Thames Calling

The 2015 Carbuncle Cup winner will forever be known as the “Walkie Talkie”

The notorious ‘Carbuncle Cup’ is awarded annually by Building Design Magazine, to the worst new building of the year. And yes, the Walkie Talkie is so obviously ‘in your face ugly’, with its concave shape, worrying stoop, and the way it stands like a giant thumb, apart from the cluster of the City of London’s high-rise buildings, both spatially and stylistically. It is also slightly unnerving with its rearing top, larger than its footprint at street level, rising like a large wave about to break over you.

The architect, Uruguayan Rafael Viñoli Beceiro, has effectively disowned it saying “We made a lot of mistakes with this building”, and after the alterations imposed on the planners and developers by the City of London Corporation he said that “My name is on it but it’s not my building.”

Despite being reduced in height by 115 feet to safeguard historic views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, it still dominates the skyline, looming over both these London landmarks. One has to wonder why it was ever allowed to be built. Added to that, in the summer of 2013 during construction, its concave design reflected and magnified rays from the sun to such an extent that they began to melt and scorch things below including door mats, tiles, bicycle seats, car panels, and the wing mirror casing of a Jaguar. The press made much of it at the time alternating between scorn and ridicule directed at the the design of the building. Reporter Jim Waterson even managed to fry an egg on the hot pavement.

Temperatures of just above 90 degrees Celsius were recorded. Quick off the mark as usual, Londoners dubbed the building the “Walkie Scorchie” for a short time until a technical solution was put into place by a Californian specialist, who had worked on a similar problem with the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas, also designed by Viñoli. The face of the building looking over the Thames was shrouded in temporary netting to deflect the sun’s rays until the permanent Brise Soleil was put into place from the 3rd to the 34th floor.

The Brise Soleil on the Walkie Talkie tower rising from the 3rd to 34th floor

Yet the building does have one redeeming feature: The Sky Garden with its wonderful views across London. But even this has not been without controversy. The inclusion of a free public garden at the top of the building was a condition for allowing the scheme to go ahead and was indeed a key element in obtaining planning permission. Planners’ *visualisations*, so often a degree fanciful, included large trees but the finished result, certainly to begin with, was on a much smaller scale. Access for the public, though free, is restricted to one and a half hour slots, which must be booked in advance, though there are times when you can simply arrive at the door and if there is space you can go in. There are also times when it is closed for private events or monthly maintenance. There is an airport-style security check-in leading to the lifts. That said, it is still very much worth the effort to experience the surprise of such a jungly garden high above London, and the all round views from there.

View of St. Paul’s Cathedral through the Sky Garden trees

As you step out from the lift onto Level 35 you walk into a different world, and as visitor numbers are controlled, it is not too crowded or echoey. Also, it is naturally ventilated and the air feels fresh, a feeling reinforced by the greenery of the plants. Spread out over three floors, there are stairs around, and paths through the gardens.

Walking up to the 37th level

There is a profusion of tree ferns, palm trees, bushes, giant versions of house plants, and on the lower levels smaller and flowering plants, all well-watered and cared for. Restful and soothing though the plants may be, it’s the views of London that that win the day for me.

To begin with there are the views from the Francis Golding Terrace running across the front of the building, named after the architectural townscape advisor who was involved in the design and planning stages of 20 Fenchurch Street.

The Francis Golding Terrace

Please join me behind the glass panels for a walk on the terrace…

The Tower of London and Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge with one of City Cruises’ tourist boats heading upstream
Work on the Thames: a GPS tug pushing a barge of earth excavated from one of the Tideway Tunnel sites
The Shard: a rival across the river
A Thames River Police launch behind a Thames Jet RIB, slicing through the water
Thames traffic and views of Tate Modern, the Loofah, Cannon Street railway bridge, Southwark, Millennium (or Wobbly bridge), the Blackfriars bridges and beyond…

…then walk up with me through the gardens where there are more views of some of London’s famous landmarks, and at the heart of them, the Thames.

Looking upstream towards the Blackfriars Bridges
Looking down at the Francis Golding Terrace, the Thames and London Bridge
Homeward bound on a Thames clipper, leaving the Tate Modern tower and Shard on the right, and the Walkie Talkie on the left.

For more information on the Sky Garden see: https://skygarden.london

Meet Rob Jeffries

Retired Police Officer & Honorary Curator, Thames River Police Museum

Rob Jeffries welcomes me into a large Aladdin’s cave filled to the rafters with hundreds of interesting, precious and exciting looking police artefacts including uniforms, weapons old and new, handcuffs, superb models of boats, pictures, books, and glass display cases filled with documents and photographs; all connected to the two hundred year history of police work along the Thames. With him, to learn the ropes, is Kim Smith, who having been an essential member of the team at the Wapping Police Station, in part of which the museum is housed, volunteered three months ago to help Rob with his work.

