Bermondsey

Tower Bridge Moorings at Downings Roads are one of London's oldest remaining river moorings. Since at least the first half of the nineteenth century, the moorings have been used to accommodate a variety of craft, from commercial freight to historic barges, both permanently moored and mobile.

They are located just below Tower Bridge, on the south side of the river. Adjacent to the moorings is Reeds Wharf, a listed nineteenth century warehouse. Together with the other surviving former industrial buildings, it today forms part of the St Saviour's Dock Conservation Area.

The moorings along this stretch of the river would have been used in the nineteenth century to deliver cargo to the wharves that lined the riverfront and also for barge building and repair. Reeds Wharf itself was constructed originally to handle the grain trade from North America [1]. Photographs show the walls around the warehouses to be "coloured white by the continuous action of flour, grain, seeds, and other bagged foodstuffs which were the main products handled on this stretch of the Thames". [2]

Nick Lacey, who owns and runs the moorings today has explained that "they are known as Downings Roads because they were run by the Downings Family, which had its roots in this area going back to the 18th century." [3] The Downings used the moorings as a barge builders and repair yard, but also as a kind of carp-park for Thames lighters, which were like the "work-horses of the river". However, the Downings family "got into financial difficulties in the great depression of the 1930s and the result was that they sold these moorings to another barge building company called Talbots, who had another base just further down the river in Rotherhithe". "Talbots were still using the moorings when I first came to know them up until the 1960s." Nick recalls cycling around the docks as a boy when he lived in Bermondsey, "so I got to know quite a bit about the river early on." He later went on to buy the wharf next to which the moorings sat in the 1970s, with the help of a "consortium of people". By that stage many of the riverside buildings, including Reeds wharf, had become derelict and several were demolished. Nick explains that this was due to ''the advent of containerisation and the departure of the working docks from central London." Nevertheless, there was still some industrial activity in the 1970s. Nick remembers the nearby wharves receiving grains and spices and the neighbouring wharf made dog biscuits. There was also a spice mill and Nick recalls that one could tell which spice the mill was grinding on a particular day due to the smell.

When Nick bought the building the moorings were owned by NALGO, a trade union which is now UNISON. However, he recalled that they "had done very little with them apart from mooring a few barges from time to time on them, a few lighters". At the time Nick was living in the wharf building and began enquiring into buying the moorings. He explains that "over a period of about ten years I negotiated with them and eventually ended up as owner of them", this was in the early 1980s. Nick didn't acquire the moorings with any set plan for what he'd use them for but initially "managed to get hold of some Thames lighters and attached them to the moorings". He wanted to put the moorings to good use and explains that "even at that time in the 19080s there were a few people interested in the idea of living on the river", and so in 1985 the first residential boat arrived, a Humber Keel called UNITAN, which is still on the moorings today.

It was at this time in the 1980s that the area began to be completely transformed. Wharves were converted into shops, restaurants and apartments, as well as offices and design hubs. "Over a period, other residential barges joined" the moorings and "at some point" Nick "transferred the moorings themselves from my own ownership into a company so hence the Tower Bridge Yacht & Boat Company is the owner of the moorings and I run the moorings I suppose on behalf of the Nick developed the moorings over time, adding floating garden barges in the mid- l 990s, having found inspiration from an old lighter which had some silt in the bottom of it and had started to develop its own ecology including a duck's nest. Lacey said the garden barges were "based loosely on the idea of a floating inside-out London garden square." The seven barges that make up the gardens today each have their own character with unique plants and wildlife.

The process of acquiring the moorings was "very simple" according to Nick, in comparison to the legal disputes that came in the early years of the new millennium. He explains that "moorings are not something that are readily understood by the law", which has led to various disputes with the authorities. Where Lacey regarded the moorings as outside of the Local Authority's control, Southwark Council thought otherwise and issued planning enforcement notices which sought to evict them. Residents on-shore described those living afloat at Tower Bridge moorings as 'water rats', 'a floating Gypsy camp', and 'noisy eyesores'. Lacey appealed the enforcement notices. [4]

Barge-dwellers and members of the public, including the Star Wars actor Patrick Stewart, came together and opposed the enforcement act stating that 'nothing built before 1947 has planning permission because that's when the Planning Act invented it... Are they going to pull down Tower Bridge because it doesn't have planning permission?' Lacey added, however, that there had been noise complaints and 'we want to be good neighbours' and so sought to bring the community together to plan a way forward. Lacey won two planning appeals. The Planning Inspector added that 'the vessels on the moorings make a valuable contribution to views down river', and that while several provisions and changes must be made, the residential moorings 'provide a maritime flavour, which has not been lost through their conversion to residential use, in a location which is close to what is arguably the historic heart of our maritime consciousness as a nation.' [5]

Deputy London Mayor Jenny Jones said the moorings were 'a floating paradise with sixty-six residents and six children, all firmly rooted in the Southwark community and who add to the rich tapestry of London life'. [6] Lacey notes that the community is a "rich mixture" of people, a "Noah's Ark of professions" from a brain surgeon, carpenter, policeman, to photographers and even a tiger-keeper. The thing they all have in common is that they love the river. Teresa Lundquist, who has a boat on the moorings made a comparison to village life where residents are constantly exchanging favours.

Subsequently, in 2011 the Port of London Authority took the moorings to court on the basis that, contrary to Lacey's claims, there was no such thing as ancient mooring rights. In 2013 however the High Court decided that such rights do indeed exist, and that they are enjoyed by Tower Bridge Moorings at Downings Roads.

A fully working Dutch Barge, built in 1904 and moored at Downings Roads came up for sale in March 2015 at £250,000. Mooring and maintenance fees for this 25m by 4.75m vessel are approximately £10,700 a year which includes mains water [7].

The moorings have evolved into a vibrant community with more than thirty historic boats providing affordable homes and studios for over a hundred people around an infrastructure of floating gardens and walkways. Most of the boats on the moorings are historically significant, they include Thames Barges, Thames Lighters, Commercial Tugs, Selby Barges, a Humber Keel, and a large variety of Dutch sailing and motor barges which have come from all over Europe - some over a hundred years old. The moorings are also home to the Arts Ark, a communal barge where film screenings, bonfire parties and other gatherings are held. Teresa Lundquist explained that they are a unique example of alternative living and affordable housing in central London [8]. She explained what was really special about the Tower Bridge Moorings: "they are in the heart of London but you feel as though you're within in a tiny little world. You close the gate behind you walk out in the evening to your boat and you forget about the city, but it's still all around you. The ebb and flow of the tide and the washes from passing vessels add to the excitement afloat. The light changes from moment to moment, and no day is ever the same." 

Notes

  1. http://www.towerbridgemoorings... 
  2. London s Changing Riverscape: Panoramas from LB to Greenwich, Craig, Diprose, Seaborne, p.187 
  3. Interview with Nick Lacey, London, 11 April 2016 
  4. 'Thames barge dwellers face the push ' by Hugh Muir, The Guardian, 27 May 2004, p.13 (Southwark Local Studies Archive) 
  5. 'Victory for the Barge dwellers' by Euan Denholm, Southwark News, 16 September 2004, p.11 (Southwark Local Studies Archive) 
  6. 'Houseboat owners set for argy bargy', IC South London, Friday 8 August 2003, p.18-19 (Southwark Local Studies Archive) 
  7. http://www.rightmove.co.uk/pro... property-51193826.html 
  8. Interview with Teresa Lundquist, London, 11 April 2016