Since the middle of March, Victoria Tower Gardens and its stretch of the Thames has been a place of refuge. A place where we have been lucky enough to feel sheltered from the dangers and fear incited by the spread of Covid-19. With the falling number of cases and the easing of restrictions, we have ventured slightly further afield and, since the beginning of July have been able to spend more time in the gardens watching the river slowly coming to life.
Colliers Launches have been running circular cruises from Richmond to Teddington Lock and back, with PRINCESS FREDA but so far the only boats of theirs that we can see every day, the CONNAUGHT and the QUEEN ELIZABETH have remained quietly but assuredly frustratingly, at anchor in Westminster, where though they have been *visited* on occasions by PRINCESS FREDA.
However, we’ve been able to see Thames Clippers back on the river since the middle of June, slowly building up passenger numbers and City Cruises, mostly working downstream from Westminster Bridge. Both have taken the required precautions to make their vessels Covid secure and, as cautious confidence returns so we have observed an increase in passengers.
At the same time RIB tours are increasing with Thames Rockets,Thames RIB Experience and, though I haven’t seen Thames Jet on this stretch of the river yet, they are all providing exciting views of London from the water. And sometimes at white knuckle speed.
RIBs are also an effective, high-speed way of reacting to an emergency, so an important asset for the Police. We’ve seen them checking security along the river and occasionally seen them taking part in high-speed exercises.
Slowly returning to pre-lockdown routines, tugs and their tows were evidence of greater activity on building sites upstream, particularly on the Tideway tunnel, with the delivery of tunnel segments, building materials, and the removal of spoil.
As well as the increase in commercial activity, Port of London vessels were carrying on with their normal functions, such as surveying channels, checking vessels, organising the clearing of potentially dangerous debris, and patrolling the ninety-five mile stretch of the tidal Thames.
Always on stand-by and on occasional patrols for testing and training, are the London Brigade fire rescue boats, FIRE DART and FIRE FLASH.
And as ever, the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police, with their Targa fast response vessels, are on constant watch along the river. If you walk for more than a short while along the banks of the central London Thames, you are almost bound to see one of them. Sometimes cruising in watch mode, sometimes speeding on a ‘shout’ to deal with a crime or to take part in a training exercise. However, if there are potential casualties involved, they will work with an RNLI crew from one the the four Thames stations, Tower RNLI being one of the busiest.
The number of new Covid cases is significantly reduced but everyone is rightly cautious and the full return of most pleasure and party boat cruises still seems a little way off. Though social distancing can be organised on an outside deck for some, it will be more difficult to manage inside spaces in a way that would be economically viable. Added to this, there are real fears of a second Covid spike, so a return to how life was anything like before will have to be carefully orchestrated.
Images of the Thames from our daily lockdown walks in Victoria Tower Gardens: May and June, 2020
It turns out that the month of May was the sunniest and driest May since 1957, so some of these photos of the steady return to life on the Thames might seem impossibly blue and sunny. But the daily *lockdown* walks I made with my husband in Victoria Tower Gardens really were mostly that bright.
Victoria Tower Gardens, listed as Grade II by Historic England, are maintained by The Royal Parks, whose staff have been on duty throughout the Covid lockdown, organising clear signage, cleaning benches, disinfecting walls, and tending the plants and monuments. It was reassuring to know that every care was being taken to protect visitors to the gardens, where calm and shade helped to bring some relief from the relentless bad news.
Among the monuments in their care is The Buxton Memorial, built to commemorate the abolition of slavery, and one of the focal points of the gardens. For those that knew its history, it acquired an extra significance this summer with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, though the monument itself is actually a homage to those who worked tirelessly to end the cruel trade rather than to the victims themselves.
The views of the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are what make these gardens unique and much appreciated by all who come here, and on May 8th, by sheer chance, I was able to catch the Red Arrows as they flew past the Victoria Tower in perfect formation as part of this year’s VE Day anniversary celebrations. It was the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe and though the Red Arrows could still take part, many of the other planned events were cancelled or curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, our eyes were mostly trained on the river, another of Victoria Tower Gardens’ attractions, as we walked or sat on one of the riverside benches, and it was here, that we began to notice further signs of river life getting back to normal. Slowly.
During our short visits we could see from passing barges loaded with building material that work held in abeyance from the start of lockdown, apart from essential safety checks and maintenance, was beginning to restart on construction sites further upstream, and on the £5 billion Thames Tideway London Super Sewer .
Cory tugs and their crews, key workers on the river, who carried on with their routine, essential for London’s health and hygiene throughout the lockdown, paid tribute to fellow key workers in the NHS and particularly to those in St. Thomas’ Hospital, overlooking the river at Westminster. Their message on a banner fixed to a barge was widely seen along the Thames.
