Travelling along the Thames – The Maritime Section

Ever since the 9th Century, the fortunes of London have been tied to the river Thames. The Romans used it as a major trading city; the Saxons used it as their base to fight the Vikings in the North and the Normans chose it as their capital. The River was crucial to London’s success – it allowed trading, provided a means for travel and even offered a quick escape when your tribe was under attack!

As London grew, so did its importance as a port and before long, grand royal residences were set up. By the 1700s, trading ships were arriving from the East with tea, silk and a fortune of spices, sugar from the Caribbean and timber from Norway.

We have been running a series of blogs about what you can see from the river, and what there is to learn about the history of the Thames, and this week we thought it was time we looked at the Maritime Section. After all – without its status as a port city, London would not be the London we know now.

Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark, the last of the Tea Clippers, launched in 1869, sits in dry dock. Following a huge fire in 2007, she went under extensive repairs and was closed to the public. In April 2012, after a reported £46 million restoration, she was re-opened as a museum to provide a living testimony to the bygone, glorious days of sail, as well as provide a monument to those who lost their lives in the merchant service. She has been raised up high, with walkways underneath, giving you amazing insight into the structure of the vessel. Of course from the water, none of this is evident. What you will see is the huge masts – Cutty Sark is one of only three original composite construction (wooden hull on an iron frame) clippers from the nineteenth century.

The Old Royal Naval College

This stunning building is the architectural centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich (the World Heritage Site that covers the historic town centre, Royal Park and related institutional buildings). It was originally the site of the Palace of Placentia – more commonly known as Greenwich Palace – a favourite with the Tudors; in fact several key royal players were born here. It fell into complete disrepair and was demolished in 1694. Christopher Wren stepped in during 1696, designing the beautiful building that we now have. It opens out to the river, so is best appreciated from the water. In 1712 it was opened as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. In 1869 the hospital closed down and in 1873 it became the Royal Naval College. The Greenwich Foundation took over the management of the estate on the departure of the Royal Navy in 1997.

The Queen’s House

The palace sits in the middle of the Old Royal Naval College. Built between 1616–1619, it was one of the first buildings in Britain to be ‘consciously’ classical in style. It would have appeared revolutionary in its day. The Greenwich Hospital was built around the house after Queen Mary II insisted it must not lose its vista to the water. Now it functions as part of the World’s largest maritime museum – the National Maritime Museum, where paintings and portraits are on display.

The Royal Observatory

Ok, so you can just see the Royal Observatory from the river, but if you are interested in maritime history then maybe go back for some land exploration. The observatory was the first purpose-designed scientific building in England, commissioned by King Charles II. For over 250 years it was the national centre for research into astronomy, time-keeping and early Solar and magnetic astronomy. Greenwich Mean Time was adopted, and the Greenwich Meridian (Longitude 0°) was agreed as Prime Meridian of the World in 1884. The site now houses London’s only planetarium, the Harrison timekeepers and the UK’s largest refracting telescope.

O2 and the Emirates Air Line

This isn’t strictly related to maritime history, but it falls in the section of the Thames we are studying. The Emirates Air Line only opened in 2012, but the gondola already functions as an important part of London transport. It cost an estimated £60 million, stretching 1km and linking Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks. It was fantastic news for the O2 Arena – an entertainment venue that is within walking distance of the gondola station! Originally built as the Millennium Dome, a year long exhibition in 2000, there was all sorts of controversy about the cost to tax payers – particularly as it was not nearly as popular as predicted. It’s had a couple of owners since, but O2 seem to have carved their niche and it now houses millions of sports and entertainment options.

The London Barrier

This impressive structure was built in 1984 to protect central London from flooding – something that it is prone to do because of tidal surges. It is one of the largest moveable flood barriers in the world. It has 10 steel gates that can be raised into position across the River Thames. When raised, the main gates stand as high as a five-storey building and as wide as the opening of Tower Bridge. Each main gate weighs 3,300 tonnes.

By Guy Wimpory

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