Tuesday 24th May 2016
I see that this morning I had extra time in bed, until 8 a.m., which was a novelty. We are at sea, travelling towards the River Thames and London, and looking forward to Tower Bridge opening for us at 5 p.m. - what a treat. I have been through Tower Bridge before, on the paddle steamer WAVERLEY, when the Bridge opened up for us then as we left Tower Pier and headed for the open sea.
After a walk on deck I went for breakfast and then to the 9.30 a.m. Garden Lecture from Christine with advice about visiting the Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow. There was time for coffee before the 11.30 lecture from Ian about Londoners and the Thames. After that I had another chat with Gervase Phinn about London, ships, books and life generally; he enjoys talking with passengers and many of us are happy to sit with him too.
Out on deck the sun was actually shining and it was hot - about time too. Karina in Reception gave me my book to put on the Library display table, and I felt like a proud mother as I did so. (It now has the proper labels on it, showing it is the ship's property.) Outside we are heading into London waters, and preparations were being made for a deck barbecue which was wonderful in the hot sun.
The Pilot came on board at Margate, various ships went to and fro, we saw Ramsgate, and then Sheerness (on the Isle of Thanet) where my father was born when his father was working there in the shipyards; these are in Kent, with its own River Medway. From the top deck we could see the Thames forts out in the water, and then the RICHARD MONTGOMERIE surrounded by marker buoys. This sunken vessel is so full of unstable explosives that it is considered safer to leave it there rather than try to do anything else.
Soon we approached the London Gateway with its huge cranes and ever-growing facilities for unloading cargo, Gravesend, the Woolwich ferries (James Newman, John Burns, Ernest Bevin) the Princess Pocahontus, Tilbury, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge over the River Thames, the Thames Barrier, the Emirates cable cars overhead with small jet aircraft landing and taking off from London City Airport overhead, West India Dock (Union-Castle ships used to dock there in the 1930s), and the O2 Dome.
The River Thames twists and turns frequently so the views kept changing and soon we were approaching Greenwich and could enjoy seeing the old Royal Naval Hospital from the water; next we could see the CUTTY SARK old preserved tea clipper and nearby that was the entrance to the Foot Tunnel going under the Thames from the Isle of Dogs to there at Greenwich. It's fascinating to walk under through it and realise one is underneath the River Thames, thanks to Victorian Engineering.
The skyline kept changing and soon we could see well-known buildings such as Canary Wharf, Limehouse, the Shard, the Swiss Re bank building in St. Mary Axe (where Cayzer House was located when I first joined Union-Castle Line), Wapping Pier, and clear views of the top of the towers of Tower Bridge.
The River Thames turned yet again and suddenly Tower Bridge was ahead of us; we passed the Royal Navy's HMS PRESIDENT ship and headquarters on our starboard side, and watched as the two bascules each started lifting and were completely open as we sailed through underneath the fabled Tower Bridge. I looked up and could see the newly-installed two glass floors inserted into the top walkway. I have walked across that top walkway and it is an amazing sensation to stand on the Grade 1 Listed Heritage structure dating from 1894. The whole thing is well worth a visit I think.
It was such an extraordinary sensation to be sailing through London's Tower Bridge at 5 o'clock on an early summer's afternoon, and our cheers on board were soon joined by those of hundreds of people on the riverside paths and on Tower Bridge roadway and pavements. Visitors to the nearby Tower of London joined in and we could see lots of camera and phone flashes as people took photographs.
We were soon through the Bridge and heading for HMS BELFAST just ahead on our port side, and there we soon tied up.
There were a couple of large fenders keeping MINERVA and BELFAST apart, and soon a very short gangway was put in place so we could go ashore if we chose. A small pontoon was beside BELFAST and this is where we could board a little riverboat for the five minute sail across to Tower Millennium Pier. A celebratory drink and dinner was next, followed by an after-dinner talk from Gervase Phinn which amused and entertained us all.
Out on deck later I was so glad of lots of warm clothing, but the sights and sounds all around us were mesmerising. One of the young assistant restaurant waiters standing nearby was so excited as he talked about his plans for the free time he had tomorrow, so we wished him well for the day. We were all excited about our plans!
Ships seen: Cymbeline, Wilhelmine, Princess Pocahontus, Grande Abidjan, tug Svitzer London, Svitzer Laceby of Grimsby, Cemil Bayulgen, James Newman, John Burns, Ernest Bevin, Cutty Sark, HMS President, HMS Belfast, and various River Thames pleasure craft
To be continued...