Archive for the ‘River Thames’ Category

Bugsby’s Here to Stay

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Graham has just forwarded me this news from the Port of London authority, which, if you recall, was considering changing Bugsby’s Reach to Waterman’s Reach in commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the 1514 Act of Parliament regulating watermen, wherrymen and bargemen.

There were a total of 47 responses to the consultation, breaking down as follows:

· 10 in favour
· 34 against
· 3 neutral

Those for the change cited the proposal as: ‘fitting commemoration of the river’s past, present and future working life.’

Those against the proposal felt that: ‘historic names should be left alone’; ‘Bugsby’s Reach is a local name reflected landward in Bugsby’s Way’; and ‘The lack of information about Bugsby’s background should not be a reason to remove his name.’

The PLA say:

Having considered the balance and nature of consultation responses, we have decided not to proceed with the proposal to rename Bugsby’s Reach.

Actually, I personally think that the Watermen should be commemorated – and I’d have been quite happy to see Greenwich Reach renamed – after all, it’s not like we’d forget our own name.

High Tide

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Thanks to Mike Purdy for sharing these pictures of the extraordinary high tides we have at the moment.

It happens more regularly that one might think, but it’s still pretty spectacular when it happens and always amusing to watch people trying to walk along the 5 foot walk when it’s rising. It’s less funny when you’re trying to do it yourself.

Just one of the reasons I love living here. I spend a lot of my time moaning about Greenwich, but ultimately I love it. It’s worth my while remembering that sometimes…

The Londoner’s River

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Lt. Comm. LM Bates,, Frederick Muller Ltd, 1949

A rather wonderful book I found in a secondhand bookshop in the West Country for a pound – it’s always worth repeating that some of the best London book bargains are found miles from the capital – there’s just not the competition for them and therefore the prices are much lower. In fact, if you mention it to the bookseller what you’re looking for they often say ‘I’ve got a load more in the warehouse at the back that I don’t display because no one buys them…’

But back to The Londoner’s River. I can find virtually no information about Leuitenant Commander LM Bates (I’m sure somebody will have the info – I love doing this blog…) save that he spent many years traversing the sixty-nine miles of the tidal part of the Thames, knew the river better than most, and observed at first hand the characters that lined its docks, ports and ships.

He wrote several books on the subject: the ones I’ve read appear to be collections of articles that first appeared in shipping journals. Some are more ‘Greenwich-y’ than others – understandable, really, there’s an awful lot of river to cover in shortish books but the anecdotes about London ‘characters’ and incidents are charming and the illustrations by ‘Stanley’ are both dramatic and from a world we just don’t recognise today, rendering them, IMHO, utterly wonderful.

Understandably, writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of Bate’s tales are of the war – one book, Thames on Fire deals specifically with the war years (and I note is going from 1p on Amazon) but there are delicious little asides, told with a nice nudge-nudge, wink, wink feel and snippets that made me immediately start googling on tangents.

Take the Seven Seas, for example. Built in 1876, as the Emma Ernest, she was an unassuming wooden brig that spent her life trawling around the world with dull cargoes, being cut down and refitted every so often, usually so she could carry even less interesting goods.

Even during the first World War she only trudged coal to France, her most ‘interesting’ moment an unfortunate collision with a destroyer.  On a boring passage to Cornwall she got stranded, then rammed and ended up being towed home.

But like so many salty seadogs, Emma Ernest was to find a whole new lease of life as a land-lubber. She was moored at Charing Cross Pier, renamed the Seven Seas and became the plushly maritime headquarters for the social club of the British Sea Services.

Bate’s description of a guest night at the Seven Seas Club is delightful – even he reckons that it was ‘the kind of evening which Kipling would have loved to spend.’

…it’s haze of smoke, the yarns and chorus of shanties…watched over by the ship’s macaw, a bird whose plumage and repartee were equally brilliant.

The ship was full of nautical treasures, including a lifebelt, the only thing recovered of HMS Pincher, lost with all hands during WWI, a copy of The Times from Wednesday Nov 6t, 1805, reporting Collingwood’s dispatches from Trafalgar, a cannonball fired by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and a ship’s lamp from the Arethusa, a training ship broken up on the Thames in 1935.

But the piece de resistance – and the reason I’m banging on about it today – a ship’s bell, inscribed Shakespeare- Liverpool. Apparently a club member, finding himself lying next to the ship Ferreira in a foriegn port was furious to see his dear old Cutty Sark reduced to flying the Portuguese flag. He stole onboard, and half-inched the ship’s bell in protest.

