Now, then…

…and hopefully again soon, the sightseeing and party boats will take to the river once more.

Having been restricted to our local area for walks at the beginning of lockdown, a visit to Victoria Tower Gardens for my husband and me naturally became part of the daily routine. And the stretch of river between Westminster and Lambeth Bridges became our horizon. While the key services of the Cory waste removal tugs, the Port of London Authority and Police vessels carried on as usual, joined later by tugs and other boats involved with building works upstream, the party and sightseeing boats in this section were tied up, out of action. Immobile. And we got to know them. They are so much a part of normal life on the river that I’ve gone back in time, through pictures taken last year, to give a glimpse of how things were for some of the boats in this small group before Covid, and to show how I hope life will return for them as soon as possible.

The CONNAUGHT and the QUEEN ELIZABETH, in the picture above, moored on the east bank of the Thames, close to Westminster Bridge are both owned by Colliers Launches in Twickenham, who also own the PRINCESS FREDA, now back at work on hourly round trips from Richmond to Teddington Lock.

M.V. QUEEN ELIZABETH passing under Lambeth bridge towards Westminster, passengers to the fore, August 2019
M.V. CONNAUGHT heading towards Lambeth Bridge, June 2019

Just upstream from the Colliers’ boats, the mooring in front of the old St. Thomas’ Hospital buildings had a number of *visitors* during lockdown including M.V.s MERCURIA, CHAY BLYTH and MERCEDES, who remained there for much of the time. During the month of July there was more movement as party boat and sightseeing companies began to sense and to prepare for, an easing of lockdown. Later visits to this Westminster mooring included M.V.s SARPEDON and SAPELE.

M.V.s MERCURIA, CHAY BLYTH and hiding, MERCEDES, at rest during lockdown as a Police RIB slices past distorting reflections
The Captain of M.V. MERCURIA negotiates the complexities of a fast-flowing Thames at the Blackfriars Bridges, September 2019
M.V MERCURIA passes the Tower of London, April 2019
M.V. CHAY BLYTH cruising past the old Anchor Brewery near Tower Bridge, October 2019
M.V. MERCEDES turns from her mooring opposite Lambeth Palace to head downstream, January 2019
M.V. SARPEDON heading upstream from the Golden Jubilee and Hungerford Bridges, April 2019
M.V. SAPELE heading downstream past H.M.S. BELFAST, September 2019

The Thames Marine Services fixed barge in Westminster had a number of *guests* too, among them: M.V.s HOLLYWOOD and THOMAS DOGGETT; both familiar sights on the river carrying their passengers along the Thames to show them famous London landmarks from a different perspective.

M.V. HOLLYWOOD spent some time during lockdown moored by the Thames Marine Services fixed barge at Westminster
M.V. HOLLYWOOD arriving at St. Katharine Pier, April 2019
M.V. THOMAS DOGGETT passing H.M.S BELFAST. In the background, known across the world: Tower Bridge, April 2019

The smartly liveried Thames Cruises fleet, based at Lambeth Pier by the bridge, had a few discreet changeovers as time went on but as with the other cruise companies, all commercial activities ceased at the beginning of lockdown.

Thames Cruises M.V.s VISCOUNTESS, THAMES PRINCESS and RIVER PRINCESS during lockdown, moored at their Lambeth Pier home
M.V. OLD LONDON returning to her mooring, September 2019
M.V. VISCOUNTESS heading towards Westminster Bridge, August 2019

The last group of boats moored to fixed barges between Westminster and Lambeth Bridges is on the west bank of the river and is made up of M.V. KINGWOOD, neglected, seemingly out of commission, and M.V.s VALULLA, MERCIA and SUERITA.

