Category Archives: london bridge

That’ll show the Cnut.

ImageBy God, it’s been a long time since last I posted here. The reasons are complicated – suffice it to say that I think we’ve heard the last of Baron von Hamstern. So, back to posting stuff about London!

There are various nursery rhymes on the subject of London and its characters. One of the most boring is surely ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’ The lyrics you’re probably familiar with are,

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down

Falling down

Falling down

London Bridge is falling down,

My Fair Lady

I mean, there are other verses, but that’s what everyone remembers. In all honesty, you’re not missing much if you don’t know the rest. But did you know that it’s based on a true story?

Oh yes. First, a little background. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the unbelievably boring bridge that we now call London Bridge is far from the first by that name.ImageThe present bridge replaces one that was built in 1831 (which is now based in Lake Havasu, Arizona, as per this photo). The 1831 bridge replaced a medieval bridge which lasted for hundreds of years in varying states of disrepair. Indeed, the fact that it was falling to bits in the 17th century helped save Southwark from the Great Fire – collapsed buildings on the bridge formed a firebreak.


Old London Bridge. If you look closely, you can see the heads on spikes, which were a popular tourist attraction. You had to make your own entertainment in those days.

So, case closed, right? The medieval bridge, or Old London Bridge as it’s popularly known, was basically all about the falling down. That rhyme could have come from almost any time in its history.

Could have, but didn’t. No, it seems the rhyme dates from even further back from that.

We need to go right back to the 11th century for the origin. At this time, London was under the rule of the Danish King Cnut, a man who was permanently one misprint from disaster. Cnut had conquered England and exiled King Aethelred the Unready, who didn’t see that one coming for obvious reasons.

While Aethelred was in Normandy, plotting his bloody vengeance, he formed an alliance with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Olaf sailed his troops up the Thames to meet Cnut’s forces in London. The forces were arranged on either side of the river, with a substantial proportion of them based on the wooden bridge that was then known as London Bridge.

Fortunately, Olaf, unlike Aethelred, was ready for this, and had a cunning plan. He simply hitched his ships to the bridge supports and ordered his men to haul away. The bridge collapsed, killing the troops on the bridge and dividing Cnut’s forces. London was retaken, and the event was commemorated in an epic which begins,

London Bridge is fallen down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing,

Odin makes our Olaf win!

This is commonly given as the origin of the nursery rhyme. Admittedly Cnut took London back a couple of years later, but nobody’s writing any nursery rhymes about him. Probably because of the aforementioned misprint issue.



Filed under Buildings and architecture, Disasters, History, Landmarks, Literature, London, london bridge, Thames, Uncategorized

A seat by the fire

The Great Fire of London. Or at least, one of them.

London is no stranger to blazes. Even prior to the now-legendary Great Fire of London of 1666, there had been at least twelve major conflagrations that had destroyed or at least very seriously damaged the city.

This was something of an occupational hazard in a city so crowded and crammed together, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that regulations were so poorly enforced. In theory, it was illegal to build a house out of wood with a thatched roof. In theory, businesses that were a fire hazard were illegal within the city walls (hence the East End, where those things could legally be put). In practice, as you might imagine by my sneering italics, neither of those laws were enforced with any great enthusiasm.

There were firefighting provisions of a sort. Watchmen, employed by the parishes, were expected to keep an eye out for blazes. However, as I have previously mentioned, those chaps weren’t exactly the most dynamic of fellows. Similarly, citizens were expected to form impromptu fire brigades, which were generally pretty effective in the case of small fires – the prospect of losing your house is a great motivator. The favoured method was to use hand-powered fire pumps (such as the one modelled above left) or, where that failed, to demolish houses and thus create firebreaks. If your chimney was on fire, the most common advice was to fire a gun up it. For some people, that’s the solution to everything.

What the Great Fire highlighted was what King Charles II (seen on the right) had been saying for years – that this sort of thing was all very well in the case of small blazes, but in the case of larger ones it was utterly useless. Indeed, during the fire, Rev. Thomas Vincent complained that “London, so famous for its wisdom and dexterity, can now find neither brains nor hands to prevent its ruin.”

