Sailing by: Why are the tall ships coming to ‘Royal Greenwich’?

Tall Ships flags in Greenwich Market

If you follow Greenwich Council’s media, you’ll have heard of little else for the past year. If you bin its weekly propaganda rag Greenwich Time and shun its Twitter feed, this weekend could come as a surprise to you. It’s the Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival and it’s actually rather a big deal.

The first many would have known that this was actually something rather big was when parking permits started falling onto doormats last month. “Tow away zone” signs have sprouted up (even though many of the Olympics ones are still in place) and parking restrictions are in place all weekend.

Tall Ships tow away zone

Isn’t this all a bit much? Maybe not. A similar event in Dublin in August 2012 attracted over a million people to the Irish capital. And Falmouth, where this year’s event started (below), has been packed out, by all accounts.


It’s a baffling thing, because nobody was really asked or consulted about the festival. Nobody put “tall ships” in their manifesto for May’s election. After Run to the Beat was finally given the bum’s rush, few would have expected another event to cause such major disruption the following year.

Victoria Deep Water Terminal, 31 August 2014

This one could be worth it, though, with plenty happening:

– 50 ships will be berthed at Greenwich, Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich and Canary Wharf between Friday and Monday. The Greenwich Peninsula location is Victoria Deep Water Terminal, which has been decked over and landscaped (above). You’ll be able to climb on board the ships and take a look.
– There’ll be fireworks in Greenwich on Friday and in Woolwich on Saturday.
– A “crew parade” will take place through Greenwich town centre on Saturday afternoon, to congratulate all those who sailed from Falmouth.
– There’ll be “festival villages” at Greenwich and Woolwich over the weekend with shows, music, and other events.

Woolwich Road, 30 August 2014

But there’ll be disruption, too:

– Greenwich town centre will be closed to traffic for much of Saturday. Buses will be diverted well away from the area.
– Transport for London is warning of disruption from crowds to rail, Tube and DLR services. Southeastern is promising extra services, though isn’t detailing just what it’s offering.

So how did we get here? It all seems to have started three years ago. Remember the ill-fated Peninsula Festival? That was part of a mini-Dutch invasion for the Olympics that included the similarly-cursed Oranjecamping campsite (above) and Sail Royal Greenwich, a series of hospitality cruises along the Thames, itself based on Sail Amsterdam, which takes place every five years in the Dutch capital.

Only the tall ships actually made it to the end of London 2012. The Peninsula Festival folded after a few days – oddly enough, the Greenwich Peninsula Tall Ships site is adjacent to where Frank Dekker wanted to put his beach – while Oranjecamping moved to Walthamstow. But Sail Royal Greenwich has been based in Greenwich Council’s offices at Mitre Passage, North Greenwich ever since.

Greenwich Council report, May 2013

By November 2012, Greenwich had decided to bid for a Tall Ships Race, which involved this trip to Latvia, so this weekend’s Tall Ships Festival is an important staging post if it’s to achieve that ambition. Here’s a report prepared for former leader Chris Roberts which outlines the council’s plans, which put the costs at £175,000.

In December 2013, the costs had ballooned to £500,000, plus £2.1 million in pier refurbishments. The council will be hoping to recoup the costs in sponsorship (including from Barratt Homes and Berkeley Homes) and merchandise (including programmes at £5/pop).

Greenwich Time, 2 September 2014Sail Royal Greenwich has a good deal from the council – it’s paying a service charge of £100/month towards each desk, while a games company based in the same office, which is aimed at digital businesses, pays £450/month, according to a Freedom of Information request made last year.

In 2013, the council paid £20,000 towards fireworks for Sail Royal Greenwich at Greenwich and Woolwich, and a further £19,000 for events to mark the ships’ arrival in Woolwich. With the council planning to bid for the 2017 Transatlantic Tall Ships Race, the ships’ll probably be sticking around for a while yet.

