The Thames Barrier

by SJ Griffin

In The Vanguard the river has flooded parts of the city. Sorcha, the main character, is born at the exact moment the water storms the most eastern reaches of the city. She is of the flood. So, I took a trip to the Thames Flood Barrier. Also, it’s one of those odd London landmarks that I find fascinating.

The Thames Barrier

Needing the Barrier

London is vulnerable to flooding and if it did flood it would be a disaster. The last time there was a serious flood in London was 1928 and 14 people died. There was a big flood in the UK in 1953, the North Sea Flood killed 307 people, and it was this flood that persuaded the government that something had to be done. How so? You may ask, the North Sea is nowhere near London. Why would that make a difference? I guess it’s like when you jump in the bath at one end and all the water gets out at the other. Low pressure in the Atlantic causes a storm surge. This surge may travel east, past Scotland, to be driven down into the shallower waters of the English Channel. Let’s blame the Jet Stream here. That gets the blame for everything related to the English weather. So, the Jet Stream causes all kinds of trouble, stays out late smoking skunk and drinking whiskey and pushes the storm surge into the narrow channel and the Thames Estuary. If this happens at the same time as a spring tide the water level in the Thames can reach dangerous levels. If the Thames is flowing downstream then we are all in trouble and paddling around in our wellington boots. But it’s all right because in actual real life the flood defence triggers and the evil Jet Stream is foiled again. Sadly, a man in a cape doesn’t sort all this out with the help of a talking animal that only he can understand. There’s a perfectly reasonable set of circumstances and measurement that come together and the gates close. There are also barriers along the tideway include Barking Barrier, King George V Lock gate, Dartford Barrier and gates at Tilbury Docks and Canvey Island. Or Essex as it is known. There be dragons.

This threat has increased over time because water levels are rising. Levels have risen eight centimetres in the last 100 years. How come? We’ve just had our wettest summer in 100 years.  But also because, and I love this, Britain is slowly titling. The northwest edges are going up and the southeast edges are going down. That is a helluva concept. The tilt is caused not by the Jet Stream but by post glacial rebound. That’s when you have just come out of one those relationships that end with you both hating each other and while your heart is still in the grip of the sharp ice that has settled there you sleep with someone else you probably shouldn’t. OK, it isn’t.

You can learn what glacial rebound is on wikipedia.

Buliding the Barrier

So, as you read earlier, everyone was panicking after the 1953 North Sea Flood which in no way explains why it took 21 years for them to start building the Barrier. And even then it wasn’t finished until 1982. It’s possible I’m so fascinated with it because I was only little then and the television was on permanently in my house so I would have seen it on the news. I digress. The rotating gates inside teh sections of the Barrier were designed by a man who still lived with his parents. He modelled it on an ordinary, domestic brass tap. He lived in Wood Green. His name was (Reginald) Charles Draper. I don’t know why his first name is in brackets but as someone whose first name is two capital letters I’m going to keep quiet about that. He designed the gates in the fifties. So it was a long time coming, the Thames Barrier. At the same time they strengthen the flood defences further down the river though, so they weren’t sitting about idle. I imagine.

The gates are the same distance apart are the towers of Tower Bridge and the barriers crosses a 520 metre wide stretch of the Thames at Woolwich on the north side and Charlton on the south side. It’s easier to get to the south side. You go to Pontoon Dock on the DLR. There’s a park there which has a very pleasant garden where the hedges are cut to look like waves. I started there and then went on an Expedition to get over to the north side. I meant to go through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, but for reason I can’t even begin to comprehend I ended up on the Woolwich Ferry which turned out to be quite exciting. Not as exciting as the ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side, but still quite exciting.

Closing the Barrier

The last time the barrier was closed was on June 3 2012 to reduce the river flow while the Queen paddled her kayak down the river during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. You may have seen her in the newspapers wearing her ‘shit creek survivor’ t-shirt. In The Vanguard neither the Queen nor the Jet Stream flood the city so the Barrier is not much help.  But no offence Thames Barrier, you’re an architectural delight.