Posted in London on Sunday 6th September 2015 at 10:09pm
It had been a busy month of excursions already, and it was impossible not to suffer the slight financial disquiet which always seems to ensnare me at such times when faced with the prospect of a weekend in London. But it had been a while since we'd ventured up here on a joint visit - and when some very old friends from the US had announced they would be in town, it turned out to be possible to extend one of my now regular monthly walking trips to ensure we got to meet up. In fact, things had taken an even more fortuitous turn a week or so beforehand when we spotted that Iain Sinclair would be speaking at the Design Museum during the morning of my trip. After a good deal of prodding and persuasion which is always necessary to get me to spend money on what my unconscious anxieties deem a luxurious non-necessity, I quickly reorganised things, booked a ticket and shelved a planned walk until the next trip. The Northern Heights could wait for a while.
I set out early, leaving a pleasantly autumnal morning at home and finding myself in a damp, mist-shrouded city. Surfacing at Tower Hill, the top of the White Tower was above cloud level and the ever-growing city skyline seemed to loom weirdly out of the mist. I realised I'd need to brave the rain to get to my destination, and decided to strike out for the south bank right away. Strangely, I realised that this would involve my first ever crossing of Tower Bridge. As I wandered under the vast towers I tried to mentally catalogue my walks in this part of the city, but I could genuinely never recall crossing the bridge by any means. It seemed impossible, but thinking of the focus of my walks over the years it was entirely likely. It became pretty clear that I didn't know my way around this part of the world when I got to the southern shore. I knew the Design Museum's location due to a very recent walk which ended near here, but it still took me a while to figure that the only way down to the embankment without a long detour were the stairs in the middle of the footway. Once beneath the bridge, I ducked around the corner into the tall warehouse blocks of Shad Thames, finding a spot to get coffee. I was experiencing all the usual apprehensions of attending an event like this - the sense of intellectual inadequacy, the oddly proletarian fear of not 'acting right' in a cultural venue. I shook it off as far as I could - I was going to hear perhaps my favourite living writer speaking for the first time since 2009. Eventually I managed to administer the necessary internal slap to get myself moving, and headed for the Design Museum. Handing over my ticket, I realised I was probably the first one here and found myself directed upstairs to a gallery curated by the Spanish footwear company Camper, entitled Life On Foot. I browsed the exhibition for a while, savouring the shoe-shop smell I'd experienced as a child but have studiously avoided ever since. It's clear the brand is irreverent, innovative and interesting - but to be brutally honest, their line in bright, casual shoes wasn't my thing. I looked at my dusty but much loved walking boots - possibly the most I'd ever invested in footwear, and silently thanked myself for overcoming the urge to save money just that once! By far the most interesting part of the exhibition was the section on new approaches to walking the city - it was here that Iain Sinclair's involvement had been secured, and his work sat alongside other attempts to alter the walker's view - including some neat 'games' involving technology and walking. Alongside this, under a crazily-angled roof beam sat about twelve small chairs. This was going to be an intimate occasion it seemed.
The talks began with Peter Watts describing a Twitter-guided excursion from the Design Museum. In short, he let his followers direct the action at each decision point, and wandered according to their whims. He talked a lot about method - should every junction be a decision point for instance? What about decisions which would clearly create a circle? Interestingly he travelled only a short distance from the museum and ended up back at the river - its magnetism ever present. Iain Sinclair followed with a less structured and more conversational talk given the small audience. He described his pre-digital engagement with the city and compared Peter's walks to Situationist practice, before taking a long, discursive ramble through his recent walk covering the London Overground project, the post-Olympic legacy in London and the privatisation of space he'd experienced when trying to swim in the highest pool in London, buried somewhere high in The Shard. The session was to be followed by a signing, but the small crowd seemed to drift oddly away, so I plucked up the courage to present a very old, battered copy of Lights Out For The Territory, appropriate because it was one of the texts which set my walks on a rather less travelled path many years ago. Iain generously signed the rough old paperback, and given the lack of any other punters indulged me in a short but interesting chat. We parted with a handshake, and scurried off in our separate directions - both with new walks to consider, and old haunts to linger on. I found it a little difficult to settle into the day after such an interesting and challenging morning, and found myself wandering back over the bridge to eat, watching the river and the tourists, before heading for our hotel for the night deep in the City. After checking in I wandered out for coffee, finding myself close to The Monument and the coffee shop I'd used for years on my city jaunts - mercifully still open at the weekends. Checking news from home, we scheduled our meeting in London for later and I decided to strike out on a bus trip east. I was still oddly spooked by my morning, so I didn't wander far, disembarking at Limehouse and wandering the grounds of St. Ann's church for a while, before getting the DLR back into the city for a quiet evening, the novelty of getting to meet up in London not lost on me.
