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Wapping: Why photographer Jonathan Goldberg travels to islands in the Thames

Jonathan will present a talk about his work at the Classic Boat Festival in St Katharine Docks

Photographer Jonathan Goldberg
Photographer Jonathan Goldberg

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Did you know there are 180 islands in the River Thames? That’s 180 mysterious pockets of land most of us will never set foot on.

If your interest has been piqued, you’re in good company, because I was enthralled when photographer Jonathan Goldberg began to tell me of his journey into the unknown.

He has visited 65 islands over the last four years for his series Estuary Hopes, Upstream Dreams, which captures life on their shores including an abandoned torpedo factory and an artists commune.

“I’ve always been fascinated by islands in general, and my projects are often based around my backyard,” said the Willesden Green resident.

“Other photographers might want to go to exotic locations and travel far, but that leaves a big carbon footprint and there’s so much on your doorstep you might not know about. 

One of Jonathan's images of Taggs Island
One of Jonathan’s images of Taggs Island

“The Thames islands are every bit as intriguing as the more publicised locations precisely because they lie under the radar. 

“I’m always quite fascinated by things that are seemingly so close yet a little bit hidden.”

He will be sharing details of his journey at St Katharine Docks this summer as part of the Classic Boat Festival, which in turn is part of the Totally Thames Festival.

The 49-year-old will be discussing his work with author and journalist Sasha Arms, whose book, Carl Goes London Islands informed his travels.

Some photographers do not have a predilection for verbosity and there is an argument that art should not be explained.

But Jonathan gallantly attempted to answer my questions about his travels, which he said gave him a greater awareness of the layers of history and many quirks to be found along the river.

His first stop was Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, one of 60 inhabited blobs of land in the Thames.

One of Jonathan's Eel Pie Island images
One of Jonathan’s Eel Pie Island images

“People of a certain age tend to know about it because it’s got a very colourful history,” he said.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a venue where a lot of the big music performers of the day played – The Who, Pink Floyd and David Bowie.

“It’s sort of private now, but it’s home to a lot of artists’ studios and they have an open day twice a year, so I went in the summer and it piqued my curiosity.”

He took the easier road (or waterway) next, travelling to the islands that are designated parkland or open to the public.

“I fixed on the people who frequented the islands and tried to find interesting and diverse characters and the everyday goings on,” he said.

One of his favourite discoveries was Tagg’s Island near Hampton. 

“It’s quite exotic-looking because the landscape gardener has planted numerous plants and there’s a lagoon in the middle of the island,” he said. 

“All around it are these houses which look really interesting because they are technically houseboats but never move – they are moored permanently.

“Something about the architecture is really ornate and quirky.”

The softly spoken photographer, who started his career on newspapers such as the Hendon Times and the Ham And High in the 1990s, was mostly welcomed ashore.

But he recalls one island that “looked like an 1980s housing estate” where his subjects were extremely reticent about appearing in front of the lens and all but escorted him back to the river after 30 minutes.

In contrast, he has spent “too much time” on Canvey Island and some of its most easterly neighbours.

One of Jonathan's images of Lots Ait
One of Jonathan’s images of Lots Ait

Jonathan said: “Sheppey is one of my favourite places to photograph because it feels rather like the end of the world and is a bit weird with loads of diverse things going on –  an industrial corner, a nudist beach, a tacky holiday resort and a nature reserve.”

The furthest west he has been is Osney, near Oxford, and Fry’s Island near Reading, which is almost entirely given over to the Island Bohemian Bowls Club.

He has plans to explore that area further, ahead of an exhibition in Henley next year which will showcase part two of the project.

“I’ll keep going because there are some islands that really interest me and I want to represent a few other facets of island life in my photos,” he said.

However, there are some islands he knows he will probably never get to set foot on.

“Magna Carta Island, which was where the Magna Carta was signed, has just one big mansion that’s owned by a private individual.

“I don’t feel like I’m going to get a chance to photograph that,” he said.

While that piece of history has been allowed to slip away from public view, others like Platt’s Eyot have benefited from their remoteness.

“It’s home to an enormous warehouse and used to be where World War Two torpedoes were constructed,” said Jonathan. 

“It’s semi-derelict but preserved, so they’re not allowed to knock it down. 

