London Bridge: Blessing the river

This Sunday 8 January sees some seasonal and unusual activity in and around London Bridge.

Southwark Cathedral and St Magnus are the two churches at each end of London Bridge.

Indeed Old London Bridge ran past the St Magnus church door.

The clergy and congregations of the two churches, whose parish boundaries meet on London Bridge, will process to the centre for a the blessing of the Thames ceremony.

The Baptism Sunday ceremony is timed for 12.30pm..

This Thames tradition follows the Orthodox custom of hurling a cross into water as a symbol of Christ’s baptism which is celebrated on the Sunday after the Epiphany in such countries as Greece, Russia and Romania.

In London a wooden cross is dropped from the bridge. As the tide will be falling it is expected that the cross will at first be swept downstream.

A little later at 1.45pm  the Holly Man, the winter guise of the Green Man, will land on Bankside outside Shakespeare’s Globe.  This is part of Twelfth Night celebrations (two days late) which includes a Mummers play on the Thames Path.

Meanwhile Southwark Cathedral offers a rare sight inside: the recast bells are on the ground in the centre of the nave awaiting ‘dressing’, blessing, hoisting and installation in the tower.


Goring: George Michael RIP

The sudden death of George Michael at his home by the millpond in Goring is bringing a sudden influx of visitors.

Many are visiting not just his front door to add flowers but also the nearby church which is dedicated to St Thomas  of Canterbury, better known as Thomas Becket,

This Thursday 29 December is the anniversary of his murder at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and also his feast day in the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The United Benefice of Goring, Streatley and South Stoke is marking the day with  morning prayer at 9.15am in Goring Church which will be open all day.

HMS President debate in Commons

MPs from five political parties have supported an early-day House of Commons motion to save HMS President, said Julian Lewis MP (Con).

He was opening a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday calling on the government to support the return of the ship to a mooring on the Thames.

She has been familiar sight by the Embankment just west of Blackfriars Bridge and often looked resplendent on royal birthdays when dressed overall.

The vessel is now in Chatham having had to make way for Thames Water Super Sewer works.

Her proposed new mooring, further east but still in the City of London, is in front of St Magnus Church between London Bridge and Old Billingsgate.

Dr Lewis gave the House a good history of the ship and the present dilemma: “Launched in January 1918, HMS Saxifrage, as she was then called, was designed to protect the vital merchant shipping on which our country depended. Crewed by 93 men, she was a Flower-class anti-submarine Q-ship. These sloops were originally intended to be minesweepers, but with the growing threat from submarines they were transferred to convoy escort duties. What makes their tale, and that of HMS President in particular, so historically significant was that they were deliberately configured as bait for U-boats. They were fitted out to look like merchantmen in order to invite attack by submarines on the surface, sometimes when investigating why their first torpedo had failed to finish off a vessel which in reality was packed with hidden buoyancy aids and armed with hidden large-calibre guns.

“At the start of a U-boat attack, “panic parties” would frantically abandon ship while the gun crew stayed out of sight until the submarine came within range. Then, the Q-ship would run up the White Ensign, break out the concealed guns and open fire. It is worth noting the extreme bravery of those who served aboard these ships: they were sitting targets putting their lives on the line for their families, their friends and our ?country. As I have mentioned in this House once before, when the same hazardous technique was tried in world war two it met with disaster, and the Q-ships Cape Howe and Willamette Valley were sunk in June 1940 with considerable loss of life, including the courageous father of my friend Ray Brooks, Stoker Bert Brooks, who served in the Cape Howe’s engine room.

“The President is the last surviving example of this type of vessel, but her work did not end with the Armistice of November 1918. Four years later, she came in from her service on the high seas to find a permanent mooring on the Thames. In the heart of London, her role became that of a Royal Naval Reserve drill ship, and the Saxifrage was renamed HMS President. During the inter-war period she played a crucial role in training our country’s naval personnel, but her combat days were renewed during the Blitz. She was fitted out with anti-aircraft guns and helped to defend some of London’s most famous landmarks, including St Paul’s Cathedral and, of course, the Houses of Parliament. Not only was she protecting London’s skies, but she was fulfilling a more covert function. Her cabins and compartments were secret meeting places for the Special Operations Executive, which planned sabotage and subversion in occupied Europe, and she also served as a headquarters for the French Resistance.

“At the end of world war two, HMS President remained on the Thames and renewed her role as a training vessel. Together with her sister-ship, HMS Chrysanthemum, also moored near Blackfriars Bridge, she was the home of the London division of the Royal Naval Reserve, which was when I first encountered her, as an RNR seaman, in the late 1970s.

