Church of St Helen

Church of St Helen

Kent marshes are a desolate, liminal place described by Dickens as a “dark, flat, wilderness….intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it.” Much the same as it is today although there are signs that the developers are moving in.

Kent Marshes Cliffe

This remote village is in transition. The Church of St Helen dates back to 774 AD but over the centuries vicars assigned to this marshy land were reluctant to take up their office. For this place was left to a desperate population who had no option but to live on this fertile but fatal land. On both sides of the estuary the marshes were a treacherous place to live.


Marsh Fever or argue introduced a defining silhouette on the estuary landscape. The last outbreak of indigenous malaria on the Isle of Grain was in 1918. In the Church grounds stand the charnal house which received the bodies awaiting burial. In some parishes burials far exceeded baptisms. Now people requiring executive homes are moving in. A gated community is being built and marketed as within easy reach of Ebbsfleet International and a short journey to Central London.

Remains of the ammunitions factory

Remains of the explosives factory

North of the village are the marshes and despite the advancement of developers remain a remote and strange landscape. A sheep farm occupies the site of a former explosives factory which at one time employed hundreds of people. The Curtis and Harvey factory founded in 1901 thrived during the First World war and was eventually closed in 1922. The remnants of old buildings are scattered across the landscape. An isolated metal barn is the only sign of human life in this wilderness.

Eastern Marker of Thames Watermen and Lightermen

Eastern Marker of Thames Watermen and Lightermen

The tall cranes of the Thames Gateway port on the northern bank of the river towers over the landscape.
North Kent Marshes

Strangely still; perhaps because its rival Felixstowe still offers a cheaper gateway into the UK. The lichen encrusted river wall keeps the river at bay but is obviously no defense against the perilous river surges experienced so frequently last winter. Along the wall’s edge stands a marker to the eastern boundary of the jurisdiction of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames erected 1861: London’s influence ever present.

Powis Street in the 1970s

Powis Street in the 1970s

Forty years ago eating out was a rare event for most families. It was a period when most families cooked meals from scratch; girls still learnt domestic science, boys did if they went to a progressive school but more usually did woodwork. The Kentish Independent, which covered the Woolwich area, had pages of job advertisements mainly skilled ones at that. Fitters, capstan setters, skilled machinists, junior reporters and photographers all needed in the local area. In the days before “out-sourcing” cleaners and semi-skilled workers could start a career in the local Civil Service. Skilled workers could earn £56 for a 40 hour week, unskilled workers £31.73. Then on the 19th September 1974 the advertisment for staff for the shortly to be opening McDonalds appeared. No experience required and pay was 65p per hour plus free meals. A weekly wage of £26 was considerably lower than most other local jobs.

Paul Preston Manager

Paul Preston Manager

In the same newspaper, which had converted from broadsheet to tabloid three weeks earlier, was an article, “What is left of the Old Town?” lamenting the demolition of lovely old pubs like The Ship in Half Moon Lane, The Anchor and The Crown and Cushion to make way for concrete skyscrapers. Yes, modernity was coming to Woolwich.

DJ Ed Stewart (Stewpot) and Mayor Len Squirrel

DJ Ed Stewart (Stewpot) and Mayor Len Squirrel

On 12th October 1974 McDonalds opened their first restaurant in the UK in Powis Street Woolwich. The grand opening was attended by the Mayor, Len Squirrel and DJ Ed Stewart better known as “Stewpot”. Top of the menu was the All Star Meal consisting of hamburger, French fires, and a triple thick shake at a cost of 48p. Relatively expensive by today’s standards. Paul Preston, from Ohio, became the first manager of the launchpad store. The Woolwich store was so influential, a month later, boxer Henry Cooper launched his autobiography from there.