One of the most poignant exhibits that Kim has discovered is the ensign of the Princess Alice, a pleasure boat tragically sunk in an accident in 1878 with the loss of over 650 lives in an area close to where the Thames Barrier is now. It was a national disaster and the greatest loss of life ever on Britain’s waterways. Rob explains that “the boat was packed with Londoners enjoying a day out on the river when it was violently struck by the Bywell Castle and sank within three minutes.” Many victims, unable to swim were quickly drowned but others died later from infections caused by the raw sewage that was released regularly into the river there.

Wapping Police Station is on the right. The white building on the left, Aberdeen Wharf, once a storage place for the Met, has now been converted into flats
The foreshore at Wapping with Marine Policing Unit vessels at the pier below the Wapping Police Station

The museum is set in what was once the carpentry workshop for the Thames River Police, where boats were maintained and repaired until 1973, when a new yard was opened close by. It seemed the natural place to support a museum as the Thames River Police is recognised as being the longest continuously serving police force in the world. It was initially created solely to prevent crime on the river, by protecting the valuable cargoes, particularly of sugar, belonging to the West India Company, whose merchants were suffering heavy losses from highly organised thieving.

Set up by Patrick Colquhoun and John Harriott in July 1798, the Marine Police Office opened in Wapping. This Thames force came into being thirty years before Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police, but in 1839, as forces combined to fight against crime, the Thames River Police joined the Metropolitan Police and became the Thames Division. From then on their primary objective was the prevention of crime and the protection of life, principles which are still followed to this day and, with the ever-present terrorist threat, their work has become even more vital.

The Offices of the Marine Policing Unit facing Wapping High Street

The only real source of outside light for the museum is an opening onto the river with a davit still in place. As we sit down to talk, a welcome breeze flows in from the riverside and we hear the sound of wash from occasional passing Thames Clippers and tourist cruise boats.

Rob Jeffries with assistant Kim Smith

Having worked as a Thames Division officer since 1988, and having a general interest in London’s history, Rob took over the running of the Thames Police Museum in 1997 and continued doing so until his retirement in 2005. When no serving officer came forward to take things over, Rob agreed to continue his former role, now working in a voluntary capacity, along with John (Joz) Joslin, who had put the museum together in its current form back in 1974.

Model of police launch ‘Sir Robert Peel’ in service from 1947-63

The museum is a real treasure-trove of artefacts connected with the river police and Rob is a fount of knowledge on them, the history of London, the Thames, and particularly on, to use its full title, “The Metropolitan Police Service, Marine Policing Unit”. He is a wonderful and enthusiastic communicator, receiving visitors on Open House London days and giving pre-booked talks by arrangement. But how did this come about? “Pure chance”, says Rob.

After training at the Hendon Police College in 1973, he worked at the West End Central Police Station in Savile Row, and for a while in Diplomatic Protection. Some years later, while on an operation on the Embankment he heard that the Thames Division, as the Marine Policing Unit was known then, were looking for recruits. However, “at the time nearly all the applicants had some seafaring background either in the Royal Navy, or the Merchant Navy.” The idea appealed to him and a friend helped him spice up his CV to make it stand out in order to get through to the interview stage of his application. The Board, while not perhaps entirely convinced by his CV, obviously detected his enthusiasm and potential, and after an eight month wait, Rob was accepted as a recruit in April 1988. And so began the hard work.

One of the glass display cases with a collection of photographs and mementos
Police vessels “Robin Locker” and “Gabriel Franks II” at Wapping Pier

Based at Wapping, he was immediately out on the river supervised by a “Sea Daddy”, who oversaw his nautical training and taught him the particular rules that apply to the Thames, such as speed limits and when to give way to another vessel. “As I had everything to learn, I asked to be treated as a novice. But I was soon put at the helm, though we were very well supervised. There were always two experienced officers with a trainee.” Having completed his training, he was transferred to the floating police pier known as Waterloo Pier. He adds, “Our patrols were from Blackfriars Bridge to above Hammersmith Bridge, but crews from Wapping would frequently cover our ground and vice versa.” It was essential to learn the shape of the shallow waters upstream with their particular characteristics. “For example, there’s a shoal by Fulham Football ground where, if you’re not careful you risk getting stuck and stranded by an ebbing tide.”

A model of a twin engined launch that was used on the lower reaches of the Thames from the late seventies into the eighties, and on which Rob would have served at some point

While their duties involved the prevention of crime and protection of life on and around the river, one difficult aspect was, and still is, the recovery of bodies of the drowned. During his career on the river, Rob had to investigate many deaths that happened there. “Victims can be of any age, from babies to the elderly, and it can be hard to deal with.” Rob explains: “When I first started in 1988 there was on average one drowning a week. Now there’s far fewer, more like one a month. And the main reason for the lower figure is, very simply, the mobile phone.” Help can be called at once, and with the police and the RNLI, based on the river since 2002, both now having faster boats than before, people in trouble can be reached and saved much more quickly.

However, it was the tragic sinking of the Marchioness on August 20, 1989, that became etched in the minds of all river-users, London and the nation as a whole, when fifty-one young party-goers were drowned. Though not first on the scene, Rob responded to a call in the early hours of the morning, checked the boat with his crew-mate and hurried along the river to help. For the next five days he was involved with the search and recovery of the bodies of the victims. It was a harrowing experience that has stayed with him.

