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In January I read a Charles Dickens book for the first time since leaving school. Dombey and Son reintroduced me to the power of Dickens story telling and characterisation so much so that I went to Kent in search of some of the places that had inspired him. When we left the A2 and took the road to Cliffe I spotted a sign to Dickens World. I had never heard of it. I since found out that this is a theme attraction based near to Chatham Dockyard that has been opened since 2007. We were not enticed to go and visit but headed as planned for St James Church Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula.
Although it was March it was a bitterly cold day and the countryside was still barren and looked seriously bleak. We had to stop at one point to check out some strange objects in a farmer’s field. My companion thought they could be some kind of modern art. It turned out they were beets put out to feed the sheep during this very long winter.
When we arrived at the 13th Century Church we were delighted to see that it was open. It is managed by The Churches Conservation Trust and is open daily 10am-4pm. The church is no longer used for services. Walking through the graveyard to the church door we noticed a very somber sight. Dickens describes them in Great Expectations as “little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their [parents’] graves”. Known as Pip’s Graves they are the graves of children from the Baker and Comport families who died between 1771-79. The children’s ages ranged from one to seventeen months. A potent reminder of the misery of infant mortality. It was these that had been the inspiration for the opening scene of Great Expectations when Pip meets Magwitch who had just escaped from one of the prison hulks anchored in the nearby Thames. As the east wind whipped around the graveyard we went into the church for shelter.
Inside there is good information about the church and its links to Dickens. Apparently, he liked to picnic in the churchyard. I just couldn’t imagine this on such a cold day. There is a quote from his son that, “He loved Cooling Church more that any other.” A quirky feature is the 19th-century vestry – its walls are lined from top to bottom with thousands of cockle shells. There is a 500-year-old timber door that still swings on its ancient hinges – even though it now leads to a blocked north doorway! I think it would be good to revisit in warmer weather and walk into Higham where Dickens lived whilst writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
I was excited at the thought of looking for one of London’s lost rivers. It sounded like an adventure. I had read a really interesting blog about lost urban rivers by Alan Broadhead a PhD student from Sheffield and I became intrigued. Alan kindly sent me some information about London’s lost rivers. The London Rivers action plan was published in 2009 and details plans to restore and improve London’s rivers in ways that improve flood risk management. In the 20th Century many of the Thames’ tributaries were channeled or covered up to facilitate urban development but this constrains their flow.
I found out that part of the River Quaggy had been buried in a huge pipe under Sutcliffe Park in Eltham. It had been buried for over 50 years so most people living in the area didn’t know it existed. It would have been erased from the collective community memory hence lost rivers. In 2003 the river was daylighted which is the term used to describe the restoration of rivers that have been covered up with concrete. Sutcliffe Park is in Eltham in the Royal Borough of Greenwich and I had never visited before so wasn’t sure what to expect.
I should have been better prepared and wore wellington boots. The footpath that runs along the course of the river was flooded and the surrounding area very muddy. Wetlands in the middle of the city. It was a refreshing sight. The sound of the birds was unexpected. As I walked around the lake I was astounded by how close you could get to the geese and moorhens. There are viewing platforms and raised boardwalks that give you access to the river and the lake. This development has certainly enhanced the urban park experience. The park borders the new Kidbrooke Village development and I was surprised to see that many of the apartments have now got a river view.
The information boards are good. I found out that the river will flood at least once a year and had been designed to store excess flood water. In doing so it protects 600 homes from flooding. From the park the river flows downstream through Lee and Lewisham and on to Deptford. You can see the river in a channel at the back of the north side of Lee High Road. When it reaches Lewisham it meets the Ravensbourne. Close to Lewisham rail station is the confluence of both rivers but I just wonder how many people pass this and don’t realise that they are so close to two rivers.