Sunday dawned cool and bright, and I couldn't resist an early wander in the deserted city. I'd arranged to head west and collect our friends at 10, so I had time to do a circuit of the eastern precincts of the square mile finding myself drawn, unwillingly, to the Walkie Talkie building. Recently voted the worst building in London - but on what basis I'm still unclear as there are many contenders now - this odd thumb-shaped smudge on the horizon seems to intrude on every picture of the city, despite not being the tallest tower by some stretch. There is something about its arrogant, bulging presence which offends the eye somehow, not to mention the strange environmental effects its shape and bulk are causing. I circled it, eyeing it critically but honestly. It didn't look like a bad building to work in - but it was hard to ignore it. It will never quite feel like part of the fabric I fear, set aside from the cluster of towers as it is. I pressed on in a loop around Fenchurch Street and back to The Monument for coffee, before getting the tube west to Gloucester Road. The utter change in the environment was a strange shock - from glass and steel to stucco and porticos, I wandered into one of the specific type of hotels beloved of overseas travel agents and met friends I'd not seen for more than twenty years, it was a strange and rather special morning indeed. Wanting to give our visitors the tourist experience, we headed for the Tower via their first Underground ride and a short walk around the city. It was, as ever, crowded and frustrating to get around the attraction, but we covered a fair bit of ground including the obligatory crown jewels and an ascent of The White Tower which involved a lot more steps and stairs than I'd expected. Once we'd seen enough armour - and there is a surprisingly exhausting amount on show - we headed out for a very strange pub lunch in a very busy Fullers' outlet before escorting our friends back to Gloucester Road en route back to Paddington for our own homeward trip.
Reflecting during the trip home, I realised what a complicated relationship I have with London - tourist, walker, reader and writer of obscure little blogs - and how as my friends and family have become a global concern, it has become a canvas for showing Britain's history to them. This weekend I've managed to pack all of these roles into a single visit, so it's perhaps no surprise I felt a little disoriented at times. Next month, thanks to First Great Western's unusually well-timed special offer, my walks will return to their usual pace and solitary nature. While I look forward to wandering far more mundane locales, away from the tourist trail, I'll miss having company on my trek.
Posted in London on Thursday 3rd September 2015 at 7:09am
It's strange how once you've encountered an event, it's repercussions and associations seem to haunt you. A month or two back I wrote about a walk to Tripcock Ness, touching on the terrible events of 1878 when the Princess Alice sank on her return voyage from Gravesend with the loss of an estimated 650 lives. I first encountered this story in Iain Sinclair's 'Downriver' a decade or more back - and it has nagged at me whenever I've visited this part of the Thames. Since visiting the site in the summer though, I seem to have found more and more associations with the events of September 3rd 1878.
To mark the anniversary of what remains the worst public transport disaster in British history, I thought I'd link to Stephen McKenna's brief but beautifully filmed documentary about the Princess Alice:
Posted in London on Saturday 1st August 2015 at 7:08am
Crossing London can be a trial at the best of times, but today offered some special challenges. I knew in advance that various parts of the Underground network were out of action, but my early luck in tumbling onto a replacement bus service lured me into thinking this might well be simpler than I'd hoped. The bus lurched around a couple of corners from Paddington, rather suddenly depositing us in a back street which the driver claimed was Baker Street. It wasn't by any stretch - but a brisk walk, down into the station and finally onto a Metropolitan Line train for Aldgate - and I felt pretty smug. I was beating the city at its own game. Another quick walk to Tower Gateway and onto the DLR platform - a train was waiting silently for departure, so I made the walk down to the front to get the best view. As we meandered between landmarks from my previous excursions, I thought about my next move. I could, very reasonably, choose to use the cable car to traverse the river on this occasion - it would deposit me exactly where I wanted to start and afford me some interesting views. But for some reason, I decided that it could wait for another day and foolishly I bailed out at Canning Town. As I descended the stairs and saw platforms taped off I remembered that this part of the Jubilee Line was closed too. I turned and fought my way back up to the platform through a throng of disgruntled travellers. Perhaps this wasn't going to be so simple after all... As I waited for a Woolwich bound train I pondered how my early start had been squandered, how my intense fear of escalators could elongate an already epic journey, and finally how London had a treacherous habit of confounding those who dared to claim they knew the city even passably well.
