Snowy images from 2009 to wish you the best for 2021
Taken taken on February 2, 2009 these pictures are a reminder that until quite recently we used to have colder winters in London. Not as cold as the famous Frost Fairs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the river was frozen over for several weeks at a time but definitely colder than most of the past few years.
With colours standing out against the snow on the Lambeth side of the river, walkers enjoy the transformation of familiar steps, walls, lamps, benches, and pavements into new softened versions. Blemishes hidden.
These pictures are also a reminder of how much London’s skyline has crowded in upon us during the last eleven years.
As many of you know, this view of the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO world heritage site, seen across Victoria Tower Gardens, is under threat. We have been grateful for this little park during the Covid crisis as these carefully nurtured gardens have been a refuge for many living and working in the area. A place to breathe, an escape by the river from the ravages of the pandemic.
Will such snowy London pictures be a thing of the past, I wonder ? Snow, being rare in London now, always used to excite a feeling of delight before pristine white, snow-packed roadways turned into greasy, gravelly, salt-speckled, grey slush and new, untrodden snow in the parks became tracked with a tumult of footprints. The delight was obvious in January 2013 when I saw, young and not so young people, scooping snowballs from the roofs and bonnets of cars to hurl at their friends; keen photographers slip-sliding on icy roads and snow-packed pavements, to capture London in her winter guise; and children and the young at heart, making snowmen in the Royal Parks.
Yet for those working regularly on the river, snow and bitterly cold winds were rather less appealing. Waterman and Lighterman, Eric Carpenter, recalls a trip that was particularly tough: “My most vivid memory of winter on the Thames is the journey from Egypt Buoy at Egypt Bay, situated in the estuary on the Kent coast, across the tidewater to Old Haven Creek on the Essex coast. I experienced it in a force 5 gale, driving rain, and a snow storm. The tug would be “beam on” pitching and rolling, ropes, eight inches in circumference snapping like twigs. It was a journey that could be undertaken at any hour night or day”. The winter of 1963 must have been specially gruelling for everyone and Eric describes how that year “was very hard work, as the snow had to be cleared from the decks and hatches constantly. I remember using a crow bar to prise the mooring ropes apart. The river Lea was specially hard going; I remember breaking the ice to allow the lock gates to open fully.”
As I looked again at those wintery photographs from eleven years ago, when I was safely wrapped in a warm coat, scarf, and gloves, it was a timely reminder that for some, life on the river in the cold was not so comfortable. But then Thames Watermen and Lightermen are a tough breed…
End note Thank you for reading my words. Thank you also to those who have helped me with information and images for my articles. May I wish you all a happier year in 2021, and to everyone who works on, or around the Thames, especially, a return to normal life as soon as possible.
…so the much quoted saying goes. A saying that, without finding its origin, you’ll see quoted in guide books and all over the internet. However, I was told by Ben, Waterman and Lighterman of the river Thames, that the rhyme was used by Thames Watermen and “it’s been said for many years by guides on sightseeing boats.” There are further lines with slightly different wording but this last one has a punchy ring of authenticity: “When the lions are ducked, London is f…looded.”
The bronze lions’ heads, each holding a mooring ring, were sculpted by Timothy Butler in 1870 as a decorative finishing touch to the embankment built by Joseph Bazalgette over his newly created London sewer. They line stretches along both sides of the Thames Embankment in central London.
As mentioned in my earlier piece Ebb and Flow on the movement of Thames tides, the deCaires Rising Tide sculptures remained defiantly in place for a month, at times almost completely submerged by the highest tides.
The Riverside Cafe and the Tamesis Dock Bar, are two of the Thames-side venues from which you can enjoy a close encounter with the river at high tide. Of course both have exceptional views over some of London’s most famous sights but there is that extra frisson when, so close to the water, you feel afloat.
However, the lovely 18th-century Bull’s Head pub at Chiswick unfortunately doesn’t float and in December, 2019, a combination of heavy rain swelling the downstream flow and a high tide driving upstream, raised the water level over the window ledge. The window held firm but there was seepage through the brickwork below. Yet General Manager Barbara Smith is philosophical and takes it all in her stride. She has a particular affinity with the Bull’s Head as not only does she appreciate its history – there has been a tavern on that site for over four hundred years – but her great grandmother worked there in 1905.
