Foot tunnel and Bell Water Gate c 1950s

Foot tunnel and Bell Water Gate c 1950s

This walk is along the Thames path in an easterly direction from Woolwich Ferry. It will take about 2 hours. Pick up the path at the Woolwich Ferry docks. Up until 1885 people living east of the City of London did not have free access across the river. When the Metropolitan Board of Works agreed to a new crossing in east London by Act of Parliament they made it free. The Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889 to great celebration and a procession through the town centre.

Soon you will pass the Woolwich Foot tunnel which is currently being repaired. It was opened on 26th October 1912. This old photograph shows both the Foot tunnel and Bell Water Gate leading down to the Thames. Bell Water Gate dates back to Tudor times and ships would unload hemp bales and tar which were used in the production of rope. The ropeyard was located in what is now Beresford Street.

The path will take you into the Royal Arsenal which has more than 20 Grade 1 & 11 listed buildings and is a landmark heritage site. The Greenwich Heritage Centre, which is located here, has a permanent exhibition about the history of the Royal Arsenal. Firepower Museum is also on this site. As you near the pier there is a group of life size figures by Peter Burke.

Broadwater swing bridge

Broadwater swing bridge

Continue in an easterly direction and you will signs for Broadwater Dock. Just past the Royal Arsenal the paths split into a lower and upper path. Stay on the upper path and you soon cross a canal which is fenced. The canal was built 1812-14. If you look closely you will see the remains of a swing bridge that was built in 1876 to carry railway tracks across the canal. This is Grade 11 listed and is on English Heritage’s “at risk” list. It is in a poor state and covered with graffiti.

Loading pier Royal Arsenal

Loading pier Royal Arsenal

In the river are the remains of the piers that serviced the heavy industry of the Royal Arsenal. This photograph shows what they looked like. Now they are resting places for the gulls and cormorants. The path changes from paved to hard core. At this point there is more vegetation, a softer landscape and even the tell tale signs of rabbits on the path. Remember this was rural Kent. Continue along the path until you come across a small lighthouse on the river’s edge. This is clearly marked and there is an information board. Tripcock Ness is the point at which vessels must contact the Thames Barrier control. It is also the site of the greatest loss of life in a Thames accident. The Princess Alice was a pleasure cruiser that sank when it collided with the Bywell Castle 3rd September 1878. The exact number that were killed is not clear but estimates are 650-700 people. A more detailed account will feature in a future post.

Tripcock Ness

Tripcock Ness

The path again splits into an upper and lower path. On the lower path is a pill box left over from the 2nd World War and evidence of the continued threat of invasion. A short distance from this is a viewing platform from which, looking inland you will see a clock tower above the tree canopy. Though still within spitting distance from the river this has moved a few miles downstream. Originally the clock and cupola 1782 came from the Great Storehouse in the Royal Deptford Dockyard. When the storehouse was demolished in 1981 the manager of Convoy’s Wharves donated the clock and cupola to Thamesmead Town.

The path will take you to Crossness Pumping Station. Crossness was part of Joseph Bazalgette’s radical sewerage system for London, which improved 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. Known as the Cathedral on the marshes it is a magnificent example of Victorian engineering and architecture. I would suggest that you do this walk when they have one of their open days. There is one on Sunday 28th July and the next are September 1st and October 13th.

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