As they have done since the beginning of lockdown, the Port of London and Marine Police vessels continued with their regular patrols. The London Fire Brigade boats FIRE FLASH and FIRE DART were on permanent standby, keeping their equipment regularly serviced and tested. Also on permanent standby, as they are throughout the year, were the four Thames RNLI stations at Gravesend, Tower, Chiswick, and Teddington. Tower Station is just visible by Waterloo Bridge from Victoria Tower Gardens but though busy, their crews were not called on during our walks.
It was sad to see the pleasure and tourist boats, usually cruising or partying along the river, immobile all this time, moored in their allotted places. Occasionally a workboat would come by one of the boats and a crew member or two would board, to check things over.
At the very end of April, family business Colliers Launches, owners of a Thames boat hire company at Richmond, decided that they needed support to keep afloat and dispatched their vessel PRINCESS FREDA to spearhead publicity for their crowdfunding campaign and I spotted her as she returned from her meetings. She has been back out on the river running circular cruises from Richmond since July 4th.
However, towards the end of May, there was noticeably more activity on the river. Tourist boats were being moved around to different moorings for checks and maintenance and there was an increase in the transportation of building materials and of spoil.
The Thames Clippers have been back out on the river since June 14, and City Cruises returned to service at the beginning of July. Colliers Launches have started their 45 minute circular trips from Richmond. They have all stringently followed government guidelines to make their vessels safe. Now the government has to show, with large-scale testing, easily accessible tracing and hotspot information, that it is safe for the public to venture out to shop, to pursue their interests, and to travel and move around with confidence. Let’s hope they will provide the reassurance needed…
… in local park Victoria Tower Gardens March 23 – April 30, 2020
In a somewhat belated effort by our government to control the spread of the deadly virus Covid-19, our world changed overnight. ‘Lockdown’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘super-spreader’ entered the everyday lexicon. Advertisements warning that we were in a state of “National Emergency” now flooded the media. Movements were restricted to essentials: among them we were allowed to exercise once a day in a local area or park as long as the newly-introduced two-metre rule of separation was respected.
We were lucky. Close by are the lovely Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Palace of Westminster by the Thames. Open to all, they were particularly appreciated at this time by the many residents here without gardens. My husband and I have walked there every morning since lockdown and here are some of pictures to illustrate our section of the river during that time and what, if anything was happening there.
The first thing we noticed was the absence of traffic noise, usually busy rumbling over Lambeth and Westminster Bridges, and along Millbank behind us. No planes overhead either. The relief of a silence in which we could hear the rustling of leaves, the occasional splash of water along the shore, and much birdsong: tuneful blackbirds taking us back to childhood country summers, blue tits hidden among the shrubberies, raucous crows and intermittent high-pitched squeaks from green parakeets.
‘Social distancing’ was the key message. Group gatherings were not allowed and everyone had to stay at least two metres apart to cut down the risk of infection. Another sign read: “If you do not adhere to these guidelines, we will have no choice but to close the parks.” These rules were quite closely, but not aggressively, policed in Victoria Tower Gardens as there were security considerations due to their proximity to Parliament. The rules were followed and the park remained open.
The Thames Marine Services’ static refuelling barge, there to provide fuel and lubricants, was bereft of clients, as it floated in the newly imposed stillness.
From the first lockdown days, our hour-long visits seemed to coincide with one of the Metropolitan Marine Policing Unit patrols, and often one of the London Port Authority vessels, overseeing the safety of the river. Both performing vital services, they could be seen as usual from the very beginning of the restrictions.
Our walks often coincided with the Cory, tugs too, as they were either towing barges of bright yellow empty containers upstream to collect waste from their depots, or towing loaded containers downstream to their ‘Energy from Waste’ facility at Belvedere. The collection of domestic rubbish, an essential service for the health of our city, continued as usual from Westminster and elsewhere, and its transportation along the river was kept going as before.
There seemed to be more wildlife than usual. Cormorants were robustly defending their Palace of Westminster markers as they have been doing for a long while but there were more geese and ducks on the foreshore.
Towards the middle of April, nearly a month into lockdown, there were more signs of boat life on the river. Boats dealing with river safety and obstacle clearance, or maintenance of building works further upstream, began to appear.
These images are simple snapshots of the activity seen during our *permitted* hour-long visits to Victoria Tower Gardens. Depending on the tides and the time of day, there were of course other essential movements on the river. Yet while we were there resting beneath the plane trees, for the most part there was an overriding sense of calm serving as a counterbalance to the frightening daily statistics of new infections and deaths from the Coronavirus pandemic that was sweeping the country. We were not alone in being grateful that Victoria Tower Gardens, a very special park, was carefully maintained and kept open throughout.