I finally rolled up to North Greenwich Bus Station a good deal later than planned, and desperately requiring coffee. In fairness the crossing of the city, once I'd given in to its circuitous nature, had been interesting. A pleasant arc across the rooftops of Silvertown and North Woolwich, then a bus ride through territory I'd walked on the south bank a month ago, mostly strangely indistinct and suburban. I knew we were close when Bugsby's Way made a dip under the railway lines to Angerstein Wharf and the now abandoned eco-Sainsbury's store appeared. Stepping out of the bus station, I ventured towards the Dome - I'd avoided it last time, when I felt deeply out of place here. I didn't feel any more comfortable this time - but I was less ragged and sunbaked, and there were far fewer people around this morning. Spying a familiar coffee vendor's logo I ventured inside the building, to find that the store was being refurbished to "improve my O2 experience". I left and found a rival chain, busier than it deserved because it appeared to be the only coffee on the Peninsula. After another interminable delay I decided to drink and walk. There was no more time to waste at this millennial folly. It had already drawn me into spending longer than I could spare on it. I struck out for the river, finding the path just a few metres from where I'd turned aside a month ago. The river shimmered under cloudy skies, the marine breeze tempering the heat of an already strong sun. On the path, Gary Hume's "Liberty Grip" gave the finger to the dome - a huge bronze casting based on store mannequin parts, This is a part of an impressive exhibition - The Line - which brings public art out into the Lea Valley, The Royal Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula. I'd missed the publicity for the opening back in June, but have oddly found myself stumbling around the route between the artworks almost instinctively. Indeed, it's only a short walk from Hume's work to the second, far more unassuming piece - Thompson & Craighead's "Here" sits in the middle of the pathway, a regulation British road sign pointing out into the river, roughly on the Prime Meridian. The destination? Here. The distance? All the way. While I enjoy the conceit, I'm soberly reminded of Iain Sinclair's words:
An involuntary return to the point of departure is, without doubt, the most disturbing of all journeys
Rounding the curve of the peninsula, the views across the river provide a new take on old haunts - the diamond-paned lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf gleams in the late morning sunshine, while behind it the bigger expanses of City Island's red hoardings reflect nothing. It's possible - almost - to ignore the gravity of the Dome here, as the tangled skyline of the Isle of Dogs draws the attention. Across the water in Blackwall I see the flapping stars and stripes on Virginia Quay, and somehow this makes the city skyline seem entirely elsewhere - an unexpected transatlantic transport from an area rich in such escapes over the years. I press on, turning south, the tradesmen's view of the Dome evident. Delivery hatches, cooking smells, containers lined up and marked with the names of food concessions. The path deviates a little from the river here, slipping around an unfinished building site and skirting the edge of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, the red stone gauging arch sitting proudly in the expanse of flat former marshland, like a fragment of transported Glasgow tenement. Pushing through a narrow section of path and challenged by frustrated cyclists, I emerge at Victoria Deep Water Terminal - a place designed apparently to test my nerve and my prejudices. Firstly - it looks like I can't pass. I am so conditioned to expect exclusion and prohibition, that I can't imagine that the way through this desert of aggregate dust and swinging crane jaws can seriously be a footpath. There is also an alternative route marked for cyclists, and I wonder if I'm condemned to fight my way through them instead, but unexpectedly the hard-hatted inhabitant of a small safety station motioned me forward and gave a signal to the crane driver. I approached and hugged the fence while the empty jaws of his bucket wheeled overhead. As he dropped them into the hull of the ship he called me forward. I tried to calmly pass by as I felt the bucket raising again behind me. My trials weren't over - a smaller machine was shifting a pile of dusty grit across the path with a much lower derrick - again I was called on, offered effusive but mute thanks with a hand gesture and hurried under. As soon as I dared, I turned and snapped a picture of the wharf in literal full swing, the towers of Docklands behind them. Like a tiny history of British industry in the last century. Meanwhile, across the river the Isle of Dogs was broadening into perhaps the most famous river bend on TV, leaving its towers and financial centres behind in favour of low-rise housing, slum-clearance estates and the occasional prefabricated block. From here it was hard to conceive of how the area had figured so readily in recent history - newspaper disputes, fascist councillors, insider trading all seemed unlikely headlines when reflected on the quiet red-brick waterfront dwellings with their little post-modernist flourishes and nautical round windows. The path here was unexpectedly secluded, trees overhanging the riverfront, abandoned jetties rotting in the water, framed views of the other bank between fronds of water-loving foliage. Looking ahead, the western turn in the river provided views of where I was heading: the hulk of abandoned power station at Greenwich dwarfing the grandeur of the Royal Naval College.
In fact the walk towards Greenwich instilled a false sense of security. The river path is quiet, sometimes feeling almost rural in aspect. The developments which encroach on the path are well-intentioned if sometimes clumsily executed attempts to fit the area's provenance. There's no doubt that Greenwich recognises the importance of the Thames to the borough, even perhaps cultivates its myths. There is permitted dereliction. Piers quietly decay behind 'Danger' signs, remnants of older industrial uses when we were less sentimental about - or perhaps less aware of the equity in - the river front. Suddenly, the scene shifts, from the tangle of buildings around the bulky power station, the hospital building emerges - a squat, white plastered tower built in 1616 and decorated in vivid red and gold. The gardens are prim and pristine, the path stepping up to the tower ornamentally. Looking ahead, the river path is narrowed and hemmed in by the railings which surround the Royal Naval College - there are suddenly people everywhere, enjoying the gasps of sunshine between ominously long cloud breaths. I deviated briefly into the College grounds for a picture, remembering being here years back, at a summer conference. I was in awe of the buildings then, amazed at this rather prosaic, educational use of protected heritage assets - but approaching from the river, it's easier to see how this fits into the tourist trail - Maritime Greenwich, home of time and place, centre of the historical universe. I wait for an unobstructed shot across the perfectly cropped quad between the blocks, the distant view into the park signalling a walk not yet attempted. Indeed this view could have been entirely different if Flaxman's Brittania had been built. Our very own Statue of Liberty could have dominated the view here. It is simply not worth returning to the river here - the crowds blocking the narrow strip of path unclaimed by the College are sluggish, stopping for frequent selfies against the fence. Instead I cut across the grass, passing the Meantime Brewery and out on the plaza surrounding the Cutty Sark. Since I last visited this vessel has completed a phoenix-like cycle: both burned and risen again, with the area around it turned into an amphitheatre of naval history. A Saturday market is in full swing, the school holiday crowds fully exploited by local artisan food huts and coffee vendors while a string quartet plays in a tent. After deviating briefly to get supplies I grab an overpriced coffee and take a seat a little way from the action. Across the river, Island Gardens nestles between the towers of the Isle of Dogs. I remember similar rest stops there many years ago. It looks quiet and cool - the grass most assuredly greener in fact, and I feel a pang of regret for being this side of the river. It will pass, its just the consequence of this tide of people intruding on my usually solitary, utterly selfish walks.
