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