Yellow floating beach…

…a sought after Westminster stopover.

Out on the Thames, just opposite our favourite bench on the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment, floats a yellow, Palace of Westminster boundary marker. Rocking and swaying with the movements of the tides it has become a convenient stopping place, perch, or sunspot for a number of birds and, to the delight of those who have been lucky enough to see them, a pair of seals.

Cormorant arrives

Since the return of of life to the Thames after its famously having been declared “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum in 1958, so much progress has been made that there are now said to be around 125 species of fish in the tidal river and estuary. There are plenty of eels along Lambeth Reach, as well as elsewhere along the tidal Thames, and cormorants make the most of them.

Time for a stretch
A pair of cormorants opening out their wings to dry
Immature gull arrives on scene and has a furtive look at a cormorant busily preening itself
Seen you…
Immature gull
Young herring gull Bonzo, whose fans have been left bereft since its departure
A pair of Mallards making themselves at home
Enjoying the view
Crow arrives with a crust of bread and begins to soften it in water on the marker
Crow thoroughly soaking its bread
A pair of Egyptian geese on an inspection tour
Egyptian goose rocked by the tide
A first sighting of a pair of seals having a rest
Seal inspecting the facilities
Contented seal
Seals managing to stay on the marker despite being rocked by the tide

There are a good number of discarded shells on the Victoria Tower Gardens’ foreshore, evidence of life in the river. I’ve seen gulls and crows breaking shells open, and even watched a crow eating a small crab but bigger fish are more difficult to see. However, here are two pictures of successful river *residents* each with an eel meal…

Seal wrestling with and eating an eel
Cormorant subduing and about to eat an eel
Unoccupied marker awaiting visitors, rocked by the wash waves of a passing boat

Further Information
Port of London Authority Marine Mammals in the Tidal Thames
Seal Population in the river Thames: BBC
ZSL Thames Marine Mammal Map

The International Memorial to Seafarers

A striking memorial sculpture on the Albert Embankment.

It’s an almost surreal experience walking or driving past riverside offices along the Thames towards Lambeth Bridge from the south, when the bows of a ship emerge suddenly from an office building: a ten tonne, seven metre high bronze vessel, with a seafarer on the prow. Appropriately sited, this monumental sculpture, the Seafarers’ Memorial, stands outside the headquarters of The International Maritime Organization, the only branch of the United Nations to have its main offices in London.

The Seafarers’ Memorial by Michael Sandle

The sculpture, dedicated to seafarers all over the world was commissioned by the International Maritime Organization to mark their 50th anniversary. The aim was to highlight “the pivotal role seafaring plays in world trade […] and to serve as a memorial to all seafarers who have been lost at sea.” Distinguished sculptor Michael Sandle created the winning design featuring a cargo ship. Quoted in an article on the IMO website, he explained “I have chosen a ship because it signals immediately and unmistakably what the Organization is about.” The work was unveiled on September 27, 2001.

The International Maritime Organisation headquarters on the Albert Embankment of the Thames, close to Lambeth Bridge

The finance for the memorial came from a Trust Fund established to mark the 50th anniversary of the IMO, and was one of several projects running at the time. The International Transport Worker’s Federation was a major contributor and their General Secretary, David Cockcroft said that he welcomed the memorial and hoped it would remind people “of the hazards faced daily by the world’s seafarers.”

Plaque on side of the sculpture marking the names of the foundry, Morris Singer Ltd. and the sculpter, Michael Sandle
View from side
Seafarer in position, ready to throw a line

In his submission to the IMO Committee responsible for choosing the winning design for the memorial, Michael Sandle wrote “The crew member, the ‘seafarer’ standing on the prow, about to throw a line, is dressed as a contemporary marine operative because there are ships like this still in service.”

Plaque on side of the sculpture marking the date of it’s unveiling on September 27, 2001 in Arabic, Chinese and English

Present at the unveiling ceremony, among the many dignitaries, including John Prescott the then UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, was the International Maritime Organization’s Secretary-General, William O’Neil, who as he unveiled the sculpture, summed up its significance saying, “The ship has a timeless air and the figure – rugged, reliable, and dependable – embodies all the qualities that have been demanded of seafarers throughout history.”
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IMO’s Mission Statement
“The mission of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as a United Nations specialized agency is to promote safe, secure, environmentally sound, efficient and sustainable shipping through cooperation. This will be accomplished by adopting the highest practicable standards of maritime safety and security, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of pollution from ships, as well as through consideration of the related legal matters and effective implementation of IMO’s instruments with a view to their universal and uniform application.”