Leaving Greenwich by the river path is a new experience, and improves on the usual route: there was always a sense of disappointment as the perfect heritage-groomed town centre gave way to sprawling suburbia on route to the station. But the Thames Path feels more honest - leaving Greenwich means entering Deptford. First though, the disadvantages of travelling with ancient maps are made apparent. I expect a dog-leg via Creek Road to cross the mouth of Deptford Creek, but instead find a shiny, modern footbridge spanning the water where it meets the Thames. It appears to be part of the planning gain from a new development - Greenfell Mansions - which flanks the river on the western side, a stack of apartments topping a nearly-empty café and hairdresser. A glance back down the creek as it turns back east is equally uninspiring, skirting more modern, anodyne blocks before the road bridge. Below footpath level the steep sided channel is sluggish and brown, a remnant of its industrial past and remarkably a conservation area, though little of historical note remains. The real ruins are further along the Creek - here it's all about exploiting the river front. Soon after crossing the Creek it's necessary to turn aside from the Thames briefly as the path is broken where the Borough of Greenwich begins to peter out. Forced to edge around an electricity substation, I realise that I'm about to pass into Lewisham and wonder how the boundary will be marked? I soon find out at the corner of the improbably named Twinkle Park - no signs or ceremony, just a pile of steaming dog shit strewn haphazardly across the path and impossible to avoid. I slide ridiculously in the ordure, grabbing a railing and checking to see just how much dignity I've lost. I'm alone luckily, scraping a boot pointlessly on the dry ground. Welcome to Lewisham, and time to find some grass to clean my boots. However, there's little foliage to exploit as the vast Convoy Wharf, formerly the Royal Dockyard, interrupts the river path. The site is now an endlessly flat plain of cement with the vast hangar of the Olympia Warehouse describing a dark sine wave on the view towards the Thames. The large and irregularly shaped site soon gives way onto the street, and I poke my camera through a railing just feet from a security cabin with no apparent response. It's abandoned, quiet and dusty, the archaeologists have left after digging for history as a planning condition. The site belongs to News International - an artefact of an urgent acquisition of various large off-city plots of land for Murdoch's union-busting masterplan which eventually saw his fortress land over the water in Wapping. After trudging miserably through a low-rise, litter strewn municipal estate I make for green space as a priority. Firstly, I stumble into Sayes Court Park - an unprepossessing, unkempt square of yellow, parched grass which once housed John Evelyn's house, and which is linked to the nearby dockyard by historical association. Land deals and wartime appropriations have left this space for the people, a central formal garden listlessly trying to leverage the antiquity of the site. Next is Pepys Park - dedicated to the other local diarist who worked in the Royal Dockyards when not busily exploiting his patronage elsewhere in the city. The park serves - and indeed shares a name with - a important post-war housing development which I barely even note today aside from its remaining highrise block, Aragon Tower, leering over the path. Life here has been surprisingly well documented because of the approach taken to replacing the former industrial slums which served the dock workers - and its perhaps not unexpected decline. The park is remarkably quiet and unexpectedly capacious. I cross the flat playing fields, before plunging into a wilder, stepped area given over to wildlife. From the second floor of a building on the edge of the park, a parent is unfurling a hose pipe to fill a children's paddling pool on the park edge. It's good to see people using this space, living in it, not feeling constrained by rules or practicalities. The artificial gardens of Greenwich seem a long way off here. The park climbs back towards the river path and Deptford Strand, where in 1593 Christopher Marlow was allegedly killed in an drunken brawl at Eleanor Bull's home. The most notorious unsolved murders in London seem always to come from north of the river, but this one remains a deeply suspect case and by modern accounts seems more of an assassination with Marlow punished for his "epicurism and atheism". The Strand now is a quiet, private space, free of conspiracies with the wine warehouses and the Victualling Yard converted into pleasant, if expensive dwellings to front the right-to-buy paradise.