Though there is a memorial in Southwark cathedral dedicated to those who died in the Marchioness, countless others are forgotten. So when Rob was contacted by Val Hills, whose son Daniel lost his life in the Thames in 2008 this struck a chord with him, as his work had brought him in contact with many now-forgotten victims’ families. So began a campaign to raise funds for a memorial dedicated to “everyone who has died in the River Thames regardless of how that death occurred.” Rob worked tirelessly with artist Clare Newton to raise the fees for her thoughtful and moving sculptured plaque, which would make Val’s dream a reality and, with the support of the Reverend Katherine Hedderly, who welcomed the memorial, it was dedicated in a service at All Hallows Church by the Tower on June 25, 2019. Here, in the heart of our city, is a place for quiet reflection where families and friends can come to remember and give thanks for the lives of those they have lost.

Clare Newton’s Thames Memorial to all those who have lost their lives in the Thames, installed in the church of All Hallows by the Tower on June 25, 2019

Cover picture: Rob Jeffries giving a talk. Film: Thames Memorial – Police Museum (c) YNUK.tv

To find out more:
See the film:
The Thames Memorial Service of Dedication

Visit the site:
The Thames Police Museum

Download the excellent:
The Thames River Police: Forefathers of Modern Policing
By David Wells and the West India Committee

Notes on the Shard

A sharp-edged, shining crystal pointing skywards…

…towering above its neighbours in so many views of London, the Shard is even more striking in its place by the Thames. For though hidden at times as the river curves sensuously through the city, it suddenly comes into sight and takes over its surroundings. Now a familiar part of the London landscape, its ever-changing reflections of London’s skies and clouds in its glass panels turn it into a dazzling ornament. 

Seen from the London Eye: The Shard an unmissable part of London’s landscape

Yet, just as it’s visible from miles around, if you go up to The View on The Shard platforms, you can look out over London for up to forty miles in any direction. But before looking at the horizon, the first marvel is being able to look down at a model world beneath your feet including miniatures of the Tower of London; Tower Bridge; HMS Belfast; St. Paul’s Cathedral; the South Eastern railway lines and trains; and of course, the Thames.  

Looking down onto a miniature world below © Nigel Stoughton
HM Tower of London: a toy fort beneath your feet
Tower Bridge: London’s most recognised bridge
HMS Belfast, one of the many ships that took part in Operation Overlord on D-Day, June 6, 1944. She is moored below and often joined by visiting ships

There are unparalleled views along the river looking east  towards Canary Wharf, the Thames Barrier and just beyond, into Essex and Kent.

Looking East you can see the river meandering to the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, and just visible the silhouettes of the Thames Barrier piers

To the west you can see several of central London’s bridge crossings, Westminster, Pimlico, Chelsea, Battersea; the Lott’s Road power station; Fulham, and as far out as Surrey.

Views to the west include Pimlico, the Royal Hospital Gardens, Albert and Battersea Bridges
The Shard echoes the lines of Southwark Cathedral below

Believe it or not, after a short conversation on the concept, the basic elements of the Shard were simply sketched out on the back of a menu by architect Renzo Piano during a lunch with developer Irvine Sellar. Renzo had been immediately attracted to the site by the Thames, and to the idea of building by railway lines with their constant movement, energy, and links to elsewhere.

Seen from above the railway is a toy train set

In just a few moments he came up with a rough design that closely resembled the Shard as it is today. Sellar  promised that if Renzo would put his signature to the design and sign up to the project, he would actually go ahead and build the Shard. He kept his promise but it was not a smooth ride as planning approval took a long time and funds dried up during the crash of 2008.  However, the State of Qatar came to the rescue with substantial financial backing and, after dangerous and demanding work in sometimes very difficult conditions, the Shard was finally completed and opened by the Prime Minister of Qatar in 2012.

The Shard adds to London’s wonderful architectural contrasts

London’s skyline and the buildings that border the Thames have changed so much in the last few years not always for the better, and in many cases generations who grew up here, all with memories of their lives and experiences linked to the landscape, have been moved away, or lost their points of reference. There have been good restorations and conversions such as Sea Containers House, St. Katharine’s Dock, and Butler’s Wharf but also some ugly, unimaginative blocks. Canary Wharf and the City have distinctive and interesting buildings, some of them more attractive than others and I particularly like the Gherkin. However, when it comes to elegance and height, the sharp, edgy Shard really does take pride of place.

As night falls, a train crosses Cannon Street railway bridge

For further information on access and prices:
https://www.the-shard.com/about

Meet Chris Walker…

Helm at Tower RNLI Lifeboat Station and Casualty Care Trainer for the Thames

The tide was flowing fast upstream as I made my way down a ramp to the Tower RNLI Station on Victoria Embankment to meet Chris Walker. Kindly welcoming me during a break in his shift he led me to a table in the crew’s kitchen where the duty crew can cook something to eat and socialise but still be ready to launch within ninety seconds of a call.