People living close to the river overlooking stretches of the Thames that flood regularly during high spring tides, are used to it. Ruth Wadey, artist, photographer, and weather watcher for the BBC, is an acute observer of both river and clouds at Twickenham, capturing some memorable moments.
Anywhere along the stretch of the river at the risk of flooding, you can watch the inexorable rise of the water during a spring tide. Of course London is now protected by the Thames Barrier, first operational in 1984, but flood alerts can still be issued for low lying roads and paths between Putney Bridge and Teddington Weir when it has not been judged necessary to close the Barrier, as no property flooding is expected. However, warns Flood Forecaster Alan, “Don’t park in roads vulnerable to flooding.” But the warning is not always heeded.
My childhood friend Clare Risoe who lived in Putney before the Barrier was built, confesses: “I’m afraid, being young, we used to watch with some amusement, distraught owners coming back to find their cars full of stinky water, or swept elsewhere by the force of the water’s flow.” She remembers how “walking back to Ruvigny Mansions along Putney Embankment at high spring tide could mean paddling, or even wading, through the overflowed river water to reach the front entrance, wisely built raised from ground level.” She remembers too, the surreal effect of a high tide “when watching football at Fulham’s ground Craven Cottage, she could see the sails of boats gliding past above the hoarding”.
High spring tides can also cause problems for river traffic, specially if their timing is slightly out. Last year, no less than three Thames clippers, were trapped temporarily unable to pass under Westminster Bridge. I have also seen tugs getting into difficulties there and having to wait for the water level to drop.
But tides can rise even higher, causing damage and loss of life rather than temporary inconvenience. Over the centuries the centre of London was regularly subjected to flooding, and to see how dreadful conditions were for people who lived in these areas Victorian London is a sobering read. An excellent article by John Kelly on The great 1928 flood of London explains how that flood, the worst since the record-breaking flood of 1881, broke through and over the river’s defences. He writes: “Worst affected were the slums on the Westminster side of Lambeth Bridge, where ten of the fourteen victims lost their lives.” There was also widespread damage to property both there and in the City, which took many years to restore.
London escaped major flooding in the devastating North Sea Floods of 1953 that claimed so many lives on Canvey Island and elsewhere, but the embankments in the centre were within inches of being breached. That focussed people’s minds on the need for the protection of central London and from then began the long process of agreeing to, and constructing the Thames Barrier which was finally completed in 1984.
Closed only for its monthly testing, rigorous annual overhaul, and when conditions dictate, the tidal water flows freely between the piers allowing normal river traffic to pass through. When the Barrier is fully closed in its ‘defence’ position, water from the incoming tide backs up and floods the specially built overflow areas.
London is lucky, for the Thames Barrier is deemed sufficiently robust to protect the city and the surrounding area from flooding for at least another forty-five years.
Sources and further information The Liquid Highway Excellent boat info site on the Thames by Ben. Follow him on Twitter @liquid_highway1 Explore Ruth Wadey’s Gallery and follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery Clare Risoe ceramicist. See her work ‘Shoreline’ Tamesis Dock @TamesisDock The Bull’s Head, Chiswick, @TheBullsHeadW4 News of Thames Barrier closures on Twitter @AlanBarrierEA Visit Ian Tokelove’s site Canoe London Follow him on Twitter @iantokelove
Walking by the river, unless you happen to time your arrival with that moment between tides at slack water, when it’s more or less still, you will see a current flowing either down or upstream. Either ebbing or flooding. Familiarity with the tides is essential for all who work on, or use the Thames for recreation but observing them is also interesting for anyone who is doing more than simply passing over or under the river.
On November 8th, the RNLI Tower Station, @TowerRNLI, tweeted a time lapse film capturing the first stages of an ebb tide from their station by Waterloo Bridge. This moment is also described by Iris Murdoch in Under the Net, as “a gentle and continuous pull”. The pull gradually strengthens and the speed of the outgoing tide can rise from 4 up to 8 knots depending on the amount of rainfall coming into the river from further upstream.
Pogue Muhone, who has kindly allowed me to quote from his article ‘Tidal Ebb and Flow’, explains the phenomenon, known as the Rule of Twelfths, which you might have heard of in relation to the speed of rising and falling tides on the coast. “Starting from slack water at low tide, the flow rate speeds up until half tide and then slows down until full tide.”
