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thames discovery programme

foreshore factsheet number two causeways

A causeway is a slightly-raised permanent structure leading from the riverbank out onto the
foreshore to allow access to river craft during low tide. They were often built as part of a network of
causeways and Waterman's stairs as picking up and setting down points for passenger craft. They
were often located next to public houses.

Examples of causeways: Chiswick Church causeway, showing masonry surface and timber revetment; Alderman’s
Stairs and causeway, Tower Hamlets showing causeway and Waterman’s access stairs between warehouses; two
views of an eroded causeway with access stair at Isleworth: the timber revetment is all that survives.

Form and materials:

Causeways provided pedestrian or vehicle access to small river craft at times of lower tide when
direct access could not be made from the bank or quay. Causeways are often associated with a
breach in the river defences (or a Waterman's stair) which provided access to the causeway. The
causeway was raised proud of the foreshore so that small, shallow-draughted vessels could be
brought alongside and entered from the causeway without getting wet feet: the lower the tide, the
further the walk along the causeway.

Causeways usually consist of a narrow linear structure leading from the access point (normally a
Waterman's Stair) into the river. The causeway is built directly onto the foreshore and consists of a
hard surface, often of mortared masonry, brick, or gravel set on a bed of made ground; although
medieval or Tudor causeways may have been built of timber and brushwood (possible example at
Kew). The causeway surface was usually revetted by timber stakes and planks.

The surface of the causeway may be damaged by river craft, scoured by the river or robbed for
reuse. Once the integrity of the structure has been breached deterioration can be very fast. When
the surface has been completely removed the remaining timbers can be confused with a small jetty.
A pedestrian causeway is usually narrower than a jetty, and the timbers may be of smaller

Causeways are shown on 17th and 18th century maps of the river, as well as on later Ordnance
Survey maps, where related features may also be shown such as wharehouses, wharves, jetties or

Pedestrian causeways have been recorded at Chiswick, with vehicle causeways beneath
Southwark and Blackfriars bridges. At Rattcliff a vehicle causeway is constructed of a gently sloping
grid of timbers with a plank surface and is immediately adjacent to a pedestrian causeway. Vehicle
causeways may be confused with slipways, but they may have served dual purpose.
Recording issues:

How was the causeway constructed? What materials were used for construction? Is there any
reused material? Any moulded or marked stones or dateable bricks? Is there any stratigraphy
associated with the structure?

Are there any signs of repairs or rebuilds? What is the latest material used to repair the

Is there any damage to the causeway? Are there any threats to its survival?

How was the causeway accessed? What are the nearest access points or river stairs? Is there
an access alley or road? How far out into the river does the causeway extend? Has the
causeway been extended?

What is the height in relation to existing foreshore –is it partly buried, or standing proud? Can
you tell its original height by looking at any revetting planks?

How far does it extend into the river? What can this tell us about historic low tide levels?

Associated structures: Waterman’s stairs? Bridges? Jetties or wharves? Mooring posts? Are
there any buildings on shore that may be related? Public Houses? Wharehouses?

Is there any evidence for the causeway on historic or Ordnance Survey maps? Or illustrations
and drawings of the area? Can these be used to date the structure? Are there any related
place-names or structures shown on maps? How does the causeway relate to property
boundaries shown on historic maps?

Further information:

Cohen, N, 2006 River Thames Foreshore: Church Causeway Chiswick W4, London Borough of
Hounslow; an archaeological assessment and foreshore survey report, MoLAS unpublished client

Useful wiki page on waterman’s stairs:'s_Stairs

See photos of causeways at the Thames Discovery Programme Flickr page:

timber revetment

stone and granite sett surface

0 4m

Detail of Chiswick Church causeway showing stone and brick surface with timber revetment

this factsheet has been generously funded by the Barbara Whatmore Trust

© thames discovery programme 2010

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