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On once-mighty Thames, it's mostly nostalgia

LONDON — LONDON -- The Kingwood pulls out of Westminster Pier, as jaunty as the Queen Elizabeth II leaving for New York.

But the Kingwood is no queen, only a dowager riverboat heading for Kew Gardens with a cargo of tourists and nostalgia.

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When the Kingwood first made this trip nearly 70 years ago, London was the "biggest and greatest city in the world," in the words of that great novelist of the sea, Joseph Conrad.

The River Thames was "crowded with memories of men and ships it had carried to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea."

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"What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germ of empires," he wrote.

Well, the empire's gone, the dreams are shrunken and the Thames at London carries mostly tourist boats and rubbish barges. London's Docklands is now covered with business towers and residential developments, and almost all of the Port of London is 26 miles downstream at Tilbury.

London's only the fifth-largest port in Europe, handling far less than a fifth of the cargo at Rotterdam, the busiest with 282 million tons a year, and only half of Antwerp's.

"The old West India Dock was built into Canary Wharf," says John Hagon, 61, the mate, who's at the wheel of the Kingwood today. He has been on the river 44 years. He was born in the Limehouse district of East London at the gateway to what was the West India Dock.

"It's the biggest office block in Europe now and the biggest half-empty office block in Europe.

Changes, not for good

"The river's changed a lot through the years," he says. "Not for the good, I'd say. No. I don't think so."

He slips the Kingwood under Westminster Bridge and heads up the Thames past the Houses of Parliament. Charles Wyatt, the Kingwood's owner, master and tour guide, begins his spiel.

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"I'm sure you all recognize that famous tower on our right, you probably know it as Big Ben," he says. "But it's the bell that has the name Big Ben.

"That 13 1/2 -ton bell that strikes the hours, ever since it's been installed has been slightly cracked," Mr. Wyatt says, "as are a number of the people who assemble from time to time in this building that we're passing on our right. This is our Palace of Westminster, Parliament Buildings.

"They use these colored tents you see out on the terrace to consume their subsidized lunches and alcoholic beverages," he says. "A pint of best bitter in that green tent is just one pound and four pence. It's the cheapest pub in London, the Palace of Westminster."

Mr. Wyatt is from London's East End, too, with just enough cockney humor in his patter to keep foreign tourists amused. His father was a dockworker. He's a veteran seaman who spent eight years on Scandinavian ships, 15 years sailing the New Zealand coast.

"I shipped out of New York for two years," he says. "I've still got a photograph of me on top of the Empire State Building.

"I'd join a ship and go to Japan, or down to Argentina, or the west coast of South America. It was lovely, nice. A young man can't do that today. The opportunity's not there anymore."

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He sailed on the Danish Maersk Lines for years, eighteen months on the Effie Maersk alone, calling occasionally in Baltimore.

"There were lots of foreign people in their ships," Mr. Wyatt says. The Scandinavian nations had a huge fleet of merchant ships and not enough crewmen.

"It's different nowadays," he says. "Same as the British merchant fleet, it's decimated. It has disappeared."

As the Kingwood churns west, Mr. Wyatt chats up the churchyard where Capt. William Bligh of the mutiny ship Bounty is buried and the pub that commemorates Charlie Chaplin's birthplace in Lambeth Walk beyond the Albert Embankment.

He shows us the "Chelsea Harbor" apartments, where Telly Savalas once lived and Michael Caine, Mick Jagger and Elton John pay rents starting at 350,000 pounds ($525,000).

"On the River Thames we've been of the opinion," Mr. Wyatt says, "that the developers never would have got 350,000 pounds for a one-bedroom apartment if it were known by its proper name: Fulham Gasworks Harbor."

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Mr. Wyatt doesn't say much about the abandoned wharves, deserted quays and vacant warehouses along blank stretches of the river bank. He turns off his tour guide microphone just after the Kingwood clears Battersea Bridge, a bit more than a third of the way to Kew Gardens.

"Oh," he says, "There's still cargoes carried, but most of it is rubbish. See these yellow containers? On those barges? Today most of it is rubbish and household refuse.

"You see little motor vessels which still carry sand and ballast for the building industry. But general cargo is very seldom carried on the upper reaches of the Thames."

Mr. Wyatt and Mr. Hagon are members of the Watermen and Lightermen's Company. "Freeman of the River Thames," Mr. Wyatt says. Most cargo carried upriver from the London Bridge was loaded on barges and lighters.

"It's a bit sad," Mr. Wyatt says. "When I was apprentice, there were four and a half thousand lightermen, just lightermen. Now there would be, I think 20. This is the biggest industry on the Thames now, carrying passengers."

He served a five-year apprenticeship in the 1950s.

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"Your first two years," he says, "you get all the gruffy jobs: sweeping and pulling and tugging. Smoky and dirty. Hard work. But I loved it."

Small room for error

He learned the river, and the Thames can be tricky at ebb tide when the water's low. The Kingwood is chugging upriver now through a spring ebb tide. At Kew Gardens they may only have a foot or so of water under the boat. In 5 1/2 hours it will rise nearly 24 feet.

The Kingwood was built in 1915 to carry passengers on these upper reaches of the river, a shallow-draft boat with a flat bottom and its propeller in a "tunnel."

"Same as what she's doing today," says Mr. Hagon, the mate. "She's altered slightly in her superstructure because she was a steamboat in them days. And she's a Dunkirk veteran."

In 1940, the Kingwood was part of the ragtag fleet of small boats RTC that joined in the frantic evacuation of the British army from the beach in France in front of the advancing Germans.

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"She'll be here when I'm dead and gone," Mr. Wyatt says.

He's back on the mike at Kew: "As you leave us, ladies and gentlemen, we did notice some of you brought little children aboard with you, dinna ya. We always earnestly implore that those of you who did bring those little children on board will make quite sure you take them with you when you leave, won't ya. Thanks very much. Enjoy yourself at Kew."

The Kingwood heads back to Westminster pier, still jaunty, a survivor from a thousand years of history on the River Thames.



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