Charlie Stock was a singular sailor, who was for sixty years a part of the scenery on his home waters of the Thames Estuary. In his last book, published posthumously, he describes and handles the local features and hazards meeting the small boat sailor, not only in the Estuary itself, but from Whitby in the north to the Solent in the south, embracing the challenging north Norfolk coast, and the fascinating Norfolk Broads, and always engineless. Here he ventures into the once bustling ports of Barking and Ilford in what is now regarded as east London:
A fiery red sunset glowed among the tall chimneys of Barking power station as Shoal Waters dropped anchor on the edge of the mudflats downstream. The easterly wind that had driven her up the River Thames during the day seemed as tired as I was, and the bluster of early morning that had scared me into rigging the storm trysail had gradually given way to a gentle breeze, which now called for my topsail. But this was far enough today because Barking Creek, my objective, was just the other side of the distant chimneys.
As I rigged the anchor light I tried to visualise this place as it must have looked in medieval times when the Bishop of Barking ruled a prosperous Abbey and was himself a power in the land. Francis Drake must have passed this way in his flagship, the Pelican, later to be renamed the Golden Hind, en route for the Pacific, and again on his way back to Greenwich for a knighthood, the hold full of treasure. The growth of the expanding British Empire continued to pass this way until it was finally halted by the industrial actions of kamikaze dockworkers after the Second World War. On a more modest level, Barking flourished, with a fishing fleet to harvest the catch in the Thames and a tide mill to grind the corn gathered on the rich land higher up the River Roding valley.
London was becoming an increasingly attractive market for fish, but the associated pollution drove the fish further away so bigger vessels made longer journeys. By the mid-19th century over 150 smacks sailed from the creek, many of them over 50 tons. Rather than each vessel slowly working her way up the winding Thames with her own catch, special flyers setting clouds of canvas hurried the fish to London, while the rest of the fleet stayed at sea for weeks at a time. Then came the railways. The fish could be delivered faster from Lowestoft or Grimsby and the fleets stayed at the railhead, bringing fame and prosperity to hitherto unknown coastal hamlets.
All other commerce on the Thames pales almost into insignificance against the sheer volume of the trade in black diamonds from the Northern Indies. Some of these collier brigs slipped into Barking Creek and by the mid-17th century lock gates had been built to maintain a navigable depth as far as burgeoning Ilford, which was a port for 200 years. The ghosts of scores of ships and seamen must haunt this area. Tomorrow Shoal Waters, drawing less than a foot with her plate up, would find out where they went and how they got there: like them, she has no engine.
Sunday dawned cold and overcast, with a strong wind from the north. I prefer a head wind for exploration as it makes it easy to get out again if you don’t like the place. The creek entrance was blocked by the construction works for the new flood barrier, but open marsh on the western edge has allowed a temporary bypass to be cut, which I looked into at low tide. There didn’t seem to be much water there and it was too narrow to beat in comfortably so I brought up and ate a lazy breakfast. An hour later, with the first of the flood, Shoal Waters turned her bows towards Barking Mill.
In days long gone I would have been crossing tacks with a mass of other craft all working in on the young flood, but today I was alone. A coaster lay dried out against one of the busy wharves dominating the eastern bank where new machinery contrasted with ancient buildings. The western banks were still open and marsh fringed with Norfolk reed, and lively with duck. Barking, I reflected, was once an isolated village two miles upstream, a place where artful fishermen had their nets burned publicly in 1320 because the mesh was too small.
The centre-plate whispered as it touched the shallows each side and I pushed the helm down with one hand and lifted the plate a few inches with the other to bring her round on the other tack. The tide was running strongly now. The first of the bridges, the one carrying the A13, came into view and although it marks the limit for coasters, being so early on the tide I was able to sail straight through, where crumbling buildings merged with modern office blocks. A few weathered motor cruisers were being fitted out and a small lighter sat waiting patiently to be rigged as a spritsail barge. One thing was clear, the bricked-up doorways along the riverside indicated that they had all turned their backs on the river in favour of the motor vehicle. Yet here was once the largest trawler station in the kingdom — if not the world. Barking men claim to have been the first to make use of the trawl.
Ship repair was once a thriving business here due to the 18ft range of tide and the ease of careening, but there was another industry less well regarded by the local inhabitants. The thousands of London horses meant hundreds of tons of manure, and in the 1850s there was a public outcry over the unsavoury wagonloads that followed the streets to the dock on their way to the market gardens.
The creek narrowed and swung to starboard where it opened out into a wide mill pool, dominated by the tall brick mill with a lock alongside it. On rising ground behind it was the parish church where Captain Cook of the Endeavour was married and where today the cross of St George flew proudly, it being Easter Day. A crane jutted out from the mill, poised to hoist sacks of grain from the holds of vessels long since rotted and forgotten. I anchored to assess the chances of passing through the open lock, the gates of which, now high and dry, lay on the shore. Above the lock the River Roding dries completely, but the flood tide had an air of urgency about it; an invitation I just couldn’t resist.
Down mast to pass through the lock chamber, crossing the sill as it covered to find myself among a blaze of cherry trees in full flower, paddling and poling now as others had done before me down the centuries. My quant has a small lump of wood on the end for the soft mud of the Broads where there is often no bottom as such, just the water gets thicker as you go down. It is fine until you hook a supermarket trolley and have a shoulder-wrenching battle to stop the craft quickly in the swirling tide while you struggle to shake it clear. Now and again she lurched over underwater debris. On under the A124 road bridge and on to the railway bridge which is at an oblique angle that must have made the mariners curse it. By this time there were houses along the eastern shore, most of which appeared to regard the river bank at the bottom of their garden as a dumping ground for garden waste and a lot more.
As the office blocks of modern Ilford loomed up to starboard, a massive concrete jetty came into view to port with a gas holder behind it. Rusty bollards and graffiti advertised where coal was once unloaded, when the streets were yellow with gaslights and a forest of spars and yards still dominated the wharves. A last bend and then the low A118 road bridge came into view, with an old pump house beyond and a willow tree in new leaf marking the limit of navigation, beyond which is Wanstead Park, near where I was born. This was once one of the busiest road bridges into London. For a moment my mind wandered back, imagining what it must have been like in the 18th century, then I anchored and got the stove going for a cup of coffee.
This was as far as I could go. In order to start back over the last of the flood I got the mast up and sailed back to the first bridge. Then, as the ebb set in, it was time for the mast to come down again, and I sailed on with just the topsail on its yard, held windsurfer fashion. Candidly, I was scared of the open lock chamber, for the ebb would be much faster than the young flood earlier. If I went straight through all would be well, but if she slewed round in the current the bowsprit or the rudder (or both) would be stripped off her. As the mill and gaping lock chamber rushed towards me, I got the paddle going to get as much steerage way as possible. In fact, all went well. My heart soared to be in the wide mill pool, and the sun came out for the rest of the trip.
Outside in the broad Thames the ebb running against the wind in Gallions Reach kicked up a rare old popple that carried round into Barking Reach. I settled for a quiet berth high and dry on the deep mud at Ripple Marsh, beyond the wash of passing ships and far enough from the seawall to defy the efforts of stone-throwing boys, and enjoyed ten hours of peace before the grim reality of a dawn start and a north-easterly thrash back to Maldon. In fact, I waited for the afternoon tide the following day, for I felt I had earned a lay-in.