Henry Cooper book launch

Henry Cooper book launch

Fast forward forty years. Well the store is still there but the footfall in Powis Street has fallen. Locals still lament the loss of the old town and the development of even more ugly high buildings. Skilled jobs in manufacturing have long gone. Fast food chains have flourished with commensurate low paid jobs. Paul Preston is now President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s UK. The UK has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and over in the US world figures Bill Clinton and Bill Gates are advocating for the reintroduction of domestic science into the school curriculum.

Crossness Pumping Station

Crossness Pumping Station

Stroll along the river and into Woolwich and there is much to remind you of the social mutualism of the C19th which led to the introduction of clean water and sewerage systems. In the mid C19th Woolwich was more typical of some of the northern industrial towns because of its lack of sewers. In the 1830s an outbreak of cholera in the town resulted in 40 deaths. The Royal Commission on The Health of Towns 1843 commissioned a specific report on the sanitary state of Woolwich. Two years later The Woolwich Town Commissioners started the process of installing sewers.

Crossness Pumping Station

Just outside the town is Crossness Pumping Station which was part of Joseph Bazalgette’s radical sewerage system for London. As well as improving the city’s health it had the beneficial effect of improving the smell. The Big Stink of 1858 brought London to a standstill because of the stench coming from the human excrement in the Thames.


The presence of the military in Woolwich helped to improve the water supply with the formation of reservoirs. Long Pond dates back to mid C18th and was located west of The Rotunda. Mulgrave Pond also dates back to mid C18th but was brought into public ownership when purchased by the Board of Ordnance 1805. A national system of water supply in public ownership lasted until 1989 when it was privatised by the Thatcher Government.

St Thomas More Church

St Thomas More Church

About a mile from Woolwich’s waterfront is St Thomas More Church on the Progress Estate. Built in the 1940s it is unusual in that it is sited in an incline. Up until the last few years this did not present a problem but now it is subject to frequent pluvial flooding. The sewers within the church ground swell, the metal lids lift and effluence floods into the grounds and at times into the church itself. Father Richard Plunkett has been advising his congregation that he should be renamed Noah. He has had no help from Thames Water in resolving the problem. If he wanted to take his complaint further and speak to the owners he would need to travel to China, Australia, Abu Dhabi, Canada and Holland. British Telecom pension fund is the only owner based in the UK. Macquaire is the principal owner, with 25% ownership, with twelve others. Thatcher’s vision of the expansion of small shareholders lasted momentarily and now only those who can deal in billions of dollars can own British utility companies. Did the privatisation of water lead to greater choice, competition and savings for the consumer? The answer is straightforward; no. It is a monopoly and Londoners pay more for their water than they should. Payment is going to remote unaccountable bodies over whom we have no control. More concerned with their shareholders than helping their consumers. So, where does this leave ordinary folk like Father Richard? Local MP, Clive Efford, has now got involved and with his intervention Thames Water have promised a visit to assess the problem.

Woolwich Ferry

You may well scratch your head to think what New York,Brisbane and Woolwich have in common? Well they all have a free ferry service. Statton Island Ferry is listed as one of the top ten things to do in New York and millions of tourists each year make the 25 minute journey from Manhatten. With great views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island it’s easy to see why it’s a favourite with tourists. The bargain basement fare of one nickel was dropped altogether in 1997. 21 million passengers, commuters and tourists, use this ferry annually.

Brisbane’s Free City Hopper allows tourists to travel along the Brisbane River with the option of “hopping on and off” to explore the riverside and city sights. The historic ferries were made free in 2012 as part of a strategy to encourage tourists to use the river. As the river is used more for leisure is there anything to learn from these overseas models?

Woolwich Ferry 1961

The Woolwich Free Ferry may not be of the same scale or fame as The Statton Island Ferry but it is of historic importance and provides a service for 2.5 million foot passengers and 1 million vehicles annually. In the C19th the people of Woolwich, Plumstead and Charlton campaigned for over ten years for a free ferry as a necessity for this part of East London. The crossings from Lambeth, Waterloo and upstream as far as Staines were all free.

