From Bridge to Bridge… 1

Views of the Thames and its bridges in central London

One of my favourite descriptions of the Thames bridges comes from the Gentle Author on Spitalfields Life, where he writes of “a line of bridges, holding the north and south banks of London together tightly like laces on a boot.” It’s an image that’s particularly effective when you look at aerial pictures of the Thames and see how the bridges indeed appear to be fastening the banks together.

View downstream from Tower Bridge with the elegant fleet of Thames Luxury Charters in pride of place
GPS tug CAMBRIA towing an empty barge upstream as she heads towards Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is an ideal vantage point for looking downstream, following the river’s slow curve to the east, leading to the Thames Barrier and eventually to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and the Estuary beyond. But turning upstream towards London Bridge and the Tower of London is where my journey begins. A journey looking at London’s famous Thames bridges, told with random snippets of information and images of day and night, summer and winter, taken over the last few years.

View from Tower Bridge looking upstream with HMS BELFAST and London Bridge beyond

There is a rich history linked to this particular stretch of the river: maritime, military, and social, eloquently expressed by such writers as Peter Stone in his History of the Port of London and by many historians including Simon Jenkins in A Short History of London. There is also a small army of mudlarkers, strictly licensed by the Port of London Authority, or as writes Fiona Haughey, ‘inter-tidal archeologists’, who have contributed much to our knowledge of the past. Exploring the foreshore when the tides allow, they have discovered, and continue to discover, a whole variety of artefacts, many of which have found their way there thrown from the bridges, boats and the river banks, including coins, household objects, religious offerings, tools, toys and weapons. The Museum of London has a large collection of finds from what is described as “London’s longest archaeological site”.

The Tower of London taken from Tower Bridge at night-time
CITY ALPHA approaching Tower Bridge as super yacht AVANTI and Port of London Authority vessel LAMBETH head upstream

The crowding in the above image seems a little strange now after nearly a year of social distancing but hopefully that strangeness will soon be a thing of the past. The tree-lined building in the background is The Custom House, now the subject of “a planning application for an unsympathetic conversion to a luxury hotel that will be destructive to the fabric of the grade I listed building.” Please read here for further information.

Looking back from London Bridge towards Tower Bridge

Until the first covid lockdown the river along the Pool of London looked busy on my visits, but not as busy as it was in its 1950’s, early 1960’s heyday, before containerisation in the 1970s when Tilbury became London’s leading container port. But there was always some river traffic: sightseeing and party boats; tugs towing barges of material to construction sites, or removing London’s waste, and a variety of ships on official or publicity trips to the city.

Looking upstream from London Bridge towards Cannon Street Railway Bridge and a City Cruises’ sightseeing vessel
Southwark Bridge and the Shard in the falling light seen from below the Millennium Footbridge
The Millennium Footbridge and Southwark Bridge photographed from below the Blackfriars Railway Bridge
Blackfriars Railway Bridge and station straddling the river. The red pillars are remnants of the 1864 bridge, which in 1985 were deemed too weak to support modern trains
Blackfriars Bridge and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral beyond
Buses parked on Waterloo Bridge and below, the Tower RNLI Station with a crew on permanent standby throughout every day of the year

Surprisingly, Waterloo Bridge was actually built during the Second World War under the constant threat of bombing raids. Built mainly by women it’s known as the Ladies’ Bridge. There was no official record of the part they played but the story was kept alive since the 1950s by the guides on sightseeing boats. For more background, there’s an interesting article and short film on the Londonist site.

A fusion of bridges and buildings. Westminster Bridge and a glimpse of Lambeth Bridge seen from the south Jubilee Bridge
Seen from Westminster Bridge, Bateaux London vessel, and the Jubilee footbridges, either side of Hungerford Railway Bridge

Like Tower Bridge, Westminster Bridge is a good place to watch river traffic when life gets back to normal. Westminster Pier, next to the bridge on the north bank is the departure point for many of the popular sightseeing trips as well as the regular Uber Thames Clippers’ service. It’s also a good vantage point for watching some of the festivals and events that normally take place along the river throughout the year including the Doggett’s Coat and Badge; events organised by the Thames Festival Trust; and The Mayor’s Thames Festival.

