Just the other day two visitors approached me in Victoria Tower Gardens, considerately keeping to our Covid social distancing norms, and asked me why the river seemed bereft of water. It was low tide. And it was not the first time that I’ve met people unaware that the river is tidal up as far as Teddington Lock and, that apart from the short intervals during slack tide, there is the constant movement of water upstream or downstream, borne by flood or ebb tides.
Low tides expand the foreshore exposing multi-layered remnants of the past and that is why London’s beaches have been declared an architectural site, which must not be explored or excavated without a Thames Foreshore Permit. At first glance the apparent slime or mud-covered rubble at low tide lacks appeal but on closer examination you can see thousands upon thousands of fragments of London’s history. Bricks, bottles, clay pipes, coins, jewels, medals, and countless remains of household, shipbuilding, and industrial artefacts, lie jumbled together, often broken, continually shifted by the movement of the tides, appearing and disappearing at the whim of the currents. And their stories are being studied and pieced together by members, both expert and amateur, of the Thames Discovery Programme.
You may, as you walk through the city along the Thames Path, come across figures moving slowly, bending intently towards the foreshore, occasionally picking up and stowing objects into a sample bag. These are modern day, permit holding mudlarkers, who with every find add another piece to the mosaic of London’s history, and among them, some such as Nicola White, not only add to our knowledge of London’s past but turn their finds into art. Low tides are a potential treasure trove for them. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries mudlarks were the very poor, mostly men but women and children too, scavenging the shoreline for objects that they could sell to eke out a living and, until a hundred or so years ago ‘mudlark’, was recognised as an occupation.
Low tides, while they suit some, are not necessarily such a benefit to navigators. They have to learn the shape of the river bed and its shifting positions, with its beaches, sandbanks, and sandbars. The Port of London Hydrographic Service survey vessels THAME, MAPLIN, and GALLOPER are each fitted with ‘Multibeam Echo Sounder Systems’ and carry out over four hundred surveys a year along the tidal Thames and Estuary. People often ask how deep the Thames is but of course this varies with every tide so the difference between the depth of the river at high and low tide is at its greatest during spring tides. This also depends on the volume of the fluvial flow. The average low water levels at spring tides are marked on charts as MLWS – Mean Low Water Springs. However, for those just wishing to check the tides on a particular day, there are a number of sites including the BBC that predict the tide levels at London Bridge, and Willy Weather that covers the projected tide levels at all the central London bridges.
Knowing the tide tables is not just essential for professionals but also for walkers and mudlarkers to avoid being cut off, not forgetting canoeists and anyone making use of the currents to speed their journey. When I met him last year Rob Jeffries gave an example from upstream, where the river is shallower, of the need to be aware of the tidal movements: “There’s a shoal by Fulham Football ground close to which, if you’re not careful, you risk getting stuck and stranded by an ebbing tide.”
The beach at Gabriel’s Wharf is a favourite place for sand sculptors, who create their work on the sand revealed by the falling tide, only to see it washed away a few hours later. They are fun to watch and of course depend on the public *showing their appreciation* from the embankment above by aiming coins at a well-marked target.
A set of sculptures called The Rising Tide, by Jason deCaires Taylor, installed on Vauxhall beach for the month of September 2015, was constructed to resist the scouring of the tide for much longer. And after being displayed on the shore of Lanzarote for three years, sadly the subject of a political dispute, they are now in storage. Made of stainless steel, cement, basalt and aggregates, their form and meaning evolved with the rhythm of the tides…
If you spend a lot of time watching the movement of the river, your visit might just coincide with the changing of the tide.
Often imperceptible to begin with, you can see a change in direction of the current when, after slack water, an incoming tide meets the fluvial flow. The water can remain still for a while, with small eddies whirlpooling out against the main direction of the flow, but not for long before pursuing its inexorable course upstream.