Turning north to follow the dramatic curve of the river, I cross the mouth of Greenland Dock by way of a climb up the boards of the arched Victorian footbridge in preference to the modern roadway, This is the southernmost remnant of the Surrey Commercial Docks which once riddled this bulge of land with waterways, clustering around the Grand Surrey Canal. All the signs direct me to Surrey Quays or Rotherhithe stations - the assumption is I don't want to be here and the assertion is to leave swiftly. Indeed, there is little of note on this odd peninsula, and the low rooftops which have crept relentlessly over the in-filled docklands are strangely suburban in nature. Everywhere the eye is drawn to the north bank, to Limehouse Church, or east to the ever-brooding towers on the Isle of Dogs. A distant parade of No. 277 buses wink in the sunlight as they amble around Westferry Circus, running empty on a weekend afternoon. Suddenly I'm alerted by the unexpectedly rural sounds of sheep, as I find the path delving into the fringe of Surrey Docks City Farm. I'm tempted to wait time here, find a bathroom and a place for refreshment in this oddly charming little nook, but time is pressing and with the compromised transport options and being urged to wash my hands to prevent transmission of animal diseases, I feel the need to press on. I make a note to revisit though, as I know these sheep would be popular with others back home! The path is interrupted again, this time by a confusing Doubletree Hilton Hotel, sprawling across several buildings with unclear rights of access to the river. A token ferry service runs - often empty - across to Canary Wharf Pier apparently just to allow the hotel chain to claim its Docklands provenance. The service is sponsored by Transport for London - a little known, little used crossing, funding justified by the apparent importance of plugging a gap in the infrastructure between Tower Bridge and Woolwich. Reaching the tip of the Rotherhithe peninsula, I cross a stymied and sluggish inlet which disappears into a string of ecological parks in the centre of the former docks. The riverfront road is called Sovereign Crescent here - a nod to the former King and Queen Wharf in name only - nothing is left here of the past. In fact nothing gives a clue to the former nature of this area for some considerable distance, until the rotunda housing Brunel's Thames Tunnel portal appears a little inland and reminds me of a brief walk here when I was exploring the old East London Line. Further inland still there is a historic district to explore, with unexpected links to Scandinavia - but not today, I'm sticking to the river out of bloody-mindedness. I've almost reached my target. Footsore and surprisingly sun-reddened giving the earlier gloom, I detect a change in the fortunes of the area - in typical London style I have made the unannounced switch into a new locale. This is Bermondsey. Where Rotherhithe and Deptford have largely turned their back on the river, Bermondsey was an early adherent to the cult of gentrification. The situation is perfect - close enough to the City to benefit from rising rents, but south of the river - so out of the pernicious grasp of the Corporation. As industry retreated from London and the wharves closed, so the great docks on the north bank were levelled and left as desolate film sets for apocalyptic epics. Here though, there was a swifter turnover. The first loft conversions east of Brooklyn arrived before Docklands had left the drawing board. The narrow streets still wind between tall brick warehouses, bridges still cross haphazardly between them, sometimes dripping with foliage. It's dark, redolent of the river, the reek of Dickens' prose hanging heavy about the streets. Approaching the end of my walk I'm undecided - I know of many interesting landmarks I'd like to find deeper into Bermondsey, but the river is the focus and I feel compelled to stay with it to the planned point of departure. I make a short diversion along Mill Street to take in New Concordia Wharf with its towering chimney and retro-painted gateway, before plunging into a gap between buildings to reach the narrow footbridge over the River Neckinger at its confluence with the Thames. The path is busy with well-dressed people shuttling between the waterfront restaurants near Tower Bridge and the up and coming Bermondsey boutiques. A dusty river-walker is not required here. I push through to get the view - warehouses clustering haphazardly around the dark inlet which partly encircled Jacob's Island - a once notorious slum. Now, The Shard glowers over the tall blocks like a sliver of glass dropped into the landscape. I'm jostled as I try to take a picture. Nearby a young women is comforted by a gaggle of friends after a romantic disaster. The trials of Bermondsey life have changed little over the century in some ways, but are unrecognisable in many others.
Just short of Tower Bridge I leave the path, skirting the Design Museum and heading inland to make a loop back to London Bridge station via the heart of Bermondsey's increasingly fashionable artisan district. The long tunnel under the fan of railway lines leads me to the edge of the redeveloped station site with its arches once bustling with industry now closed for redevelopment and relaunch as gentrified boutique units. A new-build business district flanks the station with glass-fronted chain eateries and bars. I wait for a bus, knowing that the Ride London cycle event is blocking the streets of the City, and that I have a long journey west ahead of me. My journey to Tower Bridge - an unofficial goal - was not quite completed in the end, but my walk along the river covered the ground I'd broadly hoped I'd manage. Turning back west for recent walks was not an easy decision in some ways, and using my limited visits to stray from the main centre of my interests was a gamble. But it has paid off - and I find myself intrigued and eager to explore more of these areas which again I've only skirted over by rail. As I idly gaze into the glass of the bus window I realise that my face is tender from the sun, my hair wild and sweat-drenched. I feel foolish here in the City, amidst the cyclists and their irritatingly healthy glow. It's time to head home.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 4th July 2015 at 11:07pm
Today's walk started a little sooner than I'd planned. With trains from London Bridge to Kent disrupted by engineering, I'd had to figure a different route across the city and out to my planned point of departure. It promised to be the hottest day of the year so far and a Tube journey wasn't entirely welcome - but I figured if I could do it early and quickly, it would be fine. I made a complicated zig-zag across the city - to Westminster and onto the Jubilee Line which took me as far as Canning Town - passing under the Thames four times. On more familiar ground at Canning Town I found myself caught in the strange ebb and flow of an Excel event - the Docklands Light Railway platform would fill and empty like a time-lapse movie of commuters as a parade of Beckton bound trains came and went. Finally a Woolwich train arrived, and we left - mercifully quiet and without faces pressed against the doors like those heading for the exhibition centre. The DLR ride was an unexpected delight - as we curved onto the narrow isthmus of land between the Royal Docks and Silvertown I realised I was seeing my recent walks from above - able now to navigate the landscape and see how my sometimes formless rambles fitted together. In the brilliant sunshine, Millennium Mills cast a surprising shadow over the silvery water of the docks. A business jet made its final descent into London City Airport, casting a wake of ripples over the surface. The Tate and Lyle sugar works loomed over the line ominously. It was almost a disappointment to enter the long, sinuous tunnel heading once again under the Thames to emerge at Woolwich Arsenal. Embarking at Woolwich was equally curious - I'd been here once before, a little after the DLR extension opened - and remembered the cavernous station well enough. This time though I ascended to the street and found myself in a small, busy town centre - not unlike Barking on my last walk in some ways. The station sat at a crossroads, the old Arsenal gateway leading out of the plaza. Surprised to find I'd made better time that I expected, I headed for a nearby coffee shop to plan my next move.