So what does the area get out of the tall ships? Well, if there are hundreds of thousands of people over the weekend, then it’ll be a huge boost to tourism – and one that’ll go some way of compensating for cock-ups during the Olympics. The ships and the fireworks promise to be a spectacular sight – there’s no denying any of that.

But what the council gets out of it is more interesting. It’s all about the brand, baby…

The Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival is, frankly, about pushing the “Royal Greenwich” brand. But this is also about how a depressingly secretive council sees itself – referring to itself in the third person as “the Royal Borough” even though the council itself is not royal.

cathedral_350It’s almost as if the council is trying to depoliticise itself, to portray itself as some kind of benevolent landlord/ events manager like the (barely-elected) City of London Corporation, rather than the highly political beast which it actually is.

Sooner or later, Greenwich’s 51 councillors will have to make some very difficult decisions about budget cuts. But while next-door Lewisham is asking residents to weigh up some of the dilemmas themselves, Greenwich residents are told “look at the tall ships!”

Yet with many of the tall ships berthing themselves in SE18, why not apply the high-sailed magic to one of the borough’s more battered brands? The Woolwich Tall Ships Festival, anyone? Falmouth-Woolwich Tall Ships Race?

Tall ships also make fantastic corporate entertainment venues. So the festival also offers some glorious opportunities for jollies, and for councillors and officers to be wooed by property developers and the like – Barratt Homes is a lead sponsor, while Berkeley Homes, Cathedral Group and Knight Dragon have also paid to be associated with the event.

In fact, all this is already evident in the pages of Greenwich Time, with two plugs for Morden Wharf developer Cathedral in this week’s council paper – one featuring council leader Denise Hyland larking about with sailing trainees sponsored by developers; another featuring Hyland, Cathedral boss Richard Upton and other trainees who, well, fancy that, are nicknamed the Cathedral Five.

I’ve been told Greenwich Council is terrified the tall ships will be a flop. Judging by the crowds elsewhere, it’ll almost certainly be a big hit. There were even photographers out on Greenwich Peninsula early yesterday evening to watch a trio of ships sail through the Thames Barrier and past the Dome.

It’s going to be an interesting weekend. If you’re well-disposed to the council, there could be plenty to congratulate it on. If you’re not, there’ll be plenty of bones to pick over the following weeks. There are many reasons to celebrate the tall ships’ arrival – but just as many reasons to be sceptical of what’s going on below deck. If you live anywhere near the river, get set to be swept along over the next few days…


  1. Darryl – do you know anything about the role of Greenwich Heritage Trading Ltd in the tall ships festival?

    I know there’s lots of council assets currently being transferred over to this company with very little awareness / scrutiny ( and I’m sure somehow they’ll be tied up with this festival too.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the council was footing the bill with any income going to the Ltd company

  2. Good call. Would suspect any income could be being handled by (gulp) Royal Borough of Greenwich Destination Management Company CIC, though, another council trading company, as AFAIK the heritage trust is mainly concerned with Charlton House, the heritage centre in Woolwich and Tudor Barn in Eltham.

    I hope people find this post useful, btw – I had a complaint on Twitter that it wasn’t saying anything.

  3. Sounds a bit harsh – personally I think anything that attempts to shine a light into the secretive and murky affairs of Greenwich council is useful…

    If anyone does have any more info on Greenwich Heritage Trading Ltd (either generally or in relation to this festival) would love to hear it. My spidey sense is tingling…

  4. “But while next-door Lewisham is asking residents to weigh up some of the dilemmas themselves, Greenwich residents are told “look at the tall ships!” ”

    Reminds me a bit of the story told by a Communist (can’t remember his name). While reading a science-fiction book on a park bench one day, he was approached by a Trotskyist who told him “that’s a diversion from the class struggle!”.

  5. You say that ” parking restrictions are in place all weekend” but I can’t find any details of which roads are affected and when, on the council website. Can anybody point me to a list of roads and restrictions?