M.V.s KINGWOOD, VALULLA, MERCIA and SUERITA moored close to Lambeth Bridge thoughout lockdown
M.V. MERCIA turning in front of the Palace of Westminster, August 2019
M.V. VALULLA negotiating a slightly choppy Thames near Tower Bridge, September 2019

There has been a noticeable increase in party and sightseeing boat activity in the Westminster to Lambeth Bridge section of the Thames coinciding with our most recent July walks. Of course movements were taking place at other times and we’ve been arriving in Victoria Tower Gardens to find boats moved around, which was not the case at the beginning of lockdown.

City Cruises are crossing the Westminster frontiers more and more, particularly cruising downstream past the sights of London. The Thames Clippers , now in partnership with Uber, have been running a regular commuting and sight-seeing service since the middle of June. And in the last week of July several boats began to reappear including the London Eye Cruise boat ‘Silver Bonito’ and the London Party Boats. All are carefully adapted to be Covid-secure. Tickets have to be booked online but the cruises are not crowded so now would be a good time to pay London and the Thames a visit.

Hopefully with care and clear, unambiguous government advice, life on the river will return to some greater semblance of normality before long. So many livelihoods depend upon it…

SILVER BONITO and a newly liveried Thames Clipper passing by each other at Westminster Bridge, July 2020

Further information
‘Operation Dynamo’: a very interesting film by Liquid Highway featuring some of the boats above.
‘Thames Watermen and Ferries’ from The history of the Port of London by Peter Stone, 2017.
As things are still unsettled, information on particular boats and their Covid precautions is best discovered by typing their names into a search engine and following any links.

A hesitant return…

Navigating the easing of lockdown

Since the middle of March, Victoria Tower Gardens and its stretch of the Thames has been a place of refuge. A place where we have been lucky enough to feel sheltered from the dangers and fear incited by the spread of Covid-19. With the falling number of cases and the easing of restrictions, we have ventured slightly further afield and, since the beginning of July have been able to spend more time in the gardens watching the river slowly coming to life.

Colliers Launches have been running circular cruises from Richmond to Teddington Lock and back, with PRINCESS FREDA but so far the only boats of theirs that we can see every day, the CONNAUGHT and the QUEEN ELIZABETH have remained quietly but assuredly frustratingly, at anchor in Westminster, where though they have been *visited* on occasions by PRINCESS FREDA.

PRINCESS FREDA seen from Victoria Tower Gardens in the happier days of July 2019

However, we’ve been able to see Thames Clippers back on the river since the middle of June, slowly building up passenger numbers and City Cruises, mostly working downstream from Westminster Bridge. Both have taken the required precautions to make their vessels Covid secure and, as cautious confidence returns so we have observed an increase in passengers.

Passengers, correctly masked, enjoying London’s classic views from CYCLONE clipper
City Cruises MILLENNIUM TIME coming close to the Victoria Tower Gardens embankment in Westminster
CITY GAMMA with passengers enjoying the sights of central London

At the same time RIB tours are increasing with Thames Rockets, Thames RIB Experience and, though I haven’t seen Thames Jet on this stretch of the river yet, they are all providing exciting views of London from the water. And sometimes at white knuckle speed.

A member of the Thames Rockets crew tells of history, architecture, and skulduggery in the Palace of Westminster
Thames Rib Experience trips are a good way to see London from a different perspective

RIBs are also an effective, high-speed way of reacting to an emergency, so an important asset for the Police. We’ve seen them checking security along the river and occasionally seen them taking part in high-speed exercises.

Police RIB heading downstream towards Westminster Bridge
Looking out over the river from Victoria Tower Gardens embankment, a fearless Egyptian goose

Slowly returning to pre-lockdown routines, tugs and their tows were evidence of greater activity on building sites upstream, particularly on the Tideway tunnel, with the delivery of tunnel segments, building materials, and the removal of spoil.