Further Information
At the time of writing, visits are either cancelled or subject to covid restrictions but you can still explore the following sites to plan for better days, hopefully coming soon:
Tower Bridge
Thames Luxury Charters
H.M.S. Belfast
Thames sightseeing trips: City Cruises; Thames River Services; with more info on Visit London

Articles on London Bridges
Spitalfields Life: The Bridges of Old London
A London Inheritance: A Winter Walk from Tower Bridge to Westminster.
How London’s Thames Bridges got their names The Londonist
For sightseeing search Bridges in London

You can also explore the Illuminated River public art commission to illuminate the central London Thames Bridges. The lighting on London, Cannon Street Railway, Southwark, and Millennium Bridges has already been completed. The next stage will shortly see Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster, the Golden Jubilee Footbridges, and Lambeth Bridge in operation too.

Vantage Points

Views captured from high points along the central London Thames

Twitter friends have kindly joined with me to share their views from some of the top vantage points along the river.

Eel Pie Island, some of it’s boats at their moorings, and a kayaker in this winter’s snow. © Ruth Wadey

Our journey begins with Ruth Wadey looking out across the river at Eel Pie Island through a pretty, Christmas card snow shower. If you live in the London area, or further afield, you might quite often have noticed the photo credit ‘ruthiebabes’, or an EP, ‘Editor’s Pick’, attached to a BBC Weather Watchers’ image. This is Ruth Wadey. Not only is she a talented photographer, she is also an artist, and you can see her work at her gallery Ruth Wadey, and you can follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery and Instagram.

View from a Lots Road development with Battersea and Albert Bridges. © Wal Daly-Smith

Wal Daly-Smith’s downstream river shot, from a new development at Lots Road next to Chelsea Wharf, takes in Battersea and Albert Bridges as well as the nearby Chelsea Houseboats. And on the skyline are buildings that you might just make out, including the Shard. You can follow him on Twitter @lens_wal

Looking west from the London Eye, February 2019, from where you can see Lambeth and Vauxhall Bridges. © Patricia Stoughton

A picture, taken on a spur of the moment ‘flight’ in the London Eye, looking over a misty river, as miles of London gradually came into view during my journey to the top. I noticed the Eye managed some turns in between lockdowns this summer, presumably for maintenance, and hopefully it will be turning again before long.

View from Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and over the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral. © Jon Carruthers

Having moved to Rotherhithe during the first lockdown, Jon Carruthers enjoys exploring and photographing the river whenever he can. He has covered most of the tidal Thames from Teddington to the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. “Its ever-changing nature and its history are what I love about it.” And that feeling clearly shows in his striking images. You can follow him on Twitter @carruthers_jon

View of Tower Bridge from The Shard, April 2013. © Patricia Stoughton

Tower Bridge seen from high up near the top of The Shard looks like the focal point of an elaborate model, and the Tower of London, HMS Belfast, and the Southern and Southeastern railway lines could be part of the same illusion. The Shard is visible from a great distance round the capital, so on a clear day you can see landmarks from there up to forty miles away, including the Thames Estuary and the Surrey Hills…

View, June 2019, from the ‘Walkie Talkie’, of London Bridge, the Cannon Street Railway Bridge and the Monument in the foreground. © Patricia Stoughton

View from the Sky Garden in the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, 20 Fenchurch Street, of a miniature river far below where a Police launch appears to be chasing , or racing, a RIB.

