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Plumstead Common in C19th

Plumstead Common in C19th

In a corner of South East London is Plumstead Common once the site of “disgraceful riots” that generated the headline in the Kentish Independent:

“Can this be England?”

Well, it very much was England as commoners had ancient rights to cut furze, graze cattle and cut turf for fuel on common land. It looked different in those days a more rugged terrain with gravel and sand pits. In 1871 the military, based in Woolwich, had rights to exercise on the common. The nearer Woolwich Common was thought to be too soft and swampy. Over time the furze and brambles disappeared. To top this the developers moved in.

Plumstad Common today

Plumstad Common today

Plum Lane

Plum Lane

In the C17th Queen’s College, Oxford inherited the rights to the land. Over a period of time there had been encroachment of the common land and areas had been enclosed sometimes for the benefit of the poor or for individual gain. A local builder Mr Tongue was responsible for many of the encroachments as was Edwin Hughes who later became the first Member of Parliament for Woolwich. The building of Central and Slade schools on the common were done with the permission of the College.

The real threat to the common came in 1876 when Queen’s College wanted to develop a new housing estate. The people of Plumstead took direct action to protect their common and began to rip down and burn the fences of the enclosed land. The properties of Hughes and Tongue were a particular focus. They were led by John de Morgan who called himself a Champion for the Common Rights. He also boasted that he was “an irishman, a rebel and had been in prison several times”. He was obviously a persuasive speaker as 700 men from The Royal Arsenal lost pay and took the afternoon off work to hear him speak.

Old Windmill

Old Windmill

Local opinion, of the time, including the liberal Woolwich Gazette, was in favour of the preservation of the common. The rioters included family groups, women and children and the “respectable working classes”. The more critical Kentish Independent described the rioters as “roughs and hobble-de-hoys.” The riots started on Sunday 1st July and went on well into Monday evening. The demonstrations did have an impact and in 1878 The Plumstead Common Act ensured that about one hundred acres of land remained as public open space.

RACs Store Plumstead Common

RACs Store Plumstead Common

Today the Common is effectively divided into two as roads were built before the Act. Along Plumstead Common Road still stands The Ship public house, now painted a Germoline pink. Some two hundred metres along the road is the historic Prince of Wales where, in October 1886, the Arsenal Football Team was formed. It’s now flats.

The Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales

Mill Pond Road dissects the common and the original mill can still be seen. At the time of the riots it was a public house and remains one.

Plum Lane

Plum Lane

The Old Mill  today

The Old Mill today

The original common was much larger and extended along Plum Lane to Shrewsbury Park and Shooters Hill. There is still an amazing amount of green space at the top of the hill and well worth the climb as the views are remarkable, overlooking London to the West, Dartford to the East and Essex to the North.

View across the Thames from Shrewsbury Park

View across the Thames from Shrewsbury Park

A Bronze Age Tumulus still survives and hidden in Shrewsbury House is a Cold War bunker: though not open to the public. The original manor house is now a community centre.

Shrewsbury House

Shrewsbury House

The houses around the common and the streets leading to Shrewsbury park tell you that this was not a place for the hoi polloi, there are some seriously posh houses. Large “tea caddy” houses, enormous three storey Victorian mansions overlooking the common. It may have lost some of its sparkle but with the advent of Crossrail this could well be a place on the up.

 

Note:  I first published this post two years ago but decided to re-post at the time of the anniversary of the riots.  It remains one of the most popular posts I have done.

Banks of the Darent

Banks of the Darent

Bank Holiday Monday and I realised that I’d missed the International Dawn Chorus Day. Well, I didn’t even know it existed until I switched on Radio 4 that morning to find out that it is held annually on the first Sunday in May. People are encouraged to rise early to listen to birdsong. Motivated, I planned a walk from Datford to Erith determined to listen more carefully to the birdsong.

Darent Valley Path

Darent Valley Path

The walk was along the Darent to the confluence with the Cray and then following the Cray as it flows into the Thames. My starting point was the railway station at Dartford then picking up the Darent Valley Path close to the Court House. Still in the heart of the town there was a coot’s nest in the river, an omen that this was going to be a good birdsong day. However, I could still hear the constant hum of the ringroad traffic and a distant radio helping the workers at Wickes get through a Bank Holiday shift. Momentarily I shifted focus from the birdsong to the abundance of wildflowers along the banks of the river: Native Geranium; Ragged Robin; Meadow Cranes Bill; Meadow Sweet; Vetch; waves of Cow Parsley interspersed with escaped Oil Seed Rape. Beyond the boundary of the town the sound of birdsong came to the fore again.
A bed of reeds was alive with the sound of birds: Robins, Blue Tits, Wrens, Warblers and the shrill sound of Black Caps.

