…towering above its neighbours in so many views of London, the Shard is even more striking in its place by the Thames. For though hidden at times as the river curves sensuously through the city, it suddenly comes into sight and takes over its surroundings. Now a familiar part of the London landscape, its ever-changing reflections of London’s skies and clouds in its glass panels turn it into a dazzling ornament.
Yet, just as it’s visible from miles around, if you go up to The View on The Shard platforms, you can look out over London for up to forty miles in any direction. But before looking at the horizon, the first marvel is being able to look down at a model world beneath your feet including miniatures of the Tower of London; Tower Bridge; HMS Belfast; St. Paul’s Cathedral; the South Eastern railway lines and trains; and of course, the Thames.
There are unparalleled views along the river looking east towards Canary Wharf, the Thames Barrier and just beyond, into Essex and Kent.
To the west you can see several of central London’s bridge crossings, Westminster, Pimlico, Chelsea, Battersea; the Lott’s Road power station; Fulham, and as far out as Surrey.
Believe it or not, after a short conversation on the concept, the basic elements of the Shard were simply sketched out on the back of a menu by architect Renzo Piano during a lunch with developer Irvine Sellar. Renzo had been immediately attracted to the site by the Thames, and to the idea of building by railway lines with their constant movement, energy, and links to elsewhere.
In just a few moments he came up with a rough design that closely resembled the Shard as it is today. Sellar promised that if Renzo would put his signature to the design and sign up to the project, he would actually go ahead and build the Shard. He kept his promise but it was not a smooth ride as planning approval took a long time and funds dried up during the crash of 2008. However, the State of Qatar came to the rescue with substantial financial backing and, after dangerous and demanding work in sometimes very difficult conditions, the Shard was finally completed and opened by the Prime Minister of Qatar in 2012.
London’s skyline and the buildings that border the Thames have changed so much in the last few years not always for the better, and in many cases generations who grew up here, all with memories of their lives and experiences linked to the landscape, have been moved away, or lost their points of reference. There have been good restorations and conversions such as Sea Containers House, St. Katharine’s Dock, and Butler’s Wharf but also some ugly, unimaginative blocks. Canary Wharf and the City have distinctive and interesting buildings, some of them more attractive than others and I particularly like the Gherkin. However, when it comes to elegance and height, the sharp, edgy Shard really does take pride of place.
For further information on access and prices: https://www.the-shard.com/about
Helm at Tower RNLI Lifeboat Station and Casualty Care Trainer for the Thames
The tide was flowing fast upstream as I made my way down a ramp to the Tower RNLI Station on Victoria Embankment to meet Chris Walker. Kindly welcoming me during a break in his shift he led me to a table in the crew’s kitchen where the duty crew can cook something to eat and socialise but still be ready to launch within ninety seconds of a call.
Chris engages with social media, giving a particular insight into the work of Tower RNLI and his part in it, often signing off a tweet with a virtual #TimeForACuppa. But this time he begins with a real one for us both. We feel the movement of the river with an occasional surge, sway or knocking sound caused by the wash of a passing boat as the station is built on a floating pier.
He tells me about the RNLI’s relationship with the river, explaining: “We have to pass a Local Knowledge Endorsement, an intricate test run by the Port of London Authority for all commercial river users. You get a real grilling but it’s vital to know the river intimately by studying the behaviour of the tides in open water, beneath the bridges, round the cofferdams and piers. Cofferdams are particularly challenging because the flow around them changes all the time.”
The crews learn to be wary of difficulties such as the turbulent water “bottlenecking” at the Blackfriars Bridges and a standing wave that appears on an ebbing tide caused by a shoal at London Bridge. Speed limits and the often shifting position of beaches and sandbanks have to be thoroughly learnt. And, as if to underline the point, Chris produces a comprehensive, six page, hand drawn revision map marking all the bridges, piers, Thames Tideway construction sites, moorings, boating bases, fuel barges and points of interest. Familiarity with these means that crews can react more swiftly and safely in an emergency.
