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Thames Barrier gates rising

Britain could be bracing itself for either one of the coldest or wettest winters in 100 years depending on which forecast you read. Since the 2007 prediction of a “barbecue summer”, which ended in a washout, the Met Office stopped publishing public seasonal forecasts. They may return now that the Met have purchased a super computer. Personally I’m hoping for the cold rather than the misery of floods.

Last 5th December when most of the world was mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela the Thames Barrier was coping with the largest sea surge since 1953. In that surge 1800 people in the Netherlands and 326 people in the UK were killed. Inevitably tragedies like this have prompted proposals for better river defences.

The Thames last flooded central London in 1928 when 14 people were killed some trapped in the basements which were used as habitable rooms. Tragically the Harding sisters lost their lives: Florence 18, Lillian 16, Rose 6 and Doris 2. This event set in motion plans for a flood barrier across the Thames. In January 1935 the Port of London Authority considered two schemes. The first was a dam at Woolwich which carried a £2m price tag or £3m if it also had a road spanning the river. The impact of this scheme would have been dramatic as it would cut off tides west of Woolwich creating a pool of still water. The second scheme was a dam across the river at London Bridge. Hard to imagine now but in the 1930s the area along the Thames and London Bridge was docks and industrial land.

The Queen officially opens The Thames Barrier May 1984

The Queen officially opens The Thames Barrier May 1984

After the 1953 floods the Government appointed a Committee chaired by Lord Waverley (John Anderson) better known for giving his name to the air raid shelter. The Greater London Council was formed in 1965 and they were responsible for the design and construction of the barrier. A huge civil engineering project for its time and beset with the difficulties of the 70s. The 1972 estimate of £49m rose to a whacking £450m by 1976 reasons cited for the increase (Financial Times 1976) were; rising oil prices, inflation and the effects of the three day week. Yes, the three day week when cities were plunged into darkness, schools and factories closed, people wore blankets and woolly hats and there were record sales of jigsaw puzzles.

Area of flooding if Thames Barrier not raised Dec 2013

Area of flooding if Thames Barrier not raised Dec 2013

The 70s may have set in motion events that led to the de-industrialisation of Britain and the privatisation of many public services yet the Thames Barrier is a powerful reminder of the way a large strategic public body can bring together a scheme of such magnitude that 30 years on it is still protecting London.

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Cliffe Marshes

Cliffe Marshes

Walking in Cliffe Marshes with low winter sun it’s difficult to imagine that Stanley Kubrick used this landscape to shoot the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. He did import palm trees and tropical plants to make it look like the paddy fields of Vietnam. Quite a transformation but now there is evidence of much subtler changes in the landscape.

Saxon Shore Path

Saxon Shore Path

The high sea walls define the river’s edge but in the channels man’s attempts to hold back nature are slowly slipping into the mud-banks. A couple of centuries ago ships heading for London had to navigate their way through these dangerous channels making frequent stops in the dense mud but sometimes to unload contraband to waiting small boats.

Hans Ergede Wreck

Hans Ergede Wreck

At low tide the wreck of the Hans Egede is visible from the Saxon Shore pathway ( itself falling into the river in places). You could be forgiven for thinking this is an old cargo ship or a prison hulk but it was only sunk in the 1950s. A Norwegian vessel built in 1922 it sprung a leak and sank in Egypt Bay. It was towed to Higham Creek to prevent it becoming a hazard for shipping. The rusty iron girders and thick slabs of concrete next to the wreck are reportedly the remains of a Maunsell Fort which was towed here and blown up by Royal Engineers after the 2nd World War.

Cliffe Castle

Cliffe Castle

The wreck is close of Cliffe Fort which is slowly sinking into the mud. In private ownership it is fenced off but visible from the path. The outer walls now overgrown and thick with moss and lichen are accessible from the public pathway. The thick stone walls are being consumed by vegetation and rising water levels. It was a Royal Commission fort built in the 1860s as part of the defenses against a French Invasion. Once the proud home of the first guided missile, The Brennan Torpedo, it’s future looks bleak.

This area once crucial for the defence of the nation and littered with the architecture of war is slowly reverting and whilst doing so supporting a fine range of coastal birds and small mammals. The highlight of my walk was the sight of a magnificent Peregrine Falcon.

26th Battalion of Home Guards

26th Battalion of Home Guards

The two million people who still watch the 1960s/70s hit Dad’s Army must be waiting with trepidation for the new film. The remake will need to be really good to live up to expectations, forty years on and there is still an Appreciation Society. What worked well in the original series was that we all knew the outcome of the war and the futility of Captain Mainwaring’s preparations. Back in 1940 the prospect of invasion was a real and present danger. Shooters Hill was one of the main arterial routes into London from the south coast and the 26th Battalion of the Home Guard had a crucial role in preparing for the defence of the city.

London’s preparations comprised of concentric rings of anti-tank defences and pillboxes in and around the city known as Stop Lines. Shooters Hill was in the middle Stop Line. From the top of Shooters Hill an invading army would have clear views of their prize and more importantly it would be within range of their heavy artillery. Remains of these defensive structures can still be found in the local area. In Oxleas woods strange concrete plinths and boxes are still visible which were part of the Stop Line defences.

Stop Lines Shooters Hill
Close to the former Police Station on Eltham Common, deep within overgrown brambles, is the remains of a spigot mortar, an anti-tank gun, used by the Home Guard. From this vantage point they would have a clear firing line on any invaders coming down the hill.

Spigot Mortar

Spigot Mortar

The proximity of the Royal Arsenal made this area vulnerable to aerial attacks and the Air Ministry bought land in the Kidbrooke area for the manufacture of barrage balloons. The balloons defended London against low flying aeroplanes.

Barrage Balloons in Kidbrooke

Barrage Balloons in Kidbrooke

Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, Air Minister, visited Kidbooke in 1939 as part of the recruitment drive for 5,000 men, aged over 35, to join the Balloon Service. The Home Guard was made up of the young, elderly and those in reserved occupations.

Sir Howard Kingsley Wood

Sir Howard Kingsley Wood

Hitler did have a plan, Operation Sea Lion for the invasion of Britain which included 6 divisions landing on the Kent coast around Ramsgate, Bexhill and Folkestone. If this had proceeded I think we can be confident that the local Home Guard were well prepared and wouldn’t be shouting “Don’t Panic”.

Memorial Hospital Shooters Hill

Memorial Hospital Shooters Hill

The beginning of 1927 saw 1000 people a week die from an influenza epidemic. A terrifying experience when there was no universal health system. More locally the Mayor of Woolwich, Councillor William Barefoot, nominated the Boot and Shoe fund as is charity which provided shoes for local children who without this help would be like their benefactor, barefoot. Unemployment was high as the demand for ammunitions from The Royal Arsenal dwindled after the First World War.

Duke of York

Duke of York

People’s generosity was remarkable that during this period of hardship a local subscription scheme saw the opening of The Memorial Hospital on 2nd November by The Duke and Duchess of York.

Plan of Memorial Hospital

Plan of Memorial Hospital


The decision to build the hospital was made in 1917. It was to be a lasting benefit for the community and a memorial to the local people killed: 6113 in battle; 100 in accidents at the Royal Arsenal and 14 in air raids.

Memorial Hall

Memorial Hall

It would be the first Post War General Hospital to be built in London. In a period when the majority of people did not have access to health services building a hospital with access through a local subscription scheme was enlightened. Even workers who benefited from Lloyd George’s insurance service were not entitled to hospital treatment unless suffering from tuberculosis. It is no wonder that the Duke of York referred to is as a Temple of Healing.

The total cost of building was £210,000 which included the purchase of 13.5 acres of land. The construction of roads, foundations and drains were done as part of an unemployment relief scheme.

Workers from unemployment relief scheme

Workers from unemployment relief scheme

Not all went to plan as the amount raised by subscription was £179,000 leaving a funding gap of £30,000. This caused local anxiety as it was always the ambition that the hospital open free of debt.

Mayor and local councillors

Mayor of Woolwich opening Memorial Hospital

Woolwich Borough came to the rescue and at a special meeting of the Council agreed a grant to cover the shortfall. Councillor Halse put forward the recommendation stating that he didn’t want to see the hospital opening with “ a loadstone round its neck”. Oh dear what would our forefathers think of PFIs. They may well have raised an eyebrow at the fact we still have hungry children in London.

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