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I had never heard the term brackish water until my visit. It is a water that has more salinity than fresh water but not as much as seawater. This is why the estuary around Whitstable is so fertile for fish and oysters. The fishing boats are currently fishing around the wind farm that can be seen just off shore.
In 1793 local fishermen bought the rights or royalty to the local oyster grounds and formed the Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers. By 1862 sixty million oysters per year were sent to London markets. The trade declined after the First World War. It is encouraging to hear that the industry survives and that they are finding new markets.
There is a good market to buy fresh fish and shellfish. At the RNLI you can get a coffee or if you want something more substantial there are fish restaurants. I tried the Crab and Winkle which did a set lunch menu for £17.95. The restaurant is named after the railway that ran between Whitstable and Canterbury. It has good views over the harbour and I found it reassuring to eat fish and simultaneously watch the catch being unloaded.
The Thames barge Greta is moored in the harbour and is a poignant reminder of Kent’s contribution to the Second World War. Launched in 1892 it was one of the Dunkirk little ships. It is now available for hire. One of its trips is to the Second World War army forts that can be seen clearly from Whitstable.
“The ferry has been a constant in my life – the one thing that hasn’t changed around here since I was a boy” this is the message on a “Precious Place” plaque I discovered recently in the passenger lounge on the Ernest Bevan ferry. The ferry has been a constant at Woolwich for centuries and there are references to a crossing dating back to the 14th century but that may soon change.
Transport for London (TfL) are currently carrying out a second stage consultation on proposals for new river crossings. A good thing in the main but the details hold some worrying prospects for the continuation of a free ferry. Plans include a new road tunnel linking North Greenwich and Silvertown and a new ferry at Gallions Reach. Read the consultation documents closely and it becomes clear that the proposals are not about a new additional ferry but a replacement one. Will it remain a free? The consultation is seeking views about toll charges so it is doubtful.
Transport for London is legally obliged to operate the Woolwich Free Ferry and it’s useful to look at its origins. The Metropolitan Board of Works (BMW) was responsible for strategic infrastructure developments across London from 1856 until the formation of London County Council in 1889. However, the bridges in the City of London have been the responsibility of City Bridge Fund from the 12th Century to the present day and there are no tolls. The BMW were responsible for river crossings to the east and west of the City. The Board had taken over the toll bridges in west London and opened them to free public use. So, when they agreed to a new crossing in east London it was also free. Up until the Act of Parliament in 1885 people living east of the City of London did not have free access across the river. A lesson in fairness I think. The Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889 to great celebration and a procession through the town centre.
It is clear that if there is a new crossing at Gallions Reach TFL will try to remove the obligation to continue running a Woolwich Free Ferry. The land currently used by the ferry will be sold off for development.
The first phase of consultation ran at the beginning of the year and there were only 3,800 responses. The second phase consultation is open until 1st February 2013. TfL are holding a series of consultation roadshows about the proposals, including one at Woolwich Library on Saturday 15th December between 10.00am and 4.00pm.
Former Siemens building close to Woolwich Dockyards has not been regenerated as grandly but the use of the building by artists has given it a new purpose. The studios were open to the public last weekend. I was surprised by the diversity, there are artists, crafts people and small commercial enterprises there. Indeed there are over 230 making it one of the largest studio spaces in the UK. The Canteen is a social enterprise arts cafe with great views of the river. It is open to the public Monday-Friday and for Sunday Brunch.
Kim Vousden an illustrator and graphic designer has recently moved into the studios. She is currently restoring her small hand press and she took time to explain about the world wide revival in letterpress printing. In the exhibition area there was a celebration of the work by members of the Thames Barrier Print Studio, which runs until 2nd December. In another studio I came across Miles Campbell who makes clocks completely designed, made and finished by hand. His Regulator No 1 has 250 elements and is accurate to 1 second in 100 days. This is just a couple of the talented people working in the studios.
Woolwich’s heritage is undervalued and there is a real risk if we do not build upon the past. The Dockyard School for Apprentices was located close to this site. It had a major role in developing Woolwich’s reputation as an important home for engineering which then encouraged firms like Siemens to come into the area. It is a fitting legacy that there is a similar place to help local people develop their talents. In fact I left thinking that this group have the real potential to help the local economy far more than the 80,000 square feet monolith that is being built in the town centre.
