opposite the village school). Its curious course runs alongside a disused gravel pit which is now a fishermen’s lake with open pasture, viewed from the Saxon Shore Way footpath much loved by bird watchers on their way to Faversham where the Creek can be crossed by the town bridge.
The return Creekside path passes the town’s sewage works but soon is lost in Creekside pastures all the way to the Sportsman Pub, now a Michelin 2-star restaurant, and a bevy of beach huts with stunning views over the Swale as it flows into the sea – with its extensive oyster beds – and Horse Sands where knowing yachtsmen run ashore to prepare and paint their hulls.
Inland, the charming orchards and undulating pastureland is attracting nurserymen who bring in guest labour to supplement UK students. Locals live in bucolic locations and a network of public footpaths provide opportunities for the curious to explore. Graveney, where a Saxon boat was discovered, has a village school and historic church, and is an interesting settlement which borders acres and acres of open country, providing us townies with a space to breathe in the salty air. A series of hillsides give travellers panoramic views.
In the last year or so, new residential developments are adding hundreds to the peaceful Victorian town which now boasts a fast train link into Stratford, St Pancras and imminently Crossrail.
The very nature of this historic settlement with its ancient original street patterns and markets, once a medieval port with cross-channel links and trade far beyond in wool, hops, beer, fruit… once the garden of Kent… is about to be trashed and lose its very character – as has already happened in the rest of North Kent, a planners’ nightmare.
Now this is seen as a prime site for a vast solar park to join the estuarial wind farms in supplying the ever-growing population, no doubt attracting even more acres of prime countryside to industrial and distribution congested habitats.
A single set of power lines bestride the open countryside creeks, supplying the National Grid from cross-channel sources.
Quietly, Cleve Hill Substation slid in behind a wooded hill in open land while we awaited the ramifications of this. Now we know the secret of the planners’ dreams.
Witness the contented chug of the crusty old coaster ‘James Prior’ as she slipped down into the tideway having navigated under the Deptford Creek Road lift bridge where she earlier had delivered to Brewery Wharf a cargo of freshly-washed sea aggregate from her base downstream of Gravesend.
A larger craft dredges this cargo out of the Thames Estuary to the end of Walshes’ Pier where it is scrubbed clean and loaded into this tiny coaster which has traded for 9 years, mostly out of Prior’s extensive sand pit on Colchester’s historic river. Romans and the Dutch once traded here – my home town. ‘James Prior’ follows the tradition of delivering the essential ingredient to concrete wharves up and down the tideway for their insatiable appetite. Alas, their tall, elegant dockland crane has just disappeared to be replaced with a yellow painted mechanical grabber.
Likewise up in Battersea and Cringle Wharf, new arrangements had to be made to accommodate Trump’s Thames Tower for the US embassy. (The once twin cranes also have been booted out and shipped downstream to be refurbished and, hopefully, to be reinstalled).
(Photo by PK when last in Manhattan – donkey years ago!)
Earlier this year I made my first sighting of the new US embassy built on the South Bank in a once-industrial and market area across the river from the Chelsea Embankment, with its palatial apartment blocks – many owned by Arab entrepreneurs around fashionable Pimlico. The significant new US tower block provides excellent views onto elegant Chelsea and Westminster beyond, onto the New Covent Garden fruit market and a multiplicity of rail tracks.
On the exterior, large sail-like screens obscure the office floors from public gaze and from surrounding buildings and sun glare. My light-hearted sketches are based on images kindly supplied by visitors on an official tour. The new building echoes the spacious layout of the previous Grosvenor Square edifice which I was privileged to view upon its opening back in the fifties. I am told there is a north aspect viewing balcony for the Ambassador and those who wish to inspect Westminster and the MI5 HQs in nearby Vauxhall!
Did the President go south of the river? (Not his style, perhaps!!).
As we all take in this tropical heat, it was a joy to take a breather yesterday lunch time at one of the spectacular new apartment blocks recently built overlooking the Thames a little further upstream from our quayside abode. There we were entertained for a light lunch of fruit jelly and other high summer delights high up in a stunning penthouse apartment overlooking Greenwich Ship Tier buoys at the entrance to Deptford Creek and the River Ravensbourne – a favourite mooring point for visiting craft since Viking times, including pre-war German liners!! Here deep water anchorage is for visiting cruise ships, aircraft carriers and the like.
From our lunch vantage point, alongside the PLA’s ‘Welcome’ pontoon, we watched passengers come and go via the speedy Thames Clipper to Greenwich Pier in a flash, or up to town to Central London.
Our panoramic view from Beacon Point took in historic maritime Greenwich down to the O2, Canary Wharf, The City and West End just minutes away, famous land marks including Highgate Hill which sparkled in the sunshine. At night the flood-lit ‘Viking Sea’ looked spectacular against the glittering skyline of Canary Wharf and beyond. Later we whizzed down to Waitrose store leve, with the biggest underground car park in the capital (one of the amazing hidden ‘gems’).
Our hosts, who just love their new style of high-rise living, are jointly facing the ignomy of legal action over the cladding of the new structure, just as many other Londoners are realising – to their cost. Heaven only knows how many thousands who have chosen to live in similar riverside apartments throughout Docklands, rising like giant mushrooms throughout our neighbourhoods. We were delighted to learn of a reassuring community spirit, also that newcomers just love our amenities established over centuries of caring folk who have volunteered to man and support our rich, cultural lifestyle.