View from one of the oldest and most famous vantage points along the Thames. © Spike Abbott

Though not on a high vantage point The Tower of London was for centuries in the most strategic defensive position along the Thames, with its protective moat and commanding views of the river in both directions. The picture is by Spike Abbott, Yeoman Warder at The Tower, a Tower Ward Beadle, and Freeman of the City of London. You can follow him on Twitter @spike_abbott

Looking east from Butler’s Wharf. ©Mazimo

Mazimo, now back in the US, had a fantastic view of the Thames from his apartment. He recorded tugs and nautical manoeuvres on the river, which he sometimes filmed and put to music. This photograph is a lovely view from his balcony towards the Isle of Dogs. You can follow him on Twitter @2000MX5

Looking out from the viewing platform of the O2. © Ian Young

Ian Young took his picture looking across the Thames from the O2 viewing platform. On the right you can see the cable cars, from which in times other than lockdown, you can discover different perspectives of the river. Ian is interested in nature, regularly sharing photos on Twitter, particularly of birds, and he is my go-to person when I need to identify any birds in my photographs. He is the author of a blog on how birdwatching can help with anxiety – see here. You can follow him on Twitter @ianyoung33

Looking across the river towards the O2. © Jon Carruthers

A second picture by Jon Carruthers, looking towards the O2 from where Ian Young took his picture. You can see the cable cars, in limbo for now, here on the left. You can follow him on Twitter @carruthers_jon

View to the west from the Isle of Dogs © Michelle Buchan

From the Isle of Dogs, Michelle Buchan has wonderful views of London’s cityscape in the west and its many colourful guises between sunrise and sunset. Closer to home she keeps an eye on the Thames below. Discover more about her work here and you can follow her on Twitter @M_Buchan

Snowing across the Thames Barrier © Graeme courtesy of colleague @AlanBarrierEA

Here is a vantage point across the Thames from one of its most striking landmarks, where the skill and expertise of those forecasting and operating the Barrier keep London safe from flooding. You can follow Flood Forecaster Alan for news of the Barrier and closures on Twitter @AlanBarrierEA

If you would like images from even higher up than these vantage points you couldn’t do better than follow aerial photographer Jason Hawkes and see his pictures of London and the Thames in his spectacular photo story. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonhawkesphot

With thanks to:
Nigel Stoughton for the cover image and to Twitter friends for giving me permission to post their pictures:
Ruth Wadey: @ruths_gallery
Wal Daly-Smith: @lens_wal
Jon Carruthers: @carruthers_jon
Yeoman Warder Spike Abbot: @spike_abbott
Mazimo: @2000MX5
Ian Young: @ianyoung33
Michelle Buchan: @M_Buchan
Graeme courtesy of @AlanBarrierEA

Cargoes

Cargoes along the central London tidal Thames

Gone are the boom days of the early 1960s when the section of the tidal Thames upstream from Tower Bridge to Teddington lock used to be crowded with boats delivering all kinds of cargo. Vic Clarke remembers “The dry cargo tramp steamers tied up daily had to be seen to be believed, all unloaded and goods moved by barge to the dozens of warehouses along the Thames. Tea was a big import and the number of colliers with daily coal for the power stations was massive.” Added to this, Waterman and Lighterman, Eric Carpenter has kindly given me a long list of the wharves and the goods unloaded there including: “chilled produce such as cheese and butter delivered to Hibernian Wharf next to London Bridge and to the Nine Elms cold store; assorted canned goods to Millroy and Grosvenor Road Wharves, where sacks of beans were unloaded for transportation to the Heinz factory at Uxbridge; to the candle manufacturer at Price’s Wharf; cement from Cement Manufacturers at Northfleet and petrol from Thames Haven refineries to Fulham Wharves; and many, many more.” So the river was very busy then, and as Vic says, “the barges went everywhere, like ants on water working continuously as cargo ships had to be unloaded as quickly as possible.” The colliers that he worked on had a twenty-four hour turn around and there were always more waiting to discharge.

After this boom in trade, the arrival of container ships in the latter part of the 60s meant that the Pool of London, lacking the dock or riverside space to cope with larger ships and their cargo, became largely redundant. River traffic from there declined and trade moved eastward to Tilbury, which at present is undergoing expansion, and also in 2013, to the vast London Gateway deep sea container terminal, by the Thames in Essex.

A far cry from the massive sizes and quantities involved with Tilbury and London Gateway, and the earlier cargoes mentioned by Eric Carpenter and Vic Clarke, here follows a personal look at cargo boats, or cargoes of all sizes under tow, spotted on my walks along the central London tidal Thames over the last few years. Many of them have been concerned with the major construction sites along the river, including the Tideway super sewer for London; building works in and around the old Battersea power station; and more recently the extension of Craven Cottage, Fulham Football Club’s ground.