Cleaning station lifeboat HURLEY BURLY ready for action

Chris engages with social media, giving a particular insight into the work of Tower RNLI and his part in it, often signing off a tweet with a virtual #TimeForACuppa. But this time he begins with a real one for us both. We feel the movement of the river with an occasional surge, sway or knocking sound caused by the wash of a passing boat as the station is built on a floating pier.

He tells me about the RNLI’s relationship with the river, explaining: “We have to pass a Local Knowledge Endorsement, an intricate test run by the Port of London Authority for all commercial river users. You get a real grilling but it’s vital to know the river intimately by studying the behaviour of the tides in open water, beneath the bridges, round the cofferdams and piers. Cofferdams are particularly challenging because the flow around them changes all the time.”

Turbulent waters at the Blackfriars Bridges

The crews learn to be wary of difficulties such as the turbulent water “bottlenecking” at the Blackfriars Bridges and a standing wave that appears on an ebbing tide caused by a shoal at London Bridge. Speed limits and the often shifting position of beaches and sandbanks have to be thoroughly learnt. And, as if to underline the point, Chris produces a comprehensive, six page, hand drawn revision map marking all the bridges, piers, Thames Tideway construction sites, moorings, boating bases, fuel barges and points of interest. Familiarity with these means that crews can react more swiftly and safely in an emergency.

HURLEY BURLY racing towards Blackfriars Bridge

Considering how long the Thames has been a place of danger, it is only recently that the RNLI set up stations along the tidal Thames. Before that, rescues were carried out by Police vessels. However, following reports into the tragic sinking of party boat the MARCHIONESS on August 28, 1989, when fifty-one people were drowned after the dredger BOWBELLE rammed and sank her near Southwark Bridge, it was decided that the RNLI should have a twenty-four hour presence on the Thames. In 2002 stations were set up at Teddington, Chiswick, Tower Pier and Gravesend; Teddington operating with volunteers summoned when needed as on coastal stations but Chiswick, Tower and Gravesend permanently manned by paid crew working on an organised shift basis. They are joined on station by a team of volunteer crew members, who stay there for the entire shift rather than responding to pagers. Tower has around sixty volunteers on its books and most volunteer for about two twelve hour shifts every month. This means that crews can plan their family lives and come in to work from outside London. In 2006 the Tower Pier station, retaining the name Tower, moved to where it is now by Waterloo Bridge.

Gear ready to put on at a moment’s notice
Boots to fit the crews

Chris explains that the RNLI crews were newcomers to a river community, many of whose families have been working on the Thames for over three hundred years. “As our members passed the tough Port of London tests, and so were put on equal terms with the commercial skippers, we were gradually accepted and respected by the long term river users.” And now they’re very much part of the river community involved with exercises alongside some of the many operators, including joint exercises with Cory tugs, practising the rescue of casualties from awkward places below deck.

Their rescue work covers a whole variety of incidents from people trapped on beaches by rising tides; passengers taken ill on cruise boats; industrial accidents on construction sites; pleasure boats in difficulties; saving people who have fallen into the river by accident, and sadly the recovery of those who, by design or by bad luck, haven’t made it. But like all those working in our Emergency Services and Armed Forces, they support each other through the darker moments.

But there are lighter moments too and time for camaraderie and joking between the Thames stations. “Chiswick is known as ‘the shallow end’; Tower as ‘shiny pier’; and Gravesend as the ‘deep end’. Yet in a crisis they immediately pull together with absolute professionalism. And their sympathy with all sea rescuers extends beyond our borders. On June 13, the duty crew stood silently in memory of three French SNSM (Sauveteurs en Mer) lifeboat crew members, drowned after their boat capsized during a rescue off the Breton coast near Les Sables d’Olonne.

Apart from his position as Helm, Chris Walker is also the Casualty Care Trainer for the Thames and holds regular RNLI training courses at the station. On Thursday, June 18, the session included: the use of immobilisation tools and stretchers, airway management, and the strapping of different kinds of fractures. Other training can include the use of three heavy practice crew dummies, all called ‘Bob’. Usually hanging dejectedly at the end of the station platform, they are placed in a variety of scenarios where crew members have to work out how best to effect and cary out a rescue.

The ‘Bobs’ hang their heads ready to play their part

HURLEY BURLY, the station lifeboat, was out with a crew on a training exercise during my visit, though as they were in constant radio contact, they would have been able to respond immediately in the case of an emergency. A class E Lifeboat, she was specifically designed for easy manoeuvrability; to cope with submerged detritus; and to weave between heavy traffic at speed. When Chris is on shift, he is at the helm and he knows her well.

HURLEY BURLY, an E class lifeboat specially designed to cope at speed with conditions on the Thames

Over his time on the Thames, Chris has become very much attuned to the moods of the river. “There is a palpable pulse, you can feel the pulse of the river and, under certain conditions you expect something to happen.” And he clearly loves working there. Though his work does have its difficult and sometimes tragic side, this is offset by the breathtaking beauty of the river both by day and at night. Seeing London’s buildings and bridges from water level “You get to discover things that no one else knows.”