Further Information Thanks to Richard Jennings for help with Tides on the River Thames. Explore the foreshore with Lara Maiklem in Mudlarking: Lost and found on the River Thames. Thanks to NS for editorial help. Look at The Port of London Authority’s Tidal Information.
As the changing of the clocks last weekend marks a deeper descent into early evening winter darkness, some Twitter friends have kindly agreed to share their pictures of the Thames at night. So please escape today’s anxieties for a while and stroll along with them to see the river through their eyes.
Based in Kingston Astrid Tontson has a large and appreciative following for her beautiful sounds of dawn and pictures of awakening life in Bushy Park. You can follow her on Twitter @Astrid_Tontson, Instagram, and her “Soul Food – videos of calming scenes in nature” on YouTube.
If you live in the London area, or further afield, you might quite often have noticed the photo credit ‘ruthiebabes’ 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.
Hammersmith Bridge, in the news recently, has been closed to all traffic, both road and river, since August 13, 2020, for safety reasons. This is causing inconvenience and annoyance to many, particularly as disagreement about who should pay for repairs is holding up the necessary work. Kristi Tange, a keen photographer living nearby, often walks along the river there and has, among other London scenes, been recording some of the boats guarding the bridge. You can follow her on Twitter @KristiTange
Author and photographer Andrew Wilson is a also publisher. Among others, he has written several books, beautifully illustrated with his photographs, on areas in London close to the Thames, including Chiswick, Barnes, Putney, Battersea and Chelsea. You can explore his site Wild London and follow him on Twitter @wildlondonpics
Wal Daly-Smith is a Director of Thames Ranger Marine Services, also acting as commercial Skipper/crew for the company. He is a keen photographer and you can see some of his work in ‘From the River’. He was my first interviewee back in February 2019 and you can read about the importance of the Thames throughout his life by clicking here.
Acting as mate/deckhand on this job for the Illuminated River art commission with safety boat PROTECTOR, Ian Ruffles also skippers other boats mainly sailing barges. You can follow him on Twitter @capt_PB and you can see him demonstrating how to ascend to the top of barge S.B. CAMBRIA, a preserved Thames sailing barge, by clicking here.
Living on a narrowboat, photographer Alastair Hilton tweets an eclectic variety of pictures of his life and travels along the canals and rivers of London on Twitter @London_W4 For his professional portfolio, click on Art Store and Portrait Gallery to see the wide range of his work.
Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames at Waterloo, is the busiest RNLI Station in the country. Lifeboat HEARN MEDICINE CHEST was funded by Jimmy Hearn and his wife Anne. “Jimmy was sailing in the 1979 Fastnet race, during which fifteen people lost their lives in a raging sea. Heading back to port, he saw brave RNLI volunteers setting straight out into the storm to help.” The Hearn Medicine Chest Trust was set up soon afterwards “with the aim of one day funding a lifeboat.” This latest addition to the Tower fleet is a fulfilment of the Trust’s original goal. Follow Tower Lifeboat Station on Twitter @TowerRNLI Chris Walker, one of the Helms at the Tower Station, often illustrates his tweets with action photos. You can read about him by clicking here and follow him on Twitter @RescueShrek1
Yeoman Warder Spike Abbot, Beefeater 402, at H.M. Tower of London has exceptional views over the river from the Tower itself and roundabout this famous part of the city. This photo was taken from the OXO tower. You can follow him on Twitter to discover more about life in the Tower @spike_abbott
“Drawing inspiration from the spirit and history of the river Thames”, Illuminated River is a public art commission by Leo Villareal, which will eventually see the lighting of fourteen central London bridges. Here, stretching into the distance towards Tower Bridge, you can see the four bridges whose lighting has already been installed: Millennium Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Canon Street Railway Bridge and London Bridge. Follow the project on Twitter @IlluminatedRiv The illuminations are switched on from sunset till 2.00 am.
