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I have a confession to make - I have no personal experience of the Tideway - the rest of
the Thames I have punted and skiffed several times. But I draw my line at Teddington.
The Tideway section is here to complete the picture - but this part of the picture is at least second hand. I have enjoyed exploring this section in books and on the web - but alas never by boat.
It is said that the Thames is an ancient river - no doubt in principle it is - but not in its present form. It was not more than a few thousand years ago since it used to joined the Rhine in the centre of what is now the North Sea and then flowed south and west with its estuary between Cornwall and Brittany.
"Old Father Thames" indeed! Old river beds carve canyons and cross continents.
Young Master Thames! - in this present state it is mostly less than fifteen feet deep and is in its geological youth, still finding its way.
The Thames is not remarkable for its quantity - Londoners drink most of it (several times!). London's annual water consumption is roughly equal to the total annual flow of the river.
What it is though is the most beautiful, calm and yet strong - almost one might say - purposeful, stream.
The Thames Estuary, 1840
1912: The River of London by Hilaire Belloc -
Hilaire Belloc has a perceptive view of the coming 1st World War - though had he known how awesome an event it was to be in the shattering of so many lives and traditions, I suspect he would not have so willingly allowed blame to be attached to the two rivers.
Through the flats that bound the North Sea and shelve into it imperceptibly,
merging at last with the shallow flood, and re-emerging in distant sandbanks
and less conspicuous shoals, run facing each other two waterways far inland,
which are funnels and entries, as it were, scoured by the tide.
Each has at the end of the tideway a narrow, placid, inland stream, from whence the broader, noisier sea part also takes its name.
Each has been and will always be famous in the arms and commerce of Europe.
Each forms a sort of long street of ships crowded in a traffic to and fro.
For each has its great port.
The one Antwerp, the other London.
The Scheldt is the name of the first, which leads to Antwerp, and makes the opportunity for that great market of the world.
But the second is the River of London, much older in its destinies, and probably more destined to endure in its functions of commerce.
I know not how to convey that picture in the mind, which the eyes do not see, and yet by which a man is haunted if he has read enough of books and seen the maps, when he comes up through the Narrows of Dover Straits from the wide, empty seas three days behind and knows that there lies a choice between the eastern and the western gate.
That choice is in the case of every ship determined long before. She has the dull duty to do of turning to the right or to the left, and her orders bind her to the river of the Netherlands or of England as it may be.
But if you will consider many centuries and the changing adventures of business you will still - as you pass northward between the two shores of Flanders and of England, and as you see their recession upon either side of the northern way which opens before you - understand that doubt upon the rivalry of the two rivers which is soon to be so deeply impressed upon the politics of our time.
I could think of the Scheldt and of the Thames as two antagonists facing each other before conflict across a marked arena, which is that of the shallow, tumbling, and yellow water of the North Sea; or as two forces pitted against the other, streams of which would force the other back if it could find the strength;
or as two Courts in a perpetual jealousy one of the other, intriguing and making and losing point after point in a game of polity.
When the statisticians have done their talk - and very brainless it is - of resources and of metals, two opposing lives are left standing behind either of the great towns, and either of the great sea rivers.
The one is the experiment of the modern Germanies; the other is the founded tradition of England;
and the more closely a man considers each of these, the greater contrast does he discover between the causes of either's energy of come and go.
1874: The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands, R.M. Ballantyne -
A dead calm, with a soft, golden, half-transparent mist, had settled down on Old Father Thames,
when, early one morning, the sloop Nora floated rather than sailed towards the mouth of that
celebrated river, bent, in the absence of wind, on creeping out to sea with the tide ...
It may be that many thousands of those who annually leave London on voyages, short and long - of profit and pleasure - have very little idea of the intricacy of the channels through which they pass, and the number of obstructions which, in the shape of sandbanks, intersect the mouth of the Thames at its junction with the ocean.
Without pilots, and an elaborate well-considered system of lights, buoys, and beacons, a vessel would be about as likely to reach London from the ocean, or vice versa, in safety, as a man who should attempt to run through an old timber-yard blindfold would be to escape with unbroken neck and shins.
Of shoals there are the East and West Barrows, the Nob, the Knock, the John, the Sunk, the Girdler, and the Long sands, all lying like so many ground-sharks, quiet, unobtrusive, but very deadly, waiting for ships to devour, and getting them too, very frequently, despite the precautions taken to rob them of their costly food. These sand-sharks (if we may be allowed the expression) separate the main channels, which are named respectively the Swin or King's channel, on the north, and the Prince's, the Queen's, and the South channels, on the south.