HURLEY BURLY speeding past the Tower of London

Chris Walker, drawn to the sea and familiar with boats since childhood, has been involved with the RNLI since his first days of volunteering for the Helensburgh Lifeboat in Scotland. He came south to do his degree and still committed to saving lives at sea, volunteered for the Calshot Lifeboat in Southampton Water. He became a lifeboat trainer at the RNLI College in Poole and after a spell at Chiswick, further upstream on the Thames, came to take on the role of Helm at Tower. As well as his training and instructing role, he is also part of the RNLI Flood Rescue Team and an RNLI Instructor. In September 2018 he was delighted and proud to receive a Long Service Medal.

The crew of HURLEY BURLY carefully take a casualty to safety

On the alert for twenty-four hours every day of the year, London is lucky to have dedicated and experienced RNLI teams covering the tidal Thames. And Tower is its busiest station. Their ‘scores on the door’, since the station opened in 2002, accurate at the time of writing, show that they have had 7,760 call outs, or ‘shouts’ with 311 lives saved, meaning that their intervention has actually made the difference between life and death for the casualty. But the lives they have saved are not just human, a yellow sticky at the foot of their tally board records the rescue of a dog and a Harris hawk in difficulties earlier this year, both restored to their grateful owners.

Thank you to Chris Walker and all the RNLI crews who watch over the tidal Thames.

The crews of Tower RNLI watch over their section of the tidal Thames twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year

To learn more visit Tower Lifeboat Station and follow @RescueShrek and @TowerRNLI on Twitter


Meet Vic Clarke

as he reminisces about his time on the tidal Thames in the 60s

A chance meeting on social media and a shared interest in the Thames led to my discovering the early story of Vic Clarke, who trained at the Wellesley Nautical School at Blyth and who began his career on colliers delivering coal to Thames-side power stations in the 1960s.

Vic Clarke, 1960 © V. Clarke

After undergoing a rigorous training with tough, and by today’s standards, harsh discipline at Wellesley from 1958 – 1961, he tells me of his first trip to London.

“This will never leave my memory as I’d dreamt of going to sea from an early age, so it made a big impression. Steaming down the East coast from Blyth to London, being thrown about, dropping meals and cups of tea. Then I remember everything going still and peaceful. It was about three in the morning. I went up on deck: we had just turned into the Thames Estuary.

He describes life on board the HUDSON FIRTH, on which he sailed a number of times: “Accommodation was pretty basic for seamen, and for deck boys like me, even more basic. There were two of us deckies on the FIRTH. We shared a cabin directly above the steering gear, so it was pretty noisy. Our cabin was in the hull and there was no insulation in that part; just steel plate between us and the briny.”

“You first join as a deckie. If you’re a junior, you normally help in the galley, where you stay until another deckie joins the crew. In this position the nickname was “Peggy”. In the old sailing days, if you was to lose a leg, you weren’t put ashore, you were tasked to help in the galley. So for three months I was peggy: thankfully I didn’t have to cut my leg off.”

Vic sent me this image of the Blyth chain ferry, 1960. However, here the interest lies in the ship on the left the HUDSON CAPE, sister ship to the HUDSON FIRTH © Frederick W Craven – geograph.org.uk/p/1674724

“The FIRTH sailed in any weather. No high sea or high wind deterred our skipper, we’d steam out of Blyth with the prop thrashing out of the water, then back into a trough and silence. The North Sea is harsh; we rarely had a flat steam to London. If memory serves me well, it took three days to go down and two days to go up, dependant on the weather.”

“During days at sea it would be maintenance i.e. chipping paint off and repainting. On leaving Blyth, once the hold covers were down, decks were cleaned off of any coal dust, the same when leaving London; that was the first job.”

“I though the food on the FIRTH was unbelievable. The standard of the galley and cookers was basic but our cook turned out amazing food and plenty of it.”

1955, a little before Vic’s time but showing a scene in King George V Dock, illustrating the importance of the Port of London. Photo by © Ben Brooksbank (licensed for re-use)

“The loading in Blyth was done from staithes, high wooden structures that carried coal trucks. The trucks stopped right up above the vessels, then were turned over and the coal streamed down a chute into the hold. On unloading in London, large cranes with grab buckets emptied the hold, after which tractors were then lowered in to finish the job off.”

“I’m pretty sure Bankside was my first trip as memories bring Southwark up. I remember we tied off on a buoy on a Sunday morning. Being peggy I was tasked to go ashore for newspapers and cigarettes; lots of Woodbines and News of the Worlds. One of the seamen called for a lighterman who took me ashore, where I soon found a shop, got the kit and went back to the river. But no FIRTH. Gone.”