“I think that if this warehouse had been on the mainland it might have been demolished for housing.”

This project follows his series The Runway Stops Here, which documented a different kind of island – an ecological one. 

He spent five years visiting and photographing Grow Heathrow – a sustainable community living entirely off-grid in protest at the proposed expansion of the airport.

One of Jonathan's images of Trowlock Island
One of Jonathan’s images of Trowlock Island

“I would sit around the campfire, help out, make food and that played quite a formative role in my life,” he said.

“It was really great to hang out with a lot of people who were really committed to environmental protest and living sustainably.”

Jonathan said he is often lured by the siren call of the islands to make his own escape from mainstream society.

“I often get a real yearning to snap up a property and think it would be lovely to live there,” he said. “But then again, there are practicalities that need to be considered.

“Some have flooding issues, some you have to get a boat to and, in the winter, they’re not as appealing.”

For now, he’s happy to document these snippets of land that are imbued with so much history and encourage others to look more closely at the landscape around them.

“Hopefully, my pictures will encourage people to seek out places that are surrounded by nature and wildlife, look around more and have a greater interest in the natural world in the immediate vicinity,” he said.

“The islands are a really great place to be a bit more at one with nature because, with water all around, you are, by definition, surrounded by nature.

“You get an amplified sense of the changing seasons and time of day and beautiful sunsets and sunrises – a feeling of tranquillity.”

Thames Islands: Presentation and Discussion is set to take place on September 10 from 3pm-4.30pm. Entry is free.

A free exhibition of Estuary Hopes, Upstream Dreams will be held throughout September at Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford.

The Classic Boat Festival at St Katharine Docks
The Classic Boat Festival at St Katharine Docks

EVENTS + TALKS AT THE CLASSIC BOAT FESTIVAL

The free three-day boating extravaganza returns with around 40 vintage and preserved vessels assembling in the central basin of St Katharine Docks. 

They will include the Dunkirk Little Ships, Bates Starcraft and other working vessels. Visitors will be able to board some of them and meet their owners.

The festival is set to run September 9-11 in the afternoon (3pm-5.30pm) on the Friday, and from 11am-6pm on the Saturday and 11am-5pm on the Sunday.

The opening and closing will be marked each day with a salute of horns.

There will also be food stalls, entertainment, nautical goods and services available on Marble Quay. Talks will be held on the SKD events platform and include:

  • Tom Cunliffe – Fri, 4pm
  • The Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana – Sat, noon
  • The history of St Katherine Docks with Dr Oliver Ayers – Sat, 1.30pm
  • Thames Islands – Sat, 3pm
  • Gloriana as above – Sun, noon
  • Association of Dunkirk Little Ships – Sun, 3pm

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Tower Bridge: How Terrible Thames floats Horrible Histories down the river

Woods Silver Fleet operates the boat hosting the shows from its Tower Quay Pier in east London

Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet
Terrible Thames co-writer and director Neal Foster and Kate Woods of Woods Silver Fleet – image Matt Grayson

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It’s fair to say the Woods family have some history with the river.

Thames Watermen since 1866, Lillian and Alfred Woods launched sightseeing tours of the capital from the Tower Of London in the early part of the 20th century – an enterprise that boomed in the 1950s around the Festival Of Britain. 

Lillian then encouraged her son Alan with his idea to gradually build the Silver Fleet – a series of vessels built for the Thames in Kent and Suffolk shipyards. 

While Alan remains chair of the company, today its course is steered by the next generation – siblings Thomas, William and Kate – who have spent the last two decades overseeing its growth as a provider of luxury river cruise ships for events and private charters. 

Over the years the Silver Fleet has welcomed film stars, politicians and members of the royal family on board – and that remains its core business.

But history also has a funny way of coming full circle and, in possession of refurbished 1980s vessel Silver Sockeye and, having acquired Tower Quay Pier, the family has made a move back to sightseeing, albeit with a fairly big difference. 

“We had this boat, which was built by my father with a lot of love – it was looking fantastic after its refurbishment, with all the lovely woodwork inside – and we thought it would make the best sightseeing cruise in London,” said Kate Woods, who works as design and development director at Woods’ Silver Fleet.