The channel through which the Nora passed was the Swin, which, though not used by first-class ships, is perhaps the most frequented by the greater portion of the coasting and colliery vessels, and all the east country craft. The traffic is so great as to be almost continuous; innumerable vessels being seen in fine weather passing to and fro as far as the eye can reach.
To mark this channel alone there was, at the time we write of, the Mouse light-vessel, at the western extremity of the Mouse sand; the Maplin lighthouse, on the sand of the same name; the Swin middle light-vessel, at the western extremity of the Middle and Heaps sand; the Whittaker beacon, and the Sunk light-vessel on the Sunk sand - besides other beacons and numerous buoys.
When we add that floating lights and beacons cost thousands and hundreds of pounds to build, and that even buoys are valued in many cases at more than a hundred pounds each, besides the cost of maintenance, it may be conceived that the great work of lighting and buoying the channels of the kingdom - apart from the light-house system altogether - is one of considerable expense, constant anxiety, and vast national importance.
It may also be conceived that the Elder Brethren of the Corporation of Trinity House - by whom, from the time of Henry VIII down to the present day, that arduous duty has been admirably performed - hold a position of the highest responsibility.
1885: Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, Map, The Nore to Canvey Island -
The Nore to Canvey Island, Dickens, 1885
1732: The first lightship known was placed to mark the Nore sands. The Thames by C Fox Smith -
The first light-vessel on the Nore Sand was established by a King's Lynn barber named Thomas Hamblin and his partner Avery early in the eighteenth century under a licence from the Trinity Brethren; but their claims for tolls on passing shipping were so excessive that the licence was withdrawn and the light taken over by Trinity House.
1844: Sailing Directions, J & A Walker -
The Nore Light Vessel lies on the eastern extremity or spit of the Nore Sand.
It is situated at the distance of 41 nautical, or 47 statute miles from London-bridge.
This vessel has only one lantern, but displays a light of considerable brilliancy, and visible in every direction; in the day-time a red flag is hoisted at the mast-head, and a gong is sounded in foggy weather.
The marks for the vessel are Minster Church on with the easternmost part of a triangular field called Mizen Hedge, bearing S.S.W.¼W., the Garrison Point at Sheerness W.S.W.¾W., distant 3 miles, and Great Wakering Church N.N.E.
The anchorage at the Nore is in from 6 to 9 fathoms, either to the eastward or westward of the light, between the Bar and the Nore Sand, with Minster Church S.S.W. ¾W., and the Nore Light N.¾W.
At the Little Nore the anchorage is E.N.E. nearly a mile from Sheerness Point; from the Nore Light W. by S. 2½ miles, with Queenborough Church S.W.½W. on the west end of Turf Redoubt, a little to the eastward of the town of Sheerness.
1885: Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames -The Nore -
Nore Light, about 50 miles from London Bridge. The Nore light-ship is the first sea light to be passed on leaving the port of London. It is the first in order of seniority among its kind, for at this station the first light-ship set afloat on the coast of England was permanently laid in the year 1730. The original hull was that of a sloop, with a large lantern at each end of a yard laid across the mast.
The Nore Lightship, 1730-1845
An improvement in the method of illumination in 1825 rendered one lantern sufficient, incorporate with the mast, and showing a "fixed" light.
The Thames by C Fox Smith, shows this model from Trinity House -
Nore Lightship Model
The Nore Lightship built in 1845
Dickens continued -
In 1855 for purposes of distinction, the light was made "revolving" ...
The [next] Nore lightship was built of wood at Limehouse 40 years ago [about 1845], and is 96 feet long by 21 broad;
her tonnage, 156; hull, mast-head, and globe painted red, and the name "NORE" in large white letters on each broadside.
The hollow globe at the mast-head, 6 feet in diameter, made of bent laths, is characteristic of such craft by day; it is never removed unless when the ships are driven from their stations.
About ten feet below it hangs the lantern, an octagonal glass case, framed in copper, and fitting round the mast lies a great gem ring, housed on deck by day, and hoisted as high up the mast as the shrouds will permit by night ...
The principal function for which a light-vessel is placed is, as the name implies, the exhibition of a warning or a guiding light at night. To prevent confusion with lamps of fires on shore, or on board other vessels, a distinguishing character is given to the light, which in the case of the "Nore", is called the revolving half minute character. The effect to be produced is that a brilliant flash shall pass before the eye of the observer every 30 seconds ...
