Sir Thomas Peirson Frank

The discreet hero who saved London from flooding during the Blitz

Five years ago, in October 2014, a memorial plaque dedicated to Sir Thomas Peirson Frank was unveiled in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament. Until then, virtually no-one knew his name yet it was his vital work that literally saved London from drowning during the Blitz. He was one of that proud and modest generation who got on with what they had to do to protect the country, and then quietly returned to their civilian lives without talking about their achievements and in many cases families were unaware of what they had done.

At the time, his work and that of his team on permanent standby to protect London from flooding, was kept out of the public eyes for reasons of national security. This was partly to give nothing away to the enemy and partly so as not to undermine public morale by making known the very serious danger that significant areas of the capital were at risk from flooding by the Thames.

And yet, this quiet, unassuming but highly efficient engineer, who served with the Royal Engineers in WW1, was at the heart of efforts to keep London as safe as possible and to keep traffic moving throughout the intensive bombing during the War. In 1939 he was appointed the London County Council coordinating officer for Road Repairs and Public Utility Services, and was knighted in 1942 for his organisation of the city’s vital infrastructure, though his flood prevention work was carefully kept secret. He remained in charge until 1945.

On his appointment as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1945 he was asked to give an account of his work in his Presidential Address, which was kindly passed on to me by his grandson, Martin Frank. Though overseeing repairs affecting services across London, he was specifically concerned with drainage, vital in a densely populated low lying area; with the Thames bridges, vulnerable to aerial attack and the construction of four temporary bridges should any become impassable; and a raft of flood defences. As early as July 1934 he was asked to help prepare a report on the parts of London most at risk from flooding. In a transcript of his report he explains “About 20 square miles of the County of London lie below the level of the highest recorded tides and about 10 square miles are below the level of ordinary spring tides.” After a serious flood in 1928 when much of central London was inundated, including sections of the Underground and the Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels, and fourteen people trapped in their basements were drowned, Peirson Frank was well aware of the problems that the city could face: the potential for far greater casualties and widespread disruption in the case of war was alarming.

The fact that his team was able to react so quickly after a breach in the Thames walls was down to his creation of four depots: Battersea Park; Southwark Park; Tunnel Avenue, Greenwich; and Pyrimont Wharf, on the Isle of Dogs. Each was manned 24 hours a day with a store of timber, tarpaulin and sandbags. They were in operation by August 24, 1940. To ensure the quickest response possible, a tug and barges loaded with sandbags were on permanent standby to carry out emergency repairs; which would have to be done as quickly as possible before high tide. Frank describes how on May 11, 1941 “the river wall at Bankside was breached, but by prompt action on the part of the depot staff, temporary protective measures were constructed before high tide which occurred about two and a half hours later.” When possible, their work was carried out at night to minimise the risk of observation by enemy spies.

The Underground tunnels passing beneath the Thames were also at risk, so the London Passenger Transport Board installed hydrophones to detect and locate unexploded bombs. They also installed floodgates to protect the rest of the system and those who sheltered in the stations during the Blitz. Precautions were taken at Blackwall and Rotherhithe road tunnels, both of which emerge on the south bank of the Thames below the high tide level. Each was fitted with a 22 ton flood gate.

In all, Peirson Frank’s teams were called to 122 bomb strikes on the river walls. Gustave Milne, Director of the Thames Discovery Programme, whose researchers have done so much to bring Sir Thomas Peirson Frank’s vital war contribution out from the shadows, explains that “Any one of those could have flooded the area behind the wall causing massive destruction and loss of life.” But it was only when he and his team noticed the many repairs in the river wall that they began to look for documentary evidence. And on searching through the London Metropolitan Archives they discovered logbooks, photographs and correspondance concerning the London County Council’s Thames Flood Prevention and Emergency Repair plans hidden or forgotten for seventy years. They were astonished by this unexpected find and by the sheer number of sites listed.

Frank’s repair to the wall in Victoria Tower Gardens can be clearly seen from across the Thames

One of the best known of Frank’s surviving repairs, for many have been completely rebuilt, is at Victoria Tower Gardens next to the House of Lords. It was struck by a large high explosive bomb on the night of April 16-17, 1941, thought to have been aimed at the Houses of Parliament. It blasted a nine-metre hole in the Thames wall, leaving a large part of Westminster exposed to flooding at the next high tide. But the team reacted quickly, filling in the breach at once with sandbags, then rubble and eventually in August, 1941, with shuttered concrete.

The repair in the wall of Victoria Tower Gardens shows how the blast extended well below the high tide mark

And you can still still the repair from both inside Victoria Tower Gardens, where there is additional strengthening to the parapet in the form of a buttress, and from the river side on the foreshore below, where broken pieces of granite from the original wall lie scattered among the stones in the mud.

