Queenhithe – History on the Shore

Above: View from the southbound platform of Blackfriars Station. It looks down on the shore at Queenhithe at low tide. In the foreground is part of the Millennium Bridge.

The beach beside the Thames is one of the most remarkable parts of London. It is not the land – that would have been built on or covered in tarmac or laid out as the garden of a public park. It is not the river. It is a small strip of land that is covered as the tide rises and is laid bare when the tide goes out. In London, the rise and fall of the tide are between 15 and 20 feet (about five or six metres) twice each day. There are greater tides than this one – in Canada, there is a tidal range of over 12 metres. The constantly changing tides cause erosion to the shore and, by the constant movement, causes a rounding effect on small stones so that they become smooth pebbles.

You might think that such a hostile environment would have completely destroyed any historic evidence on the shore but you would be wrong. Countless artefacts have been discovered on the shore and continue to be found on an almost daily basis. The beach is actually private property and you cannot just go removing anything you find in it. Anyone wishing to search the tidal Thames foreshore in any way for whatever reason must hold a current foreshore permit from the Port of London Authority (PLA). The permit scheme covers activities including searching and metal detecting.

Having made that point clear, there are many features that have remained on the beach for centuries. They are so large that they cannot be removed. Look again at the above picture and you can see rows of wooden timbers on the beach. Some of them appear to be such good condition that you might think they were recently installed. In fact, some of those timbers have been there for centuries. They are still in good condition because in the main they were from trees like oak or elm which can endure being in the water for a very long time. These timbers are the footings of landing stages and ‘hards’ built into the shore, some of them dating from medieval times. A ‘hard’ is a kind of base which was built on the beach and was usually level. The wooden timbers were usually built around the edge of a hard, enclosing an area lined with horizontal timbers, stone or chalk on which a lighter could ‘sit’ in a level position when the tide had receded. Such hards aided the loading of lighters.

The large number of timbers seen on the shore near Queenhithe indicate that there were various provisions for ships to be moored in centuries gone by. Most of the buildings beside the Thames in the City today are now offices. In the view, we can see just one old warehouse called Brooke’s Wharf that was built in Victorian times. Until the 1960s most of the riverside in the City was lined with large warehouses looking like this one. Goods were brought upriver and stored in the warehouses. From the 1960s onwards the warehouses were gradually demolished and glass and steel offices have been built on their sites. Brooke’s Wharf is now one of the last remaining warehouses to be seen beside the Thames in the City.


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