“We also thought there was nothing on the river to entertain children, so we looked and looked and, without really understanding how Horrible Histories worked, we approached Neal with the idea that we were Thames Watermen with a nice history and that it would be an interesting idea to bring the brand to the Thames.

“We’d also bought the pier by Tower Bridge, which is a great location, so we were absolutely delighted when it fired him up.”

Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery
Silver Sockeye in here Terrible Thames livery

Neal, by the way, is Neal Foster – actor manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, resident at The Old Rep Theatre and the man responsible for bringing Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories to the stage worldwide as well as conceiving performances under its irreverent cartoon umbrella for the likes of Warwick Castle.

Woods’ approach resulted in Terrible Thames, a tour unlike any other on the river in that it’s a full blown theatrical performance complete with sound engineer, soundtrack and an ever-changing backdrop as the boat makes its way to Parliament and circles back to Tower Quay Pier via Execution Dock at Wapping. 

Co-written by Neal and Terry, one of the biggest challenges for the team was adapting the content to the speed of the boat – something that constantly changes and is dictated largely by the ebb and flow of the tide.

“We’ve been doing Horrible Histories since 2005 and in the West End for 10 years, but we’d never done it on a boat,” said Neal.

“I was instantly attracted to the idea – I’ve always loved rivers. If I’m visiting a city, I’ll always head for a trip on a boat, so being on a boat for long periods suits me very well.

“It was also clear there was an awful lot of history in the section of the Thames we’d chosen to work with, so wherever possible we decided we wanted to attach it to whatever you could actually see from the boat. 

“When we were writing the show, the two biggest problems were that firstly I didn’t know where the audience’s attention would be – whether they would be looking at the actors or at London going past.

“It turns out they were looking at the actors a lot more than expected so we had to make sure the characters really pointed to the things they were talking about. 

“The second issue was the change in speed – you could almost say no two trips are ever the same – so the script had to be adaptable to cope with that while still being manageable for the actors, all while performing for the audience. 

“That’s why we’ve had to rehearse thoroughly – you need actors who can think on their feet and react quickly.

“It’s a bit like doing Hamlet, but the ghost might appear at the end of the play instead and you have to kill Claudius three acts early.

“It’s why you need the sound engineer – to make sure everything happens at the right time.”

The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames
The show features a student and a teacher on a trip down the Thames

Terrible Thames cruises run regularly at weekends and during school holidays – with a full complement of half term sailings from May 30 to June 3.

“With stories constantly updated and added, it’s a 45-minute ride designed to impart knowledge with plenty of humour and the brand’s customary gore.

“The whole thing that Terry is doing with Horrible Histories is to tell you the history you don’t know or that the stories you think you know are actually completely different,” said Neal. 

“One of the captains working on the boats said that he had been on the river for 20 years and he hadn’t ever known any of the stories, and that’s a chap who has lived and breathed the river.

“It really is something for Londoners as well as visitors to the capital.

“When we were writing it, Terry came up with the great idea of it being hosted by a teacher and a student who has won their school history prize and is being taken on the trip as a treat.

“The student and their family have been on the river all their lives so they are quite confident they know more about its history than the reluctant teacher. So it then becomes a battle about who knows more. 

“There are 40 or 50 stories in the show, which takes in Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Cleopatra’s Needle, Parliament and the Gunpowder Plot – which was really on November 4 – Boadicea destroying London, the Golden Hind and even people fleeing the Great Plague by hiding on boats on the river, who died because that’s where the rats all were.”

Kate added: “I’ve been really touched by people’s reactions to it.

“With all the trained Thames watermen, there’s a real London feel to the whole experience and it’s been put together with so much love, from the actors to the illustrations on the boat that were hand-drawn especially for us.

“There’s something about the two brands going together that works so well.

“It’s been really well received, and we were sold out at Easter, but we do sometimes have walk-in spaces so if you’re in the area, it’s always worth checking the timetable.”

Terrible Thames cruises take place at weekends, daily in school holidays and on occasional days during term time to accommodate tourists and school visits.

  • Adult tickets cost £22 off peak and £25 on peak, with kids costing £14-£15 respectively. Under-3s go free and family tickets cost £65-£72 for two adults and two kids.

Bookings can be made here

The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier
The Terrible Thames cruises leave from Tower Quay Pier

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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