View of the QE2 Bridge from the Darent Valley

View of the QE2 Bridge from the Darent Valley

In the distance the distinctive QE2 Bridge and the grey outline of massive distribution sheds. Still 160 square feet available for rent, the same as last time I passed this way. The switch to follow the Cray involves negotiating an unpromising stretch of the A206 the only interest being the dog roses on the side of the road. Beyond The Jolly Farmers, now another derelict pub up for sale, is the first section of the London Loop that follows the Cray to the Thames.

River Cray - London Loop

Banks of River Cray – London Loop

The first stretch is a post industrial waste land made more hazardous by the fierce looking and sounding scrap yard dogs. Cranes perched on the top of piles of earth adding to the apocalyptic feel of the place. Ten minutes brisk walk takes you beyond this and on to the estuary flat lands. On the west side of the river is a slight manmade hill of landfill with pipes, to release the methane gas, clearly visible. In the river are shell ducks but the birdsong is drowned out by a loud and constant drone of cross country motor cycles on the other side of the river.

Thames Estuary - R. Cray entering Thames
An interesting walk with lots of birdsong but not for those who want a more pastoral scene.

Green Bridge

Green Bridge

Today, you can walk along a ribbon of green space bordering the Regent Canal from Limehouse through the Mile End Park and on to Victoria Park in Hackney areas once considered as sites for the park. In the early C19th health campaigners were concerned that the poor in the East End of London had no access to open parkland. A petition supporting Metropolitan improvement in the form a park in 1840 was signed by 30,000 people. In 1842 The Victoria Park Bill was passed unopposed, there were two sites up for consideration: Lime House to Mile End in the South and East of Bethnal Green in the north. The northern site was chosen because it was the cheaper option.

The Ragged School

Along the bank of the canal there are still some C19th warehouses interspersed with new development. One warehouse contains the Ragged School Museum which opens Tuesdays and Wednesdays. By luck, the manager spotted me taking photographs and invited me in to look round even though it was not an open day. It opened as a school in 1876 by Thomas Barnardo who gave up his medical training to open a free school for the poor. Once an area for the poor of London but now an area for speculative property developers and foreign buyers. The flat pack waterside apartments with the obligatory bright colour flash litter the banks of the canal.

Canal Boats on Regents Canal

Canal Boats on Regents Canal

A green bridge spans the north and south section of Mile End Park allowing you to continue walking in parkland whilst crossing the busy Mile End Road.

Guardian Angel Church Mile End

Guardian Angel Church Mile End

The spire of the Victorian Gothic Guardian Angels church remains the imposing landmark in this area. Arts and Ecology Pavillions overlook a small lake which is close to the former site of the New Globe Pleasure Gardens 1840.

Site of the New Globe Pleasure Gardens

Site of the New Globe Pleasure Gardens

At the point where the Hereford Canal joins the Regents notice the granite pathway: cobbled stones bordered on both sides with slabs. A pathway built to last and a reminder of the industrial heritage of the East End. Entrance into Victoria Park is through the Cricketers Gate. The area north of the park appears to be now called Victoria Park Village and there are lots of specialist shops and places to eat.

Pagoda in Victoria Park

Pagoda in Victoria Park

Hermitage Basin

Hermitage Basin

In its heyday the busy London docks specialised in luxury commodities such as silk, spices and tobacco. Now it’s a tranquil residential area with avenues of trees and a canal; more Amsterdam than London. The London Dock Company was formed in 1800 and work began the following year in building the docks. The docks were constructed by hand and required hundreds of labourers mainly economic migrants from Ireland.

Plan of London Docks 1831

Plan of London Docks 1831

There were three connecting docks the Western, the Eastern and the smaller Tobacco. They were linked to the Thames at the Hermitage Basin and this was the starting point of my walk through the Shadwell Basin. The London Dock closed in 1969 and the land was sold to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets who filled in the dock with the intention of building houses. Connecting canals between the docks remain plus a strip of water on one side of the Western dock providing a footprint of the original docks. Information boards along the route have the original byelaws which include rules for the Master of Vessels. Water fowl are the only things now navigating the waterway.