“In 1988, her military role finally came to an end. She was taken on by a social enterprise company and became a successful venue for start-up firms and for corporate and charity events. She served as an iconic location for some leading companies, and continued to provide a valuable educational and cultural space for schoolchildren, sea cadets, veterans and members of the public.

“That brings me to her current predicament. From the time she was taken into private ownership in 1988, she was financially self-sustaining. However, in February this year, due to the pending works on London’s super-sewer, she had to leave her moorings on the Embankment. The site was about to become an outflow for the new sewer system and, as such, was no place for an important heritage vessel.

“That caused her to be taken to Chatham docks, very close to the area represented by my hon. Friend the Minister, who may, I trust, pay her a visit if she has not done so already. It is, unfortunately, during HMS President’stime there that her condition has steadily deteriorated—that is no fault of the Minister’s—and the move has meant that she can no longer generate the steady flow of income that previously paid for her upkeep. She is now showing her age: in some areas, the hull is just a few millimetres thick. There is no doubt that her situation is precarious and that restoration work cannot be postponed.

“The HMS President Preservation Trust applied to the Treasury for just under £3 million of LIBOR money. About half of that was to fund the restoration of the ship herself, including the hull, the original deck gun, which will be reinstated if the ship survives, the navigation equipment and so on. The other half was to construct a ?new mooring on the north bank of the Thames, just to the east of London bridge. This mooring would restore HMS President to her rightful home on the Thames, where she had been for more than 90 years. It has been specifically designed to make her even more accessible to the public, ensuring that she can serve for generations to come.”

Kirsten Oswald MP (SNP) said that the  frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built warship still afloat, brought tourists to Dundee.

She could have added that RSS Discovery, once berthed on the Embankment and seen from the South Bank’s Cornwall Road, is now also a Dundee tourist attraction.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab)  assured Dr Lewis that he had the support of Labour Members for his campaign to preserve HMS President.

Culture Minister Tracey Crouch, replying to the debate, said that the HMS President Preservation Trust should continue its discussions with the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Greenwich’s Tudor pier

Low tide at Greenwich is revealing the remains of a Tudor pier in front of the Naval College buildings.

Piles show the outline of a jetty just yards to the west of the Palace of Placentia site.

Henry VIII was born there as were his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. As King, he spent much time there using the Thames as a highway to reach Westminster and Hampton Court.

He might have stood on the pier although the palace had its own watergate.

But Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and Samuel Pepys probably did land at the pier.

The wash over recent years from boats and tides has dramatically exposed the piles as well as the 17th-century revetments along today’s wall which holds the narrow path in front of the college buildings.

Brickwork from the line of the Tudor waterfront can be seen on the beach just in front of the western building.

Some of the exposed timbers, especially by the wall, are likely to be covered by stones shortly.

Greenwich waterfront
Greenwich waterfront
Low tide
Low tide
Tudor jetty
Tudor jetty


17th-century revetments
17th-century revetments


Line of Tudor waterfront
Line of Tudor waterfront

Path closed at Barnes

Closed towpath at Barnes Bridge
Closed towpath at Barnes Bridge

There is a temporary towpath closure for works between Barnes Railway Bridge and The White Hart at the start of Mortlake High Street in London.

Walkers must follow the road as far as the pub.

The path improvement is just one of many planned changes in the area.

There is a scheme to turn the upstream side the railway bridge into a ‘garden bridge’. This has the support of councils on both banks and Network Rail. The local claim is that this will not cost very much unlike the one being resisted by City and Waterloo residents in central London.

Just after The White Hart, the towpath runs below the large windows of The Depot restaurant. Next year this will be a Rick Stein restaurant. He recently opened a branch at Sandbanks on the Bournemouth Coast Path.

A few yards further on the path passes over the Mortlake Brewery drawdock. This is where Watney’s Red Barrel was produced and more recently Budweiser. Brewing began in 1700 and ended last December. The riverside site with Victorian buildings is now due to be redeveloped for housing.

The Ship, almost as old as the brewery and  once the University Boat Race finishing post, survives. It is also now a community toilet point.

St Edmund of Abingdon: Special event

The tomb of St Edmund d’Abingdon is a dominant feature at Pontigny Abbey in Burgundy where he is called St Edme.

As the name suggests, St Edmund of Abingdon was born in Abingdon. This was about 1175 when he was known simply as Edmund Rich and lived with his parents near today’s St Edmund’s Lane off West St Helen Street.

He went to school upstream in Oxford and it in these early days that he is reputed to have had an encounter with an apparition of the Christ Child in water meadows near the River Thames.

As a priest he often stayed at Reading Abbey which may have been an overnight stop when sailing up and down the Thames but it was also a favourite place for retreat or vacation.

In 1233 he became Archbishop of Canterbury. A recent predecessor was the martyr St Thomas Becket.

