Guest Post by BK

Clifton’s Roundabout marks the junction of the A20 with The South Circular, the point where any traveller to North-East Kent must make the big decision; M2 or M20. It is often referred to by the name of whichever business is occupying its south-east corner, it’s been the Big Yellow Roundabout, Maplins Roundabout and in the 1990s and early 2000s it was known as the Land Of Leather Roundabout.

wide open

The roundabout hosts a key scene in Wide Open, Nicola Barker’s prize-winning 1998 novel of life on The Isle Of Sheppey.

The novel opens on the old bridge linking Sheppey to the mainland. Ronny, a chemical sprayer with a contract on the island becomes intrigued by a man who stands at the middle of the bridge waving to the traffic, one day Ronny stops to talk. The other man is also called Ronny and is carrying a box which he claims contains his soul.

A few days later, Ronny is driving home when he sees Ronny standing in the middle of Clifton’s Roundabout waving a gold watch. Ronny pulls into the car park at Land Of Leather. (Barker has this as World Of Leather; at the time there was Land of Leather, Kingdom Of Leather, World Of Leather and possibly other realms of leather that filled the millenium  sitting rooms of Britain with Italian, cream leather sofas). The Two Ronnies talk, the watch belonged to Ronny’s father, who was also called Ronny.  Ronny persuades Ronny to drive with him back to Sheppey.  Ronny then tells Ronny that he is giving him a new name, Jim.

Shellness Beach

Shellness Beach

The rest of the novel takes place on Sheppey. Ronney has an out-of-season rental for a chalet  on Shellness beach. His neighbour is Luke, a photographer who makes money from join-the-dots pornography (sorry!) and who has rented a chalet to get away from it all.  The farm nearby is run by Sara who rears wild boar and her teenage daughter Lily who worships a deformed boar foetus that she calls The Head. They are joined on Sheppey by Ronny’s estranged brother Nathan who works in London Transport Lost Property at Baker Street and by Connie, an optician from Gravesend who is trying to find out why her father left his estate to Ronny rather than to her.

Barker interweaves the bleakness of the land and seascape; the damaged bodies of the protagonists (one Ronny has alopecia, the other only has four toes, Lily looks perpetually dirty, Luke smells of fish) and their damaged lives.

The title, Wide Open, is ironic. The book is all about secrets and concealment. Ronny’s soul and Lily’s idol are in just two of the boxes that the characters keep. Nathan has an erection when he licks sealing tape ‘How beautiful this closed tight thing was. This sealed thing’. Sara masturbates inside a bird-watching hide. Even the join-the-dots pornography is a means of concealing the forbidden image.

Shellness

Shellness

Shellness lies at the far South East tip of Sheppey; drive through Leysdown until the road runs out and turns into a very bumpy track. At the end there is a car park, mainly used by bird-watchers, dog walkers and frequenters of the naturist beach.

‘The sea was brown. It wasn’t even the sea, really. It was the channel. This place is truly the back of beyond, Luke thought smugly. It was grey and bleak and very flat. It was like the moon, in fact…The sky was massive. Flat land, flat sea, and a great big, dirty, mud-puddle of a sky’.

Luke and Ronny’s chalets are among a number lining the beach on the other side of the sea wall from the track. They are in various states of occupation and repair.

Shellness Hamlet

Shellness Hamlet

At the far end of the track is Shellness Hamlet. The Hamlet is a gated community of more substantial brick-build cottages. It is in single private ownership and surrounded by Keep Out signs.

‘Lily pointed at a cluster of houses; small purpose-built chalets. “That’s where you people go….The Hamlet. It’s fenced off, see? That’s where all the temporary people go. Nobody permanent has anything to do with them. We think they’re weird.” ‘“It’s a private community. They think the locals are all freaks. Anti-social. In-bred. So they put the fence up to distinguish themselves. And we tend to think they’re weird because they come here principally on summer weekends to use the nudist beach.”’

Shellness Blockhouse

Shellness Blockhouse

Further around from The Hamlet is The Blockhouse, a concrete fortification that is all that remains of a WWII defensive line to prevent U-Boats sneaking up The Stour to attack Chatham Navel Base from the side.

Pompidou Centre

That little known gateway to the continent, Ebbsfield International, is the best way to get to Paris if you live in South East London; easy parking; no queues; a dream start for a few days away. That’s my nod to the Thames out the way.

Lauded as both a world class art gallery and a cultural hub I visited the Centre Pompidou.  When it opened in 1977 it caused a shock with brightly coloured service pipes on the outside of the building. A lattice of steel beams and pipes, an external escalator and floors that hung from giant trusses providing uninterrupted space were radical.

Pompidou Centre

The architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano,who were still relatively unknown back in the 70s, were chosen from a field of over 700 architects to design the new centre.  At the time they described how the new design would provide maximum flexibility and enhance sustainability. Well, not quite forty years on a major design flaw is evident.