We approached The Gun from Blackwall DLR station. It isn’t the most picturesque walk and to make things worse it was raining hard. The Gun is on the river directly opposite the 02. Inside was warm and welcoming. There was a log fire in the back bar. There has been a pub on this site since 1720. It is believed that Lord Nelson was a regular at The Gun and that he often entertained Lady Emma Hamilton here. To celebrate this liaison the toilets are marked Emma and Horatio. There are also links to smugglers and pirates who would off load their contraband here before entering London. The historic atmosphere of the place has been preserved and there are some fine paintings. Masters of the Sea 1815 by William Wylie which reinforces the maritime feel. There is a traditional bar and a formal dining area.
We had booked for Saturday lunch. The menu is seasonal and celebrates local British cuisine. For starters I had salt baked beets, whipped goats cheese apple and walnut salad. It was flavoursome and well balanced. Three of my companions were far more adventurous and opted for the pig’s head terrine, wild mushrooms, apple chutney which came with toasted sourdough bread. It was hearty and apparently very tasty. The starters were £8-£8.50. We opted for the pub’s own Indian Pale Ale, Jugged Hare which was good.
I was seduced by the 12 hour slow cooked middle white pork belly which was accompanied by crisp skate knobs. The waiter advised that it was best to have a side dish as well so I opted for the Dauphanoise potato which was slightly undercooked. The pork was delicious but I don’t think the skate knobs contributed that much to the overall dish. My other companions opted for pan fired golden bream and Suffolk baby chicken. Mains ranged from £18.50-£21.00.
We finished with the Elstar apple tarte tatin which tasted as good as it looked.The Valhrona chocolate torte was rich and resplendent but proved too much and defeated my companion. This is a gastropub where you can get some good British grub but it doesn’t come cheaply.
The TFL River Action plan proposes that piers should be destinations in themselves. So I’ve decided to try them out and this is my second visit. Canary Wharf is one of the larger piers and on the Thames Clipper website two places of interest are identified; the shopping mall and The Museum of Docklands. The shopping mall offered little appeal so I set off for the museum which is well signposted.
The museum is in West India Quay which is a Grade 1 listed building overshadowed by numerous tall office blocks. It was originally used to store imported tea, sugar and rum. Several restaurants and bars also occupy the building. The museum is spread over three floors. You start on the top floor and work down. Exhibitions cover from the earliest Roman settlements on the Thames to regeneration of the area. The model of the Old London Bridge is well worth seeing. It is in two sections, east and west. I had read that the piers of the bridge had impeded the flow of the Thames and in winter ice accumulated around them and this is why the Thames had frost fairs. Seeing the model really helped me to understand this.
The expansion of trade and the development of the docks unfold as you walk through the museum. The Sailors’ Way and the Second World War air raid shelter develop a sense of period and place effectively. The final part of the museum focuses upon the regeneration of Docklands and here I did have problems. Some of the narratives on the information boards lack balance. For example, there is one called Bridging the Gap which detailed the 1994 plans for a crossing from North Greenwich to Blackwall. It states that the scheme met with local opposition but the LDDC had thought it vital for the development of the Dockland area. There is not even a nod to explaining the basis of the local opposition. The Royal Borough of Greenwich has recently launched a new Bridging the Gap campaign which is again generating legitimate environmental concerns. The board about Jack Dash, trade union leader involved in the dock strikes, labelled Good Morning Brother omitted to inform the public that this was the title of his autobiography: a serious omission. There was some celebration of the financial service industry and no doubt in the fullness of time this view may be modified. I came away thinking that the promise of regeneration has been largely illusory. More about property development than the creation of jobs for local people.
Is it worth visiting? Well yes and as an added attraction there is a good riverside view of the distinctive Olympia Slip sheds at The Royal Naval Dockyard Deptford. With the prospect of 3,500 new apartments (only 500 affordable) going up there future views may be obscured.
During the First World War munitions workers would travel home on the 44 tram from The Royal Arsenal to The Progress Estate in Eltham. Some fifteen years earlier on 22nd March 1900 Queen Victoria visited the Royal Arsenal and then went on to see soldiers wounded in the Boer War at The Herbert Hospital, Shooter’s Hill. Following this visit she granted the hospital her royal patronage. This walk will take you along these routes and covers the main historic sites on the way.
