I’m looking at a book given to me by a good friend, for Christmas or my birthday, I cannot remember. The prosaic title London’s Changing Riverscape belies the wealth of information between the covers, written by five enthusiasts of The Thames it shows both the river’s banks from London Bridge to Greenwich.
There’s a reason I’ve fished this book out from my bookshelves, for that same friend has given me for my 70th birthday.
A round trip from the Pool of London to Whitstable on the paddle steamer Waverley, the world’s last remaining seagoing vessel of its kind, and I have a tenuous connection with this venerable ship, described by the operators as ‘Britain’s largest interactive exhibit’, as this historical craft was first launched in the year of my birth.
I must, at some time, have driven down every street within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross, but never have I sailed down the Thames.
In the early light, there is a fine drizzle, not an auspicious start to the day. We lie moored alongside the grandly named Tower Millennium Pier, not that the ticket details give the correct name of the pier, nor a postcode that’s recognisable by my satnav.
We’re facing upstream and traffic is light upon London Bridge, which owing to Waverley’s height we cannot negotiate. I’m reminded that an earlier London Bridge caused such traffic jams, as carts would be forever running into each other, it precipitated an urgent rule that all traffic should drive on the left. The rule by the City Fathers would later be incorporated into the Highway Act of 1835 and was adopted throughout the British Empire.
The Waverley is doing what it was built for, taking day trippers out upon British waters for the proverbial trip round the bay, or in this case a trip around the Thames estuary.
Named after another ship which acted as a minesweeper in World War I and was sunk at Dunkirk during the Second World War, the Waverley has been lovingly restored and the only nod to modernity is the new lifeboats, escape ladders and fire extinguishers.
Tower Bridge is raised as one of the modern Thames Clipper Shuttles sound its horn by way of salute. This Victorian bridge often thought to be much earlier by some of my passengers was opened – literally – by the Prince of Wales in 1894, his mother, Queen Victoria described the reasons for its construction in less regal terms as – bosh!
Others were as equally opposed to this artery between the City and the south bank, known as Jacob’s Island, which Dickens used as Bill Sykes’s lair. Dickens went further to describe Tower Bridge’s construction as:
. . . the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants
After Tower Bridge on our port side, as we should refer to the north side of the Thames for this part of the journey came St. Katherine’s Dock built between 1826-1828 at the cost of demolishing 1,200 houses, a hospital and a church. In all 11,000 inhabitants were displaced. After all that the dock would remain a working facility for only 140 years.
Further on much of the wharves have disappeared and the riverbank given over to modern apartments, which the architects seem to have a competition amongst themselves as who can design the most offensive in terms of looks. The first real evidence of the river’s industrial heritage is not encountered until we reach Wapping where many of the original warehouses have now residential usage – loft apartment living I think is the jargon.
But first in our sights were a pair of fine Georgian pier houses once the home of senior officials of the London Dock Company. With good reason did they live adjacent to their workplace, the wool warehouses alone occupied nearly one million square feet of storage. The valuable spices each were kept separated in their own store building and as recently as when I was on the Knowledge you could smell the aroma of the various exotic spices.