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.
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For further information see: The Royal Parks savevictoriatowergardens.co.uk and @SaveVTG
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.
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.
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.
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.
Please join me behind the glass panels for a walk on the terrace…
…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.
For more information on the Sky Garden see: https://skygarden.london
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Cover picture: Rob Jeffries giving a talk. Film: Thames Memorial – Police Museum (c) YNUK.tv
…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.
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.
There are unparalleled views along the river looking east towards Canary Wharf, the Thames Barrier and just beyond, into Essex and Kent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For further information on access and prices: https://www.the-shard.com/about
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
as he reminisces about his time on the tidal Thames in the 60s
A chance meeting on social media and a shared interest in the Thames led to my discovering the early story of Vic Clarke, who trained at the Wellesley Nautical School at Blyth and who began his career on colliers delivering coal to Thames-side power stations in the 1960s.
After undergoing a rigorous training with tough, and by today’s standards, harsh discipline at Wellesley from 1958 – 1961, he tells me of his first trip to London.
“This will never leave my memory as I’d dreamt of going to sea from an early age, so it made a big impression. Steaming down the East coast from Blyth to London, being thrown about, dropping meals and cups of tea. Then I remember everything going still and peaceful. It was about three in the morning. I went up on deck: we had just turned into the Thames Estuary.
He describes life on board the HUDSON FIRTH, on which he sailed a number of times: “Accommodation was pretty basic for seamen, and for deck boys like me, even more basic. There were two of us deckies on the FIRTH. We shared a cabin directly above the steering gear, so it was pretty noisy. Our cabin was in the hull and there was no insulation in that part; just steel plate between us and the briny.”
“You first join as a deckie. If you’re a junior, you normally help in the galley, where you stay until another deckie joins the crew. In this position the nickname was “Peggy”. In the old sailing days, if you was to lose a leg, you weren’t put ashore, you were tasked to help in the galley. So for three months I was peggy: thankfully I didn’t have to cut my leg off.”
“The FIRTH sailed in any weather. No high sea or high wind deterred our skipper, we’d steam out of Blyth with the prop thrashing out of the water, then back into a trough and silence. The North Sea is harsh; we rarely had a flat steam to London. If memory serves me well, it took three days to go down and two days to go up, dependant on the weather.”
“During days at sea it would be maintenance i.e. chipping paint off and repainting. On leaving Blyth, once the hold covers were down, decks were cleaned off of any coal dust, the same when leaving London; that was the first job.”
“I though the food on the FIRTH was unbelievable. The standard of the galley and cookers was basic but our cook turned out amazing food and plenty of it.”
“The loading in Blyth was done from staithes, high wooden structures that carried coal trucks. The trucks stopped right up above the vessels, then were turned over and the coal streamed down a chute into the hold. On unloading in London, large cranes with grab buckets emptied the hold, after which tractors were then lowered in to finish the job off.”
“I’m pretty sure Bankside was my first trip as memories bring Southwark up. I remember we tied off on a buoy on a Sunday morning. Being peggy I was tasked to go ashore for newspapers and cigarettes; lots of Woodbines and News of the Worlds. One of the seamen called for a lighterman who took me ashore, where I soon found a shop, got the kit and went back to the river. But no FIRTH. Gone.”
“It’s hard to express the sheer number of ships tied up. It was Sunday, and skippers tried to avoid Sundays at sea because pay was double time, meaning more expense for their employers. The lighterman took me down the lines of ships and found the FIRTH. I distinctly remember she was up alongside a ship named GLADYS BOWATER. She was carrying rolls of newspaper. When I walked across her deck it was like a 5-star hotel in comparison to our dark, dusty collier.”
Vic also remembers some of London’s great smogs known as pea-soupers. “Real pea-soupers, which I only actually experienced on the Thames, were I would think, due to the heavy industry and the coal-fired power stations. They were eerie, all sounds were muffled, really muffled. I distinctly remember one time ships’ movements being suspended. I can still remember the taste and smell of smoke and soot infesting the air, all confused with the sounds of ships’ horns, and lightermen shouting to each other….”
After leaving the Merchant Navy, Vic carried on with an active and varied career, with work including diving, abseiling and steeple jacking, where on one occasion he had to inspect the damage done to the Kuwait water towers during the Occupation of Kuwait by the Iraqis in 1990-91. But he looks back with fondness to his early career and work on the Thames: “In those days there were no camera phones and very few ordinary cameras around.” He adds wistfully, “Oh to have the chance to go back and have those sights, sounds and feelings actually on record; though hopefully they will live with me forever.” And from the memories he has shared with us here, they surely will.
Dwarfed by other vessels, construction sites and piers along the river, there is a fleet of small workboats, open topped or with a wheel house, navigating the river in all conditions. Unless you’re looking out for them, they can pass by un-noticed but their work is vital to smooth operations along the river.
They fetch and carry people and goods; act as safety boats; serve as platforms for filming, PR work, surveys, structural inspections both above and below the waterline, and numerous other activities associated with the maintenance of buildings, embankments and structures along the river.
Some belong to particular pleasure boat cruise companies, working solely for them, ferrying skippers, mates and crew from a nearby pier to where their vessels are moored, and others are available for hire for long or short term.
There are many active civil engineering projects along the tidal Thames but by far the largest is the Tideway Super Sewer for London, now 40 percent complete, which has twenty-four construction sites, all using small workboats along with the other vessels they need onsite or for deliveries.
Wal Daly-Smith, now Mate with Bateaux London Cruises, worked earlier this year as a safety boat skipper at the Blackfriars site. His boat, Diveco 1, assisted with diver operations and played a big part in the building of the cofferdam.