Based in London Mark Roche specialises in landscape and street photography. He enjoys sharing his ideas and working with others. He has a passion “for capturing images that excite and draw you in”. You can follow him on Twitter @Markroche114
Meteorologist Simon Cardy, based in Wapping, is a perceptive photographer who loves London and takes fine pictures of the river Thames and skies around him. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king
Having moved to Rotherhithe during lockdown, Jon Carruthers enjoys exploring and photographing the river. 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 images. You can follow him on Twitter @carruthers_jon
Michelle Buchan’s stunning shots over the Thames from the Isle of Dogs, with their silhouetted skylines and big open skies to the west, lead your gaze to the heart of London. You can often see her images of striking sunsets on Twitter @M_Buchan
********************************* Covid-19 limitations and lockdowns have severely affected the activities of the pleasure and party boats which usually light up the night-time Thames. It is a difficult time for everyone involved, the companies, their crews and all their staff, many of whom have lost their jobs. We should all come together to support them when they can safely take to the river again. There is so much to see and to enjoy along along its shores…
With thanks for joining in with the project to: Astrid Tontson, Ruth Wadey, Kristi Tange, Andrew Wilson, Wal Daly-Smith, Ian Ruffles, Alastair Hilton, RNLI Tower Lifeboat Station, Chris Walker, Spike Abbot, James Newton for Illuminated River, Mark Roche, Simon Cardy, Jon Curruthers and Michelle Buchan.
Meeting birds along the central London tidal Thames
There is no doubt that there has been a marked renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Natural History Museum declared the Thames to be “biologically dead”. The London Natural History Society says that now “the Tidal Thames supports 120 species of fish and that over 60 species of bird nest in central London.” Some of these nest in riverside parks and feed there, or on the foreshore, and I have managed to catch a number of them on camera. Since my wider wanderings have been curtailed by lockdown and health considerations, what follows is of necessity a personal view but I will guide you to further sources at the end.
The Thames has had its problems over water quality ever since the arrival of humans when it became a convenient place to dispose of people’s waste and rubbish. The most notorious, but by no means the only notable example of pollution in recent times, was The ‘Great Stink’ in the hot summer of July and August 1858. The smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent that affected the whole of central London, and particularly the Houses of Parliament, was thoroughly nauseating and made it virtually impossible to carry on normal business. Literally under and into the noses of our elected representatives, this miasma emanating from the river, was the catalyst that brought about the construction of London’s Victorian sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette and constructed in the 1860s and 70s.
Largely forgotten but even worse was the untreated toxic human waste regularly released into the river further downstream that played a significant part in the tragedy surrounding the sinking of pleasure boat the S.S. Princess Alice at Gallions Reach in 1878. After a fatal collision with the collier Bywell Castle, and horrific drownings at the time, many of the victims died later from infections contracted from the sewage floating freely in the river. This disaster, with a loss of about 700 lives, remains the deadliest inland shipping accident known in Britain.
In the mid 20th century, London’s by then already overloaded Victorian sewers were damaged during the Blitz in the Second World War and, writes Sophie Hardach in an article for the BBC, “post-war Britain did not have the resources – or it seems, the energy to fix the problem quickly.” She goes on to explain that with gradual improvements during the late 1960s “the river began to breathe again.” And the improvements continued. Hopefully the remaining problems of sewage overflow from the existing Victorian system during storms, will be sorted out with the inception of Tideway, London’s new ‘super sewer’, which is nearing completion.
There is always some bird action on the foreshore at low tide as the improvement of water quality has allowed the return of all kinds of microscopic creatures, which in turn have provided nourishment for those further up the food chain.
Above the foreshores, good for foraging when the tide allows it, the river embankments make good lookout posts for many of the birds in the area. Crows, ducks, geese and all kinds of gull can often be seen perching on the walls of the central London Thames. And herons have been spotted in the area too.
Higher up, there are even better lookout posts along the river. The Palace of Westminster has been home to a pair of peregrine falcons for a number of years and though I haven’t seen them myself, I have come across discarded feathers from some of their feasts littering the ground in Victoria Tower Gardens below.
