Exploring Old & New Barking – Abbey Ruins to Barking Riverside

There’s yet another new London taking shape on the edge of Barking at Barking Riverside:

“A brand new neighbourhood is being created alongside two km of Thames river frontage at Barking Riverside, one of the most ambitious and important new developments in the UK. Outline planning permission was granted in 2007 for 10,800 homes on the former power station site.”Barking Riverside website

The excursion out to Barking Riverside began wandering through the footprint of the ruins of Barking Abbey, that great powerhouse of early medieval London. I then followed the banks of the River Roding down to Barking Creek and Creekmouth Open Space, before continuing along River Road to the huge Barking Riverside site, finishing at Dagenham Dock Station.

Woolwich Reach to the Greenwich Air Line

Part 2 of my walking video that started in the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. I pass the Thames Barrier ruminating on how tenuous London’s grip is on the solid ground we take for granted when the rising waters of the Thames could reclaim the City …. and one day will. Oddly, I find this a comforting thought.

Despite it being a sultry, cloudy day I could appreciate the narrative arc of re-crossing the Thames on the Air Line Cable Car from Greenwich to Royal Docks. If I was honest, I was a tad disappointed with the experience – when something arrives with such corporate fan fare you’re entitled to expect to have your mind blown. But as the cable car glides to its summit mid Thames look southwards to the highlands of the ridge of land running from Greenwich to Belvedere and from there are views that will truly twist your melon.

The quiet majesty of Woolwich Dockyard

When I’d crossed the River at North Woolwich for one of the walks in This Other London I’d opted for the free Ferry so I could feel like Captain Willard on his mission of destiny to encounter Colonel Kurtz – I was bound for the Dartford Salt Marshes via Erith Pier.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

So this time I opted for the Woolwich Foot Tunnel – a 100-year-old passage beneath the sacred Thames, half-a-kilometre long with amazing acoustics bouncing off the white-tiled wall.

 

woolwich dockyard

Woolwich Dockyard took me by surprise for such a historically resonate location I was expecting a big heritage fanfare.

Woolwich Dockyard

Through a battered wire fence I saw a fella casting his fishing rod into the murky green water and asked him what this place was. “It’s Henry VIII’s old dry docks”, he said and directed me to the entrance around the far side.

 

Woolwich Dry Dock

The fine brick buildings of South-East London Aquatic Centre are falling into decay despite being only 35 years old and now serve mainly as a pigeon coop. With the weeds sprouting from the concrete terraces it reminded me of images of abandoned Soviet architecture – modernist wonders reclaimed by the undergrowth.

woolwich dockyard

Henry VIII brought shipbuilding to Woolwich and it remained an important naval dockyard till the last ship constructed here, the Thalia, slid down the slipway into the Thames in 1869.

woolwich dockyard

Woolwich was at the heart of England’s seafaring empire. The ships of Sir Francis Drake were launched at Woolwich, as was Charles I’s mighty Golden Devil. Elizabethan explorer Martin Frobisher set sail from here in search of the northwest passage.

woolwich dockyard

The site has been given listed building status with plans for a new housing development approved in 2012. So get there quick to enjoy it in this state of quiet slumber – places like this in London are a precious resource now.

 

Crunching across time at Tilbury

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A return to Tilbry with Dr Kate Spencer and joined by the London Waterkeeper Theo Thomas, to inspect the bizarre landscape formed by the broken cap of a historic landfill site on the Thames foreshore.

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The path ‪from Tilbury Fort hugs the exterior wall of the mothballed Tilbury Powerstation, a ghost site, inert, occupied by slumbering security guards snoozing in front of flickering CCTV monitors. Well that’s the image in my mind with Homer Simpson whizzing round on a skateboard.

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Walking over the early 20th Century landfill where it has broken through whatever soil/clay cap was holding it in is a surreal experience – stepping across a carpet of scattered broken crockery, paste jars, poison bottles, ceramic jugs, old lotions and forgotten condiments. The soil is a contaminated cocktail of chemicals and depleted metals washed through by coastal erosion and rains.

This map posted by Guy Shrubsole on Twitter shows that Tilbury is far from unique. Theo says, “There are thousands of pollution time bombs close to our rivers and estuaries, tucked away, but silently threatening their and our health.”

Guy and Kate have found further maps detailing both the landfill site at Tilbury and elsewhere around the country

Here’s the podcast of my previous trip to Tilbury with Kate Spencer, Nick Papadimitriou, and Andy Ramsay for Ventures and Adventures in Topography.