*********************** Further information: Many others have documented their impressions of lockdown including: Photographer Bill Green who has a special portfolio on: “Locked Down London”. Photographer Andrew Wilson in an article for Time & Leisure Weekend explores the effect of lockdown on nature in the London area of Barnes.
Lockdown views along the river from Richmond to Tower Bridge and beyond…
These last few weeks of a restrictive but necessary lockdown have had their difficulties, hardships, uncertainties, and raw grief but for me there has been one consolation, a respite from all this: the river Thames. Though I have been limited to one part of the embankment in central London for my own walks, thanks to the lovely pictures posted by friends and followers on Twitter, I’ve been able to voyage virtually along the length of the river from Richmond to Tower Bridge and beyond. Now these friends have kindly allowed me to share the journey with you.
Astrid Tontson is a gifted, sensitive photographer with a talent for capturing the beauty of nature around her. You can follow her on Instagram and watch her wonderful, calming Soul Food videos, particularly in Bushy Park, and you can follow her on Twitter: @Astrid_Tontson
Based in Twickenham, Ruth Wadey is an artist and photographer whose BBC Weather Watcher photographs often feature on their 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
An American living in London, Kristi Tange, a keen photographer, has particularly enjoyed recording scenes and nature around the Thames in the Hammersmith and Barnes areas during lockdown. She has, as have others, captured images of our sunny and dry spring. You can follow her on Twitter @KristiTange
All river traffic came to a standstill on March 23rd, 2020, save for regular Port of London and Police patrols, RNLI rescues, and the daily removal of London’s waste by the Cory tugs.
Based in London Mark Roche specialises in landscape and street photography. Having a passion “for capturing images that excite and draw you in”, he enjoys sharing his ideas and collaborating with others. You can follow him on Twitter @Markroche114
Longtime resident of Rotherhithe Jan Perkins, remarked on the deserted riverside as she walked towards Tower Bridge: “Sad times, as this would have packed with all sorts right now.” You can follow her on Twitter @jan1959john
Simon Cardy is a meteorologist based in Wapping, specialising in weather impacts for the Energy Industry. He loves London and takes striking pictures of the river Thames and London’s skyline. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king
Overall winner of The Thames Lens photography competition in 2018, Bill Green has been inspired for over twenty years by the river and the distinctive architecture through which it ebbs and flows. Explore his website Bill Green Photography and follow him on Twitter @ThamesPhoto
Wal Daly-Smith is 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 giving you a real feeling of what it’s like to be working on the water. See some of his views of the Thames in “From the River”.
From the Isle of Dogs, Michelle Buchan has stunning views over the Thames, London, and big, open skies further to the west. You can often see her images of striking sunsets on Twitter @M_Buchan
At first almost imperceptible, now gaining momentum, life is returning to the river albeit slowly. Back in May, tugs began towing or pushing barges for work on London’s Tideway super sewer, and on Monday, June 15, the Thames Clippers will take to the river again. But for the strictest weeks of lockdown only a few vital movements took place. Cory tugs removed London’s waste from their riverside depots, Port of London vessels watched over their tidal reaches, and the Metropolitan River Police launches patrolled their beat. On standby, ready to respond to any emergencies, were the London Fire Brigade Fire Rescue boats and the RNLI lifeboats at Gravesend, Tower, Chiswick and Teddington. All these were visible to many from their locked-down houses, apartments or permitted riverside walks but unseen by most, was the vital work carried out by the Port of London Authority, keeping our City supplied throughout the crisis. We owe them all thanks.
Further reminiscences of a longtime Waterman and Lighterman of the Thames
Over the past weeks of lockdown, I have had the chance to discover more about Eric Carpenter’s wide-ranging work along the Thames. It seemed from our initial meeting and following email exchanges that he held his time with Cory in particular affection. From 1984 until his retirement in 2008 Eric was employed by Cory Waste Management based at Charlton.
He joined the tug RECRUIT and clearly bonded with the crew “who were all principled men, who pulled their weight and could be relied upon.” One day he was asked by “a good friend to join a crew on another tug, the GENERAL VII, based at Gravesend” but he was happy where he was, sailing upstream through the bridges to the London wharves every shift.” He remembers the tragic sinking of the GENERAL VII a while later, after a collision with a ship adjacent to Tilbury Dock Lock, with the loss of the lives of his friend Colin Baker, and three other members of the crew. Those who work on the river have to be constantly aware of the dangers and safety is of prime importance.