Pieces of the original wall still lie scattered on the foreshore

Peirson Frank’s grandson, Martin Frank, born after his grandfather’s death said that the War, being a taboo subject for so many of that generation, the family knew nothing about his secret work until they were approached by the BBC in 2013. The producers of Coast wanted to include a section on how Frank saved London from flooding, and shortly afterwards Gustave Milne got in touch and told them of his discoveries. They already knew about his involvement with the widening of Putney Bridge, the new bridge at Wandsworth in 1940; and the demolition and construction of the new Waterloo Bridge in 1942, where you can see his name inscribed with others at the north end of the bridge. But they knew nothing of his vital flood prevention work.

The names of politicians, architects and engineers, including that of Sir Thomas Peirson Frank carved on Waterloo Bridge
Waterloo Bridge

Having made his discoveries, Gustave Milne felt strongly that Peirson Frank’s heroic work for the protection of London from flooding should be remembered, and it was at his suggestion that a plaque in his memory be fixed to his repair of the Thames wall in Victoria Tower Gardens. It was installed on October 29th, 2014 by the then Westminster City Mayor, Audrey Lewis. Grouped around her were several of Peirson Frank’s descendants, Gustav Milne, representatives from the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Greater London Authority, and the University College Institute of Archeology, together with the Thames Discovery Team, supported by the Museum of London, all of whom had played a part in uncovering and sharing the vital work of Sir Thomas Peirson Frank. Now the story of the exceptional service he gave to our country in the Second World War will live on.

Plaque commemorating Sir Thomas Peirson Frank centred on his wartime repair in Victoria Tower Gardens, still good after all these years
Plaque fixed to the wall of Sir Thomas Peirson Frank’s repair in Victoria Tower Gardens

For further information see:

The Thames Discovery Programme
For more on the temporary wartime bridges see the fascinating A London Inheritance site, whose author has many historical pictures taken by his father from 1946 to 1954.
Cover image of Sir Thomas Peirson Frank by kind permission of his grandson, Martin Frank.

The Thames Barrier

A masterpiece of British engineering and design protecting London since 1982

In 1972 Londoners were asked “If London flooded tomorrow, would you know what to do?” Well most of us didn’t. We were aware of the Thames and its tides of course but hadn’t given the possibility of flooding much thought. Not so the government, they were clearly worried and began a series of measures to raise public awareness. There were a number of public service broadcasts, articles in the press, and notices delivered to thousands of residents in low lying areas close to the river. Living near the Royal Hospital, Chelsea at the time, we received an A5 sized notice warning us about possible flooding from the sewers. Not a happy prospect. There were instructions on one side and ‘HELP’ written in big red letters on the other, which we were supposed to stick on, or wave out of an upstairs window. Luckily we never had need of it and ten years later the Thames Barrier had been completed and London protected for years to come.

Always on the alert, and taking into account information from satellites, weather ships, oil rigs and coastal stations, the Environment Agency can forecast potential danger of flooding up to thirty-six hours in advance. When computer calculations based on a combination of high spring tides, expected tidal surges, low atmospheric pressure and strong winds indicate a risk of flooding, the team at the Thames Barrier are ready to set the flood defences in motion. However, the final decision to close the barrier rests with the Thames Barrier Duty Controller.

At the time of writing the most recent closures have been on Sunday September 30 and Monday, October 1st, 2019. The Barrier has now been closed 186 times since it first came into operational service in 1982. Since its first test in November of that year, this masterpiece of British design and engineering has been operational, ready to be put into a defensive position to protect 125 square kilometres of central London from flooding. It stretches 520 metres across the Thames at Woolwich and its shining, hooded piers are a striking feature of the landscape.

A feature of the landscape: the shining hooded piers of the Thames Barrier

London has been flooded throughout its history both as a result of rising sea levels and the progressive tilting of South East England. The problem was exacerbated by the gradual embankment of the Thames in the second half of the nineteenth century, which channelled the river into an ever smaller space, so raising its level in central London.

The severe 1953 flood that struck coastal areas along the North Sea and particularly Canvey Island where fifty-nine people were drowned and 13,000 evacuated from their homes, and an earlier flood that had struck the heart of London itself in 1928, drowning fourteen people and making thousands homeless, began to concentrate minds on devising proper flood defences for the capital.

In 1954 Hansard reports that the Waverley Committee set up by Parliament, proposed that: “As an alternative to raising the banks”, which would have been likely to obscure stretches of the river from view, “the possibility and cost of erecting a structure across the Thames, which could be closed in a surge should be urgently investigated.”

However, it was not until a further review, conducted by Sir Hermann Bondi in 1967, taking the project forward, that any action took place. The site for the barrier was then fixed at Woolwich, from New Charlton across to Silvertown as part of an overall plan which included the raising of the river banks further downstream. Then a design had to be chosen.