HEIKO, one of Thames Marine Services’ motorised fuel tankers pausing at their Westminster fixed refuelling barge, August 2020
FAST WIL, Belgian company Fast Lines’ general cargo ship, March 2018
General cargo ship POLLA ROSE, for a while a familiar sight on the central London river, July 2020

Now under new ownership POLLA ROSE was spotted by Thames Waterman and Lighterman Ben of Liquid Highway, departing the inner berth at Tilbury Grain terminal last week. He pointed out that she was carrying “Thirty-six lorry loads in one trip”, relieving London’s roads of much traffic, adding “Let’s get the river busy again and see more commercial use.”

Thamescraft Tug DEVOUT on her way upstream, pushing barge Will Carry, loaded with Tideway tunnel segments, August 2020
Bennett’s tug STEVEN B, having unloaded her tunnel segments, pushing her empty barge downstream
Bennett’s tug CHRISTIAN pushing an empty barge, one of their new Tideway Class barges, specially designed to transport spoil from the Tideway tunnel sites
Bennett’s tug FELIX pushing a spoil loaded barge downstream
Thamescraft vessel EMILIA and tug DEVOUT carefully guiding a crane to a site upstream
GPS tug ARCADIA towing an impressive wedge of structural prefab for the upgrade of Fulham Football Club.
Assisting with the structural prefab tow, tug ERNIE STEVENSON, passing old St. Thomas’ Hospital
GPS tug ANGLIA pushing a barge of aggregate to one of the building sites upstream
COMET CLIPPER, run by Thames Clippers Logistics, operating DHL Express’s new riverboat parcel delivery service
Tug GREEN LONDON with a London Eye pod in tow, heading downstream, June 26, 2009. ©James Hatts, London SE1 Community journalist and photographer
Livett’s tugs, camera boats and safety boats ensured that the Airbnb Floating House in May 2015 provided some surreal sights and good publicity along the river

Ed Livett kindly lent me these two pictures, among many that they have in their collection marking significant events in London. And if you look at their site here, you will discover the wide range of their towage services.

Tug STEVEN B towing the Olympic rings in 2012.

Lastly, ending where I began with Cory tugs and their tows, there is one sight, the second of the two photos below, that’s particularly poignant during this time of Covid: the tribute to the NHS pulled along the river past St. Thomas’ Hospital.

RECOVERY, one of the Cory waste-removal tugs, ever present on the river throughout the pandemic
Finally, a barge towed by Cory tug RECLAIM as a ‘thank you’ to the NHS for their fight against Covid

Further information and sources
With thanks to:
Eric Carpenter
Vic Clarke
Ed Livett
Liquid Highway Twitter @liquid_highway1
London SE1 Community Website James Hatts Twitter @se1
Peter Stone Twitter @LondonStone

Cleaning the river

The Port of London Authority & Thames 21 leading the fight for a cleaner and safer river

Since the much quoted judgement by the Natural History Museum in 1957 that the Thames was “biologically dead” and incapable of supporting life, a lot has happened. The first changes began soon after that as a result of much discussion and soul-searching.

In a long, wordy, and complex debate in the House of Lords on December 3rd, 1959, on ‘The Pollution of Rivers and Estuaries’ there was an interesting remark by one Viscount Simon: “The natural channels for the disposal of waste in a country like ours are undoubtedly our rivers.” Referring to earlier comments that some of the UK’s rivers were “like an open drain”, he goes on to say “In my view, that is exactly what a river ought to be; but it should be a clean and healthy drain, not a foul one.” He accepts that in a heavily built up area there might not be sufficient oxygen in a river to accomplish the breaking down of human waste and therefore the construction of sewage works would be necessary. However, he adds: “…our rivers are still capable of looking after quite a lot of organic waste, and it would be wasting the value of our rivers as a national asset […] if we did not give them something to do.” Well, that’s a view that evolved. Luckily.