GPS tug INDIA heading upstream with a cargo of aggregates
A well judged close shave with Westminster Bridge… GPS tug INDIA pushing a barge of spoil downstream
Tug DEVOUT pushing a barge of tunnel segments upstream for the Tideway project

As well as the increase in commercial activity, Port of London vessels were carrying on with their normal functions, such as surveying channels, checking vessels, organising the clearing of potentially dangerous debris, and patrolling the ninety-five mile stretch of the tidal Thames.

Port of London survey vessel THAME working along the Westminster and Lambeth stretch of the Thames
Port of London vessel BARNES patrolling the tidal Thames, as she has been doing throughout the lockdown

Always on stand-by and on occasional patrols for testing and training, are the London Brigade fire rescue boats, FIRE DART and FIRE FLASH.

London Fire Brigade rescue vessel FIRE FLASH heading back to base

And as ever, the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police, with their Targa fast response vessels, are on constant watch along the river. If you walk for more than a short while along the banks of the central London Thames, you are almost bound to see one of them. Sometimes cruising in watch mode, sometimes speeding on a ‘shout’ to deal with a crime or to take part in a training exercise. However, if there are potential casualties involved, they will work with an RNLI crew from one the the four Thames stations, Tower RNLI being one of the busiest.

MPS Marine Policing Unit vessel THAMES RESERVE on patrol
MV PRINCESS FREDA, already back at work, making her way home to her mooring at Richmond after a refuelling stop at Westminster

The number of new Covid cases is significantly reduced but everyone is rightly cautious and the full return of most pleasure and party boat cruises still seems a little way off. Though social distancing can be organised on an outside deck for some, it will be more difficult to manage inside spaces in a way that would be economically viable. Added to this, there are real fears of a second Covid spike, so a return to how life was anything like before will have to be carefully orchestrated.

Further information
Colliers Launches
City Cruises
Thames Clippers
To find out more history of the vessels on the Thames see YouTube channel : The Liquid Highway

From lockdown to liberty – hopefully…

Images of the Thames from our daily lockdown walks in Victoria Tower Gardens: May and June, 2020

It turns out that the month of May was the sunniest and driest May since 1957, so some of these photos of the steady return to life on the Thames might seem impossibly blue and sunny. But the daily *lockdown* walks I made with my husband in Victoria Tower Gardens really were mostly that bright.

A Royal Parks employee disinfecting the embankment wall

Victoria Tower Gardens, listed as Grade II by Historic England, are maintained by The Royal Parks, whose staff have been on duty throughout the Covid lockdown, organising clear signage, cleaning benches, disinfecting walls, and tending the plants and monuments. It was reassuring to know that every care was being taken to protect visitors to the gardens, where calm and shade helped to bring some relief from the relentless bad news.

The Buxton Memorial, Victoria Tower Gardens, with Lambeth Bridge in the background.

Among the monuments in their care is The Buxton Memorial, built to commemorate the abolition of slavery, and one of the focal points of the gardens. For those that knew its history, it acquired an extra significance this summer with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, though the monument itself is actually a homage to those who worked tirelessly to end the cruel trade rather than to the victims themselves.

The views of the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are what make these gardens unique and much appreciated by all who come here, and on May 8th, by sheer chance, I was able to catch the Red Arrows as they flew past the Victoria Tower in perfect formation as part of this year’s VE Day anniversary celebrations. It was the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe and though the Red Arrows could still take part, many of the other planned events were cancelled or curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Red Arrows as they flew towards Buckingham Palace, past the Palace of Westminster and Victoria Tower, on May 8, 2020

However, our eyes were mostly trained on the river, another of Victoria Tower Gardens’ attractions, as we walked or sat on one of the riverside benches, and it was here, that we began to notice further signs of river life getting back to normal. Slowly.

Thames Marine Services’ motorised fuel tanker HEIKO visiting their static refuelling barge at Westminster

During our short visits we could see from passing barges loaded with building material that work held in abeyance from the start of lockdown, apart from essential safety checks and maintenance, was beginning to restart on construction sites further upstream, and on the £5 billion Thames Tideway London Super Sewer .

