Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

The Ghosts of Barking Creek

Yatching Monthly 1985?

A fiery red sun set among the tall chimneys of Barking power station as the little gaff cutter Shoal Waters dropped anchor on the edge of the mud flats downstream. The easterly wind that had driven her up the river Thames during the day seemed as tired as I was. The bluster of early morning that had scared me into rigging the storm trysail had gradually given way to a gentle breeze that now called for a topsail, but this was far enough for today. Barking creek, my objective for this cruise, was just the other side of those chimneys.

As I rigged the anchor light I tried to visualise this place as it must have looked in the mediaeval times when the Bishop of Barking ruled a prosperous abbey and was himself a power in the land. Francis Drake must have passed this way in the Pelican en route for the Pacific and again on his way back to Greenwich and a knighthood on the deck of the renamed Golden Hind above a hold full of treasure. The wealth of the growing empire continued to pass this way to London for several hundred years until it was finally stopped for good by the industrial actions of dockworkers after the second world war! On a more modest level, Barking flourished with a fishing fleet to harvest the fish in a cleaner Thames than we know today and a tide mill to grind the corn harvested on the rich land higher up the river Roding.

Growing London gave an increasingly attractive market for fish but the associated pollution drove the fish further away. Bigger vessels made longer journeys. By the mid-19th century over 150 smacks sailed from the creek, many of them over 50 tons. Rather than each vessel worrying her way up the winding Thames with her own catch, special flyers setting clouds of canvas hurried the fish to London, while the rest of them stayed at sea for weeks at a time. Then came the railways. The fish could be delivered faster from Lowestoft or Grimsby and the fleets stayed at the railhead bringing fame and prosperity to unknown coastal hamlets.

All other commerce on the Thames palls almost into insignificance against the sheer volume of the trade in black diamonds from the Northern Indies. Some of the collier brigs slipped into Barking Creek and by the mid-17th century lock gates had been built to keep a navigable depth as far as growing Ilford which became a port for 200 years. Yes indeed! The ghosts of a lot of ships and seamen must haunt this spot. Tomorrow Shoal Waters, 16ft long and drawing less than a foot with the plate up, would find out where they went and how they got there, for, like them, she has no engine.

Sunday dawned cold and overcast with a strong wind from the north. I prefer a head wind for exploration as it makes it easy to get out again if you don’t like the look of things.

The creek entrance was blocked by the construction works for a new flood barrier but open marsh on the western edge has allowed a temporary bypass to be cut which I looked into at around low tide. There didn’t seem to be much water there and it was too narrow to beat in comfortably, so I brought up and ate a lazy breakfast. An hour later, with the flood, Shoal Waters turned her bows towards Barking Creek.

In days long gone by I would have been crossing tacks with a mass of other craft all working in on the young flood, through the ranks of moored smacks perhaps, in company with hatch boats and Peter boats, well smacks and maybe colliers. I was alone. A coaster lay dried out and ahead a skyline of tower blocks, while busy wharves dominated the eastern banks, new machinery contrasting very old buildings. The western banks were still open marsh fringed with Norfolk reed and lively with duck; Barking, I remembered, was once an isolated village two miles up this creek. A place where artful fishermen had had their nets burned publicly in 1320 because the mesh was to small.

The centre plate grumbled as it touched and I tacked. The tide was running strongly now. The first bridge, carrying the A13, came into view and although it marks the limit for coasters, because so early on the tide I was able to sail straight through. Crumbling buildings, modern office blocks, a few weathered motor-cruisers being fitted out; a steel lighter being restored to spritsail barge. Yet here was once the largest trawler station in the Kingdom–if not the world; Barking fishermen were the first to make use of the trawl.

Ship repair was once a thriving business here due to the 12ft range of tide and the ease of careening but there was another industry and less well regarded by local inhabitants. The thousands of London horses meant hundreds of tons of manure and in the 1850’s there was a public outcry over the unsavoury wagon loads that followed the streets to the docks, en route for market gardens.

The creek narrowed and swung to starboard where it opened out into a wide millpool, dominated by the tall mill and, alongside it, a lock. On the rising ground behind it the parish church, where Captain Cook of the Endeavour was married and where the cross of St George flew proudly, it being Easter Day. A crane jutted out from the mill, poised to hoist the sacks of grain from holds long since rotted and forgotten. I anchored to assess the chances of passing through the open lock, the gates to which now lay ashore. Above the lock the river Roding dries, but the young flood had an urgency about it, an invitation that I couldn’t resist.

Down mast. Paddling and poling now as others had done before me down the empty centuries. There had been a period when menfolk of Barking had been either off privateering, fishing or press-ganged into the Navy; so few of them that the approach roads to the village were so overgrown with scrub as to be almost impassable. Shoal Waters lurched over some underwater debris. There had been a smack with her topsides pierced for guns that had gone a privateering.

The A124 bridge, then the railway bridge at an angle that must have wrung curses from mariners in the past. Cherry trees in blossom, trees, houses and then a domestic wasteland. The office blocks of modern Ilford to starboard, a massive concrete jetty to port. Rusted bollards, graffiti, then the gas-holder–and of course the coal for it, once came by water, when streets were yellow with gaslight and the forest of spars and yards still dominated the shoresides. A last bend and then the A118 bridge, an old pumphouse beyond and a willow tree in new leaf. This was one of the busiest road bridges to London. I watched it from the 18th century. I anchored and got the stove going for coffee.

I decided that this was as far as I could go. You cannot sail from the 18th century and go aground on a supermarket trolley without becoming aware of the time-slip. I raised the mast again and sped quickly and almost silently back down the creek to the rail bridge, there to lower it again and to pass through with my topsail held up wind-surfer fashion. Soon after high water I was back at the ever-open lock, which had once made a port of those upper reaches. Shoal Waters, fully rigged again, on the young ebb and ghosting went silently riverwards and seawards on the wake of the ghosts. No sounds other than the murmur of the land and the tinkle of water past the rudder. No squeal of windlass, rumble of cask, cry of coal-whipper, rattle of cable.

Outside in the broad Thames the ebb was kicking up a rare old popple, wind against tide. I settled for a quiet berth high and dry on the mud at Ripple Marsh, beyond the wash of passing ships and far enough from the seawall to defy the range of stone-throwing small boys. Ten hours of peace before the grim reality of a dawn start and a northeasterly thrash back to Maldon.

I waited until the afternoon tide next day.