Cliffe Marshes

Cliffe Marshes

Walking in Cliffe Marshes with low winter sun it’s difficult to imagine that Stanley Kubrick used this landscape to shoot the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. He did import palm trees and tropical plants to make it look like the paddy fields of Vietnam. Quite a transformation but now there is evidence of much subtler changes in the landscape.

Saxon Shore Path

Saxon Shore Path

The high sea walls define the river’s edge but in the channels man’s attempts to hold back nature are slowly slipping into the mud-banks. A couple of centuries ago ships heading for London had to navigate their way through these dangerous channels making frequent stops in the dense mud but sometimes to unload contraband to waiting small boats.

Hans Ergede Wreck

Hans Ergede Wreck

At low tide the wreck of the Hans Egede is visible from the Saxon Shore pathway ( itself falling into the river in places). You could be forgiven for thinking this is an old cargo ship or a prison hulk but it was only sunk in the 1950s. A Norwegian vessel built in 1922 it sprung a leak and sank in Egypt Bay. It was towed to Higham Creek to prevent it becoming a hazard for shipping. The rusty iron girders and thick slabs of concrete next to the wreck are reportedly the remains of a Maunsell Fort which was towed here and blown up by Royal Engineers after the 2nd World War.

Cliffe Castle

Cliffe Castle

The wreck is close of Cliffe Fort which is slowly sinking into the mud. In private ownership it is fenced off but visible from the path. The outer walls now overgrown and thick with moss and lichen are accessible from the public pathway. The thick stone walls are being consumed by vegetation and rising water levels. It was a Royal Commission fort built in the 1860s as part of the defenses against a French Invasion. Once the proud home of the first guided missile, The Brennan Torpedo, it’s future looks bleak.

This area once crucial for the defence of the nation and littered with the architecture of war is slowly reverting and whilst doing so supporting a fine range of coastal birds and small mammals. The highlight of my walk was the sight of a magnificent Peregrine Falcon.

26th Battalion of Home Guards

26th Battalion of Home Guards

The two million people who still watch the 1960s/70s hit Dad’s Army must be waiting with trepidation for the new film. The remake will need to be really good to live up to expectations, forty years on and there is still an Appreciation Society. What worked well in the original series was that we all knew the outcome of the war and the futility of Captain Mainwaring’s preparations. Back in 1940 the prospect of invasion was a real and present danger. Shooters Hill was one of the main arterial routes into London from the south coast and the 26th Battalion of the Home Guard had a crucial role in preparing for the defence of the city.

London’s preparations comprised of concentric rings of anti-tank defences and pillboxes in and around the city known as Stop Lines. Shooters Hill was in the middle Stop Line. From the top of Shooters Hill an invading army would have clear views of their prize and more importantly it would be within range of their heavy artillery. Remains of these defensive structures can still be found in the local area. In Oxleas woods strange concrete plinths and boxes are still visible which were part of the Stop Line defences.

Stop Lines Shooters Hill
Close to the former Police Station on Eltham Common, deep within overgrown brambles, is the remains of a spigot mortar, an anti-tank gun, used by the Home Guard. From this vantage point they would have a clear firing line on any invaders coming down the hill.

Spigot Mortar

Spigot Mortar

The proximity of the Royal Arsenal made this area vulnerable to aerial attacks and the Air Ministry bought land in the Kidbrooke area for the manufacture of barrage balloons. The balloons defended London against low flying aeroplanes.

Barrage Balloons in Kidbrooke

Barrage Balloons in Kidbrooke

Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, Air Minister, visited Kidbooke in 1939 as part of the recruitment drive for 5,000 men, aged over 35, to join the Balloon Service. The Home Guard was made up of the young, elderly and those in reserved occupations.

Sir Howard Kingsley Wood

Sir Howard Kingsley Wood

Hitler did have a plan, Operation Sea Lion for the invasion of Britain which included 6 divisions landing on the Kent coast around Ramsgate, Bexhill and Folkestone. If this had proceeded I think we can be confident that the local Home Guard were well prepared and wouldn’t be shouting “Don’t Panic”.

Memorial Hospital Shooters Hill

Memorial Hospital Shooters Hill

The beginning of 1927 saw 1000 people a week die from an influenza epidemic. A terrifying experience when there was no universal health system. More locally the Mayor of Woolwich, Councillor William Barefoot, nominated the Boot and Shoe fund as is charity which provided shoes for local children who without this help would be like their benefactor, barefoot. Unemployment was high as the demand for ammunitions from The Royal Arsenal dwindled after the First World War.

Duke of York

Duke of York

People’s generosity was remarkable that during this period of hardship a local subscription scheme saw the opening of The Memorial Hospital on 2nd November by The Duke and Duchess of York.

Plan of Memorial Hospital

Plan of Memorial Hospital


The decision to build the hospital was made in 1917. It was to be a lasting benefit for the community and a memorial to the local people killed: 6113 in battle; 100 in accidents at the Royal Arsenal and 14 in air raids.

Memorial Hall

Memorial Hall

It would be the first Post War General Hospital to be built in London. In a period when the majority of people did not have access to health services building a hospital with access through a local subscription scheme was enlightened. Even workers who benefited from Lloyd George’s insurance service were not entitled to hospital treatment unless suffering from tuberculosis. It is no wonder that the Duke of York referred to is as a Temple of Healing.

The total cost of building was £210,000 which included the purchase of 13.5 acres of land. The construction of roads, foundations and drains were done as part of an unemployment relief scheme.

Workers from unemployment relief scheme

Workers from unemployment relief scheme

Not all went to plan as the amount raised by subscription was £179,000 leaving a funding gap of £30,000. This caused local anxiety as it was always the ambition that the hospital open free of debt.

Mayor and local councillors

Mayor of Woolwich opening Memorial Hospital

Woolwich Borough came to the rescue and at a special meeting of the Council agreed a grant to cover the shortfall. Councillor Halse put forward the recommendation stating that he didn’t want to see the hospital opening with “ a loadstone round its neck”. Oh dear what would our forefathers think of PFIs. They may well have raised an eyebrow at the fact we still have hungry children in London.

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.

Cliffe

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.

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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.

Vichy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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