Pompidou Centre

The brightly coloured service pipes are now resting places for hundreds of pigeons.  Wide nets hang between the pipes to catch the pigeon shit although a significant amount still hits the pavements making it treacherous for the pedestrian.  Not quite the Paris street scene one expects.

Pompidou Square

Similarly the scene at the front of the building, which faces a large public square, isn’t a usual sight. There is no street furniture and people sit on the ground looking most uncomfortable.  It may well have been one of the first “iconic” building but time has not served it well, it looks jaded and poorly maintained. The architects went on to bigger and taller things.  Rogers went on to design the Lloyds building and to become a peer of the realm. Piano designed that capitalist icon The Shard. Let’s see how that fares in the coming decades.

Opening ceremony of the Woolwich Free Ferry

Thousands flock to Woolwich for the opening ceremony 23rd March 1889.

Gordon one of the original Woolwich Ferries

The original ferries were called Gordon and Duncan.

South Pier of Woolwich Ferry

The South Pier of Woolwich Ferry

Woolwich Ferry Crew early C20th

Woolwich Ferry crew early C20th.

Woolwich early C20th

Industry along the south bank of the Thames at Woolwich.

The Thames at Woolwich

London’s industrial heartland  serviced by the Woolwich Free Ferry.

Woolwich Ferry 1960s

Woolwich Ferry 1960s

Passengers using the ferry for pleasure in 1960s.

Redcross Gardens

Redcross Gardens

From Wandsworth to Woolwich the south bank of the Thames is being transformed with ubiquitous luxury apartments now rising from former industrial sites. Trapped between the tower blocks and the cranes you can still find places and buildings that remind you that even thirty years ago South London was unfashionable. Go back even further to Victorian London and this was a place for the very poor. Much of the work available on the docks was casual and low paid. Housing conditions were very poor with considerable overcrowding. Victorian philanthropists and social commentators were drawn to the area to develop schools and missions.

A short walk from London Bridge you can still find the remnants of one of London’s poorest districts. Redcross Way is just off Southwark Street accessed through one of the railway arches. On the left there is an iron gateway covered in brightly coloured ribbon, feathers and flowers and behind this is a once forgotten grave yard for the out casts of society or Cross Bones.  The bodies of 15,000 paupers and prostitutes have been buried in this unconsecrated ground since medieval times. Vigil candles are placed around the gates and help to reflect on lives ruined by poverty. It was widely believed, in Victorian times, that a cure for syphillis was to have sex with a virgin and some of the prostitutes buried here are young girls victim of this practice. Vigils for the outcasts of society are held every month more details here.

Across the street is The Mint and Gospel Lighthouse Mission; a mouthful for most people so no wonder it became known as The Ragged School. The Ragged School Union was formed by the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury 1844.  They developed small free schools in deprived areas providing basic education and skills to destitute children. Often the schools tried to meet other community needs such as reading clubs, adult literacy classes, clothing clubs and Penny Banks.

St Saviour's House

St Saviour’s House

St Saviour’s House is also in Union Street and is a striking building. It is still home to a charity that dates back to the C15th and have been providing support to the people of Southwark.

Redcross Gardens

Redcross Garden is a little further on which was developed by the Octavia Hill 1887. It was to provide small scale social housing and a communal garden. The garden was restored in 2005 and includes a small pond and a new eco-building. In the central pavillion there is an inscription:

“Do noble deeds do not dream them”.

White Cross Cottages

White Cross Cottages

The row of six Redcross cottages were built for the working poor. The White Cross cottages were a later addition 1890 and can be accessed through a small alley.  Now overshadowed by The Shard, an ever present symbol,  that this is a place for the super rich.

Thames at Greenwich

Thames at Greenwich

Thames at Hadleigh

Thames at Hadleigh

Queensborough

Queensborough

Sheerness

Sheerness

Canvey

Canvey

Guest post by BK

Thames Boundary Stone

Where does the river end and the sea begin? Seasalter and Whitstable always seem to be more part of the Swale Estuary than the North Sea, unlike Herne Bay which I would say was definitely sea. On the other side, Leigh-On-Sea, despite its name, seems decidedly esturine. Fortunately, we do have an official definition for The Thames and that is The Yantlet Line.

The Crown held the rights to fish within the UK until 1350. Licensing and the charging of duties on these rights provided The Crown with a good source of revenue. Richard I had run up huge debts financing his crusades, and so in 1197 he had to sell fishing rights in The Thames to The City Of London to raise money for the Third Crusade, showing that even 800 years ago The City was the place with the real money. These rights ran from the then tidal limit at Staines in the West to the start of the North Sea in the East.

