The Thames path, Crayford Marshes to Charlton

Crayford Marshes is a patch of grazing marsh on the south bank of the Thames east of London — Dartford, roughly. I heard about it as a birding spot, and a few weeks ago I went to check it out.

But it’s quite a small site and quite a long way away, so I decided to combine it with walking a section of the Thames Path. When I was walking the Thames path a few years ago I walked east to west, starting at the Thames Barrier at Charlton and eventually getting as far as Teddington; this time I added a section to the beginning of that walk.

Crayford Marshes itself was nice enough: it’s basically a fragment of the landscape which would once have been typical of the whole area, and which, thanks to some strict environmental protections, is still found all along much of the north Kent coast. It’s not actually a natural landscape — it’s managed for livestock and there’s a whole system of drainage ditches and embankments to keep the sea out — but it certainly feels wilder than most of the space around London, and it’s important for wildlife.

Crayford Marshes is less impressive than some of the larger areas of marshland out in Kent, but has the advantage, for birders who like to keep lists, of being in London: i.e. anything you see there can be added to your London list. It’s within the modern boundaries of Greater London, as well as the more generous London Recording Area as defined by the London Natural History Society, which is within 20 miles of St Paul’s cathedral — a somewhat arbitrary area which thankfully includes several of my favourite birding spots which would not be included in a more sensible definition of London.

I didn’t get any very spectacular birds, but I did see my first swallow and whitethroat of the year, and lots of linnets, and green sandpiper, and the lapwings were calling, which is my favourite noise in the world. And I saw little egret, which is sort of my first for London.*

Just in the middle of the marshes there’s some light industry — a scrap metal yard and some yards that looked more like distribution centres than actual manufacturing. I was just taking pictures of rusty metal textures and a man from the Environment Agency come over to say “I’m not being funny, but you want to be careful taking pictures here” and explained that the owners of the scrap metal place had been quite aggressive and accused them of taking pictures when they hadn’t even been doing it, and that they seemed to be “a bit funny about photography”.

And of course, it’s not difficult to imagine why scrap metal dealers might not want people taking pictures of their premises; particularly people from government agencies. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they were paranoid nutters rather than criminals. Either way, I took the advice and was discreet with the camera for a bit.

Once you leave the marshes and go past Erith Yacht Club, it’s a mixture of industrial stuff and housing pretty much the whole way. Among the identifiable things are the familiar piles of gravel and sand waiting, presumably, to be turned into concrete somewhere; a big sewage treatment plant, and a site generating electricity from waste incineration.

The most striking thing, for me, was that when I walked west from Charlton originally, I was walking past a similar mix of housing and industry, and I had a sense of being out on the fringes of London. This walk reminded me that I was nowhere near the edge of London that time; there is miles and miles more of that stuff stretching out along the river.

The sewage treatment plant at Crossness is on the site of one of the Victorian pumping engines installed as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s great scheme to build sewers for London. There was one pumping station on each side of the river, and Crossness was responsible for pumping all the sewage of south London into the Thames. Apparently they didn’t actually treat the sewage in those days, they just timed the release into the river to coincide with the tide going out and let the tide sweep it out to sea. Which sounds pretty horrifying by modern standards, but was a huge step up from not having a citywide sewer system at all.

It’s fitting that the Thames Path goes past the old pumping station, because in central London, a lot of the route is directly above Bazalgette’s main sewer, which runs along under the Embankment.

Also at Crossness there is a little nature reserve that gets a few decent birds, but much of it is closed to non-members. I had a quick look but didn’t see much.

Most of the way, though, what you’re walking past is miles of big, modern, self-contained housing developments. These are generally pretty ugly, which is not really a surprise if you’ve spent any time in English suburbia. There is very little evidence, looking around Britain, of the building trade putting any emphasis on beauty when building mass-market residential property. And they are probably right about the commercial logic; compared to location, facilities and price, the physical beauty of the exterior of the property must come a long way down most buyers’ priorities. But the cumulative effect is pretty deadening.

There are a couple of bits of variety: the old Woolwich Arsenal has been converted into a rather more upmarket area of housing and offices, and at Woolwich itself, you at least go near a real town centre. It’s a pretty dismal town centre, but at least there’s some sign of the variety of human life, instead of the endless ranks of apartment blocks.

