Londinium….Lundenwic…Londres…London – however you name her, she is the most significant urban area in Europe. I am sure that the Romans, Saxons and Norman French, could hardly imagine what London has now become. A truly polyglot, world city, there are still traces of London’s Roman and Norman French roots, and, of course the whole is crowned by many Victorian and Edwardian monuments to the largest empire the world has ever seen. Snaking through it all (although much deeper and narrower than the wide, marshy stream that the Romans originally bridged) is Old Father Thames. The Thames rises north of the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire, where there is an inscribed stone, and flows westwards. Teddington Lock marks the tidal limit of the river, and it’s character, as well as its salinity, begins to change. The Port of London Authority is responsible for publishing the tide tables for the Thames, but is also has overall control of shipping throughout the Tideway (the portion of the river which is tidal). From as far back as Roman times, London has been a major port; even though the commercial activity has mostly moved further downstream, leaving the London Docklands prey to developers and the relocation of the financial sector from the City of London. For a 200 year period from about 1745 to 1945, one of the most important factors that drove the commercial activity on the river was the Thames Sailing Barge. With its ochre-coloured sails, and broad shallow beam, these spritsail-rigged sailing barges were a common sight as they transhipped cargos from larger vessels up and down the East Coast of England, and all over the Thames Estuary, sometimes venturing as far as the near Continental ports. Originally of wooden construction, from the 1920s they began to be built with steel hulls. A handful are preserved and some are charter boats, giving pleasure cruises on the Thames and beyond.
Here we can see a fine example, moving through the center, No. 2, arch of Tower Bridge from the Pool of London, where HMS Belfast is moored. Tower Bridge is, technically, a bascule bridge – one with ‘leaf’ sections as well as a suspension bridge, and is one of the most iconic bridges in the whole world. Officially opened in 1894 by the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), it is still in heavy use today by road and foot traffic, although ships have to give 24 hours notice to have the bascules raised.
Surprisingly, there have been many connections with aviation. Alan Cobham (later to be knighted for his feats) landed his DH 50J seaplane, G-EBFO, alongside the Houses of Parliament on 1st October 1926 to a hero’s welcome, on his return flight from Australia. This was only the first of a string of seaplanes and flying boats which were to alight near Tower Bridge. A Short Calcutta flying boat, G-EBVG, was moored near the Houses of Parliament for the period 1st-4th August 1928, so Members could inspect the new mode of transport. In 1949, a Short S.45 Solent of B.O.A.C (wearing a named ‘Speedbird’ logo, no less) “City of London”, flew in to undergo a naming ceremony. Tower Bridge was associated with two more members of the Short Sunderland clan, in that a Short Sunderland V of No. 201 Sqd, RAF (“201 – A”, DP198) was moored just upstream from the Bridge on 16th September, 1956, to commemorate the Battle of Britain, and G-BJHS, a Short Sandringham owned by Edward J Hulton of Juliet Flying Boats Inc, was ‘resident’ in the Pool of London during October, 1982.
Tower Bridge has always attracted the daring and the foolhardy amongst the flying community. As far back as 1912, Frank McClean (like Alan Cobham, also to be knighted) flew a Shorts S.27 biplane between the overhead walkway and roadway, to the intense displeasure of the Royal Aero Club. The ‘Mad Major’, Chris Draper, AFC, Croix de Guerre, was down on his luck when he hired an Auster J1, G-AGYD, from the Herts & Essex Aero Club with his last funds in 1953. He proceeded to fly under a number of Thames bridges, and through Tower Bridge, to ‘show that he could still do it’. Still do it? Yes, he had performed a similar feat on 30th September, 1931, in a DH 80 Puss Moth! Much later, in April 1958, a Hawker Hunter FGA.9, XF442, flown by Flt Lt Alan Pollock, No. 1 Sqd, RAF, ushered Tower Bridge into the jet age when he flew between the towers of this Grade 1 listed building! As you might expect, the Royal Air Force and he parted company soon afterwards.
Sadly, perhaps the most poignant of these flights took place on 31st July, 1973, when a stockbroker’s clerk, Paul Martin, who was out on bail in respect of a fraud charge, stole a Beagle Pup, G-AXIC, from the Three Counties Aero Club at Blackbushe Airfield, Surrey. He flew through the Tower Bridge opening TWICE, and after ‘beating up’ several buildings in the City of London financial district, headed north. He later crashed the aircraft and was killed, at Derwentwater, Cumberland, in the scenic Lake District. As far as I am aware, the latest flight under the upper walkway occured WITH permission, when in July 2004, an Aerospatiale/Eurocopter AS355 Ecuriel 2 of Flying Pictures Ltd, passed under the bridge (with the bascules open) as part of the filming for the feature film, ‘Thunderbirds’.
Beyond Tower Bridge you can just see Butlers Wharf, the place where many charter boats congregate. Tied up there is the ‘Dixie Queen’ of Thames Luxury Charters, the largest paddle-wheeler on the Thames, as well as a rather splendid private yacht, which at $1million a foot (the usual ‘build price’ from a good Italian yard) looks to belong to someone with an impressive bank balance.
Oh yes, and we must not forget Lake Havasu City. This Arizona community heard that the 1831 ’London Bridge’ was being replaced, and bought it (well, the granite facings, anyway) and clad a newly-built concrete bridge with parts of the Victorian structure. London Bridge is, of course, upstream of Tower Bridge. Despite vehement denials, it is possible that some of the Lake Havasu city fathers might have confused ‘London’ with ‘Tower’!