GPS Marine brightly coloured tugs are among many tugs working for different companies along the river. Operating for over fifty years in harbours all over Europe, their tugs are a familiar sight on the waters of the Medway and the Thames.
And from the banks of the Thames in central London you are bound to see them towing, or pushing loads to and from the many riverside construction sites, particularly the massive Tideway tunnel sites for the new London sewer.
Using the tides to their best advantage, every day they save London’s roads from large-scale pollution and congestion by carrying upstream machines, precast products for construction, and around 2,000 tonnes of aggregate, used for mixing with bitumen, cement, gypsum, lime and other material to form concrete or mortar, used for building projects throughout London.
“On a typical day,” they tell me, “we transport four barges, each carrying 1,600 tonnes of material, so relieving London’s roads of 352 lorry journeys.”
Coming downstream, again saving London from road congestion and pollution, as this link to a Tideway film explains, you will often spot tugs pushing massive barges filled with spoil from the various sites along the river to ‘spoil reception facilities’ at East Tilbury, where it can be graded for ‘beneficial reuse’.
In 2018, GPS Marine added sleek-looking vessel ALERT to their fleet as a “fleet support launch”, fully equipped with a floating office to carry technical officers to support and assist tug crews on the river. She also has equipment to undertake repairs, maintenance, salvage, and first aid. With a maximum speed of 20 knots, she can, if necessary, move swiftly to where she is needed.
I’m just one of many who enjoys seeing tugs passing along the Thames. Professionals and amateurs alike can be attracted by their technical make-up, the varied work they do, and their sheer physical appeal. They brighten up the views and provide interest as you walk along the riverside. However, aesthetically appealing as they are, it would be wrong to over romanticise them. Even with modern improvements, working on tugs can be uncomfortable, dirty, difficult, and dangerous. You can find out how life for tug crews on the Thames used to be, and how it has changed in recent years, by looking at this short film on Thames doyen Peter Duggan interviewed by Nikolai Bendix in 2015. And it is still changing…
To find out more see: Posts by GPS Marine on some of their work on the Thames. The Liquid Highway “A leading River Thames source for news and info with the world’s largest Thames vessel photo gallery”, run by Thames Waterman and Lighterman, Ben, and follow him on Twitter @liquid_highway1 And another interesting resource to explore is: Thames Tugs
Working on the Thames as a commercial Skipper with the Tideway project and as Mate with Bateaux London, Wal has a unique view of the river. Whatever the weather, whatever the state of the tides, he is sensitive to the constant changes affecting the perspective of London’s landmark buildings, bridges, and boats and will when he can, seize the moment to capture them on film. He has kindly allowed me to share his pictures with you.
Working for the Tideway project, building the super sewer for London under the Thames, Wal is based at Carnwath Road, on the north shore, upper side of Wandsworth Bridge. His work often takes him to the Tideway site at Putney, where he gets to see Putney Bridge in its many guises.
His work for Bateaux London Cruises can take him as far upstream as Plantation Wharf, just below Wandsworth Bridge, and downstream to the Thames Barrier, depending on the tides and the cruise time.
He knows the various sights and vessels along the river well, having watched and learnt about them since his childhood. And being part of the Thames river family, he knows many of those working on, or along the river.
Wal tells me that his favourite day of the year is the Thames Historic Barge Driving Race, a physically tough seven mile course from Greenwich Pier to Westminster Bridge. Set up in 1975, the race celebrates the knowledge and skill of lightermen, who until the 1930s used these 30 tonne barges under oars as a major means of moving freight along the river. The crews are made up of Freemen and Apprentices of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, who rely on their strength and knowledge of the tides to navigate the various obstacles on the course. He likes the way “the race brings people together in a good atmosphere”, with spectators on the banks, following the race on different boats, or watching from the bridges, all cheering the teams on.
The photographs that follow show just a few of the places and the variety of craft, from tourist vessels to tugs working on industrial projects, that Wal comes across navigating the Thames.
Many of Wal’s trips take him to Tower Bridge, a favourite with visitors to London, particularly if they’re able to see a Bridge Lift for ships too large to pass under the roadway – you can discover the timetable on the above link.
He clearly loves the river at any time of the day but says: “My favourite time is at night. It can be that bit more special, probably when it’s slack tide and the river becomes a mirror, reflecting the lights beautifully…”
There are many photographers, professional and amateur, for whom the Thames is a constant source of inspiration. Just as the waters are in a continual state of flux, so the possibilities for individual photographs are infinite. Moments frozen in time, never to be replicated exactly. And Wal is one of many who have their own story to weave into the flow of the river. See here my earlier interview with Wal Daly-Smith.