  6. Matty – that’s a great story.

    Steve – off the top of my head, it’s the already-existing parking zones in Greenwich/Westcombe Park/Charlton/Woolwich, including the areas which are normally free parking plus the gap in between around Woolwich Dockyard. That probably doesn’t help very much, but that’s roughly what I know.

  7. Were the fireworks last night at 2115 just a dress rehearsal for tonight? (if so, could they not have been saved for Blackheath in November)

  8. So the parking restrictions that I have noticed around the surrounding areas are due to this Tall Ships Festival.
    I have had no notice of this festival and of the parking restrictions until these signs have popped up.

    What about those who had to park in these temporary controlled zones who rightfully assume to be free, only to turn up and now are restricted?
    Occasionally I have to park by Vanburgh park where it’s free as I have to stay at work late and drive (no bus service late at night).
    Luckily I haven’t had to work late!

    Also I can’t see who the people of Greenwich benefit other than the coffee shops and some places selling food!

  9. Thanks DB.

    Of course if the Council had delivered its free newspaper to my house like used to happen, I might have had some advance notice of these parking restrictions.

  10. Visitor events are big business for every major city around the world nowadays – because yes, it is about the brand. Yes tourism events are risky. It doesn’t always work on the first go, so back to the drawing board to improvise to make each experience bigger and better. Tourism (and teams involved) is not political activity so no it wouldn’t be on anyone’s manifesto or for consultation. Events like Blackheath Fireworks and Run to the Beat are classed as community so different teams and budgets involved – different objectives. Have been involved in major city tourism events overseas, and yes – it is definitely worth it. For local and national pride at the very least (and there is £££ and prestige involved). The best events generate the sort of excitement that is happening around Tall Ships.

    Greenwich is a critical part of London’s tourism brand – not least for it’s position in the regeneration map, and features in the top 5 London experiences in Lonely Planet guides and throughout TripAdvisor recommends. Tall Ships is currently on the front page of Visit London and is featured in TimeOut and the national press. May even generate TV coverage (worldwide). I’m only surprised that the Mayor/GLA hasn’t gatecrashed the party (curious as to how RBG managed that).

    If people can’t feel a bit of pride in having Greenwich in the spotlight for the sake of ‘notice (permission?) of a bit of parking strife… then well, Christmas really has come early…bah humbug to you Ebeneezers. They really ought to question why they choose to live around one of Britain’s greatest and most endeared heritage sites.

  11. So I’m at Greenwich pier (decided to pop in after work) and the only tall ship in sight is the Cutty Sark !!!!

    Lots of stalls selling random tat though

  12. Tried to go to Greenwich Park cafe at 6pm this evening (where they normally have “Family Fridays”) but the road was closed, parking restrictions all around and they were charging £15 to park on the heath. Went to Blackheath instead…

  13. Have to say that last nights show was superb, weird fish show, wonderful fireworks but the highlight for me was the three lanes of tall ships that had been held back during the fireworks. At the end there were a dozen tall ships passing each other outside the Naval College, wonderful sight!

  14. Well I knew someone will reply to my post a calling me a party pooper or saying bah humbug, and Shivanee you haven’t let me down!

    First of all the borough of Greenwich is my home first and foremost, not a business tourist attraction where now a few big companies seem to be getting too influential with the council.
    I have no problem with expressing some pride in the area but who is funding this event and if it’s the council will they have a budget to contribute to the fireworks display on blackheath common? Also the council like to concentrate on some parts of the borough and neglect the rest.
    Also the organisation has been poor, not just this festival (in terms of prior notice and the impact) but events like run to the beat (a private enterprise).
    I also work in Greenwich and we were told that everyone will benefit from the Olympics. Well ask most local businesses (if they are still existing) how well they benefited. You might want to look up the protests from local traders in the papers and BBC news!

