Category Archives: Port of London

New York, Paris, Colliers Wood

I’d be the first to admit that, as guys go, I have baggage. That’s probably because the baggage I have takes the form of a stupendously awesome suitcase. Witness.

I picked it up today in Camden. I’ve wanted a suitcase like this for ages – a proper old-fashioned, battered leather thing with faded travel stickers. I do have a tin trunk from when my grandparents, ma and uncles moved to Britain from Kenya, but it’s needed to hold my grandpa’s judge wig (long story) and in any case is far too heavy and awkwardly-shaped for everyday use. Cases matching that description tend to go for big bucks, so when I saw this one for £15, I snapped it up in accordance with my “jetset lifestyle, Ryanair budget” mode of living.

I love the paraphernalia of bygone travel, the days of named trains and ocean liners. These days, nobody cares about long-distance travel. People get on a plane to the other side of the world as if they’re not flying at 500 freakin’ miles per hour halfway around the planet, and I think that’s just sad. The days of savouring the journey are long gone. No doubt I’m looking at it all with rose-tinted spectacles, and back then people were sick of taking six weeks to get from Britain to Australia by boat, but… well. There’s just a part of me that wishes there was a bit more effort required to get to another continent, that’s all.

So, what voyages has this suitcase been on? Let’s take a closer look at some of the labels. Apparently it belonged to someone in Holland Park, so for me in Colliers Wood that’s already pretty exotic.

The sticker on the right is pretty self-explanatory. It indicates that the owner travelled on the overnight train that ran from Victoria in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. Named trains are all but extinct these days, mostly existing as a nostalgia thing where they haven’t been abandoned altogether, but the time was when there were dozens operating on British Railways, with names that ranged from the thrilling (the Red Dragon, the White Rose, the Silver Jubilee, the Royal Scot, the Cornish Riviera) to the downright peculiar (the Flying Scotsman, the Master Cutler). Don’t they just make you want to abandon the morning commute and leap on board?

The Night Ferry was not the only international service on BR, there was also the Golden Arrow (also to Paris) as well as a number that only went as far as the port. However, thanks to its specially-built coaches, the Night Ferry was the only train to physically get on the boat without passengers having to disembark. The service lasted until 1980, and would eventually be made entirely redundant by the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Yr. Humble Chronicler was actually at the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and once again it amazes me how un-amazed people were at the fact that there was a freakin’ tunnel to France. I mean, you could walk to Europe for the first time since the Ice Age! Is that not just incredible? I think I need to lie down.

Oh wait, no time for that, here’s the other label. Ah, now, this is interesting. It’s not very clear from this shot, but this case was taken from New York on the RMS Mauretania. If you’re not familiar with ocean liners, you probably know that name from the film Titanic, in which it is mentioned by Kate Winslet’s character. That was the first Mauretania, which was the biggest and fastest liner in the world when built. This one was technically the third ship of that name, the second being a steamer to the Isle of Wight given that name until the completion of the new liner. Apparently this unusual measure was to prevent a rival shipping line from stealing the name and therefore the reputation of the old ship from Cunard White Star.

The third Mauretania was launched in 1938. She briefly ran from London to New York, and in so doing became the largest ship ever to navigate the Thames. When war broke out, she was requisitioned as a troop ship and repainted a drab grey. During this period, she had several exciting adventures, including setting a speed record between Australia and South Africa, sailing right around the world and fleeing attacks by U-boats.

Her postwar career was, alas, not quite so spectacular. She worked the route from Southampton to New York without any particular hitches, but set no more records. It was during this period, in 1958, that my case took its trip in her hold. By the 1960s, however, she was looking distinctly old-fashioned and at the end of 1965 she was broken up.

Four years later, the Boeing 747 would take to the sky and at that stage, I think we can safely say that the era was at an end.

Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a cool suitcase.

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Filed under 20th Century, Camden, Fashion and trends, History, London, Markets, Port of London, Thames, Transport

Holey Ship

Now, a couple of entries ago, I used this photograph wot I did take on the Greenwich Peninsula:

I must come clean. In my description, I must confess that I was perhaps not entirely truthful with you. I do not, in fact, own this thing. I know, you’re no doubt horrified that I might lead you astray with such an untruth, given my usual devotion to purest honesty which shineth forth like a beacon &c, &c. But you see, I think the real story behind this rather bizarre thing is worth an entry in itself.