Sources and Further Information
Article in Church Times by Nicholas Cranfield, July, 2016.
International Maritime Organization and Brief History
In ‘Know Your London’ by Adrian Proctor: The Seafarers’ Memorial
Waymarking.com: Figurative Public Sculpture, International Seafarers Memorial
Unveiling of the sculpture in Yachting and Boating World

The Westminster Thames Tide Recorder

Usually not given a second glance, the Thames Tide Gauge Hut distinct in its bluish-green weathered copper has been a fixed part of the Thames landscape for many years. Yet the instruments set up inside are up-to-date and functional, with computerised measuring instruments and digital displays, sending information on the depth of the river at Westminster Bridge, to the Thames Barrier every fifteen minutes. The live data goes straight to the Control Room, then published online and on third party websites or apps.
Experienced skippers navigating the Thames, will know that the readings of the levels from the Westminster tide gauge are measured from the mean sea level rather than the river bed, so do not necessarily represent the actual depth of the water.

View across the river from the South Bank

The Hut is set on the Grade II listed Victoria Embankment wall. Its exterior upkeep is the responsibility of Westminster City Council and the tide reading equipment is maintained by the Environment Agency.

Looking down from Westminster Bridge
Tide hut seen from above with view across to Westminster Pier
The tide hut with Westminster Bridge in the background

Previously daubed with ugly little stickers, fly posters and graffiti, the Thames Tide Gauge Hut has recently undergone a complete exterior repair and clean by the Structures Department of FM Conway Ltd. Supervisor Jason Critchell explained in an article, published by Construct, the company’s magazine: “It had become worn over time […] In some areas the copper was down to 1 mm but we only replaced the door and one minor section.” The copper cladding had to be sanded down to remove any damage, and any replacement needed had to be “like for like, including replicating the patina of the copper”. The work was finished off by the application of a protective wax coating which will ease the Tide Hut’s future preservation and maintenance.

An image from The Wonderful Story of London; ed. Harold Wheeler; Odhams Press Ltd., London, c. 1937

Having discovered this image in the book above, I have tried to find out – and so far failed – who designed the tide monitoring hut and when it was installed. It is possible that it was set up during the construction of the Victoria Embankment, built as part of the massive development by Joseph W. Bazalgette of a sewerage system for London in the 1860s. What is certain is that it was in place by 1937…

View from steps above
Clouded windows make it difficult to read the instruments within
The Westminster tide hut part of the Thames landscape, its copper exterior maintained by Conway.

Sources and further Information
See River Levels UK and live readings at Westminster
Flood Forecaster on Twitter @AlanBarrierEA
Responsible for maintenance FM Conway Ltd
FM Conway, article in Construct Magazine
The Wonderful Story of London, ed. Harold Wheeler, Odhams Press, Ltd., c. 1937.
Film with a section on the Thames Tide Recorder showing it covered in stickers.

Standing Tall

The newly restored Elizabeth Tower standing tall above Westminster, March 22, 2022

Re-named Elizabeth Tower in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 but known world-wide as Big Ben after its famous bell, Augustus Pugin’s magnificent Neo-Gothic clock tower has undergone a major restoration.

The chimes of Big Ben, so much a part of the daily soundtrack of Westminster and beyond, fell silent on August 21st, 2017 for the protection of all those working on the tower. However, specialist mechanics ensured that the sonorous chimes rang out on the Remembrance Sundays and New Year’s Eves while the tower was encased in scaffolding.

The erection of the scaffolding by McAlpine was an extremely complex undertaking requiring more than usual specialist care. The Parliament website explains how it had to be “free-standing in order to avoid any further damage to the Tower, and the beams and boards were lifted into place one by one and built around the Tower without touching the stonework.”

As regular commuters, river users, locals, and broadcasters were able to see, this much-loved landmark slowly disappeared from view, shrouded in a web of intricate poles, planks and netting. And now the work is almost complete, you can once again see Big Ben in all its splendour from around Westminster and the Thames. Illustrated below is my record of some of the stages in the return to its pride of place in London.

Before it all began, Elizabeth Tower April 20, 2013
One of the regular cleanings of the clock faces, August 2014
August 2017, scaffolding begins to rise
November 2017, Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben, almost completely shrouded in a web of intricate scaffolding

The 3,433 cast iron roof tiles were removed and taken to a specialist workshop, where they were cleaned, repaired, or replaced if necessary. The new pieces were cast by the Hargreaves Foundry in Halifax and expertly matched to the original tiles. The Company’s ‘HF’ mark can be seen stamped on mouldings, gutters and cast iron work all across the restoration.