Tower Bridge with shipping in the Pool of London and at Hay’s Wharf, Southwark, London, c1945-c1965. © SW Rawlings, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“It’s hard to express the sheer number of ships tied up. It was Sunday, and skippers tried to avoid Sundays at sea because pay was double time, meaning more expense for their employers. The lighterman took me down the lines of ships and found the FIRTH. I distinctly remember she was up alongside a ship named GLADYS BOWATER. She was carrying rolls of newspaper. When I walked across her deck it was like a 5-star hotel in comparison to our dark, dusty collier.”

Vic also remembers some of London’s great smogs known as pea-soupers. “Real pea-soupers, which I only actually experienced on the Thames, were I would think, due to the heavy industry and the coal-fired power stations. They were eerie, all sounds were muffled, really muffled. I distinctly remember one time ships’ movements being suspended. I can still remember the taste and smell of smoke and soot infesting the air, all confused with the sounds of ships’ horns, and lightermen shouting to each other….”

After leaving the Merchant Navy, Vic carried on with an active and varied career, with work including diving, abseiling and steeple jacking, where on one occasion he had to inspect the damage done to the Kuwait water towers during the Occupation of Kuwait by the Iraqis in 1990-91. But he looks back with fondness to his early career and work on the Thames: “In those days there were no camera phones and very few ordinary cameras around.” He adds wistfully, “Oh to have the chance to go back and have those sights, sounds and feelings actually on record; though hopefully they will live with me forever.” And from the memories he has shared with us here, they surely will.

Vic and his friend Bon Clowe from Wellesley College days standing in front of a nautically themed sign on the old base which was sold for redevelopment. Vic fought hard to have the names of officers and divisions remembered in the streets and closes of the new estate. And he won. © Vic Clarke

Unsung Heroes

The small workboats of the tidal Thames

Dwarfed by other vessels, construction sites and piers along the river, there is a fleet of small workboats, open topped or with a wheel house, navigating the river in all conditions. Unless you’re looking out for them, they can pass by un-noticed but their work is vital to smooth operations along the river.

EDDIE C making her way along a rough stretch of the Thames

They fetch and carry people and goods; act as safety boats; serve as platforms for filming, PR work, surveys, structural inspections both above and below the waterline, and numerous other activities associated with the maintenance of buildings, embankments and structures along the river.

Safety boat FELLUCA at the Tideway Chelsea Embankment Foreshore

Some belong to particular pleasure boat cruise companies, working solely for them, ferrying skippers, mates and crew from a nearby pier to where their vessels are moored, and others are available for hire for long or short term.

DUTCH MASTER with small boat CYGNET just visible by the stern
Thames Cruises’ GUVNOR moored at Lambeth

There are many active civil engineering projects along the tidal Thames but by far the largest is the Tideway Super Sewer for London, now 40 percent complete, which has twenty-four construction sites, all using small workboats along with the other vessels they need onsite or for deliveries.

Wal Daly-Smith, now Mate with Bateaux London Cruises, worked earlier this year as a safety boat skipper at the Blackfriars site. His boat, Diveco 1, assisted with diver operations and played a big part in the building of the cofferdam.

Diveco 1 inside the Tideway cofferdam at Blackfriars earlier this year.
© Wal Daly-Smith See his Thames images @RiverLens

It was a complex job and as Wal explains, one of the main tasks he had was “to act as safety boat. The divers would be lowered into the water by crane and I would be on standby, a good distance away with my engine shut down. The divers also worked off a pontoon, which I would push around with the boat.” Their work involved welding and burning, all of this in extremely murky, dangerous underwater conditions.

Sunset from inside the Thames Tideway cofferdam at Blackfriars.
© Wal Daly-Smith See his Thames images @RiverLens

Wal also told me how the Diveco boat was used to help with rescuing fish trapped in the cofferdam as the water was drained out. “A zoologist from London Zoo took part ensuring the fish were netted in the correct way and freed back into the river on the other side”. Over 1,200 fish, of several different species were rescued. Here is yet further proof that there has been a spectacular renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Thames was described as “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum.

After the fish were moved to safety, the boat assisted in the removal of thousands of tons of sludge. “I could feel the prop dragging through the thick silt once the cofferdam was drained,” he added.

DANCHA from Eel Pie Island racing through a sparkling Thames

These are just a few of the many small workboats to be seen along the river but there are many more hidden within structures or tucked in alongside or behind bigger boats. With names like ROSIE, ALFIE, LOVELY BOUY and REBEL, they all have their own characteristics and are fun to watch. But make no mistake, their skippers need a lot of skill to handle them in the often turbulent waters of the Thames.

JOANNIE B making her way downstream past the Palace of Westminster

For more information see: https://www.tideway.london @TidewayLondon and follow @RiverLens for pictures of life on the river by an aspiring Waterman ⚓️

Port of Call

With the tide in full flow…

…the swift running currents of the central London Thames divide and stream through the constricted spaces between the embankments and beneath the bridges.

Swift running tide beneath the Blackfriars bridges

For those working along the river, they can be a useful energy-saving way of getting around and you will see all types of boats from tugs and tourist boats to kayaks skilfully taking advantage of this when they can.

