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.

Eric Carpenter: 2 The Cory years

Further reminiscences of a longtime Waterman and Lighterman of the Thames

Over the past weeks of lockdown, I have had the chance to discover more about Eric Carpenter’s wide-ranging work along the Thames. It seemed from our initial meeting and following email exchanges that he held his time with Cory in particular affection. From 1984 until his retirement in 2008 Eric was employed by Cory Waste Management based at Charlton.

He joined the tug RECRUIT and clearly bonded with the crew “who were all principled men, who pulled their weight and could be relied upon.” One day he was asked by “a good friend to join a crew on another tug, the GENERAL VII, based at Gravesend” but he was happy where he was, sailing upstream through the bridges to the London wharves every shift.” He remembers the tragic sinking of the GENERAL VII a while later, after a collision with a ship adjacent to Tilbury Dock Lock, with the loss of the lives of his friend Colin Baker, and three other members of the crew. Those who work on the river have to be constantly aware of the dangers and safety is of prime importance.

Eric, standing on the right with crew at Mucking in the summertime,
waiting for the tide to rise. ©Eric Carpenter

Eric describes life and camaraderie on board the RECRUIT. “Summertime was pleasant towing up through the bridges, returning down with the bridges illuminated on a summer’s night. But, as any Waterman will tell you, it is totally different in the winter months, coping with the wind and the rain, dropping light barges and picking up the loaded ones is not a bundle of laughs.” However, smiling, he continues, “The highlight of the shift was lunch, or as we called it dinner. It could be two chickens (rooster boosted), roast potatoes – my speciality, par boiled and given a good shaking to rough up the outsides, making them crunchy when cooked – or a leg of lamb, a piece of beef and all the trimmings. Nothing got thrown away. We had our mishaps though: the chicken falling out of the oven when the tug nudged the barges; the day we tried to make Yorkshire pudding and it turned out like an inch thick rubber mat. One day the designated cook for that shift wanted to add a sprinkling of pepper to the mashed potatoes but the top came off the pepper pot and everything went into the mash. But it was all eaten anyway.” Fellow crew members at that time were: Jackie Franklin, Gerry Musset, Tommy Lewthwaite and Eric Everest. They trusted and relied on each other and became good friends.

On the RECRUIT in 1988. In the wheelhouse. Peter Lawler.
From the left: Jackie Franklin, Eric, Tommy Lewthwaite and Gerry Musset. ©Eric Carpenter

From 1992 to 2008 Eric transferred from the RECRUIT to become a ‘Mucking Boatswain’. All the barges loaded at London’s refuse stations headed to Mucking jetty, where there was a major landfill site, now transformed into the Thurrock Thameside Nature Park. Eric explains that “the site was equipped with three container cranes that unloaded the containers to be taken to the landfill site, emptied and returned to the barges. As the jetty received all the barges from London it was imperative that there was twenty-four hour cover.” Operating there wasn’t simple as “the exposed position of the wharf in the Thames estuary, made it vulnerable to delays caused by bad weather, specifically fog and wind. If the tug missed the daytime tide it would have to bring the barges ashore on the next high tide.”

And the tides were a further complication as the location of Mucking jetty meant that the barges were only afloat for roughly four hours. “This made the shifting of the craft quite hectic, also there was not much run in the tide, so the wind direction was more of a consideration.”

A rough trip ©Eric Carpenter

Eric’s responsibilities as a boatswain, along with two others of equal rank, were to “do a safety check of the jetty, checking lifebuoys, the ‘eyes’ of the mooring ropes, safety railings, the capstan ropes, and the access ladders to the barges.” They had to liaise with the tug captains via V.H.F. radio, the operations manager at head office and the jetty manager, in order to arrange and assemble the tows, which could vary in the number and size of barges from one tide to another. But it was not without difficulty. “It was fairly straightforward in the summer months when it was daylight and the weather was calm, not so easy at 2.00 am in the winter with the wind blowing from the east at force 5 !”

Winters could be harsh ©Eric Carpenter

Eric describes his last working day, “It was a normal shift. I remember the tug pulling the tow off for the last time and feeling nostalgic. As we were finishing mooring up, I noticed the tug coming back ashore ‘light boat’, that is not towing. As they approached the jetty I saw that the whole crew were on deck: they had come to say their final farewells and to wish me luck. Gary Anness, the captain, then presented me with a bottle of something special!” Eric adds that he was “fortunate to work with two fine tug captains during my time at Mucking, Tim Keetch and Gary Anness, honourable men who could be relied upon.” He also remembers with affection Tom Huggins, Mike Trowbridge, Bill Cook and ‘Buzz’ Bullock, colleagues who became friends.

The Thames is certainly part of Eric’s DNA. His father was a “Journeyman” Lighterman, who as his son was to do, worked all along the river and, as a young teenager, Eric used to bike down to the Woolwich ferry with friends and ride back and forth across the river because it was free. He enjoyed his career on the Thames but doesn’t over romanticise it. Things could be physically and mentally tough and he was always aware of, and concerned about, the need for safety. Working on the river can be dangerous.

He ends his reminiscences by saying that “Although August 24, 2008 was my last day working as a Waterman and Lighterman, I shall be a Waterman and Lighterman till I die.” The love he had, and still has for his profession is clearly expressed when he adds: “I was fortunate to work on the river when I did. I worked from Isleworth in the west to Holehaven Creek in the east, and along every creek and canal adjoining the river Thames. I did not simply work on the river for fifty years, I had an adventure on the river for fifty years!” It was an ‘adventure’ that brought him much satisfaction and sense of fulfilment. He ends by saying: “I would urge any young person to embrace the job and, when they are going ‘up through’ and see office workers scurrying across the bridges to ‘push their pens, or tap their keyboards’ in some confined or crowded office, they should thank their lucky stars it is not them.”

With grateful thanks to Eric Carpenter for sharing his photos and for sparing me the time to tell his story and something of his expert knowledge of our constant, yet ever-changing river Thames.
Click here to discover more about the history of Thames Watermen and Lightermen

Cory tug RECOVERY in 2019 towing filled waste containers along central London’s famous river banks.