However, there are other birds within reach, that sit in trees, on buildings, or wires above the paths and walkways. Look about you as you go and you will be sure to see some of them.
The Thames is a highway, a “liquid highway”, for boat traffic but also the track for a flight path. In WW I German zeppelins used the reflections of moonlight in the river to guide them to their bomb targets. In WW2 many Luftwaffe pilots heading for London followed the course of the river to inflict the fury of their blitz on the city.
But more peaceably, for a far, far greater stretch of time, the river has served as a flight path for birds. In 1902 naturalist C.J. Cornish, who lived on Chiswick Mall, was one of many to observe that the river “is a regular migration route for several species”.
Where this bevy of swans was off to, I don’t know but they were clearly flying upstream along the course of the river.
Though the improvement in the Thames environment has been spectacular there is one scourge harming river life that needs to be addressed: plastic. Plastic bottles, bags, containers, cotton buds, and other non-biodegradable detritus including covid masks, that litter the shores in great quantities. The environmental organisation Thames 21 is working hard with others to combat this, including the Port of London, who have set up a new litter survey, and they have organised a number of events for London Rivers Week, from October 24 – November 1, 2020, now in its fourth year. And there are people organising regular litter collection outings along the paths, banks, and foreshores of the river. Hopefully, with concerns and awareness about plastic pollution being raised by so many worldwide, it can be brought under control soon, to save our wildlife and to improve the look of our rivers and countryside.
Further Information on the following sites: The Naturalist on the Thames: C.J. Cornish. An interesting book published in 1902, now online, with information on wildlife conservation and a discussion on purity of the water. Louise Cripps: ‘The Thames is one of the cleanest rivers…’. Sophie Hardach ‘How the River Thames was brought back from the dead’, BBC, 2015. Dante Shepherd & Josh Jones: ‘Watching gulls in East London’. Ian Young: ‘Anxious Birding’, a blog on birding and mental health.
Thanks also to Ian Young for help with identification of some of the birds. You can catch up with his bird posts on Twitter @ianyoung33
The planned grand opening of Westminster Bridge by Queen Victoria had to be abandoned as she was in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, who had died five months earlier on December 14, 1861. Instead it was officially opened, though quietly, at four o’clock in the morning on May 24, 1862, the day and hour of Queen Victoria’s birth.
But this was not the first bridge to be built across the river here. There was an earlier bridge designed by Swiss architect Charles Labelye, opened on November 18, 1750, and this was the bridge painted by Canaletto in 1746 before its completion, and from where Wordsworth looked out over the views of London before him and wrote ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ on September 3, 1802.
An article in British History Onlinequotes The Gentleman’s Magazine which described the new bridge as: “a very great ornament to our metropolis [that} will be looked on with pleasure or envy by all foreigners.” There is mention of the echo beneath the arches attracting musicians “with French horns to entertain themselves under it in the summer.” On the level of the roadway, there were attractive alcoves above each pier “designed for shelter in bad weather”. However, they were seen by some as the perfect place for “undesirables”, robbers, pickpockets, and illegal traders, so watchmen were employed to patrol them at night. And until recently along the present Westminster Bridge, something of this unwelcome element remained as hustlers were frequently conning tourists with the three cup trick. Their activities were curtailed by the police and for the moment have been brought to a stop by the Covid pandemic.
Perhaps, so as not to give too fierce or an alarming impression of London to potential visitors in the past, the picture above shows a quietly subdued, idealised impoverished family seeking refuge for the night.
A further article in British History Online describes how the removal in 1831 of the old London Bridge further downstream, increased the force and flow of the river which was damaging the Westminster Bridge. After deliberations in parliamentary committees between 1844 – 1850, it was finally agreed that a new bridge should be built. A Commission was set up in 1851 to sort out the details. Work began in 1854 and was completed eight years later.