From the forty-one plans considered, it was engineer (Reginald) Charles Draper, working with Rendel, Palmer and Tritton, who came up with the chosen solution. It was a revolutionary idea inspired by a simple gas cock in his home. He was photographed in 1981 by Gordon Gahan, overlooking the as yet incomplete barrier, proudly holding a gas ball valve like the one that had given him the idea: a poignant image as Charles Draper sadly died before the work was finished.

(Reginald) Charles Draper © Gorden Gahan

There followed ten years of modelling, testing, refinement of the design, and actual construction; longer than planned as it was the first project of its kind. There were also funding problems and a number of serious industrial disputes. The Thames Barrier finally became fully operational in November 1982 when it rose for the first time, and was officially opened by the Queen in May, 1984.

Towards the end of its construction, intrigued by reports of its innovative design, we took our young sons to see how the work was getting on. Not easy. There were no signposts. But armed with an A to Z map we got quite close and luckily spotted a workman in a hut on a nearby building site. Clearly we were not the first to have been on this trail as he produced a photocopy of a rough map with directions to a viewpoint at the top of some metal stairs. Breathtaking. The barrier really was as impressive as it had been made out to be.

These days you can see the barrier from the Thames Barrier Park, in Silvertown north of the river; the Thames Barrier Information Centre, near Woolwich, on the south side; or from a boat passing though the barrier itself. It was this last view that really brought home to me the massive achievement of all those involved with the building of London’s most important defensive structure.

Approaching the barrier from upstream, its distinctive gleaming metal-hooded piers seem to rise up through the water like dragon’s teeth warriors each with a cyclopesian eye. The closer you come, the more impressive they are.

Approaching the Thames Barrier from upstream
Reflections of the river in the round window at the top of one of the piers

The six main steel gates are D-shaped. When set in the defence position their rounded surfaces face downstream and their flat surfaces upstream. Known as rising sector gates they normally lie flat at rest in concrete sills on the river bed, allowing free movement of shipping and normal tidal flow. Operated by a hydraulics system in the towers they can be held in four positions: rest, defence, underspill and maintenance. When the barrier is used or tested, the gates are moved into place shortly after low tide to hold back the flow of the river on the upstream side and to stem the incoming tide downstream.

The Barrier fully open with gates at rest on the river bed
The Barrier fully closed with the gates in the defence position

A strong tidal surge will build up considerably more water on the seaward side so that when the tide begins to flow out the gates are gradually moved into the underspill position, allowing a carefully controlled flow upstream so as not to create a rush of water. The gates can only be lowered into their resting position once the levels on each side are the same. They can also be raised and held above the water to allow access for maintenance. In addition, there are four non-navigable gates set close to the river banks.

Two of the gates in the underspill position allowing water from the seaward side to flow upstream underneath
Controlled flow of water flowing upstream from beneath the gates in the underspill position

The decision to close the barrier is made by the Duty Controller after assessing reports from a team of flood forecasters. Taking into account the flow into the tidal Thames at Teddington, the predicted tide levels and weather conditions that can affect the height of a tidal surge, forecasters can predict the likely risk up to thirty-six hours in advance. The control room is staffed at all times. If necessary, the barrier will be closed roughly four hours before the peak of an incoming surge. Each steel gate takes ten to fifteen minutes to close, and the whole barrier an hour and a half.

Flood forecaster Alan with the Thames Barrier in the background

Flood forecaster Alan, who also runs the barrier’s Twitter feed explains that though they run monthly test closures they’ve “never had to close between May and August to protect London against a high tide since the Thames Barrier became operational in 1982. It doesn’t mean that we’re not on the lookout though.”

This year’s annual test closure was due to take place on September 29th but had to be cancelled after particularly high tides meant that the barrier had to be closed twice in three days for real, to protect London from flooding.

Workboat PROWLER moored with another craft at pier 8.

As mentioned earlier, the barrier has been closed to protect London 186 times but the exceptionally high number of fifty closures in the 2013-14 flood season caused real concern. Doubts were raised that the barrier would be able to protect the capital beyond its originally estimated lifespan of fifty to sixty years. However after a study, Dick Tappin, a member of the original team who created the barrier, wrote in 2014 that “The Thames Barrier remains fit for purpose” and provided it is properly maintained, “it will remain so to at least 2070.” This was backed up by a government study revised in 2016 saying that the Thames Estuary defences, “which include the Thames Barrier and 350 kilometres of flood walls and embankments, smaller barriers, pumping stations and flood gates” will continue to protect London throughout the century. We are fortunate that the marvel of modern engineering that is the Thames Barrier will be with us for a while yet.