    Yes Greenwich has always been a tourist destination but it use to have a nice balance say upto 10 years ago, and its now lost its charm with it becoming over commercialised, the restaurants by the pier, independent businesses being kicked out, chains to replace them, high rise developments etc

    So yes shivanee , I do take great pride in the borough, but I like it If things are planned properly with consultation and notice which the council which will probably not bother listening to anyway that opposes their will anyway.
    Many of their ‘great ideas’ are not thought through properly and have longer term consequences.
    For e.g. look at the water feature pavements by the curry Sark! Great use of tax payers money!

  15. Yesterday, Friday, there were loads of people flooding into Greenwich, pouring out of Cutty Sark DLR from early afternoon, stewards on hand, extra police presence, etc, etc….. and apart form the Cutty Sark itself, only one tall ship, and that was at Enderby’s Wharf.

    Today, I would expect even more people to visit Greenwich (ie town, not Borough) expecting to see, and be able to visit, lots of tall ships – there’s nothing (other than the normal attractions which are here all year round).

    I reckon lots of people are going to be heartily disappointed at coming to Greenwich and finding one just ship. I know the Council want people to go to Woolwich, which is where man of the ships are moored, so why not call it the Woolwich Tall Ships Festival, rather than misleading people?

  16. And now I have perhaps realised why there is only one tall ship moored at Greenwich.
    The Hapag-Lloyd cruise liner Europa is moored in the deep water berth by Wood Wharf, doubtless so that the rich people on board can have a grandstand seat. Which has doubtless made somebody a great deal of money.
    That’s what it always comes down to with Greenwich, isn’t it?
    Not what’s best long term for the town, or its people, but what’s going to make some vested interest loads of money.
    The town and Island Gardens are packed with people and the 12:00 river parade of traditional vessels comprised entirely of the Dutch ships that were here last year cruising the Thames for paying customers, plus Thames clippers and the normal tourist river boats.
    Damp squib hardly covers it – there must be an awful lot of really disappointed people, not least families with kids who may have travelled a long way (on basically false pretences).

  17. Utter contempt shown by security guards who’ve closed the Thames cycle path to cyclists and also refused access to parents with buggies or wheelchair-users. Enderby Wharf is the worst for jobsworths. Woolwich is relaxed. There’s no information about closing cycle paths on the council website nor any secure bike parking indicated near Enderby. I was told to lock the bike to a railing. I suspect that the guards were making things up on the hoof – one said it was the council, another said it was the police and none had any authority that I could see (or that they could produce when asked to do so) to make up laws.

  18. Indeed Deptfordmarmoset, the council wardens are the biggest jobsworths of them all.
    They often come across very intimidating as I have witnessed personally.
    Welcome to the ‘we’re just doing our job’ brigade!
    I also saw them hiding behind some signage spying on people to see if they drop any litter (not that dropping litter is ok, but we should not be spied on in such a manner).
    It would be interesting if you refused the security orders as I wonder what law would be broken!

    On another note, the Tesco building in Woolwich is on the page – an article of it being awarded a prize for the ugliest building I think it was

  19. From the Shetlands to Dover, passing along the south bank of the Thames, except when the council remove it. There’s no note of the closure on the Sustrans website, nor on the council site.

  20. The council pulled that stunt of closing the riverside path when the Red Bull air races were at the dome (for “safety reasons” (i.e. to stop people seeing the races for free when they had sold the riverside pathway for commercial gain).

  21. Great article. As a resident I also care but you highlight the bad organisation and I agree with that. I once ran a local business and so experienced the Olympics first hand. From another perspective I was also crew on one of the Tall Ships from Falmouth to Greenwich and there were communication problems with the Council. To be fair to some they did try and help but it was all too late. I will not go into detail here. Marshalls need proper training and more importantly, true understanding of what this particular event is all about. So,why have Royal Borough of Greenwich not learned something from the Olympics?