It's easy to mythologise places, letting their recent past stand in for the present - but Woolwich gave away few secrets. The enduring story here is the military legacy - the vast Arsenal site now being redeveloped into stratospherically priced housing units. The Arsenal has always been a gated community - but its payload is changing. The core of the site is preserved, the long brick halls and broad walkways cleaned and primped - left just a little tastefully distressed as is the fashion. The edge of the site though is a genuine battleground - and where Listed Building status gives way, slender towers of new housing are growing swiftly. I'd planned to get the bus for the short hop to Plumstead, but these building projects had closed the stop. I crossed the street in the already remarkable heat, and started to pace out the distance to the next bus stop. Realising it was practically in Plumstead, I decided the walk had already begun and let my new boots take the strain. It was a good morning to be walking this strangely overgrown dual-carriageway. Plumstead came upon me suddenly, with the road collapsing into a confusion of roundabouts and bridges. The centre - such as it is - turns away from the maelstrom of traffic - a bend which ascends to cross the railway at an oblique angle, and dips down to pass a row of tired, dirty shopfronts. The glowing lemon stucco of the Plumstead Radical Club shone back at the grimy station entrance. Down below trains waited to start their journey, having been denied passage further into London by the works, while empty Rail Replacement buses ticked over aimlessly beside the entrance. I ducked into a shop to buy water - as much as I could comfortably carry - and then headed across the street to find the point where I'd originally planned to start walking.
The Ridgeway is a curious path. It shares it's name with a much more important, and longer, prehistoric trail - and I think when some saw my plans to walk a route with the same name in just a few hours, they feared for my safety and sanity. But this more modest path is no less interesting to me. Starting at an innocuous brick pumping station under the curling sliproads and footpaths at Plumstead, it climbs atop the Southern Outfall Sewer and drives an arrow-straight course for the Thames at Crossness. It is perhaps shorter and a little less frequented than The Greenway - its northern equivalent - but it provided a perfect way to begin this trip. Once up on the ridge covering the huge pipes, the gravelled surface stretched endlessly ahead. North of the path was an endless industrial estate, with the shimmering rooftops of Belmarsh Prison. South was an expanse of railway sidings, leading to the green slopes of Shooter's Hill. I felt that familiar and strange thrill of range anxiety that always accompanies a walk into unknown parts, and set off for the river. It soon became apparent that both the water and the sunscreen I'd tucked into my bag were going to be more than necessary. With the light reflecting up from the prefabricated structures which skirted the path, and the sun beating down from above with little shelter, it was hot. It reminded me of another ill-advised journey on a hot day which had nearly floored me a few miles north of here in fact. But it was early, and I'd decided I was going to pace myself sensibly. As the Ridgeway edged along it's straight course, I noticed a couple of young men pushing a broken down BMW on the road below. Their shouts echoed oddly in the quiet morning, the silence and space distorting distance and, for a while, their voices seemed to follow me. There was little other sign of humanity out here. Perhaps it was just too hot, or perhaps it just wasn't somewhere people walked? Not for well over a mile did I see anyone on the path, and when I did it was fleeting crossing - the Ridgeway is an inconvenient barrier between housing on the east and the main road with its bus stops on the west. People ascended, puffing and pink in the sun, and paused briefly for breath before descending again. In the distance, the towers of Thamesmead loomed ominously with the path driving straight at them, save for a dip under a new road which crossed at ground level and necessitated a brief diversion where the official route swung away, diving under the carriageway before ascending again. Finally, the hypnotic straightness was broken by Harrow Manor Way swinging in to its junction with Eastern Way - another dive away from the main path, with a branch leading off to an impressive footbridge carrying the "Green Chain" footpath. Ahead of here, the Ridgeway was reduced to a scrubby, worn track on top of the sewer. It still had it's processional gateway entrance, but the path looked unloved and a little forbidding, with a deep green chasm of undergrowth and trees running along it's northern edge. I decided to press on carefully, testing my walking boots on rough terrain for the first time.
