Walking round London pt9: Royal Victoria Dock to North Woolwich Pier
The second quarter of the 120km capital circumnavigation, and it’s Thames-time
(ICYMI: on Sat 5 May, the writer walked 36km as the first quarter of a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity; on Sat 26 May, he walked the next quarter. These blogs are to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)
Three weeks after making my debut at this long-distance walking lark, I’m up at sparrowfart and back on the Waterloo/Jubilee shuffle. But this time, instead of going 13 stops north-west to Wembley Park, it’s seven to the east, and back to Canning Town, where the last odyssey ended.
I emerge from Canning Town’s interchange into a first for this walk — rain. While zipping along the Jubilee I had considered getting the Emirates Air Line cross-Thames cable-car, until I discovered it’s an extra £4.50 — a charge the London Assembly and Lib Dems want to get rid of, saying it should be integrated into Travelcard costs, after TfL figures revealed that only one in 10,000 users are commuting rather than sightseeing.
I’d have been in the latter category but I’m glad of my parsimony because the sights would have remained unseen through the morning cloud hanging over London. The weather could go either way — it’s oppressively humid and could break into thunderstorms, but there is also talk of searing sunshine this afternoon. Well, searing for England.
Warming up the legs by taking the 18-minute walk from station to start, I note in the building-site wasteland next to the Canning Town track some structures which seem to echo the shape of the Thames Barrier — which we’ll see later.
By the time I reach the start — at the Royal Victoria Dock, where the first leg finished — I’m ready for a big old coffee. Events conspired to limit me to around two hours’ sleep last night, hardly perfect preparation; I know caffeine is a short-term hit which might affect me later, but sometimes one has to take these risks.
After registration, conversation and preparation via a decent muscular warm-up, we set off at 9am, precisely coinciding with a Park Run along the north of the Dock. It’s also just as the vast Excel conference centre opens its doors to Comic Con, with over 100,000 cosplayers adding a somewhat hallucinogenic air to proceedings.
The dockside walk past the Excel is thus shared between walkers, runners and people dressed as Batman. As we pass the eastern entrance, the ParkRunners double back and the cosplayers thin out, although a few coming from hotels to the east continue to add a little colour — the occasional Pikachu or Sonic the Hedgehog helping to sharpen one of those thinly-clouded days where it’s too bright not to wear sunglasses but you can’t see much when you do.
Walking under the Connaught Bridge and from the Victoria to the Albert Dock, we pass the point at which the previous walk arrived from the north; I look that way to see, upon the final bridge we’d crested, Wonder Woman taking a photoshoot. We now cease retracing our steps and strike out east breaking new ground.
In truth, it’s not the most fascinating, considering there’s an airport opposite. With building work along much of the dock’s north side we’re eventually hemmed into a five-foot wide footpath which we share with the cycle-based instructors of the rowing teams slicing through the water.
In time the path does open up to accommodate the University of East London’s Docklands base. This was the capital’s first fresh campus in half a century when it opened in 1999, but its eco-friendly buildings seem rooted in a particular architectural era: somehow too ugly to be futuristic yet too polite to be confident.
The 10 rounded accommodation towers, paired along the waterfront like upturned bongos, bring to mind silos — which is what they are, what all accommodation blocks are to some or other extent, even if they don’t say it quite so blatantly.
By now the sun is trying to come out, casting wan shadows, but in the humidity I’m glad it has been obscured while we’ve been bereft of shade. At quarter to ten, after 45 minutes of walking in a dead-straight eastward line along the dock edge, we finally turn south, over the dock, over the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge: presumably a goal for the rowers. Built in 1999, the bridge slides directly under the end of the City Airport flightpath, the yellow towers of the approach lighting system being worryingly lower than the streetlights.
Transport has long been a concern round here. As the Redgrave bridge swoops over the eastern end of the two huge parallel docks that surround the airport runway — the Albert and the more southerly King George V, finished in 1921 just in time for the General Strike, Great Depression, Second World War and industrial decline — the DLR station behind us identifies itself as Gallions Reach, named after the Galyons family, who were big news here in the 14th century. “Reach” now means an open stretch of water on a river — the sort of thing Whistler loved to paint — but originally had the rather more literal meaning of how far a sailboat could go on one tack (ie its wind-based zig or indeed zag).
Until around 1840 this was a vast open marsh, so moist that it was officially in Kent, so unimportant that it got its name (North Woolwich) from the place on the other side of the river. Then they built the docks that accommodated the world’s largest ships, until the boats got too big and moved downstream to Tilbury.
