IV HOLE HAVEN TO ST. KATHARINE’S
Next day was the first that I was able to have breakfast before setting sail; there was even time to doze after the morning shipping forecast, so all in all a rare treat was had. The wind was set to stay in the north-west and I had a fair distance to beat if I was going to try and make it all the thirty-two and a half miles upstream to St. Katharine's Dock on the day's tide, as this was my last chance to get there. Low water at Holehaven was at eight o'clock and the flood would run for seven and a quarter hours until high water at Tower Bridge at a quarter past three that afternoon.
It is interesting to think that London may never have been built where it was had the prevailing westerlies not been set off by the extra hour's flood running upstream, so that there was always a chance for the smaller vessel to make it in a single tide from Sea Reach to the City. There is no way that anyone can profitably sail against a full-flowing tide anywhere in the Thames, as it runs at a maximum rate of two and a half knots on the flood at springs and between two and a half and three on the ebb, so until the advent of steam a self-imposed one-way system must usually have been in force. This would have made a very sensible form of traffic control, bearing in mind the volume of shipping that was sailing on the river then - a print I have of 1832 shows the Lower Pool at Limehouse with rafts of ships almost from shore to shore - though perhaps one should allow something for the artist's licence and he may not have known of the tide himself.
The Thames barges used also to have to wait for the wind in Leigh Creek or Holehaven, and I was lucky to have enough of it not to have to do so. The day was a working day, bright but overcast, and with four rolls down I made good progress, albeit against the last few minutes of the ebb, through the wide expanse of Sea Reach to Lower Hope Point and the last glimpse of the open sea. Then followed a fast fetch up the Lower Hope itself, with the young flood gathering strength under us - three miles in half an hour and a thrash past Gravesend and Tilbury, the once-proud downstream headquarters of the Port of London Authority with its long covered jetty and imposing facade looking strangely silent and empty, towards the tall chimneys of the Northfleet Power Station and the Portland Cement Works. The latter at least was doing something, as the tide swept Merlin past below its quayside, smoke from a chimney and noise of hoppers groaning inside its sheds. Northfleet Hope I made in three boards, wondering how Tilbury Container Port was supposed to be rivalling Felixstowe as there was nothing moored by its brand-new quay in the middle of the morning on a working day. Round the corner of Broadness Fidler's Reach was truly a reach, and then the ninety-degree bend to starboard at Stone Ness, marked by a squat miniature lighthouse - more reminiscent of the Baltic "Skargarden" - than the industrial reaches of the Thames, opened out to the three-mile stretch of the Long Reach. The feeling of being somewhere else was made greater when two Dutch yachts and a Swede motored by, leaving me to bucket through the chop dead into the wind at the strongest point of the tide. Either side the old Dartford Marshes and the West Thurrock Marsh used to lie, surely a dismal place in Dickens' day and perhaps the scene of that frightening chase with the convict in 'Great Expectations', but now brought firmly into the present by the bulk of the brand-new Littlebrook Power Station on the Kent shore and the traffic jam of the Dartford Tunnel going underneath it. (So that's where the Dartford Tunnel is!) Still, there were lines of rather derelict-looking jetties on the Purfleet bank as well to give it some feel of abandon, but these gave a minor respite from the worst of the chop so I wasn't going to worry about them - the wind, now a good force 4, had created a series of short, sharp, almost standing wavelets in the middle of the tide and it was really better to sail Merlin on the edges of the river than to lose way and stand in the middle being swept into these.
I lost count of the number of tacks we made in the Long Reach but eventually one last board took Merlin into the calmer water at its head, under a green grassy sea-wall close by the splendid Georgian buildings of the Purfleet Powder Magazines (now more prosaically called "Barracks"). We were quite rural again with cows grazing on the sea-wall and a heron fishing in the shallows which flew away over to Kent on our approach, and I almost thought for a moment that we might be in the Maas near Dordrecht. Another Dutch yacht motored by, which confirmed my feelings, and then we came round to Erith, where I saw the first English yacht I had seen all day actually sailing on the Thames and was brought back to earth again by the GLC (still working for London) this time written in four-foot high letters on the walls of a brand-new refuse disposal unit at Coldharbour Point. In which, so I saw, barges were lying moored, and an unmistakable smell wafted downwind.
Erith has a yacht club with moorings on the other side of the river from the GLC unit (and not downwind of it except in a north-westerly) which I noted might be useful in case of need on the way downstream again. The club-house is an old ferry-boat with a real funnel, next to an asbestos works, so perhaps one shouldn't spend too long there.
