Tag Archives: Cutty Sark

London Slant: What are London’s three most important ships? All aboard to explore!

Can you name London’s three most important ships? There’s Cutty Sark at Greenwich, of course, and HMS Belfast beside Tower Bridge. But what’s the third?

SS Robin, London

SS Robin, raised up on her pontoon dais.

Congratulations to all who immediately shouted SS Robin, whose crimson flanks catch the eye at east London’s Royal Victoria Dock, close by City Airport and ExCel. She completes London’s great seafaring trio—our only ships to be part of Britain’s National Historic Fleet, the nautical equivalent of a Grade I listed building.

SS Robin, London

SS Robin seen behind a light ship, adjacent to Millennium Mills, with City Airport as a noisy neighbour.

Curious to see why SS Robin merits this acclaim, I hopped on the Docklands Light Railway to explore. I found her nestling in the shadow of Millennium Mills, a grand but abandoned early 20th century factory which, like the former steam coaster herself, is part of a wharf landscape now being revived.

Visitors can tour the ship with its expert project leaders and roam the decks, opening doors and peeking into the innards, to view restoration work in progress. Soon she will open as a museum ship that showcases both her beauty and the colourful story of her life on the high seas.

SS Robin was built in 1890 at the famous Thames Ironworks shipyard on London’s River Lea, just a mile from where she currently resides. Her first adventures took her around Britain and Northern France as she carried cargo including grain, coal, steel and granite to build Scotland’s Caledonian Canal.  In 1900 she sailed off to work in Spain where she changed her name to Maria and continued “in steam” until 1974.

When SS Robin then returned to the UK for preservation a difficult choice eventually had to be made: should she be kept intact or should much of her original structure be replaced to maintain her seaworthiness? When I got up close to the wonderfully battered sheets of steel that make up her bow, it was clear that the decision to take her out of the water was correct. Every joint and rivet spoke of great Victorian engineering and every pitted surface of a life well lived.

SS Robin, London

Fabulous flanks: the crimson body of SS Robin close up, all pitted steel and beautiful rivet work.

SS Robin now sits in grandeur, raised up on her own pontoon vessel. I marvelled at her propeller and coal/oil-fired engine room—and how the 12-strong crew survived endless days in cramped quarters and exposure to the elements out on the upper deck. But, just as the craft herself remains the only complete steamship still in existence, endurance is the name of SS Robin’s game.

Read more about SS Robin‘s fascinating history and sign up for tours, with proceeds going to fund the continuing restoration project to turn this national treasure into a heritage, community and education centre. Other activities in the area include walking over Royal Victoria Dock Bridge and a trip on the Emirates Air Line—both offering great views.

London Slant: Flashing lights and City buoys at Trinity House

“Excuse me, what is a lighthouse?” I overheard a foreign visitor enquire.

Trinity House, London

A fanfare welcome to Trinity House.

It was easy to point to an answer since there were two right there: either side of the door. While some of London’s grand old buildings illuminate their entrances with coach lamps, and others blazing torchères, Trinity House offers the beams of twin model lighthouses. You’d expect no less of the flagship headquarters of an organisation in charge of the safety of shipping since it was granted a charter by King Henry VIII.

Trinity House

One of the twin lighthouses that illuminate the entrance at Trinity House

Yesterday was a quite an occasion: a rare Open Day to celebrate 500 years since Trinity House’s foundation in 1514. Since then the corporation has set up beacons all around Britain. It now operates some 600 lighthouses and lightships—the former mainly on the rocky west coast and the latter largely off the lower-lying and sandy eastern shores—as well as supporting seafarers and their families. It also has a strong engineering and technology remit, and spearheads development in satellite navigation and piloting of ships.

Trinity House

Trinity House, celebrating 500 years. The building, by Samuel Wyatt, dates from 1796.

A grand, double staircase curves up to the first floor past globes and coats of arms, to reach a row of high-ceilinged rooms that look out towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Walls are decorated with portraits of royals associated with Trinity House, from the Tudor monarchs right up to the current Master, Princess Anne. Other notables depicted include past Master Winston Churchill, shown signing the Atlantic agreement with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oil paintings of storm-lashed vessels at sea and model ships including Nelson’s Victory and Cutty Sark, plus the Court Room’s lavish ceiling, add a touch of drama.

Trinity House

King Henry VIII, who gave Trinity House its charter, presides over the Court Room.

In the library there’s a display of silverware, including grand table ornaments shaped like lighthouses and a magnificent wine cooler that’s a riot of sculpted corals and shells. I imagined an admiral hosting dinner here, musicians playing in the minstrels’ gallery above, as these objets d’art glinted beneath the chandeliers. In the adjacent Pepys Room there’s a portrait of the diarist; Samuel Pepys was Master of Trinity House shortly after the Civil War.

Trinity House

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower.

As I continued to nose around the cannon balls, the bell from Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia, globes and coats of arms, hordes of visitors came flowing in. Many were from overseas, had just arrived by chance and were really excited to find themselves inside such a venerable place. We may not have been private guests invited to the captain’s table, but it was a real party atmosphere. Here’s to the next 500 years, Trinity House. Carry on lighting the way.

Trinity House will be free to explore once again as part of Open House weekend (20 September) or you can visit their website to book guided tours. Find out more in their appropriately named magazine, Flash.