Blackfriars Pier to Putney Pier
Wednesday April 12th 2014
I don’t usually get up this early unless having to catch a plane, but we had left that joy to Mary who should be safely re-united with family in Hong Kong. Jo and I had merely started off early in order to catch the last westbound River Boat Number 6 from Blackfriars Pier. We were early enough to watch the last of the mist dissipate from the top of the Shard and the trip took place in spring sunshine. However as this model of Thames Clipper is much smaller than last week’s there is no deck room for passengers so we took our photos through glass. ‘Storm Clipper’ was also small enough for us to feel the wake of other bigger boats. It bobbled in other words.
The bonus of heading this way was that we were almost the only passengers. Kylie (not that one, though she was antipodean), who uses this route for her daily commute, was a helpful and friendly guide to different sites along the way. As a regular she knew the crew and made sure they were aware of their ‘celebrity passengers’ (their words not ours) so we had en route input from Dean , the crew member, leaving Alfie to steer the boat. Dean read about us in his local paper, though he was too polite to say what he thought of the project.
Blackfriars Pier is on the North Bank and while we were waiting there were plenty of runners and riders using the comparative peace of the Thames-side path to exercise. Most of the Victoria Embankment was built in the late 19th century and is another debt we owe to Mr Bazelgette and his attempts to ‘clean up’ disease ridden Victorian London.
Of some interest is 2 Temple Road, with selective but free opening times.
Also set back is the rather magical and secluded Temple Church.
Opposite, mostly dating from the Fifties and the Festival of Britain, is the South Bank , now an Arts Culture Hub, a good place for a stroll and a street food destination in its own right.
There are several monuments along the banks better appreciated for the detail on foot but certainly a boat offers a grand view. A major example is Cleopatra’s needle, grandly mis-named but clearly leading a charmed life nevertheless as it could so easily have been buried in sand at source, lost at sea en route to London and then damaged by the Luftwaffe. Nowadays compared to the London Eye revolving gently on the opposite bank it gets little attention. Our first stop was the Westminster Embankment.
Westminster Bridge is under renovation and this is how they do it. We are very much in the last phase I think. The Houses of Parliament have also recently been cleaned and Jo and I remembered that their architect Pugin was less well balanced than some of his peers, dying of exhaustion aged 40, though having eight children may have been a contributory factor. To the other side of the bridge stands the aptly named Portcullis House where many MPs have their offices.
Millbank to the north side has Tate Britain which is set back far enough to be hard to see from the boat; more commanding on the south bank skyline is the MI 6 building and the adjacent flats, all of which were lucky to escape the mis-routing helicopter in 2013. We saw several safely coming into land at Battersea heliport of course. There is a Tate to Tate river service – in previous years I’ve seen the boats with Damien Hirst spot decorations but today’s Thames Clippers are sponsored by KPMG and look altogether more sober.
If you are quick you can also spot where two of London’s lost rivers finally make it to the Thames – on the south side the Effra, which started up in the hills near Crystal Palace and runs out just below our security services, and the Westbourne, flowing down from Hampstead, (re) emerges along the Grosvenor Road towards Chelsea Embankment which we were fast approaching.
In our smaller vessel we were taking a steady rather than swift pace and I mentioned the speed we hit last week – Dean confirmed that the bigger clippers go at 30 knots along the lower reaches of the Thames, and he was clearly an admirer of the bigger boats.
Much of the river front on both banks is built up with housing from here onwards – most of it having gone up in the last 25 years or so, replacing wharves and industry, but not so heavy as further downriver had been. With very few exceptions – the sizeable Churchill Gardens Estate* which was built post-war – much of the housing is very much upmarket and private with penthouses and balconies overlooking the river. Chelsea has also become something of a design hub with several prestigious firms having their showcase offices round here; Kylie works in design and enjoys the inspiration which the changing view of the river offers. Riverside there are also clusters of small boats; in Chelsea these are permanently moored houseboats, further down the river these are small leisure craft, both involving substantial financial upkeep.
Albert Bridge is rightly famous; it may be a little delicate for heavy road traffic but from the river it looks like a carefully iced celebration cake where pink and white are the chosen colours, with carefully applied rosettes. Battersea Bridge looks smart also with Battersea Park as a background to the river – the Peace Pagoda has been there since 1984 so is looking slightly weatherbeaten and more overgrown by the shrubbery than when first erected.
The LWB are very fond of gas holders and power stations and this trip offers two. Kylie said that the Battersea flats, still only on plan, had already been sold predictably enough to Eastern money. I was dubious that the conversion/restoration would ever see the light of day as so many schemes have failed, but if money has changed hands this one will more likely complete.
Lots Road was built to provide supplies for the early Underground lines so it was totally appropriate that it was used as a location for a climactic chase for the 1928 film ‘Underground’; its fate is also for housing but perhaps more dense and affordable.
We waved Kylie off to work and shortly after leaving Chelsea the boat stopped/hovered/trod water (don’t know the technical term) in mid-stream as a large barge full of containers crossed over. I asked if smaller craft have to give way to larger and Dean said it was more a case of giving way to anything ‘towed’ as their steering and passage is less controlled or predictable. It was indeed a load of West London’s rubbish being towed east down to just past Crossness courtesy of Wangas and London’s remaining lightermen – for a more detailed and very fascinating account of London’s river men see here. As ever it seems to be the case of West London’s rich exporting their rubbish to the less affluent east… Other river traffic we passed were the police and a survey boat.
Interestingly when I worked for Wandsworth borough in the Seventies this stretch of the river was one of the smelliest, between the Ram Brewery, Price’s Candle factory and a former Shell Oil Terminal, and you held your breath as you walked between the few remaining homes along here. Possibly with the exception of Wangas and Wandsworth borough’s own recycling facility the old brownfield site has been transformed with successive blocks of doubtless ‘luxury’ flats.
Their view must be nice too as across the river in Fulham the banks start ‘greening’ up with firstly the very exclusive Hurlingham Club and then the Bishop’s (of London ) Park coming right down to the Thames path.
While we were waiting for Wangas it gave Dean a chance to talk about his own training and qualifications (learning about tide sets for example) and to tell us that the Clippers are kept at Trinity Buoy Wharf, which as the name implies makes and maintains buoys and
Andrew will like this site as it references both his hero Michael Faraday and Southwold.
Tooting briefly we headed under Wandsworth road and rail bridges, not forgetting that the River Wandle (which featured on many of our bus trips in SW London) joins the Thames near here. We scuttled swiftly (the time-table is very strictly adhered to) under Putney Bridge to tie up after a nearly 40-minute river bus ride. There was just time for the coffee lady to take a photo before the last passengers of the day boarded for the return trip.
*Terminus of the now NBFL Route 24s.
We are aware that there are other River Bus Routes but by and large the Numbers 1&6 subsume the shorter and commuter orientated other routes.
The Project overall which has broadened our knowledge and understanding of London (though this remains superficial notwithstanding) has also increased our love of the city in all its aspects. How fitting to end with the River which marks and defines its different components in so many ways.
I will leave Jo to outline the parameters of our next, slightly daunting Project….