Eric describes life and camaraderie on board the RECRUIT. “Summertime was pleasant towing up through the bridges, returning down with the bridges illuminated on a summer’s night. But, as any Waterman will tell you, it is totally different in the winter months, coping with the wind and the rain, dropping light barges and picking up the loaded ones is not a bundle of laughs.” However, smiling, he continues, “The highlight of the shift was lunch, or as we called it dinner. It could be two chickens (rooster boosted), roast potatoes – my speciality, par boiled and given a good shaking to rough up the outsides, making them crunchy when cooked – or a leg of lamb, a piece of beef and all the trimmings. Nothing got thrown away. We had our mishaps though: the chicken falling out of the oven when the tug nudged the barges; the day we tried to make Yorkshire pudding and it turned out like an inch thick rubber mat. One day the designated cook for that shift wanted to add a sprinkling of pepper to the mashed potatoes but the top came off the pepper pot and everything went into the mash. But it was all eaten anyway.” Fellow crew members at that time were: Jackie Franklin, Gerry Musset, Tommy Lewthwaite and Eric Everest. They trusted and relied on each other and became good friends.
From 1992 to 2008 Eric transferred from the RECRUIT to become a ‘Mucking Boatswain’. All the barges loaded at London’s refuse stations headed to Mucking jetty, where there was a major landfill site, now transformed into the Thurrock Thameside Nature Park. Eric explains that “the site was equipped with three container cranes that unloaded the containers to be taken to the landfill site, emptied and returned to the barges. As the jetty received all the barges from London it was imperative that there was twenty-four hour cover.” Operating there wasn’t simple as “the exposed position of the wharf in the Thames estuary, made it vulnerable to delays caused by bad weather, specifically fog and wind. If the tug missed the daytime tide it would have to bring the barges ashore on the next high tide.”
And the tides were a further complication as the location of Mucking jetty meant that the barges were only afloat for roughly four hours. “This made the shifting of the craft quite hectic, also there was not much run in the tide, so the wind direction was more of a consideration.”
Eric’s responsibilities as a boatswain, along with two others of equal rank, were to “do a safety check of the jetty, checking lifebuoys, the ‘eyes’ of the mooring ropes, safety railings, the capstan ropes, and the access ladders to the barges.” They had to liaise with the tug captains via V.H.F. radio, the operations manager at head office and the jetty manager, in order to arrange and assemble the tows, which could vary in the number and size of barges from one tide to another. But it was not without difficulty. “It was fairly straightforward in the summer months when it was daylight and the weather was calm, not so easy at 2.00 am in the winter with the wind blowing from the east at force 5 !”
Eric describes his last working day, “It was a normal shift. I remember the tug pulling the tow off for the last time and feeling nostalgic. As we were finishing mooring up, I noticed the tug coming back ashore ‘light boat’, that is not towing. As they approached the jetty I saw that the whole crew were on deck: they had come to say their final farewells and to wish me luck. Gary Anness, the captain, then presented me with a bottle of something special!” Eric adds that he was “fortunate to work with two fine tug captains during my time at Mucking, Tim Keetch and Gary Anness, honourable men who could be relied upon.” He also remembers with affection Tom Huggins, Mike Trowbridge, Bill Cook and ‘Buzz’ Bullock, colleagues who became friends.
The Thames is certainly part of Eric’s DNA. His father was a “Journeyman” Lighterman, who as his son was to do, worked all along the river and, as a young teenager, Eric used to bike down to the Woolwich ferry with friends and ride back and forth across the river because it was free. He enjoyed his career on the Thames but doesn’t over romanticise it. Things could be physically and mentally tough and he was always aware of, and concerned about, the need for safety. Working on the river can be dangerous.
He ends his reminiscences by saying that “Although August 24, 2008 was my last day working as a Waterman and Lighterman, I shall be a Waterman and Lighterman till I die.” The love he had, and still has for his profession is clearly expressed when he adds: “I was fortunate to work on the river when I did. I worked from Isleworth in the west to Holehaven Creek in the east, and along every creek and canal adjoining the river Thames. I did not simply work on the river for fifty years, I had an adventure on the river for fifty years!” It was an ‘adventure’ that brought him much satisfaction and sense of fulfilment. He ends by saying: “I would urge any young person to embrace the job and, when they are going ‘up through’ and see office workers scurrying across the bridges to ‘push their pens, or tap their keyboards’ in some confined or crowded office, they should thank their lucky stars it is not them.”
END NOTE With grateful thanks to Eric Carpenter for sharing his photos and for sparing me the time to tell his story and something of his expert knowledge of our constant, yet ever-changing river Thames. Click here to discover more about the history of Thames Watermen and Lightermen