Further downstream, if you’re walking by Tower Bridge, or taking a river trip to Greenwich, the Thames Barrier or beyond, you’ll not only see the usual traffic but also the occasional impressive-looking ship on a visit to London. Some come right into the heart of the City to moor alongside the permanently berthed historic HMS Belfast, which took part in the bombardment supporting the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.

HMS Belfast permanently moored near Tower Bridge

Last September I was lucky enough to have been close to Tower Bridge when the bridge lifted and the sail training ship STS Lord Nelson came through. And later in the month I spotted her sister ship, sailing vessel SV Tenacious further downstream, making her way seawards past the ever-changing skyline to the east of the City.

Tower Bridge lifts for STS Lord Nelson

These two elegant ships are owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, in existence for over thirty years, and their mission is “to give people of mixed abilities and circumstances the freedom to explore their ability, potential and place in the world through inclusive adventures at sea.”

SV Tenacious heads seawards past the ever-changing City skyline

No-one is disadvantaged as the ships were specially designed to be wheelchair accessible throughout. Trips have been variously described as adventurous, challenging, confidence-building and inspiring but perhaps the most revealing is a comment from one voyager “that sailing for me on these ships is the only time I feel free”, expressing a liberation from the fears and restrictions that can curtail everyday life.

Moored next to HMS Belfast, former RMS St Helena on a visit to London, January 2019

In January 2019, the former Royal Mail Ship, cargo liner RMS St Helena, sailed beneath Tower Bridge, mooring next to HMS Belfast, in her new role as an ambassador for the launch of the Extreme E electric car racing series. There was something majestic and romantic seeing her among us in London after she had served the islanders of St Helena with all their needs for nearly thirty years.

She was much loved by the population and they gave her a memorable send-off in February 2018, including a last propeller inspection by the St Helena Dive Club, whose members posed underwater for a photo with the island flag. After leaving London, she sailed westwards round the coast to undergo refitting and refurbishment so as to be able to act as a movable base for each of the Extreme E races when events begin in 2021.

As I was turning to leave, a pool of reflected light unexpectedly and magically shone onto part of her starboard side and I further understood why this ship had been held in much affection.

In April 2019, the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza came to London to launch a year long Pole to Pole expedition ‘Protect the Oceans’ from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to highlight the many threats facing our oceans and to campaign for a Global Oceans treaty at the UN. It was a timely visit as climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and deep sea mining have been making the news with television programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ and the recent demonstrations in central London by the pressure group ‘Extinction Rebellion’.

MV Motor Vessel Esperanza alongside HMS Belfast

Find out more and see when ships are due into central London: www.towerbridge.org.uk

And for detailed information on shipping movements see The Port of London Authority: www.pla.uk


HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge in an early evening light

The Rising Tide

The Thames has inspired countless creative works of art but Jason deCaires Taylor went further and actually harnessed the tides to complete his sculpture.

Known particularly for the ever-evolving sculptures of his beautiful, mysterious underwater museums, deCaires Taylor’s work has appeared all over the world. His strong emphasis on the environment and our duty to preserve it for the future struck a chord when his installation The Rising Tide came to London in September 2015.

Crowds gather at low tide on Vauxhall Beach

The Rising Tide, was commissioned by Totally Thames as part of their “Festival of the Thames”. Four life-sized horses each ridden bareback, two by young people facing forward, and two by suited older men, their body language reflecting indifference and their eyes averted from, or seemingly closed to the world. The horses were modelled on sturdy, traditional working horses but their heads were depicted as oil well pumps, known as horse-head pumps.

Businessman or politician indifferent to the effects of his decisions

Installed for one month on Vauxhall beach, the sculptures were yet another manifestation of the growing concern with the effects of climate change attributed, among other reasons, to our dependence on fossil fuels. A concern which has continued to grow and intensify with more direct action around the world in recent weeks. Curiously, as they were made four years ago, the young girl seems to bear a slight resemblance to the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. And, as if prophetically, deCaires Taylor said of the two young riders when the sculptures were installed, that “There is a sign of optimism in the children, who are able to inflict change.”

Young girl riding bareback, facing the future

There may have been other considerations but their setting within the sight of the Houses of Parliament, added weight to the message that deCaires Taylor was trying to bring home to those in power: that their decisions affect the future of our planet.

The four riders. The businessmen’s horses still drinking resources while the young riders look outwards

After design and artistic considerations, the sculptures had to be strong enough to withstand the force of the tides, so they were made of stainless steel, pH neutral high-density marine cement, basalt and aggregates. They were transported along to river to Vauxhall by barge. Just as there is something new to discover on every visit to the river, so no two views of the sculptures were the same. Reflections, light, shadows and the ebb and flow of the tides meant that the sculptures themselves were in a constant and beguiling state of flux.

Young boy rides out, slowly submerging into the turbulent waters of the Thames

For more information about Jason deCaires Taylor see:

www.underwatersculpture.com

The Rising Tide sculptures with Lambeth and Westminster Bridges and the London Eye in the background.

Notes on the London Eye

A giant bicycle wheel on the banks of the Thames.
This is London’s  Eiffel Tower or Brussels’ Atomium. I love it.  Though not everyone did when it was first built in 1999.