Following on from this, the 1960s saw a gradual improvement and eventual repair of London’s Victorian sewerage system which had been badly damaged during the Blitz. And now, as many of you know, Tideway are constructing a 25 kilometre super sewer under the Thames to serve London and to deal with the raw sewage spills that can still make their way into the river after heavy rainfall. So the quality of Thames water, now already supporting a wide variety of wildlife, will become even cleaner. However, there are other hazards including floating debris of all kinds, and the ever growing scourge of plastic pollution.

The first of these, floating debris such as logs, tree trunks or old railway sleepers, which can cause serious damage to vessels on the tidal Thames, is covered by the Port of London Authority’s Driftwood Service. And first in their line of defence are their Passive Driftwood Collectors, known as PDCs, conceived about twenty years ago. Fixed “at carefully chosen points on the river, where the current and tidal stream will carry the most driftwood they trap the floating debris.” This is then collected for recycling and disposal by their Driftwood craft.

Port of London’s Passive Driftwood Collector at Westminster, marking their partnership with Thames 21

Their annual haul is impressive but rather concerning. “Each year we pull more than 400 tonnes of assorted floating rubbish from the river including branches and tree trunks, plastic bottles and traffic cones.” They also recover bicycles, supermarket trolleys, and cars parked too close to the river swept into the water by a rising tide.

The two Driftwood craft that I’ve seen most often are the simply named Driftwood II and Driftwood III. As well as their primary function being the “collection of driftwood and other debris, they are equipped with hydraulic cranes, burning gear, and salvage pumps”, to deal with emergency maintenance or repairs. Each has a Dory tender in tow, either Ray or Tyburn, to allow flexibility of movement for the crew.

DRIFTWOOD III heading past old St. Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster
DRIFTWOOD II and RAY approaching Westminster Bridge
PLA tug IMPULSE pushing an empty debris collection barge upstream
A loaded PLA barge being pushed downstream
Punchy PLA tug IMPULSE
DRIFTWOOD II heading towards moorings at Lambeth Bridge
The crew of DRIFTWOOD II attending to M.V. SUERITA close to Lambeth Bridge

The *giant* of the fleet, London Titan, and I’ve only seen her a couple of times, is sturdy enough to undertake a whole variety of work in the outer estuary, and also “squat and shallow enough to negotiate the Thames bridges as far upriver as Richmond”, where she can be used among other tasks to “haul wreckage from the riverbed.”

LONDON TITAN at work close to Westminster Bridge in January 2018

The second concern over the state of the river is the increased amount of plastic pollution. In 1994 the Port of London Authority teamed up with Thames 21, an independent charity dedicated to the environmental improvement of rivers and canals in and around London. And one of the several tasks their partnership has set itself is the removal of litter present everywhere along the waterways. Their Report on Plastic Pollution in the Tidal Thames highlights the problem. A particular scourge of the Thames foreshore is the use of wet wipes, some of which have accumulated into large mounds that, because they’re mixed in with river mud, look natural. Paul Hyman, Founder and Director of the stand up paddle boarding group Active 360 highlighted the problem for Thames 21 during a campaign back in 2016, “There is one very persistent problem that is spoiling the enjoyment and the safety of watersports and that problem is litter.” And that hasn’t changed. In 2018 he co-founded In The Drink to raise awareness among riverside pubs and bars, by promoting the use of re-usable alternatives to replace single use plastic.

During the Covid pandemic, there’s actually been an increase in the amount of plastic drink bottles, mugs, and containers dropped along the banks or into the river. This alarming issue is underlined in the latest River Thames Survey by Thames 21, published on December 21st, 2020, which also notes a new specifically Covid related phenomenon that “plastic gloves & masks were found on seventy percent of the stretches of the river monitored…”

Kew Bridge Drawdock littered with plastic refuse © Paul Hyman
An organised litter pick on the foreshore opposite Greenwich Power Station © Thames 21
A Thames 21 team and members of the PLA stand around a yellow litter cage, on a socially distanced litter pick at Gravesend © Port of LondonAuthority

Several hundred clean-ups are organised every year, and volunteers give their time to gather the rubbish and place it into steel cages provided by the PLA, which then sees to their disposal. They recover “an estimated 800 cubic metres of litter and rubbish from the foreshore” every year. Among the unusual items recovered on their events are handguns, motorbikes and fridges.