1793: Mutiny at the Nore
1822: Anne Lister's Diary 1st September, the Royal Squadron at the Nore -
On deck at 4.30am to see the royal squadron [with George IV aboard] 8 or 10 miles ahead of us.
Descried 2 steamers in company with the royal yacht, Royal George that belonged to his
late majesty [George III]. One of the steamers belongs to government, the other, the
James Watt of Leith, had the royal yacht in tow.
Fine sunrise - a beautiful morning. At 8am passed another fine 44 guns, or upwards, frigate. On deck again after breakfast at 8.15 and then passed the Royal Sovereign, a beautifully proportioned frigate, the stern windows very much gilded and rather finely finished externally altogether. Of course, we knew nothing of the interior.
We are now, 8.15am, 8 miles from the Nore. There is a good wind and the squadron gets on as fast as we, but we shall come up with them in the river. ...
The captain told me we came up to the Yarmouth sands about 8pm last night, and got clear of them about 12 i.e. ran 50 miles in 4 hours but for this we could not possibly have come up with the squadron and if we were not detained by it, we could now manage Tower Stairs London by 1pm.
9.15am just passing the Nore light, one single light floating, mounted on a vessel such as on the N sands. The Thames said to commence at the Nore light and reckoned 63 miles, by water, from London Bridge I suppose.
We near the yacht fast, the wind not so fair for his majesty, and we have put on more steam.
The bathing place of Southend like a little village or town, about opposite the Nore light.
[ George IV landed at Greenwich - see Ann Lister's description at Woolwich on the "QEII Bridge" page and Greenwich on the "Barrier" page.]
The Coastwise Lights, Rudyard Kipling. Listen:
OUR brows are bound with spindrift and the weed is on our knees;
Our loins are battered 'neath us by the swinging, smoking seas.
From reef and rock and skerry - over headland, ness, and voe -
The Coastwise Lights of England watch the ships of England go!
Through the endless summer evenings, on the lineless, level floors;
Through the yelling Channel tempest when the siren hoots and roars -
By day the dipping house-flag and by night the rocket's trail -
As the sheep that graze behind us so we know them where they hail.
We bridge across the dark and bid the helmsman have a care,
The flash that wheeling inland wakes his sleeping wife to prayer;
From our vexed eyries, head to gale, we bind in burning chains
The lover from the sea-rim drawn - his love in English lanes.
We greet the clippers wing-and-wing that race the Southern wool;
We warn the crawling cargo-tanks of Bremen, Leith, and Hull;
To each and all our equal lamp at peril of the sea -
The white wall-sided warships or the whalers of Dundee!
Come up, come in from Eastward, from the guardports of the Morn!
Beat up, beat in from Southerly, O gipsies of the Horn!
Swift shuttles of an Empire's loom that weave us, main to main,
The Coastwise Lights of England give you welcome back again!
Go, get you gone up-Channel with the sea-crust on your plates;
Go, get you into London with the burden of your freights!
Haste, for they talk of Empire there, and say, if any seek,
The Lights of England sent you and by silence shall ye speak!
1906: The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph Conrad -
The Nore sand remains covered at low-water, and never seen by human
eye; but the Nore is a name to conjure with visions of historical
events, of battles, of fleets, of mutinies, of watch and ward kept
upon the great throbbing heart of the State. This ideal point of
the estuary, this centre of memories, is marked upon the steely
gray expanse of the waters by a lightship painted red
that, from a
couple of miles off, looks like a cheap and bizarre little toy.
I remember how, on coming up the river for the first time, I was surprised at the smallness of that vivid object - a tiny warm speck of crimson lost in an immensity of gray tones. I was startled, as if of necessity the principal beacon in the water-way of the greatest town on earth should have presented imposing proportions. And, behold! the brown sprit-sail of a barge hid it entirely from my view.
Song: The Man at the Nore -
... Now when I was but a bit of a slip
I was put in charge of the Nore lightship
I kept my lamps in very fine style
Doing of the work according to Hoyle
Oh the raging Nore, the rolling Nore
The waves they tumble o'er and o'er
There's no such a life to be had on shore
As the one that's led by the Man at the Nore ...
1915: Nore Lightship removed. Near the position is now the Sea Reach No. 1 Buoy