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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 93: Tilbury to Gravesend via Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Woolwich ferry

by | Feb 1, 2023

Trinity Buoy Wharf
After the trauma of the previous afternoon, I vowed not to cycle along a single main road all day. Cycle tracks and minor roads would be OK, but I would rather walk the Thames footpath, pushing my bike, than subject myself to another main road.

Fortunately, the Thames Path is a well-defined, metalled track for much of the route heading along the north bank of the river towards the city. I threaded my way towards the river at Grays, found the path, and then made for the lighthouse at Stone Ness. I was surprised to find a landscape not dissimilar to the tranquil wetlands of the Thames Estuary, albeit with the sight and distant sounds of heavy industry all around me. But I reckoned I could find somewhere to sit by the river, and see only a handful of walkers, if that, all day.

Stone Ness

Stone Ness

Like many of the Thames lights, the lighthouse at Stone Ness has a red-painted skeletal metal framework tower, with a circular lantern room and gallery above. Built in 1885, it displays a flashing green light which is visible for six miles. I managed to get pretty close to it, and although there appeared to be a lamp inside the lantern, there was also a prominent green lamp mounted to the gallery railings, so it is possible that the lantern room itself is no longer operational.

Heading further along the Thames Path, it was clear that it is meant for walkers rather than cyclists. Every pier, jetty or body of water is navigated via a series of narrow steel bridges, with steep flights of steps on either side. Under most circumstances, it would be folly to continue along this particular route with my bike, but I had vowed to stay safely away from roads today, and I planned to stick to that commitment.

The challenge was that the bridges were too narrow to accommodate a bicycle with loaded panniers. In any case, it was far too heavy to carry, fully laden, up each flight of steel steps. So every few hundred yards I needed to dismount, remove my four panniers, carry the bike over the bridge, return for the panniers, reattach them, and then set off again. In one stretch of a mile or so, I had to do this four times. It was the sort of daft endeavour better suited for an endurance round in It’s a Knockout or Total Wipeout, albeit without having to wear a clown’s outfit, or carry two full buckets of water at the same time.

Coldharbour Point

Coldharbour Point

Rainham Marshes were astonishingly peaceful, and it was hard to believe that I was so close to the centre of London. At a bend in the river at Erith Reach, there is a lighthouse at Coldharbour Point. Like Stone Ness, it was built in 1885, and is another red-painted metal lattice tower. It has a small gallery, with lamp mounted on top, access to which is via an external metal staircase. It displays a flashing white light, which is visible for three miles.

Ten miles upstream is Trinity Buoy Wharf, near Blackwall, where there is a splendid ‘experimental’ lighthouse, as well as a light vessel permanently moored. Although I had no choice other than to join the road network around London City Airport, I was now in the city, and so enjoyed the luxury of safe, wide and segregated cycle lanes the whole way.

Trinity Buoy Wharf

There have been two lighthouses at Trinity Buoy Wharf, although neither were ever used to aid navigation on the Thames. The first was built by Trinity House Engineer, James Walker, in 1854. Its purpose was to test and develop various forms of illumination for the network of lighthouses, lightships and buoys.

The scientist Michael Faraday worked as a scientific advisor to Trinity House between 1836 and 1865, and his laboratory was based here at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

In 1864 the depot was rebuilt, and a second lighthouse, designed by Sir James Douglass, was built alongside the first. (James Walker’s light was eventually demolished in the 1920s.)

Trinity Buoy Wharf

Trinity Buoy Wharf

The 1864 lighthouse is still standing, and has a hexagonal brick tower, about thirty-five feet tall, which is attached to the other depot buildings. It has a gallery and lantern above, whose optics were changed according to the lighting being tested. Trinity House also used the lighthouse for the training of lighthouse keepers and maintenance personnel, a function it performed until 1988.

Over the last twenty years, Trinity Buoy Wharf has been transformed from an empty, derelict site into a dynamic workspace and centre for arts and cultural activities. The restored brick buildings at the heart of the site were originally built by Trinity House, and all around them studios, workshops and offices have been constructed using a simple, efficient and sustainable system based on shipping containers. The site’s manager and champion is John Burton, a wonderfully charismatic man who I have come to know very well through my connection with the Association of Lighthouse Keepers. His guided tours for our members are entertaining and insightful, and we always leave confident that this lighthouse, at least, is in very safe hands. I crossed the river on the Woolwich Ferry, something I hadn’t done for more than twenty years. As I weaved my way back around the airport complex, I wasn’t even certain that the ferry still ran. As it was, it hadn’t changed a bit and of all the ferries, boat trips and crossings I’d made, I would rank this five-minute crossing of the Thames among my favourites. I was now heading east, following the south bank of the Thames towards a lighthouse at Tripcock Ness. Close to the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Pier, however, I was captivated by what I assumed was an installation of the cast-iron moulds that Antony Gormley must have used to create the figures for Another Place, on Crosby beach. In fact, I discovered that these cast-iron figures were by Peter Burke, not Antony Gormley, and that the installation was called Assembly. Nevertheless, they were thought provoking, and prompted me to linger for more time than I had to spare.

