Putting up barriers – The Annual Closure of the Thames Barrier

Not a morning person doesn’t even come close. Mornings and I fell out at birth (I was due at 6, but didn’t show up until 11) and we’ve barely been on speaking terms since. Had I been Sleeping Beauty,the Prince would never have got away with waking me up, no matter how hard he’d studied at charm school.

Suffice to say, it takes something pretty special to get me up at the crack of dawn especially on a Sunday – something like the annual closure of the Thames Barrier. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Barrier ever since it “rescued” me from a wedding boat party. It was one of those nightmare situations where I didn’t know a soul except the groom. Everywhere I turned, there were dancing dads, drunken aunts and depressed bridesmaids. Suddenly the steel-clad gatehouses of the Thames Barrier appeared. At a time when so much of London’s infrastructure was still brutally functional, the effect was extraordinary. It was so elegant, so beautiful, certainly enough to make the whole torturous trip worthwhile.

Thames Barrier at Sunrise

The Thames Barrier is London’s Knight in Shining Armour. The largest and most important of the capital’s flood defences, it protects around 1.5m Londoners (1 in every 6 of us) from natural disaster: More than  500,000 homes & businesses now stand on the Thames flood plain. Of course, it’s easy just to dismiss it all as the stuff of movies but even if it wouldn’t happen quite like Flood, nonetheless London is at significant risk. If a storm surge forms (as it often does) out in the Atlantic Ocean and moves east past the northern tip of Scotland, it can sometimes be driven down in to the North Sea and funnelled into the narrower waters near the English Channel, so causing dangerously high water levels in the Thames Estuary. If this also coincides with a spring tide, flooding becomes a serious possibility – especially if the river is already swollen by heavy rains. In fact, without the Thames Barrier, there’d be a 1 in 1000 chance of London seriously flooding every year.

The history of London’s floods is as old as the city itself, but in the 1960s the realisation finally dawned something needed to be done. What changed? In 1953, a high spring tide combined with a storm surge and crashed into the east coast of England, causing one of the UK’s worst ever flooding disasters. It was pure chance that London escaped, but hundreds still lost their lives. Then, less than a decade later, Hamburg was also hit by an exceptional spring tide. 60,000 homes were destroyed. The message was clear. A report was commissioned in 1966 and by 1974, work on the Thames Barrier was underway.

Since its official opening in 1984, the Thames Barrier has been used more than 120 times, most dramatically in 2003 when it was closed for 14 consecutive tides. Regular maintenance and testing is essential  (you try telling a drowned London, ‘oops sorry, missed that one. Could we take it again?’!). The barrier is routinely closed for a couple of hours every month but once a year it also undergoes a full tidal test, staying shut for the 12 hour cycle from low tide to high tide and back to low tide again – Hence the reason I now found myself standing in an east London industrial estate, watching the barrier.

Maintenance Tunnel under the Barrier (Sadly not open to the public!)

Maintenance tunnel under the Barrier – Sadly not open to the public

I really had no idea what to expect from the Thames Barrier closure. I knew how the barrier worked – domed gates which normally lie flat on the river bed are rotated hydraulically into position across the river – but that was the limit of my understanding. The biggest surprise was how long it was going to take : Nearly two hours shut the entire barrier (My plans for standard film of the closure were rapidly abandoned in favour of the time lapse footage below!). What good would that be in a real emergency? Actually the barrier could be closed far quicker – even the largest gates can be shut in as little as 8 minutes – but the preference is to slow the tidal flow gradually, closing the gates one by one from the outside in: “it’s kinder to the barrier and kinder to the river”. In any case, modern technology and a network of monitoring stations across the North Sea means you now get around 36hrs notice of any risk of tidal surge.

No less surprising was the silence. In my head, I’d imagined a whirr of machinery, the bump and grind of 3,700 tonnes of  steel gate lifting into position.  The process was so quiet! A faint hum from the hydraulic arms and that was all. Watching this extraordinary feat of engineering glide serenely into action, I suddenly understood why the Thames Barrier has sometimes been described as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’

The nearest most Londoners get to a flood is a leaky bathroom. Thanks to the Thames Barrier, may that long continue.

Practicalities

  • The Thames Barrier Park on the north side of the river is easier to get to (it’s next door to Pontoon Dock DLR station) and offers great views of the western side of the barrier, but there are no facilities.
  • For the more spectacular view through the barrier back towards Canary Wharf, you need to be south of the River. There’s an excellent visitor centre with a canteen at Charlton but it’s quite a trek from Charlton mainline station. If you can face the south London traffic, car parking is available on site (it costs £1.50 so don’t forget to bring some small change). For more information about opening hours and entrance fees – see the visitor centre home page.  You don’t need to visit to get superb views of the barrier but it is a great source of information
  • To get really up close and personal, the river itself is your best bet. The inexpensive River Taxi routes RB1 (Embankment to Woolwich Arsenal) and RB5 (North Greenwich to Woolwich Arsenal) takes you through the barrier. Obviously, this isn’t an option on closure days!
  • For details of the Thames Barrier’s scheduled closures, a monthly timetable is published here

5 thoughts on “Putting up barriers – The Annual Closure of the Thames Barrier

  1. Pingback: The Thames Barrier | Guided By Isobel

  2. Pingback: Water Water Everywhere : The Crazy Appeal of Riverside Living | The Prodigal Londoner

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