diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 05, 2012

Although not in London, Tilbury used to be one of the capital's most important locations. The Port of London opened a new deep water dock at Tilbury in 1886, which has grown and grown as world shipping has inexorably upsized. The town alongside grew from nothing until in 1912 it was large enough to boast its own urban district council. That's a 125th anniversary last April, and a 100th anniversary this April. Any excuse for a celebration, which is why a Centenary Open Day was held at the Tilbury Cruise Terminal last weekend. I took a punt that it might be an interesting day out, and was pleased to be proved correct. A trip to Tilbury... who'd have thought? [full report] [video]

Tilbury Cruise Terminal
Crossing the oceans by liner used to be the way to travel. London's intercontinental travellers would depart from a custom-built deep water landing platform in Tilbury, opened in 1930 just downstream of the docks. You might mistake it for a town hall, this long brick terminal parallel to the river, except the nearest bit of town is some lengthy walk away. On Sunday morning a crowd of expectant visitors milled outside the passenger entrance, most of them locals, not for the luxury of a long-distance voyage but for the rare opportunity to look inside the building [photo]. And when the Tilbury Band struck up a brass welcome from within, in we poured. In the entrance lobby is a tapestry commemorating the arrival here of the Empire Windrush in 1948, whose Caribbean migrants helped create our multi-cultural nation. The main room is the size of a school hall, and was laid out with front-facing chairs as if expecting a headmaster's speech. Various community groups had set up stalls within, and there were indeed a couple of historical lectures during the day. But modern cruise-goers are funnelled instead through a less impressive (but more comfortable) lounge, from which double doors lead out to a long covered jetty, and a waiting ship, and a lovely trip round the Med.

Tilbury Riverside Station
It used to be an essential part of the ocean-going journey, the train journey to the Thames. The line to Southend kinked down to the river, allowing travellers (and their luggage) a short trolley-push to their cabin. So important was this station that it merited four platforms... now cut down to zero. They've been replaced by a cluster of warehouses and a car park, and now only the shed at the head of the platforms remains. It's a big shed, not especially impressive from outside, but with a decrepit charm from within [photo]. White metal arches curve across the roof, while pigeons flap and fly through broken panes. Paint flakes from the upper walls, and the sign to the non-existent Buffet and Dining Room is now barely visible. In the centre of the space is a squat brick structure, the old ticket hall, with broken furniture within and a rusty clock stuck fast at twelve o'clock above [photo]. It's been stopped twenty years, so our Sunday access was a rarity, although there are hopes to reopen the space for markets, community events and the like. And the station still sort of exists, thanks to a British Rail quirk. Any rail ticket to Tilbury Town also allows free passage on the 99 bus to the Riverside... should you ever need to use the Tilbury Ferry, which runs from alongside.

Tilbury Riverside
It's a fascinating short stretch of riverside, this, as some of us discovered on a short guided walk led by local historian Mike Ostler. The Thames is relatively narrow here, he explained, which is one reason why so many activities have sprung up on these marshy banks directly opposite Gravesend. The Romans settled nearby, while the fort on the Tilbury side (and its maple-leaf moat) dates back to the defensive tactics of Henry VIII. It being low tide we spotted the stumpy remains of one of the ferry's earlier jetties rising from the mud outside the World's End pub. Samuel Pepys was a semi-regular drinker, as was author Daniel Defoe who made a considerable sum of money using Tilbury mud to make the bricks from which the Royal Greenwich Observatory is constructed. I may have walked this way before, but I was reminded how even the briefest stroll (along concrete walls, downwind of a power station) can be brought to life by a knowledgeable and talented guide.

The Port of Tilbury
Forget the mothballed past. Tilbury's container port is a massive facility, 850 acres in total, through which a significant proportion of the nation's imports passes. You won't normally get inside the perimeter, not unless you work here, but a select group of centenary visitors got to take an hour-long tour from one end to the other... in a vintage Routemaster bus. I got a seat on the top deck, along with several port workers past and present keen (at last!) to show off their day job to other close family members. We passed several large warehouses, many used for the storage and transfer of paper for which Tilbury is nationally renowned. LOCOG are stockpiling all sorts of equipment for the Olympics inside Berth 46, including ten thousand tons of sand destined for the equestrian arena in Greenwich Park this summer. Further along is a row of grain silos the height of a seven-storey building, beside which is a mill manufacturing a significant proportion of southeast England's bread. On and on the port's buildings stretch, round every nook and cranny of the comb-shaped docks, from logistics hubs to recycling facilities to P&O ferry terminals. In one corner we even spotted the Ross Revenge - Radio Caroline's converted trawler - and the Queen Mary which used to be moored along the Victoria Embankment. But it was the cranes and containers that most impressed, even on a quiet Sunday, as the metal boxes were stacked and shuffled on and off and around the quaysides. "That's a straddle-carrier," explained one father as we passed a group of tall yellow cranes-on-wheels scuttling between the containers. "And look, that's what Daddy drives for a living," he added, if only eldest son had looked up from his mobile long enough to take note. A most impressive port tour, opening up a world we all take for granted but so few of us ever see.

If you're slightly gutted you missed out on this, then keep an eye on Ian Visits' What's On calendar for similarly quirky round-London events.
(if you're thinking "yeah, so it was a tour of the Port of Tilbury from the top deck of a Routemaster, so what?" then probably don't bother)

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