With a little greenery, around the walk felt cooler if a little lonelier. Just a short scramble away, South Mere glimmered up between the angular grey blocks of Thamesmead's older residences. A PA system was being warmed up for a party by the lake. Reggae thudded out of the trees. I slugged water, wiped sweat and hurried on with the wind turbines which signified the approaching fringe of Crossness Treatment Works providing a landmark. With the housing petering out, the road beside me became a long, private entrance to the works, and the strangely quietly dual-carriageway which had been shadowing, out of sight to the west began a loping ascent to cross my path. Again I was forced off route, down a sandy track with a choice of routes. I could turn left and head into the low rise estates of Thamesmead West, or head on for Crossness. Still early enough in the day to be dedicated to my purpose, I regained the path and pressed on. Here it was barely recognisable as a walking route and appeared to disappear into the hedgerow ahead, with the curved shimmering flank of Crossness above it. I turned the corner and came upon a mess of litter, a deep ditch and a burned out Vauxhall. Getting across would have been a serious undertaking, with little guarantee that I'd have gained any advantage. Rather miserably, I turned back to the junction and turned west earlier than I'd hoped. A quick trudge along an estate path brought me the apparently abandoned Thamesmead Golf Centre - a corporate looking glass box, set in front of a driving range. It looked to have been closed for some time and now found use as an overspill car park for the locals. Crossing the entrance, a gravel track led over a playground towards a crest. As I climbed I could smell the river, and as I reached the top of the rise its broad, silver sweep was revealed. Slow running and magnificent, it glimmered invitingly despite this stretch being caught in a filthy pincer movement by Crossness and Beckton sewage plants. It felt like an oasis. I decided to relax a while leaning on the wall beside the old steam pumping engines of Crossness. Hidden in the undergrowth was the final metal arch of the Ridgeway, it's route between here and the abandoned car lost in a tangle of bushes, the former driving range of the Golf Centre now serving as a paddock for a small group of working horses.
Resisting the urge to head east along the edge of the Crossness plant, I turned towards the city. There were a surprising number of locals relaxing alongside the path - a couple of older women gossiped over a flask of tea, while a group of children defied the heat to caper around a lethargic dad, pawing listlessly at the screen of a 'phone. Out here at the edge of its reach, the Thames Path revealed itself as an amalgam - once off the core route through the officially sanctioned tourist spots, Local Authorities had been left to safeguard the route with varying degrees of success. Greenwich had done a fair job it seems, albeit in a piecemeal fashion depending on the depth of the pockets of the developer who wanted to edge their work up against the Thames. The initial section of the path felt like a country lane, soon turning inland, and dividing into a higher and a lower path which divided and reconnected frequently. Across the river, the scrubby edgelands of Dagenham were giving way to the container yards and industrial sprawl of what will be, if the Mayor's plan succeeds, the rail-connected new suburb of Barking Riverside. Following the river's slight southward turn, I was surprised by a shimmering distant view of the Isle of Dogs, with the gleaming towers blinking back at me in the powerful sunlight. It was approaching noon, and I was well into my supply of water - but my feet felt sound and I wanted to press on, the very presence of the river and its associated breeze cooling me a little. Soon, even the seemingly endless expanse of Thamesmead petered out and it was evident how the land here had been parcelled up for development, leaving this forlorn corner a tantalisingly blank space in my crumbling 1995 London A-to-Z. It was still largely blank - a wide swathe of rough scrub stretching inland to the edge of a supermarket compound. The area deserves it's peace too - the quiet dignity standing in place of any more substantive monument to the terrible event which befell the SS Princess Alice off Tripcock Ness in 1872. Overloaded and crewed by inebriates and incompetents, the steamer was broken apart in collision with the huge Bywell Castle with a loss of at least 650 souls. Most of those pitched into the water struggled for the north bank, into a choking tide of raw sewage entering the river at Beckton. But here on the south bank there's no indication of the horror which remains the worst maritime disaster in the capital. At Tripcock Ness a lighthouse stands on the outcrop of the shore, painted red and fenced around. Clambering down to view it I was horrified to see the lank hair of a child dangling from the spikes of the fence - before realising it was a weirdly realistic doll, impaled oddly on the fencing. If I wasn't already uneasy enough at the strange silence, this sent me climbing back to the path - almost glad to return to the steady patrol of courting Eastern European couples who appeared to be the only locals braving the punishing afternoon heat.