Woolwich Ferry 1960s

The people in East London were taxed heavily in order to subsidise the western gentry who crossed the bridges, from the city upstream, untolled. The Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889 to much celebration in the town. As these photographs of the 1960s demonstrate it has been used for leisure as well as a means of crossing the Thames.

Street Parades at opening of Woolwich Ferry

Street Parades at opening of Woolwich Ferry

Thanks to the hard fought campaigning of our ancestors a Free Ferry Service is required to be provided by statute at Woolwich now all this may change. TFL are consulting on new River Crossings which sets out four options:

A new ferry at Woolwich
A ferry Service at Gallions Reach
A bridge at Gallions Reach
A bridge at Belvedere

If the ferry is replaced or moved it will become tolled so back to the pre 1889 situation in East London.

Vichy Spa Town

It seemed like this was going to be a “Where were you when Kennedy got assassinated” moment by the coverage on French TV. It took some concentration and searching my lost French vocabulary to understand all that this was a major political crisis. Hollande had dissolved the government to stop a mutiny among ministers who had been openly critical of his economic policy. I was staying in a hotel in Vichy and my fellow residents were watching avidly as they ate their breakfast. It became apparent that their real concern was that this could precipitate a boost for the far right in the 2017 elections.


The town has two main claims to fame; its water and its collaboration with the Nazis in the 2nd World War. The quiet spa town of Vichy was chosen to be the provisional capital of Marshal Petain’s Etat Francais (French State) ,in the unoccupied part of France, because of its central location and its abundance of hotels to for ministers use.


The Vichy Government replaced the principles of the Republic; Freedom, Equality and Fraternity with a return to nationalistic values. There are few, if any, memorials to this dark period of the town’s history. However, some grand and decorative buildings are a testament to its heyday as a spa town in the mid C19th.


Visits of Napoleon lll prompted major redevelopments and construction new gardens, boulevards and pavilions. The pavilions emanate from the central spa, where the five varieties of water can be tasted, and coil round the gardens. Its difficult to stroll through them now and not have an image of the past promenaders. It is a town of faded elegance with some fine buildings but far too many run down or even abandoned.


Like many French towns the church steeple still dominates the skyline but this is quite a contrast to the rest of the town’s architecture. The church is built in reinforced concrete which does little to instill any sense of awe or spirituality. It was built in 1931 and is described in the church’s own literature as a “unique example of art deco”. It’s certainly unique but definitely not fine. Inside it is dark and gloomy and made me reflect on a recent quote from Pope Francis,

“For too many Christians every day is Lent”.

Yes,this is an ideal church for this group.

Lovelace Green

Lovelace Green

I doubt if there are many places that have such a lyrical place name as Lovelace Green. It is a wonderful space and although it sounds as though it should be in a rural idyll it’s in Eltham, South East London. It’s one of the open spaces in the Progress Estate, stumble into this place and you are transported into the countryside.

Lovelace Green Progress Estate

It’s a village green surrounded by individually designed homes. Look up and all you see is sky and trees no high rise buildings overshadowing. This is a testament to everything Ebeneezer Howard set out to achieve in the Garden City Movement. As he sets out in Garden Cities of Tomorrow 1902:

“ ..a Garden City that, as it grows, the free gifts of Nature- fresh air, sunlight, breathing room and playing room- shall be still retained in all needed abundance”

The name of the place is intriguing.

Lovelace Green Progress Estate

The roads on the estate are named after munitions production such as Congreve and Shrapnel. Others named after managers at the Royal Arsenal; Moira, Ross and Downman. Lovelace Green, however, is named after the 17th Century poet Richard Lovelace. If you google him it is likely to say that he was born in Woolwich or Holland. However, the more authoritative biographies confirm his South East London credentials.

Lovelace Green Progress Estate

Richard Lovelace a Cavalier fought for Charles I during the English Civil War. He was imprisoned twice during this period being finally released when Charles was executed. His story is one of great personal loss. He lost his personal fortune and the love of his life Lucy Sacheverell. She was betrothed to Lovelace but believing him to be dead, during his imprisonment, married another suitor.