 

Old Stairs of the Thames at Wapping and Shadwell

shadwell stairs

Onto the No.339 bus down to Shadwell in search of the locations of a series of old photos in Wonderful London (circa 1926) of two sets of the old Watermen’s Stairs on the Thames. This beguiling picture above is of the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs. The caption reads: “.. an ancient and much used landing place and point of departure of a ferry. There is a tradition that Sir Martin Frobisher took boat here for his ship when starting on his voyage to find the North-West Passage.”

ratcliffe cross stairs

Ratcliffe Cross Stairs

This is the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs today (or at least that is what I’ve deduced from old maps and descriptions of the location, at the junction of Broad Street, Shadwell and Narrow Street, Limehouse) protruding out from the bottom of a block of flats as the lunchtime City joggers pound across the wooden bridge above. The Watermen of the 21st Century cruising past in their City Clipper tour boats.

shadwell stairs

Wonderful London also offers this view of the Thames from the muddy foreshore at Shadwell at Low Tide looking eastwards.

IMG_3837-View from Shadwell

No barges marooned on the shore the day I was there – the Towers of Mammon rising around the river bend on the Isle of Dogs.

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs Prospect of Whitby

Pelican Stairs

Running down from the historic Prospect of Whitby pub (dating from 1520) are the Pelican Stairs, where on the shore some wag has erected a noose in honour of the ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries who was a regular at the Prospect.

King Henry's Stairs Wapping

King Henry’s Stairs

Heading West along Wapping High Street you encounter King Henry’s Stairs. Although these historic riverside rights of way have been preserved, some have been allowed to slowly decay.

wapping old stairs

Wonderful London describes Wapping Old Stairs as “one of liveliest spots in the country” in the great days of the maritime Thames.

Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs today

“but the swaggering sailormen and the loathly crew of bullies and harridans who prey on these Jack Juncks and Bill Bobstays during their few days ashore have, happily, gone as completely as the foul dens that harboured them” – Wonderful London

Wapping Old Stairs video with the sound of the Thames lapping against the stone steps

Docklands Walk – Island Gardens to East India Dock

Docklands Walk - Canon Powershot SX230 hs video test from fugueur on Vimeo.

It’s taken 23 years but I’ve fallen in love with the DLR. I’ve used it twice in recent months and it has beguiled me with its charms. It makes me feel like like the early train passengers riding an iron horse.

Entrance to Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Yesterday my two urges of getting to water and riding the DLR coincided. The family were inert at home so I headed to Island Gardens. I was tempted straight away to head down into the Greenwich Foot Tunnel but had no interest in what was at the other end. I wanted to skirt the eastern periphery of the Isle of Dogs.

The memorial at Dudgeon’s Wharf is a reminder of life in Docklands before the biggest threat to the area was trouble in the money markets or a rise in the price of Bolly. In July 1965 six people, including five firefighters, were killed in an explosion at a chemical storage facility here.

Dollar Bay

I struggle to find much to say about Docklands, it already feels overly mediated. It is also puzzlingly paradoxical. There are fragments and echoes of its past like sections of wharfs and jetties, decommissioned cranes. But on the other hand it is utterly removed from the rest of the city – a private estate, a samizdat Singapore.

I always feel like an intruder in Docklands, unwelcome and illicit. I’m long-haired, bearded, wearing shorts and sandals topped off with a baseball cap – that probably breaks at least two recently imposed local by-laws.

Lady Daphne and the Greenwich Uplands

It’s the Thames Festival this weekend – maybe that’s where the urge to head for the water originated. I caught a glimpse of the Lady Daphne chugging her way eastwards after a day of ferrying passengers as part of the festivities.

signwriting worthy of Bob and Roberta Smith

The opposite shore in Greenwich still seems to be clinging onto some vestige of its industrial functions. But the glass and steel towers are on their way to keep the Millennium Dome company.

I wound up at East India Dock, unable to finish my walk with the statutory pint. So it was back on the DLR and into the Leyton Technical pop-up pub in old Leyton Town Hall for a fantastic pint of Windsor and Eton Ale – this could well be the best thing to come out of the Olympics.

Jubilee on the Thames

I think those people were waiting for the Sex Pistols barge to float by in a re-enactment of one of the great cultural moments in the history of the Thames during the last Jubilee – I know I was. Although, the London Symphony Orchestra did make a brilliant racket and the conductor flailed around in a manner redolent of Johnny Rotten before the butter adverts – not a bad subsitute

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