(It is said that the Vikings attacked London Bridge in 1012AD while based in Deptford Creek
Exactly twelve years ago, I reviewed the events that Riverwatch had recorded over the previous 13 years. 25 years ago, we had only just moved down to our riverside house – having done a very happy house-swap – and had invite out friends to admire our new world alongside the Royal Naval College and the Trafalgar Tavern. Desmond and Carol Pritchard had been producing their relaunched version of ‘the Guide’ in Blackheath and were always on the lookout for an occasional front cover.
My enthusiasm was no doubt over the top and eventually Desmond, the editor, said: “Peter, put your pen to paper. Tell the folk up the hill all about it”. And so, Riverwatch was conceived, exactly 25 years ago!
My first reports were based on my observations on shipping and other craft that traded on the Thames. Back in those days, large merchant ships were commonplace. Giant white ‘roll-on,roll-off’ freighters delivered great rolls of newsprint to the purpose-built Convoy’s Wharf at Deptford. Coasters from the Rhine brought in steel plate and emerald green Irish freighters brought maize.
But things quickly started to change. Before our eyes, the developers moved in to disused wharves and towering blocks of flats popped up everywhere. We saw the birth pains of a new city over in Canary Wharf, marvelling at the Manhattan madness but revelling in each new shopping mall and restaurant complex. How fortunate I was to sketch the exhilarating scene, clinging onto my dust-blown sketch book balanced amongst the towering cranes, meeting both the astonished locals and the enthusiastic engineers.
How I recall enjoying the first DLR to Greenwich and the sparkling new Jubilee Line which has magically annexed our communities to the heart of the capital through a bevy of under-river tunnels. Soon, City Airport was to have a direct link to Woolwich to spur even more regeneration.
The spectacle of the (sadly unloved at the time) Dome rising out of the polluted peninsula is remembered with pride. We gasped as the great pylons were erected and soon the ingenious roof created not only to cope with the Millennium Experience but later for the vast entertainment complex of the O2. Plans for the new peninsula proceeded, and we now have a complete new town on our doorstep.
Every daily tide brought new surprises – perhaps an aircraft carrier or two, reminding me of the ceremonial salutes exchanged between inco9ming warships and the Royal Naval College at the last sailing of HMY Britannia and the closure celebrations as the navy left Greenwich for good in 1998 (not a dry eye to be seen).
The splendid refurbishment of Wren’s great building has since opened up a gateway between East and West Greenwich and welcomed the students of University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music. Now citizens and visitors can stroll through these architectural gems with ease and delight.
Back in 2006, refurbishment of the Visitor Centre, the Cutty Sark and Cutty Sark Gardens were still at planning stage. Sir Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth IV had recently been removed from display, only to run aground on some isolated Pacific Reef!
Alas, I have to report the sad news of the passing of Desmond Pritchett at his home by the sea in Bournemouth – a jolly chap who enjoyed many a new year celebration with his Blackheath chums, outings to Cherbourg for tall ship events, even travelling to Hong Kong for the seven-a-side rugby. After the Kents moved down to Greenwich waterfront, it was friends Desmond and Carol Pritchett who inspired me to write and illustrate a monthly article for their restored and sparkling Guide Magazine. Riverwatch then became a ‘blog’ – ‘Riverwatch Returns’ – generously produced by Tony and Helen Othen, based on the same style and content as before and has survived now for 25 years!!
“Westward Ho!” with the GWR taking the strain from Paddington. Leaving at coffee time and arriving for an early supper turned out to be magical indeed, with sailing craft of all types criss-crossing the Carrick ‘Roads’ gathered for Falmouth Classics. This is perhaps the largest get-together of some 200 iconic sailing craft together with colourful characters who gather around the streets and quays echoing to the joyous sea shanties performed by young and old in the glorious summer weather. A treat indeed!
Gathered around St Mawes Castle with stunning views of the classic boat parade propelled by oars, sail and engine brought back memories of last year’s Greenwich Festival. Two cruise ships moored adjacent to the 10-year-old National Maritime Museum together with a pair of fleet fuellers freshly built or refurbished to maintain the Royal Navy’s fleet readiness. Tucked away in the floating dock the much-honoured RFA Argos was undergoing a much deserved refit, while two brand new super-motor yachts ready for the Med or even the Caribbean sparkled in the sunlight.
I was overjoyed to meet Richard Doughty who now runs the Cornwall NMM having overseen the dramatic reconstruction of Cutty Sark here in Greenwich, and been responsible for breathing new life into Gypsy Moth III. His successful spell here in Greenwich followed his springing new life into the National Fisheries Museum in Grimsby.
Peter and Judy on board sailing barge Alice
Join the Kents on a tour of maritime collections from Portsmouth, across to Bristol and back to Greenwich and on to Chatham. Everything organised, including expert guidance around our royal dockyards and ports of old, viewing the most interesting historic ships and collections – even an outing on a Thames sailing barge around Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent and, of course, The Mary Rose.
Artist at work
Peter and Judy inspecting the fleet from sailing barge Alice
Brian Lavery is offering a repeat of last year’s guided tour. Brian is author of ‘Nelson’s Navy’ and is a curator emeritus at the National Maritime Museum. Last year he introduced us to Britain’s maritime glories, piloting us through naval and maritime historic venues and collections in the company of enthusiasts from both sides of the pond. We stayed at landmark hotels, dining in company at amazing venues. Door to door transport is included.
Phone me if you need to know more, or contact Brian at email@example.com.
Peter and Brian admiring the view from top of Spinnaker Tower
In the archives at Greenwich NMM
Phone me if you need to know more, or contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SS Great Britain in Bristol Harbour
Artist at work Spinnaker Tower
Phone me if you need to know more, or contact Brian at email@example.com.