Sunday, August 21, 2022


It seems to me that around once a year, a story breaks about the possibility of Thames clipper ferries extending their service from central London, down river into Kent. Each time the story goes around, local people get excited about the possibility of a new form of transport, only for the whole thing to die down, and nothing appears to actually happen. I am hopeful that this time the rumours and suppositions may have some merit. In a story from website Kent Live, Uber Boat by Thames Clippers boss Sean Collins has confirmed river buses running from Kent to London are at a "development stage". Trial services have operated on Saturdays and have frequently been oversubscribed - now plans are underway to give the route a regular timetable by the new year. In the trial runs, the boat departed from Gravesend Town Pier at 9.45am, before stopping at Tilbury Pier at 10am and later arriving in London at around 11am. With an All Day ticket, passengers can also make unlimited use of the full UberBoat by Thames Clippers’ services for the day, where you can join the regular service which serves several piers throughout the city. Short journeys can be made to places like the London Eye Pier to check out the Sea Life Aquarium, or to Battersea Power Station Pier for activities such as sailing on the lake in Battersea Park. In other cities around the world, where waterways create a natural border between different parts of a large city, such as New York, Hamburg or Amsterdam, water-based transit such as river buses and ferries have provided a popular, greener and cheaper alternative to tunnel or bridge solutions because they are more flexible and encourage the use of public transport, walking and cycling instead of private transportation. There is one big caveat - here, UberBoat by Thames Clippers is a commercial, for-profit business. Although TfL issues it a licence and it accepts Oyster, it runs independently day-to-day. Mr Collins is the boss, not Sadiq Khan. In other cities, the successful river bus crossings are all subsidised. There are a number of piers and jetties along the Thames in Kent where riverbus services could operate, but don't. Erith, Dartford, Greenhithe and Ebbsfleet have all been earmarked as potential sites. As far as ferries visiting the local area, as I have written in the past, Erith Pier is little known outside the local area and somewhat under used, but this may well change if the ferry comes to the local area. What do you think? Please let me know. I think this could be a great opportunity to expand and enhance the offering to residents. there are considerable barriers to setting up a Thames Clipper / Uber ferry terminal on Erith Pier; the problems can be divided into two specific types. Firstly there are the engineering and physical challenges to enabling a ferry to dock at the pier. A free floating pontoon extension to the existing pier structure would be needed; this would project out into the deep water channel closer to the middle of the river. This would, however create problems of its own. Whilst the floating pontoon would enable ferries to dock at the the pier whatever the state of the tide was, it would also create a hazard to other shipping that uses the river. Commercial vessels, including cargo ships and bulk freighters use the deep water channel, and if a jetty was protruding into the channel, this might create a hazard to navigation, especially at night and at times of reduced visibility. There are several ways to manage this, the most obvious one being to make the floating jetty movable - to swing it out into the deep water channel only when a ferry was approaching the pier. Unfortunately this would add complexity, and therefore cost to the design, and for safety reasons would almost certainly require a supervising operator to be located on site. The jetty, whether movable or fixed, would require hazard warning lights, a fog horn, and a radar reflector. The pier itself would also require some shelters for waiting commuters to occupy in inclement weather - the wind coming off the Thames at Erith in winter can be absolutely bitter, not to mention the freezing rain. Who would foot the bill for all of the alterations and upgrades is uncertain - at this point it has not been debated. The second barrier to using Erith Pier as a landing place for Thames Clipper / Uber Ferries is actually by far the more difficult one - the bureaucracy and vested interests of the likes of The Port of London Authority, Morrison's Supermarket (who currently own the pier) and Bexley Council. I know from personal experience that dealing with these organisations, when any mention of Erith Pier is made, it tends to provoke the response of "The answer is no, now what is the question?" On top of this, Erith seems at least at present to not really be in the minds of the ferry operators. Speaking in July last year when UberBoat announced its Kent-to-London trial route, a spokesperson for UberBoat by Thames Clippers said: "We remain committed to growing the River Bus network in London and further east. We want as many residents as possible to realise the benefits of travelling by river in and out of London, in terms of speed, comfort and frequency. We are optimistic about the volume of passengers opting to use this special leisure service, and we hope soon to be able to offer this additional transport link permanently to Gravesend and Tilbury." Significantly, no mention was made of extending the service to Erith. I am not holding my breath.