“It has been observed that the tide rises one twelfth of its range during the 1st hour; two twelfths in the 2nd hour; three twelfths during both the 3rd and 4th hours; slowing to two twelfths during the 5th hour, and finally to one twelfth in the 6th hour at full tide.” And the same goes in reverse for the ebbing tide. Though things don’t work in quite the same way on the Thames, these details are good to know, especially if you are absorbed in a walk on the foreshore at low tide, as after a slow start the tide can come in swiftly and you risk being cut off. If you watch attentively, you will become aware of subtle changes in the texture and movement of the water as you walk along the riverside and you will get to know its moods.
Pogue Muhone gives specific details on Thames tides: “Their timings vary enormously and Rivermen often observe the flood to be over seven hours and the ebb nearer five, which means that the flow rate at a given point tends to be faster on the ebb than on the flood. Under ‘ideal’ conditions the water flows at almost 8 knots (10 mph) in places.” This is fast…
There are a number of small beaches accessible at low tide along the central London Thames. Some, such as the once popular and glamorous Tower of London beach have been closed to the public for a while, others with their slippery steps and inhospitable foreshore, enjoyed only by mudlarkers and the sure-footed, have a limited appeal. Yet there are some, with sandy stretches such as Ernie’s Beach below Gabriel’s Wharf, that draw families and friends for a good beach session depending on the tide and, as I mentioned in my last piece, sand sculptors. All who go there, particularly those who venture onto one of the other Southbank beaches around the corner, must keep an eye on the tide. On occasions I’ve seen an RNLI Tower Lifeboat coming alongside, warning people to return to a part of the shore with steps up to the embankment. And I have seen some, caught out by the swiftly rising tide, having to wade through a foot of water to get back the safety of stairs or to the main beach. It is dangerous, for even at that depth the current can be powerful enough to sweep you off your feet.
This sand sculptor who in 2007 entertained both beach goers and the crowds walking on the embankment above, was clearly familiar with the strength of the incoming tide and knew just when to abandon his *castle* to avoid a complete soaking.
Longer lasting were the deCaires’ Rising Tide sculptures installed for the month of September 2015, on the Vauxhall foreshore. What I liked about them was firstly, while making his point about the dangers of ignoring the multiple threats to our environment, they were a striking addition to the riverscape set against a Palace of Westminster background as a warning message to politicians who have the power to shape our future. And secondly, views of the four horses and their riders were in constant movement, changing perspective with the tides, the time of day, and the weather.
Another focus on the river to raise awareness of the climate emergency took place on October 18, 2019. Using one of their trademark pink boats to highlight their cause, the Extinction Rebellion yacht, having apparently been stranded, caught out by an ebbing tide below the Victoria Tower Gardens’ embankment, managed to re-float, only to be *kettled* next to Westminster Bridge by Police and Port of London launches concerned about the potential danger to the protesters and to other river users.
As mentioned earlier, at full flow the tides are fast-moving and muscular, added to which, should anyone fall into the river, there is the real danger of cold water shock, and drowning.
Experienced captains and amateurs, however, use the tides, harnessing the force of the currents to help bear their load. The Cory tugs, along with the Port of London and emergency services’ patrols, kept going throughout the Covid crisis and used the tides to their advantage, as did, when later permitted, groups of kayakers.
So there she stands, attentively, a young girl watching the incoming tide. Like many of us, she is perhaps dreaming, giving way to her imagination, or simply allowing her thoughts to swirl around with the infinite patterns she sees at her feet. If you’re not in a hurry when you’re walking by the river, stop for a moment and do the same…
Just the other day two visitors approached me in Victoria Tower Gardens, considerately keeping to our Covid social distancing norms, and asked me why the river seemed bereft of water. It was low tide. And it was not the first time that I’ve met people unaware that the river is tidal up as far as Teddington Lock and, that apart from the short intervals during slack tide, there is the constant movement of water upstream or downstream, borne by flood or ebb tides.
Low tides expand the foreshore exposing multi-layered remnants of the past and that is why London’s beaches have been declared an architectural site, which must not be explored or excavated without a Thames Foreshore Permit. At first glance the apparent slime or mud-covered rubble at low tide lacks appeal but on closer examination you can see thousands upon thousands of fragments of London’s history. Bricks, bottles, clay pipes, coins, jewels, medals, and countless remains of household, shipbuilding, and industrial artefacts, lie jumbled together, often broken, continually shifted by the movement of the tides, appearing and disappearing at the whim of the currents. And their stories are being studied and pieced together by members, both expert and amateur, of the Thames Discovery Programme.
