… watching herring gulls on the foreshore

Daily walks in Victoria Tower Gardens by the river Thames have often included a low-tide show on the foreshore by resident herring gulls, always interesting and often amusing to watch, and a welcome distraction from the follies taking place in a Neo-Gothic landmark close by.

Favourite herring gull, Bonzo, in winter plumage.

Gulls are bight intelligent birds, exploiting any easy feeding opportunities they come across, which is why they’ve become lightening-strike chip and ice cream thieves in some coastal towns, passing on their knowledge to the next generation. We have hand fed three of them along the embankment wall, on and off during the past year and they clearly hadn’t received instructions from their parents. They were hesitant and gentle, and it took time to build up trust. At one stage, the gull we nicknamed Bonzo, used to appear expectantly on the wall as soon it caught sight of us. We were always careful to give only a few small pieces of bread as the Thames, you will see below, now has a good supply of natural food. However, the gull in the image immediately below, having picked a yew twig out of the water, seems to be simply playing with it.

Immature gull with a yew tree twig.
Gull still holding yew tree twig.

But there’s real food on the foreshore. For those of you who don’t know this, the Thames was declared “biologically dead’ by the Natural History Museum in 1957 and now, though still at risk from overflow sewage after storms, as has been the case recently, it is teeming with life. Herring gulls can be seen picking up and eating crabs and all kinds of shellfish, dropping the latter onto hard ground in order to crack them open, a skill passed on from one generation to the next. They catch some fish, and we’ve even seen one catching but unsurprisingly, failing to eat an eel. However, before young gulls attempt to practice what they’re gradually learning, they still want to be fed, pursuing their parents and squeaking a lot.

Parent determinedly ignoring its pursuing offspring.
Immature gull with a crab.
Gull about to fly off with its cockle shell, ready to drop it onto an old concrete pier, visible at low tide.
Gull in the air about to swoop up before dropping its shell.
Another gull with a cockle shell.
Young gull looking for somewhere to break open its shell.
Young gull trying to break its shell. Close by, envious eyes look on.
A satisfied gull.
Drinking from the river. With the help of special glands, gulls can drink salt water.
If you look carefully, you’ll see that this young gull is taking on a large eel, which in the end it had to drop.

The Port of London Authority has a Nature guide here and London’s new 25 km ‘Super Sewer’ Tideway, on time for completion in 2025, should intercept any spillage and “clean up our river for the good of the city, its wildlife and everyone.” Hopefully it will. And hopefully, bearing in mind recent shocking news, their example will be followed by others, if not voluntarily, then by law…

Young herring gull.

Notes on Herring Gulls
Larus argentatus
Their plumage takes four years to reach its adult state.
In the first year the birds are mottled brown all over; in the second they are mottled brown with some grey on the back; in the third they have more grey on the back and more white on the head and breast.
In winter their plumage changes and they have dark streaks on their heads and necks.
Juvenile birds have mostly black beaks and mature birds have a red spot on the lower part of their bill, which chicks peck at when they want to be fed. According to research by naturalist Dr. Niko Tinbergen, “chicks will peck at any long yellow thing with a red spot in order to get food,” so that they are born with an instinctive preference for their parents’ bills.
Their legs are flesh coloured at any age.
Their average lifespan is 12 years, though some have been known to live for as long as 30 years.

Conservation status of Herring Gulls in the UK
They are red-listed as a ‘threatened species’, as there has been a strong decline in both the breeding and wintering populations. (RSPB Handbook of British Birds, 2021)
See also: Birds of Conservation

Further information
Holden, Peter and Gregory, Richard: RSPB Handbook of British Birds, Bloomsbury, 2021
Herring Gull Identification: Bird Spot
The Wildlife Trusts: ‘How to identify gulls’


…along the central London Thames Embankments

So much a part of the scenery, yet often only featuring in the background of photos, the elegant lanterns lining the Thames deserve a closer look by day and by night. From the Chelsea Embankment, downstream along the Albert and Victoria Embankments to the Tower of London, here are some of the lamps that have caught my attention.