The Portuguese crew, in sort-of retaliation, pinched the bell from the poor ship Shakespeare, who happened to be lying the other side – and sailed with it for 19 years.

When the Cutty Sark was bought back by Captain Dowman in 1922, the original culprit returned her bell to her – and received in exchange the Shakespeare’s bell – not entirely sure what had happened to her – probably chime-less she got run into in fog or something. The bell was presented to the club.

Sadly the Seven Seas was badly damaged by bombs and was broken up. I have no idea what became of the Shakespeare’s Bell.

Not really sure why I went off on this one today – but you could do worse that seeking out LM Bate’s books of the Thames if you’re at all maritime-interested.

Photos From The Royal Visit 25th April 2012

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Blimey – it looks as though pretty much everyone turned out, if only for a short part, of yesterday’s events and today I thought I’d share some of the pictures I’ve been sent for anyone who wasn’t able to ‘just nip out for a sandwich…’

It was the Twitter feeds of Rob at Greenwichdotcodotuk and and Warren King (@greenwichcouk and @warrenkingphoto if you follow such things) that made me jealous enough to pop out as at least catch some of the pomp, but anyone who saw my shots yesterday will have seen the hazards of not turning up early enough and sneaking away early, i.e. rubbish shots.

Warren’s good at picking out the sort of things that make the event – the jolly-Britishness of a nation who almost considers it ‘cheating’ to go to a Royal shindig in the sun – there’s something about the photo at the top of this post that sums the day up completely – Union flag umbrellas and blokes halfway up masts getting very cold and wet…

Warren was one of the guys in the press pack  in front of me, which means that he did actually get to see the official stuff too. I have to admit that while it must be fun for the bigwigs on stage, and to some extent for us (I was enjoying the people around me getting far more excited than I had imagined they would), one of the things for which I admire the Queen is her ability not to look totally glazed over at events like this.

This is the shot that I was aiming for when I just held my camera up and hoped for the best. Warren shows how it should be done:

So far, this is all stuff that if I didn’t actually see it with my own eyes, my camera at least did and I was able to catch up with on the local news (anyone else notice that there was absolutely bugger-all in the printed Standard last night?)

But I should have looked out to the river, apparently. Ruth did look out and saw the Royal barge, which will be used on the Thames River Pageant

She also caught the front end of the King’s Troop in the Old Royal Naval college:

whereas I only caught the back of them:

Stephen had taken a different tack and was looking at the later events.

He picked up the celebrations in the ORNC too with some sea cadets – not a regular sight in Greenwich these days:

He then tried hanging about by the Royal Range Rover, only to have it moved before Her Maj got inside. Instead, he nipped over to the National Maritime Museum where he got these:

Thanks to everyone who’s sent me shots. If I can’t be there, photos do help…

Ballast Quay – Part Three – Grot Beach and Beyond

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Okay – so part three of Hilary Peters’s fabulous memories of living, working and gardening in Ballast Quay/Union Wharf in the 1960s and seventies. If you recall, she’s found a place to live, persuaded Morden College not to knock it down, built a garden with the help of the local kids and is now a successful gardener working for, among others, St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals. Her latest big job is at St Katherine’s dock, where an old East End docks is being transformed into a playground for the gin-palace brigade. her brief is to make the place ‘look like a million dollars.’  But back at home…

Union Wharf never looked like a million dollars. It was a working wharf. I didn’t do much loading and unloading from the river, but I did get a boat. Tamar was a small clinker-built yacht, with a brown sail and an inboard engine. I never got the hang of sailing, but I used Tamar a lot on the tideway, which was quite dangerous enough, even with a reliable engine. I kept her at Bugsby’s Hole (on the peninsula – TGP). She’d have been smashed to pieces in two tides against my wharf and the pieces would have settled on an old shopping trolley.

Tamar was used for gardening though. She was craned into St Katherine’s before they got the lock gates working and from her deck, I planted crack plants in the dock walls. Years later, I’d overhear ecologists exclaiming to each other:
“Gypsophila! Extraordinary! I’ve never seen it seed itself in a dock wall before.”

There were flood scares. I never understood why. The highest tides flooded the footpath outside the Naval College (and still do – on the five-foot-walk – TGP) but never ventured onto their lawns. It was the same at Ballast Quay. Even our cellars were always dry. Experts thought otherwise, so a flood wall was built along the edge of the wharf. It was two foot high and served only to trip up lightermen and ruin the wharf’s effect of grass to the water’s edge. I remember Mr. Robinson (of Robbo’s) looking sadly out of our first floor window and saying ‘times are changing.’