Erith, Slade Green and Lower Belvedere have been home to all sorts of mechanical and infrastructure engineering for many years. One world leading such organisation was Callender’s Cables, a company that was originally formed by William Callender in 1880, and whom I have written about in the past. Callender had already been in business for at least ten years; he started off importing bitumen and asphalt from Switzerland to the UK in order to feed the demand for tarmac roads in London. At this time the business was run by Callender and his two sons from offices in Leadenhall Street in the City of London; they also had a large depot in Millwall where the raw asphalt and bitumen was landed ashore from cargo ships before it was sold on to the civil engineering companies engaged in road building. Later Callender decided to diversify; he realised that the world was becoming electrified, and that a great deal of money was going to be made by those in the business. His son Thomas took over the production of large capacity insulated electric cables, and famously provided electric lighting for the St. Petersburg Opera House in Russia; Cables were also supplied for the electric lighting of the new law courts in the Strand, and for the Royal Opera house in Covent Garden in 1883, as well as mains cables for the growing number of electricity supply companies. By this time the large factory in Erith had opened, which was the base of many Callender operations for the next five decades. By 1898 the number of contracts won had grown from 31 to 70; total sales over the same period had increased from £95,764 to £296,946 – a fortune at the time. Callender Cables continued with the development and sale of high voltage, large capacity power cables until World War II, when their specialised engineering skills were devoted to war work. Callenders jointly developed PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean) with Glovers of Trafford Park in order to supply fuel to the Allied invasion force in June 1944. By the end of the war Callenders were a very different organisation to that they had been prior to the conflict; at this point they opted to merge with British Insulated Cables to become British Insulated Callenders Cables ltd – better known as BICC.

It seems likely that the Cineworld cinema in Bexleyheath may be about to close, with the subsequent loss of jobs. The company has announced that it is preparing to file for bankruptcy within weeks, after struggling to rebuild attendance following the COVID pandemic. The UK-based group, which operates in 10 countries with 751 sites and more than 9,000 screens, has engaged lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis LLP and consultants from AlixPartners to advise on the bankruptcy process, the report added. The business, which was saddled with £4bn of debt at the end of the last financial year, previously said it was in talks with stakeholders over potential funding or considering restructuring its balance sheet. Around 28,000 people are employed by Cineworld across 10 countries, with the report casting uncertainty over the future of thousands of workers at its 127 UK cinemas.

There have been claims over the last decade, that the venerable BBC Radio 4 long wave service might be coming to an end. It may now actually come true - as a direct result of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine. BBC Radio 4 long wave, which transmits on the 198 kilohertz frequency, relies on ageing transmitter equipment that uses a pair of the valves – no longer manufactured in most of the world – to function. The valves, at Droitwich in Worcestershire, are so rare that engineers say there are fewer than 10 in the world (this is actually untrue - more on the reason why later), and the BBC has been forced to buy up the entire global supply. Each lasts anywhere between one and ten years, and when one of the last two blows the service will go quiet. Radio 4 was traditionally broadcast on long wave, using frequencies used by the BBC since the 1930s, but the station has long been aired on FM and digital radio and online. More recently, the long-wave service has been used to carry a handful of traditional programmes deemed unsuitable for FM, while the range of the long-wave signal also ensured that ships could pick up shipping forecasts. The best-known programme broadcast on long wave is Test Match Special, which would otherwise dominate vast chunks of the Radio 4 schedule. So antique is the transmission equipment that the BBC does not believe it is possible to manufacture new valves because slightly faulty replacements could cause a catastrophic failure of the other parts of the transmitter. Whenever the valves fail a dangerous "arc of power" surges through the 700ft Droitwich transmission masts. Building a new long-wave transmitter for Radio 4 would cost "many millions of pounds", according to BBC insiders. Part of the problem is that pumping the signal so that it can cover England, Wales and lowland Scotland requires 500 kilowatts of power, far more - according to the BBC - than other long wave transmitters, which makes the kit both unique and expensive. Meanwhile, modern mariners use other technology and services to get forecast information. Highland Scotland is covered by two smaller transmitters and Northern Ireland does not easily receive Radio 4 long wave. However, the signal is strong enough to be audible in parts of the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Germany. Ironically there is one place to source brand new, high quality transmission valves from a country that still manufactures them - and that is Russia. For obvious political and humanitarian reasons the BBC cannot buy new valves from the pariah state. The BBC began national transmission with the National Programme, the predecessor of Radio 4, in 1926. Transmission moved to 200 kilohertz in 1934, when the BBC moved its transmission to Droitwich, and has remained at that frequency, allowing for a slight shift to 198Khz ever since. Comments to me at