The most famous design, most widely seen, is the ‘dolphin’ lamp, designed by George Vulliamy, chief architect to the Metropolitan Board of Works from 1861-86, used for the lamps between Vauxhall and Blackfriars Bridges on the South Bank, and along the Victoria Embankment on the north side of the river.
However, beginning along the Chelsea Embankment are the lamps designed by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, one of the two designs chosen by architects, experts and the public after consultation. Paul Dobraszczyk explains the background to this in his article ‘The Thames Embankment Lamps’, with an illustration of the two designs eventually chosen. A elaborate third design, by Coalbrookdale, was considered less suitable for the multiple reproduction planned along the embankments, though one example exists close to Albert Bridge in Chelsea.
The majority of the lamps were manufactured in 1870 and set in place on the Victoria Embankment and part of the Albert Embankment but if you look closely, you will see that some later additions are dated 1964, and replicas were added to the rest of the Albert Embankment to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

Bazalgette’s lamps along the Chelsea Embankment, with Albert Bridge in the distance.
Close up of a Chelsea Embankment lamp.
The base of Bazalgette’s Chelsea lamp, ‘comprising bent lions’ legs and paws’.
The Coalbrookdale lamp close to Albert Bridge, its elaborate design was turned down in favour of Bazalgette’s and Vulliamy’s simpler designs, easier to reproduce in number.
A series of Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps stretching upstream from Lambeth Bridge along the Albert Embankment.
Vulliamy’s elegant dolphin lamps stretching downstream along the Albert Embankment towards Westminster Bridge and the London Eye.
Close-up of one of Vulliamy’s Albert Embankment lamps.
Cast iron ornamental lamps on the riverside terrace at the Palace of Westminster.
Vulliamy’s lamps on Victoria Embankment, some missing their globes, presumably taken away for restoration..
A closer look at Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps on the Victoria Embankment, with the RAF Memorial in the background.
Victoria Embankment lamp close by the RAF Memorial’s golden eagle watching over the river.
The Queen’s Walk on the way to Gabriel’s Wharf, leading to Blackfriars Bridge, with with base of some 1977 replica lamps inscribed with ‘EIIR’ in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee
One of the lamps cast in 1964 with Neptune in the centre, his trident on the right and the caduceus, Hermes’s winged staff, with two intertwined snakes on the left.
Southbank lamps at night seen from Jubilee Bridge. When the firm DW Windsor was appointed to carry out their restoration they had to ensure that “light be directed onto the walkways and not allowed to spill backwards” so as to protect life in the river.
Vulliamy’s lamps on the South Bank looking towards the Palace of Westminster.
Close up of a South Bank lamp.
One of Vulliamy’s lamps looking out over a busy river.
Riverside lamps by William Sugg & Co. at the Tower of London.

There are other lamps along the central London Thames and among them, visitors to the Tower of London will notice the blue lamps both in front of the Tower, further upstream, and along the road leading up to Tower Bridge.

One of the William Sugg & Co.’s riverside lamps at the Tower of London.

Yet it is the Vulliamy dolphin lamps that hold our attention. They were a bold statement made in a more confident age and even though that confidence has for the most part ebbed away, their design, with its cultural references and satisfying proportions, makes them worthy of their iconic status along the central London banks of the Thames.

Dolphin’ or ‘Sturgeon’ lamps…
There are different views on this.
All seem to agree that Vulliamy’s designs were inspired by statues of dolphins he saw at the Fontana de Nettuno in the Piazza del Popolo, and elsewhere in Rome but some argue that as the statues do not resemble dolphins as we know them, dolphins being mammals not fish, they are possibly modelled on sturgeon. However there does exist a dolphin fish, also known as maki maki or dorado, which might have possibly have been the orignal inspiration for the Italian sculptors. In any case, search “dolphins in European sculpture”, and you will come across many images of 17th-century scaled dolphins closely resembling those of Vulliamy’s lamps.

Close up of one of Vulliamy’s dolphins, with the emblem of the Metropolitan Board of Works below.

British Heritage is of the same mind writing that the design of lamps on one section of the Thames Embankment represents dolphins: “At intervals along the Albert Embankment river wall between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges, the thirty-six cast iron lamp standards are made of interlinked dolphins writhing around a fluted, wreathed column with globular lamp holder and crown finial on tall granite plinths, holding marine trophies.” They add that the “bases are inscribed alternately ‘1870 and VIC REG and also (faintly) Masefield & Co Founder, C. Vulliamy, archt.”

And for Paul Dobraszczyk, lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, Vulliamy’s Thames-side lamps are simply known as “dolphin lamps”.

A final point worth noting is that scaled dolphins have also been widely represented in different forms on coats of arms. In 1909, Arthur Charles Fox-Davis writes: “The heraldic representations of the Dolphin are strangely dissimilar from the real creature, and also show amongst themselves a wide variety and latitude.”

Main sources and further information
Dobraszczyk, Paul: Representing the Nation The Thames Embankment Lamps, May 2012
Fox-Davis, Charles: A Complete Guide to Heraldry, 1909
Historic England entry
William Sugg & Co. Lighting around London.
D.W. Windsor Restoration of Lamps on the South Bank