As the sky slowly darkens and lights from lamps, buildings, boats and bridges begin to glow, the ever-changing river sparkles into nightlife mode. A magical time.
Party boats are spruced up for the evening before collecting their passengers, while the usual traffic of Thames clippers, tugs and barges carries on with normal work.
The water around Blackfriars Bridge, the red chunky, abandoned pillars of an earlier bridge, and Blackfriars rail bridge is beguiling, lit by reflected lights that swirl and dance in the dangerous currents. Further downstream just beyond the Blackfriars bridges, you’ll see the discreetly lit Millennium Footbridge. It’s the first of four Thames bridges to be illuminated this year in a project designed by Leo Villareal for the Illuminated River art commission. It’s difficult to capture in a still photograph as the thin blades of white light are in constant movement through the sections across the bridge but if you’re there, it’s lovely to watch.
If you turn to look downstream from the Millennium Bridge to Southwark Bridge, and wait awhile, you will see the colours slowly changing.
And onward from Southwark Bridge, is the third of the illuminated bridges, Canon Street railway bridge, again with subtly changing colours.
As I walk across Southwark Bridge beneath a darkening sky, a tug towing a barge with empty waste containers passes beneath Cannon Street Railway Bridge, bound for collection points upstream. The diversity of river traffic means that safety for all river users is vital and there have been several improvements in the last three decades.
Movements of freight traffic and passenger vessels are overseen by the London Vessel Traffic Services, VTS, part of the Port of London Authority, who are responsible for the management and safety of navigation along the tidal Thames. So, out on a walk, you will see commercial boats, tugs and tourist boats, as well as a variety of small boats. In 2007, the Port of London Authority introduced an automatic identification system, Thames AIS, so that larger vessels and tugs, towing or pushing, have now to be equipped with a screen showing where other boats are on the river. This is particularly useful for the central London Thames, where “visibility is often obscured by bridges and other obstacles.”
Another important safety feature of the tidal Thames is the twenty-four hour presence of the highly-trained Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, crews in four stations along the river from Teddington to Gravesend. Their arrival is relatively recent and came about after the tragic sinking of party boat the MARCHIONESS on August 28, 1989. Fifty-one young people including the Skipper, were drowned after the dredger BOWBELLE rammed her twice near Southwark Bridge, sinking her with frightening speed. Rescues were carried out by Police launches and sister party boat the HURLINGHAM, who between them managed to save eighty people. As a result of the findings of the Thames Safety Inquiries that followed, it was agreed that there should be a permanent presence of the RNLI on the tidal Thames. After some discussion and delay, this was finally achieved in 2002.
Figures from December 8, passed on to me by Paul Dunt of the RNLI show that since they came to operate along the Thames, the four Stations have launched 14,448 times, saved 587 lives, and aided 5,017 people.
London Bridge is the fourth bridge to be illuminated this year, and like the other bridges, its colours quietly merge and change.
Alongside the beauty of the night-time river lies the ever-present threat of danger. Swift-flowing currents can sweep away those who accidentally, or deliberately, end up in the water, and the recent terrorist attacks on Westminster and London Bridges have left emotions raw.
However, life must go on and there is some comfort in knowing that there are those who are on permanent standby to assist in an emergency: the launches of the Marine Policing Unit, the RNLI based at four stations along the tidal Thames, and the London Fireboats based at Lambeth. Depending on the type or place of an incident, others may come to help as well as there is a shared understanding and bond between those who work regularly along the river. And with the advent of mobile phones, anyone concerned about another person, or witnessing an accident, can swiftly dial 999 for help and ask for the Coastguard. Many lives, once lost in the past, have been saved by the quick reaction of the public calling for help.
Our thanks must go to all those ready to come to our aid. You can find out more about their work by following: Thames RNLI stations on Twitter: @rnli_teddington; @ChiswickRNLI; @TowerRNLI; @GravesendRNLI and the MPS Marine Policing Unit on: @MPSonthewater For all information concerning regulations on the river see: The Port of London Authority.
The Port of London Authority: introducing some of their vessels on the central London tidal Thames
Tugs and tourist boats will vie with London’s bridges and buildings for your attention as you walk along the river banks so that you might miss some of the smaller craft. But look carefully and you will see among them the Port of London Authority fleet of patrol vessels; survey boats; tugs; transfer vessels; mooring maintenance craft, static cleaner barges and driftwood collectors.
