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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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East of the great Millennium Dome, between Wapping New Stairs and King Henry's Stairs and near the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel is Execution Dock. Here, at low water, the hanging of pirates was carried out, the bodies being left until three tides had washed over them. This stretch of the river is called Bugsby's Reach and comparatively recent (nineteenth-century) eyewitness accounts describe the sight of bodies hanging in chains at `Bugsby's Hole', crows pecking at the flesh through the metal netting in which they were encased. What kind of a mind does it take to treat a fellow being like that?

Look ahead, though, at those stainless steel sails straight from the Sydney Opera House. Look at the elegant way they cowl the piers that step out across the river. What kind of a mind did it take to envisage this? Each of these piers houses an electro-hydraulic machine for turning the gates of the titanic Thames Barrier and each gate has a counterbalance weighing in at 3,700 tons.

Once a month this monument to British engineering closes its gates just to make sure all is in working order and once a year Londoners of all ages converge in holiday mood when the barrier closes to confound an exceptionally high autumn tide. Announcements of the procedure are made over a loudspeaker system and those ashore of a mechanical inclination nod sagely whilst pointing out the salient points to children and sweethearts keen to be impressed. Engineering staff in hard hats gather in random gangs atop the gantry and periodically disappear into a doorway and descend to the depths of the river, there to be whisked secretly along its silty bed. And up they come again at another towering island further across the river. It is a great show; but it's not just a show, it is in deadly earnest.

London has been prone to flooding from its very beginning. In 1099 the Anglo Saxon Chronicle relates that `On the festival of St Martin, the sea flood sprung up to such a height and did so much harm as no man remembered that it ever did before.'

Here at Woolwich in 1237 the marshes were described as `a sea wherein many were drowned' and in the Great Hall at Westminster Palace that year the lawyers rowed around in wherries. In 1242 the river overflowed at Lambeth to a width of six miles, which would have included all the land up to and past Elephant and Castle, including, perhaps ironically, Waterloo.

Flood water receding from the Great Hall of Westminster Palace in 1579 left fishes gasping on its floor. As recently as 1928 fourteen people were drowned in the basements of Westminster, and only in 1953 a flood on the east coast and the Thames Estuary claimed three hundred lives.

But it was not until the full realization of what would happen if London's underground were flooded that a decision was taken to augment the traditional river walls with a barrier at Woolwich. (Such a fortification had been envisaged in the 1850s by the philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, rather ironically, perhaps, considering that he was a great believer in the doctrine of laissez-faire.)

Yet even this mighty Thames Barrier is a stop-gap measure. Britain continues to tilt towards the south-east at a rate of one foot every hundred years and the polar ice caps continue to melt. The tides, therefore, continue to rise: presently at about the rate of two feet every century. As we gather to admire the spectacle of these 65-foot high, 3,000-ton gates holding back the vast wall of water on the east side while, on the west, canoeists frolic in the extemporised rapids of that fraction that is allowed underneath the gates, we might pause to wonder what the next step might be in the continual battle against the encroaching sea.

But that there will be a next step we have no doubt. We have modern science and technology at our beck and call and we just have to set our minds to work.

What kind of a mind does it take? The human mind.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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