The Thames Barrier

A week ago a 1″ column at the bottom of page 10 of The News Shopper announced an event held by the Institute of Materials at the Thames Barrier. In true News Shopper style the closing date for registration was five days before publication, but I called the IOM anyway and the event wasn’t full.
Everything seems to have a dual purpose at the Barrier – the coach park that sits suspiciously close to the thirty-odd foot river bank doubles as an emergency hospital if one of the giant sills that move round to actually become the barrier gets sick. They weigh so much that they’d have to rip out the trees and bulldoze down the bank to get one on land, but once it gets dragged onto that platform it won’t fall through as it’s been specially strengthened from below.
We had to wear hard hats (always makes you feel like you’re going to see something exciting) and carry gas masks because given the close proximity of oil, water and electricity fire is a real risk.

Basically, each of those lovely boat-shaped steel piers that poke up so charmingly across the river at Charlton/Woolwich is connected deep under the riverbed by a giant, mainly cut-away cylinder which rolls round bringing the little rounded wall that’s left after the cut-away up above the water to create a barrier. And underneath them there are connecting corridors full of pipes and wires and strange machines which make you feel like you’re a member of the Nautilus’s crew…

It’s not for the claustrophobic or anyone with a heights problem. There are lifts – but there were too many of us to use them, so we trooped up and down open stairwells made of thick, grey concrete, with steps made of metal mesh – you go down, along a corridor, and then up again to each pier (or at least that’s what I think’s happening – it all looks exactly the same down there and I quickly lost any sense of where I was.)

The corridors have shelves full of electric cables running down one side, and enormous pipes full of water for the sprinkler system down the other and seem to go on for miles and it’s almost a relief to get back up onto one of the piers.

The piers themselves are lined with wood which really does give the impression of them being upturned boats. They house the operational gear. They’ve got cute little portholes too, from which you can get some amazing views of the river.

The sheer size of the hydraulic system is the most impressive thing – gigantic yellow pumps and massive hulks of thick steel connected to some of the thickest electricity cables I have ever seen. There are three different power stations supplying electricity from various parts of London but even they can go wrong and in the past the Barrier has had to rely on its own little generators to operate the piers.

My favourite bit, not being any kind of engineer, was getting to actually stand out on one of the piers and look back at The Woolwich Ferry, forward to the Dome and sideways to the banks. There are massive cranes on each pier and, of course, the operational gear.

The rest of the day was given over to some fascinating lectures including a guy from Thames Water explaining exactly what happens when they replace the Victorian water mains which we’re all suffering at the moment. Other speakers represented sustainable drainage systems which, although innovative, don’t seem to be taken seriously enough by the government yet. Did you know that there’s a B&Q car park in Portsmouth which has permeable tarmac which drains away to a tank underneath to flush the loos? No more puddles and a reduction in drinking water use. Fantastic. Why didn’t we get that at the Peninsula? That was supposed to be green, wasn’t it?

I wasn’t quite so impressed with the guy who wants to build loads of “sustainable” houses in the Thames Gateway, possible on stilts since it has, after all, never been built on before because it is a flood plain. They might be cheap to erect but the engineers don’t seem to have taken aesthetics into consideration and if they want to attract a mix of people to live there rather than turn it into some kind of ghetto, they really do need to do better than that looks-wise IMHO.

The day wasn’t cheap, by the way – not actually qualifying for any concessions meant about 80-odd quid for a ticket which still keeps me awake at night. But I would do it again. A fascinating day…

Not sure if the IOM is doing any more trips, but if the cost doesn’t make you nearly sick I would definitely recommend it as a one-off treat.

The Thames Barrier doesn’t seem to have its own website but there’s loads more technical info at

There’s an exhibition and visitors centre at the Barrier but you can’t normally go on the piers. The guy who showed us round said that people sometimes write and ask to have a special visit and they try to fit them onto an organised trip like the one I went on, so it may be worth a try.

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