Despite tacking I had made good almost seven miles from Broadness to Erith Church in five minutes over the hour and Halfway Reach was the next but one, so I began to hope that we might get to London after all. Both Erith Reach and Halfway Reach were back to the north-west, so much tacking ensued once again. Halfway Reach in the 1870’s had only Erith Magazine, Halfway House and a pub called the Leather Bottle standing on its banks but it is now more commonly known for the Ford Works at Dagenham on its northern shore. A small passenger ferry across the river has been established by Ford so that their workers can travel over from Kent without bringing their cars, which seems a sensible idea, as one can pass a long time in a traffic jam on the A13 when their shifts change.
Crossness to port, at the upper end of Halfway Reach, had little sandy inlets at its edge where a family of coot were playing, and some swans, and several small waders that David would have told but I couldn’t. I cut the corner to avoid taking an extra board across to the derelict Barking Power Station and probably lost some time in doing so as there was almost a back eddy in the lee of the point.
Barking reach, next, used also to be known as Tripcock Reach. I never understood why it as called that, but the 1870's chart marks some Tripcock Trees on the banks of Plumstead Marshes on the Kent shore. The last undeveloped area of marshland on the Thames, these are now becoming Thamesmead, and probably Tripcock Close, in Phase 3, will shortly be the only reminder of the Trees. Could the name have come from the firing ranges used by the gunners from Woolwich Arsenal?
The first sight of the office blocks in the City came at Barking Reach and - with three hours of flood still to go - optimism grew.
Barking Gas Works, even more derelict than the Power Station, followed, and then the entrances to the Royal Docks, the dock offices now holding the London Docklands Development Corporation. One of the locks has been filled in and the other will surely follow shortly, so soon after the last of them, the King George V Dock, was built, for this is where the Stolport is going to be (Short Landing and Take Off) to whisk the city financiers off to their breakfast meetings in Geneva and Hamburg. I wonder what the residents of Thamesmead will feel, as their brand-new homes turn into the incoming flight-path?
A fetch up Gallion’s Reach brought Merlin within sight of the Thames Barrier at Woolwich and its fiendishly complicated system of lights and warnings, which MUST be followed on pain of the wrath of the GLC (working for London) whose initials are emblazoned in ten-foot high letters of stainless steel on each of its nine towers. Someone once said that when the GLC took over the management of the project its costs escalated quite inexplicably and I suppose the price of stainless steel might have had some bearing on it. I took a photograph of the barrier and the Woolwich ferry, as the sun was beginning to break out, and the GLC initials can be seen glinting on each of the towers.
It said nothing in the directions about sailing past the barrier
(or not doing so) so I chose the gap with the most green lights on
it and tacked quickly through, hoping no-one would stop me, as there was no way I could stop for them. Not a sound, and in a flash we were the other side, soon sailing up Bugsby’s Reach to Blackwall, where the clippers once came from and now the tunnel goes under.
It was almost a broad reach from Blackwall to Greenwich, the wind beginning to be affected now by the wharves and tower blocks, and at the entrance to the India and Millwall Docks a flotilla of the Ocean Youth Club yachts with a paddle steamer and an escorting police launch gave some life to the old river.
Greenwich Hospital, looking north, was in shadow and the Queen's House was shrouded in scaffolding but the Royal Observatory stood up bravely on top of its hill as I crossed the line from Longitude East to Longitude West, shadowed by some trees on the Isle of Dogs. A sister-ship of the Dirty British Coaster of the day before chugged past rather close for comfort, hugging the inside of the bend on her way downstream against the tide.
I came into the wind at the foot of Limehouse Reach and faced another short sharp burst of tacking, past the entrances to the Surrey and East London Docks (no longer) and some depressing looking "thirties" housing on the Rotherhithe shore, until we breasted the last point and bore away into the Lower Pool. The tower of Hawksmoor's St. Anne's, Limehouse, with its curious cupola, still stands over the bend as it has since the early years of the eighteenth century, but now looking down at an empty river and soon, though one hopes not, to be dwarfed by the proposed 850ft towers of the Canary Wharf office scheme. It does seem to be a heavy price to pay for the London Docklands to have their Light Railway extended into the City to be obliged to let these towers be built, which appears to be the crux of the idea, and I would have thought there might have been a better way to spread the load of new offices more evenly over the area the Corporation has at its disposal than to build such unusually high buildings. Still, someone will be able, if it goes ahead, to have a view most of the way down to Gravesend and the planes coming to the Stolport will have something to make them even Stol-er than they would otherwise need to be, which might benefit the citizens of Thamesmead in the end.
