HEALTH AND SAFETY: OF THE HAZARDS & PECULIAR ENCOUNTERS ON THE THAMES FORESHORE
The Thames foreshore can be a strange place to be.
Hundreds of years of deposited history and dumped materials don’t come without a little hazard.
Wreckage, sewage, death reminded by the sight of stack of bones or perished animals, ammunitions & unexploded ordnance, oxygen bottles, broken glass, modern waste and needles, to mention a few.
The Thames is no longer the great stink of medieval times or as filthy as described by authors in the Victorian area, but if you plan trips on the foreshore on a regular basis you might as well be aware of some basic rules and get prepared.
The stairs at Wapping on a rainy day, where slippery takes all its meaning
I have witnessed flocks of tourists at Bankside on the foreshore with inappropriate footwear, running down the access stairs and strolling about with jolly faces in flip flops and shorts.
Sadly some people seem completely unaware that the Thames remains a dangerous environment, and that the tide doesn’t last all day. Often I had to step in and offer an impromptu friendly health & safety advice.
Here comes the boring bit of advice but always plan ahead your trip: consider the weather conditions, know your tide timetables, the site and your access points.
Always make sure the access stairs are safe and not too slippery (you will find that falling flat on your behind is not a great start to the day), wear appropriate footwear, inform relevant people where you are and for how long, pack a bag…
In other words, assess the risks first so you can put a smile on your face and enjoy your day to the full.
Muddy stairs at Wapping foreshore without ramp
Germs, sewage & refuse
Be aware of your surroundings: look up for sewage pipes and refuse manholes still in use on the river walls. Ladies, dirty Thames water does not make that hair soft & shiny.
Be careful when picking up finds on the foreshore, I would recommend wearing gloves whenever possible, due to disease risks, sharp rusty metal objects, broken glass and needles that can cause serious issues & injuries. A first-aid kit in the bag won’t hurt, just in case.
Glass bottles & needles: the Thames foreshore is not my idea of Alice in Wonderland
Impediments & trip hazards
There are many potential hazards on certain sites: damaged or falling objects like river wall fender, timbers, and bricks.
Damaged slipway and unstable heavy stone work near Trig Lane foreshore
Fallen stone piece near the river wall at the Tower of London foreshore, during a fieldwork visit in 2011
Be especially cautious when walking near a river wall, under a canopy or pier.
Strange encounter under a canopy at Berdmonsey foreshore in 2011
The Thames foreshore remains one of the most important archaeological site so you can expect to discover nautical features, jetties and slipway structures from past times, anchors & chains, and refuse from human activity.
Look down for tripping hazards: stone features, metal & industrial waste, mooring features …
Some old garden gate at Putney foreshore in 2013
Modern mooring chain at Bankside near Blackfriars Bridge
Modern rubbish ? Angry golfer ? Golf clubs probably dumped from the nearby railway bridge or lost at Putney in 2013
The Port of London activities & the tidal environment
Always have a look on the tide level, don’t just trust the tide timetables, as other factors can affect the river tidal behaviour (heavy rain, raising of the Thames barrier…).
Watch out for the Thames Clippers and cruise boats passing by at full speed, this will create waves of mini tsunamis and you might have to keep your distance. After all it’s been a while since you last assess if you are still a strong swimmer.
A narrow path at Millbank foreshore
This picture in the City foreshore shows how you could easily get caught by the upcoming tide if not careful
Death is everywhere
Fellow crows looking for a fresh shrimps meal are a common sight on the foreshore
I remember my very first visit on the foreshore and being amazed by the number of animal bones, skulls and even horns. Our sacred river is an animal sanctuary after all.
Crow skull found at Putney in winter 2012
Such an amount of bones and skulls can be explained by centuries of human activity by the river, we can easily imagine local market stalls and generations of butchers cutting up meat and chucking unwanted carcass remains, all ending up in the river.
