Photograph: Chris Ware/Getty Images from the Guardian
In 1934 an artificial beach was created on the shore of the Thames in front of the Tower of London. Its easy to forget when talking about projects like Paris Plages or the London based Reclaim the Beach parties, that the idea of having access to the water for leisure in industrial cities has existed for a long time!
The text below is from the Historica Royal Palaces microsite on the Beach…. (have a look at the very bad photo gallery with excellent photos)
For many years prior the children of the East End had played on the pebbled and rocky foreshore of the Tower of London at low tide. This dangerous practice – indeed, sometimes even fatal – led the Tower Hill Improvement Trust to create a safe beach for the children of the local area.
In its report entitled The Great Goal, the Trust said: ‘Now, on this very spot where, in the Middle Ages the penalty for trespass was also death for man, woman or child, a safe playground for little ones is to be constructed.’
King George V gave his permission for children to ‘have this tidal playground as their own forever’ in a letter read out by Lord Wakefield, President of the Council for Tower Hill Improvement, at the opening of the new beach.
The rocky and pebbled shore was covered with more than 1,500 barge loads of sand, and Lord Wakefield himself had paid for a patrol boat and watchman to keep the children safe as they played on the beach.
Wakefield was referred to as ‘one of the greatest hearts and far seeing minds of our time’ by the Lord Mayor, who also attended the opening, along with other local mayors, the Bishop of London and the Lieutenant of the Tower, representing the Constable of the Tower.
The Times reported that as Lord Wakefield cut a white tape to open the beach ‘the ladder was lowered, to the music of cheerful siren-blasts from ships in the Thames’ and children rushed down to use the beach and enjoy the treat of buns, chocolate and unlimited lemonade at the opening day spread.
The beach proved to be extremely popular. Hundreds of thousands of visitors (some estimates suggest up to half a million) flocked to the beach in its first five years. Considering the limitations this was a huge number. The river’s tide was low enough for people to get on the beach for only a couple of hours a day, and the beach was not open throughout the whole year.
The beach remained open to the public between 1934 and 1971, apart from during the Second World War. Its popularity continued.
The beach was closed in 1971 owing to pollution and the water being deemed unsafe to bathe in. And although much of the sand has washed away, a considerable amount remains. And at low tide it still looks – and smells – like the seaside.
Without much real evidence, admittedly, this kind of thing makes me think of pop-up projects of today and things which have been getting press recently like Spacehive or the High Line and wonder if perhaps there are simpler ways to make improvements to urban life. Perhaps we don’t need to over brand everything or generate catchy names or throw vast amounts of money and projects which are essentially PR.
Maybe there is something to learn from these kind of simple urban improvement projects of the past for how we view the same kind of thing today, and we should remember that public realm projects which seek to improve the environment for city dwellers are not such a new idea.