Start at Royal Arsenal and head south towards the market and town centre. Information about the Royal Arsenal can be found on a separate post on this blog or in the Heritage Centre. You will cross Beresford and General Gordon Squares. You will not fail to see the Tesco Extra in General Gordon Square. The scale of this building is too big and with its brash colours now dominates and is unsympathetic to the many historic buildings in the town including its neighbour Equitable House. Take Woolwich New Road to the left of Tesco. You will pass St Peter’s Church 1843 designed by A. W. N. Pugin. Restoration of the south entrance was promoted by English Heritage, Spike Milligan and local parishioners. During the Second World War Spike Milligan was an unskilled labourer at the Royal Arsenal. About 100 metres along the road there are some stone steps on the right that will take you to 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.
Cross the road to the Royal Artillery and take the path that runs along its front. The Royal Artillery was built between 1776 to1802. 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.
There is a left turning on the path that will take you towards Woolwich Common. On your right you will see the distinctive rooftop of the Rotunda. In the summer months this may be obscured when the trees are in leaf. 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. This is now housed at Firepower museum on The Royal Arsenal.
Take the left path before you reach the T junction. You will pass over a small bridge across the ha ha (sunken road) which separates the Royal Artillery Barrack Field from Woolwich Common. This long and deep example of a ha-ha installed in 1774 was 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. Cross over to the Common and you will see the distinctive corner towers of the Royal Military Academy. There is normally a route via Circular Way but works to restore the common following the Olympics has resulted in some areas being cordoned off and you may need to walk around. Walk towards the Royal Military Academy.
The Royal Military Academy Woolwich was founded in 1741and its first home was on The Royal Arsenal site. This larger building was designed by James Wyatt and built between 1796 and 1805. Many notable academics taught here: Michael Faraday, Olinthus Gregory, Peter Barlow and Henry Young Darracott Scott. General Gordon was resident at the Academy from 1848. It closed in 1939. During the Second World War the buildings were used to house the Coast Defence and an Anti Aircraft Wing of the Royal Artillery Depot. In 2006 Durkan estates purchased the site for conversion into apartments.
Once past the Royal Academy cross over the road and continue towards Shooter’s Hill. On the corner of Academy Road and Shooter’s Hill Road there is an empty building Victoria House. It was formerly the headquarters and living quarters for members of the Queen Alexander Royal Nursing Corps who worked across the road in the Royal Herbert Hospital when that was still in use by the military. Cross over to The Royal Herbert Hospital.
The hospital was originally in a 19 acre site and almost half of this space was given over to parkland so that soldiers could convalesce in the open air. It was the first hospital of its kind for two reasons: it was a specially designed for the military and the first to use the pavillion design advocated by Florence Nightingale. This comprised six parallel ward blocks connected by a central corridor. It was named after Lord Sidney Herbert who was Secretary of State for war and opened in 1865. It closed in 1977 and was saved from demolition by being listed and incorporated into the Woolwich Common Conservation area. In 1990 a specialist developer converted it into private apartments. Continue the walk along Well Hall Road.
The Welcome Inn,which is now demolished, was located on the corner of Well Hall and Westmount Road. There is a plaque on one of the new houses, that has taken its place, commemorating Status Quo’s first gig in 1967. Further along Well Hall Road you will enter The Progress Estate.
The estate was built in 1915 to house the additional workers required at the Royal Arsenal. It was constructed in just 10 months. It is a fine example of a Garden Suburb built by the Government during the First World War, and was granted Conservation Area status in 1975. Many of the roads are named after aspects of weapon production, for example, Shrapnel, Arsenal and Congreve. Notable people who lived on the Estate include actor Sylvia Sym and politician Herbert Morrison. Well Hall Road was the scene of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and there is memorial plaque on the road.
At the Well Hall roundabout take the first right to see St Barnabas Church which was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed St Pancras station. It was built between 1857 and 1859 but originally located on Woolwich Dockyard. In 1932/33 the church was taken down and re-built on to its current site. It was damaged in the Second World War and restored in 1956.