Incidentally, although the Thames Path represents an admirable modern effort to create a shared public space, it doesn’t aways feel very welcoming and communitarian. You spend a lot of your time walking along next to coils of razor wire, or outside eight foot concrete walls topped with downward-pointing spikes. It seems appropriate when you’re passing commercial properties, but it does feel hostile when you’re going past residential estates — although I appreciate that families don’t want their stuff nicked either.

The Thames Path was sent on a temporary detour at the end, so I didn’t actually get to walk along the river to the Thames Barrier where I started the first time. Which was a pity.

Anyway, you can see more photos from my day on Flickr, and pictures from the rest of the route as well. The other blog posts about the Thames Path are here.

* ‘sort of’ because, from memory, it’s my first in Greater London but not my first in the London Recording Area.

The Thames Path, Kew to Teddington

I know it has been nearly a year since I last did a section of the Thames Path, but I always intended to do at least one more bit, and I finally got round to it. Incidentally, here’s a trivia question for you: there are four World Heritage Sites in London, all visible from the Thames Path. What are they? Answers in a footnote.*

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The first notable thing to be seen on this part of the walk — apart from a boat with a Grace Jones figurehead — is an island called Brentford Ait. Apparently ‘ait’ or ‘eyot’ is a word used for an island in a river, particularly the Thames. No, I didn’t know that either.

Anyway, the reason it is interesting, to me, is that it has a large heronry on it. The only heronry I knew about it London was the one in Regent’s Park. They obviously fly quite a long way looking for food, because you see herons all over London wherever there’s a patch of water, including my garden pond, but they congregate in nesting colonies and build big nests in trees. Something you can’t see very well in this rubbish picture, because the nests were too far away; I’ve cropped the picture down significantly but you still can’t see much.

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There were some more herons nesting further upriver, as well, on some small islands at Richmond.

The path then goes around the back of Kew Gardens. The path is raised up with some kind of drainage ditch on the other side from the river, so it would be quite difficult to sneak over the fence, but you can see a little bit of the gardens from the path. Meanwhile on the north bank of the river is Syon Park. So it all feels quite rural, and the flowers were out and the birds were singing — lots of wrens, particularly, when I was there — and it’s all pleasant enough, although I’d say that if you’re in that part of London and want to go for a walk: pay the entrance fee and walk in Kew Gardens itself.

This is the back of Syon House, built in the mid-C16th by the Duke of Somerset:

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After Kew Gardens the path goes past the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club, and over the river there’s another tree-covered island, Isleworth Ait, to help keep up the rural feel. The drainage ditch, if that’s what it is, widens out here into a respectable looking stream which seems to be quite thoughtfully managed for wildlife. By which I mean that it has been allowed to get a bit untidy and overgrown, with willow trees growing in the water, but there are clear signs of maintenance, so it’s not just neglected. I heard blackcap and willow warbler and saw a sedge warbler singing in the undergrowth, so that was quite encouraging — although at this time of the year they may just be passing through on their way to somewhere else. There were also quite a lot of butterflies, particularly one of my favourites, the orange tip.

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The next stage really is Richmond, with more herons, lots of generally expensive looking people and some places to stop for lunch. And what might be a Canada Goose × Bar-headed Goose hybrid. It was with a group of Canada Geese and one Bar-headed Goose, so it’s I think it’s a reasonable guess. Neither species is native here, and they don’t occur wild together — the Bar-headed Goose is from Central Asia and the Canada Goose from North America — but waterfowl hybridise fairly freely.

EDIT: the nice people at the Flickr Hybrid birds group seem to think it might be Canada Goose × Greylag/domestic goose.

Anyway after Richmond, it’s more of the same — leafy towpath — until Teddington Lock where I crossed the footbridge and caught a train at Teddington. Pleasant enough but not very interesting. Although Teddington Lock was where the Monty Python fish-slapping dance was filmed, which is kind of mildly neat.

Incidentally, at Teddington I had a little lesson in why it might not be a good idea to rely too heavily on Google Maps. This is my iPhone’s advice on the best route to the station from where I was on the other side of the river:

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Which would seem pretty reasonable if I wasn’t standing right next to a footbridge at the time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant having magical maps in your pocket the whole time; I’m just glad I consulted the A-Z before leaving the house.