It’s actually a sculpture entitled Slice of Reality, created by Richard Wilson. Wilson’s work is generally rather large scale and architectural in subject matter. He is, according to Wikipedia, interested in “unsettl[ing] or break[ing] people’s perception of space, what they think space might be.” Well, that’s pretty psychogeographical, now, isn’t it? I mean, that’s a lot of what psychogeography is about, perception of spaces and shit.

Perhaps Wilson’s most famous work is 20:50. This consists of a room filled with used sump oil. One walks through the room, looking down on the oil and into the upside-down reflection of the space you’re in.

Another, which I rather like, is Turning the Place Over. Wilson’s taken a nondescript building in Liverpool, one of those terminally boring blocks that appeared in the 1960s when Britain’s architects took a collective twenty-year holiday, and cut a hole in it. He’s motorised the bit he cut out so it spins around – effectively turning that section inside-out. Suddenly, a boring building becomes really interesting. Brilliant, eh?

So, what’s the story behind A Slice of Reality? I’m glad you asked, metaphorical literary device. You may remember the almighty balls-up that was the Millennium Dome, which I think we’re all keen to forget (seriously, it’s just a huge bloody marquee). It wasn’t that it was a bad idea per se, just really poorly executed and overall giving the impression that it had been thrown together the week before the opening with whatever they had to hand. Much like my school projects, in fact.

Anyway, one of the ideas had at the time was a collection of public art to be dotted around the Greenwich Peninsula, celebrating and commemorating the area. My suggestion (“Dump a load of toxic waste there!”) was not one of the ideas chosen, even though it would both have celebrated the history of the area and saved me a lot of bother later on.

Wilson’s interpretation of this was a section of a ship on the line of the Greenwich Meridian. This would have celebrated what Greenwich is most famous for, and would also have been a memorial to the ships that once used this area. Ironically, as I mentioned in my previous entry, this is probably one of the few areas of the Port of London that could still be called industrial, but then, what do I know? Not enough to build an installation reminding us of our obligation to the environment in past and future – okay, I’ll stop.

The vessel is, according to Mr Wilson’s website, an ocean-going sand dredger that has been cut down by 85%, leaving only the interesting bit with the cabins and engine room. The whole thing is, as you can see, pretty open to the elements, and up close it’s rather rusty and battered. Nevertheless, from certain angles it takes on a distinctly surreal quality – there’s a side-on photo on Wilson’s website that actually looks like it’s been badly Photoshopped, but is entirely unaltered.

It’s the only sculpture from the Millennium Experience to survive in situ, and for rather interesting reasons. You see, it was supposed to be taken down at the end of 2000, but for a technicality. According to the law, the river is not actually part of the Peninsula – it’s part of the Port. So Mr Wilson was able to take advantage of this nice little loophole of maritime law. As 15% of a ship is still a ship, he got the mooring permit and now he uses it as a studio. Which I think is just grand, especially as he opens it to the public on Open House weekends. Drink three bottles of red before going on board to simulate the motion of the waves.

Incidentally

This isn’t the only grounded vessel to serve as artists’ quarters – there’s a tugboat cabin on Eel Pie Island that does the same. Remind me to show you sometime.

Further Reading

http://www.richardwilsonsculptor.com/projects/slice%20of%20reality.html – Richard Wilson’s site.

http://diamondgeezer.blogspot.com/2010/09/slice-of-reality.html – Diamond Geezer’s entry on the subject, from which I have shamelessly swiped a lot of information. Nobody will ever know, as long as I don’t write about the plagiarism in my blog or something.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Canals and Waterways, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, Politics, Port of London, Psychogeography, Rivers, Sports and Recreation, Thames, tourism, Transport

Peninsula Envy

I had Tuesday off, and like most people, I decided to take advantage of this time by exploring desolate post-industrial wasteland. I invested in a shipping venture last year from Anatoly “Nickname” Chugarov (I think I mentioned that in the previous entry). Anyway, the whole thing seemed a bit dodgy to me, so I decided to pull out and asked Anatoly to give me my 5% of the venture now. I’ll admit I’m not too hot on this investment lark. Anatoly said he’d meet me on the Greenwich Peninsula with my share, so I thought I’d take advantage of this to kill two birds with one stone.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by industrial urban desolation. This might explain why I find Amy Winehouse strangely attractive. The Greenwich Peninsula has long been known for these qualities, as I discovered myself when I ended up here by accident some years ago (put it this way – the Dome hadn’t yet opened). I was curious to see how it had changed in the intervening time.