Charles, despite being a well-known playa, was not without wisdom when it came to firefighting. He had been one of the louder voices prior to the fire calling for the stricter enforcement of building regulations. During the conflagration, he overruled the rather useless Lord Mayor  and placed fellow firefighting nerd the Duke of York in charge. He himself took a major part in both directing operations and dousing the flames. I presume he wasn’t dressed like he is in that picture, but it would be funny if he was. Following the fire (and indeed, during it), he arranged for operations to temporarily accommodate displaced inhabitants of the city and to bring food to the ruins. Admittedly this was in no small part due to the fear of riot – Charles was pro-Catholic, which had made him a lot of enemies in Protestant London, and there were plenty of people eager to blame the blaze on Catholic conspirators (so much so that when the Duke of York later converted to Catholicism, records of his own heroic efforts were deliberately distorted to make him look like one of the arsonists).

Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t Charles’ firefighting enthusiasm that led to the beginnings of the modern fire brigade, but the commercial incentive. Isn’t that so often the way?

Nobody is entirely sure who invented fire insurance, but the most likely candidate was Nicholas If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon (remember what I said about how London was a Protestant city?). What Barbon offered was a service whereby if you bought insurance with him, his men would fight any fires that broke out on your property and, if they failed to save it, would rebuild it. The idea was eagerly embraced, and soon there were several other companies offering the service. Homeowners so covered would hang a plaque (like the one above) on the wall in the event of fire.

This was in theory a great idea, but the problem was that insurance companies would only fight fires in buildings that they covered. So if No. 2 was covered, but No. 4 wasn’t (not that houses would have been numbered back then, but you know), the street might still burn down. So in the 18th century, the insurance companies cooperated to bring in a new system. The first fire brigade to arrive and quench the flames would get a reward. Good idea, yes? Well, in practice what it led to was a lot of punch-ups between fire brigades over who got there first, to the detriment of property in the vicinity. There were even instances of rival fire brigades deliberately sabotaging each other’s equipment in order to prevent their enemies claiming the cash.

In 1833, eventually some semblance of order was achieved with the foundation of the London Fire Engine Establishment under James Braidwood, an Edinburgh gentleman who agitated for the founding of a proper civic fire brigade (such as the one he had headed in Edinburgh, in fact). The LFEE played a prominent role in attempting to save the Houses of Parliament the following year, despite the fact that, as Braidwood pointed out, they were under no obligation to save the uninsured Parliament buildings. The Duke of Wellington, who was undoubtedly a great military commander but as a politician was a bit of a dick, opposed the concept of a proper fire brigade on the grounds that it would reduce public vigilance. The same man also opposed mixed-race marriages in India and believed railways should be discouraged because they allowed working class people to move about.

Braidwood was killed in the line of duty on 22nd June 1861, when a fire broke out on Tooley Street. This blaze would engulf the waterfront from London Bridge to where Tower Bridge now stands, and was the largest blaze the city had seen since 1666. Like Charles II, Braidwood believed in strategic firefighting, and so to that end advised that getting to the heart of the fire. In so doing, Braidwood was crushed by a falling warehouse.

His death was, however, not in vain. His passing was the cause of national mourning, and led to renewed demands for a civic-funded fire brigade. The loudest calls for reform came from the insurance companies, who under the LFEE’s policies had to fight fires regardless of whether the property was insured or not, and were thus effectively paying for everyone else’s safety. At last reason prevailed, and London got its fire brigade on January 1, 1866. Took us long enough – Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and the aforementioned Edinburgh already had brigades in place. Still, we got there in the end.

Anyone for toast?


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, london bridge, Medieval London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, The City, Westminster

Ice, Ice Baby

Winter, it would seem, is well and truly here. I am basing this purely on the heinous amount of snow outside. Of course, this isn’t entirely unexpected – it’s been brass-monkeys cold for a while now. I’m not a religious guy, but on Saturday, with my hands purple and aching with cold, I had cause to thank God for Primark and their inexpensive gloves. Later that day I took the terrible photo above, showing that City Road Basin in Islington was partially frozen.

Back in “The Day,” (i.e. up until about the mid-20th century) frozen canals and rivers were a serious issue. Canals in particular, which don’t flow like a river, were vulnerable to icing up. This had obvious economic consequences for trade, particularly before the advent of decent roads and railways. The low-tech but cunning solution was to apply brute force and a certain amount of wiggling. This was achieved using the canal icebreaker, or “rocker,” as they were known in the business.

The rocker was like a shortened narrowboat, but instead of a cargo area, it simply had a long bar. The bow sloped upwards. A team of men would stand either side, holding on to the bar. When the rocker came to ice, the bow would ride up on top of the ice and the men would rock back and forth to break it (hence the vessel’s nickname). This was usually sufficient for all but the most Arctic conditions in London.

[PARENTHESIS: Did you know that the word “Arctic” comes from the Latin word for polar bear, “arcta.” Arctic literally means “place where there are polar bears.” Antarctic means “place where there are no polar bears.” Now you know.]

Now, earlier this year I wrote about the frost fairs that were held on the Thames when it froze over in winter. The idea of the river freezing over sounds like the sort of thing that went out with breeches and snufftaking. In fact, the end of the frozen Thames can be put down to several factors. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the river flows that much faster these days. The construction of the Embankments north and south of the river has constrained it, which, if you recall your school physics lessons, speeds the flow up. The old London Bridge, which had lots of arches and waterwheels to slow things down, has been demolished and replaced twice – the new one allowing freer flow and also, interestingly, possessing heating elements for the road over it.

Industry since the dawn of the steam age has discharged a lot of hot water – and other products – into the Thames, raising the overall temperature. I would imagine residential and commercial premises, with their heating and lighting, are contributing factors as well – but I’m no scientist.

And down in South London, the draining of the Lambeth marshes (commemorated with the street called Lower Marsh in Waterloo) has meant that ice no longer forms along the banks there, preventing the freeze from getting a foothold, or whatever it is that freezes do.

That being said, I was surprised to learn how recent the last big freeze was. In fact, it was 1963. This was the coldest winter since 1740. Roads and railways were, as you might imagine, choked up. Rivers fared little better, and even the sea was frozen at Margate and Chatham (the Navy employed an icebreaker at the latter). The Thames, as you can see above in this view at Windsor, was no exception. At Oxford, one chap managed to drive a car across the river. The docks in London iced up like many others, driving prices of imported goods up. Kingston saw ice skating on the river, and bicycle races were held at Hampton. Below right may be seen boas iced up near Hampton Wick.

Will climate change result in us seeing another freeze like 1963, or are such sights finally confined to the history books? Well I don’t know.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Canals and Waterways, Current events, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, Islington, Kingston, London, london bridge, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Rivers, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, Thames, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark, Windsor and Eton

Going Postal

I’ve written about abandoned Underground stations before, and even entire abandoned lines beneath London’s streets. This one, however, is a real one-off. Whereas most of the abandoned spurs of the Tube were closed due to lack of passengers, this one never had any passengers at all. Despite this, it lasted seventy-six years. It ran through Central London and had eight stations. And it was never actually owned by London Transport.

Give up? Actually, some of you have probably already worked it out, and may allow yourselves a smug grin. I’m talking about the London Post Office Railway.

The London Post Office Railway was opened in 1927. It carried letters and parcels from Paddington in the west to the Whitechapel in the east. Its “stations” were sorting offices. At its peak, it was carrying over four million letters per day. Its trains were automatically controlled and electrically driven, operating for nineteen hours a day and 256 days a year.

It wasn’t the first such railway – it wasn’t even the first such railway in London, in fact. Inspiration came from the Chicago Tunnel Company’s freight-only subway system. Like the Post Office Railway, this was narrow gauge and electrically powered, opening in 1906. Yet while this was the most obvious source of inspiration, even this was a whippersnapper compared to London’s first post office Tubes.