You may, as you walk through the city along the Thames Path, come across figures moving slowly, bending intently towards the foreshore, occasionally picking up and stowing objects into a sample bag. These are modern day, permit holding mudlarkers, who with every find add another piece to the mosaic of London’s history, and among them, some such as Nicola White, not only add to our knowledge of London’s past but turn their finds into art. Low tides are a potential treasure trove for them. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries mudlarks were the very poor, mostly men but women and children too, scavenging the shoreline for objects that they could sell to eke out a living and, until a hundred or so years ago ‘mudlark’, was recognised as an occupation.
Low tides, while they suit some, are not necessarily such a benefit to navigators. They have to learn the shape of the river bed and its shifting positions, with its beaches, sandbanks, and sandbars. The Port of London Hydrographic Service survey vessels THAME, MAPLIN, and GALLOPER are each fitted with ‘Multibeam Echo Sounder Systems’ and carry out over four hundred surveys a year along the tidal Thames and Estuary. People often ask how deep the Thames is but of course this varies with every tide so the difference between the depth of the river at high and low tide is at its greatest during spring tides. This also depends on the volume of the fluvial flow. The average low water levels at spring tides are marked on charts as MLWS – Mean Low Water Springs. However, for those just wishing to check the tides on a particular day, there are a number of sites including the BBC that predict the tide levels at London Bridge, and Willy Weather that covers the projected tide levels at all the central London bridges.
Knowing the tide tables is not just essential for professionals but also for walkers and mudlarkers to avoid being cut off, not forgetting canoeists and anyone making use of the currents to speed their journey. When I met him last year Rob Jeffries gave an example from upstream, where the river is shallower, of the need to be aware of the tidal movements: “There’s a shoal by Fulham Football ground close to which, if you’re not careful, you risk getting stuck and stranded by an ebbing tide.”
The beach at Gabriel’s Wharf is a favourite place for sand sculptors, who create their work on the sand revealed by the falling tide, only to see it washed away a few hours later. They are fun to watch and of course depend on the public *showing their appreciation* from the embankment above by aiming coins at a well-marked target.
A set of sculptures called The Rising Tide, by Jason deCaires Taylor, installed on Vauxhall beach for the month of September 2015, was constructed to resist the scouring of the tide for much longer. And after being displayed on the shore of Lanzarote for three years, sadly the subject of a political dispute, they are now in storage. Made of stainless steel, cement, basalt and aggregates, their form and meaning evolved with the rhythm of the tides…
If you spend a lot of time watching the movement of the river, your visit might just coincide with the changing of the tide.
Often imperceptible to begin with, you can see a change in direction of the current when, after slack water, an incoming tide meets the fluvial flow. The water can remain still for a while, with small eddies whirlpooling out against the main direction of the flow, but not for long before pursuing its inexorable course upstream.
Further Information Thanks to Richard Jennings for help with Tides on the River Thames. Explore the foreshore with Lara Maiklem in Mudlarking: Lost and found on the River Thames. Thanks to NS for editorial help. Look at The Port of London Authority’s Tidal Information.
As the changing of the clocks last weekend marks a deeper descent into early evening winter darkness, some Twitter friends have kindly agreed to share their pictures of the Thames at night. So please escape today’s anxieties for a while and stroll along with them to see the river through their eyes.
Based in Kingston Astrid Tontson has a large and appreciative following for her beautiful sounds of dawn and pictures of awakening life in Bushy Park. You can follow her on Twitter @Astrid_Tontson, Instagram, and her “Soul Food – videos of calming scenes in nature” on YouTube.
If you live in the London area, or further afield, you might quite often have noticed the photo credit ‘ruthiebabes’ attached to a BBC Weather Watchers’ image. This is Ruth Wadey. Not only is she a talented photographer, she is also an artist, and you can see her work at her gallery Ruth Wadey, and you can follow her on Twitter @ruths_gallery and Instagram.