Triplock Ness

Triplock Ness

The lighthouse at Tripcock Ness was a little underwhelming, largely because of its similarity to the light at Coldharbour Point I had already seen. This one was built in 1902, and displays a flashing white light, visible for eight miles. You clearly get a rougher crowd on the south bank of the river, because unlike the Coldharbour light, this one had a forbidding metal fence, topped with razor wire, to protect it.

Cross Ness

Cross Ness

On this stretch of the river the Thames Path doubles as a genuine cycle path, and the going was much easier and quicker. Two miles downstream is another, almost identical light at Cross Ness. This one is earlier, built in 1895, but has an identical light pattern to Tripcock Ness, displaying a flashing white light, which is visible for eight miles. It, too, is fenced in securely.

These Thames lights are not inspiring. They are more interesting than the lights on the Avon and Severn rivers, certainly, but I was ready to conclude that river lights just aren’t my thing. And they were now almost all behind me.

Beyond Erith, the riverbank started to feel green and marsh-like once more, albeit alongside the skeletal remains of former industry.

The light at Crayford Ness was different from all the other Thames light, but was uninspiring nonetheless. Apparently there was once a stone tower here, but it was demolished in 1967 and replaced with a red-painted metal lattice tower like all the others. This, too, was demolished in 1981, and nowadays the light is displayed from a small, corrugated iron box or shed, mounted halfway up the smaller of two radar towers. It displays two white lights, one flashing, visible for eight miles, and one fixed, visible for three miles.

Crayford Ness

Crayford Ness

It required all my imagination to recognise the Crayford Ness tower as a lighthouse. To my untrained eye, it looked like an electricity pylon which was missing its cables. It was starting to feel like a box-ticking exercise rather than a genuine hunt for lighthouses.

After Greenhithe and Swanscombe, the main cycle track turns towards Northfleet, and the last mile or so to the light at Broadness was mainly on foot. Even the footpath avoids the Broadness Salt Marsh, and I have a feeling that I might have been trespassing on the final stretch.

Broadness

Broadness

It won’t surprise you to learn that the light has a red-painted metal tower, with a gallery and lamp installed at the top. It is later than the others, however, as it was built in 1975 to replace an earlier 1885 light. It displays an occulting red light, which is visible for twelve miles.
Northfleet Lower

Northfleet Lower

In Northfleet, I found the former Lower light on India Arms Wharf. While it has the familiar red-painted metal tower, it does at least have a gallery with a proper lantern on top, with a window through which its light was displayed. It is earlier, as well, dating to 1859, and was originally acetylene powered, before being converted to electricity in 1975. It was a working light until 2001, when the Upper light at Bevans Wharf was considered adequate on its own.

Northfleet Upper

Northfleet Upper

The Upper light originally comprised a metal tower built in 1926, but this was demolished in 1972, and these days the light is displayed from a lantern mounted on the roof of an office block at Bevan’s Wharf.

With the red metal lattice towers behind me, I booked into the Clarendon Royal Hotel in Gravesend, an elegant and somewhat luxurious hotel right on the river front. It was a treat paid for by Val and David, my lovely friends from the village we moved to when we first left London. The service was immaculate, but I looked the other way when a porter wheeled my bike across a thick carpet towards a storeroom, leaving muddy tyre tracks behind him.

Now that I was back in Kent, it was easy for my friend James to find an excuse to leave the office early and meet me for a couple of pints. We met at the hotel, after which we posed together for the selfies in front of the light on two of the town’s piers, before heading into the Three Daws. Despite being in my own county, I found two beers that were new to me, Finchcocks Original and Gravesend Guzzler, both of which were very much to my taste. We caught up with what I had been missing in the office (he works for Jason), and how Kent had been coping without me these past three months. Quite happily, it seemed.

At closing time I returned to the hotel, where I was pleased to discover that the carpet was spotless once more.

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