An Incredibly Great (and Rare) Boat Tour Downstream from Greenwich

Friday 15th December 2017

Bruce McBain, Charlie Armitage and myself set sail from Greenwich on a gloriously murky November day, perfect for the lower Thames. Benedict O’Looney (his real name) was to guide us every inch of the way. In advance, I thought, ‘There’re can’t be much to see’. Attendance was quite heavy, although the visit was rare. Some sort of side-shoot of the London Open House thing. Straightaway I sensed one was in superior hands. Benedict O’Looney said something about the Royal Naval College – I think that one side was not by Wren. I never knew it before. That ensemble of buildings,though, with the Queen’s House in the middle – it must be one of the greatest, must it not? Such a quiet, long, low statement of greatness. Not at all like the Hofburg or even Versailles. Or The Hermitage. But you only go round the corner and it’s all quite different. The world begins that produced that other world of parks, museums and ordered facades. ‘Look,’ said Benedict O’Looney, ‘at those derricks.’ A couple of unremarkable scaffolding-type structures, barely visible in fact. But they were used to load onto ships the miles and miles of cable, manufactured nearby, that was laid under the sea to connect by telegraph and telephone with New York and Europe. Can you imagine such a thing? What an undertaking? But somebody had to do it. Next there was a very special gasometer – or rather its frame, of very light criss-cross construction, only recently listed. Then the rapeseed oil factory, with its silos, followed by the rubbish burning facility. Intertwined were endless new flatti blocks. B O’Looney knew all the ‘studios’ designing them. Such a wild and bleak expanse, yet everything happening there and has been from the start. Industrial hive, now residential, eco-buildings, Netherlands studios at work, a new Uni.  One hundred years ago, this estuary was filthy industry out of sight, sewage works, power stations, the Arsenal itself of course, put as far away as possible owing to likelihood of explosions, indeed certainty because they used to blow up the bombs to make sure they were working. But all that wealth was pumped upstream to lovely London itself: the Savoy Hotel, the Ritz, Buckingham Palace. All that.  Now it has swung round; the power stations and gas works have been de-commisionned, the vast Ford factory at Dagenham scaled down, the rubbish is burnt but cleanly. It’s all new and hopeful. And the flood-defences, of course. The Thames barrier such a remarkable thing.

One felt hope for our Nation.

The pleasure steamer trundled on and on. 75 minutes, B O’Looney out on deck in freezing rain and mist, no notes, never letting up, broadcasting to the boat, most snug inside.  Enthralling. Finally we gained an exceptional view of the Dartford Crossing – what a span. Only from the river can you appreciate it. And, so extraordinary, on grassland on the right bank, in what might almost pass for country-side, a stone barn. Georgian, B O’Looney said, and a gunpowder store, remotely sighted for obvious reasons. Returning, another 75 minutes, we had a better view of the earliest concrete structure, dating from 1916. Can’t remember what it was for, but incredibly important concrete structure. On the north bank was a weird kind of moorland, in fact a rubbish heap grassed over. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘there are people walking on it.’ But there weren’t. The ‘people’ were black ventilation shafts. There was nobody there. The Ford Dagenham works stretch as far as the eye can see and then there’s an amazing cat’s cradle of gantries. Can’t remember what they were for but incredible and industrial.  Edging up river, the great entrances to the West India Dock, now blocked up, once the hub of Empire, huge cargo boats arriving. Couldn’t quite see how they could get in. Then a more intense proliferation of unusual flattis – 80s flattis, 90s flatties, flatties now yet built, all now historic and interesting, before rounding the final bend and back.

I forgot to mention the Tate and Lyle works. All that Golden Syrup.

Marvellous Greenwich, the Royal Naval College, where the Gay Mother lunched during The War and had Jam Tart, not seen for years at that time

Marvellous Greenwich, the Royal Naval College, where the Gay Mother lunched during The War and had Jam Tart, not seen for years at that time

The Derricks from which Rolled the TransAtlantic Cables, so They Could Graph and Phone. Actual Cable had to be Laid, you Know. No Beaming Like now

The Derricks from which Rolled the TransAtlantic Cables, so They Could Graph and Phone. Actual Cable had to be Laid, you Know. No Beaming Like now

The Rapeseed Oil Refinery

The Rapeseed Oil Refinery

The Earliest Concrete Buildings from 1916

The Earliest Concrete Buildings from 1916

Grassy Knoll, in fact a Rubbish tip Beneath

Grassy Knoll, in fact a Rubbish tip Beneath

The Dartford Crossing: the Span!

The Dartford Crossing: the Span!

A Great Sluice Gate

A Great Sluice Gate

A Gravel Works Possibly near the Ford Factory at Dagenham

A Gravel Works Possibly near the Ford Factory at Dagenham

Very Special Flattis

Very Special Flattis

Posted Friday, December 15, 2017 under Adrian Edge day by day.

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