Following Horton down the Thames

If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know I’ve got a thing for the Thames, and for the Estuary in particular. Charles Horton himself sails downstream and out into the Estuary in?The English Monster, and there are various comings-and-goings across this extraordinary stretch of water in all of the books.

I’ve done the journey myself a few times, most memorably on two separate occasions aboard the SS?Waverley, the world’s last oceangoing paddle-steamer. She’s a beautiful thing, maintained by volunteers and run as a charity, and if you can get on board I heartily recommend it.

The second of my Waverley trips was only last week, so I thought I’d put some photos – and a bit of video – up here so people can see, in glorious amateurish technicolour, some of the places I’ve previously only described in words.

The destinations for this particular trip were?the Maunsell Sea Forts, which were sunk into the sands of the Estuary during the Second World War. We visited the forts at Red Sands and the lovingly-titled Shivering?Sands – these were the Army forts designed by Guy Maunsell, built at Gravesend and then towed out into the Estuary and sunk into the sands.

According to Wikipedia, these extraordinary constructions were responsible for downing 22 aircraft and 30 flying bombs during the Second World War. However, the Luftwaffe dropped 163 high-explosive bombs on St Katharine’s and Wapping?alone?from October to June 1941 – and in the process almost certainly destroyed the tenement block in which Charles Horton once lived (perhaps with his wife Abigail, though I confess I made her up).

If?he’d have seen the?Waverley, he’d have seen?a vessel powered by?technology that he would have recognised and understood. I picture him looking down into her engine and thinking to himself,?if we can build this, what else can we build??Then he looks out into the Nore, the ancient mustering point for the English Navy, and sees the future shadow of concrete-and-steel forts, and from the East, the distant deep rumble of bombers.

The SS Waverley at Tower Millennium Pier. Behind it, unfortunately - but check out those funnels!
The SS Waverley at Tower Millennium Pier. Behind it, unfortunately – but check out those funnels!


The sun high over the London Pool, as we prepare to set off on the Waverley
The sun high over the London Pool, as we prepare to set off on the Waverley



The Red Sands Maunsell forts, appearing to starboard on the SS Waverley
The Red Sands Maunsell forts, appearing to starboard on the SS Waverley



Big Sky, Shivering Sands - the Shivering Sands Maunsell forts from the SS Waverley. No filter!
Big Sky, Shivering Sands – the Shivering Sands Maunsell forts from the SS Waverley. No filter!





A lovely day on the Estuary

Anyone who’s read my books will know I have a bad case of the Thames. It’s a very particular strain of the disease, too. You can keep your picturesque stretches alongside the Houses of Parliament, or your genteel meanderings around Kew and Chiswick. No, for me, the real river is wide and grey and ugly and starts at Tower Bridge. It winds up and down and east and west before opening out into the immense skies of the Estuary. Give me Canvey Island over Chelsea, Sheerness over Sheen, any day of the week.

So last week it was an enormous pleasure to board a ship and travel down from Tower Bridge and out into the North Sea and back, via Gravesend, Southend and Sheerness; to sail over the great naval mustering point at the Nore, to see the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery peaking above the waves, and, most of all, to witness the same sunset skies heading back into town as must have once enraptured Turner.

Here’s some pictures from the journey – the first of which I claim no credit for. But I did want to show you the beautiful vessel on which we sailed, and I didn’t get a decent picture myself.

Click on any of the pics to open a nice big gallery viewer.


London, UKIP and English freedom

A week or so ago, UKIP super-chump Nigel Farage raised eyebrows (in some places) and glasses (in other places) with his observation that he’d sat on a train leaving London for Kent and had not heard a single person speaking English until he was well clear of the metropolis. This was intended as an illustration of how terrible things are, how the English lost England, and how UKIP are the only ones telling it like it is.

Now, apart from the fact that Nige’s story is almost certainly just that – a story – it did serve to illustrate a new and rather wonderful fact about modern England, and it’s this: you can choose the environment you want to live in (as long as you can afford to live anywhere, that is). Want an all-Caucasian English-speaking village? We’ve got lots of those. Want a semi-urban environment with religious facilities with a distinctly South Asian feel? We’ve got those. Want a deserted windswept wilderness? Yep, go ahead.

And want a multicultural metropolis where English is the lingua franca but not the monoglot essential? Yes, we’ve got a few of those, too.

What Nigel doesn’t understand is the essential freedom that England now offers us. I well remember a receptionist I once worked with telling me she was moving out of Morden and into Surrey. When I asked her why, she said, without a trace of shame: “Too many blacks.” Shocking, yes. But she had somewhere to go to rehouse her appalling racism. She could go and live with other racists (and UKIP councillors, eh, Nige?), somewhere green and pleasant and suited to her own tastes.

That’s what’s great about England. I live in London precisely because of the reasons Nige gave for not living here. There’s room for us both. And if Nige or any of his ilk move into my street, I’ll sell up and move somewhere else. Because with that lot moving in, before you know it the whole place will be crawling with them.

John Kay on the pointlessness of forecasting

When it comes to big urban projects, says John Kay, we’re never going to get the forecasting right. The only question worth asking is does the work leave the city in a better state than when it started. Kay’s example is London’s sewer system:

Yet if Bazalgette?s scheme had been subjected to current appraisal procedures, it is hard to imagine that it would have been built. Although the embankments are an amenity of enormous value to London, their construction had many negative consequences. The once magnificent river entrance to Somerset House, for example, now sits forlorn behind a main road. The gardens of the Inns of Court no longer give on to the Thames. Procedural objections would be innumerable and the delays interminable.

The project would also have been subject to the criteria laid down in the modern Treasury?s appraisal process, which requires a careful assessment of benefits over its expected life. Several hundred years I suppose, since the need for sewers seems likely to continue, but these benefits would be discounted at a rate of 3? per cent a year.The civil servants would have been required to survey the impact of noxious smells on property values. But the principal issue would have been the consequences for health ? they would have got this badly wrong, since Victorian physicians overestimated the ill effects of miasma from the atmosphere and underestimated the role of bugs you contract from contaminated water. The statisticians and consultants would have estimated the time saved if hansoms and sedans could make their way to the City along the Embankment rather than through clutter on Fleet Street. They would have struggled to analyse the likely traffic on the underground railway since none had ever been built.

Their estimates would have been completely wrong and irrelevant anyway. The salient fact is that London could never have become a great business and financial capital if its residents felt an urge to vomit every time they went outdoors.

via John Kay – London?s rise from sewer to spectacle.