Thames Estuary LPA boundary

These boundaries were marked by stone columns, the first thought to have been erected around 1285, whose replacements still stand today. The eastern boundary is marked by columns at Upnor and Grain in the South and Southend to the North. The line between Grain and Southend is called the Yantlet Line and marks the official end of the Thames Estuary. It is still used today in official documents regarding the jurisdiction of bodies such as The Port Of London Authority.

The Yantlet Creek ran between the Thames and The Medway and was a busy shipping channel from Roman times for boats travelling between the two rivers. It ran right through the Hoo peninsula, and so created the Isle of Grain. The decline in river traffic has led to its becoming silted up and so The Isle of Grain isn’t really an island anymore.

Thames boundary stone

There are two stones at Upnor, an ancient one and its Victorian replacement. They are next to   The Arethusa Centre, a training and adventure centre for children. It is named after HMS Arethusa, the last British ship to go to battle under sail. Its figurehead is displayed outside, having recently been restored after being eaten by wasps.

The column in Southend is known as The Crow Stone and stands on the beach/mud at the bottom of  Chalkwell Avenue. It was erected in 1837 to replace an earlier stone that now stands in Priory Park. So officially, Leigh-On-Sea is actually Leigh-On-Thames but Westcliff-On_Sea is OK.

The Grain column stands on the East side of the mouth of the Yantlet Creek and so is inaccessible. The best way to get near to it is to walk from Allhallows.  Allhallows-On-Sea (yet another optimistic misnomer) is a park of fixed holiday homes, which seem to be in permanent residence, that is all that left of a grand plan to create a state-of-the-art holiday resort near to London in the 1930s.

I parked just outside and walked through the gatehouse without any problems from the security guard. I think that there may be a right of way. When you reach the ‘sea’, you then turn right and there is a very pleasant walk along the top of the flood defences with the river on one side and the marshes on the other until, after a couple of miles, you reach the creek. At this point you can see the column and a larger structure designed to mark the mouth of the creek for navigation, but you cannot get further without crossing the creek and there does not seem a way of doing this.  Intrepid souls with a good pair of wellington boots might try at low tide.

The land to the east of the creek was once part of the Grain Firing Point. This was an extension of the MOD’s artillery firing range at Shoeburyness intended to test long-range guns, such as those for battleships. The shells would be fired over the sea and land in the Maplin Sands. This activity wasn’t always popular in Essex. The Southend Standard reported in 1925:-

‘On the previous Tuesday evening The Borough was again subjected to heavy bombardment from the Isle Of Grain within the space of a few minutes an appalling vibration swept through the district.’

The site is now closed but access is still forbidden due to the dangers of unexploded ordnance.

Places are like people when they’re on their uppers it doesn’t half show. Nudged by the first snow flurry this I thought it would be a good time to visit the Winter Garden at Avery Hill.  After all this is what they were built for, a reminder of sunshine in the long winter months.

Avery Hill Park

Avery Hill Park

Last time I visited there was a vibrancy with lots of information about the refurbishment plans.  An enthusiastic gardener spoke to me about the stage 2 Heritage Lottery Fund application was being developed which involved comprehensive repairs and a new heating system to reinstate the main conservatory into a temperate house. The announcement by Greenwich University, just before Christmas, that they are putting the site up for sale has filled the place with gloom.  The application  to English Heritage was never submitted and in a stroke the figure of Mercury, that tops the  was replaced by the sword of Damlocles.

Walled Rose Garden

Walled Rose Garden

On this visit I was the lone visitor in the magnificent Victorian structure with one worker locked inside a booth. No lively conversation this time. Outside was no better, the light covering of snow could not disguise the drabness of the walled garden. It was flat with not even a hint of architectural planting to give winter interest.  Back in the early C20th the gardens were used to supply other parks and grow specialist planting. All that remains is the one walled garden and a car park now covers the former fruit garden.

Winter Garden

Winter Garden

The Mansion House site is surrounded by open parkland. Below the ancient Conduit and Pippenhall Meadows two springs feed the River Shuttle which is in a culvert.  In Victorian and Edwardian times rivers were diverted, often underground, which created a network of lost urban rivers. In recent years more rivers have been restored or ‘daylighted” as this helps to reduce flood risk and increases bio-diversity. The river emerges at the far end of the green space on the Alderwood Estate. Restoring Avery Hill Park to wetlands would certainly give the parkland more interest.

Winter Garden

What does the future hold? Well, firstly the covenant put in place by the London County Council, ensuring that the Winter Garden remains open to the public, cannot be revoked.  A challenge for any potential developer and the refurbishment costs are huge at an estimated £7.5million. The land is not designated for residential use, so it will be quite some time before luxury apartments appear.