Among their many responsibilities and regulations, covering all aspects of navigation and safety over the 95 miles of the tidal Thames, the Port of London Authority launches patrol the river every day of the year. Known as the Harbour Patrol Service their crews watch out for anything unusual that’s going on and, if concerned, they have the power to intercept and detain boats. Named after Thames bridges, the four patrol vessels that work the stretch of the river from Putney Bridge to the North Sea on “the middle and lower districts of the tidal Thames”, are catamarans SOUTHWARK, KEW, LAMBETH and BARNES.
You might see one of them guiding a large cruise ship up the river, and particularly, if you’re in the area around Tower Bridge, you will see them leading and watching over ships that pass through to moor next to HMS BELFAST.
The Port of London Authority, PLA, gives warnings of bridge closures, or partial closures, and with help from their patrols, oversees the section of the river where work is taking place. For instance, earlier this year between March and May they needed to organise arch closures on Canon Street Rail Bridge and Southwark Bridge to allow work on the Illuminated River art commission. Byelaws dated 2012, dictated that the arches should be marked in a triangle with three red discs by day and lights in the same position by night. London Bridge, was unaffected as the scaffolding used for the work did not reduce the height or shape of the arches.
The Millennium Footbridge, also a part of the art project, was reduced in height by scaffolding but not to the extent that the headroom was below that of Southwark Bridge and Canon Street Rail Bridge. However, an ancient byelaw ruled that reduced headroom should be by day marked with “a bundle of straw large enough to be easily visible and displayed at the height of restricted headroom” and “at night by a white light in place of the bundle of straw.” Though modern rules have to be observed, there are circumstances such as that of the Millennium Bridge where the traditional could be, and was followed.
You will also see these vessels making sure that the river is supervised and kept closed for sporting events such as the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race; The Thames Historic Barge Driving Race; the Great River Race; and the Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, the latter believed to be “the oldest continually competed sporting event in the world”. You can find out more on the PLA Events Calendar. They are also in attendance for the New Year Fireworks and for ceremonial occasions, such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012, when the river is closed to normal traffic.
Walking along beside the Thames you are also likely to see survey boats checking the channels for obstructions both under and on the water surface, as well as “providing vital information on depths and tidal data”.
Vital for keeping the Thames clear of obstructions, LONDON TITAN was carefully designed to operate along most of the ninety-five miles of the tidal Thames, being sufficiently adaptable to pass under all the bridges as far as Richmond. She is used for “mooring maintenance; laying and recovering navigation buoys; hauling wreckage from the riverbed; supporting diving operations; and small scale plough dredging operations”. The work undertaken by her crews ensures that the river is marked and kept safe for all river users, whatever the size of their craft.
The Port of London Authority is also working with other organisations to help clean up the Thames with a Cleaner Thames campaign. They have a number of passive driftwood collectors and also driftwood craft to collect floating debris and to empty the driftwood collectors.
The Port of London Authority is a complex organisation with highly skilled Pilots guiding cruise ships, aircraft carriers, large yachts, traditional tall ships and other vessels, though the Thames Estuary to port. And experienced Captains who patrol the tidal Thames every day of the year and know the river with its dangers but as well as their usual checks they have to be on the alert for anything. Just recently they rescued a stranded dog and sadly, patrol vessel SOUTHWARK had to tow away for examination the body of a whale found close to Battersea Bridge. The Port of London fleet is there for everyone, overseeing professionals and amateur river users alike, and you can find out more about all aspects of their work by exploring their website.
Further information: The Port of London Authority website, my main source, covers in great detail, all aspects of navigation and safety on the tidal Thames. Details from there are in quotation marks. Follow them on Twitter: @LondonPortAuth The History of the Port of London: Peter Stone, Pen & Sword, 2017 is an excellent read for those wishing to explore London’s role as a port in depth. Follow Peter Stone on Twitter: @LondonStone
A portal through to happier times: the Royal Jubilee Bells in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant, June 3, 2012
Armed with a press pass for the riverside in Battersea Park, I wandered through the ill-timed June drizzle to have a look at the preparations for the most spectacular pageant to be seen along the Thames in recent times.
Seven years ago all kinds of boats were organised to celebrate HM the Queen’s sixty years on the throne and to thank her for her service to the country. But then I hadn’t learnt much about the different kinds of boats that ply the Thames, I was there for the bells. The Jubilee Bells and their part in the pageant.
