Pilots, Pepys and the sky above Limehouse: The Great Whirl

(Short post):

The image heading this post shows a photo taken on a phone camera by a close associate of Portals of London. From near Deptford Creek he watched for several minutes as clouds above Limehouse “moved in a strange, very slow, swirling movement”, in contrast to their general easterly motion across the sky.

As it happens, such a sight from this vantage point is not rare. In fact, low-lying stratocumulus clouds like the ones pictured are known for betraying the presence of a sure candidate for the Portals catalogue: The Great Whirl of Limehouse.

limehouse today
All still at river level. Limehouse today source | licence

The existence of some kind of inter-dimensional opening in the sky above London’s docklands is, though largely forgotten by 21st Century residents, woven into Limehouse lore. In warehouses and riverside pubs, ‘The Whirl’ was once a hot topic. Tales were swapped of vanishing barrage balloons, missing carrier pigeons and the one-way journeys of brave Cessna-flying explorers. It is said the commercial pilots of City Airport still steer well clear of the area, though good luck getting them to talk about it.

And good luck getting anyone from the meteorological department to allow that anything other than ordinary atmospheric effects account for the strange behaviour of the Limehouse clouds (as for the European Space Agency, what they know of the Whirl is anyone’s guess – they certainly aren’t talking to us).

1John_Boydell_-_View_of_the_riverside_at_Limehouse_1751
The Whirl might have been visible just out of the top left corner of this 1751 view  source | public domain

Ok, non-portal vortexes in cloud systems are common. But the Whirl’s characteristic corkscrew motion appears time and again in artworks throughout history, in a strikingly consistent part of the London sky. Views from Greenwich are a particularly rich source. Examine the images below, and make up your own mind.

First up is this engraving from 1754, in which the swirl is clear. (Our annotation marks the Whirl’s centre but you can see that clouds across the whole sky are corralled into the motion):

1London,_seen_from_Greenwich._Engraving,_1754._Wellcome_V0013231
source | licence

Note the similarities in the following painting and engraving, from separate 18th Century artists:

1GreenwichHospitalearlystages
source | public domain
1London,_seen_from_Greenwich._Engraving._Wellcome_V0013236
source | licence

The swirling motion stands out clearly in Henry Dawson’s 19th Century painting:

1800px-Henry_Dawson_-_London_from_Greenwich_Hill_-_Google_Art_Project
source | public domain

Some even claim to discern evidence of the Whirl in JMW Turner’s ‘London from Greenwich Park’ (1809), though we aren’t so sure:

1a799px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_London_from_Greenwich_Park_-_Google_Art_Project
source | public domain

Those are some pictures, but what of words? Debate continues over the Great Whirl’s earliest mention in print, but the first unambiguous reference to it comes from Samuel Pepys’ diary. In May, 1662, the famous Naval administrator and diarist wrote: 

“Then to an alehouse in Drury Lane, where I did meet with Greatorex and an acquaintance of his, who entertained us both with extraordinary tales of the great Whirl in the sky above Limehouse, through which, it is said, many wondrous worldes may be reached”

Pepys goes on to muse that he would like to gather funds for the building of a “great tower” to explore the matter. We can’t help wondering how the 17th Century might have turned out had he succeeded.


  • Candidate: The Great Whirl
  • Type: Wormhole (Unconfirmed)
  • Status: Current (Activity unknown)