By this time, I had two goats, Tosh and Cud, in a friend’s garden in Blackheath. When one kidded and the other was ill, I nursed her in the back garden at Ballast Quay and she convalesced on the wharf and went for walks to Grot Beach (Pipers Wharf – the bit that’s still a working boatyard – if you’re on the Thames Path it’s the bit that has the giant blue corrugated iron walls – TGP).

With Tosh and the hens on the Wharf, the place began to look a bit rural and I suppose it was giving me ideas. Something was. We flourished as St. Katherines Dock flourished and bought a Dutch barge. We ran a café in the hold, selling our produce and advertising our gardens. We weren’t successful. St Katherines wasn’t popular yet. Still, it was only a matter of time before we needed more produce. For that we needed more land, so I asked the PLA if they had any waste land (can you imagine such a thing as ‘waste land’ now? – TGP)

They lent me Surrey Docks, which had closed in 1970. Acres of scrub, abandoned water and old dock buildings! I took the hens and goats and bought more of both. Local kids again joined in and their parents started an allotment scheme (the current Surrey Docks City Farm is on a different site – it was moved in 1986 – TGP)

Surrey Docks Farm was an expanded version of Union Wharf Nursery Garden and we still did the odd gardening job to pay for it. Its effect on Ballast Quay expanded too. The neighbours gave me their cauliflower leaves, cabbage stalks,  stale bread, roast joints… We had to wade through offerings to get to the front door.

As city-farming took over, the greenhouse became redundant. We clad it to look more like a Kentish barn and the wharf became the Tea Garden. (We had to apply for Change Of Use)

The plane tree was still quite small. When its roots reached the river it suddenly grew like mad and broke up the paving stones which we had laid for the tea garden. But in those days the paving stones were covered in tables and chairs, which extended all along the top lawn. Customers even came by boat. In winter we lit a brazier by the shed. Then the neighbours’ talents for baking and giving really came into their own. People came from all over London (and indeed from Western Australia) to eat our cakes. They queued up for cream teas at 11 in the morning. A notice on the gate said Dogs Welcome.

Along with the kindness and warmth, another great feature of SE London was the bickering. The kids quarrelled with each other and formed rival gangs. Their parents quarrelled about whose cakes were best, whose made most money, who was cleanest, quickest, most efficient. Some put up posters and others tore them down. Some wouldn’t join in because others were in, and others took over and blamed everyone else. Rivalries dating from Victorian times were dug up and picked over. All human life was there.

But oh, don’t you wish it was still happening? Home made cakes and tea in the cutest garden on the riverfront? Sigh…

And of Hilary now?

I am a part-time hermit. I live in a fantastically beautiful gatehouse (In the West Country, I believe – TGP) and carry on the eighteenth century tradition of being the estate hermit. I look after the building and I have made another garden.. Hermitting includes hospitality, so I show people the building if they want to see it, and have people to stay.

I do, and sometimes teach, pegloom weaving. Recently, I have started a Social Enterprise called Cards From Prison, using art by prisoners.”

Hilary only occasionally gets back to Greenwich, but she has said that next time she comes back she’ll have a rummage around to see if she can find some pictures for us. In the meantime, though, this extraordinary woman does have one other project that will interest anyone who loves Greenwich. She is the editor of the magazine Follies which is how I came to be in contact with her – the next edition will carry a feature about the Rotunda (not by me, of course, by someone who knows what they’re talking about…)

I am delighted to have ‘met’ her. Thank you Hilary, not just for these memories, but for what you have done for Greenwich.

Ballast Quay – Part Two – A Garden is Born

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Today, I’m going back to Hilary Peters’s fabulous memories of Ballast Quay Union Wharf in the 1960s. Just to recap, she’s walked along the river until she found a Georgian house where she might be able to build a garden, persuaded Morden College (who own a lot of the land round there) not to pull down the gorgeous little houses there, and rented one of them for the princely sum of £7 a week. Now, she’s going to build a garden…

I now had a key to the huge wooden gates, though they were hard to open. I could go in and direct the clearing up. It was my very first taste of landscaping, an activity which makes you feel like God.

Lovells’s end crane reached over my wharf, so it was used to remove the barrels of bitumen, railway sleepers and general grot that accumulates on disused wharves. There was a huge cast-iron grab, too, which I wanted to use as a flower pot but that went. If I’d saved it, it would have gone where the plane tree now is. It must have been 6ft tall and 5ft diameter.


I was soon joined by a gang of local kids, desperate for something to do. And there was lots to do. Just picking up the broken glass took days. One of the kids knew of a young cherry tree in the garden of a house that was being pulled down in Banning St. Another had a father who had a key to the water mains. All of them could climb like monkeys. I was alternately blamed for leading them astray and praised for my social work. Together, we spread the topsoil and planted the grass. The cherry tree went in at the end by the pub, the railway sleepers made plant frames. The residual grot was mounded up and covered with soil.

I took this picture in January of the cherry tree – it’s not at it’s best – give it a few weeks and it will be back to its lovely self, but as you can see, forty-odd years have been kind to it…

Our neighbours were wonderful. They would knock on the door and give us food – sandwiches, roast meat, cakes, pancakes, smoked cod, hot cross buns, summer pudding, batter pudding, bread pudding, mince pies. Every time of year had its special food.


Then the greenhouse was built and I called myself Union Wharf Nursery Garden.

I maintained the gardens at Amen Court for St Paul’s Cathedral and the garden round Southwark Cathedral, where the Borough Market was still a real vegetable market and the garden was for drunks to have a sleep. (Plus ça change – TGP) Covent Garden was real market too, which I used, getting up at 4am and driving my mini-van straight into the Piazza.

The wharf housed a shifting collection of plants and trees, and occasionally our neighbours, who had no tradition of using a garden like a London Square. They just kept giving me food in exchange. And when I kept hens in the shed (free range on the lawn during the day) and gave them eggs, they wanted to pay me as well.

On one occasion, a hen disappeared, and then another. There was a large Dutch coaster moored against the wharf (at high tide, the captain’s cabin was a few inches from the shed.) I went on board to mourn my loss. The captain denied all knowledge of hens, wharves and even ships. Most Dutch people speak perfect English but this does not apply to sailors accused of theft. He understood nothing. Soon after, they left on the tide, and there on the sea wall, was the corpse of my second lost hen, carefully returned, though dead. I assume they ate the first one…

I started to work at St Katherine’s Dock, designing garden after garden as the development progressed, salvaging blocks of granite and York stone. They form the basis of ‘the rockery’ in the garden at Ballast Quay, now covered in ivy. All my dockland gardens had a fig tree because I liked the one at Wapping Pier Head so much. To me that huge fig tree against the Georgian houses in Wapping summed up the powerful mix of industry and beauty that my gardens struggled to recreate. Eating the figs in Ballast Quay is an unforeseen bonus.

Any plant that managed to put down roots through the paving slabs became a symbol of new life. The ferns and buddleias that grew out of the dock walls at St. Katherine’s were a language hardly anyone understood, certainly not the architects, who wanted me to make the place look like a million dollars. They actually said so.

But while the architects of St Katherine’s Dock were doing their best to appeal to the gin-palace owners they hoped would colonise that part of the Thames, Hilary already had her eye on another piece of real estate, one that would appeal to a completely different sort of customer. But I’ll leave that for next time…

The fabulous black and white shots, by the way, are by Richard Proctor whose photographs of Greenwich, taken back in the 1980s, really seem to capture something of what the wharf was like in much earlier days…

Playing With Fire

Monday, September 12th, 2011

At what point does common sense stop being common sense and start having to be The Law because some people don’t actually have any common sense?

I was ploughing through The Thames Conservancy 1857 – 1957 this weekend. It  logs the way the Thames was administrated through a hundred years and although frankly rather dry in places, threw up a couple of curious ideas.

Under a chapter jazzily entitled Constitution and Administration 1894 -1908 (Byelaws) I discovered that it took until the late Victorian age to revise and apply the 1875 Explosives Act to the river Thames. This is presumably because it hadn’t occurred to anyone that carrying large cargoes of really, really flammable/explosive material in any old boat up the river might not be a fabulous idea. But apparently they suddenly noticed that that’s exactly what rather a lot of inappropriate vessels were doing, and after some hasty revisions, five convictions were obtained very quickly (sadly no details) for basic infractions of hastily-revised laws and a code of who could carry what was put together.

Even then they hadn’t bothered including things like petroleum – that addition to the list of dodgy flammable cargoes didn’t happen until 1904. It was still a pretty ineffectual law – they’d forgotten to include petroleum spirit if it was for ‘export purposes’, an omission only discovered when a vessel was found in the river at East Greenwich laden with petroleum spirit – and a fire roaring in the cabin – with the excuse was that it was for abroad.