Considering how long the Thames has been a place of danger, it is only recently that the RNLI set up stations along the tidal Thames. Before that, rescues were carried out by Police vessels. However, following reports into the tragic sinking of party boat the MARCHIONESS on August 28, 1989, when fifty-one people were drowned after the dredger BOWBELLE rammed and sank her near Southwark Bridge, it was decided that the RNLI should have a twenty-four hour presence on the Thames. In 2002 stations were set up at Teddington, Chiswick, Tower Pier and Gravesend; Teddington operating with volunteers summoned when needed as on coastal stations but Chiswick, Tower and Gravesend permanently manned by paid crew working on an organised shift basis. They are joined on station by a team of volunteer crew members, who stay there for the entire shift rather than responding to pagers. Tower has around sixty volunteers on its books and most volunteer for about two twelve hour shifts every month. This means that crews can plan their family lives and come in to work from outside London. In 2006 the Tower Pier station, retaining the name Tower, moved to where it is now by Waterloo Bridge.
Chris explains that the RNLI crews were newcomers to a river community, many of whose families have been working on the Thames for over three hundred years. “As our members passed the tough Port of London tests, and so were put on equal terms with the commercial skippers, we were gradually accepted and respected by the long term river users.” And now they’re very much part of the river community involved with exercises alongside some of the many operators, including joint exercises with Cory tugs, practising the rescue of casualties from awkward places below deck.
Their rescue work covers a whole variety of incidents from people trapped on beaches by rising tides; passengers taken ill on cruise boats; industrial accidents on construction sites; pleasure boats in difficulties; saving people who have fallen into the river by accident, and sadly the recovery of those who, by design or by bad luck, haven’t made it. But like all those working in our Emergency Services and Armed Forces, they support each other through the darker moments.
But there are lighter moments too and time for camaraderie and joking between the Thames stations. “Chiswick is known as ‘the shallow end’; Tower as ‘shiny pier’; and Gravesend as the ‘deep end’. Yet in a crisis they immediately pull together with absolute professionalism. And their sympathy with all sea rescuers extends beyond our borders. On June 13, the duty crew stood silently in memory of three French SNSM (Sauveteurs en Mer) lifeboat crew members, drowned after their boat capsized during a rescue off the Breton coast near Les Sables d’Olonne.
Apart from his position as Helm, Chris Walker is also the Casualty Care Trainer for the Thames and holds regular RNLI training courses at the station. On Thursday, June 18, the session included: the use of immobilisation tools and stretchers, airway management, and the strapping of different kinds of fractures. Other training can include the use of three heavy practice crew dummies, all called ‘Bob’. Usually hanging dejectedly at the end of the station platform, they are placed in a variety of scenarios where crew members have to work out how best to effect and cary out a rescue.
HURLEY BURLY, the station lifeboat, was out with a crew on a training exercise during my visit, though as they were in constant radio contact, they would have been able to respond immediately in the case of an emergency. A class E Lifeboat, she was specifically designed for easy manoeuvrability; to cope with submerged detritus; and to weave between heavy traffic at speed. When Chris is on shift, he is at the helm and he knows her well.
Over his time on the Thames, Chris has become very much attuned to the moods of the river. “There is a palpable pulse, you can feel the pulse of the river and, under certain conditions you expect something to happen.” And he clearly loves working there. Though his work does have its difficult and sometimes tragic side, this is offset by the breathtaking beauty of the river both by day and at night. Seeing London’s buildings and bridges from water level “You get to discover things that no one else knows.”
Chris Walker, drawn to the sea and familiar with boats since childhood, has been involved with the RNLI since his first days of volunteering for the Helensburgh Lifeboat in Scotland. He came south to do his degree and still committed to saving lives at sea, volunteered for the Calshot Lifeboat in Southampton Water. He became a lifeboat trainer at the RNLI College in Poole and after a spell at Chiswick, further upstream on the Thames, came to take on the role of Helm at Tower. As well as his training and instructing role, he is also part of the RNLI Flood Rescue Team and an RNLI Instructor. In September 2018 he was delighted and proud to receive a Long Service Medal.
On the alert for twenty-four hours every day of the year, London is lucky to have dedicated and experienced RNLI teams covering the tidal Thames. And Tower is its busiest station. Their ‘scores on the door’, since the station opened in 2002, accurate at the time of writing, show that they have had 7,760 call outs, or ‘shouts’ with 311 lives saved, meaning that their intervention has actually made the difference between life and death for the casualty. But the lives they have saved are not just human, a yellow sticky at the foot of their tally board records the rescue of a dog and a Harris hawk in difficulties earlier this year, both restored to their grateful owners.
Thank you to Chris Walker and all the RNLI crews who watch over the tidal Thames.
as he reminisces about his time on the tidal Thames in the 60s
A chance meeting on social media and a shared interest in the Thames led to my discovering the early story of Vic Clarke, who trained at the Wellesley Nautical School at Blyth and who began his career on colliers delivering coal to Thames-side power stations in the 1960s.