» You can see more of my photos from this section of the walk on Flickr. You can even see them on a map although some of the locations are approximate.

* Those World Heritage Sites are, in the order you pass them walking upstream:

  1. Maritime Greenwich, i.e. the Queen’s House designed by Inigo Jones, the Royal Naval College designed by Christopher Wren, the Observatory designed by Wren and Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Alphege’s church, Greenwich Park and so on.
  2. The Tower of London. Pretty self-explanatory, I think. Notably, of course, the Tower is not just a historically important medieval castle; it’s unusually early, since a lot of it dates back to the C11th.
  3. Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster (i.e. the parliament buildings) and St Margaret’s Church. In some ways the Abbey and the houses of parliament could almost be two separate World Heritage Sites, being both very important in their own right and separated by several centuries chronologically, but the whole complex of buildings is interconnected so I guess it makes sense.
  4. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Which is why I got started on the subject now. Kew Gardens are important to the history of science and of landscape gardening. And indeed it’s still an important scientific institution.

All very fair choices, I think. The most obvious gap in the list would be St Paul’s Cathedral, I guess. Or since they don’t mind lumping a few buildings together to make one WHS, how about ‘St Paul’s Cathedral and the city churches’ to take in all those Wren and Hawksmoor churches built after the Great Fire. Buckingham Palace is an obvious possibility, perhaps, except that I don’t think anyone claims that it’s particularly architecturally interesting.

The Thames path, Putney to Kew

And two months later, I get back on the Thames Path again. One exciting addition to the routine: sunscreen. Yup, proper sunny weather; spring turning into summer. And it made for a very pleasant walk; this section of the path feels almost rural. Admittedly, for much of the walk the rurality consists of little more than a few trees and about five feet of weedy verge, but in the full greenness of May, that was pretty good. In November, the impression of being in the countryside would no doubt be a bit weaker.

And if I list some of the plants that were in flower, it certainly sounds rural. Cow parsley, white deadnettle, wild garlic, lady’s smock (cuckooflower), hawthorn, elderflower, forget-me-not; I just love the names. And at this time of the year, everything is so green and full of life: even the sycamores, a tree I basically think of as an exceptionally big ugly weed, looked pretty good.

path somewhere towards the Kew end

There were some non-floral points of interest, though. Soon after Putney Bridge, you start walking past the boat houses owned by various schools and rowing clubs, and people rowing on the river. In fact my walk was pretty much the route of the Boat Race. Over the river you can see Craven Cottage, the stadium of Fulham FC, the football club owned by Mohamed “Prince Philip is a Nazi Frankenstein” Al-Fayed. For non-Londoners, Fulham (both the area and the football club) are best defined by the fact that, as much as they’d like to be, they just aren’t Chelsea.

Alexanders and Craven Cottage

The path here was originally a towpath, I believe. In fact, I think most of the Thames path from here on up to the source of the Thames follows the old towpath: that it, the path used by horses towing the canal boats along the river. I can’t quite imagine the logistics of it: what happened if someone needed to overtake? Or two boats approached from opposite directions? Was the whole river a big cat’s cradle of towropes?

It’s odd to think that, especially before the railways, the canals were the industrial arteries of Britain. They had advantages though: apparently one reason Josiah Wedgwood was a keen investor in canal-building was that, sending his porcelain from Staffordshire to London by road, 30% of it would break on the journey.

The path goes past a couple of nature reserves. One of them, the London Wetland Centre, describes itself as ‘the best urban site in Europe to watch wildlife’. I don’t know enough about the urban sites in Europe to judge that claim, but they’ve certainly done a really impressive job there. It was built on the site of a water treatment facility, I think, and they’ve created an impressive wetland area. Their headline success, I suppose, has been to attract bitterns in winter, but they also get a variety of waders and ducks, nesting terns, and a colony of sand martins (US: bank swallows). None of which is apparent from the Thames path, it has to be said, except for the sand martins which I watched for a while hunting for insects overhead. These are not sand martins; it’s a crow mobbing a heron.

While I’m writing about birds: it was mostly the usual stuff. Great views of a wren, singing beautifully with its little tail cocked up behind it; good views of a couple of blackcaps, singing even more beautifully and with impressive volume. A couple of exotics: the more unexpected was Egyptian Goose, a bird which is fairly well-established in England but I don’t see that often. No surprise at all to see Ring-necked Parakeets nesting in a tree by the path. They’ve been spreading out from further up the Thames valley for decades now, but in the last four or five years, numbers seem to have exploded: you hear them screeching in any bit of green space in London.