The very, very first experimental postal railway was a short line in Battersea, built in 1861 and shown right. It was air-powered, built by the Pneumatic Despatch Company. The experiment was a success. The Post Office, fearing competition from the increasingly popular telegraph service, expressed a strong interest, as did the London and North Western Railway. The first “proper” line was opened on 15th January 1863 – just five days after the Metropolitan Railway, the first underground passenger line – and ran from the LNWR’s Euston Station to the North West District Sorting Office. This was later extended to Holborn and later Cheapside and Gresham Street. The company had grand plans for an entire network of lines under the city, but as it happened, despite very favourable rates, the Post Office weren’t all that interested after all. The system went bust in 1875. At least one of the knee-high carriages survives in the Museum of London’s collection and the tunnels are now used for cables.

I’ve mentioned before that gridlock in the city is nothing new, and in the early years of the twentieth century this prompted the Post Office to take another look at the underground railway idea. Approval was given in 1911, construction began in 1915 and the system was open in time for Christmas 1927. As well as Paddington and the Eastern District Post Office in Whitechapel, the six-and-a-half-mile-long line called at six intermediate stops, including Liverpool Street station and the main sorting office at Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell. The trains, if you can call them that, were stored and maintained at a depot under Mount Pleasant.

[PARENTHESIS: Mount Pleasant actually sounds like a rather pleasant place. In reality, the name derives from heaps of industrial waste on the banks of the River Fleet. This is the famous British sense of irony at work]

1930-built train, preserved at the National Railway Museum in York.

The railway, as I said earlier, was a great success, reaching its peak after the Second World War. Extensions serving Euston, King’s Cross, Camden, Islington, Waterloo, Southwark, Cannon Street and latterly Willesden were proposed but never constructed. It kept going through the War, despite one direct hit at Mount Pleasant in 1943, and like so many other Tube lines, served as an air raid shelter (albeit one used only by staff).

"What'll I tell the wife, Jess?"

The post office, ‘lack the day, isn’t exactly the most hip and with-it service, and with the coming of the Information Age had to make a few changes. This included cutting many post offices, several sorting offices and Postman Pat. I’m not joking about that last one, by the way. The Post Office used to sponsor Postman Pat, it doesn’t any more and in the most recent series he no longer works for them. As you can see in the above picture, he is a victim of red tape.

As a result of the cuts, by the late 1990s there were only four stations left on the Post Office Railway. The Post Office dynamically responded by renaming the system “Mail Rail” in 1997. In 2003, when it was decided that the Paddington sorting office would be moved, Royal Mail threw up their hands and decided to close the damn railway once and for all. There were protests of mismanagement from the Communication Workers’ Union, who argued that the line wouldn’t be so expensive to run if it was properly maintained and used to its full capacity. Nevertheless, it was decided that the post would go by road, which was cheaper. So on 30th May, it rattled off into the history books. It may be relevant to note that this was also the year when post trains disappeared from national rail.

Although the line was never as well-known or glamorous as its passenger-carrying chums, it’s had a couple of moments in the sun. In 1997, it was used in the BBC fantasy series Neverwhere (along with various other nooks and crannies of subterrainean London) and in 1990 it posed as a Vatican line in the flop movie Hudson Hawk, making Bruce Willis one of its fewpassengers. I’m told the latter film is alright if you suspend your disbelief, lower your expectations and have a sense of humour about it – beer helps.

A few of the trains have been preserved. The tunnels have been mothballed. Every so often someone suggests a use for them – while they’re very unlikely to ever see use for post again, they could conceivably be used for goods traffic. One idea is that they might be used for valuable or perishable items. I’ve even heard it suggested that it might be used for passengers, but this idea is frankly barmy – the trains were barely wide enough for one person, let alone enough for the line to pay its way, and rebuilding seems a little pointless given the extent of work needed. I fear that the London Post Office Railway is destined to remain one of those abandoned curiosities beneath our feet. Still, we can hope…

Further Reading – Excellent fan site from which I got much of the information in this entry. Not updated since the line’s closure, sadly, but otherwise very comprehensive.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Geography, History, Islington, Kings Cross, London, london bridge, London Underground, London's Termini, Politics, The City, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark, West End

The Mask of the Red Death

(Warning – this entry probably NSFW, we’ll see how it goes)

Having engaged in the usual Halloween activities of placing razor blades in apples, poisoning Haribo and breaking several dangerous psychopaths out of prison to roam the streets, I’m fully prepared for the trick-or-treaters the evening may bring. In the meantime, I probably ought to recap the events of Friday and the Last Tuesday Society’s Danse Macabre event.

