Tagged: river

Adrift | now in paperback


My book about the people, politics, history, and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published in paperback today.

‘A compelling exploration of river living’ – Homes & Gardens

‘One of the best waterways books for decades’ – Waterways World

‘Chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’ – Caught by the River

‘A serious and fascinating book’ – Hackney Citizen

‘Waterways writing at its finest’ – The Book Barge

‘Babbs is an excellent nature writer’ – The Bookseller

You’ll find Adrift for sale in all good bookshops, in the real world and online, priced £8.99.

To the experimental lighthouse

This feature appears in the winter issue of Lost in London

Our starting point is Hackney Downs and our route is by way of water.  We pass through a park plated with gold leaf and join the canal via a set of phantom gates, made by the lattice shadow of a wrought iron gasholder.  In the sun our route is warm, in the shade it bites.  At Limehouse Basin we turn left and follow a blue lane east.  The roads become wider and people less common.  The smell is of fuel and salt.

The tributary Lea meets its master the Thames at Bow Creek, and this is where Trinity Buoy Wharf lies.  The mud here is thick, glossed by water and patterned by river creatures.  The landscape is brick, low level, sprawling and bleak.  Beyond the curl of the Thames bad weather is moving in, a white fog of fast moving fine rain.  We cycle through the wharf, in slow pursuit of a man on a penny farthing. He disappears, we lock up.

Hunger and weather decide our first move – to a marooned diner on the creek edge, to eat fried food and apple pie with cream from a can.  Sitting in this metal shell with rain spotting on the glass reminds me of childhood holidays, when we’d be forced to lunch in the car while the great outdoors was temporarily lost to low cloud.  Soft sandwiches behind steamed-up windows.

And then, at last, to the lighthouse.  The ‘experimental lighthouse’ in fact, and London’s only one.  It’s not the candy stick you imagine.  There’s no red and white striped tower ringed with rocks and water.  It’s not circled by sea gulls and there’s no wooden rowing boat listing at its feet.  It’s a squat Victorian brick warehouse with a metal and glass turret, surrounded by a wash of tarmac and parked cars.

Built in 1864, with the lantern installed two years later, this was where bulbs were tested and developed before being put to use out at sea.  It was here that electromagnetic adventurer Michael Faraday carried out his experiments with light, including pioneering the use of electric lighting in the South Foreland Lighthouse in Kent.  During the first half of the twentieth century, the experimental lighthouse was where keepers came to learn their craft.

The wharf feels isolated and empty, but also busy with curiosities and the aura of eccentrics.  There’s the bright red lightship docked along one side, with an indulgent, rusty roll-top bath on deck.  There’s Faraday’s precarious shed, with its pebble floor, secret drawers and stuffed black cat.  There are mechanical sculptures, cogs and horns, all rusted into frozen poses.  And there’s a silent waterside moon clock that will tell you the time of the tides.

The wharf sits atop high sea walls that are licked with weed.  It’s low tide and a dark beach has surfaced.  The clouds clear to the west and the view is of Canary Wharf and its cohorts.  A thrusting mob that seems out of place and is happily shrunken by distance.  A narrow metal ladder drops vertically down to the shore, with footprints set deeply in the sand at the bottom.  They lead to a sputtering boat where someone unseen tinkers with the engine.

As we cycled into the wharf we saw the wreck of a lighter barge – half metal, half mud, and slowly melting into the river.  Here, barges have been re-fashioned into a collection of pots and planted with dwarf apples.  The trees are dotted amongst old shipping containers, which have been stacked on top of each other and been turned into studios.  They provide low impact space to small businesses and artists, who inject this area with new life.  There are pretty driftwood gardens, woven with nasturtiums, pepper plants and tomatoes, and a sign warning you to beware the cat and the dog.

From 1803 to 1988, this was a place where navigation buoys, lightships and other equipment was made, stored and repaired.  The wharf was populated by platers, riveters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, pattern makers and painters.  Imagine the noise, the dust, the filth and the sparks.  The blackened cheeks and the hardened hands.  The dockside smog and smell.  Do we mistakenly romanticise all this?  Life became grim for the residents and fishermen of the polluted Bow Creek.  And before 1803 this place was a riverside orchard.  Today it is both relic and renewed.

Glorious mud

This feature appears in the autumn/winter issue of Lost in London

I couldn’t quite believe it was true when I first heard about it.  Surely not, I thought.  But I was intrigued and had to find out for certain.  I persuaded a friend with wheels – the two wheels of a silver scooter to be precise – to play chauffeur, hooking him in with tales of a city spectacle that we just had to witness.  Living in north London, it took us a while to get all the way west to where the Thames sits in Twickenham but it was worth it.

We were pulled to the river at this westerly point to see the effects of the annual November draw-off.  Or, in other words, to see what the Thames looks like without any water in it.  Every year the weirs at Richmond Lock are lifted to allow the Port of London Authority to carry out essential maintenance works on the lock, weirs and sluices. The weir being lifted allows the semi-tidal river between Richmond Lock and Teddington Lock to drain naturally at low tide, creating a short annual opportunity to access the lower shore.

The draw-off leaves behind the lowest of low tides, with the river around Eel Pie Island emptying to almost nothing, meaning you can literally walk into the riverbed.  We parked the scooter and headed straight in.  It’s quite a sight seeing a river without its water, especially a river as mighty and iconic as the Thames.  Round these parts London is quite leafy – this is rural Richmond not industrial Barking – but the still urban river is a sight to behold without its usual rushing gush. The act of walking into the Thames was both bizarre and brilliant.

The water leaves behind a thick, glossy mud that’s punctuated with large, gravelly puddles.  It’s definitely wellington boot territory.  We visited on a drizzly Sunday afternoon and had the empty river pretty much to ourselves.  We slurped around in the ooze for hours, crunching over hundreds of shells and sifting through all kinds of debris.  There were bricks, shopping trolleys and general mess aplenty, but also many fascinating creatures to spy on in the freshly exposed landscape.

I was looking out for an elusive European eel but didn’t get lucky.  I did see numerous shrimps and mussels though, plus lots of birds.  A bony grey heron stalked across the wet mud, no doubt feeling rather disgruntled that the water he usually fished in had disappeared.  Ubiquitous coots and gulls bobbed in the meagre shallows. Boats, which seemed twice the size they usually do with their bottoms out, listed at awkward angles. A rusting buoy sat looking dramatic on the end of a heavy chain, all slicked over with green weed.

The draw-off provides a unique, month long window to observe river wildlife and record what species are there.  It’s also a chance to more generally assess the waterway’s health and cleanliness.  Organisations like the Thames Landscape Strategy, the Zoological Society of London and the Marine Conservation Society survey the river during the draining, and are especially keen to monitor invasive species like Asiatic clam, Chinese mitten crab and zebra mussel.  Thames Discovery organises public explorations, walks and litter picks.  The draw-off is an excellent opportunity for some serious tidying up.

Thames fishermen also enjoy a good draw-off.  It gives them a new perspective on an increasingly abundant river – over 125 species of fish are found in the Thames these days – and a chance to retrieve lost tackle.  Islanders, like those that live in the idyllic lost lands of the Eel Pie, know the draw-off is no maritime myth, as do boat owners.  London sailing societies offer much advice on what to do with your vessel when the waters subside to such an extent.

This year the draw-off will happen between the 31st October and the 28th November.  Twickenham Station is the closest if you’re travelling there by train.  The Port of London Authority’s website is a good place for practical information, and keep an eye out for special events run by the Thames Landscape Strategy and Thames Discovery.  Or just head down there solo and have a muddy adventure of your own making in the middle of the Thames.