Veteran Scottish steamer recces vast new London Gateway port and deftly dodges 1.5 kilotons of High Explosive

On Sunday 29 September some of GMI’s staff and alumni  took the opportunity to explore the River Thames from the City to Southend and the mouth of the River Medway, including a unique close reconnaissance of the new London Gateway port which is due to open in November 2013, aboard the Glasgow-based steamer Waverley.

Waverley, completed in 1947,  spends her summers cruising on the Firth of Clyde into areas of spectacular natural beauty. She also spends spring and autumn sailing in other areas including  south-west England (Dorset and Devon),  the Bristol Channel, the south coast of England and the Thames estuary.  Since 1974 she has been owned by a registered charity (Waverley Steam Navigation Company) on behalf of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS), itself a charity, and operated by Waverley Excursions Ltd, a subsidiary of WSN. She is described as the ‘World’s last Sea-Going Paddle Steamer’, and sometimes cruises out of protected estuarine waters and across more open seas, including up the east coast to Harwich, Ipswich, Great Yarmouth and Southwold. She sailed across the Channel to commemorate the sinking of her predecessor, built in 1899, during the 1940  Dunkirk evacuation.  Being a paddle steamer she is extremely stable, but she only has one giant engine, which means she cannot turn very tightly by contra-rotating the paddles.  But she is manoeuvrable enough, even for the relatively constricted waters of the Pool of London.

The Paddle Steamer (PS) Waverley
The Paddle Steamer (PS) Waverley

And the engine is open for all to see, her immaculate, slightly greased metallic silver connecting rods, carrying the energy from the pistons, pumping rhythmically to turn the crankshaft in a stimulating display of raw power.

On that special Sunday she left Tower pier at 10.00 hrs sharp with about 200 passengers aboard.  She sailed west, towards London Bridge, swung round above the site of the old Roman  bridge, and headed out under Tower Bridge which opened for her. The Waverley cruise has become something of a GMI tradition over the last five years, but the prospect of a close encounter the new mega-port on the verge of completion made this year’s excursion particularly timely.  Aboard were Chris Bellamy, on his first Waverley trip accompanied by Jos McDiarmid, a friend specialising in antique prints and a qualified London tour guide, the usual suspect Dr David Hilling, a world expert on ports, Richard Scott, and graduates and continuing students from the Maritime History MA including John Allan,  John Mann and his son, Robert Milburn, Tim Carter, his partner Anne and friend, and Peter Jarrett, plus a representative of the new Maritime Security MSc, Leo Balk, who is a former Commander in the US Navy.

The weather was overcast and quite stormy, and on the wider river there was a strong wind which made using maps challenging, but blew any cobwebs away. After Tower Bridge, Brunel’s Thames Tunnel and Canary Wharf, Greenwich came into view.

Member of general public points out world-famous GMI offices
Member of general public points out world-famous GMI offices

Soon afterwards there was a good view of the Emirates AirLine cable car, which is a spectacular sight but might be more useful if it went somewhere, either to the

Excel Exhibition Centre, further east,  or directly to London City Airport.  But maybe that was just a ‘bridge’ too far.

‘Sail on, silver girl’.  Waverley passes under a bridge over troubled waters…
‘Sail on, silver girl’. Waverley passes under a bridge over troubled waters…

Then came the Thames Barrier, designed to defend the Capital against the power of the sea.  One of the barriers was obligingly raised in ‘defensive’  mode.  The Thames  Barrier,  which has been operational since 1982, has a finite life, and will need to be replaced at some point, but a March 2009 study suggested that it  would last decades longer than the date of 2030 when its designers thought it would have to be replaced. In part, this was because they had apparently overestimated the effects of climate change.  The barrier was designed with an allowance for sea level rise of 8mm per year until 2030, which has not been realised in the intervening years.  The Environment Agency have no plans to replace it before 2070 and a decision on its replacement, which might be further downstream, therefore needs to be made in the middle of the century.