GPS tug ANGLIA at Westminster, side-towing a barge of aggregate upstream
Cory tug RECOVERY towing barges of empty waste containers upstream to their collection depots

Cory tugs and their crews, key workers on the river, who carried on with their routine, essential for London’s health and hygiene throughout the lockdown, paid tribute to fellow key workers in the NHS and particularly to those in St. Thomas’ Hospital, overlooking the river at Westminster. Their message on a banner fixed to a barge was widely seen along the Thames.

Towed by Cory tug RECLAIM, a message of thanks was displayed for the NHS

As they have done since the beginning of lockdown, the Port of London and Marine Police vessels continued with their regular patrols. The London Fire Brigade boats FIRE FLASH and FIRE DART were on permanent standby, keeping their equipment regularly serviced and tested. Also on permanent standby, as they are throughout the year, were the four Thames RNLI stations at Gravesend, Tower, Chiswick, and Teddington. Tower Station is just visible by Waterloo Bridge from Victoria Tower Gardens but though busy, their crews were not called on during our walks.

A Police launch stops at the Lambeth Fire Boat station as one of the boats tests a hose

It was sad to see the pleasure and tourist boats, usually cruising or partying along the river, immobile all this time, moored in their allotted places. Occasionally a workboat would come by one of the boats and a crew member or two would board, to check things over.

Wind on May 11, roughing up the river a little on one of the rare stormy days
Workboat MERIDIAN on a mission upstream
Workboat JOANNIE B attending to MV THOMAS DOGGETT at the Thames Marine Services’ fixed barge at Westminster
MV PRINCESS FREDA returning after a meeting with the press to publicise their crowdfunding campaign

At the very end of April, family business Colliers Launches, owners of a Thames boat hire company at Richmond, decided that they needed support to keep afloat and dispatched their vessel PRINCESS FREDA to spearhead publicity for their crowdfunding campaign and I spotted her as she returned from her meetings. She has been back out on the river running circular cruises from Richmond since July 4th.

Woods’ Silver Fleet vessel SILVER SOCKEYE out on manoeuvres

However, towards the end of May, there was noticeably more activity on the river. Tourist boats were being moved around to different moorings for checks and maintenance and there was an increase in the transportation of building materials and of spoil.

MV HOLLYWOOD setting off after a spot of maintenance
Port of London vessel DRIFTWOOD II attending to vessels moored close to Lambeth Bridge
A small increase in Thames traffic as Port of London tug IMPULSE passes new Thames Limo BOURNE
General cargo vessel POLLA ROSE, one of the larger vessels on this stretch of the Thames, approaching Lambeth Bridge

The Thames Clippers have been back out on the river since June 14, and City Cruises returned to service at the beginning of July. Colliers Launches have started their 45 minute circular trips from Richmond. They have all stringently followed government guidelines to make their vessels safe. Now the government has to show, with large-scale testing, easily accessible tracing and hotspot information, that it is safe for the public to venture out to shop, to pursue their interests, and to travel and move around with confidence. Let’s hope they will provide the reassurance needed…

And so the wheel, motionless for weeks, will turn again soon and the sleeping vessels will awaken

Lockdown – a daily walk…

… in local park Victoria Tower Gardens
March 23 – April 30, 2020

In a somewhat belated effort by our government to control the spread of the deadly virus Covid-19, our world changed overnight. ‘Lockdown’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘super-spreader’ entered the everyday lexicon. Advertisements warning that we were in a state of “National Emergency” now flooded the media. Movements were restricted to essentials: among them we were allowed to exercise once a day in a local area or park as long as the newly-introduced two-metre rule of separation was respected.

We were lucky. Close by are the lovely Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Palace of Westminster by the Thames. Open to all, they were particularly appreciated at this time by the many residents here without gardens. My husband and I have walked there every morning since lockdown and here are some of pictures to illustrate our section of the river during that time and what, if anything was happening there.