London Docks

Old Lock on London Dock

Locks have been transformed into decorative ascending flower beds and water level markers are still visible in the stone lining of the canals. As you approach the smaller Tobacco dock two replica ships are visible,in dry docks, close to the warehouse.
Tobacco Dock

Tobacco Dock is a Grade 1 listed building (1812) and in 1989 was converted into a shopping mall at a cost of £47 million. The development included high end shops and restaurants with a terrace overlooking the canal. Retail and recession are not happy bedfellows and by the early 1990s the shoppers stopped coming and the shops began to close. Except for the occasional private events its been closed for business ever since.

St George in the East

St George in the East

Opposite the warehouse is the majestic Hawksmoor church St George in the East. This was severely damaged by bombing in 1941 which meant that services were conducted from a prefab in the grounds which became known as St George in the Ruins. Within the shell of the church is a re-designed place of worship built in the 1960s.

Swing Bridge

Swing Bridge

Much of the Eastern dock is now a parkland with the inevitable new waterside luxury apartments rising on the canal banks. The striking structure of the bascule (swing) bridge leads the way into the Shadwell Basin with Canary Wharf on the horizon.

Shadwell Basin

Plumstead Common in C19th

Plumstead Common in C19th

In a corner of South East London is Plumstead Common once the site of “disgraceful riots” that generated the headline in the Kentish Independent:

“Can this be England?”

Well, it very much was England as commoners had ancient rights to cut furze, graze cattle and cut turf for fuel on common land. It looked different in those days a more rugged terrain with gravel and sand pits. In 1871 the military, based in Woolwich, had rights to exercise on the common. The nearer Woolwich Common was thought to be too soft and swampy. Over time the furze and brambles disappeared. To top this the developers moved in.

Plumstad Common today

Plumstad Common today

Plum Lane

Plum Lane

In the C17th Queen’s College, Oxford inherited the rights to the land. Over a period of time there had been encroachment of the common land and areas had been enclosed sometimes for the benefit of the poor or for individual gain. A local builder Mr Tongue was responsible for many of the encroachments as was Edwin Hughes who later became the first Member of Parliament for Woolwich. The building of Central and Slade schools on the common were done with the permission of the College.

The real threat to the common came in 1876 when Queen’s College wanted to develop a new housing estate. The people of Plumstead took direct action to protect their common and began to rip down and burn the fences of the enclosed land. The properties of Hughes and Tongue were a particular focus. They were led by John de Morgan who called himself a Champion for the Common Rights. He also boasted that he was “an irishman, a rebel and had been in prison several times”. He was obviously a persuasive speaker as 700 men from The Royal Arsenal lost pay and took the afternoon off work to hear him speak.

Old Windmill

Old Windmill

Local opinion, of the time, including the liberal Woolwich Gazette, was in favour of the preservation of the common. The rioters included family groups, women and children and the “respectable working classes”. The more critical Kentish Independent described the rioters as “roughs and hobble-de-hoys.” The riots started on Sunday 1st July and went on well into Monday evening. The demonstrations did have an impact and in 1878 The Plumstead Common Act ensured that about one hundred acres of land remained as public open space.

RACs Store Plumstead Common

RACs Store Plumstead Common

Today the Common is effectively divided into two as roads were built before the Act. Along Plumstead Common Road still stands The Ship public house, now painted a Germoline pink. Some two hundred metres along the road is the historic Prince of Wales where, in October 1886, the Arsenal Football Team was formed. It’s now flats.

The Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales

Mill Pond Road dissects the common and the original mill can still be seen. At the time of the riots it was a public house and remains one.

Plum Lane

Plum Lane

The Old Mill  today

The Old Mill today

The original common was much larger and extended along Plum Lane to Shrewsbury Park and Shooters Hill. There is still an amazing amount of green space at the top of the hill and well worth the climb as the views are remarkable, overlooking London to the West, Dartford to the East and Essex to the North.

View across the Thames from Shrewsbury Park

View across the Thames from Shrewsbury Park

A Bronze Age Tumulus still survives and hidden in Shrewsbury House is a Cold War bunker: though not open to the public. The original manor house is now a community centre.

Shrewsbury House

Shrewsbury House

The houses around the common and the streets leading to Shrewsbury park tell you that this was not a place for the hoi polloi, there are some seriously posh houses. Large “tea caddy” houses, enormous three storey Victorian mansions overlooking the common. It may have lost some of its sparkle but with the advent of Crossrail this could well be a place on the up.

