diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 13, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 8: Thames Barrier Visitor Centre

Location: Unity Way, Woolwich, SE18 5NJ [map]
Open: 10:30am - 4pm (11am - 3:30pm in Winter)
Admission: £1.50
5-word summary: mini exhibition beside engineering marvel
Website: here
Time to set aside: ½hr indoors, ½hr outdoors

The Thames Barrier is a marvellous sight. Its gleaming aerofoil piers span the river at Woolwich Reach, protecting large swathes of the capital against the threat of innundation. Admittedly Beckton and Belvedere are still in for a soaking, but the residents of Chelsea and Camberwell have good reason to thank the GLC for their foresight. Designed as long ago as the early 1970s, the Thames Barrier was engineered to withstand even a once-in-a-millennium storm surge. When the call comes, and it comes more frequently with each passing decade, six hidden gates rise up out of the water to block the incoming tide. The mechanism's based on gas-tap technology, you know. I know, I saw it at the exhibition.

Visitors aren't allowed inside the main Thames Barrier buildings. Instead there's a small 'official' café built atop the flood defences on the south bank where you can rest awhile after taking in the awe and majesty of the barrier gates. Maybe you fancy a nice cup of tea and a jam-topped scone, or perhaps you have a sudden urge for a cheap souvenir pencil or tacky fridge magnet. But offer the lady at the till a handful of coins and she'll buzz you through a side door down into the basement where an exhibition reveals the barrier's secrets. It's not a very large basement, indeed on entering you'll wonder if there aren't several other rooms and galleries tucked away out of sight, but what you see is what you get. Display boards recount past floods, most notably the disastrous storm of 1953. Learn too about the ecology of the Thames and the estuary's other flood defences. Flick through some of the designs which lost out to Charles Draper's rotating underwater gates. Look, there's a murky fishtank complete with murky fish. And over here is a big model of the barrier in a glass case which whirrs into action so you can see how everything works. Maybe you'd like to watch it go through its paces a couple of times, just to stretch your visit out to fifteen minutes.

For your second fifteen minutes, enter the mini-cinema with its mini-video. If you've ever watched Tomorrow's World or seen one of those terribly worthy public information films, you'll know what to expect. Lots of shots of engineers standing around holding clipboards; a succession of workmen moving things with cranes and pouring concrete into moulds; a strip of dull white text speeding across the screen outlining a list of dry facts and figures; some BBC-type bloke reading out an earnest commentary in proper Queen's English; a burbling synthesiser playing over-dramatic tinkly muzak in the background. Yes, nobody's replaced the video at the visitor's centre since the barrier was opened in 1984, and it shows. Still, the film kept the attention of a visiting toddler without him running around and screaming, which was more than the rest of the exhibition had managed.

Back outside a far more impressive attraction is the barrier itself. The nine silver piers poke out of the water like a row of submerged skyscrapers. Red crosses or green arrows glow beside each gate like giant traffic lights. The harbour police scud aimlessly down the river. Passing couples linger at the water's edge to take awestruck photographs. Toddlers play happily, and noisily, on the climbing frame. You could do worse than come visit for yourself, if you have nothing better to do. But, all things considered, you might prefer the view from Thames Barrier Park on the northern banks instead.
by bus: 161, 177, 180, 472  by train: Charlton, Woolwich Dockyard

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