Poetic references abounded when Dr David Hilling spoke passionately about Old Father Thames at the WISTA UK conference held in City Hall this week during London International Shipping Week (Monday).
He was wrapping up the day with a joint presentation with Commander David Phillips, the Port of London Authority’s chief harbour master, subtitled ‘There’s life in the Old Man yet’.
As he put it, Kingdoms may come and kingdoms may go …but Old Father Thames keeps rolling along. This ‘great street paved with water’ is a four to eight-lane highway that goes right through the centre of London, but which has not perhaps been paid the attention it should have been paid in recent years, said Dr Hilling.
He traced the history of the Thames from Roman times through to the days of frequent congestion, when it was said you could cross the river by stepping from one ship to the next – and Pepys once said there were 2,000 ships in the Pool of London – and on to the creation of the enclosed docks.
After the widespread closure of docks and wharfs upriver in the 1970s and1980s, there was rapid decay and a gap before waterfront redevelopments began.
However, a key turning point was in the late 1990s when the government first introduced the concept of safeguarding wharfs from transferring to non-transport use, a policy that now comes under the Mayor of London’s office.
Dr Hilling welcomed the increase in cargo flows between terminals on the Thames, which reached 5.5m tonnes last year and the protection and re-opening of wharfs.
“I think on balance Old Father Thames would be reasonably pleased with what has happened in the last few years,” he said. “Those of us who are interested in seeing cargo moving by water rather than rode are thrilled to bits.”
Commander David Phillips described the work of the PLA in ensuring safety of navigation, looking after the environment, promoting the use of the tidal Thames, and working closely with all stakeholders. Meeting the very different priorities and needs of all stakeholders is a challenge – the PLA works with 23 local boroughs along the river, as well as Kent and Essex County Councils and London. And, as he said: “Houseboats are not compatible with fast ferries.”
In the leisure sector, one of the newer activities happening on the river is stand-up paddleboarding. In the process of risk assessment, he was persuaded to have a go. “It was not my finest hour!”
There are 70 terminals and wharfs along the tidal Thames and under the PLA’s jurisdiction.