Edmund is buried in the vast Abbey church in France because he died nearby in 1540 whilst on his way to Rome.

The date of his death is the 16 November which is now his feast day.

Next Sunday 13 November the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth will be at St Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church in Abingdon at 1.30pm to celebrate a Mass marking the end of the Year of Mercy. He will rededicate the Roman Catholic Portsmouth Diocese to St Edmund.

A relic of St Edmund is being brought for the occasion and at 3pm Abbot Geoffrey Scott will give a talk about Edmund.

On Wednesday  St Edmund Hall at Oxford, named after Edmund of Abingdon, will be keeping St Edmund’s Day with evensong and a feast.

Rotherhithe: Commercial Pier Wharf path plan

A diversion from the river in Rotherhithe might be about to become redundant.

At present upstream walkers, having crossed Greenland Dock, must suddenly turn inland down narrow Randall Rents because, although New Caledonian Wharf ahead has a good path, there is no walkway further on.

At the end of Randall Rents, the diversion continues past the back of The Ship & Whale pub and along Odessa Street to return to the water by way of the far side of Commercial Pier Wharf.

Southwark Council has approved a planning application for flats on the Commercial Pier Wharf. The scheme includes provision for not only a riverside path in front but also a downstream extension path across the narrow Custom House Reach to link with New Caledonian Wharf.

This would provide a continuous route by the river from Greenland Dock to Surry Docks Farm.

However, the Commercial Pier Wharf site is well-known for its red crane which would have to be removed so planning permission will only be granted if Historic England (English Heritage) decide not to list the crane.

There has been a crane on the site for at least a century. However, Southwark planners claim that the present red Scotch Derrick crane is not old at it was installed only in 1965.

Retaining the crane will require a new design for the development and a new planning hearing.

The development’s architect is Simon Hudspith who once promoted a scheme for a Thames riverside path in front of Winchester Wharf and through London Bridge.

Commercial Pier Wharf crane
Commercial Pier Wharf crane

Wittenham Clumps stars at Tate’s Paul Nash show

Wittenham Clumps is a well-known stage on the Thames Path. The tight tree group on top of Round Hill is the great landmark on the approach to Dorchester.

Artist Paul Nash’s images are the most famous and so it is no surprise to find half a dozen in the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain marking the 70th anniversary of his death.

One version is Landscape of the Vernal Equinox 1943, once owned by the Queen Mother who attended the concert held at the Tate Gallery during the Paul Nash memorial exhibition in 1948.

The Tate exhibition is a rare opportunity to see these paintings together.

Nash visited nearby Wallingford when young to stay with his uncle.

Early in the show there is a watercolour from this period called Wittenham Clumps 1912. It is now understood that this is not the Clumps but nearby Britwell Barrow which is also part of the Sinodun Hills. Nash was staying at Sinodun House.

Thirty years later, when not so well, Nash rediscovered Wittenham Clumps when staying at Boars Hill near Oxford.

From there he viewed the Sinodun Hills through field glasses and over several months in 1942-3 produced over twenty-five paintings featuring the Clumps.

The long view from Boars Hill is now blocked by trees.

Also changed is the view up the hill from the Thames Path. The trees do not appear exactly as Nash would have known them from the towpath pre First World War. Thirty-five years ago the beeches trees began to need replacing and since the mid 1980s into the start of this century there has been replanting and additions made.

The countryside is always changing but Wittenham Clumps is an example of managed change working with nature and not marred by any new building. You will still have to walk in to Dorchester to find refreshment.

A good way to prepare for a visit to the exhibition is to look at the excellent Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps website.

Paul Nash is at Tate Britain daily until 5 March; admission £15.

The exhibition will travel to Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich (7 April to 20 August) and Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle (9 September to January 2018).

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox has been lent by The Queen
Landscape of the Vernal Equinox has been lent by The Queen


Paul Nash is best known for his First World War paintings which are on show
Paul Nash is best known for his First World War paintings which are on show

New Thames lock-keepers

The Environment Agency has appointed four new resident lock-keepers to serve on the River Thames.

Relief keeper John O’Hara is the new lock-keeper at Radcot in Oxfordshire, Northmoor keeper Mark Winks moves to Osney in Oxford, relief Aiden Mahon to nearby Iffley and Benson keeper Katie Marshall to Romney below Windsor Castle.

“I’m delighted to announce these four appointments,” says Thames waterways manager Barry Russell.

“Along with two other full-time lock and weir-keeper appointments we made in earlier in the year, they underscore our commitment to retain resident lock and weir-keepers at sites where there is an operational need.”

John, Mark, Aiden and Katie will move to their new sites and new homes over the coming weeks.

From the Sea to the Source