The bridge with its seven arches, was designed by architect and engineer Thomas Page in collaboration with Sir Charles Barry, who together with Augustus Pugin had won the commission to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after the destructive fire of October 1834. Gothic in character, it was designed to complement the Perpendicular Gothic style of the parliamentary buildings which were still in the process of being rebuilt. The House of Lords first sat in 1847 and the House of Commons in 1852. An article in Engineering Timelines details “Barry’s contribution to the design of Westminster Bridge included the Gothic quatrefoils in the spandrels of the arches and the ornamental shields…”, and the cast iron lamps, also designed by Barry add a finishing touch of elegance. The south-facing Gothic pierced trefoils on the balustrades have been the cause of much amusement. For at certain times of the day if the sun is shining through them, casting light and shadows on the pavement below, the walkway is adorned with unmistakable male anatomical forms. An unintended curlicue…
The balustrades were completely replaced during restoration work in 1997 but it was back in 1970 that the bridge, formerly grey, was painted in its present green, as an echo of the colours in the Chamber of the House of Commons. It was a decision said to have been taken by the Historic Buildings Committee of the former Greater London Council, then in charge of several of London’s bridges, including Westminster Bridge.
Joining London, Canon Street Railway, Millennium and Southwark Bridges, Westminster Bridge is one of the next of four bridges across the Thames to be illuminated as part of the Illuminated River art project designed by Leo Villareal. “It will be lit underneath in soft green tones, complementing the bridge’s characteristic colour and activating the latticework beneath.”
Westminster Bridge and its traffic, both vehicle and pedestrian, is watched over by two statues, strong symbols of England: on the west side, the Celtic Queen Boudicca, who led the Iceni tribe against the Romans in c. 60 AD and on the east side the South Bank Lion, saved for the nation by King George VI. And an article in the online blog Heritage Calling adds an interesting note on traffic : “The current bridge became the site of the world’s first traffic light in December 1868. Consisting of three semaphore arms on a pillar, with red and green lamps for night-time use, the traffic light was operated by a specially trained police constable.”
If you have the time to linger, Westminster Bridge is a good place from which to look out over the Thames, its river traffic, and London. At least it has been so until this time of Covid. However, I hope that when we’ve got through the pandemic, you will be able to see the pleasure and party boats as I saw them last year. In normal times there’s always a fair amount movement on the river.
Though the outings of sightseeing boats have mostly been severely compromised, essential services have been maintained throughout the pandemic. The Cory waste transporting tugs continued to tow their barges downstream and the needs of London’s super sewer’s constructors Tideway were supplied by tugs bringing essential parts and supplies for their work. Added to that, safety and security along the river and the surrounding area has been assured throughout by Port of London, the Thames RNLI, Fire Rescue, and Police patrol vessels.
There are many hazards along the Thames that navigators have to be aware of. And one in particular is how to deal with the several characteristics of tidal flow and currents through and around the cluster of bridges over the river in central London. Westminster Bridge has another potential hazard in that its central arch has a lower clearance height during an average high water spring tide than both Lambeth Bridge, the next bridge upstream, and Charing Cross Rail Bridge, the following bridge downstream. This can lead to a nervous half hour or so when captains, with the help of their crew, work out if they have enough clearance to go through safely.
Yet Westminster Bridge has a darker side too. Over the years, it has been one of the places where, for many unable to face the problems in their lives, they have ended them by climbing over the parapets and jumping down into the icy waters below.
Still fresh in people’s minds are the tragic deaths and woundings of innocent Londoners and tourists in a brutal terrorist attack on March 22, 2017, as the perpetrator mounted the pavement in his car and drove at speed hitting pedestrians indiscriminately. Six people were killed and around fifty wounded, including several among a party of schoolchildren from Concarneau in Brittany. Among the dead was the unarmed PC Keith Palmer, stabbed after the killer left his vehicle and ran through the gates of Parliament determined to inflict more harm. He was shot dead.