The Lower Pool seems in a way poised for something, its purpose as a dock long gone and most of its warehouses demolished, but those remaining probably on the whole in a far better state of repair than they've been for many a year. When all are redeveloped and new buildings have filled the gaps where the old have fallen there could once again be a character to the place but now it waits, silent save for the contractor's cement-mixers, history swept back and forth on its waters with the flotsam, the pull of the tide forgotten by all except the writers of Reeds Almanac. The Pool is wider than you imagine at high water, with ample space for the ships to lie alongside, those closest to the shore taking the mud at low tide. There are still a few cranes on the warehouse walls to swing the cargoes of spices and precious silks to the wharves beside Cathay Street, Paradise Street and Jamaica Road, all names echoing the different ages of the past, each conjuring up their several trades. At low tide the water runs smooth between the muddy beaches on either side, twenty feet lower and sheltered by the high sides of the wharves and the warehouse walls, but at high tide the wind eddies around the buildings and hits you with unexpected gusts whenever you're least wishing for them.
It was only just gone two o'clock and the flood was still rising fast when I turned the final bend by Cherry Garden Pier to see Tower Bridge straight ahead, proudly spanning the tideway and framing the high dome of St. Paul's beyond, the spires of the City churches and the shining glass cliffs of the office blocks beside them. Even today, in the humdrum land-borne world of the 1980's, there is still a mysterious magnetism and mystique in the first sight of the City from the River at close quarters, a sense of each acknowledging the power of the other, of the City's importance as an entity (but entirely isolated from its people) to the River and of the River's knowledge that without its presence the City would never have been. The West End, Westminster and Mayfair are not part of it, nor ever will be, as it is only the City, and a small corner of it at that, which looks towards the Sea and has its link with it in the River. The wind was still blowing true and still had a twang of salt in it, even over the short stretch of water whence it came, and it was that little twang of salt and the freshness in the air despite the town all around that seemed to say - in a still, small voice - that the River and the Sea would always, while politicians and Lord Mayors might come and go, remain the true Masters of the City and would still be there when the City has long ceased to be, so that mariners can come and gaze at the mysterious piles of masonry that once made London great, and turn with the tide, and sail down to the Sea again.
There is a very nasty chop off St. Katharine's Dock at high water even with only a force 4, so one doesn't want to spend longer moored to the tarry sides of the 'welcome' barge by the entrance to the lock gates than one can help. There was no contact with the shore from it at all, but fortunately the motor boat ahead of me (it will only take three vessels comfortably alongside) had a VHF radio and rang up the lock-keeper who assured us that the gates would open in the next ten minutes or so. It's usually advisable to book one's berth in advance, but I reckoned they would have difficulty turning me away and that it couldn't be impossible to find a space for something as small as an Ajax.
On the stern went the outboard and started first go, and without any neutral or reverse off we set into the lock to take our place in a motley crush of boats from a Thames barge downwards, but very few of them British. We all squeezed and hummed, and I paid the minimum fee of £12.50, though for the evident pleasure the yachtsmen give the visiting tourists strolling camera-slung around the Dock from the Tower, it ought to be free, and then we were let out and entered the Dock itself.
London at last. But it was more like Ostend or Veere, yachts and tourists, coaches and souvenirs, the Dickens Pub, the Beefeater Restaurant (Medieval feasts nightly - advance bookings only, said the jouster on the door) and 57 varieties of ice-cream in cones. Somehow, though, it didn't matter. No-one came in a dirty pair of jeans in a boat to look at pinstripe suits, Stock Exchanges or Middle-Eastern Banks, and the City, now I was on land in the Haven, seemed a hundred years away and I cared not a button for it.
Some elderly men looked askance at me in the Cruising Association's hallowed library as I was directed in a hushed whisper to their telephone, armed with my last tenpence, to send for some colleagues from my office to come and see the shipwrecked mariner when they'd finished suing people for the day.
The Cruising Association is marvellously helpful and is very lucky to have found such a spot for its headquarters in the middle of St. Katharine's Dock, but even they were possibly not all that pleased to see a person in dirty jeans off a boat, and would probably have been less pleased had they known the boat as well. (I hope that any member who reads this will forgive me, as I was a little punch-drunk by the time I arrived and not over-concerned with the formalities of life!).
White wine with my friends on board after a shower and lunch and a kip, and cleaning the tar from the welcome barge off the decks, restored my spirits to a more normal level, and after an exceptionally tasty (and reasonable) steak in the club-room of the St. Katharine's Haven Yacht Club I fell into a deep and, from what little I recall, dreamless, sleep punctured only occasionally by the thought of coming about once again, and of another of the 18 reaches of the Thames to tack through. The morrow could bring what it would.