The day before I visited Whitstable there had been a public meeting organised by the Save Whitstable Shops campaign. On my way into the town I noticed a free bus to Tesco so assumed that this again was a case of the supermarkets undermining the High Street. A conversation with the shopkeeper of the hardware shop soon put be right. The landlord is putting up rents by a staggering 80-120%. This increase has been calculated on what some of the chains that have moved into the High Street are willing to pay. Whitstable is known for its thriving High Street with individual shops. It seems counter-productive to increase rents so much that only chains can afford them.
It must be one of the few High Streets that can boast three green grocers and three butchers. I saw Medlars on sale in one of the greengrocers. Medlars are a hardy fruit that look like a cross between an apple and a rose-hip. They are not edible until they have started to rot. I doubt if you will find them in a supermarket. You will also struggle to find the range of artisan cheeses that you can find in the Cheese Box on Harbour Road.
Outside Herbert’s cycle shop I spotted a child’s bicycle that had a knitted coat all over its frame. I was intrigued. Outside Keam’s Yard there was a doll’s pram which also had a knitted coat all over its frame. This was the work of Incogknito Graffiti who ran a campaign to brighten up the community with graffiti made from knits. If you want to join this movement you can learn how to knit at the local wool and craft shop Buzz4.
Keam’s Yard is a popular seafront shop run by local artist Bruce Williams. Bruce was painting local fungi when we visited. He is quite the expert on foraging mushrooms and he supplies The Sportsman in Sea Salter. In his small gallery and shop you can buy his paintings as well as interesting pieces of bric a brac. Whitstable has a thriving artist community. The Whitstable Biennale is a festival that features new artists. Every weekend there is a craft and art market in the harbour.
Also on Horsebridge Road is the original Royal Oyster Store 1793 which is now a restaurant. The Horsebridge jetty was where the Thames barges would wait to be loaded and unloaded. The pebbled beach is separated by large wooden breaks. You can stroll along the beach from the harbour to West Beach. You will come to Cushing’s View named after the actor Peter Cushing who lived in the town.
The sign above the indoor Borough Market said 1268. A market dating back to the thirteenth century was very appealing but I’m afraid it was a forlorn affair. The few stalls that were open looked bare and uninviting. I wanted to do my bit to keep this market going but struggled until I saw a stall in the far corner selling out of date glossy magazines. There is a space set aside for members of the community to do their own vision board. No one was there and the boards that had been pinned up were uncared for and deeply depressing. The market opens Monday to Saturday 9 until 5pm it is in the centre of the Heritage Quarter.
The High Street climbs from the Town Pier and has Georgian shops on either side. Sadly, many of the shops were empty. At the top of the hill there is an impressive Town Hall dated 1573. The market is set back from the Town Hall.
At the bottom of the High Street you will find the Town Pier which is the oldest remaining cast iron piers dated 1834. It was the subject of local controversy at the time as the local waterman thought it a threat to their livelihood and they rioted in 1833. More recently a Town Pier Pontoon has been added and there are a range of trips available for visitors. The Three Daws is close to the pier and boasts to be the oldest pub in Gravesend and possibly Kent dating back to 1488. It offers standard pub fare and does have great views.
In St George’s Church you can find the statue of Princess Pocahontas. A native American she left Virginia 1607 to marry an Englishman John Rolfe. She died on a ship anchored off Gravesend and it is believed that she is buried in the church grounds. Apparently, there was a surge of tourists to the town when the Walt Disney film was released. Once you have left the Heritage Quarter the town is not that pedestrian friendly.
This town has got a lot going for it, as well as the Heritage Quarter and Pocahontas they have two forts and a Cold War bunker.
It was a cold wet autumn day when I visited Tilbury Fort. I crossed to the North bank of the Thames using the Tilbury passenger ferry. From the ferry pier you walk a short distance eastwards along a raised concrete embankment. It was amazing the number of people braving the cold conditions and fishing. At first glance you may think that the low level fort with its double moat has little to offer but it is very interesting and certainly exceeded my expectations. The underground tunnels alone are well worth a visit.