It was a complex job and as Wal explains, one of the main tasks he had was “to act as safety boat. The divers would be lowered into the water by crane and I would be on standby, a good distance away with my engine shut down. The divers also worked off a pontoon, which I would push around with the boat.” Their work involved welding and burning, all of this in extremely murky, dangerous underwater conditions.
Wal also told me how the Diveco boat was used to help with rescuing fish trapped in the cofferdam as the water was drained out. “A zoologist from London Zoo took part ensuring the fish were netted in the correct way and freed back into the river on the other side”. Over 1,200 fish, of several different species were rescued. Here is yet further proof that there has been a spectacular renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Thames was described as “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum.
After the fish were moved to safety, the boat assisted in the removal of thousands of tons of sludge. “I could feel the prop dragging through the thick silt once the cofferdam was drained,” he added.
These are just a few of the many small workboats to be seen along the river but there are many more hidden within structures or tucked in alongside or behind bigger boats. With names like ROSIE, ALFIE, LOVELY BOUY and REBEL, they all have their own characteristics and are fun to watch. But make no mistake, their skippers need a lot of skill to handle them in the often turbulent waters of the Thames.
For more information see: https://www.tideway.london @TidewayLondon and follow @RiverLens for pictures of life on the river by an aspiring Waterman ⚓️
…the swift running currents of the central London Thames divide and stream through the constricted spaces between the embankments and beneath the bridges.
For those working along the river, they can be a useful energy-saving way of getting around and you will see all types of boats from tugs and tourist boats to kayaks skilfully taking advantage of this when they can.
Further downstream, if you’re walking by Tower Bridge, or taking a river trip to Greenwich, the Thames Barrier or beyond, you’ll not only see the usual traffic but also the occasional impressive-looking ship on a visit to London. Some come right into the heart of the City to moor alongside the permanently berthed historic HMS Belfast, which took part in the bombardment supporting the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.
Last September I was lucky enough to have been close to Tower Bridge when the bridge lifted and the sail training ship STS Lord Nelson came through. And later in the month I spotted her sister ship, sailing vessel SV Tenacious further downstream, making her way seawards past the ever-changing skyline to the east of the City.
These two elegant ships are owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, in existence for over thirty years, and their mission is “to give people of mixed abilities and circumstances the freedom to explore their ability, potential and place in the world through inclusive adventures at sea.”
No-one is disadvantaged as the ships were specially designed to be wheelchair accessible throughout. Trips have been variously described as adventurous, challenging, confidence-building and inspiring but perhaps the most revealing is a comment from one voyager “that sailing for me on these ships is the only time I feel free”, expressing a liberation from the fears and restrictions that can curtail everyday life.
In January 2019, the former Royal Mail Ship, cargo liner RMS St Helena, sailed beneath Tower Bridge, mooring next to HMS Belfast, in her new role as an ambassador for the launch of the Extreme E electric car racing series. There was something majestic and romantic seeing her among us in London after she had served the islanders of St Helena with all their needs for nearly thirty years.
She was much loved by the population and they gave her a memorable send-off in February 2018, including a last propeller inspection by the St Helena Dive Club, whose members posed underwater for a photo with the island flag. After leaving London, she sailed westwards round the coast to undergo refitting and refurbishment so as to be able to act as a movable base for each of the Extreme E races when events begin in 2021.
As I was turning to leave, a pool of reflected light unexpectedly and magically shone onto part of her starboard side and I further understood why this ship had been held in much affection.
In April 2019, the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza came to London to launch a year long Pole to Pole expedition ‘Protect the Oceans’ from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to highlight the many threats facing our oceans and to campaign for a Global Oceans treaty at the UN. It was a timely visit as climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and deep sea mining have been making the news with television programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ and the recent demonstrations in central London by the pressure group ‘Extinction Rebellion’.
Find out more and see when ships are due into central London: www.towerbridge.org.uk
And for detailed information on shipping movements see The Port of London Authority: www.pla.uk
The Thames has inspired countless creative works of art but Jason deCaires Taylor went further and actually harnessed the tides to complete his sculpture.
Known particularly for the ever-evolving sculptures of his beautiful, mysterious underwater museums, deCaires Taylor’s work has appeared all over the world. His strong emphasis on the environment and our duty to preserve it for the future struck a chord when his installation The Rising Tide came to London in September 2015.
The Rising Tide, was commissioned by Totally Thames as part of their “Festival of the Thames”. Four life-sized horses each ridden bareback, two by young people facing forward, and two by suited older men, their body language reflecting indifference and their eyes averted from, or seemingly closed to the world. The horses were modelled on sturdy, traditional working horses but their heads were depicted as oil well pumps, known as horse-head pumps.
Installed for one month on Vauxhall beach, the sculptures were yet another manifestation of the growing concern with the effects of climate change attributed, among other reasons, to our dependence on fossil fuels. A concern which has continued to grow and intensify with more direct action around the world in recent weeks. Curiously, as they were made four years ago, the young girl seems to bear a slight resemblance to the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. And, as if prophetically, deCaires Taylor said of the two young riders when the sculptures were installed, that “There is a sign of optimism in the children, who are able to inflict change.”
There may have been other considerations but their setting within the sight of the Houses of Parliament, added weight to the message that deCaires Taylor was trying to bring home to those in power: that their decisions affect the future of our planet.
After design and artistic considerations, the sculptures had to be strong enough to withstand the force of the tides, so they were made of stainless steel, pH neutral high-density marine cement, basalt and aggregates. They were transported along to river to Vauxhall by barge. Just as there is something new to discover on every visit to the river, so no two views of the sculptures were the same. Reflections, light, shadows and the ebb and flow of the tides meant that the sculptures themselves were in a constant and beguiling state of flux.
For more information about Jason deCaires Taylor see: