What really lurks beneath the swirling, muddy waters of the Thames? Thanks to squelching along 8 different low-tide foreshores to photograph ‘Thames Discovery’ archaeologists, I now know: layer upon layer of London’s maritime and social history, rapidly being eroded by tides and the powerful wakes of hydrofoil ferries. Tantalising glimpses of London’s previous life as a major port and shipbuilding centre can be seen whenever the tide goes out. From the Tudor/Stuart jetty of the Palace of Placentia at Greenwich, to the royal shipyards at Deptford and the vast slipways used to launch Brunel’s Great Eastern at Millwall, fascinating remnants of over 5 centuries of history are laid bare in a constantly shifting layout.
But this is transient and vulnerable archaeology. Tasked with surveying the whole foreshore, the ‘Thames Discovery Programme’ (TDP) archaeologists have gathered together an enthusiastic band of trained volunteers to help them record and promote this largely ignored part of London. Time is the enemy — they only have about 2 hours either side of low tide to explore and do their calculations before mud and water cover it all up again; plus the pace of erosion is speeding up. The Thames is a mighty river and each tide wears away at the foreshore but the churning wakes of hydrofoils are now adding to this destruction.
I would highly recommend that you grab your wellies and go and see this unique history before it’s all swept away downriver forever. Go on one of TDP’s excellent walks, or better still join up as a volunteer – as the saying goes: ‘Time and tide wait for no man’.
Greenwich foreshore: Thames Discovery site coordinator, Helen Johnston, explains the layout of what remains of the Palace of Placentia’s Tudor/Stuart jetty to a guided walk.
Greenwich foreshore: now an English Heritage ‘Site of National Importance’ to try and protect it.
Cannon St. foreshore: TDP volunteers examine layers of historical debris swept in on the tides to try and work out how London’s old port would have worked. Archaeologist, Nathalie Cohen, explains their work to visitors, whilst a hydrofoil ferry creates its wake in the background.
Cannon St. foreshore: Archaeologist, Eliott Wragg, and a TDP volunteer work fast before the tide turns.
Bermondsey foreshore: Once the site of a prosperous ship-breaking yard in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Bermondsey foreshore: Maritime history specialist, Eliott Wragg, explains the original function of massive nautical timbers and how they are eventually washed away down river.
Deptford foreshore: Here, 5 centuries of history are laid bare at low tide — Henry VIII founded the first Royal Dockyard, Samuel Pepys often visited as Chief Secretary to the Admiralty in the 17th Century and Rupert Murdoch’s News International imported paper from Sweden until 2001.
Tower Beach foreshore: After several warnings from TDP that the medieval foundations of the main river wall by the Tower of London were exposed due to erosion and that it was in danger of falling down, rock reinforcements were put in place in 2013. So far, they have held. However, ….
… you can see how much further erosion of the foreshore there has been since then, by how far the beach level has dropped below these massive bags of rocks.
Isle of Dogs foreshore opposite Greenwich: it’s amazing what you can discover about London’s unique history with TDP archaeologists, Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg.