Keeping Maritime Heritage Alive in the Thames

During 1994 the call went out around the UK coasts to attend a parade on the Thames heralding the launch of a new association, Heritage Afloat, an umbrella body uniting all elements of our maritime heritage for the first time. The parade was to be from Tower Bridge to Greenwich on 6th October and would include power and sail.

Being a founder member both personally and for the Sailing Smack Association, I had enjoyed the meetings of the nascent Shadow Council upstairs in the Red Lion on Whitehall. The division bell would ring occasionally during meetings to call MPs from the bar to vote and this somehow added to the sense of being at the centre of something important and good. At an early meeting Jamie Clay raised the fate of the Heartsease, threatened with extinction for her interior. There is still no mechanism to save important boats, even today. At each meeting Colin Allen produced fresh lists of boats of historic merit so that eventually the file became too big for his brief case . Talk revolved around presenting to the Culture Select Committee, leading to the establishment of the National Historic Ships Unit, how to influence the novel lottery funds; above all, how to create a broad consensus across a fleet ranging from static museum ships to private yachts and dinghies. Somehow it all came together under the inspiring leadership of David Morgan helped by many others. It has since merged with the Maritime Trust to become the Maritime Heritage Trust and I commend membership to anyone supporting the cause of keeping maritime skills and traditions alive.

And there was to be a parade in the Thames. It felt right to take the Sallie along. Two years before she had been to the first Brest Festival where 15000 crew were fed from the back of lorries and the French really showed us the way to do things. London was much closer to home. The parade was on a Thursday so earlier that week Graham Lovegrove and I left Maldon with a fair wind which gave a fetch as far as the Blacktail Spit. We had kept ahead of the loaded sand barge Roffen until we started tacking but once we did even Alan Jenner’s fuel-efficient slow steaming soon took him into the distance as dusk settled on Sea Reach. It was cold and there was plenty of shipping making a night passage any further unpleasant so Holehaven was our harbour for the night. We had electric navigation lights in those days, long before LEDs and before we learnt the error of our ways on a second trip to Brest in 2000 when the Channel slop made running the portable generator impossible and the lights went dim. Back to paraffin we went subsequently and still have it with a redundant electric installation taunting us with memories of cost and clutter.

Once under the windshadow of the jetties all was peace and we came gently to a halt as the anchor bit the mud. It is a steep edge so we approached with a couple of fathoms of cable intially hanging below the bow to stop us not too deep to concern any shipping and not too shallow to take the ground and lose the next tide. Next day we stopped at Gravesend, laying on a Sailing Club mooring if I remember rightly, and picked up Don Ramsay for the trip up the river with an early start on the day of the parade. The wind remained westerly so it was a beat all the way with big jib and full mainsail and the topsail until above the barrier at Woolwich.

It is possible to leave Gravesend at low water and make high water in the Pool under sail with the right amount of wind and a smart smack or barge. Indeed sometimes we got there before high water in Xylonite and waited on a buoy by the wonderfully-named London Grist Mill for a Tower Bridge lift back when Roy Aspinall used to book the barge for a week of day trips each year from London Bridge City Pier with his friends from West Mersea Yacht Club. Their munificence subsidised delivery voyages for visually impaired people there and back. I was never as proud as when receiving a “well done my boy” from Yachtmaster Examiner Roy when we passed the Wallet Spitway buoy showing ebb and the Swin Spitway buoy with flood tide.

In Sallie we had no radio or mobile phone, so were blissfully unaware of any radio traffic. There may have been some of course because to sail through the Woolwich Barrier to windward it is necessary to approach from level with the next span to the south and this can take you onto the “wrong” side of the river byelaw-wise. You then sail full and fast so as to luff and carry your way through your span. The tide does the rest. Wivenhoe barrier is much narrower and more challenging.

Once in Limehouse Reach what should appear from South Dock Marina than Hardy? Noel Probyn had left Maldon a day ahead of us and had a fair wind up so was early enough to have a night in. The two boats made a splendid sight as they crossed tacks into the Lower Pool. Rachel Spender captured the scene from SB Thalatta, also there for the parade. Hardy went on up to near Tower Bridge where the parade formed up. It was led by PS Waverley and had steamboats, barges, working boats and yachts. There may even have been a narrow boat. We anchored for a short while just above Wapping Police Station and joined in as the others passed outward-bound. There was a parade marshall on the Regard and apparently Noel was repeatedly asked to hold station which he found impossible being under sail. The overall progress of the parade depended on the speed of the shovel being wielded on one of the steamboats.

After Greenwich the parade broke up. We carried on down to anchor near dusk just above Shorne Mead and Don left us for work next day. Graham sat in an abandoned chair on the beach and we watched rather than heard the Waverley spuffling past doing 12 knots. In the calm of evening a spout of water rose vertically some way up the sharp edge of her stem as she rounded the Ovens.

Friday saw us return down Swin and beat home up the Blackwater. I remember it was by then a starlit clear sky and ice was forming on deck. I have not been as cold underway before or since and only by taking turns to nip below and warm up by the stove did we make it to the mooring.

This trip took place almost 28 years ago and much has changed. The Pool of London is busier now with far more passenger traffic if no more freight. There are boats offering Rib experiences (tag line “hold on tight”) making wash and travelling at speeds promising multiple fatalities in time. Indeed, everything happens faster to little purpose and the joy of appreciating the river for its intrinsic qualities and those of its environs is in danger of being lost. You would not find this in Venice, Amsterdam or Stockholm I doubt. Would we sail the smack to Wapping again today? I would like to say yes, but I wonder if we would, and whether we would be welcome to do so. We took Cambria from Kent to London for the 2012 Jubilee. There were many craft coming upriver for the pageant but in our field of vision only Cambria was sailing. We were picked up by a friendly tug in Gallions courtesy of Chris Livett. As we rounded Wappingness the half-barge Cygnet was just ahead. Des had sailed all the way up, of course; in fact, all the way from Snape. He and his crew were in period garb, she with parasol as the sun shone, unlike the next day of the pageant itself. Nearing a buoy and with little way, Des hopped in the boat and sculled a line. There was palpable relief in the voice of the boatman on the harbourmaster’s launch reporting on the radio “Cygnet has now picked up a buoy”. Such a standard manoeuvre by a vessel so insignificant would hardly have merited notice barely a few years ago. I am not sure quite what has happened and am sure it has not been planned. Somehow, the most natural activities are now odd and eccentric.

This post was prompted by Noel coming across the pictures and passing them on. Since then by coincidence Don has been in touch. He visited the excellent London: Port City exhibition supported by the PLA at the Docklands Museum. Go if you get a chance. He was perplexed by the complete absence of Thames sailing barges and the tiny appearance of lighters and lightermen. He knew the development of London and the port depended heavily on these so asked a member of staff why so little was displayed. In reply he was asked “what is a Thames barge?” I mention this only to show how quickly times move on. It would have been inconceivable even a generation ago to get this answer. We cannot sit on our laurels and think our heritage is somehow hard-wired into the nation’s psyche. It most certainly is not, and if we value it and believe in its benefits to our communities and ourselves we need to work hard and fight to keep it front and centre. Then maybe the Sallie and others can attend a 30 year anniversary of 1994, but that will be a story for another day.