Now an integral part of London’s modern skyline and an accepted symbol of our city, the London Eye, originally known as the Millennium  Wheel, was first seen by many as  a ‘white elephant’ and an oversized fairground attraction, devaluing the surrounding buildings. Having never had much time for the grandiosity of the old County Hall,  I would disagree.

One of its fiercest critics was Lord St John of Fawsley, Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1985 to 1999. Clearly not a fan, he said it “would ruin London” and that he hoped it would “be moved to a more suitable site at the earliest possible moment”. Nearly twenty years later, it is still looking out over London. And London is looking back at it as it turns by day, gleaming in the light with cameras flashing from the capsules, often messaging us with coded night-time illuminations including: red and gold to mark Chinese New Year; rainbow colours for Gay Pride; pink for Valentine’s  Day; and red, white and blue to mark the birth of Prince George. But perhaps its most famous image is at the centre of London’s spectacular annual New Year’s firework display.

Architect David Marks designed the Eye in 1993 with his wife and partner, Julia Barfield, for a competition in the Sunday Times to mark the millennium. But no winner emerged. After all their work, and with great faith in the project, they set about developing it themselves; found the site on the Southbank; mortgaged their home to pay for the initial costs and found financial support from Bob Ayling, head of British Airways.  It took about six years to build. And in recognition of their original sponsors, though since then changed, the rides around the wheel are still called flights. There are thirty-two pods representing all London’s boroughs from Barking to Westminster. However allowance has been made for the widely held superstition that the number thirteen is unlucky, so that the pods are numbered 1 – 33.

Six European countries were involved in the construction. The steel was British but sent to Holland for manufacture; the cables were Italian; the bearings German; the spindle and hub were cast in the Czech Republic, the pods made in France with Italian glass; and the electrical parts came from the UK. When ready, everything was floated up the Thames by barge and assembled at the site. No easy feat as the sections were large, and careful attention had to be paid to the tides so that there was enough clearance to pass beneath the bridges.

The Eye has added interest and variety to London’s skyline, enhancing views  from all over the city and specially along the Thames, where its  ever changing reflection adds a magical glow to the river.

For further information:

See: A. P. Mann,N. Thompson, and M. Smits

Building the British Airways London Eye

https://www.londoneye.com

Notes on Lambeth Bridge

Among the many bridges that keep London stitched together, Lambeth Bridge is one of my favourites.
It’s the one I see most often, in all weathers and in all moods.

Day and night, the Thames beneath in near-constant movement, lively or quiet, tides high and low and with ever changing lights and reflections.

Though there was a ferry crossing point here for many years connecting Lambeth Palace to the Westminster side of the river, it wasn’t until 1862, after much pressure, that the first Lambeth Bridge was built. Sadly, in competition with the new Westminster Bridge completed in the same year, it was not a success either commercially or aesthetically.

In his “Dictionary of the Thames” Charles Dickens Jr. wrote that “Lambeth Bridge is perhaps, on the whole, the ugliest ever built.” And a comment in the Observer on May 15, 1910 was equally unflattering “It has rightly been described as ‘the work of an engineer insufficiently experienced in bridge design.’ ” And it was that which led to its downfall. It was built on the cheap, badly finished, susceptible to rust, too narrow, and the hoped for profits from the crossing toll never materialised. Safety eventually became a serious concern and it was closed to traffic in 1910, though pedestrians could still cross the river there.

Plans to build a new bridge in its place were shelved during the First World War and then delayed, so it wasn’t until July 19th, 1932 that construction of the bridge we know now was finished and officially opened by King George V. A journalist from The Manchester Guardian felt “a Parisian glitter in the air” and the crowds, including Lambeth and Westminster schoolchildren, as having “all the richness of a ‘close-up’ of an Impressionist painting.” It was a day to remember.

George Humphreys, Chief Engineer of the London County Council and his team produced the elegant design. It was carried out by Dorman, Long & Co., well-known at the time for building the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Stretching across the Thames, it’s five steel spans, supported by stone piers and framed by a cast iron balustrade, is embellished with double lamps set on granite pillars, a further set of lamps set on steel lattice-work pillars, and adorned at either end with two obelisks, each topped by a golden pine cone finial or pineapple with acanthus leaf decoration, a design very popular at the time.
The now faded red paintwork on parts of the bridge is said to be a nod towards the red-coloured benches in the House of Lords.

Lambeth Bridge miraculously escaped the bombing in WW2, and was eventually Listed as a Grade II structure of ‘special interest’ in 2008. After the Westminster and London Bridge terror attacks in 2017, safety barriers were swiftly installed for the protection of pedestrians. It is to be hoped that when funding and priorities permit, these will be replaced by something more attractive.

Life is often so rushed that we only have eyes for the road ahead but if you can, take a walk in Victoria Tower Gardens, North and South, or cross the river to the Lambeth side, and pause for a while to let your thoughts flow with the water as it streams beneath this elegant bridge.

For further information see: historicengland.org.uk