As you can see in the photo above, it’s what we psychogeographer-types call “hostile.” Once you step out of North Greenwich Tube Station, you’ve basically got lots of roads, fences and barriers on all sides – not exactly hospitable to pedestrians. Once you finally get down to the river, you can see that this far east, London is still a working port.

On the right you can see Trinity Buoy Wharf, one of the oddities of London. Circled in purple are a couple of lightships, what they’re doing there I have no idea. Circled in green is the Bow Creek Lighthouse, the only inland lighthouse in the United Kingdom. I really wish I could have got a bit closer. Some other time, maybe.

On the left you can see a contrast between old and new Docklands. In the background, the Canary Wharf development is very visible. In the foreground, an old pier used for loading barges. This has been turned into a sort of wildlife preserve , part of a general policy to bring the area back to nature. After a century and a half of pollution, this is a motion I applaud. An interesting scheme in place elsewhere on the peninsula is to resist erosion by binding the mud with naturally-occurring plant life rather than artificial walls.

There was something unutterably surreal about the view on the right, almost post-apocalyptic. Although many industries have occupied the Peninsula, and several still do, the big one was gasworks – more gas was produced here in the mid-twentieth century than anywhere else in the world (insert fart joke if required). When North Sea gas was discovered, the gasworks were rendered obsolete. Though there are a few remnants here and there, most of the ground has been built over or – as here – cleared in anticipation of new development. This is another of those transitional things that I think is quite important to capture.

Now, this is taking psychogeographical hostility to the limit. You see that flooded road between the heaps of sand there? Yeah, that’s the footpath. I’m not joking. It was at this point that I began to get heartily sick of post-industrial wasteland. No, wait, I tell a lie…

this was when I got heartily sick of post-industrial wasteland. Readers may note the highly unsuitable choice of trousers. Consider also that this was actually quite early on in the scramble through floodwater/over sandbanks. By the end I was considering suicide, or at least buying a decent pair of boots.

On the right is an aggregate… tower… loading… thing. I don’t know what it is, if I’m honest. It has a conveyor belt. By this stage I was starting to go a little bit mad, I think. God only knows why I took a picture here.

In fact, I think I’m going to skip the next few photos. They mostly consist of mud and concrete. I found some rails where a crane once went, that was about it.

However, I did eventually find something more interesting, for a given value of “interesting.”

And here it is. These strange steel structures are on Enderby’s Wharf, once the location of a submarine cable works. Which made cables, you see, for going underwater. It’s quite interesting. I think, anyway.

The wharf is preserved now, but was locked up when I was passing. The actual works buildings are boarded up, which is lame.

Here is a breaker’s yard for boats. Again, not sure exactly what my thinking was in taking a photo here. This is actually one of the nicer photos.

I think I might have photographed this because it was a landmark I remembered from the previous visit. I also recall a chemical plant, which seemed to have closed down since then. I remember passing under some sort of loading-pipe-rig-type thing that was no longer there.

This is another of those “observe the contrast between the old Docklands and the new” photos. On one side of the road, grotty industry. On the other, shiny new flats. It makes you think. Specifically, it makes you think, “Christ, imagine having to look at that grotty industry every morning.”

Ah, now, this is interesting. This is Greenwich Power Station, built to supply electricity to the London Underground and London County Council Tramways from 1910. Despite its antiquated nature, it is still used as a backup supply. Architecturally, I think the main body of the plant is actually quite pleasant. Certainly compared to some of the eyesores I saw earlier (“eyesores I saw”… dear me).

And here we are at historic Maritime Greenwich. Incidentally, if you wondered how I came to be on the Greenwich Peninsula back in 1999, the simple answer was that I wanted to get here, and figured that North Greenwich wouldn’t be too far away. As the crow flies, it’s not. But when it’s cold and bleak and the path is muddy and the route winds around many huge obstacles, well, let’s just say it wasn’t worth avoiding the change of trains. And here endeth the lesson.

Oh, wait, the investment thing. Well, Anatoly was as good as his word, and did indeed give me my 5% share.

Son of a bitch.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Geography, History, Lies, London, London Underground, Photos, Port of London, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Rivers, Thames, Transport

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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Canal Penetration

I do not appear to understand the concept of a short walk. This fact was brought home to me on Sunday. Having attended a wedding on Wednesday, I was feeling somewhat guilty at the Elvis-level calorie intake I had managed that day, and therefore had resolved to behave myself with a little more restraint. Sunday, I thought, would be an ideal day to get a little exercise. I thought it might be nice to do some more of the Regent’s Canal.

