London Walking Tours    with Joanna Moncrieff

A day with the RNLI (in London)

I am one of those unfortunate people who suffers from travel sickness so I can’t read in traffic nor sit backwards on buses which rules out at least 8 of the seats on the new Boris Buses.  However I had never anticipated that I would feel seasick on the Thames!

This feeling came over me during the recent Thames Festival when I was volunteering at the RNLI’s busiest lifeboat station – Tower RNLI which is a floating station situated south of Somerset House just next to Waterloo Bridge.  The station rises and falls with the tide and is also affected to a degree by passing boats especially Thames Clippers. I love the beginning of this time-lapse film of 24 hours in the life of Tower RNLI showing the station rising with the tide.

Thankfully sucking a Gin Gin (a ginger sweet – nothing to do with gin!) made the nauseous feeling disappear but I did have to escape to dry land at lunchtime! Bizarrely in the afternoon/evening I was fine.

Until last year I am ashamed to say I was one of the high percentage of Londoners who had no idea that there was one lifeboat station on the Thames, let alone four.  After the report into the 1989 Marchioness disaster was published the RNLI was asked to set up bases on the Thames. The RNLI lifeboats now cover the Thames with stations at Gravesend, Chiswick and Teddington as well as this one on the north side of Waterloo Bridge. Tower RNLI was originally based at Tower Pier but the facilities weren’t ideal. In 2006 they moved into their current location in the former floating police station which they bought for a £1 (which was then donated back).

Photo courtesy of TowerRNLI
A year on from our tour and the Westminster Guides have kept in touch and so it was that a number of us volunteered to help them with some public tours they were doing as part of the Thames Festival. As with our own tour the year before tours can be privately booked by any interested group – you don’t have to wait for open days such as this. The tour includes a talk about the lifeboat – as long as it hasn’t been called out and looking at the kit and if time permits you may be able to try some of the kit on! All the kit is designed solely for use by the RNLI and the Thames’ wear differs slightly from that of coast based stations as all the volunteer crew are on site for an entire shift and can be ready to go only 90 seconds after the alarm has sounded.

On each occasion I have visited I have seen the lifeboat launch – twice for an emergency and this last time to be in the vicinity when the Ship’s Opera was being performed.

Photo courtesy of Tower RNLI

It is really amazing to know that all the equipment including the lifeboats is paid for by voluntary donations. The crew of Tower RNLI have just this past weekend completed a fundraising triathlon between the station and the Eiffel tower (Tower 2 Tour). At this moment in time they have surpassed their target of £13,000 (the amount being the sum required to train 10 new crew members) and are almost on £16,000.

There are lots of opportunities for volunteering for the RNLI on their website including “occasional volunteering” which I have just signed up to!

When they are not being called out on shouts they are training and since my volunteering stint I have discovered @rescueshrek1 on Twitter who has taken some amazing photos of the crew, the boat and the Thames.

My day spent at the station was very enjoyable. I absorbed quite a bit of information about the RNLI and met some lovely people. In the downtime between tours it was good to chat with the other volunteers and on my lunchtime escape to dry land I saw some amazing fashion creations in the courtyard of Somerset House – mainly people in the London Fashion Week events queue!

One thing I also learned was next time I go on the Thames not to forget the ginger!

The author of this blog (Joanna Moncrieff) is a qualified City of Westminster Tour Guide who specialises in food and drink themed walks in the West End.  Details of all her bookable private walks are listed here and upcoming public walks are here.

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