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Places like people deserve a second chance and Woolwich needs one. It’s packed with lovely old buildings, in fact, 112 of them are listed. But, they are not palaces like its swanky neighbour Greenwich they are places where people worked, The Royal Arsenal, Royal Dockyard and the barracks. So the fact that the Tall Ships are moored there for the second year running is great recognition.
I went along on the first evening to see the ships. There were six ships at the Royal Arsenal and three were moored by the pier the remaining strung out along the river as far as Broadwater Dock. The setting sun gilded the river and provided a stunning backdrop.
Looking west into the sunset I was reminded of John Burn’s description of the Thames as “liquid history”. From The Royal Arsenal you could see the Woolwich ferry which was the first free crossing for the people of East London. One of the ferries is named after John Burns who led the Dock Strike of 1889 and who went on to be a prominent politician. Further along the south bank of the river is the Woolwich Dockyard and opposite is the Tate & Lyle factory one of the last industrial bastions on the river. The Canary Wharf skyline dominated the horizon and I could just make out the distinctive silhouette of the Thames Barrier.
The Thames Tall Ship Cruise will take visitors from Royal Arsenal to St Katherine’s Dock passing many more places of historic interest along the river including the Greenwich World Heritage Site.
Flanked by Margate and Herne Bay you could easily miss Reculver and that would be a mistake. It’s got lots of history. It’s the place where the Romans landed. The Emperor Claudius routed the English here. They built a fort,Regulbium, here which remained occupied until they quit Britain in 407 AD. Some of the original walls remain.
On a clear day you can see the Maunsell Forts amongst the huge number of wind turbines. These fortified towers were built in the Second World War to defend London and were named after their designer Guy Maunsell. Barnes Wallis, of bouncing bomb fame, tested them here. In June 1997 the army retrieved the last and biggest of the proto-type bombs from the river.
It is the twin towers of a 12th Century monastic church that is the most arresting feature of the place. They dominate the landscape. In 1805 the church was demolished. A plaque on the west wing explains that Trinity House took over the towers so that they could continue to be markers for passing ships. There are a few lichen encrusted tombstones but only one is legible which marks the grave of John Collard who died 1760.
It stands to reason that being so close to Eltham Palace that Eltham should want to market itself as a tourist destination. Within walking distance from the Palace the High Street has listed buildings in spades. There are Georgian and mock Georgian; mock Tudor (fashionable in the inter-war years); Victorian and modern buildings which blend well together. With a bit of tweaking it could be something rather special and a fitting companion for its more popular neighbour the Palace. The High Street has a good range of shops, including two department stores and a surprising number of coffee shops. If you want pubs there are six that are still boozers but the oldest, The Greyhound, C17th is now an Indian restaurant.
The names of the streets running off the High Street reveal the town’s history. Roper Street is named after Margaret Roper daughter of St Thomas More. Her house, a mere ten minute walk, was in Well Hall Pleasaunce and the original Tudor barn still stands. Archery Road is, as you could guess, the place where the Royal Archers would practise. Philpot Place and Passey Place are both named after Tudor benefactors who set up charitable trusts for the citizens of Eltham.
It also boasts the world’s oldest golf course; The Royal Blackheath Golf Club. The Club House was originally known as Eltham Lodge and was built in 1664. If you’re not a member of this exclusive course you will need to wait until one of the Open House days to visit this splendid example of 17th Century Restoration architecture.
Ever think about where the nearest telephone box is? Probably not but the iconic red phone boxes are still there, well they are in London. Since they were listed by English Heritage on 6th August 1986 they will continue to be part of the street scene. The K2 was the original red telephone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1923. His design won a competition held by the General Post Office. As an architect of many fine churches it’s no surprise that Scott’s winning design also included a dome. Made of cast iron, steel and teak it was built to last.This model of kiosk was mainly used in London as it was too costly to roll out across the country.