Lucy Sacheverell is featured in many of Lovelace’s poems and is generally identified with Althea in his poem To Althea from Prison:

When love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my gates;
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fetter’d to her eye,
The birds, that wanton in the aire,
Know no such libertie.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our carelesse heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty griefe in wine we steepe,
When healths and draughts go free,
Fishes, that tipple in the deepe,
Know no such libertie.

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetnes, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King.
When I shall voyce aloud, how good
He is, how great should be,
Inlargèd winds, that curle the flood,
Know no such libertie.

Stone walls doe not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Mindes innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedome in my love,
And in my soule am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such libertie.

“Stone walls doe not a prison make” the much-quoted line seems a fitting ideal for a place founded on the Garden City movement.

Thames Barrier gates rising

Walking along the Thames Path looking up at the ubiquitous luxury flats rising out of its banks, you could be lulled into a false sense that this is an ideal residential area. The Thames is full of dangers, just think back to last winter’s storms. The Thames rose to its highest levels in 60 years, in some parts. The Thames Barrier closed frequently to keep London safe. Since the beginning of this year it has closed an unprecedented 40 times, close to its recommended 50 annual closures. The Environment Agency plans to keep the Barrier operational until the 2070s but many are now questioning if this needs to be revised because of global climate changes.

It’s not just the risk of flooding, it’s a grim fact that on average one dead body a week is found somewhere along the 213 miles of the Thames. It’s also a fact that two bodies can go into the Thames at the same spot and they will end up in different places. It depends on the size of the person, what they had eaten and what they were wearing. The temperature of the water and what is on the river banks are also determinants. There are some spots that bodies are more likely to emerge particularly bends in the river such as around the Isle of Dogs which can be a trapping point for bodies in the river. The Poplar Coroner’s court still deals with numbers of river death inquests. A combined mortuary and coroner’s court was erected in Poplar 1893 to deal with river deaths.

Charlton Cemetery

Charlton Cemetery

Further downstream Charlton was an area where a large number of bodies emerged. In 1866 a Deadhouse, or mortuary, was erected in Charlton Cemetery for the purpose of depositing bodies found drowned in the Thames. The cemetery dates back to 1857 and the two original chapels still remain although one is now a store room but the mortuary is no longer there.

London's new East Village

London’s new East Village

As a place to live the Thames particularly west of London has always been popular for residential development. Now that desire for riverside dwelling is spreading east. There is something about living near the river that just draws people in: the views, the light and now the investment value but it does have its drawbacks.

Rochester Castle

How many pigs did it take to bring the wall down at Rochester Castle? Looking at the thick stone walls you may well think thousands. You may well thin how can a pig bring a wall down? During a siege 1215, led by King John, against rebellious barons pit props were used to shore up the keep when it was being pounded by siege engines. King John ordered that the props were to be set alight and they used the fat from forty pigs. This brought one of the corners crashing down. It was rebuilt later but the damaged area is still visible.

Rochester Castle

The Castle dates back to 1066 was originally a timber keep but was rebuilt of stone in the early C12th. It is strategically placed along the London Road and a crossing point on the River Medway.

Rochester Castle

It’s a massive stone structure used to protect from invaders coming up the Medway. Consisting of three floors and a basement, it stands 113 feet high. The floors no longer exist but you can still see the insets where the immense timbers rested. How did they get them up three floors? You can’t fail to be impressed with medieval engineering.

Rochester Castle

From the top of the tower you still get great views that remind you of the town’s proud history. Daniel Defoe visited in the 1720s this is what he wrote about the town:

“There is little remarkable in Rochester, except the ruins of a very old castle, and an ancient but not extraordinary cathedral: but the river, and its appendices are the most considerable of the kind in the world.”

The contours of the valley, the estuary and the North Downs are still an exceptional sight; perhaps no longer world class. Closer to the castle are the roof tops of the many Georgian buildings with beautiful patinas and decorative brick work and of course its majestic neighbour The Cathedral.