Approaching the Thames Barrier from the footpath near Greenwich

For the main source of my article, with understandable, technical information and explanatory diagrams, click on the: Thames Barrier and follow @AlanBarrierEA for up-to-date info. An internet search will reveal many striking images of all kinds of ships passing through the barrier including some by Photographer Rob Powell on http://onthethames.net

All Hallows by the Tower

The oldest church in the City, inextricably bound up with the Thames and the Port of London

Just a few steps away from the tourist-thronged Tower of London stands a church, founded in AD 675 as a chapel of the abbey of Barking, that is older than and steeped in as much history as its famous neighbour. And yet only a comparatively small number of visitors make it up to the South Entrance in order to explore within.

Despite standing by a busy main road, it’s the quietness that strikes you as you step inside, though from time to time there is the faint rumbling beneath your feet of a nearby underground train. Yet its situation by the Thames, with the parish’s southern boundary being in the middle of the river, has naturally had an important effect on its life. And the Mariners’ Chapel in the south aisle reflects this.

The altar in the Mariners’ Chapel

The altar, panels, model ships, memorial plaques, and stained glass windows all bear witness to the church’s links with the sea, the river, and the Port of London. The Custom House, quays and docks were on the riverside close by.

The wooden screen behind the altar commemorates the links between the Port of London Authority and All Hallows by the Tower. In the centre of the altar a candle burns for “all seafarers who are in danger or distress”, and a prayer for all those, whoever and wherever they are, “exposed to the many dangers of the deep”.

The Crucifix above the altar in the Mariners’ chapel

The crucifix above the altar was made from a piece of wood from the Cutty Sark and the ivory figure of Christ is believed to have come from the captain’s cabin of the Spanish Armada’s flagship.

A fine model of the Cutty Sark above the altar screen catches the light

Model of a barge that used to stand in the front window of a Thames barge builder

Looking around the chapel you will see several intricately made model ships, hanging from arches, placed on furniture or in cabinets. Over the years they have been given to the church as ex votos, symbols of thanksgiving, memorials, or simply by boat builders as they moved premises.

Model of MV Royal Daffodil, a pleasure steamer. Over a number of trips she rescued 9,500 men from the shores of Dunkirk during the Evacuation in 1940
The British Trent Memorial Bell commemorating the nine seafarers who lost their lives in the North Sea on June 3rd 1993

There are a number of poignant memorials, around the church, in the chapel and in the Crypt Museum, including one for HMS Hood, sunk during the Battle of Denmark Strait in the Second World War, with the terrible loss of 1,415 lives, leaving only three survivors. Also on display is the Maritime Memorial Book, established by the Maritime Foundation in 1987 recording the names of those who “have no grave but the sea” to which names can still be added if you search their site. And on June 25, 2019, a Thames Memorial by Clare Newton was dedicated in a moving service to all those who have lost their lives in the Thames.

The Thames Memorial by Clare Newton

The church was bombed on two occasions during the Blitz: first the east end was badly damaged by a bomb in December 1940, and three weeks later the whole building was gutted by incendiary bombs, leaving only the tower and outer walls standing. However, All Hallows was fortunate at this time to have the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton, nicknamed affectionately ‘Tubby’, as its vicar.

An army chaplain during the First World War he had teamed up with another chaplain, Neville Talbot, creating Talbot House as a refuge for battlefront soldiers, an alternative to the temptations of the town of Poperinge in Belgium, where they could spend their leave. It was known as Toc H, which grew into an “international philanthropic organisation promoting ideals of service, comradeship and reconciliation.” After Clayton’s installation as Vicar of All Hallows in 1922, the church became the guild church of the movement.

On the very day that the church was bombed Clayton at once declared that it should be rebuilt. His enthusiasm and powers of persuasion had a strong impact. The foundation stone was laid by Elizabeth, the Queen consort of George VI, in July 1948. There followed practical donations in the form of various building materials and financial support from all over the world, and the church was re-dedicated in 1957.

During all this time Clayton remained vicar of All Hallows by the Tower and also chaplain to the Port of London Authority. A report in The Guardian on August 4, 1947, describes how he kept “a close eye on anything happening on the Thames” and highlighted his concern about accidents on the Tower beach. Bathing was allowed “when the tide is safe” and there were wardens to watch the children but several accidents had taken place when the beach was closed. He was also worried about the dangers posed by the ‘Iron Gate Stairs’ there. As a special precaution for the August Bank Holiday that year, Clayton arranged for a “voluntary patrol of men” to watch the Stairs from a boat.

The stained glass windows, especially in the south aisle, bear witness to the church’s close association with the sea and the river Thames. As all but two of the seventeenth-century stained glass panels were destroyed during the Blitz, the beautiful stained glass windows you can now see were all made post war. Several of them were donated by the City of London Livery Companies associated with the church.