Cow, horse, goat & sheep jaw bones are common finds on the foreshore
Londoners would also discard all sorts of broken & unwanted daily life items in the river, creating layers of successive rubbish pits, contributing to the rich archeology of the site.
Always be on the lookout as some bones may be carved, drilled and potential history artefacts, tools that have been disposed in the river when there was no more use of them.
Then you have thousands of years of local wildlife living & dying on site. Not just the common rodents or fish species. There is a number of written accounts through the past centuries describing whales found in the Thames near London and even many prehistorical animals like aurochs.
Dead rat on the foreshore at Millbank in 2013
Dead fish near Southwark Bridge foreshore at low tide
Dead porpoise on the Thames foreshore, April 2015 (reported to river police & relevant authorities – was removed & will be autopsied for current marine conservation research purposes).
Beware of the “Triumphant Splash”: A mud bath
Know where you are going and where you walk.
Don’t go on your own: even Indiana Jones had a supporting team.
Be confident, but cautious. It may take some time to learn and adapt to the different foreshore soil backgrounds.
You could witness the soft & sandy foreshore beaches in such places as Wapping, Bankside or the Tower of London, and rather firm rocky grounds at Putney.,.
My little London paradise beach near Wapping
You can also very quickly end up waddling onto the extreme pools of mud.
Extreme mud bath and danger awaits & can surprise even the most experienced at Millwall
Please respect the environment and worship the prehistoric peat as I do, you might just destroy evidence of prehistoric roots or forest by stomping in the lot.
Prehistoric peat & the fishtrap remains at Putney foreshore
Begin with the soft and more accessible sites on the foreshore; you will have all the time to be more risky and adventurous later on if you dare.
No matter how well you know the site, keep in mind that sometimes there are little surprises in store: don’t panic and stay calm.
Prior digging or mudlarking can leave the foreshore unreliable, even if it looks firm and rocky at first
What I call the “triumphant splash + extreme mud bath package” experience probably happened to our predecessors a lot anyway, according to recent findings.
Abandoned shoe at Wapping foreshore
This is WAR : unexploded Ordnance & Ammunitions
Last but not least, the Thames is here to remind us of the darkest hours of Humanity and History.
I have not yet discovered human remains on the foreshore but it is of course a possibility.
In the many dangers of the Thames, even if you may not likely find that often, there are many unexploded ordnance & ammunitions on the foreshore: be suspicious with metal waste and watch out for bomb shells, shrapnel and grenade -like shapes, old oxygen & gas bottles, guns, bullets of all sorts and from all times.
WWII bomb shell found at Bankside in 2011 & removed from site by the bomb disposal unit
Oxygen bottles are common on certain areas of the foreshore and can sometimes be mistaken with shells when covered in mud
If in doubt do not touch, walk away at a reasonable distance, and notify the relevant authorities.
Bullet cases and fuse waste are also common finds on the foreshore
Musket ball finds from the foreshore
If it looks like shrapnel or grenade, it’s likely grenade: do not touch & stay away
Bullet, shiny as new, found near London Bridge
I hope this post will not dissuade Londoners and Thames admirers to visit the foreshore occasionnally but I am speaking from experience.
I would also always insist on getting a standard foreshore permit from the PLA & follow the access maps guidelines, respect the protected sites.
My best finds are eye search only and I do not find digging useful most of the time.
Be (reasonably) social: there are lovely people & locals from all backgrounds on the foreshore, for various reasons.
We may have different opinions regarding how the foreshore is accessed but we all share the same love and passion for the river Thames …
Be responsible. If you sense someone is exposed to danger, seem lost or confused, may not be aware of the environment, do not ignore them. A few friendly words or a simple warning can do a lot and save lives.
I will also post a list of tips and useful items to pack when visiting the foreshore, it’s only free shared advice and personal opinion, but who knows, it might help a few.
(All content and pictures in this post are copyright of the author, Lucie C. All the pictures displayed were taken between 2010 and 2013 during various walks on the foreshore and speak from own experience).