Thames Barrier with one of the  flood gates raised in ‘defensive’ mode
Thames Barrier with one of the flood gates raised in ‘defensive’ mode

The route so far can be traced on the Google Earth photo, below. The next part of the trip was more revealing.  The Thames Barrier is not the only London flood defence by any means.  Two kilometres from the eastern end of London City Airport, ad Ordnance Survey grid 456817, on the left of the river (to Port), we saw the imposing and intimidating outline of the Barking Creek barrier, which can be dropped as a giant guillotine to seal Barking Creek against the same tidal surges from the North Sea that the Thames Barrier is designed to thwart.

First part of Waverley’s journey, 10.00-11.00 hrs. Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
First part of Waverley’s journey, 10.00-11.00 hrs.
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
The Barking Creek Barrier (north side of the river Thames)
The Barking Creek Barrier (north side of the river Thames)

And then, further on, on the ‘right bank’ of the river (always seen from the direction of flow, remember…), the Dartford Creek (River Darent) tidal barrier. OS grid 541778:

Dartford (River Darent) Tidal Barrier (south side of the river Thames)
Dartford (River Darent) Tidal Barrier (south side of the river Thames)

Four kilometres beyond this point the Waverley passed under the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) bridge, which carries the southbound carriageway of the M25 orbital road southward.  The northbound carriageway passes through the Dartford tunnel a little before. The central point of the bridge is at OS grid 570764.

The best shot of the bridge is probably taken from further east, as shown below.  The traffic is therefore passing southward, to the left, with the south bank on the left and the north on the right of the picture.  The overall position of the bridge can be seen in the adapted Google Earth view, which follows.


QEII Bridge, seen from the east, with the south bank on the left,  Traffic passing from right to left.
QEII Bridge, seen from the east, with the south bank on the left, Traffic passing from right to left.
View of the QEII Bridge and the approaches to Tilbury. Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
View of the QEII Bridge and the approaches to Tilbury.
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author

After Tilbury docks, Waverley passed Tilbury Fort, skulking behind its earthworks, and very difficiult to see (OS grid .  After the Dutch raided the Medway in 1667, King Charles II ordered a fort built here to defend London.  It was designed  on the latest lines, following the schemes of the great French military Engineer Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban.  It was built by a Dutchman, Sir Bernard de Gomme, and its fearful pentagonal geometry incororated the latest ideas in 17th century fortification.  Originally the fort, designed to withstand a serious assult from the landward side, was combined with batteries along the northern shore of the river, as shown in the artist’s impression of it in the eighteenth century, below.

Tilbury  Fort as it would have looked in the 18th century (Alan Sorrell)
Tilbury Fort as it would have looked in the 18th century (Alan Sorrell)
Tilbury Fort today, with the high tide filling the moat
Tilbury Fort today, with the high tide filling the moat

Beyond Tilbury Fort we rounded the bend in the river, heading north again into Lower Hope Reach.  The new Thames Gateway port, buyilt on the site of the former oil refinery at Shellhaven, which closed in 1999, came into view. As you can see from the air view, the new  port is vast.  Its shape is quite distinctive, and it is easy to reconcile the artist’s impression of the completed port with the air view.

London Gateway. Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
London Gateway.
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by author
Approaching London gateway from the west.
Approaching London gateway from the west.

The Waverley moved close in to the north bank to give us a good view.  As we slipped past huge excavations were still underway. The technique used to construct the quay wall which will also support the tracks which carry the huge cranes is not  new but has not been much used in the UK previously. The shoreline was build out extensively, so that the quay wall could be installed below ‘dry land’ The fill behind the quay wall then becomes the fill under the quayside areas.

The start (west end) of the London Gateway  quay wall
The start (west end) of the London Gateway quay wall

The two lines of quay wall also double as the support for the enormous quayside container cranes so the capping beams have the necessary rails and infrastructure cast into them. Once the quay wall, anchor wall and tie bars are complete, the fill in front of the quay wall is dredged out leaving the quayside complete.  The cranes run on tracks that are 35 metres (115 feet!) apart, giving an idea of their enormous size.  The first phase of the quayside wall in 1,250 metres long.