Clear water at low tide at Lambeth Bridge

The first thing we noticed was the absence of traffic noise, usually busy rumbling over Lambeth and Westminster Bridges, and along Millbank behind us. No planes overhead either. The relief of a silence in which we could hear the rustling of leaves, the occasional splash of water along the shore, and much birdsong: tuneful blackbirds taking us back to childhood country summers, blue tits hidden among the shrubberies, raucous crows and intermittent high-pitched squeaks from green parakeets.

Clean Thames beach on the Victoria Tower Gardens foreshore
Victoria Tower Gardens, a much loved haven of peace overlooking the Thames
The Royal Parks came up with good signage to advise and protect the public so that London parks could be kept open

‘Social distancing’ was the key message. Group gatherings were not allowed and everyone had to stay at least two metres apart to cut down the risk of infection. Another sign read: “If you do not adhere to these guidelines, we will have no choice but to close the parks.” These rules were quite closely, but not aggressively, policed in Victoria Tower Gardens as there were security considerations due to their proximity to Parliament. The rules were followed and the park remained open.

The Thames Marine Services’ fixed barge at Westminster

The Thames Marine Services’ static refuelling barge, there to provide fuel and lubricants, was bereft of clients, as it floated in the newly imposed stillness.

From the first lockdown days, our hour-long visits seemed to coincide with one of the Metropolitan Marine Policing Unit patrols, and often one of the London Port Authority vessels, overseeing the safety of the river. Both performing vital services, they could be seen as usual from the very beginning of the restrictions.

Police launch NINA MACKAY II on patrol
Port of London vessel BARNES on patrol, gently swishing through the water as she passed

Our walks often coincided with the Cory, tugs too, as they were either towing barges of bright yellow empty containers upstream to collect waste from their depots, or towing loaded containers downstream to their ‘Energy from Waste’ facility at Belvedere. The collection of domestic rubbish, an essential service for the health of our city, continued as usual from Westminster and elsewhere, and its transportation along the river was kept going as before.

Cory tug RESOURCE towing empty containers upstream to collect London’s rubbish from their depots

There seemed to be more wildlife than usual. Cormorants were robustly defending their Palace of Westminster markers as they have been doing for a long while but there were more geese and ducks on the foreshore.

A cormorant, one of many that now enjoy fishing in the Thames
Immature gulls on the remains of a once-used jetty when the site of Victoria Tower Gardens was the home of many riverside businesses and warehouses
A pair of greylag geese pausing among water-rounded rubble from London’s past

Towards the middle of April, nearly a month into lockdown, there were more signs of boat life on the river. Boats dealing with river safety and obstacle clearance, or maintenance of building works further upstream, began to appear.

EMILIA D followed by tug DEVOUT
HEIKO a Thames Marine Services motorised fuel tanker heading upstream
M.P.V. BULLDOG, a CPBS multi-purpose vessel that can “tow, push. fetch and carry”.

These images are simple snapshots of the activity seen during our *permitted* hour-long visits to Victoria Tower Gardens. Depending on the tides and the time of day, there were of course other essential movements on the river. Yet while we were there resting beneath the plane trees, for the most part there was an overriding sense of calm serving as a counterbalance to the frightening daily statistics of new infections and deaths from the Coronavirus pandemic that was sweeping the country. We were not alone in being grateful that Victoria Tower Gardens, a very special park, was carefully maintained and kept open throughout.

Views of calm and diffused reflections seen from Victoria Tower Gardens

Further information:
Many others have documented their impressions of lockdown including:
Photographer Bill Green who has a special portfolio on: “Locked Down London”.
Photographer Andrew Wilson in an article for Time & Leisure Weekend explores the effect of lockdown on nature in the London area of Barnes.