The day did not go well. Two of our party cancelled, a cashpoint ate my card and it was raining when I set out for the evening. When I got to Borough, the intent was to meet with the Directrix and others at her new studio – unfortunately, I managed to balls up the communications there. On the way in, I bumped into someone who directed me in a play a few years back, which continued the tradition of weird coincidences around Last Tuesday Society events.

Nevertheless, I managed to meet up with Tiny Emma and some others who were new to all this. We went and queued up, where we were delighted to meet some of the security staff. I don’t know where the staff came from, but they seemed to be quite determined that however much fun we were having standing in the cold, we should be having less of it. The Society handed out bananas, which improved matters somewhat (and you know what? Banana skins really are slippery!).

Eventually we got in, and I tried to seek out the Directrix’ party in an effort to unite our two groups. Unfortunately, I was hampered by the fact that the event was extremely crowded, and my mask made it kinda difficult to see.

Overall, the costume – pictured left – was a bit of a hit. I lost count of the number of people who wanted to take a photo of or with me. I also managed to startle quite a few people, and had a couple of women who wanted to kiss the skull. Not bad for a customised £3.50 mask from Sainsbury’s.

As for the event itself, it seemed a little less OTT than previous balls. I think there were fewer freaks than usual – I certainly didn’t see as many, but as previously mentioned, I had trouble seeing anything at all. A lot of people seemed utterly bewildered by the whole thing (“There are naked people! In the buffet!“).

I wonder if this was perhaps because, with it not being strictly a masked ball this time, people were less willing to drop their inhibitions. There were a lot fewer people at the hot tub this time by the time we got there, for instance.

The bar service, credit where credit’s due, was a lot better this time around. Separate bars had been set up for those who just wanted water or beer, which helped, and the staff seemed a lot more competent. So kudos there.

These two delightful young ladies were very complimentary about the mask.

As previously mentioned, we weren’t too impressed by the security people, who seemed rather overzealous. One of our party bitterly noted that the plastic club (about the size of a truncheon) that formed part of his costume had been confiscated because it was considered to be an offensive weapon. Upon his pointing out that several people had canes and the like, which are far more offensive as weapons go, he was told “We’ll get around to them.” In fact, he seemed rather annoyed that I still had my cane. I’ll be honest, I got the impression that he didn’t like me much. He was Tiny Emma’s ex, and such people tend not to like me. I don’t know why, it’s not like I’m some Adonis who’s going to whisk their former girlfriend away. Seriously, I don’t even have a face.

Still, there was much to enjoy – the pop-up cinema was showing the classic of silent horror cinema, Nosferatu, and Tiny Emma was mildly horrified by a man who offered to put hoops through her spine and suspend her from the ceiling. I told her she should have gone for it, but she remained sceptical. So much for open-mindedness.

Oddly enough, I managed to remain pretty sober throughout. I don’t know if this is a by-product of the diet and exercise, but the alcohol just didn’t seem to have any effect. Given the amount of effort it took to drink anything with that mask, I thought this was jolly unfair.

Despite the general lack of freaks, this event lasted rather longer than the others. Usually things start to properly wind down around 2.00, or so it seemed to me. This time, things were still going pretty much full swing when the party came to a close at about half four.

Goodness me, I don’t have much space between these two pictures… Ah, that’s better.

With the party over, I made my way back through the mean streets of Southwark and Elephant and Castle to Kennington, where I got the night bus home. One of our party asked if it was entirely wise for me to be wandering through the rougher parts of South East London at this time of night. I pointed out that dressed like this, it was unlikely that I would even be approached, let alone mugged. And it was so.