Almost lost to view with scaffolding and protective netting in place, leaving space for one of the clock faces, September, 2018
A closer look at the scaffolding, October 2018
Essential lighting giving the tower a festive air, December 2018

Sir Robert McAlpine said that at least one of the clock faces would be exposed through the scaffolding during the work. The face above was looking out over the Thames to see in the 2o19 New Year.

Big Ben’s scaffolding lights, adding a festive look to the Illumination of Westminster Bridge, November 2021

Little by little, and with the utmost care, removal of the scaffolding began leaving only the roof visible at this stage. Once again the tower’s metal cross and orb, with their intricate gilding work, could gleam in the sunshine.

The finely restored roof, April 2021
Scaffolding taken down to below the level of the clock faces, December 2021
The west facing clock face, January 2022

Restored to the orignal blue colour, the hands and numerals set on their white glass background give the dials of the four clock faces a softer look. All 1,296 pieces of glass were replaced with hand made opal glass by German manufacturer Glashütte Lamberts, to match and replace the glass installed in the 1950s. On arrival the 342 plates were hand cut by a British Company to fit exactly into the required shapes.

The mechanism of the clock has been painstakingly restored. It was dismantled, winched fifty-three metres to the ground and transported to the Cumbria Clock Company in Dacre for a complete overhaul. “The hundreds of wheels, bell-hammers pinions, bearings and bushes were examined, repaired, photographed, logged and painted”. As the original designers and installers did not keep detailed records of the construction of the clock, the company “has produced the first user manual and set of engineering diagrams of the mechanism for the benefit of future clock keepers.”

Details of the roof and symbols of the four British nations below, March 2022
Almost all the scaffolding has been carefully removed. February, 2022
Big Ben, also known as Elizabeth Tower in honour of our Queen, March 2022
Elizabeth Tower, or Big Ben, once again star of the Westminster skyline, March 30, 2022

There is no doubt that there has been a feeling of pride and achievement among all those involved with the restoration of Elizabeth Tower. The sense of continuity and fellowship among skilled craftspeople was also embodied in a time capsule discovered during the restoration. Dating from work carried out in the 1950s to repair WW2 bomb damage, it contained the names of everyone on the project, a newspaper, a coin and a letter referring back to an earlier time capsule left during a 1920s renovation. Adam Watrobski, principal architect of the restoration, said that “discovering the time capsule was a great moment, giving us a real sense of history, providing a tangible connection to those before us, who have worked to preserve this beautiful landmark.” And his team have left a message to those who will follow them in the future with “a list of everyone working on the restoration, messages from schoolchildren, and a copy of an order paper setting out parliamentary business for that day.”

Sources and Further Information
Film on Progress of Restoration, January 2020.
For more detail, see the Parliament website.
The Cumbria Clock Company who repaired the Great Clock.
The story of The Secret Restoration of the Big Ben clock in The House by Kate Proctor.
Article on delay of the restoration of Elizabeth Tower caused by Covid.

The RNVR makes major donation to Tower RNLI

The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Officers’ Association has donated £3.5 M to help fund a new floating Lifeboat Station for the crew at Tower RNLI, London.

The RNVR Officers’ Association’s generous donation is encouraging news for the RNLI and particularly for the Tower Station crews, who have been in need of new accommodation for some time. Not only are their living conditions cramped, the station lacks the best facilites for casualty care. Tower Lifeboat Station Manager, Kevin Maynard, explained that: “When we need to urgently carry out CPR, there’s currently no privacy from the general public walking along the bridge above.” He expressed his gratitude for the substantial donation saying that “The new Station at Tower will have an incredible impact on our crew and the casualties we care for.”

On standby for the central London Thames, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year ©Patricia Stoughton

The RNVR Officers’ Association donation will help meet the cost of one of the most crucial parts of the project, the station’s pontoon. Along with a new pontoon, the station will have up-to-date facilities such as purpose-built private spaces for casualty care, a drying room for kit and a reception area for visitors.

The legacy of the Association will live on, as will its ethos of voluntary service; its name to be prominently displayed across the new lifeboat station along with a specially inscribed bell.

Mockup image of the new RNLI Tower Lifeboat Station ©RNLI/Becky Cheers

Since setting up on the Thames in 2002 Tower Station’s lifeboats have launched more than 9,000 times, saving over 350 lives, helping not only those in danger on the water, but also those who by accident or design, find themselves in the water, or stranded on the foreshore. Tower, together with the other three RNLI tidal Thames stations – Teddington, Chiswick, and Gravesend – provide a vital service for London and it’s good to see the substantial support that they are receiving from the RNVR Officers’ Association.

Sources and further information
See article on The Royal Naval Reserve
RNLI news article.
Tower Lifeboat Station
Interview with Chris Walker in July 2019 for an insight into life on the station.