I took the photo of Erith Pier Square Gardens yesterday - click on the image to see a larger version; at this time, nothing has been done to remedy the large number of unwatered and dead plants in the new development, which is not actually finished.

I have noticed a number of advertising posters on bus stops and hoardings around the local area over the last few weeks. The posters in question have a banner headline “Amazon are recruiting in Tilbury” and are encouraging local candidates to apply for positions within the expanding company. Putting aside any arguments in respect the working practises and conditions in an Amazon warehouse, one may also wonder why the adverts are appearing in Erith, Lower Belvedere and Northumberland Heath. I think the advertising may be somewhat misplaced; as you may well have experienced in the past, the “find my nearest branch” functionality of many companies websites can sometimes return some rather strange answers when the River Thames is involved. The algorithm that the find function uses in in many cases based on “as the crow flies” distances, rather than practically navigable distances, as this is a far simpler system to implement, and is “just good enough” in many cases. I get the feeling that the advertising agency employed by Amazon drew a circle on a map a number of miles around the location of the new distribution centre in Tilbury, and then rented advertising hoardings in areas contained within the circle.  Many of the jobs currently on offer at the Amazon depot are at the lower end of the salary band, and are likely to appeal to people who are not particularly well off, and quite possibly will not have access to a car. Travelling from the local area to Tilbury by public transport is a slow and quite arduous experience, and one that I feel would deter many people from applying for the roles on offer. It seems to me that Amazon have missed a major point in their targeted advertising. I know that I am not alone in wondering exactly why they had swamped the local area with advertising – it may have been an oversight on the part of their advertising consultants. If you don't have a car and live in Bexley, commuting to Tilbury on a daily basis might as well be Las Vegas. 