That’s why Galleons Point is — as a sign we pass notes — “the former home of Harland & Wolff”, the largest shipyard in London with a machine shop capable of producing shafting 80ft long and crank shafts of 5ft 6in, upholstery and French polishing workshops, sail making, boiler making and a foundry producing castings up to 15 tons. The yard closed in 1972, and its wrought-iron gates are now a mile upstream in Lyle Park, the public gardens donated in 1924 by the sugar magnate whose mate Tate grabbed a bigger limelight by sponsoring an art gallery.
The Harland & Wolff site is now housing, as you’d expect, based around Hartlepool Court, Grimsby Grove and Fishguard Way, as you might not. I’m not quite sure whether to find the naming of dockland newbuilds after decaying ports touchingly affectionate or unintentionally offensive, and certainly anyone who’s recently been to those places would struggle to imagine the nominative association adding lucrative glamour, but economics is economics and post-industrial collapse is hardly the fault of the street-naming committee.
And then we’re at the river, gazing across at the late-60s Thamesmead high-rises (“a town for the 21st century”, as featured in A Clockwork Orange), as a Thames Clipper river-bus returning from its downstream zenith zips past the lumbering Woolwich Ferry.
Turning my gaze back to the north side of the river as the path winds west toward Woolwich, I note that the riverside newbuild at Grimsby Grove appears to think that breezeblock is an acceptable architectural finish, alternating it with panels of red brick in what may be post-modernism, cost-cutting or both. It may not be what you expect for your money: when the development opened at the gleaming edge of this new century, a one-bedroomed flat was £90,000 with a four-bed terrace double that; they most recently sold for £230,000 and £475,000 respectively. (Up in Grimsby itself, you can buy a one-bed flat for £17,500.)
But we’re met by a cheery “Mawnin’!” by a lady of a certain age, walking her shopping back along the riverfront, as we pass a slipway from which, records indicate, a ferry service dates back to 1308. There used to be a community here; maybe there still is, it’s just different.
Newham council have had a go, tarting up the Royal Victoria Gardens which now come into view. They were opened in 1851 by William Holland, the showman owner of the Pavilion Hotel, as the Royal Pavilion Pleasure Gardens; trumpeted attractions included a bowling green, a maze and open air music and theatre shows on the largest dance stage in London. Such entertainments were poopular but expensive, and by 1890 they were sold to the council, who redeveloped the site as the Royal Victoria Gardens. The dock-peppering Luftwaffe made a mess of them and the only Victorian remains are the central walkway and riverside path.
Out on the wet, the ferry honking toward us is called the Ernest Bevin, who was the local MP at the time of his death and perhaps more germanely the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union for 18 years beforehand. Actually, it could be either reason: the other two ferries in the current fleet are named after a trade unionist (John Burns) and Woolwich mayor (James Newman).
But the ferry is much older than that. It’s over 700 years since the first recorded mention, although it likely goes back much further: the Domesday Book lists North Woolwich as being in Kent, which suggests a very real connection. In the 1880s the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had taken control of toll bridges and made them free to public use, did a similar thing for the ferry; as ever, our old friend Joseph Bazalgette was rolled out to make it happen, building pontoons and approach roads. Sadly for Baz, two days before the ferry opened in 1889 the MBW was replaced by the London County Council, so London’s second-most iconic constructor after Christopher Wren was bumped for the freshly-minted LCC chairman the Earl of Rosebery.
At that point, the ferry terminus was the lovely wrought-iron North Woolwich Pier, now somewhat dishevelled at its landward end but still marching determinedly out into the waves. Hidden behind the concrete flood barriers is another former glory awaiting revival: a beautiful double-fronted Italianate railway station (opened 1854) built from yellow brick and embellished with classical columns and stone dressings. The building was repurposed as a museum from 1984 but that too closed in 2008, two years after the line went. Maybe some day it could be reinvigorated into a wider celebration of North Woolwich’s transport history — something I’m about to dive deep into…
Coming up next: Under the river
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) will take place on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.
Pt1: Wembley to East Finchley • Pt2: East Finchley to Finsbury Park • Pt3:Finsbury Park to Clissold Park • Pt4: Clissold Park to Springfield Park• Pt5: Springfield Park to Hackney Wick • Pt6: Hackney Wick to Bow Back River • Pt7: Bow Back River to Channelsea River • Pt8: Channelsea River to Royal Victoria Dock