The fort was originally built in the 17th Century to protect London, the ships bringing their goods into the city and the ferry crossing. The gunpowder used at the fort was brought from the factory in Faversham so this crossing was of strategic importance. There are forts also positioned on the south bank of the Thames at Gravesend so that there could be effective cross fire to any invaders. Elizabeth I gave her famous speech from Tilbury to rally the troops as they were preparing to face the Spanish Armada.
You enter Tilbury Fort through an impressive ornate entrance the Water Gate. Originally built by Henry VIIl as one of five block forts. It was enlarged into a bastion fort by Charles II. The fort is managed by English Heritage and the auditory guide that they provide is very informative. The use of actors speaking as contemporary soldiers of the fort does bring the site alive. I was particularly struck with the number of references to the extreme location and the cold. In the gunpowder store you will see a print of the Thames 1895 frozen over at this point. If visiting in the later part of the year do take a hat and gloves. You will find out from the audio guide that many of the officers lived on the south bank of the Thames in Gravesend which I am sure will have been more comfortable.
In the north east corner of the site there is a series of underground tunnels that were used to get munitions up to the guns and rifle trenches. As you walk along the tunnels and see the precautions taken to prevent an explosion you cannot fail to be impressed by the engineering ability of a previous age. The fort was used in both World Wars. In the last war it was used by the Home Guard and there is still an anti-aircraft gun on view.
Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, men, women and children suspected of being sympathisers were brought in prison ships to Tilbury Fort. The magazine building was used to house some prisoners others were left on the prison ships. Many died of typhoid. Only one in twenty stood trial and those that did not were sent to the Caribbean islands to be sold to plantation owners. Whilst they were held at the fort they had the indignity of sightseers from London coming to view their misery. To atone for this sorry episode a commemorative stone has been placed outside the fort close to the Water Gate.
The ferry offered a brief relief to the cold north wind. I was taking the ferry from Gravesend over to Tilbury to visit the fort. The short journey takes about 10 minutes and costs £3 return off peak and £5 at other times. It would seem that there had been several passenger complaints as there were a couple of hand written notices stating that if the “chopping and changing” of piers caused a problem then members of the public should write to an officer in the Council. On the day I took the ferry it went from the West Pier. It had previously gone from the Town Pier. You get good views of the the port and it is refreshing to see a working port. As well as the container ships coming and going there was a Border Agency patrolling the river. Tilbury is still one of London’s largest gateways.
The ferry is the last chance to cross the estuary and links Essex and Kent. There has been a ferry at this point of the river since the 16th Century. The original ferry house on the north bank is now The World’s End pub. A car ferry ran between 1927 and 1964. The opening of the Dartford Tunnel in 1963 reduced demand.
I was joined on the journey by a couple of families taking their children on this short river crossing as well as a group of women with very large suitcases. This vision threw me momentarily until I realised that they were crossing to pick up a cruise ship. The anticipation of a warmer climate made them visibly more cheerful than the rest of their fellow passengers. When ocean voyages were at their height tens of thousands of passengers passed through Tilbury.
Once disembarked you cross an iron bridge and on the west side there are some interesting industrial buildings that are currently not used. There are plans to restore these Grade 11 listed buildings into Britain’s equivalent of Ellis Island. Windrush landed at Tilbury Riverside in 1948 bringing migrants to help rebuild post war Britain. It was also the place from where people left Britain to start a new life in Australia during the “Populate or Perish” initiative. This allowed Britains to travel to Australia for £10. Big Ocean is the title of the project to transform these buildings into a National Museum of Migration. They should know by the end of the month if they will get the funding from Heritage Lottery. If it does go ahead the museum plus the fort will make for a good day out.
This circular walk will take you past some of Woolwich’s listed buildings that reveal its historic past. It will also take you past some of the unsympathetic housing schemes developed in the 60s and 70s. The walk takes about 1.5 hours. Start at Woolwich Arsenal station. You turn left and head south along Woolwich New Road you will pass St Peter’s Church 1843 designed by A. W. N. Pugin. At Grand Depot Road you will eventually come to a junction with views of the Royal Artillery Barracks ahead. Turn left, but still part of Grand Depot Road, and about 200 meters ahead you come to the Garrison Church of St George built in 1863. This was destroyed by a flying bomb in 1944. A temporary roof has been put in place to protect mosaics including one commemorating members of the Royal Artillery awarded the Victoria Cross.
