On the Chimneys & Tunnels walk we visit the launch ramp of SS Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive iron sailing steam ship. Faced with a rather sad row of wooden sleepers in a quiet backwater of the Isle of Dogs, it’s hard to imagine the astonishing spectacle of the boat’s construction there in the 1850s. Taking shape was a vessel designed to carry 4,500 passengers, 6,000 tons of cargo and 12,000 tons of coal. It was to be over 200m long, and five times larger by volume than anything afloat at the time.
William Parrott’s painting captures brilliantly the boat’s sheer vastness. We see her glowing hull totally dominating the landscape, even the dwarfish Naval Hospital across the river in Greenwich. No wonder she was formally named ‘Leviathan’ in November 1857, after the mythical sea monster.
Fast forward to 2013, and a new generation of sea monsters is being fabricated in South Korea. These Triple E container ships will be almost twice as long as the Great Eastern. Their purpose: to bear terrifying quantities of stuff from China to Europe. Each will be capable of carrying 18,000 twenty-foot containers. That’s enough capacity for 111 million pairs of trainers. These behemoths are so large that most of the world’s ports simply cannot accommodate them. So, the new London Gateway port – a 2,700m long container quay – is being built specially on the Thames Estuary downstream from the Isle of Dogs.
But how to unload the 18,000 containers from these 400m long, 59m wide and 73m tall sea beasts? Using the world’s largest cranes, of course! In an act of monstrous theatre this mighty flock migrated here from China in February. Wings outstretched, they look a bit like the Angel of the North – symbols perhaps of our hopes and fears for the future, faced with the irresistible tide of global consumerism.