Although the Thames Barrier is the most famous of London’s flood defenses, it’s only one of 36 industrial floodgates built to protect London — and one of the more distinctive is the Barking Creek Barrier.
Two massive concrete towers holding aloft a 39 metre wide 320 ton barrier which can be lowered down when needed to block the creek and protect it from flooding. Although the Barking Creek Barrier is seen as singular, in fact there are three smaller barriers alongside it which are too small for boats to use, but used to maintain the river flow during normal tides.
Although it supports the work of the Thames Barrier, it is a defense for Barking in its own right, and it sits next to a site that shows the need for the barrier, a small village called Creekmouth that no longer exists.
During the great flood of January 1953, many parts of the Thames estuary were flooded, including here at Barking, where the village of Creekmouth was effectively wiped out by the storm surge. After the flood, it was decided to demolish the remains of the village, and today a recycling plant and warehouse sit where once there were two rows of houses.
The Barrier was designed and built between 1979 and 1983 by architect G. T. Bone and engineers Binnie and Partners, although planning had been underway since the early 1970s for the barrier.
The original design wouldn’t have been as dramatic, being a series of gates at the front of the creek that would close, much like large canal locks when needed. However, during planning they found the stresses on the barrier gates would be too great, and the plans were changed to the current guillotine style barrier.
Authorised by the Barking Creekmouth (Barrier) Order 1975, Thames Water issued a £13.4 million tender for the barrier in July 1976, with the final contracts awarded in 1979.
Early works on the structure were carried out until the summer of 1981, when the towers were ready to receive the main barrier itself. So that boats could keep using the river, a temporary canal was dug on the western side, while the construction works carried on.
The two massive concrete towers are not chosen for aesthetic reasons, but mainly because the enormous deadweight provided by the concrete was needed to help the barrier resist movement caused by storm surges.
The gate was made in Sheffield in parts, then assembled in the Royal Albert Dock before being transferred to the barrier by boat in 1983. The barrier now complete, it’s occasionally closed for testing, and takes around 45 minutes for the barrier to safely lower down to the river bed.
The massive gate is lowered by gravity, and raised by motors so that even in the event of a power failure, they can always close the gate, if maybe not necessarily open it again afterwards. It would take something pretty dire to cut the power off though, as there are three power supplies – one from the National Grid, one from Beckton sewage plant next door, and a diesel backup generator on site.
Although the barrier seems to be an isolated industrial facility, there is a public park next to it. A few historical panels tell the story of Creekmouth village, the newly named footpath, and some concrete benches with wooden seats that have been, shall we say, weathered somewhat.
It’s a slightly odd place, a park next to a river barrier, in a part of London that’s still strongly industrial and not at all a tourist attraction.
Which is of course, exactly why you should pay it a visit.
But soon, as there is a concept plan to revamp the area, and add a pedestrian bridge across the front of the barrier, which is a wonderful idea, but you really want to see it in its current industrial bleakness first.