As you walk along a stretch of the river that you know well, particularly at low tide, you’ll appreciate how much litter accumulates in certain places and how there’s more of it than before. A certain amount of it is collected by organised litter picks but as A J McConville, coordinator of Thames 21’s plastic monitoring programme, rightly says: “The health of the Thames should not depend on volunteer clean-ups. We need to turn off the plastic tap at source.” In fact, we need better education. Much better education…

Latest News from Thames 21
Obituary of Celia Hensman MBE 1936 -2021, founder of Thames 21, published on January 6, 2021

Sources and further information
With thanks to the PLA, Paul Hyman, and Thames 21, for their help and permission to use their images.
The Port of London Authority
Driftwood Service
Thames 21
Active 360
In the Drink

The Thames in winter

Snowy images from 2009 to wish you the best for 2021

Taken taken on February 2, 2009 these pictures are a reminder that until quite recently we used to have colder winters in London. Not as cold as the famous Frost Fairs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the river was frozen over for several weeks at a time but definitely colder than most of the past few years.

Looking along the embankment past Lambeth Palace towards the London Eye

With colours standing out against the snow on the Lambeth side of the river, walkers enjoy the transformation of familiar steps, walls, lamps, benches, and pavements into new softened versions. Blemishes hidden.

From Lambeth Bridge, you can see Thames Cruises’ M.V. THAMES PRINCESS moored at Lambeth Pier

These pictures are also a reminder of how much London’s skyline has crowded in upon us during the last eleven years.

Lambeth Bridge fringed with snow as a small boat is about to pass underneath
Victoria Tower Gardens, a precious central London riverside park

As many of you know, this view of the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO world heritage site, seen across Victoria Tower Gardens, is under threat. We have been grateful for this little park during the Covid crisis as these carefully nurtured gardens have been a refuge for many living and working in the area. A place to breathe, an escape by the river from the ravages of the pandemic.

The Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster watching over the Gardens

Will such snowy London pictures be a thing of the past, I wonder ? Snow, being rare in London now, always used to excite a feeling of delight before pristine white, snow-packed roadways turned into greasy, gravelly, salt-speckled, grey slush and new, untrodden snow in the parks became tracked with a tumult of footprints. The delight was obvious in January 2013 when I saw, young and not so young people, scooping snowballs from the roofs and bonnets of cars to hurl at their friends; keen photographers slip-sliding on icy roads and snow-packed pavements, to capture London in her winter guise; and children and the young at heart, making snowmen in the Royal Parks.

Yet for those working regularly on the river, snow and bitterly cold winds were rather less appealing. Waterman and Lighterman, Eric Carpenter, recalls a trip that was particularly tough: “My most vivid memory of winter on the Thames is the journey from Egypt Buoy at Egypt Bay, situated in the estuary on the Kent coast, across the tidewater to Old Haven Creek on the Essex coast. I experienced it in a force 5 gale, driving rain, and a snow storm. The tug would be “beam on” pitching and rolling, ropes, eight inches in circumference snapping like twigs. It was a journey that could be undertaken at any hour night or day”. The winter of 1963 must have been specially gruelling for everyone and Eric describes how that year “was very hard work, as the snow had to be cleared from the decks and hatches constantly. I remember using a crow bar to prise the mooring ropes apart. The river Lea was specially hard going; I remember breaking the ice to allow the lock gates to open fully.”

As I looked again at those wintery photographs from eleven years ago, when I was safely wrapped in a warm coat, scarf, and gloves, it was a timely reminder that for some, life on the river in the cold was not so comfortable. But then Thames Watermen and Lightermen are a tough breed…

End note
Thank you for reading my words. Thank you also to those who have helped me with information and images for my articles. May I wish you all a happier year in 2021, and to everyone who works on, or around the Thames, especially, a return to normal life as soon as possible.