Nesting ring-necked parakeet

There are two marvellous urban myths about the parakeets. 1) They are all descended from a few birds kept by Jimi Hendrix when he was living in London. 2) They are all descended from parakeets used on the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed at Shepperton Studios. But no special explanation is needed for feral populations of exotic cagebirds — there are loads of them around the world. A couple of years ago, I had to resort to parrot-fancier websites to work out what species I’d seen in a park in Seville.

Rather unusually, the other nature reserve was designed to protect an exotic species: the Two-Lipped Door Snail, which, according to the informative sign, “is thought to have been originally been introduced accidentally by the Romans from mainland Europe, where it is much more common.” I support any excuse for protecting patches of urban woodland, but an exotic species of snail which is common in its native country seems like a low priority. But it has been here for a couple of millennia, so I guess we can grant it honorary native status.

Tommy Cooper

The path also goes past St Paul’s School. When I was on the school bridge team we once played a fixture against the St Paul’s E team. I think it may have been one of the few matches we won, so they can’t have been very good, but the fact the school could field five bridge teams still seems slightly extraordinary. In case you’re interested, I also represented the school at chess and fives. I was pretty rubbish at those too. No killer instinct.

» All these photos and a load of others have been posted to my Flickr account. You can see the whole Thames Path set or just the set for Putney to Kew. I’ve geotagged them so you can see them on a map but to be honest the locations are rather approximate.

The Thames path, Westminster to Putney

I talked about the juxtaposition of the C19th Gothic of Tower Bridge and the genuine medievalness of the Tower of London: not, in my opinion, one of the great planning decisions in the history of London. Well, at Westminster, you meet with a similar case. The Palace of Westminster (i.e. the Houses of Parliament), started in 1840, sits over the road from Westminster Abbey, started six hundred years earlier in 1245, and does its best to insinuate that it’s been there all along.

The fact that this revival of a five-hundred-old style occurred in the throes of the Industrial Revolution is fascinating to me. And at a time when wealth was moving faster than ever from the hands of the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, and when reform was broadening democracy and extending the franchise, the symbolism of choosing a parliament building in a style associated with feudalism and religion could keep the semioticians busy for weeks.

Big Ben

But symbolism aside, the finished result is far more successful than the Bridge/Tower combination. It helps that there’s a historical logic to it; it was after all built to replace the original medieval Palace of Westminster that burnt down in the 1830s, and it incorporates the medieval Westminster Hall. A lot of Victorian Gothic looks very Victorian indeed, because of the materials used or because a few Gothic motifs have been sprinkled on an essentially C19th building. And that’s no bad thing: much more interesting to reinvent a style for a new age than produce slavish reproductions. But in this case, given the location, I think it’s quite fitting that it does manage to look kind of ‘authentically’ medieval. Compared, for example, to the Buxton Memorial fountain marking the abolition of the slave trade:

Buxton memorial fountain

And if it slightly overshadows Westminster Abbey: well, it’s an important building. Having Parliament in a vast, grandiose, sprawling palace while the Prime Minister’s residence is an anonymous terraced townhouse must be better than the other way round.

Heading off along the river, the next major landmark is what I still think of as ‘the Tate’ but is now ‘Tate Britain’, thanks to Nicholas Serota’s empire-building and his ruthless crackdown on definite articles. And on the opposite side of the river, the building a friend of mine used to refer to as Ming the Merciless’s palace.

MI6 building

It is in fact the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). I don’t know whether the architects were specifically asked for something that squats on the riverbank like a gigantic stony-faced toad, or if it just seemed appropriate. I remember reading once that it was supposed to look from air like the portcullis which is the symbol for the Palace of Westminster; thanks to Google Maps you can now see that it sort of slightly does.

The impact of it is somewhat diluted now by the presence just over the bridge of St George Wharf, the ugliest building in London. I remember quite liking St George Wharf when it was first built; during my lifetime, London (and indeed the UK) hasn’t always felt like a forward-looking, self-confident kind of place, and a boom in constructing big shiny new buildings was quite exciting in and of itself. But it just looks uglier every time I see it. I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about it. And St George Wharf itself is soon going to be overlooked by a 49-storey tower built by the same company. Yay. Vauxhall wasn’t exactly a site of outstanding architectural beauty before the developers got there, mind you.