However, looking through past pictures for this piece, I was pleased to spot tug Steven B, whom I’ve seen many times since. She was designated to push Bennett’s barge Ursula Katherine downstream with her precious cargo of Jubilee Bells and eight ringers positioned below, led by Captain of the Royal Jubilee Bells, Dickon Love. They were to lead the flotilla with their bells sounding out along the river, something that had never happened before, to be answered by the riverside churches, cathedrals and Westminster Abbey as they passed, then echoed throughout London and the country. Inspired by this evocative and imaginative element of the pageant, I decided to try to photograph as many of these as I could before the event.
So on a few bright days before the pageant I set off with my camera. I began at All Saints Fulham, a mustering point for some of the boats that took part in the flotilla, though the official start was at Albert Bridge. Since then their bells have been repaired by the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in London, sadly now under threat from an inappropriate development as a “bell-themed” hotel.
On the opposite side of the river stands St Mary’s, Putney, from where it was possible to watch the gathering of some of the boats taking part. After an arson attack in 1973 their bells were recast by John Taylor & Co, of Loughborough, and the new peal was dedicated in 1983.
The present ring of the Chelsea Old Church bells was installed in 1977 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The bells were funded by various donors but I liked the fact that the treble bell was given by the members of the Children’s Service and their families, the children having raised money by doing odd jobs at home or for others.
St Mary’s Battersea has a fine tradition of bell-ringing. Their original ring was cast by Thomas Janaway of Chelsea and after his death in 1788, his tools and equipment were bought by William Mears at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
Further downstream Westminster Abbey, so much a part of our national history, and St Margaret’s Westminster, joined in the celebration. St Margaret’s bells have fallen temporarily silent as the church is under restoration. Westminster Abbey has had a long association with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and its present ring was cast and dedicated in 1971.
As the flotilla passed St Paul’s Cathedral, a specially composed peal was rung to celebrate the occasion. In 2018 the bells were taken down and transported for cleaning and servicing to John Taylor & Co, where they were originally cast in 1878.
St. James Garlickhythe is the permanent home for the Jubilee bells after their starring role in the pageant. They were dedicated on June 17, 2012 and installed out of sight in the tower, from where they were rung for the first time on July 4.
The passing Jubilee flotilla would have caught a quick glimpse of Southwark Cathedral and heard a part of their specially composed peal rung for the first time. The cathedral has a long tradition of bell-ringing and their bells have recently been restored by John Taylor & Co.
Almost hidden from view, the bells of St Magnus the Martyr answered the peal of the floating belfry as it passed by. After a chequered history with bells in the past, the bells now in place were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry between 2008 and 2009 and dedicated on October 26, 2009.
The carillon bells of All Hallows by the Tower, set a little back from the river, joined in the joyous chorus of sound with a rendition of God Save the Queen. They were cast by John Taylor & Co, in 1947 after their bells had been totally destroyed during the Blitz.
Just below Tower Bridge, where the tall-masted boats unable to pass under the bridges upstream were anchored in the Avenue of Sail, stands the church of St Mary with All Saints, Rotherhithe where there is a strong tradition of bell-ringing.
The idea of a floating belfry came originally from the Diamond Jubilee Pageant Trust. Unable to fund such a venture themselves, the Trust approached the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to see if there was already a ring of bells due to be cast for a City Church to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which they could borrow for the pageant before their installation.
The timing was right: the church of St. James Garlickhythe had just taken the decision to order a new ring of bells. Between them, with the help of others, Sir Andrew Parmley, who became Lord Mayor of London 2016–17, and expert Dickon Love, author of a guide to church bells of the City of London, brought the plan to fruition.
The Jubilee Bells were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry between February and March 2012 and are named after senior members of the Royal Family and together with other inscriptions on Prince William’s Bell, the words “Dickon Love put us here” will be an enduring testament to his tireless work on behalf of the City of London’s Bells and their history. Famous for the making of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, many of the Whitechapel Foundry’s bells, along with those of John Taylor & Co., could be heard from the banks of the Thames as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant sailed past. Now plans for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s demise after over four hundred and fifty years, have been narrowly passed by the Tower Hamlets Council. In its place will stand a ‘bell themed boutique hotel’ described by protestors as “cultural vandalism”. In these days of thoughtless, easy come, easy go fashion, I wonder how long that will last… Probably nothing like five hundred years.
For further information: Read the Gentle Author’s account of his visit to St. James Garlickhythe to see the Jubilee Bells.
Film: the story of the making of the Jubilee Bells with Sir Andrew Parmley, Dickon Love, and others.
Thanks to John Sutton who kindly gave me permission to use his photographs.