I arrived back home just in time for my alarm to go off, indicating that I had now been awake for 24 hours. Not bad, really. Between that and the clocks going back, my body clock is royally screwed. Oh well.

Roll on New Year’s Eve Eve, I say.


Filed under Arts, Booze, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, London, london bridge, Music, Photos, Randomness, Sports and Recreation, Waterloo and Southwark, Weird shops

The Beautiful and the Damned

Halloween is coming, hurrah! And that means the Last Tuesday Society (them again) will be holding another ball this Friday. Of course, Yr. Humble Chronicler will be in attendance.

This time, though, I have an extra motivation for going. This isn’t really a “personal” blog, so I don’t like to get too emotional on ya (though that doesn’t stop me from inserting my own opinions and crap jokes into every entry). But this is kind of important for me, so please forgive the general sappiness upcoming. You may want to skip a couple of paragraphs.

You see, for a very long time, I’ve been overweight. I mean, we’re talking twenty years here. We are talking at school. I’m not trying to paint myself as some kind of victim here, nobody forced the chocolate down my throat, but it isn’t exactly fun to be a fat guy. You get an awful lot of jokes made at your expense, and if you actually say “Hold on, guys, I have enough trouble getting trousers that fit without you prodding my belly and demanding that I chuckle like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” then you’re seen as a bit of a spoilsport. In my case, it became a sort of vicious circle. The only way I could feel good was to eat more, which of course made me feel worse in the long run. I’ve actually heard armchair psychiatrists suggest that it should be okay to ridicule fat people, because it might encourage us to do something about it – anybody who’s struggled with their weight knows what a lot of bollocks this is.

What got me to actually work on shifting the poundage was a number of factors. First of all, vanity. I was having real difficulty finding clothes that fitted. Nice ones, anyway. Secondly, health concerns. Hell of a lot of diabetes in my family, and I realised how much crap I was eating. And thirdly, bloody-mindedness. I read that only 2% of diets work, so the stubborn bastard within me thought, “Oh yeah? We’ll see about that!

The method was simple – I don’t believe in miracles, and whatever method I chose had to be sustainable. Therefore, I started thinking long-term about food. In other words, “This cake is nice right now, but if I don’t eat it, I can be thinner in the future. I will enjoy the cake for a few minutes, but I can enjoy being thin forever.”  The food I did eat had to be nourishing and well-balanced, and in the last couple of months I began a strenuous twice-daily exercise regime.

The end result was that, upon measuring myself yesterday, I discovered that I am, in fact, now a healthy weight. Given that the exercise programme was designed to build up muscle as well as burn fat, simple weigh-ins weren’t going to be a reliable indicator of progress. So, as with so many things that are important to a man, I decided to measure my progress in inches. Men should be aiming for a waist-hip ratio of 0.95, I’m now 0.93. There’s still work to do, but I’m feeling better about my body than I have in years.

That is my additional reason for looking forward to this ball – at last, I can work it without looking ridiculous.

A lowered budget has forced me to be creative about my costume. The theme for the ball is “The Beautiful and the Damned.” I’m going with something inspired by the excellent Poe story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ which features people who are both beautiful and damned. Fortunately, I had most of what I needed in my wardrobe already, and what I didn’t have I was able to obtain inexpensively. I don’t want to show you the whole thing just yet, but here’s part of it.

In accordance with the style of the Last Tuesday Society, I’m going for something Victorian-esque, but a bit more bohemian than the standard top hat and tails. The real bitch was finding a mask I could wear comfortably over my glasses and customise to my design. I suspect I’ll be making adjustments right up to zero-hour.

I’ll let you know how the night goes. If there’s time – I’m also going to a party on Saturday and another Sunday, so basically I’ll be dead by next week. Appropriately for the occasion.


Filed under 19th century, Arts, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, london bridge, Only loosely about London, Rambling on and on, Shopping

Messing about with, in and around boats

I heard there was some sort of Thames Festival on this weekend, one held by the Mayor himself. Although I was engaged on Saturday in one of those places that aren’t London, I thought today would be a fine opportunity to investigate. On the left I may be seen as a roaring lion, walking about, seeking whom I may devour in the shadow of Tower Bridge.