The Port of London Authority window can be seen above the book shop
The Coat of Arms of the Port of London Authority
Detail of Port of London Authority Window with representations of the Tower of London and surrounding buildings
Detail of the Port of London Authority window: Edward Grobbe Shipowner, 1278 and John Rolff Shipwright, 1432
The window of the Company of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames

The church’s close links with the river can be seen again in the annual ceremony of Beating the Bounds. This is a tradition dating back to medieval times, when parishes processed around their boundaries, beating boundary markers with sticks to mark out their territorial limits. The added interest to the All Hallows’ ceremony is that part of their boundary runs along the middle of the Thames and the beating party “made up of the clergy and the Masters of the livery companies associated with the church, go out on the river in a boat to beat the water with their canes before returning to shore and continuing around the rest of the parish.”

In writing this piece I have concentrated on All Hallows’ close links with the Thames, the Port of London and shipping world-wide. However, there is much more to discover including its architectural history, which dates back to Roman times; its strong association with the Tower of London; its role in the temporary care of bodies of high profile prisoners beheaded on Tower Hill – a list of confirmed executions can be seen here; and its links with America, which will be of particular interest to my American readers.

Memorial to William Penn above an entry door to the Church of All Hallows where he was baptised on October 25, 1644 (c) Alan Levine, USA

Admiral Penn, father of William Penn who founded the colony of Pennsylvania, was also a Member of Parliament at the time and helped to save the church during the Great Fire of London in 1666 by directing some of his men from a nearby shipyard to create firebreaks to protect both St Olave, Hart Street and All Hallows, by demolishing nearby buildings. His son William was baptised in the church and educated in the church school before setting off to America. A further link is that with John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, who married Louisa Catherine Johnson in All Hallows on July 26, 1797.

At ease with its eventful past, wide international links, and place in the fabric of both the City of London and the country, All Hallows welcomes visitors to its services, those in search of history, and those who seek space for prayer and quiet contemplation. It is today a modern, “active and inclusive Christian community”, and its associations and ties with the river Thames remain as strong as ever.

The east-facing window in the north Aisle

Using the link highlighted here, you can find out more about the history of All Hallows by the Tower

London’s Favourite Lion

Surviving war and redeployment, the South Bank Lion has become a cherished monument.

Standing majestically on the east side of Westminster Bridge is a white, sculptured lion looking down over the traffic and the thousands of commuters and tourists that stream in and out of the city every day.

Known as the South Bank Lion it has become one of London’s favourite landmarks since it was lifted onto its plinth in 1966. Yet its history doesn’t begin there. It was sculpted by William F. Woodington for James Goding’s new Lion Brewery built on the South Bank between 1836 and 1837. 

The imposing five storey brewery, designed by Francis Edwards, had an impressive river frontage dominating a stretch of the South Bank between the Hungerford railway and Westminster bridges. And Woodington’s 13 tonne lion, standing on top of the brewery, supported on its substantial base, became a well-known Thames-side landmark from the start. An engraving dated 1837 depicts an ‘aquatic festival’ on the Thames to celebrate the opening of the brewery and the lion is centre stage on top of the building.

Londoners and visitors noticed it as they passed, among them Emile Zola, exiled from France, who remembered seeing it from the room where he was staying at the Savoy. He describes the morning mist slowly parting, giving the impression that the lion was suspended in mid air. “It amused me greatly […] to see the British lion waiting to bid us good day.”

The lion is made out of Coade stone a durable, very strong weather resistant artificial stone that was manufactured close to the brewery. Businesswoman Mrs. Eleanor Coade perfected the recipe and the firing process, and her firm became the very successful Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory. Believed to have been lost since the closure of the factory in the mid-nineteenth century, the recipe has been rediscovered, improved, and is now manufactured by Coade Ltd. in Wiltshire.

The lion, in its natural white colour, stands on top of the building surveying the scene. Artist: E. W. Radcliffe. C. 1850. This image is reproduced by kind permission of the London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department

From prints dated around 1837, it appears that the lion began its life in the original white Coade stone but a letter to The Times dated December 1st, 1948, from Geoffrey Hoare, whose family took over the Lion Brewery in 1924, makes it clear that the lion had, at some stage been painted red. He writes that his family, who owned the much older Red Lion Brewery by St. Katharine Docks “had thought about objecting to the ‘Lion Brewery’ having their lion red, but did not bother about it as ours was so much better known in the brewing trade.”

In 1931 the main building was badly damaged by fire but the lion survived and remained on top of the parapet. The site was used by the London Waste Paper Company, then stood derelict, miraculously escaping destruction throughout the Blitz, while surrounding buildings were hit and razed to the ground. It was eventually pulled down in 1949, and the lion saved, to make way for the Royal Festival Hall, which was a major feature of the development for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

As plans advanced for the Festival, King George VI studied the details and expressed an interest in both this lion and a smaller one that had stood above the main entrance away from the river. After consultations, it was agreed by the London County Council that “in view of their historical and sentimental interest, as well as their intrinsic value, that the lions would be preserved” and incorporated somehow in the Festival of Britain. This was in no small part due to King George’s affection for these lions, which had survived the Blitz and symbolised the spirit of British resilience, so perfectly matching the theme of the Festival.

