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

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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.