After undergoing a rigorous training with tough, and by today’s standards, harsh discipline at Wellesley from 1958 – 1961, he tells me of his first trip to London.
“This will never leave my memory as I’d dreamt of going to sea from an early age, so it made a big impression. Steaming down the East coast from Blyth to London, being thrown about, dropping meals and cups of tea. Then I remember everything going still and peaceful. It was about three in the morning. I went up on deck: we had just turned into the Thames Estuary.
He describes life on board the HUDSON FIRTH, on which he sailed a number of times: “Accommodation was pretty basic for seamen, and for deck boys like me, even more basic. There were two of us deckies on the FIRTH. We shared a cabin directly above the steering gear, so it was pretty noisy. Our cabin was in the hull and there was no insulation in that part; just steel plate between us and the briny.”
“You first join as a deckie. If you’re a junior, you normally help in the galley, where you stay until another deckie joins the crew. In this position the nickname was “Peggy”. In the old sailing days, if you was to lose a leg, you weren’t put ashore, you were tasked to help in the galley. So for three months I was peggy: thankfully I didn’t have to cut my leg off.”
“The FIRTH sailed in any weather. No high sea or high wind deterred our skipper, we’d steam out of Blyth with the prop thrashing out of the water, then back into a trough and silence. The North Sea is harsh; we rarely had a flat steam to London. If memory serves me well, it took three days to go down and two days to go up, dependant on the weather.”
“During days at sea it would be maintenance i.e. chipping paint off and repainting. On leaving Blyth, once the hold covers were down, decks were cleaned off of any coal dust, the same when leaving London; that was the first job.”
“I though the food on the FIRTH was unbelievable. The standard of the galley and cookers was basic but our cook turned out amazing food and plenty of it.”
“The loading in Blyth was done from staithes, high wooden structures that carried coal trucks. The trucks stopped right up above the vessels, then were turned over and the coal streamed down a chute into the hold. On unloading in London, large cranes with grab buckets emptied the hold, after which tractors were then lowered in to finish the job off.”
“I’m pretty sure Bankside was my first trip as memories bring Southwark up. I remember we tied off on a buoy on a Sunday morning. Being peggy I was tasked to go ashore for newspapers and cigarettes; lots of Woodbines and News of the Worlds. One of the seamen called for a lighterman who took me ashore, where I soon found a shop, got the kit and went back to the river. But no FIRTH. Gone.”
“It’s hard to express the sheer number of ships tied up. It was Sunday, and skippers tried to avoid Sundays at sea because pay was double time, meaning more expense for their employers. The lighterman took me down the lines of ships and found the FIRTH. I distinctly remember she was up alongside a ship named GLADYS BOWATER. She was carrying rolls of newspaper. When I walked across her deck it was like a 5-star hotel in comparison to our dark, dusty collier.”
Vic also remembers some of London’s great smogs known as pea-soupers. “Real pea-soupers, which I only actually experienced on the Thames, were I would think, due to the heavy industry and the coal-fired power stations. They were eerie, all sounds were muffled, really muffled. I distinctly remember one time ships’ movements being suspended. I can still remember the taste and smell of smoke and soot infesting the air, all confused with the sounds of ships’ horns, and lightermen shouting to each other….”
After leaving the Merchant Navy, Vic carried on with an active and varied career, with work including diving, abseiling and steeple jacking, where on one occasion he had to inspect the damage done to the Kuwait water towers during the Occupation of Kuwait by the Iraqis in 1990-91. But he looks back with fondness to his early career and work on the Thames: “In those days there were no camera phones and very few ordinary cameras around.” He adds wistfully, “Oh to have the chance to go back and have those sights, sounds and feelings actually on record; though hopefully they will live with me forever.” And from the memories he has shared with us here, they surely will.
Dwarfed by other vessels, construction sites and piers along the river, there is a fleet of small workboats, open topped or with a wheel house, navigating the river in all conditions. Unless you’re looking out for them, they can pass by un-noticed but their work is vital to smooth operations along the river.
They fetch and carry people and goods; act as safety boats; serve as platforms for filming, PR work, surveys, structural inspections both above and below the waterline, and numerous other activities associated with the maintenance of buildings, embankments and structures along the river.
Some belong to particular pleasure boat cruise companies, working solely for them, ferrying skippers, mates and crew from a nearby pier to where their vessels are moored, and others are available for hire for long or short term.