Lockdown Thames

Lockdown views along the river from Richmond to Tower Bridge and beyond…

These last few weeks of a restrictive but necessary lockdown have had their difficulties, hardships, uncertainties, and raw grief but for me there has been one consolation, a respite from all this: the river Thames. Though I have been limited to one part of the embankment in central London for my own walks, thanks to the lovely pictures posted by friends and followers on Twitter, I’ve been able to voyage virtually along the length of the river from Richmond to Tower Bridge and beyond. Now these friends have kindly allowed me to share the journey with you.

Richmond at sunrise ©Astrid Tontson

Astrid Tontson is a gifted, sensitive photographer with a talent for capturing the beauty of nature around her. You can follow her on Instagram and watch her wonderful, calming Soul Food videos, particularly in Bushy Park, and you can follow her on Twitter: @Astrid_Tontson

From Radnor Gardens ©Ruth Wadey

Based in Twickenham, Ruth Wadey is an artist and photographer whose BBC Weather Watcher photographs often feature on their 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

Barnes Railway Bridge ©Kristi Tange

An American living in London, Kristi Tange, a keen photographer, has particularly enjoyed recording scenes and nature around the Thames in the Hammersmith and Barnes areas during lockdown. She has, as have others, captured images of our sunny and dry spring. You can follow her on Twitter @KristiTange

The exceptional stillness of the river temporarily broken at Lambeth Bridge by Port of London vessel BARNES on patrol ©Patricia Stoughton

All river traffic came to a standstill on March 23rd, 2020, save for regular Port of London and Police patrols, RNLI rescues, and the daily removal of London’s waste by the Cory tugs.

Looking downstream from Westminster Bridge, one of the lamps designed by Sir Charles Barry ©MarkRoche

Based in London Mark Roche specialises in landscape and street photography. Having a passion “for capturing images that excite and draw you in”, he enjoys sharing his ideas and collaborating with others. You can follow him on Twitter @Markroche114

Tower Bridge ©Jan Perkins (Wilson)

Longtime resident of Rotherhithe Jan Perkins, remarked on the deserted riverside as she walked towards Tower Bridge: “Sad times, as this would have packed with all sorts right now.” You can follow her on Twitter @jan1959john

Looking east from Wapping ©Simon Cardy

Simon Cardy is a meteorologist based in Wapping, specialising in weather impacts for the Energy Industry. He loves London and takes striking pictures of the river Thames and London’s skyline. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king

Thames Clippers waiting for their return to service on June 15th ©Bill Green

Overall winner of The Thames Lens photography competition in 2018, Bill Green has been inspired for over twenty years by the river and the distinctive architecture through which it ebbs and flows. Explore his website Bill Green Photography and follow him on Twitter @ThamesPhoto

View towards the Isle of Dogs ©Wal Daly-Smith

Wal Daly-Smith is 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 giving you a real feeling of what it’s like to be working on the water. See some of his views of the Thames in “From the River”.

Cory tug towing barge of waste-filled containers downstream ©Michelle Buchan

From the Isle of Dogs, Michelle Buchan has stunning views over the Thames, London, and big, open skies further to the west. You can often see her images of striking sunsets on Twitter @M_Buchan

At first almost imperceptible, now gaining momentum, life is returning to the river albeit slowly. Back in May, tugs began towing or pushing barges for work on London’s Tideway super sewer, and on Monday, June 15, the Thames Clippers will take to the river again. But for the strictest weeks of lockdown only a few vital movements took place. Cory tugs removed London’s waste from their riverside depots, Port of London vessels watched over their tidal reaches, and the Metropolitan River Police launches patrolled their beat. On standby, ready to respond to any emergencies, were the London Fire Brigade Fire Rescue boats and the RNLI lifeboats at Gravesend, Tower, Chiswick and Teddington. All these were visible to many from their locked-down houses, apartments or permitted riverside walks but unseen by most, was the vital work carried out by the Port of London Authority, keeping our City supplied throughout the crisis. We owe them all thanks.