A noble symbol of British resilience

The smaller lion was eventually given to the Rugby Football Union in 1971, its centenary year, and now royally resplendent in gold leaf, it stands above the Lion Gate, behind the west stand at Twickenham.

The lowering of the lion from the old brewery rooftop in 1949 was very difficult. A journalist from the Manchester Guardian wrote that “the building looks as though it might crumble at any moment, and the lion in its cradle did not complete its journey to the ground that day.” As restoration began on the sculpture, a bottle was found within it containing a trade card from Routledge & Greenwood, once owners of the Coade building, with the name of the sculptor Woodington on the reverse. There were also some George IV coins, and underneath one of the lion’s paws were Woodington’s initials W.F.W. and the date, May 24th, 1837.

Now the magnificent lion that had watched over his stretch of the Thames for more than a hundred years found himself restored, cleaned, repainted in red gloss and set on a plinth outside Waterloo Station next to one of the entrances to the Festival of Britain. At the time this was a fitting place as the British Rail logo included a red lion as part of its design. A photograph belonging to the Borough of Lambeth archives shows the lion still in position in 1958. By 1966 however, in a letter to The Times, a representative of the Greater London Council explains that “British Railways need the lion’s present site” for redevelopment adding that “this majestic animal weighs several tons and moving it will be no easy task.”

The Lion in Winter

Indeed it was not easy but the lion was once again restored and carefully returned to its original white colour. A copy of The Times dated March 17, 1966 was added to the objects found in 1949 and replaced within the sculpture.

The historical plaque fixed to the plinth on which the lion is standing

The move was completed on April 3rd, 1966 and in 1981 the lion, from then on known as the South Bank Lion was given protection with a Grade II* listing by English Heritage.

The South Bank Lion standing before a more recent London landmark

London, and particularly Westminster, is crowded with historical statues of varying quality and grandiosity, commemorating heroes, politicians and personalities, some of whom have faded from the public consciousness and others that will remain at the forefront of our history. But this noble lion is a symbol for all of us, and if you take the time to look at him, you will see that there is also something infinitely touching about his sad, world-weary eyes…

The South Bank Lion standing proudly at the East End of Westminster Bridge

Focus on the Tidal Thames

As an entirely unofficial *Fringe* addition to the Totally Thames 2019 festival, I asked nine Twitter photographer friends to share images of their favourite stretches of the Thames, beginning at Twickenham, leading through central London and on to the Estuary. We have followed each other on Twitter for a while and all have kindly joined me to celebrate London’s great river.

View across the Thames to Eel Pie Island © Ruth Wadey

Based in Twickenham, Ruth Wadey is an artist and photographer whose photographs as a BBC Weather Watcher, often feature on BBC weather bulletins. She has a particular affinity with clouds “loves capturing the moment on camera” and posts stunning pictures of her stretch of the Thames. You can follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery

Andrew’s dog Rosie with Barnes railway bridge silhouetted in the sunset © Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is a publisher, who has written several beautifully illustrated books on areas in London close to the Thames, including Chiswick, Barnes, Putney, Battersea and Chelsea. His photographs of the river, its bridges, and flora and fauna in south west London are a delight. You can follow him on Twitter @wildlondonpics

The crew from the Tower Lifeboat station heading towards Tower Bridge on a shout © Chris Walker RNLI

Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames at Waterloo, is the busiest RNLI Station in the country. Click on Chris Walker to learn about his life and duties there. You can follow him on Twitter @RescueShrek1 and the Station @TowerRNLI

Paddle Steamer Waverley approaching Tower Bridge © Wal Daly-Smith

Discover the story of Wal Daly-Smith, an aspiring Waterman and commercial skipper, passionate about the Thames, its vessels, bridges and history. When he can, he takes action pictures from the river so you get a feel of what it’s like to be working on the water. You can follow him on Twitter @lens_wal and for a look at his earlier work @RiverLens

Royal Netherlands Navy survey ship HNLMS LUYMES © Mazimo

Mazimo has a fantastic view of the Thames, including Tower Bridge and St. Katharine Docks. He enjoys tug spotting and watching a whole variety of nautical manoeuvres on the river, which he sometimes films and puts to music. You can follow him on Twitter @2000MX5

View across the Thames to the Isle of Dogs © Simon Cardy

Simon Cardy is a meteorologist based in Wapping, specialising in weather impacts for the Energy Industry. He loves London and takes lovely pictures of the river Thames. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king

A laid-back seal at low tide, one of many to be seen in our now healthy river, and beyond a familiar passing Clipper © Bill Green

Overall winner of The Thames Lens Photography competition in 2018, Bill Green has been inspired for over twenty years by the Thames and its distinctive architecture. Discover his website by clicking on his name, and follow him on Twitter @ThamesPhoto

The Thames Barrier captured from the Woolwich ferry © Ian Young
The Thames near East Tilbury © Ian Young

Ian Young is a keen birdwatcher, who documents bird life along the Thames, in the Royal Parks and elsewhere, which he finds helpful to allay anxiety problems. You can follow him on Twitter @ianyoung33 And you can read, among others, his evocative post ‘Walking the Thames’ to Rainham Marshes.