The Thames at Greenhithe

The Thames at Greenhithe

Dickens visited Greenhithe when compiling his 1880 Dictionary of the Thames and had this to say:

“Except as a yachting station Greenhithe itself offers but little to notice.”

Just east of the Dartford Crossing it’s better known today for its proximity to Bluewater shopping centre and Ebbsfleet International station. In my view, there is now something distinctive about the place; for it’s one of the few low rise developments along the banks of the Thames.

High Street

High Street

Built around the remnants of the High Street, which has period properties dating back to 1768, the new development blends in well.

Ingress Abbey Estate

Ingress Abbey Estate

It’s good quality housing that’s been designed to complement the landscape and heritage of the area. You get a distinct sense of community. There are riverside playgrounds which reinforces that this is a sustainable community, where people live, use schools and other local services and pay taxes.   Prices are considerably lower than riverside properties further upstream.  It’s been awarded a gold standard by Cabe.

Ingress Abbey

Ingress Abbey

 

The estate takes its name from Ingress Abbey a large mansion built facing the river for a local alderman.  It was built in part by stones from the Old London Bridge.

Ingress Abbey

Ingress Abbey

A road sweeps down to the restored Ingress Abbey in the centre of the estate, surrounded by its grass amphitheatre.  A car-free avenue leads to the Thames.

Ingress Abbey Estate

There are two pubs on the High Street, the John Franklin and The Pier.  At low tide the rotting carcass of a boat can be seen close to the John Franklin, it looks as though its been there for many years. The landlord explained that a Dutch couple had some engine difficulties and left it there 30 years ago never to return. The London Port Authority assessed it as not a danger to shipping and so it has remained.

Abandoned boat Greenhithe

Abandoned boat Greenhithe

The riverside pathway takes you past the Pier Hotel which had a jetty erected around about 1880 which can still be seen and is now a resting place for basking sea gulls. There is also the marker for the berthing place of HMS Worcester which from1862 was the Thames Marine Officer Training School. In 1938 the college acquired the Cutty Sark and it remained here until 1954 when it moved to Greenwich.

Local estate agents boast of a 45 minute train journey to London Bridge.  Progress seems to have faltered, back in 1880 Dickens writes about the express train into Charing Cross taking 45 minutes.

 

Kidbrooke Farm 1930s

Kidbrooke Farm 1930s

It seems that Kidbrooke has been a building site for over sixty years. Following the Second World War the marshy farmland of Kidbrooke was the site of a massive house building programme. The first phase of which was aimed at the well off as a three bedroom semi cost £2,750. In the same period a five bedroom period property in Ulundi Road Blackheath cost £1650. There’s nothing so fickle as taste and the same properties today sell at £465,000 and £1.2 million respectively.  Social Housing was provided at The Ferrier Estate but this came later in the 1960s. It has since been demolished to make way for the Kidbrooke Village development with apartments starting at £300k, so not that affordable.

Today you can alight at Kidbrooke Station and enter the swish surroundings of Berkeley Homes Marketing Suite. Back in 1953 the Estate Agents was still found close to the station but a rather more modest affair.

Estate Agents Kidbrooke 1954

Estate Agents Kidbrooke 1954

In the midst of the 1950s estate the London County Council built the first purpose built comprehensive school which opened in 1954 some ten years before the national system. It was one of the few “experimental” comprehensive schools opened in largely Labour controlled authorities. By 1958 there were only 46 such schools nationally. The 50s/60s were the belle epoch of British social mobility and popular opinion was behind the comprehensive system. The grammar school system was seen as devisive and as they only educated 4% of the population did not provide enough places to meet the requirements of the expanding middle classes.  The comprehensive was expected to have great appeal and a new bus route, the number 70, from Victoria to Eltham,  operating four buses an hour, was introduced so that children outside the neighbourhood could enrol at the school.

Kidbrooke Comprehensive

Kidbrooke Comprehensive

Sixty years on and social mobility has seized up, there is a widening gap between the richest and poorest. In attempts to fix the system some look to change the structures of schools introducing unaccountable Academies.  The local Conservative candidate for the area wants to bring back grammar schools. It cannot be denied that in the post war period the grammar schools churned out thousands of  elevated working class kids but the economy had the salaried jobs for them. Today, we have record numbers in low paid jobs and the threat of 10 million jobs being  made redundant by digital technologies so focussing on the school system alone looks rather futile.

 

Dartford Waitrose closure

In July last year I wrote this post posing the question, “Is the decline terminal?”. Today, sadly we found out that it is.  After dithering for 11 years and demolishing a handsome parade of period shops Tesco announced that they are pulling out of their proposal to develop a new store and housing on the Lowfield site. Historic Dartford is left as a wasteland. Tesco also announced plans to close 43 unprofitable stores across the UK, although the locations of these have not yet been revealed.  We wait and see what is to happen upstream at Woolwich.

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.

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