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London Docklands Fall and Rebirth

Sunborn Yacht Hotel

Royal Victoria Dock

London Docklands

When I first joined P&O n 1973 I was based in London for a few weeks and part of our induction was lifeboat training on St Katherine's Dock in the shadow of Tower Bridge. At that time it was nothing more than derelict and crumbling warehouse buildings. The lifeboat training centre was a portacabin on the dockside.

St Katherine's Dock

In the 1960’s Britain had a healthy shipping industry and one of the larger merchant marine fleets in the world. The port of London handled over 60 million tons of cargo a year in the early 1960s.

New tonnage was being built mainly by the British Shipyards. This soon changed. In 1966 British seaman went on strike for six weeks, no one benefitted from this, not the Seaman's union, the Seamen themselves of the British ship owners. The ships sat in dock unmanned, preventing other ships from docking and unloading their cargo. Importers and exporters could no longer rely on British shipping and turned to foreign tonnage to carry their cargoes.

In 1967 following the six-day war, the Suez Canal was closed and stayed closed to shipping until 1975. This proved another blow to worldwide shipping with vessels having to take the longer route via the Cape of Good hope, using more fuel and taking more time. During this time OAPEC had an oil embargo that drove up the price of oil by 70%. Many ships became uneconomical to maintain and were sent for scrap.

Another nail in the coffin for British Shipping was the advent of containerisation. Containerisation, which greatly reduces the cost of transportation, by reducing voyage time and particularly the turnaround time spent in port.

Before this advance, conventional cargo ships typically stayed in Australian waters for a period of three months whilst stevedores discharged and re-loaded the ship by manual methods. Cranes with slings unloaded crates onto pallets, and cargo was literally manhandled. Dockers then maneuvered the crates into the cargo holds, and forklift trucks moved the pallets to warehouses. Damage and delays were frequent and militant trade unions were forever bringing the dockers out on strike. Containerisation changed all that forever. With a container vessel, the containers are ISO sized, and the boxes are simply lifted on or off a truck to a ship using large specialised cranes. Because the container is loaded and unloaded at the factory or plant where the goods are manufactured, stevedores are not required to handle the cargo inside.

So the writing was now on the wall for most of the smaller shipping companies. To survive new container ships had to be build and hundreds of thousands of containers manufactured. This involved the smaller companies getting together to form new shipping consortiums with of course the decline in the number of sailors and dockers required. New container docks were built and the old enclosed docks along the river Thames and other docks in the UK were closed up and became derelict. These new sea monsters were being built in places like Germany and Japan, leading to a decline in the British shipyards, in turn more redundancies were made with further dock areas becoming redundant. Meanwhile, the advent of the Jumbo Jet was a further nail in the coffin for the British merchant navy with the mighty Ocean liners becoming unprofitable.

In the early 1980’s Sir Terrance Conran was on a river cruise when he sailed past Butlers Wharf, owned by P&O but now on a derelict state. He had a vision for the site that would start to change Docklands forever. In 1981 a new chapter of the story of the Docklands began and the keywords became regeneration and redevelopment. Thanks to the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), an agency created by the UK Government, the area became the site of the largest regeneration project in Europe.

My recent visit to docklands started In Royal Victoria docks. Where you will find the ExCel exhibition centre, at the moment home to the Nightingale hospital build for coping with Covid 19, thankfully only 51 patients were treated there and it closed in May. The docks are home to a number of hotels

including two that float. By far the most

Sunborn Yacht Hotel Atrium impressive is the Sunborn Yacht Hotel with 138 staterooms on five decks. The yacht has a very impressive Atrium as you enter from the dock.

The Millennium Dome with Canary Wharf in the background as seen from the Emirates Cable Car

Walk up the dock and you come to the Emirates cable car. This picks you up and drops you on the other side of the Thames close to the Millennium dome.

We were amazed how quiet this was and walked onto the cable car and within minutes were in our own gondola high above the Thames, with views of the Thames barrier, London City Airport, the Dome, and Canary Wharf, a far call from The Silvertown of Graham McGlone in The Silvertown Kid

From here we walked the Thames Path to Greenwich. Truth be told this is not a very pretty walk until you reach Greenwich, As you turn the corner of the Trafalgar Tavern and its magnificent wall of hanging baskets you get your first view of the Old Royal Naval College, which is truly magnificent in the banks of the mighty Thames.

There is no better way of viewing the wonderful dockland developments than by taking a riverboat. You can of course take the high-speed thrill trips where you get wet, the Uber Boats get you from A to B pretty quickly if you are commuting but by taking a sightseeing tour you have time to relax, and take in the views. On some boats, the deck crew do their own commentary which is quite amusing, although they point out that they are not official guides and at the end of the trip pass round the champagne cooler for tips, a bit like the drag queens in Key West.

Along the river, you see old Thameside pubs that have survived the developments and according to our boat crew comment, where many famous people have supped a pint of ale or two.

Day two and we take the dockland light railway, so much better than the underground as you can see some of the great developments of the docklands along the way. From the Royal Victoria docks, you can go direct to Tower Bridge. Here we visited the Tower of London, my first time inside since I was 15, yes over fifty years.

There are few visitors in London at the moment and it was a great time to visit. We walked straight in to see the Crown Jewels- No Queue.

And remember if you are over 65 you get a couple of quid of the admission ticket

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