 

Note:  I first published this post two years ago but decided to re-post at the time of the anniversary of the riots.  It remains one of the most popular posts I have done.

Darent Path in Dartford

Darent Path in Dartford

A walk along the Darent to the Thames isn’t everyone’s idea of an idyllic landscape but will take you through an historic market town in transition, wetlands now teeming with wildlife and remnants of both war and industry. This is a marginal place not only topographically but socially as it was here that hospitals were built to exclude, from the London metropolis, the infectious sick, the insane and “imbecile children”.

Darent Path

Darent Path

Dartford is an historic market town and was on the original London to Dover Road. The Darent Path can be picked up close to the railway station. The town’s historic high street is struggling against the competition from its own town centre mall and the nearby mother of all malls, Bluewater. If that wasn’t sufficient there are plans for a new Tesco. The heritage buildings in Lowfield Street have been blighted by that behmoth and their plans that have taken, so far, eleven years.

Anti aircraft array

Anti aircraft array

The river flows through the town and is flanked by reeds and marshland eventually leading to open country. The wetland area sustains a small farm with cultivated fields and cattle roaming freely. An array of anti-aircraft structures still stand but now with vegetation rising look like hidden walled gardens. From the raised path there is a 360 degree panorama. The view north is to the river and the massive structure of Littlebrook Power Station.

IMG_0690

The bright yellow ship’s funnels skimming across the horizon between the trees let’s you know that you are close to the Thames. The rivers Cray and Darent merge here before flowing into the Thames.

QEll Bridge

QEll Bridge

Turn east at the Thames and walk under the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. At this point the river is still a working area and was fascinating watching the German tanker Seacod of Bremen being pushed, pulled and turned by a couple of tough tugs. On the northern bank there is still the industrial presence of Proctor and Gamble. The conversion of brownfield land is never far away and once through the shadow of the bridge the uninspiring riverside apartments at Greenhithe can be seen.

River Shuttle Eltham

There are not many places in London where can you walk from the source of a river to the point where it flows into a tributary. You can in South East London. The source of the River Shuttle lies between Pippenhall and Conduit Meadows in Eltham. It flows in an easterly direction and into the River Cray close to Hall Place in Bexley. The walk is well signposted and there are areas in which the river can be seen and in some it is hidden underground.

River Shuttle Eltham

As you walk across Avery Hill Park you will not see the river it is in an underground channel or 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. The Quaggy has been restored and is now a major feature in Sutcliffe Park Eltham.

River Shuttle in Bexley Woods

From Alderwood the river runs in a channel along a residential road and then into parkland. A long ribbon of meadow, of variable width, follows its path. This in itself is astonishing; that there are approximately 10 miles of meadow in South East London. On the water’s edge are nettles, coarse grasses, canary grass, sedge and soft rush. This vegetation provides shelter for small animals as well as food for birds and insects.

Weeping Willow banks of River Shuttle

The alders that run along the banks of the river are renowned as the best in London and give the name to the estate and the primary school. Other native trees along the banks are weeping willows, Lombardy Poplars and whitebeam. You will have walked about 4 miles by the time you get to Bexley Woods. If your feet are tired you can relieve them by putting alder leaves into your shoes. This and other folklore stories in on a helpful information board. A great urban walk.

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The Thames Erith

If you are a lover of the overlooked this may well be a walk for you. It’s got its own charm and will take you through areas of unconventional beauty. The starting point is Erith railway station from here you pick up the Thames path walking westerly towards central London. To your back will be the Queen Elizabeth Bridge.

The Thames Erith

This part of the river is still used to recycle and remove the detrius of 8 million people living in London. Over on the north bank slow moving bulldozers are pushing around decomposing waste to form a new hill on the landscape. Further upstream are, not the most romantically named, Crossness Sludge Powered Generator and the Riverside Recovery Facility. The industrial architecture of both provide a vision of new industry in a low carbon world. However, what is most compelling in this environment is the new connection between the industrial and the rural.

Concrete boats Erith

It was low tide, inviting waders on to the mud flats. A peregrine falcon sweeping down on its prey on the foreshore. Seagulls were perched along an old industrial wire like a string of pearls and in the background were the concrete barges from World War ll. There is even a pair of swans. Just past the Riverside Resource Plant is a left turn into the Erith Marshes. There is a country lane running alongside a small ditch with views of Abbey Wood straight ahead. You could be mistaken that you are in a rural idyll. Hides and viewing platforms have been constructed using recovered materials. They form an effective bridge between the past and the present. It is the remnant of grazing marshlands that were once the typical topography of the Thames Estuary.