Beyond the desolate patch of Tripcock Ness, the newer reaches of Thamesmead soon encroached on the path again. Here, no doubt with contributions solicited from the developer, the path was a broad paved sweep with a tall brick parapet running beside it. Regular stairs led up to the streets, and there were occasional bursts of well-intentioned but dated and heavily vandalised public realm: benches with pointless towering ironwork, repurposed and de-natured cannon, empty planters, curious concrete plateaus of no clear purpose. I spotted a family fishing over the railings - the father bare-chested and pot-bellied, looking critically at his son who hefted a rod. Suddenly the tip quivered and described a dramatic parabola. The boy reeled furiously, walking his catch along the river, coaxing it towards the shore. It dragged him east - seemingly trying to head for the ocean. I paused to watch as the father followed, skittering back to gather their possessions as it became clear the contest was destined to continue its tidal progress. Resuming my walk, and draining the last of my water my thoughts turned to sustenance. I was beginning to feel a little light-headed - partly from the heat and also because it was a while since I'd eaten. With the last new apartments of Thamesmead West behind me, the low brick structures of the Royal Arsenal site were alongside. Away from the indiscriminate building on the southern edge of the site, the place looked remarkably well-preserved. The redevelopment was sensitive, if soullessly sanitised. Life had been primped out of the tidy stone blocks and the grid of narrow streets between them. Londoners however, defied the conventions as always, and the strip of grass between the path and the development was full of sunbathers, reading, picnicking or basking in the summery conditions. I turned aside to obtain supplies here, heading into the Town and completing a circle of sorts. Woolwich had woken a little, it's pedestrianised zone full of groups of youngsters and tracksuited men barking into handsets as they winced into the sun. I stayed long enough to shop, and headed back for the river, taking a bench near the Ferry Terminal to rest and eat. Low tide work on the loading bridges meant that the ferry was suspended for several hours, a boat at the closed terminal bobbing quietly while it's two sister ships sat idle upstream. A cyclist, apparently unconcerned at the lack of other vehicles, slalomed around the cones and rode up to the terminal in defiance. As I left he was raising his arms in either confusion or dismay.
I realised I had a fair way left to walk at this point, and began to worry about time. As I resumed my walk, casting an eye over to Silvertown and the Royal Docks on the north bank, I crossed the mouths of the comparatively tiny remains of Woolwich Dockyard. One bay was full of sinuous black fish, competing with litter to find their way around the pond. The path was provisional here, half-rebuilt, lurching between broad segregated walking and cycling provision and stretches where everyone was condensed into a narrow riverside channel. Finally the path gave way entirely at the end of a block of recent housing, a high fence blocking the way. I doubled back through the estate following the "interim route" signs which seemed all too permanent, and found my way onto the thundering A206. I felt sick and tired, the sudden hit of heavy particulates and scorched air just a little too much. I was beginning to flag, and I wasn't sorry to turn into the gardens leading up to the Thames Barrier which were at least cool and quiet. Back on the shore, I paused to look at the ominous but impressive shells of the structure stretching over to the northern bank - where I'd stood just a few weeks ago. Beyond I could see the bulk of Millennium Mills again. The area was becoming strangely - and pleasantly - familiar now. I reluctantly resumed walking, hugging the shore until the path merged with Anchor and Hope Lane. Outside the public house crowds lolled in the sun, the busy beer garden stretching across the street to the industrial foreshore. The lane plunged west, delving into the dusty stockpiles of the Cemex Works, gantries towering overhead and reaching into the river. Nearby, the long-elusive railhead of Angerstein Wharf found its terminus. When I'd thought about travelling there on railtours it had seemed so remote and elusively not of the city. Now it seemed comparatively close to the towering buildings of the City and Canary Wharf. I found myself shadowing a walker with a baby strapped into a papoose on his chest. He ambled slowly in the heat, the listless tot lolling tiredly against him. I wondered about the wisdom of bringing baby along this dusty, dirty route as he walked just a few paces ahead of me - but finally I passed him and pressed on apace. Surely though, as I paused to read a sign describing the area, he passed and again fell into step just inches in front of my every step. I realised that the heat, fatigue and an increasing worry about the time were conspiring to make me irritable. I paused awhile and let people pass, before resuming for one last push to North Greenwich.
And there, in the shadow of the stretched white skin of the Millennium Dome to coin it's original name, I found myself reluctantly cast back into civilisation. Crowds wandered around the restaurants and stores despite the lack of any specific event. A stream of Salvation Army officers from a nearby convention poured across the site, their uniforms augmented with concert-style backstage passes. I realised I was red and wild-haired, my shirt patched with sweat like an extra from Platoon. People glanced, averted their eyes, then stared openly at this oddity stumbling through their midst in tiny steps, each measuring a manageable dose of knee pain. I turned away from the Dome, unable to face the fin-de-siecle circus tent on these terms. It had me at a disadvantage. Instead I made for the station and perused the bus stops. The Underground felt impossible - too hot, and too direct. I needed perspective and a slow bus ride would provide that. In the event, I waited far longer than I could really afford for a specific reason - I wanted to head through the Blackwall Tunnel. When the over-stuffed single-decker bound for Stratford arrived, I squeezed on and relaxed a little. The bus meandered around the North Greenwich Peninsula, finally nosing into the traffic of the Tunnel Approach Road, and soon passed under the protective gauge arch before slowly slipping into the tiled channel which burrowed under the Thames - my last crossing of the day. I was heading back west by way of a change at Bow Church - a familiar switch with a sting in its tail as the bus became ensnared in the Cycle Superhighway works around Bethnal Green. At Liverpool Street I cut my losses and made an unsteady, low speed dash for the Circle Line.
Until today the south bank of the Thames had seemed inert and distant, oddly less rich in meaning and history than my favoured spots on the northern flank of the river. However, today began an unwinding of the river on new terms - old vistas seen with distance and context, and new paths which were rich with possibilities and roads untaken. As I turned off the path at North Greenwich, on the edge of the maritime borough's core, I knew I'd need to pick up this walk again soon.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.