There are many active civil engineering projects along the tidal Thames but by far the largest is the Tideway Super Sewer for London, now 40 percent complete, which has twenty-four construction sites, all using small workboats along with the other vessels they need onsite or for deliveries.
Wal Daly-Smith, now Mate with Bateaux London Cruises, worked earlier this year as a safety boat skipper at the Blackfriars site. His boat, Diveco 1, assisted with diver operations and played a big part in the building of the cofferdam.
It was a complex job and as Wal explains, one of the main tasks he had was “to act as safety boat. The divers would be lowered into the water by crane and I would be on standby, a good distance away with my engine shut down. The divers also worked off a pontoon, which I would push around with the boat.” Their work involved welding and burning, all of this in extremely murky, dangerous underwater conditions.
Wal also told me how the Diveco boat was used to help with rescuing fish trapped in the cofferdam as the water was drained out. “A zoologist from London Zoo took part ensuring the fish were netted in the correct way and freed back into the river on the other side”. Over 1,200 fish, of several different species were rescued. Here is yet further proof that there has been a spectacular renewal of marine life in the river since the dark days of 1957 when the Thames was described as “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum.
After the fish were moved to safety, the boat assisted in the removal of thousands of tons of sludge. “I could feel the prop dragging through the thick silt once the cofferdam was drained,” he added.
These are just a few of the many small workboats to be seen along the river but there are many more hidden within structures or tucked in alongside or behind bigger boats. With names like ROSIE, ALFIE, LOVELY BOUY and REBEL, they all have their own characteristics and are fun to watch. But make no mistake, their skippers need a lot of skill to handle them in the often turbulent waters of the Thames.
For more information see: https://www.tideway.london @TidewayLondon and follow @RiverLens for pictures of life on the river by an aspiring Waterman ⚓️
…the swift running currents of the central London Thames divide and stream through the constricted spaces between the embankments and beneath the bridges.
For those working along the river, they can be a useful energy-saving way of getting around and you will see all types of boats from tugs and tourist boats to kayaks skilfully taking advantage of this when they can.
Further downstream, if you’re walking by Tower Bridge, or taking a river trip to Greenwich, the Thames Barrier or beyond, you’ll not only see the usual traffic but also the occasional impressive-looking ship on a visit to London. Some come right into the heart of the City to moor alongside the permanently berthed historic HMS Belfast, which took part in the bombardment supporting the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.
Last September I was lucky enough to have been close to Tower Bridge when the bridge lifted and the sail training ship STS Lord Nelson came through. And later in the month I spotted her sister ship, sailing vessel SV Tenacious further downstream, making her way seawards past the ever-changing skyline to the east of the City.
These two elegant ships are owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, in existence for over thirty years, and their mission is “to give people of mixed abilities and circumstances the freedom to explore their ability, potential and place in the world through inclusive adventures at sea.”
No-one is disadvantaged as the ships were specially designed to be wheelchair accessible throughout. Trips have been variously described as adventurous, challenging, confidence-building and inspiring but perhaps the most revealing is a comment from one voyager “that sailing for me on these ships is the only time I feel free”, expressing a liberation from the fears and restrictions that can curtail everyday life.
In January 2019, the former Royal Mail Ship, cargo liner RMS St Helena, sailed beneath Tower Bridge, mooring next to HMS Belfast, in her new role as an ambassador for the launch of the Extreme E electric car racing series. There was something majestic and romantic seeing her among us in London after she had served the islanders of St Helena with all their needs for nearly thirty years.
She was much loved by the population and they gave her a memorable send-off in February 2018, including a last propeller inspection by the St Helena Dive Club, whose members posed underwater for a photo with the island flag. After leaving London, she sailed westwards round the coast to undergo refitting and refurbishment so as to be able to act as a movable base for each of the Extreme E races when events begin in 2021.
As I was turning to leave, a pool of reflected light unexpectedly and magically shone onto part of her starboard side and I further understood why this ship had been held in much affection.
In April 2019, the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza came to London to launch a year long Pole to Pole expedition ‘Protect the Oceans’ from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to highlight the many threats facing our oceans and to campaign for a Global Oceans treaty at the UN. It was a timely visit as climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and deep sea mining have been making the news with television programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ and the recent demonstrations in central London by the pressure group ‘Extinction Rebellion’.
Find out more and see when ships are due into central London: www.towerbridge.org.uk
And for detailed information on shipping movements see The Port of London Authority: www.pla.uk