First, fill it in…
First, fill it in…  
Then, dig it out… As above, adapted by author.
Then, dig it out…
As above, adapted by author.

One ship was already moored at the port, although it does not formally open until November. And two weeks before, on 16 September, it was reported that THE 10,062-TEU Zim Rotterdam, had diverted from Felixstowe to DP World’s London Gateway port for repairs after a fire aboard had consumed 20 containers. Industry sources said Felixstowe would not accept Zim Rotterdam because the vessel would tie up berthing space for a prolonged period, but Felixstowe officials were not available for comment. Instead, it was offered a haven at  London Gateway, which will not open until later this year.  As a result of an unplanned delay, London Gateway port agreed to accommodate the vessel at short notice. Three weeks before, ago, the master had reported a fire in 20 of its containers while en route from Malaysia to Djibouti.  The AIS vessel monitoring system showed that Zim Rotterdam was located off Cherbourg when the new London Gateway destination was determined.

As we passed the new mega-port the size of the cranes on their 35-metre wide track could easily be appreciated.

London Gateway, 29 September 2013
London Gateway, 29 September 2013

London Gateway comprises a large new deep-water port, which will be able to handle the biggest container ships, as well as one of Europe’s largest logistics parks, providing effective access (by road and railways) to London and the rest of mainland UK.  The complex will make use of modern technology to increase productivity and reduce costs for shipping lines and the logistics industries. It will significantly increase the ability of the Port of London   to handle modern container shipping, and help meet the growing demand for container handling at Britain’s ports.

The Red Ensign flies over London Gateway, which will make the Port of London a world-leading terminal for container shipping
The Red Ensign flies over London Gateway, which will make the Port of London a world-leading terminal for container shipping

DP World, a Dubai-based company,  received Government approval in May 2007 for the development of London Gateway. The proposals were identified by former prime Minister Gordon Brown  as one of the four economic hubs essential for the regeneration of the Thames Gateway.  The 2007-10 financial crisis created problems for DP World’s owners Dubai World.   However, in January 2010, DP World was given the go-ahead for construction of the port

London Gateway port will include a 2,700-metre-long container quay, with a fully developed capacity of 3.5 million TEU a year.  It is close to  the major shipping lanes serving north west Europe and will increase national deep-sea port capacity for the UK.  At present, the ports of Felixstowe and Southampton are  the first- and second-largest ports by container traffic in the UK, respectively, with the Port of London third.  There are a number of other smaller container terminals nearby, but the development will dramatically increase the capabilities of the Port of London in handling modern container shipping.    DP World has said that high-quality architecture, sustainability, and high levels of security and management will be key features of the park and will create an attractive environment for occupiers

DP World is planning to invest over £1.5bn to develop the project over a ten to 15-  year development period. It says (well, it would, wouldn’t it?) that London Gateway will deliver about 12,000 new direct jobs, benefit the local and regional economy, and assist the government’s regeneration initiative. In addition, there will be over 30,000 indirect and induced jobs.

Our intelligence mission complete, and by this time very windblown, we repaired below.  The Waverley served an excellent Sunday roast, and  the stability of the ship was noticeable as  she ploughed through a very choppy Thames Estuary towards Southend.  Some of the passengers disembarked there, but the Captain warned that he could not guarantee to get back at 17.00 hrs to pick them up.  At sea, no plan always survives contact with the elements.  We then headed  south, into the estuary of the Medway.

Google Earth, adapted and annotated by the author
Google Earth, adapted and annotated by the author

I was still below when we passed by the wreck of the Richard Montgomery,  a US Liberty ship that had gone down in 1944 with several thousand tonnes of ordnance on board. On 20 August 1944, it dragged anchor and ran aground on a sandbank around 250 metres from the Medway approach Channel, in a depth of 24 feet (7.3 m) of water. Liberty ships of this type – ‘general dry cargo’ –  had an average draught of 28 ft (8.5 m).  However,  the Montgomery was trimmed to a draught of 31 ft (9.4 m). As the tide went down, the ship broke its back on sand banks near the Isle of Sheppey 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from Sheerness and 5 miles (8 km) from Southend. The salvage operation  began on 23 August 1944, using the ship’s own cargo handling equipment. But the next day the ship’s hull had cracked open, causing the bow end to flood. Attemp[ts to salvage the lethal cargo continued until 25 September, when the ship was finally abandoned. Subsequently, the ship broke into two separate parts, roughly in the middle.  Some 1500 ‘short tons’ (the standard US measure for weight of  ordnance), or 1400 tonnes, were left on board.