As long time readers will be aware, I am fascinated by historical media formats that are now mostly long forgotten - things such as the failed CED Video Disk format, which was briefly sold by Whomes in Bexleyheath, which I have written about in the past. Another format which achieved great success in the USA in the 1950's and 1960's, but only limited popularity in the UK was the in car record player. The rise of the record player in homes made some people question whether record players could be used in other settings. What if your road trip could be accompanied by your favourite music? What if your records could go with you on road trips? And so, the quest for a solution to this problem was imagined by car designers. Could a record player be added to a vehicle? The first in-car record player was called the “Highway Hi-Fi Record Player.” This was a device designed by Dr. Peter Goldmark, who was the head of CBS Laboratories. CBS was the inventor of the Long-Playing microgroove record or LP. This record player was first offered in Chrysler products. At first, it seemed like a win. At this time, there were two record formats that were competing for the market. These formats were the CBS, which was pushing the LP and classical music, and RCA, which was made for the 45-rpm single. When record players were being added to cars, there was always the question of which was the best record type for each situation. The 45-rpm was more manageable in a car due to its size. However, this record needed to be changed every three to four minutes. Goldmark was obsessed with the question of how to make record players work better and more efficiently in the car. He and CBS decided that there needed to be a new record format. What if there was another recording format that was suited perfectly for vehicles? This was the question that Chrysler and people like Dr. Goldmark asked. And it led to work to try and invent a solution to this problem because people wanted to bring their music with them in the car and be free from the reliance on the radio once and for all. Dr. Goldmark succeeded. There was a new record format that was created that was meant to fix all of the issues with old formats. This was supposed to be the solution that made records in the car easy to use and better than ever. The new format slowed the turntable down to 16 2/3 rpm. This was half the speed of the LP. There were stabilizers that were added to the arm to keep it from skipping and scratching. This was called Highway Hi-Fi by Chrysler, and it was very popular. The first records were produced by Columbia, and they offered many popular tracks. These tracks included work by Percy Faith, Cole Porter, and more. These were the hits of the time, and they were meant to be an inducement to make more people want to invest in this new technology. Consumer records did not test the product before it was added to vehicles, but the price tag of nearly £200 would have been a constraint for many people. This is £1,700 in today’s money. The problem with this record was that it could only be played in the car. You could not just grab your favourite records and head out to go on a drive. This was also an option that was only available on some cars, and they were new cars. There was not a market that was needed to generate lots of records to feed this interest. The other trouble was that the record players kept breaking. Only one year into the process of adding record players to Chryslers, they began to withdraw the option from production. By the end of 1957, these devices were already slated for replacement. In 1960, a cheaper car record player landed on the market. This was the RCA Victor, which was also referred to as the “Victrola.” This record player cost £51.75, which is £410.47 today. This was a more expensive option, but you could play your 45s on this record player. This record player was tested by Consumer Reports. The testers found that the record player would hold 14 records and that these records would play for two and half hours. This was only if extended 45s were used. This record player was also found to be easier to operate, and it allowed you to focus on the road rather than changing the record. Distracted driving has always plagued road safety, and if you think that changing a CD out from your disc changer is distracting, imagine changing out a record! A year later, there was a new record player produced that was made by Norelco. This was called the Auto Mignon. This player only held one 45 rpm record at a time. This was just four and half minutes of play time. The Norelco also did not store records, so storage was an issue within the car. Having access to your records while you drove was never easy, and having loose records in the car could easily lead to broken and damaged records. Surprisingly, these new record players were actually relatively stable and did not skip when you drove. The stylus never jumped over the grooves, even when driving over ruts and grooves. These units also ran faster than the Highway Hi-Fi. This made it sound better and helped to make sure that your other records would play on the record player in your car. This was a smaller unit that fit under the dash and barely impeded the legroom at the front of the car. This was a nice change of pace when compared with the first devices, which were larger and bulkier. This smaller unit probably needed to be bigger to make storage more effective, but the sleek model was a nice change of pace. However, the RCA Victor was discontinued in 1961. The Victrola was discontinued the next year. There was a new technology on the scene, and it would actually be the device that would propel music portability forward. Without the introduction of record players to cars, the next steps of the music portability revolution might never have happened. The eight track tape cartridge quickly came on the scene to replace the record player. These were portable music devices that were easy to store and easy to insert while you were driving. You were also able to listen to lots of music without changing the tape as well. This was revolutionary, and the eight-track tape cartridge solved the problems that could not be resolved through the invention of new kinds of records. The record player was not the solution for bringing music along with you on road trips. It never was. The eight-track tape was the answer to all of these needs and more. For many years, this would be the solution to the “problem” of bringing music along with you on the road. Today’s reality of virtual music that can be carried in your hand-held device would not have been possible without the experiments with record players in cars. The motivation that led to the portability of music was the thought of bringing your music with you on adventures. The concept of a boom box, a portable CD player, or even an iPod would never have been a reality without the thought of putting a record player in a car. Even if the record player in the car idea flopped, it opened the doors to so much more technology. It’s hard to imagine a reality without portable music. You can thank the original car record player for the music that you love to listen to on your phone.

The end video this week continues with the maritime theme of the first article. It is a short film which was shot on a drone flying over the River Thames at Erith. It shows a dredger - the Arco Avon, making its way upriver to deposit its load of sea dredged gravel at the Angerstein Wharf, at Blackwall. The gravel is used in the construction industry. Feedback to me at

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