Erith Marshes

The area is extensive and is now an important habitat for the rare water vole and peregrine falcon. In autumn there is an abundance of dragonflies that hover around your ankles. In the open areas the familiar outline of Canary Wharf looms in the background but this is not a cityscape: it is a pastoral scene of horses grazing on the marshland. The path is well signposted and will take you to Abbey Wood train station.

Eltham

This is a part of the town only known to walkers and those with a long association with the place. Located at the back of Eltham Palace it is an ancient right of way which is now part of the Green Chain Walk. As you approach Eltham Palace its worth taking some time to look at the texture of the brick work along Court Yard and Tilt Yard defying time still standing but bowing. The walls date back to the 16th C and are listed. Take the path at the side of the Palace main entrance passing some Tudor style mansions. There is a turning to the left marked by the Green Chain sign and an iron gate with a White Tudor Rose. This is King John’s Walk.

Listed Tudor wall

Listed Tudor wall

The vast panorama tricks you to think that you are in the middle of Kent rather than a mere half mile from the High Street. This path originally linked the Palace with the hunting estates of Middle Park and the Great Park. There is still sufficient open space to get a feel of what it was like when it was a hunting park. The path is named after Prince John of Eltham born at the Palace in 1316 to Edward ll and Queen Isabella. It is also associated with the French King Jean Le Bon who was held captive at the Palace after the Battle of Poitier 1356. It is said that he used to exercise here. The familiar London skyline of the Shard, London Eye, Walkie Talkie, Canary Wharf and Millennium Dome can be seen from the path. Over to the West is a view of Crystal Palace. At the Green Chain sign post take the right hand path towards The Tarn.

Donkeys St John's Path Eltham

There is a field of donkeys and a couple of mules. Yes, and you are still in Eltham. They are quite friendly and will move towards you as you walk along the path. The path crosses the boundary of the Middle Park Estate crossing Court Road and into The Tarn.

The Tarn

The Tarn

At the entrance there is a C18th brick ice well built to supply Eltham Lodge. Built in 1664 it is now the Royal Blackheath Golf Club which is set back from Court Road. The Tarn is named after the lake which is the main feature of the small park. Eltham Lodge and the Tarn were once within the Great Park of Eltham Palace. To return to the High Street take Court Road. The walk will take about an hour or more if you spend more time with the donkeys.

The Rivers Darent and Thames from Slade Green to Erith.

Howbury Jacobean Barn

Howbury Jacobean Barn

This may not be a picturesque part of the Thames flood plain but it’s like a walk through time. At Slade Green station I picked up the London Loop path. It starts at the aptly named Moat Lane. On the left hand side of the path you pass Howbury Moated Grange. It could easily be overlooked. This was once the home of an official of the courts of Henry V and VI. There has been a house on this site since the Domesday Book. The last house was rebuilt in the 17th Century but was damaged in the 2nd World War and only the outer wall and moat remain; it is a listed ancient monument. Close to it is Howbury Jacobean Barn which is partly obscured by a more modern building. You can walk down the farm track to get a better view. The queen post roof is particularly fine as is the English bond brickwork. This path takes you along the River Darent and on to the Thames.

Howbury Moated Grange

Howbury Moated Grange

Until 1902 three hospital ships were moored at this point, Long Reach. The ships were The Atlas, an old man-of-war, a frigate Endymion and a Channel steamer Castalia. From 1884 all detected smallpox cases in London were sent to these ships. To the East is the Queen Elizabeth ll bridge and to the west is the Darent Flood Barrier, turn West.

Dartford Flood Barrier

Dartford Flood Barrier

This part of the Thames is a brownfield site with lots of scrap yards and light industry. Its nostalgically arresting. The sounds of guard dogs, welding and metal clattering is evocative of a time when Britain made things. There are few places that you can come across a tethered working horse on the Thames pathway. Scattered amongst the yards is an anti-aircraft battery and pillboxes. A reminder of the strategic importance of this area and that Erith was so badly bombed in the Second World War.

Thames at Long Reach

Thames at Long Reach

There is a turn in the river and dramatically the picture changes. You encounter, on the far bank of the river, the new riverside developments and lots of expensive looking yachts which belong to Erith Yacht Club. Potentially, this is a vision that will be repeated all along the Thames and its estuary. What a duller place it will be.

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