Interestingly the other burning (ahem) issue of 1904 was the public nuisance problem of ‘disorderly conduct’  on board party launches – we are told ‘a number’ of convictions were obtained that year, which makes me think that what with boats full of petrol with fires in the grates and launches full of drunk Edwardians, the Thames must have been a pretty scary place in 1904…

Greenwich Wildlife (12)

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Isn’t this a fine sight? This is the sign of one healthy river – and a river that flows right through a capital city. And this photo was taken in Greenwich – right by the King’s Steps on Greenwich beach.

Emma lives in East Greenwich and has the enviable job (well on a gorgeous day like today, anyway) of working for the Environment Agency as a Fisheries Officer, looking after the Tidal Thames, Ravensbourne, Quaggy and Pool.

Twice a year she and her pals at the EA get to carry out fish surveys at eight sites on the river – from Richmond in the west to Stanford-le-Hope (Essex) in the east.

She says “The data collected in these fish surveys helps us to understand the health of the river, which we need to report back to the EU. We survey the populations of fish using several different methods over the period that the tide turns at low water (known as slack water). Using several different methods means that we can survey as much of the river at that site as possible – a beam trawl is used to look at the deaper water, a seine net is used to survey the shallower margins and a kick net is used to look for tiny fish at the water’s edge.”

The fish are from their last year’s survery and are remarkable for the sheer variety of species. The one on the top of this post shows bream – which is a freshwater fish, and smelt, an esturine species.

And this:


…is a sea bass  (don’t tell the local restaurateurs, eh…) which is very definitely a marine species. The Thames has them all. Emma tells me that all these fish were caught in the same half hour period, “showing how valuable the intertidal foreshore area is in Greenwich for all kinds of fish”.

The last pic isn’t quite Greenwich but I couldn’t resist it. It’s a sight that Emma spotted, presumably whilst up to her thighs in water, in Brookmill Park near Deptford Bridge station. It’s on the wall of the DLR line where it comes up to the banks of the river Ravensbourne. “The river here was restored when the DLR wanted to use the concrete river channel as a place to lay the new line, so they built a new natural channel for the river to run in next to it, creating valuable new habitat for fish, birds such as kingishers and other wildlife” – and rarer mammals too, such as this RiverBanksy, which I adore as it really looks like it’s wading through undergrowth by the emasculated river. Truly an urban species…

Emma and her fishermans friends will be back in Greenwich on the 5th October to carry out their autumn survey. They’ll be by the naval college, at low tide which is around 1430. Emma says “We should be there from around 1400. Keep an eye out for us and our little silver Environment Agency boat, anyone is welcome to come and watch!”

Salutes For All

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Not quite Greenwich – but Stephen’s snap of these splendid chaps and the fact that, apparently, “Every visitor on boarding receives a salute” was enough for me to want to include these pics of Columbia’s naval flagship ship A.R.C. Gloria, currently sashaying for tourists, Columbian ex-pats and bigwigs alike over at South Quay West India Docks and forgive them for not actually stopping at Greenwich.

From the BBC News Story yesterday, the Columbian population of London are crazy to see their ship in London (I particularly liked the bit where the crew stand on the rigging in yellow, red and blue jerseys) and it’s quite an eyeful for the rest of us too.

Sadly she’s only in town ’til Friday.

Houseplants for All

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Now here’s an oddity. Apparently if you fancy taking a Clipper today and/or tomorrow you may see this rather odd sight (no – I don’t mean everyone will have been reduced to line drawings) – it’s the clippers being ‘transformed’ into veritable greenhouses of 3,000 houseplants by, rather randomly, The Flower Council of Holland. They’re even giving away peace lilies to commuters.

It’s in a bid by the Flower Council of Holland to share the joys of people ‘letting houseplants into their lives’ and Thames  Clippers to persuade people to commute using the river and I have to say if the boats looked like this every day I just might.

Not that I dislike the ‘normal’ Clippers – they’re a fantastic treat. I never get why anyone would want to sit in the middle with their laptop when they could look out of the window or even hang off the back in the summer enjoying the spray and the odd soaking when it ‘goes over a bump’ but then I guess I don’t do it every day. I have a theory that people do it just to show off to us tourists that they live so close to the river these fabulous views are just another source of urban ennui.

I’m not going to give any credence to the frankly dodgy-sounding studies that claim commuting is more stressful than being a fighter pilot or a riot policeman (c’mon….) but actually, the boat does make the train/tube/bus experience a poor second/third/fourth choice. And today you get peace lilies. What’s not to like?