The WW2 Maunsell Forts in the Thames estuary (c) Pablo Behrens, Director of London’s Last Wilderness

Pablo Behrens is a director and film producer living in London. His latest project has been a series of broadcasts from the Thames Estuary, which he sees as “wild, beautiful and dangerous with its powerful tides, shifting sandbanks and unpredictable weather.” You can follow him on Twitter @2019Thames

With thanks to all for this collection of brief personal glimpses of our river, the inspiration for countless writers, artists and photographers and…

…and thanks to the Port of London Authority for watching over the 95 miles of the tidal Thames for everyone @LondonPortAuth

Victoria Tower Gardens

A cherished Thames-side park in central London

Perhaps not many of you will know this park by name, though you might have passed it along the river, or sought refuge there after a visit to Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster, but you will have undoubtedly seen it as the backcloth to countless news reports over the years and particularly at this time.

The elegant shady plane trees lining the embankment wall of Victoria Tower Gardens

With its uncluttered central green space bordered by mature London plane trees, the atmosphere is relaxed. A recently upgraded children’s playground, a small kiosk serving coffee and snacks, and several benches along the side overlooking the Thames all add to this feeling. A park for all seasons, managed by London’s Royal Parks it is freely accessible to visitors, locals, and workers alike.

Office workers, visitors and local people relaxing on a summer’s day
A perfect park for dogs and their community of owners too

Together, Victoria Tower Gardens and Victoria Gardens South, cut by the approach to Lambeth Bridge, narrow progressively like a shard from their border with the Palace of Westminster, to a gate leading onto Millbank.

The site of Victoria Tower Gardens in 1865 with wharves and industrial buildings next to the Houses of Parliament, by William Strudwick 1834-1910

Part of the gardens was first created in 1879 during the construction and installation of a proper sewage system designed for London by the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette. He was brought in after the renowned “Great Stink” in 1858, which made London, and particularly the Houses of Parliament, thoroughly unpleasant and virtually impossible to do business in.

The substantial works, land reclamation and the building of the Thames Embankment, meant that the long-established riverside wharves and warehouses, represented in so many works of art, were dismantled between 1880 and the early 1900s.

The riverside plane trees lining Victoria Tower Gardens in their autumn glory

The Ordnance Survey map of 1872 covering the site, marks the Police Lodge; a path leading to a side entrance to the House of Lord; a small planted area; and an empty space next to Abingdon Wharf, the most northerly of several wharves, including coal and stone wharves, an oil factory, cement works and flour mills. You can see remnants of this industrial and commercial past on the foreshore at low tide.

Looking through the autumn trees towards Lambeth Bridge in the southern section of Victoria Tower Gardens

By 1894 the O.S. map names Victoria Tower Gardens for the first time, and depicts them roughly as a square separated from the space adjacent to the House of Lords. Planted with trees, with an outside path, a circular path in the centre and one leading to Great College Street, the gardens are clearly established. Some of the wharves, though not named, are still in place at the southern end right up to Lambeth Bridge. The flour mills and cement works are still present and there is a new pumping station. In 1900, the London County Council (Improvements) Act, Section 8, states that the southern part of Victoria Tower Gardens “shall be laid out and maintained…for use as a garden open to the public and as an integral part of the existing Victoria Tower Garden”.

The southern part of Victoria Tower Gardens on a sunny winter’s day, with a view across to Lambeth Bridge

The 1914 O.S. map, not published until 1935, shows how the gardens were extended to their present layout with the trees planted as they remain today, bordering the park along Millbank and fringing the Thames Embankment.

A children’s playground was added in 1923, as a gift from local paper merchant Henry Spicer to provide “an exciting and safe area for children, especially those from poorer neighbourhoods.” Now named Horseferry Playground, after the old ferry that existed for many years roughly on the site of Lambeth Bridge, it has recently been imaginatively re-designed. Children enjoy the sandpit, water feature, swings, slide and dance chimes, which ring out surprisingly melodious tunes. A happy and much-used place.

Railings depicting riverside scenes, designed by Chris Campbell

Part of the playground and entrance to the public toilets is fenced off by Thames themed railings depicting familiar skylines by Chris Campbell. In the opposite corner you can buy drinks and pastries.