Turn back towards the roundabout and the former Coronet Cinema built in 1936. The site has been re-developed but the original facade maintained. Sadly, few of the retail opportunities have been let. Continue along Well Hall until you reach Well Hall Pleasaunce and Tudor Barn.
With the aid of Heritage Lottery funding Well Hall Pleasaunce was renovated in 2003. Its history dates back to the 13th century. It originally contained a manor house in Tudor times. The 16th century Tudor Barn was originally built by William Roper and his wife Margaret who was the daughter of Sir Thomas More. It is now a restaurant serving evening meals and light lunches.
In 1899 Edith Nesbit and her family moved to Well Hall, Eltham. The three-storey house, which was demolished, was in Well Hall Pleasaunce and surrounded by orchards and farmland adjacent to the Tudor barn and was their home for 22 years. Its proximity to the railway line must have been the inspiration for her novel “The Railway Children”.
The train and bus station is directly opposite Well Hall Plesaunce. From the Pleasaunce it is a short walk to Eltham Palace. However, at the time of writing the Palace was not open. It opens 28th March at which point I will continue this final stage of the walk.
The recently published TFL River Action Plan proposes that piers should become destinations in themselves. An interesting concept which motivated me to try a few out. So why start at Royal Arsenal Woolwich? As well as being the eastern end of the Thames Clipper Line it is also the part of the river that has most passengers. Not on the Clipper but on the Woolwich Free Ferry. Of the 6,000 passengers travelling on the Thames each year a third are using the Woolwich Free Ferry. The Thames Clipper provides a commuter service to Royal Arsenal Woolwich so you can arrive at 9.39am then there is no further service until 17.41pm during the week. At the weekends there is a shuttle service between North Greenwich 02 and The Royal Arsenal. With this skeleton service you won’t be surprised to learn that the pier is basic.
Yet, when you arrive at the Royal Arsenal you are in a site with over 20 Grade 1 & 2 listed buildings which makes it a landmark heritage site. As you leave the pier there is a group of life size figures by Peter Burke to greet you. The Thames Path flows eastwards and there is a parallel small green space to the back making a sympathetic walkway. No 1 Street is ahead and it is a pleasant tree lined avenue that leads to The Royal Brass Foundry 1717. The Arsenal was organised into separate departments and there are corresponding buildings: the Royal Laboratory, Royal Carriage, Royal Brass Foundry and Storekeeper’s Department. Some buildings are known by their Ministry of Defence numbers, No 41 is the Academy. The Dial Arch now a public house was also known as The Great Pile. A group of engineers working in this block formed the Dial Square Football Club which in 1888 became the Woolwich Arsenal Football Club.
The integration of the heritage and the new buildings is very good. The restored buildings are still dominant which gives the place a unique historical feel. Compare the interest in this site to the new riverside apartments you can see on the north side of the Thames. Public spaces have been enhanced by historical features such as original cannons which are displayed proudly. Each of the listed buildings as a Heritage Plaque which gives you information about its previous purpose. It is reassuring to see these important historical buildings finding a new purpose as riverside apartments. Overall the signage is very good which makes navigating throughout the site easy.
On the Thames Clipper website they list a place of interest for each pier. For Royal Arsenal they list The Fire Power Museum. Whilst interesting and well worth a visit there is much more to see. The Greenwich Heritage Centre has a permanent exhibition about the history of The Royal Arsenal and temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was an exhibition of 19th Century etchings and watercolours of nearby Eltham. Refreshments are available at The Dial Arch Public House or Fire Power Bistro.
The imposing Royal Arsenal Gatehouse is physically separated from the Royal Arsenal by the A206. From the Dial Arch you can cross into Woolwich Town Centre. The town has a long and proud past and there is much to see. You can find on this blog previous posts about the town centre, a Heritage Walk around the town, a walk along the Royal Dockyard and The Woolwich Free Ferry.
Is it worth visiting? Yes though you may want to use the DLR, bus or overground train.