Some further 200 meters along the road you come across an obelisk to commemorate the deceased of the Boer War 1899-902. A little further on at the corner of Grand Depot and Nightingale Place you will see an early 19th Century house. Built originally as private dwelling, it was used by the military from 1841-1937. The building is in need of repair and is on the English Heritage at risk list. The house and site is currently for sale. You should cross the road to take you on to the same side as the Royal Artillery. You will now be in Ha-Ha Road which separates the Royal Artillery Barrack Field from Woolwich Common. It is a long and deep example of a ha-ha installed in 1774 to prevent sheep and cattle wandering on to the gunnery range. Woolwich Common was used as a resting place for farmers taking their cattle to the London meat markets. Walk back towards the Royal Artillery taking the entrance into the parkland on the left.
The path will take you past the front of the Royal Artillery which was built between 1776 and 1802. It will take you some time to walk past the Artillery as it has the longest continuous facade of any building in the UK and is one fifth of a mile long. The parade square is also the largest in the UK. There is a bronze figure of Victory in the parade square which is cast out of canon captured in the Crimean War. The 16 Regiment Royal Artillery had been based in this building from 1716 but re-located to St George’s Barracks in Rutland in 2007. The King’s Royal Horse Artillery moved into Woolwich in February 2012. When you reach the end of the parkland turn right and then first left into Greenhill. You will pass several military buildings signposted Congreve Lines Woolwich Station. The road bends to the left and then you will see the Rotunda on the right.
The Rotunda is a 24-side polygon, single storey building designed by John Nash. It was first erected in the grounds in St James’ Park in 1814 for a fete to honour the Allied Sovereigns during Peace Celebrations after the Napoleonic Wars. It has a distinctive concave lead roof. It moved to Woolwich in 1819 and converted into a military museum containing the gun collection of the Royal Artillery. The museum has now been relocated to Firepower on the Royal Arsenal.
Turn back and take take a left path before you reach the military buildings. The path takes you up a steep hill leading to Greenhill Courts. Built in 1851 as the garrison schools they were converted for residential use in 1989. On Repository Road you will see the 36 inch mortar weighing 42 tons. It was built in 1854 and was designed by Robert Mallet. You will be close to the junction of Repository Road and Artillery Place. On the opposite side of Repository Road is Francis Street cross into this. The road leads down to the River Thames. About 500 meters down this road on the right hand side you will come to the Gatehouse of the former Red Barracks now used as an under 4s playgroup. Further down you will see the the railings and entrance gateway to the former Red Barracks 1858-60 but now demolished. Follow the old wall and turn left into Borgard Road. When you reach Woolwich Dockyard station turn right into Belson Road. At the end of this road turn left into Kingsman Street. This road will take you to Woolwich Church Street turn right to take you back into Woolwich town centre. Take the next right up Church Hill and into the grounds of St Mary Magdelene.
There has been a church on this spur facing northwards to the Thames since the 12th Century. There is a small green area with seating so you can look across the river. The present church was built between 1732 and 1739. The nave and tower is in stock brick with Portland stone dressing. The east end was added in 1894. Hidden under the trees in the grounds is a stone lion which is the memorial to Thomas Cribb (1781-1848). He was an English bare-knuckle boxer who became world champion. Cross John Wilson Street and into Powis Street which will take you back to Woolwich Station. At the corner of Powis Street you will see two art deco former cinemas. One is now the New Wine Church and the other is a bingo hall.
In Powis Street you will see The Royal Arsenal Co-operative which was set up by 20 workers from the Royal Arsenal. A full size statute of Alexander McCleod, one of the founding fathers, is set above. This is now a Travel Lodge.
The department store opposite was opened in 1938 and prospered for half a century. It merged with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in the 1980s following a period of decline. The actual store was abandoned some time in the new millennium and is scheduled for closure. Continue down Powis Street and into Beresford square and back to the station.