Offshore sailor, coastal sailor, sea sailor or merely sailor are all terms that describe the type of sailing a person takes part in. Being a creek-sailor means one is rarely ever out of sight from land. It also means I am constantly studying what to me is a fascinating interaction of land and sea and how we interact with it- right at the exact point where sea water arrives on our shore. This is part one of a series of articles where I take a snapshot look at the interestingly varied adventure playground of the creek-sailor that is our inshore coast.
The Inshore Coast – London River by Tony Smith
The British just love to be beside the seaside. When the sun shines we head on mass “kitchen sink and all” for the coast, searching for fun, excitement or relaxation. We come from up the road or down the lane, from small villages or vast built up areas in some kind of hypnotic pilgrimage to nature where we can go skinny dipping in a chilly sea and bury ones toes in soft sand - or in some instances to wince after treading barefoot on a sharp shell while tip toeing to the water’s edge, maybe even to lay gazing across the glint under a horizon of big uncluttered skies that sooth the eye. However far we travel or whatever drew us, we have one common bond - we sense that special magic that is ever-present where land and sea meet.
The fact that we are islanders has meant our forebears have laid a rich history of sea-faring which has spread us to all corners of the globe, and to an extent defined who we are as a nation. This adventurous sea-faring spirit is evident today with British sailors continuing to push the boundaries of human achievement on oceans that are best described as the last untamed frontiers. For me though, another frontier has re-emerged in the form of the forgotten inshore coast. Few sailors’ adventure in this forgotten, gritty coast as there is no glory to be had from it other than the belching of ones gloriously muddy boots while scrambling ashore. An even rarer breed of adventure sailor hauls a mainsheet here, one who cruises in the excitement of plate-raisingly dangerous shallow brown waters for the simple enjoyment and inner peace that flows through veins in abundance while uncovering a buried heritage hidden by moss, seaweed, twisted timber and splatterings of rotten mud in lost, abandoned creeks, sandy inlets and forgotten coves.
As islanders we are also fortunate that we are never more than 70 odd miles from the breaking waves of the open sea. This can equate to a mere 90 minute drive for those residing in the greenest, deepest hinterlands, but its more likely for the majority of us that the sea coast is no more than an hour’s drive away. For some, the tidal inshore coast is even closer, though it would not be unreasonable to assume innocent oblivion to this reality while pushing a trolley around a superstore in our fast urban bliss. With an ever swelling populace of seaside towns and cities more people are closer to the sea than ever before, but also due to the sea having many probing tentacles in the form of our tidal rivers and creeks which extend the inshore coastline far inland, bringing with it the distinct smell of salt water, a rush of feeding sea birds and the delight of bobbing boats in all their complex shapes and sizes. Rivers such as The Exe, Great Ouse, Humber, Mersey, Severn, Tamar and Trent, to name a few, and that shiny topped, often fast swirling murk, The River Thames, at 215 miles long with 95 of those miles tidal water, a truly giant arm of the sea that reaches into the capital city of London where for a population of just under 8 million people North Sea salt water is literally on the other side of the embankment wall.
|London wharves and sandy beaches|
Other parts of the country have great tidal rivers that reach deep inland also but there was a time when to be born in London, 40 miles from the nearest open coast, meant it would be highly likely you had one foot on the cobbles and one foot in the sea.
The 1920s and 30s were a busy time on London’s tideway where generations of inner city families once worked the warren of East End Dickensian wharves, or were stevedores’ on docks such as King George V which saw the largest liner in her day the Queen Mary come alongside, or St Katharine, East India and West India Docks loading or unloading cargoes to pack the adjacent warehouses full to the dusty rafters with goods from every corner of the world. Typical goods handled would have been tea from China, pepper from India or rum from the Caribbean. They also crewed ships, skippered river ferries, and manned lighters and barges. Part of this heavy river work involved moving large shipments from salt water craft by “hand and crane” to the fresh water vessels (and vice versa) of the inland canal system where mirrored steel-blue waterways sliced through urban concrete into lush undulating countryside feeding the demand for supplies from the myriad of smaller inland towns and villages. However large or small the role, they all played a vital part in what was possibly the flowering era in the history of our merchant mariners.
|East London's new cable car, and former docks being redeveloped|
In its heyday, during the 50s and before aviation and modern container shipping methods later took hold, the London River was a gateway to the world. In true character of resilience it has managed to transform its millions of tons of cargo once handled annually to millions of pounds sterling now traded electronically by the simple press of a button in sleek high rise buildings that are built on derelict quays such as Canary Wharf. And at water level the London River has become a busy place again. Tugs tow large lighters about the river and most of the old Victorian built wharves have now been converted into quirky shops or enviably plush homes where an influx of residents live with balconied views overlooking the water and are serviced by fast Thames Clipper boats who ferry them to work in the heart of the city. Among this backdrop of industrial maritime history and modern urbanization small strips of sandy beach appear at low tide and pleasure boats maneuver up and down the river's length.
|Container ship at Tilbury Docks|
Below London, at Tilbury Dock, mammoth container ships are still carefully guided along the river by Port of London Authority pilots, and though international cargo trade on the river in central London has long since ceased, it is perhaps a given that the allure of the tide and call of the sea will always be felt by many Londoners who inhabit what was once the busiest shipping port in the whole world.