I found an example of a K2 at the top of Eltham High Street, close to the bus stop and Christchurch. It was in remarkable good nick and had no signs of vandalism or graffiti. Stepping inside was a different matter and I gagged on the strong smell of urine. This is one of nine K2s in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, there is also a K6 kiosk at Cutty Sark Gardens. The K6 was a later mass produced model. In the mid 1980s the boxes were almost lost to the nation.
British Telecom took over from the GPO in 1984 and soon introduced a modernisation programme to make the nation’s pay-phones fit for the 21st Century. They clearly hadn’t anticipated the digital revolution. As part of the modernisation they replaced the red kiosks with glazed boxes of anodised aluminum. People, well some, were ‘up in arms’. The Twentieth Century Society led the campaign to keep the red kiosks and gained support from some London Boroughs.
Saved for the nation and looking more anachronistic they desperately need a new purpose or they will continue to be used as public toilets. Not an easy task and perhaps worthy of another competition?
Sites of the other K2s
Charlton Church Lane
Grand Depot Road
Greenwich High St
Woolwich Road (outside 201)
Junction of Wyndcliffe Road and Charlton Road
It’s a fact that you can pass a place or building frequently and not really see it. No, it’s not magic it’s just that places become familiar and we rarely look above the first storey. Take Cliefden House on Eltham High Street. Locals may shout “where’s that?” Well, it’s Costa Coffee on one side and a pawnbrokers on the other. Move to the other side of the street, take another look and you can see the shape of a large, early 18th Century house. To add insult, to this house of architectural significance, are the unsightly down pipes and other fixtures that have been added.
Now take a look at the back of the house. To do this you take the pathway at the side of the HSBC bank, work your way through the detritus of the retail trade and you will find a 17th Century stable block. It’s in a really sad state of repair; unloved and surrounded by rubbish. From here there is a view of the rear of Clieffden House, hemmed in and its full elevation totally obliterated from view.
Continue on this path and encounter The Orangery, a Baroque garden building, 1717-25. Originally it belonged to Eltham House which was demolished in the 1920s. Whilst giving its name to the lane in which it’s situated, it’s now an inconsequential part of it. It was repaired in 2003 and now work is in progress to add an extension. From this perspective it looks out of balance and the new wing dominates. From the Orangery Lane perspective it doesn’t look as bad as the extension is on an incline and slopes backwards. The Orangery is hemmed in by car parks and hard surfaces. Previous planning decisions leaving a nightmare of a scheme for future generations. Architects’ drawings show a small green space in front as a nod to its past life, in reality, it’s of postage stamp proportions. The development will be studio offices.
Within a walking distance of 200 metres you have three 18th Century buildings that are buried in the town’s modern topography. They are all listed by English Heritage. Two buildings, The Orangery and Clieffden House, are in the elite 8% of all listed buildings of outstanding interest and have a Grade ll*. The joy of buried treasure is that it can be found. Let’s hope so.
Where can you go to get away from the London summer crowds? Try a section of the Green Chain walk. A recent walk from Eltham Park South to Lesnes Abbey resulted in encounters with a few dog walkers. Yes, that’s all and it was the first week of the school summer holidays. The Green Chain in this part of South East London will take you through some stunning countryside and it’s still part of London. An urban haven.
The yellow and gold shimmering grasses with the ragwort and yarrow standing proud in West Wickham open space could make you gasp. It will certainly will trick you into believing you are somewhere other than London. The vast panorama and the canopy of trees are only interrupted by Shooter’s Hill Water Tower. Well, there are a couple of telephone masts but they are so slim they are rendered inconsequential to the view.
This section of the Green Chain takes you through grassland, dense woods and heathland. I noticed for the first time the London’s Heathland Heritage logo on the signs. Up until the 18th Century London had considerable heathlands and now only 80 hectares remain. The Heathland Heritage project is trying to preserve this valuable land. This section also boasts an area of metropolitan importance for nature conservation. As well as the usual suspects I was particularly pleased to spot a heron and a pair of woodpeckers.
I finished my walk at Lesnes Abbey which I have written about previously. Bexley Council is currently consulting on ways to improve access and signage. The display in the visitor centre was lack-lustre but the sentiments are worthy. Improved signage will certainly be a big improvement.