Snow in 2009 and the marvellous, uninterrupted view of the Palace of Westminster

There is a *temporary* Education Centre, next to the House of Lords, well-used by schools to teach their pupils about the workings of the Palace of Westminster. Unfortunately, though every effort was made to blend in the structure by planting some of the roof area, it cuts into the fine perspective of the House of Lords from the south and disrupts the view of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais against the Gothic architecture. Hopefully it will be dismantled as planned, when the massive task of renovating the parliamentary buildings is completed.

The Buxton Memorial, created in 1866 to commemorate the Abolition of Slavery

The gardens are home to three fine memorials. The oldest is the Buxton Memorial, made in 1866 to commemorate the Abolition of Slavery. Commissioned by Charles Buxton MP, it is dedicated to his father Thomas Buxton and others, who were actively involved in the abolition of slavery. It originally stood in Parliament Square, was moved during alterations to the Square in 1949, and installed in Victoria Rower Gardens in 1957. It is much treasured by Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community.

The Burghers of Calais by Rodin

In 1911, Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, one of the four casts of his original 1889 sculpture, was bought by the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund) and installed in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1914.

The statue of Emmeline Pankhurst standing next to the Houses of Parliament, reminding visitors of her struggle to win the vote for women

The third of the three memorials in the gardens is a fine statue of Emmeline Pankhurst sculpted by A.G. Walker in 1939. To begin with it was installed towards the middle of the green but moved in 1956 to an even more appropriate position close to the House of Lords. Her tireless struggle to win the vote for women remains a source of inspiration to right-minded people everywhere. You can often see discreet tributes in the suffragette colours of purple, white and green at her feet. Recent attempts to have her statue removed to the grounds of a private university in Regent’s Park met with a storm of protest and her statue, having now been awarded Grade II* listed status, will remain where it is.

The benches along the Embankment wall, a perfect place to relax and to watch river traffic

Another of attractions of Victoria Tower Gardens is its peaceful, uninterrupted views of the Thames facing Lambeth Palace and St. Thomas’ Hospital, with Westminster Bridge to the left and Lambeth Bridge to the right. Here is a calm place to watch the ebb and flow of the tide and all kinds of river traffic.

Plaque commemorating Sir Thomas Peirson Frank fixed to the repair he made to the Victoria Tower Embankment wall

During the Second World War, a breach in the embankment wall here during a Nazi bombing raid, was swiftly sealed as the operation of a well-organised plan by Sir Thomas Peirson Frank went into action. He is commemorated on a plaque set above the repair which notes that he “saved London from drowning.”

The gardens have also been host to a number of one-off, historic and other artistic events. The most poignant of these, photographed by Getty Images on a bleak January day in 1965, was the long, winding queue of people patiently waiting to pay their respects to Winston Churchill at his lying in state in Westminster Hall.

Spectra shone a powerful beam of light into the sky

And one of the most spectacular artistic events took place in early August 2014. Spectra, a powerful beam of light devised by Japanese light artist Ryoji Ikeda, was projected into the sky to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was visible for miles across and around London.

One of the elephants from ‘The Elephants’ Parade’, London 2010: a warning of their vulnerability to extinction

But the gardens do not just look into the past. In 2010 two decorated elephants from the London-wide ‘Elephant Parade’ were installed there as part of the conservation appeal to highlight the plight of elephants and the urgent need to protect them.

Screen and equipment set up in readiness for a Luna Cinema screening

And this year, as before, Victoria Tower Gardens hosted the open air Luna Cinema, with three nights of classic cinema under the stars. A magical experience.

The setting for many serious political interviews over the years along with College Green on the other side of the road, the gardens have until now been used by MPs when they’re in a more relaxed mode. One popular annual event, sadly cancelled this year, used to take place on Shrove Tuesday, when in aid of charity, teams of MPs, Lords and journalists raced each other around a track while flipping pancakes.

The gardens are always popular in the sunshine at any time of the year

Now their future is uncertain as rather than a memorial to the Holocaust to blend in with the existing memorials, a massive, ugly structure, described by some as “a giant toast rack”, together with a substantial underground learning centre, are proposed that would dominate the park and change its character for ever. The architect Sir David Adjaye said “Disrupting the pleasure of being in a park is the key the thinking.” Times 2, 4.2.19 Needless to say, this insensitivity has sparked a fierce controversy, which you can explore by clicking on the links below.

In the heart of central London, this small, green, pennant-shaped garden, with its elegant, shady plane trees and lovely views of the Thames is also with its low-key yet powerful memorials, a discreet salute to humanity, courage and liberty. It is for different reasons a precious shared space for many. Let us hope that it will remain so.

Nightfall on the Thames at Lambeth Bridge seen from Victoria Tower Gardens

For further information see: The Royal Parks
savevictoriatowergardens.co.uk and @SaveVTG

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