Anyway, I crossed over Vauxhall Bridge because I wanted to do the next bit of the walk on the south side of the river; mainly because I wanted to go past London’s favourite white elephant, Battersea Power Station. I guess BPS isn’t very well known outside London except to Pink Floyd fans, but it’s an old friend to Londoners, particularly those who regularly take the train into Victoria from south London. It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Bankside Power Station which now houses Tate Modern. The building is protected because of its architectural importance, and since it stopped producing electricity in the 80s, a sequence of developers have supposedly been converting it to some other use (theme park, shopping centre, whatever). The cynical theory is that their plan is to let it deteriorate to the point where eventually the government lets them knock it down and stick up a load of apartment buildings.

Battersea Power Station

It was first built as a long narrow building with a chimney at each end (picture), and I actually think it was a more attractive building like that; elegant and cathedral like. But it was expanded in the 50s with a second turbine hall alongside the first, giving it its current upside-down table/dead dog look. Still, even if it messed up the proportions, it also made it much more striking and memorable. And if an impressive-but-ugly building sticks around for long enough, it eventually becomes much-loved. People even have nice things to say about the Albert Memorial.

As it turns out, you can’t see the Power Station especially well from the Thames Path anyway; the path cuts inland to go around the Power Station site and the site is surrounded by hoardings that largely obscure it. You’d probably get a better overall view from the other side of the river. Still, it was quite interesting; it goes past the market at Nine Elms, where the wholesale fruit and flower markets moved when Covent Garden was converted to a tourist trap; some nice houseboats, including one which, in what I thought was a particularly stylish touch, had a lawn on the deck; a recycling processing plant; and then Battersea Park, which was really very nice on a sunny day. The park has all sorts of different areas, but where the path goes it’s laid out in little elaborately shaped flower beds surrounded by iron fencing and looks, to my eyes, like a very classic Victorian city park; oddly enough it made me think of Paris. It’s also the site of the London Peace Pagoda, a distinctly random but quite attractive feature added in the 80s.

London Peace Pagoda

Then I went back over the river across the Albert Bridge. I think this might be the most attractive bridge in London. It’s nowhere near as striking as Tower Bridge, but it’s a lot prettier, with its decorative metalwork painted white and picked out in pale blue, pink and pistachio. It’s frothy and whimsical. The signs reading ‘All troops must break step when marching over this bridge’ only add to the sense of delicate lightness.

The walk then takes you through Chelsea, now of course one of the most expensive bits of London, but as recently as the late C19th it was louche and cheap enough to be where all the artists lived. The Hoxton of its time. Whistler did lots of paintings of Chelsea and Battersea, of course, and his is one of the many blue plaques that you pass on this section of the walk.

This is the last bit of the walk which takes you along the Thames Embankment. All the way from Blackfriars Bridge, in the City, to Battersea Bridge, there is a road that sweeps along the north bank of the Thames; it would give it a fine boulevardesque quality if it was a just a bit more pedestrian-friendly. In fact there’s too much traffic for it to really make a good place for a stroll; flâneurs should head for the South Bank or one of the parks. What’s not obvious is that it’s entirely built over a sewer; all the piss and shit of west London accumulates under there and is carried off downriver. It was one of the great civil engineering projects of C19th London, and put a stop not just to the regular cholera epidemics but the smell.

I can think of nothing interesting to say about Putney at all.

» These pictures and others can all be found in my Thames Path Flickr set. If you just want to see the ones from this section of the walk, they are tagged thamespath4. I’ve also posted some photos taken on the walk to my photoblog, Clouded Drab; they are tagged Thames Path.

The Thames path, London Bridge to Westminster

A fairly short chunk of the path; I was intending to go a bit further, but the sun went in and I wasn’t really enjoying it much so I hopped on the tube at Westminster. Still, if you use one of the traditional definitions of a city—a town with a cathedral—this section includes the three medieval cities at the centre of London; it starts by Southwark Cathedral, goes past St Paul’s and ends at Westminster Abbey.

