At low tide in a small creek near Greenwich, it’s still possible to see the ornate granite causeway that the Queen used to visit her Royal fleet back when the Royal Navy was the scourge of the oceans, and the key to the nation’s wealth.
Now it lies almost buried beneath the mud, gradually eroded by the wake of fast RIB boats playing Bond theme tunes for tourist punters. Alongside, exposed skeletons of medieval ships show that this spot has marine gravitas; a recent archeological dig uncovered Roman maritime artefacts, highlighting the vital status of this spot for time immemorial.
Now, up on the banks, some of the most expensive riverside apartment complexes in Europe bear witness to the changing fortunes of this small chunk of Zone 2. In fact, this transmutation in the value of real estate has provided the catalyst for an unusual project: to build a full-size period warship in this corner of Central London.
The wider scheme is even more audacious; to create a traditional shipyard in its original site on the river, at Deptford, south-east London, which will serve as a base to build the warship in the first place, then exhibit it once built and provide refitting services for other wooden vessels plying the Thames. The site, currently derelict, is known as Convoys Wharf, formerly owned by Rupert Murdoch, now with permission to be redeveloped into a high-end housing complex by Hutchison Whampoa (of mobile operator Three fame).
The team of local campaigners involved in the project to 'build the Lenox’ knew it wouldn’t be a quick win, but this week are one step nearer their goal, as finer details of the exact location are thrashed out with Boris Johnson in City Hall.
The ship they plan to build is an exact replica of the Restoration warship Lenox, which was originally built on the Deptford site more than 330 years ago, when it was the premier dockyard, originally founded by King Henry VIII.
“The Lenox Project really started in the Dog and Bell 5 years ago, although most of the people involved have been campaigning around this site for far, far longer,” says Julian Kingston, Director at Build the Lenox CIC, “This site is one of the most interesting on the central London riverside, both from a history point of view, and because it’s been undeveloped for so long, and at 42 acres it’s potentially quite a prize.”
The site’s history alone would fill a book with ease. From seat of Royal Naval power in 1800 and major military installation in both world wars, to finally being sold off to Thatcherite crony and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the venue has attracted power, dissent and controversy for hundreds of years. The examples are legion: a listed national monument, the Naval Tudor Store once stood onsite, but was demolished in murky circumstances as the site changed hands in the '50s, and the bricks reused to repair Hampton Court Palace. As the deepest upriver dock in London, Murdoch obtained the site to ship newsprint as close as possible to Wapping, but relinquished the site as print sales dropped.
That sense of a complex history has been retained in the current status of the Lenox project, which was originally knocked back by the developer. “We based the concept on similar projects in Europe, and took it to Lewisham council, who eventually got on board, as did the planning department. However, the developer felt that Lewisham Council were progressing too slowly in granting planning permission for the residential development, so they took the decision to City Hall, where the Mayor (Boris Johnson) passed it. We managed in turn to get Boris onside with the Lenox project, and he subsequently made it a condition of granting outline planning permission to redevelop Convoys Wharf to the developer.”
The precise location of the shipyard and site of the Lenox Project is still in debate, with a feasibility study back in front of the Mayor now. However, the broad concept of building the 52 metre wooden ship in Deptford seems to have been passed. The campaigners always wanted to create something of ongoing benefit to the area, so there’s a strong element of local involvement, with estimates of the build process coming in at eight years, and employing and training many Londoners from the local area.
The ship itself will be built using a combination of new and old techniques, but with an emphasis on the period rather than the modern. A computer-generated 3D render of the components can be seen in the video below, and the building blocks of this render will be used to create templates for a numerical controlled routing machine that would automatically produce frame pieces, knees and numerous other ship components. The modern machinery and the large quantities of timber would be situated in Deptford but not necessarily next to the ship, according to the current plans.
On site, the shipbuilders will be working with more Tudor-era tools, such as two-handed saws and hewing wood using axes and specialist tools such as the adze. As Julian admits, there are plenty of practical challenges to building such a huge time capsule: “Of course we have details that have survived from the original builders, such as the amount of timber and the various construction techniques, but putting them all together can be the real modern challenge. We’ve got plenty of learning from two similar European projects, one in Sweden, one in Rochefort, France, where they tried different strategies - with varying success.
“In the French experiment they found that the different trades would compete among themselves, so having too many groups on site at the same time caused trouble! Of course, even the historical ‘facts’ we have need to be viewed with suspicion. The original documents claim the Lenox was made with 2,000 oak trees. However, shipwrights were often paid irregularly by the Crown, and so a lot of the wood was used to supplement their income, the process of ‘taking chips’ - thus ‘chip on your shoulder’…”
The team plan to create a museum to tell the maritime story of the area, which will act as a visitor centre for all stages of the build, as well as providing some of the funding. Julian hopes that progress will speed up now the Mayor is on board: “I hope to be laying the keel onsite in 3 years rather than 4, that’s my ideal.”
Once that point is reached, the easy part will be over. Then it’ll be time to find out just how hard it is to build a wooden warship from scratch in Zone 2.