The Richard Montgomery is a potential hazard to developments in the Thames Estuary.  The map below shows the position of the wreck vis-à-vis some planned developments – the various estuary airports beloved of, among others, London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Map showing position of the Richard Montgomery wreck and suggested airport developments:  1. Cliffe; 2. Grain (Thames Hub); 3. Foulness; 4. Off the Isle of Sheppey; 5. Shivering Sands (‘Boris Island’).
Map showing position of the Richard Montgomery wreck and suggested airport developments: 1. Cliffe; 2. Grain (Thames Hub); 3. Foulness; 4. Off the Isle of Sheppey; 5. Shivering Sands (‘Boris Island’).

In 1970 the BBC reported that the 1500 short tons – 1.5 kilotons – of explosives could, if detonated produce a 3,000-metre high column of water and a five metre tidal wave that would engulf Sheerness (population then 20,000).  By 2012 estimates of its possible effect were less sensational, but a one metre tidal wave might still result.  However, in 1998 The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) had said that as the fuzes would probably have been flooded for many years and the sensitive compounds were all soluble in water,‘ this is no longer considered to be a significant hazard.’

At least the wreck is clearly visible.  Given the weather conditions, Waverley did not pass very far down the Medway, just past the Swale, the stretch of water which separates the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland.  She got as s far as  Saltpan reach, south of the jetties and power station in OS grid square  8674, before turning round.

On the way back the Waverley passed east of the wreck site, before turning west.  The Richard Montgomery’s three masts are clearly visible.

Passing the Richard Montgomery, with Southend visible behind
Passing the Richard Montgomery, with Southend visible behind

The light was now beginning to fade and we repaired below for a while longer.  The Waverley did make it back to Southend, picked up some passengers, and then  headed back into London.  As darkness fell around 19.00 we headed back on deck and  the lights came on.  The imaginative use of lighting can utterly transform a landscape.  The Thames Barrier and to O2 were cleverly illuminated.  Beyond the O2, from the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian, the centre of the world, dividing east from west, was marked by a green laser pointing slightly upwards into the sky.  Unfortunately it would have needed a long exposure to capture this beam of light, and I missed the shot.  But an idea of the effects can be obtained from the kaleidoscope of colour bathing the O2, below.

O2, or alien spacecraft?
O2, or alien spacecraft?

The Waverley passed on, under Tower Bridge, and docked at 20.45.  It was a great day, and a marvellous opportunity to behold  London’s new great port.

I could not help wondering what would really happen if what remained of the Richard Montgomery’s cargo were detonated all in one go.  I am sure that Maybe a future Mayor of London, inaugurating an estuarine airport, might have the opportunity to find out.  Mind you, I am puzzled by the need to build vast concrete runways.  Why do we not go back to sea planes and flying boats, which could land and take off in this vast area with far less infrastructure investment.  And bring back more civilised travel into the bargain. But a future Mayor might still want to press the button, just for fun.

Hey!  That gives me an idea…

Chris Bellamy



Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by the author.
























Deptford Plan Lacks Sense of History – David Hilling

In a letter to the Evening Standard published on 7th May 2013 David Hilling, GMI wrote:

In the redevelopment plans for Convoys Wharf in Deptford there seems to be little in the way of vision with respect to what makes places tick.

With Deptford dockyard history and Maritime Greenwich and the birthplace of The Great Eastern nearby one might have expected some recognition of the role of the Thames.  An obvious way would have been to include a modern cruise ship terminal which London sadly lacks.  It seems amazing that the developer, port operator Hutchinson Whampoa, did not think along these lines.

