Out to the sea. As the long Easter weekend fades behind us mentally today I’ll retread my steps of a month ago as I walked along the Thames Estuary from Benfleet, through Leigh-on-Sea (surely that should be ‘Leigh-on-Estuary’), Chalkwell, Westcliff, Southend and finishing at Thorpe Bay.
This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.
On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.
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.
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.
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.
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 took me by surprise for such a historically resonate location I was expecting a big heritage fanfare.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Guy Shrubsole (@guyshrubsole) December 15, 2014
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
— Kate Louise Spencer (@DrKateSpencer) December 17, 2014
Here’s the podcast of my previous trip to Tilbury with Kate Spencer, Nick Papadimitriou, and Andy Ramsay for Ventures and Adventures in Topography.
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.”
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.
Wonderful London also offers this view of the Thames from the muddy foreshore at Shadwell at Low Tide looking eastwards.
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.
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.
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.
Wonderful London describes Wapping Old Stairs as “one of liveliest spots in the country” in the great days of the maritime Thames.
“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