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.