The Regent’s Canal, if you’re not familiar with it (though you may have some passing acquaintance with it if you’re a regular reader of this blog), is a waterway running from the Thames at Limehouse to the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington. The canal was opened in two sections – from Paddington to Camden in 1816 and Camden to Limehouse in 1820. In those days, before decent roads and railways, canals were the arteries of industry. The Grand Junction Canal was the quickest means of transporting goods in quantity from the industrial Midlands to London. The Regent’s Canal therefore served an important economic purpose, as it formed the final link between the Midlands and the Port of London and therefore the rest of the world. It survived the coming of the railways and the roads, but by the 1930s was largely obsolete.

Today, although there is a small amount of cargo, it’s primarily used for pleasure craft. The warehouses and factories that once lined its route have either been demolished or repurposed (most notably, one major interchange between rail and canal is now Camden Lock Market and the Stables). The towpath is a popular route with cyclists, walkers and idiots (yo).

My original intention was to only walk a short section of the canal, say Camden to King’s Cross or Islington. But I have this tendency, once I start walking, to keep on going far longer than is perhaps wise. As a result, I ended up walking all the way to Limehouse Basin. As I had previously walked from Camden to Paddington (hence the photos you have been seeing so far), I can now say that I have walked the full length of the canal.

From a psychogeographical point of view, what’s interesting about this walk is that it let me see familiar places from a different point of view. Of course, I’d seen the canal at Paddington, Regent’s Park, Camden, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Caledonian Road, Islington, Hackney and Limehouse before. Indeed, I’ve written about it in at least two of those locations in this very blog. But it had just been a landmark then, with no sort of context. I had some vague awareness that this stretch of canal was the same as that stretch of canal, but only as a theoretical thing. To experience the whole thing from a boat’s eye view, as it were, was rather novel. I think I’ve been enlightened in some way.

Anyway, I’ve waffled on for far too long already, given that this was supposed to be a photo-ey entry. I shall keep the prattle to a minimum from here on in, and instead continue to present my (usual crappy) photographs in geographical order from Paddington to Limehouse. Camden Lock is a notable omission here,  due to the fact that on neither of the walks presented here did I actually intend to document the entire canal.

One last point I would like to make is the range of contrast as you go along the river, from affluent Regent’s Park and Little Venice to the post-industrial landscape of the Docklands. I’ll shut up now. For now.

Sorry, me again. At this point on the walk, the canal cut through the hill at Islington, and I had to leave the towpath. Some explanation may be needed for the following photos.

I snapped this because I had walked along this road once before, a couple of years ago, desperately hungover. I was leaving the Barnsbury flat of a friend we shall simply call The Monster early one Sunday morning. I attracted disapproving looks from pious souls. Anyway, to end up here again was rather surprising.

I eventually reached Angel – you may recall that my first paid acting gig was near here. Despite my familiarity with the area, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the canal. Fortunately, this sign guided me. It may also explain some of the stranger sights coming up.

Isn’t this just the dearest little owl?

Spitalfields already? God be damned.

And Shoreditch! How we are honoured!

This is a nice thing to do with a block of council flats. Photographic portraits of local folk. It’s like Eastenders, only without the death and unimaginable horror.

Hackney. If you feel a chill down your spine, that is because we are but a stone’s throw from the Last Tuesday Society’s sinister museum.

A dilapidated narrowboat advocating the cleaning up of canals. This would be that famous bargees’ humour I’ve heard so much about.

Some sort of junction. Further investigation is required, I feel – especially as there’s something familiar about this canal here.

Lo the Isle of Dogs!

Herons are basically the easiest birds in the world to photograph. How I managed to make this one blurry enough to shame the most avid Bigfoot enthusiast is therefore beyond me.

I feel this toy boat has a story to tell.

We are so close, me hearties, I can practically taste that lime!

Is that not the viaduct of the London and Blackwall Railway?

It is! Limehouse! We made it! Long live, long live!

I say “we” made it, but mostly you just looked at photos. I didn’t want to make a big thing of this.

The Thames as the sun begins to set.

The Docklands Light Railway at Westferry. Everyone wants to get on the seats at the front of the train, but for a novel experience I recommend the seats at the back as you enter the tunnel for Bank. It’s like disappearing down a giant oesophagus.

 

Further Reading:

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/talk-about-burning-your-bridges/ – An earlier entry focusing on a particular part of the Regent’s Canal.

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