This boat is made out of cardboard. I am not joking.

The event that particularly took my interest was the Thames Revival in St Katherine Docks. This was a rather retro-inspired event, hence the hat (any excuse). It would feature various exciting displays, including a number of historic ships.

I’m a great one for historic ships. When I was about six, my favourite TV programme was the now-largely-forgotten Tugs, a series about tugboats set in the 1920s and way too good for kids. It was a sort of cross between Thomas the Tank Engine and On the Waterfront. Anyway, the result of this was that I developed a fascination with old-fashioned watercraft.

There was therefore plenty for me at this event, with representatives of seemingly every type of craft from rowing boats up to cargo ships. On the right you may see the steam tugs Portwey and Barking, as well as the coaster VIC 96. The latter was based heavily on the Clyde Puffers, versatile cargo boats used around the coasts and rivers of the Scottish Highlands, and immortalised by Neil Munro in the Para Handy stories.

I had a bit of a look around this vessel, and the picture on the right shows the view from the wheelhouse. The name “VIC 96” is, as you might imagine, a code. This was one of the Victually Inshore Craft, which were built during the Second World War to service Admiralty vessels, the Clyde Puffers having proven ideal for this task during the Great War. VIC 96 was built in 1945 and is one of only three surviving steam-engined puffers. She is normally berthed in Chatham. Interesting fact: it turns out that a fedora, velvet jacket and antique cane are not the best attire for climbing about a VIC’s engine room.

Having explored this ship, and as much of the Barking as I could, I returned to shore – though not before nearly losing my lovely new cane into the river. The Museum of London’s archaeology service have been singularly unhelpful when I have called upon them under similar circumstances, so I am pleased I did not have to do so this time.

I then enjoyed a fresh crayfish sandwich (not being brave enough to try crayfish in their shells – I’d blatantly end up with a claw in the eye or something) and a delightful scone with jam and cream. Basically, if you ever need to bribe me for any reason, a cream tea is a good start.

Thereafter, I headed over to watch a display of swing dancing, shown in the tiny photo on the left. You may recall my previous misadventures in swing dancing, which started as comical, became pitiful and ended with my instructor bringing out a revolver and resolving to “put [me] out of [my] misery.”

By this stage, the dock was filling up a bit more. For a start, I was no longer the only one in period fashion. The Chap magazine expressed a hope that this event would become the nautical equivalent of the Goodwood Revival, a similarly retro-styled festival. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t.

To this end, and to give those with interests other than historic ships something nice to look at, there was a vintage fashion show. The marvellous Vivien of Holloway and Fairy Gothmother had a strong presence here, as you might imagine. I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about women’s fashion of the mid-twentieth century.

For unknown reasons, this yacht was the most popular.

I crossed the river at this point to the South Bank, where further festivities were going on. I was surprised to note a large number of rollerbladers crossing the bridge for reasons I have yet to ascertain. I choose to believe it was simply coincidence, and hundreds of rollerbladers happened to cross at that time entirely by accident.

HMS Belfast is having its masts replaced, so that’s good.

There was relatively little that I can write about in an interesting fashion over there. A lot of home-made jewelery, exciting food and beer tents. I discovered that chocolate fondue gives me an awful tummy-ache, and the woman telling me enthusiastically about Qi didn’t help much either. Damn their eyes, I thought it was a stand about QI. I was hoping for Stephen Fry.

I continued along the river as far as Southwark, witnessing a fine display of London-based art in the Bankside Gallery and a man going at coconuts with a machete. Were I hungover, such a fellow would be useful indeed – coconut water is, in my experience, about the best cure around.
The display on the right is in aid of saving tigers. If you ask me, this is somewhat naive – the tigers have proven in the past that they will make no similar concession to us, and so if these people achieve their goals then we will surely be eaten in our beds.
Thereafter, I walked through Southwark to Elephant and Castle, where some chavs commented adversely on my outfit. Unfortunately, they spoke in some strange chavvish argot that I was incapable of understanding. Hooray for boats!

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