  22. About Greenwich Heritage Trading Ltd
    Greenwich Heritage Trading Ltd was founded on 01 May 2014 and has its registered office in London. The organisation’s status is listed as “Live” and it currently has one director. Its founding director was Ms Tracy Stringfellow. Greenwich Heritage Trading Ltd does not have any subsidiaries>

    Accounts not due to 2016 due to date of incorporation so it is going to be a long gap before we know anything about the accounts.

  23. The town is mobbed to the point were even the dreaded Green Village is fairly full.
    I had a wander round and stopped into a couple of town centre pubs, as I often do, and heard a lot of people complaining about the overcrowding and the fact that there weren’t any ships to see or visit.
    Local businesses had a good day, but, longer term, will these people be put off visiting Greenwich in the future?

    What is really galling is that you can bet your bottom dollar that Greenwich Time will be heralding this as a massive success and feather in the Council’s cap, as so many people came to Greenwich, even though the vast majority will have found it a real non-event, and the town/shops/market/pubs/cafes/restaurants uncomfortably overcrowded.

  24. I live a stones throw from the river in east Greenwich and there have been masses of people in the area over the last few days .

    The number of ships I have seen on my frequent visits to the riverside has been five ,and four of those were stationary .

    This must have been the biggest non-event in Greenwich for a long time .

  25. After reading the subsequent comments, i’m relieved that i’m not the only one who have these opinions!
    I share Karin’s & Rod’s sentiments exactly!
    No doubt Greenwich Time will be boasting in the next issue!

    To be honest, i’ve stayed away from the town centre as I new it would be overcrowded and not a pleasurable experience.

  26. What made me curious is the parking. There was a private parking control agency with staff in the Park from 8 am Saturday / Sunday. But I was told by a councillor that the Greenwich parking control staff are on strike during these TS days ? I certainly havent seen any on the streets – unfortunate given the cost of mailing special Tall ships permits to all households in the area. Appreciate the need to keep our “tourist destination” profile up – along with the Royal brand and all that – and I cant comment on the effectiveness of the event itself- though I did stroll through ORNC and find the “Lebara village” pretty busy at 1pm Saturday. There’s a large amount of uncritical and self congratulatory PR from the council I think a little critical questionning and crap detection is most welcome !

  27. The traffic has been awful, overcrowding on the pavements, too many food outlets, and the lack of choice of retail shops, over-management & gimmicks from the council & Greenwich Hospital Estate.
    I think Greenwich has become a victim of it’s own ‘success/hype’.

    I wonder how many people would be put off coming to Greenwich in the future, as I starting to fall out of love of the town centre.

  28. Complete waste of a day. Heaving crowds impossible to see anything, only one ship (I’m told) off key French ‘folk’ singers warbling about the leaving of Liverpool – what was that about? And little else. Pants.

  29. Thanks Annabel – so we’ll probably have to wait until the accounts are available in 2016 then to get any real transparency on Greenwich Heritage Trading Ltd.

    Looking at Ms Tracy Stringfellow’s LinkedIn profile though- it looks like she went straight from a job as “Heritage Project Manager” at Greenwich Council to “Chief Executive Officer” of Greenwich Heritage Trading – no doubt for a vastly inflated salary in the process…

    This raises all sorts of questions:
    -Was Ms Stringfellow involved in the proposal to setup a separate Ltd company and transfer Council owned assets to it?
    -What analysis/due diligence was performed to validate that setting up a separate entity would result in any benefit to the residents of Greenwich?
    -Has this development resulted in a net saving to Greenwich Council’s heritage operations?

    This whole thing stinks of the possibility of graft or at the very least a conflict of interests

  30. We had a lovely weekend at the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory. Record ringing weekend. But we saw and enjoyed a ship at Greenwich (Enderby Wharf) before leaving. Being newcomers to lovely Greenwich we are learning the trick to see the start or the very end and miss all the crowds. Either that approach or a corporate invitation gives great pleasure, and no aggro.

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