View from Rochester Castle

The view of the riverscape is about to change. Regeneration is about to begin, a new development Rochester Riverside my heart sinks not more luxury tall buildings that only foreign investors can afford.

View of the Cathedral from Rochester Castle

However, this scheme looks more promising. It could even be unique; low to mid rise buildings along the riverside. The buildings will vary in height from one to eight storeys and vista corridors are planned so that the heritage views are protected. They are leaving one large blue crane as a nod to the industrial past of the town.
Rochester Castle


Daniel Defoe – A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies. 1724-28

Dartford Waitrose closure

Dartford may well thrive again but a walk through the historic market town leaves the distinct impression that the decline is terminal. Arriving by train one of the first sights is the abandoned Waitrose supermarket, continue through the Orchard shopping centre where there appears to be more vacant than occupied shop units. It’s a ghost town with little footfall to boost sales for those shops still clinging on.

Orchard Shopping Mall Dartford

Lowfield Street is awaiting demolition. Notices on the hoardings all along the street proclaim to residents and visitors that “it’s been worth the wait” and “not long to wait”.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Well the townspeople of Dartford have been waiting eleven years for this planning scheme to come to fruition. A new Tesco is coming to town bringing jobs and affordable homes. It’s good to know that there will be new jobs for the many retail staff who have recently lost their jobs, but is this a net gain?

Lowfield Street Dartford

Most historic market towns celebrate their heritage and try to preserve their fine buildings. Now, not all market towns can be preserved in aspic like Stamford in Lincolnshire but most find a way of balancing new development with the old. The buddleia growing out of the decorative brickwork of the remaining heritage buildings doesn’t fill you with confidence about their preservation.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Can Tesco regenerate the town? At the turn of the millenium that may have looked like a possiblity but since then Tesco has been losing market share, austerity kicked in and people have changed their shopping habits. Architecturally it will do nothing to make the place worth visiting. Its neighbour upstream at Woolwich has been shortlisted for the carbuncle prize. The former chair of Planning at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Alex Grant, has stated that it’s a flawed project; a blight on the regeneration of the town and he regrets his role in its progeny. Oh dear it doesn’t bode well for Dartford.

Last Trams in Woolwich

Somewhere in Penhall Road Charlton there is a small replica of a London tramcar buried. A sign of remembrance for these much loved vehicles part of the London street scene since 1861. Rather than phasing out trams there was a final date – Last Tram Week 2nd July 1952. Tramway abandonment became a common phrase at the time as one Eltham resident explained to the Kentish Independent:

“In my opinion tramway abandonment is not a good policy, for no other vehicle can really replace a tram.”

He was not alone in this view, The Light Railway Transport League (formed 1939) proposed the retention of the London Tramway System modernising the transit system and better maintenance of the tramlines. The London Transport Executive refused to listen to the proposals and the tramway system was closed in its entirety. South East London would have been a very different place if the League’s proposals were accepted. The No 40 tramway ran from Plumstead Common to The Embankment and the No 46 from General Gordon Square to Cannon Street: commuter heaven. Woolwich would wait another fifty five years before they had a replacement rapid rail transit system.

Tram in Plumstead

Trams were to be replaced by buses which were thought to be more flexible and had the much lauded “internal combustion engine” as in 1952 no one had remotely thought of Peak Oil.
Londoners, were clearly fond of the trams. Thousands of people made sentimental last journeys collecting the last tickets as souvenirs. A crowd of 10-15,000 people waited at New Cross to see the last No 40 arrive at 12.29. A tram from Abbey Wood stopped at the Maybloom Club for a presentation to the driver and the conductor. The club had an extension until midnight and then the band turned out to play on the tram as it made its way to the breakers yard in Charlton. The Pearly Kings, not much seen on the streets of London now, were in on the act as well. They were busy in pubs and cafes across London making a “Farewell to the Trams” collection.




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