Shivering Sands

 A not inappropriate name for one of the many constantly shifting sandbanks of the Thames estuary but no obvious shivering when viewed by a GMI group on October 7th.

An autumn cruise on the Waverley , the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer, has become a regular feature of the GMI year and from Tower Pier there have been visits to the Medway, Whitstable and this year to the Thames estuary forts.

 In 1942/3 a number of fortified towers were positioned to provide anti-aircraft protection for London and its sea approaches, some towers being controlled by the Navy (Rough Sand, Sunk Head, Tongue Sands and Knock John – each with two towers) and others by the Army (Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Nore – each a cluster of seven towers). Favourable tide conditions allowed Waverley to approach closely the Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Knock John towers giving us close-up views of these fascinating remains.

 Effectively abandoned by government in the late 1950s the towers reflect the ravages of age and damage by ship collision with Nore dismantled as a hazard to shipping and Shivering Sands losing a tower. Several of the towers became homes for pirate radio stations – remember Screaming Lord Sutch? – and one for a time became the Independent Principality of Sealand!

Old Father Thames is far from dead and Waverley provides an unsurpassed picture of the estuary environment, navigation problems, the history and down-river migration of port activity, progress on the new Thames Gateway port project, the variety of shipping and trade and this year a security problem of great historical interest. On the return up river in the warmth of the restaurant an erudite discussion on the origin and distinction between terms such as quay,  wharf, pier, berth and mooring – these GMI students! Altogether an enjoyable social and interesting academic day – why not join us next year?

Text and Image: Dr David Hilling

Legacy for London Waterways?



by David Hilling

For too long Britain has turned its back on water transport but government rhetoric and a wide range of environmental considerations suggest that we should go back to water transport wherever possible.  Mode shift back to water has been recognised with the creation of a Mode Shift Centre by the Freight Transport Association.

As part of a World Heritage Site, its proximity to the National Maritime Museum and the recently restored Cutty Sark and with a view over the Thames , the GMI could hardly be other than concerned with the idea of legacy. It was, of course, a case based on its possible legacy that brought the Olympics to Stratford and Greenwich Park and much is now being made  of this with respect to sporting activities and a transformation of East London based on residential, cultural and commercial developments in the area of the Olympic Park.

But why not a legacy for waterway transport?  Look out of GMI’s windows at the underutilised highway that is the Thames and the few remaining Greenwich peninsula wharves used for freight – does it have to be like this? Every year over 600,000 tonnes of containerised London waste is barged from Wandsworth to an incinerator wharf at Belvedere and Crossrail used barges to move excavated material away from its Canary Wharf station site. In October dredging of Bow Creek will facilitate barge removal of Crossrail tunnel excavated material from Limmo and Instone wharves.

Bow Creek is but the southern end of the Lee Navigation which passes through the Olympic Park to Edmonton (where there is already a waterside incinerator plant), Enfield and on into Hertfordshire – a waterway which stimulated food production and industries for the expanding London market. The new developments proposed for the Olympic Park area will require considerable excavation, vast quantities of aggregates and other building materials and will create land uses which continue to generate waste and recyclables way into the future. There could, indeed should, be a role for water transport in this and the London Legacy Development Corporation is being urged to give it serious consideration and ensure that possible wharf sites and their accessibility are not taken over by land uses for which a waterside location is not a necessary condition.

Dr David Hilling is Research Adviser and Visiting Lecturer in Maritime History at the Greenwich Maritime Institute.  He was a lecturer in Geography at the University of Ghana from 1961-66 and a lecturer and senior lecturer at the University of London (Bedford College and Royal Holloway), until retirement in 1996. He has undertaken consultancy work on African port organisation and the cruise shipping market and destination/port lecturing on cruise ships (Western Mediterranean, Iberia, Atlantic Islands, Western Africa). During his career he has lectured at the Universities of Western Michigan and West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Dr Hilling is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He is also UK vice president of the European River Sea Transport Union.

Image by Victoria Carolan