William Wordsworth, whose association with Westminster Bridge is one of London’s best known literary landmarks, as you will see further below, also wrote London, 1802. A powerful poem addressed to Milton, it is a lament for England’s lost happiness, culture, manners and virtue, a lament that resonates strongly with many today. England is: “a fen of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen […] We are selfish men…”
Yet Wordsworth also wrote his paean to London Upon Westminster Bridge in that same year. His different mood and the very different London of over two hundred years ago may be an unrecognisable, romanticised London, but is a moving vision all the same: “…This city now doth like a garment wear The beauty of the morning: silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky, – All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour valley, rock or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will…”
As night falls you can fade out extraneous traffic noise and look over the river to see its ever-changing patterns and reflections…
…as office and apartment lights are switched on, turning the Thames into multiple glitter paths of liquid gold. And yes, though today’s landscape would be mostly alien to Wordsworth, it is still possible, despite everything, to feel as he did, a deep sense of calm while watching the river.
Further information Printed Bradley, Simon and Pevsner, Nikolaus: The Buildings of England: London 6: Westminster, Yale University Press, 2003. Cookson, Brian: ‘Westminster Bridge’, London Historians, 2010. Stone Peter: ‘The Original Westminster Bridge’
Out on the Thames for pleasure, thrills, and… security
If a flash of red cuts across your sightline brightening up the river as you walk along the Thames Path National Trail in central London, you are most likely catching sight of a Thames Rocket, one of the three tourist Rib companies that ply for custom on the waters of the central London tidal Thames. Also vying for your attention are the yellow Thames RIB Experience and blue ThamesJet craft as they surge forward leaving behind an impressive trail of foaming white water.
As social distancing and other rules in this time of Coronavirus are constantly subject to change, it would be wise to check up-to-date arrangements with each individual company by clicking on the links above here or at the end of the piece. But so far, since the easing of the initial lockdown, things seem to have been ticking over albeit at a reduced capacity.
Thames Rockets have two starting points: one from the London Eye, which is basically a sightseeing tour and the other from London Bridge City Pier, a high speed trip to the Thames Barrier and back. Since Charlie Matheson created the company in 2006, it has become “one of the most popular ways of seeing London”. Not only do visitors see the famous sights from a different and interesting water-level perspective, they also enjoy a lively commentary and the excitement of speeding along certain sections of the river.
The Thames Rib Experience company’s striking waspy-coloured craft have been skimming the waters of the Thames at high speed for over ten years to the delight of their passengers. Boarding from Embankment Pier, Tower Pier and North Greenwich Pier, they enjoy an exciting ride while discovering central London’s notable sights and buildings.
ThamesJet, the newest of the three Rib companies, is owned and operated by the long-established City Cruises, who as you may have seen, run a large fleet of sightseeing boats that show off London and the Thames at a more leisurely pace. However, though the Ribs are available for private hire, their normal sightseeing service has been put on hold until April 2021 so it would be best to check out their website below.
But there’s a more serious side to Ribs on the Thames. From time to time a fast moving Police Rib will disturb the water. Highly manoeuvrable and versatile, these lightening speed Ribs are used for security training and escort duty, but their main purpose is, when necessary, to carry armed response units swiftly to the scene of an incident. Their firearms crews are ready to intervene at any moment and, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes see them in training.
A recent film by Maritime Police Instructor Danny Mizon posted by @liquid_highway1 shows one of their joint exercises with Thames Clippers, and he goes on to quote Mizon, who wrote: “Training our colleagues to board larger vessels travelling at higher speeds has been part of both London’s and the national capability for many years now but we couldn’t do it without the cooperation of our industry partners.”
In March 2017, the counter terrorism police worked with City Cruises on an exercise involving the highjack of a sightseeing boat on the river Thames. The simulation was very realistic and warnings that this was going to take place with high speed pursuits and gunfire, were put out in advance on social media and elsewhere, so as not to alarm the public. It brought together, the Port of London Authority; the Coastguard; The RNLI; the London Ambulance Service; and the London Fire Brigade in a valuable exercise of coordination and cooperation underling the importance of protecting the river as lifeline to our city