Hammersmith Bridge, in the news recently, has been closed to all traffic, both road and river, since August 13, 2020, for safety reasons. This is causing inconvenience and annoyance to many, particularly as disagreement about who should pay for repairs is holding up the necessary work. Kristi Tange, a keen photographer living nearby, often walks along the river there and has, among other London scenes, been recording some of the boats guarding the bridge. You can follow her on Twitter @KristiTange
Author and photographer Andrew Wilson is a also publisher. Among others, he has written several books, beautifully illustrated with his photographs, on areas in London close to the Thames, including Chiswick, Barnes, Putney, Battersea and Chelsea. You can explore his site Wild London and follow him on Twitter @wildlondonpics
Wal Daly-Smith is a Director of Thames Ranger Marine Services, also acting as commercial Skipper/crew for the company. He is a keen photographer and you can see some of his work in ‘From the River’. He was my first interviewee back in February 2019 and you can read about the importance of the Thames throughout his life by clicking here.
Acting as mate/deckhand on this job for the Illuminated River art commission with safety boat PROTECTOR, Ian Ruffles also skippers other boats mainly sailing barges. You can follow him on Twitter @capt_PB and you can see him demonstrating how to ascend to the top of barge S.B. CAMBRIA, a preserved Thames sailing barge, by clicking here.
Living on a narrowboat, photographer Alastair Hilton tweets an eclectic variety of pictures of his life and travels along the canals and rivers of London on Twitter @London_W4 For his professional portfolio, click on Art Store and Portrait Gallery to see the wide range of his work.
Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames at Waterloo, is the busiest RNLI Station in the country. Lifeboat HEARN MEDICINE CHEST was funded by Jimmy Hearn and his wife Anne. “Jimmy was sailing in the 1979 Fastnet race, during which fifteen people lost their lives in a raging sea. Heading back to port, he saw brave RNLI volunteers setting straight out into the storm to help.” The Hearn Medicine Chest Trust was set up soon afterwards “with the aim of one day funding a lifeboat.” This latest addition to the Tower fleet is a fulfilment of the Trust’s original goal. Follow Tower Lifeboat Station on Twitter @TowerRNLI Chris Walker, one of the Helms at the Tower Station, often illustrates his tweets with action photos. You can read about him by clicking here and follow him on Twitter @RescueShrek1
Yeoman Warder Spike Abbot, Beefeater 402, at H.M. Tower of London has exceptional views over the river from the Tower itself and roundabout this famous part of the city. This photo was taken from the OXO tower. You can follow him on Twitter to discover more about life in the Tower @spike_abbott
“Drawing inspiration from the spirit and history of the river Thames”, Illuminated River is a public art commission by Leo Villareal, which will eventually see the lighting of fourteen central London bridges. Here, stretching into the distance towards Tower Bridge, you can see the four bridges whose lighting has already been installed: Millennium Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Canon Street Railway Bridge and London Bridge. Follow the project on Twitter @IlluminatedRiv The illuminations are switched on from sunset till 2.00 am.
Based in London Mark Roche specialises in landscape and street photography. He enjoys sharing his ideas and working with others. He has a passion “for capturing images that excite and draw you in”. You can follow him on Twitter @Markroche114
Meteorologist Simon Cardy, based in Wapping, is a perceptive photographer who loves London and takes fine pictures of the river Thames and skies around him. You can follow him on Twitter @weather_king
Having moved to Rotherhithe during lockdown, Jon Carruthers enjoys exploring and photographing the river. He has covered most of the tidal Thames from Teddington to the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. “Its ever-changing nature and its history are what I love about it.” And that feeling clearly shows in his images. You can follow him on Twitter @carruthers_jon
Michelle Buchan’s stunning shots over the Thames from the Isle of Dogs, with their silhouetted skylines and big open skies to the west, lead your gaze to the heart of London. You can often see her images of striking sunsets on Twitter @M_Buchan
********************************* Covid-19 limitations and lockdowns have severely affected the activities of the pleasure and party boats which usually light up the night-time Thames. It is a difficult time for everyone involved, the companies, their crews and all their staff, many of whom have lost their jobs. We should all come together to support them when they can safely take to the river again. There is so much to see and to enjoy along along its shores…
With thanks for joining in with the project to: Astrid Tontson, Ruth Wadey, Kristi Tange, Andrew Wilson, Wal Daly-Smith, Ian Ruffles, Alastair Hilton, RNLI Tower Lifeboat Station, Chris Walker, Spike Abbot, James Newton for Illuminated River, Mark Roche, Simon Cardy, Jon Curruthers and Michelle Buchan.