Just to explain that, because I guess not everyone knows the history of London: the royal court and the government was based at Westminster, separated by about a kilometere of fields from London, the mercantile and legal centre where all the law courts and guilds were based. The dynamic between the two is quite interesting, I think: London had a lot of legal autonomy (and indeed money) so even in the days of apparently absolute monarchs the balance of power was less clear cut than you might think. To this day when the Queen goes to St Paul’s for some kind of ceremonial function, her coach stops at the boundaries of the City of London and she asks permission to enter. As a South Londoner it pains me to say it, but Southwark wasn’t really much more than the overflow from London over London Bridge, although because of some kind of legal quirk that meant it wasn’t under the jurisdiction of London it became the centre for bear pits, whorehouses, theatres and similarly disreputable trades. Which is why The Globe was there.

bridges

That distinction between the mercantile City of London and Westminster as the seat of government has persisted, of course: we even still refer to ‘The City’ as shorthand for the banking and financial services sector and ‘Westminster’ as shorthand for parliament and government. I find these echoes of the longer history of London interesting because so little physically remains. The Great Fire of 1666 really did burn down nearly the entirety of medieval London. Much of it would no doubt have been knocked down anyway, whether by the Luftwaffe, town planners or commercial developers; but even things like the churches, which might normally offer that kind of continuity, were lost. And most of the Palace of Westminster burnt down in the C19th as well, so that was another major medieval building lost. There are still a few left: Westminster Abbey, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Guildhall. But there’s no part of London you can visit and feel you’re in contact with what the city was like. The oldest part of the city is a business district, so it’s all office buildings. All that’s left is the street names: Old Jewry, Cripplegate, Milk Street, London Wall, Blackfriars, Hosier Lane, Carmelite Street.

What’s amazing is that London and Westminster remained separate up until about the mid C18th. So it took about 700 years for London to spread the one kilometre westwards to reach Westminster; but in the next 150 years it spread something like 10 km in all directions.

St Paul's from the path

Anyway, you may be wondering why I’m wittering on about the history of London instead of talking about the actual walk. It’s because I didn’t find it very interesting. I decided to walk the north bank because I more often go along the southern side, because of Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre and so on. There quite a few theoretically interesting things to look at: war memorials, the Millennium Bridge, Cleopatra’s Needle, a glimpse of St Paul’s and a couple of the Christopher Wren city churches, as well as views of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the South Bank Centre, the London Eye, the Oxo tower. And just at the end, Big Ben and Portcullis House. But it’s all very familiar; and the path goes past the City and the West End without actually having much contact with them.

It doesn’t help that if you’re walking the north bank in winter, the light is coming from over the river all the time. So everything on the other side of the river was backlit and dificult to photograph; and I really need a wider-angle lens to take pictures of buildings near me.

» Once again I’ve added the pictures to my Thames Path set on Flickr; these ones are tagged with thamespath3.

The Thames path, Isle of Dogs to London Bridge

I picked up the Thames path where I left off, in Greenwich, and crossed straight under the river to the Isle of Dogs. The Greenwich foot tunnel itself is kind of freaky; I’m not normally susceptible to claustrophobia, but I got a definite twinge here. I took the stairs down, which made me conscious of how deep underground it was; and then the tunnel is quite narrow, and feels surprisingly long. And if you start thinking too much about the mass of the Thames sitting above you…

Anyway, the Idle of Dogs [sorry, that’s a typo, but it would make a good title for something, don’t you think?]. I mentioned that during the last section there were occasional outcrops of upmarket apartment blocks among the industrial landscape. As far as you can tell from the Thames path, on the Isle of Dogs that process is now complete. The riverfront is almost completely residential for this section of the walk. And the exceptions are offices rather than industry. It’s a dramatic change, since this was once one of the greatest trading centres in the world. The docks are still there, huge stretches of water now serving as watersport centres, or marinas, or just gigantic decorative water features; and many of the wharves and factories have been adapted into apartments and offices. But it’s remarkable how little these physical traces of the past give any sense of what it must have been like. In the absence of noise and smell and dirt, with no real traffic on the river, the old hoists that have been left on the sides of converted warehouses just seem like some peculiar local architectural vernacular: steampunk genteel.

river front

The buildings I found most attractive were those which seemed to have an intimacy with the river. That usually meant converted wharves. Not just because they’d had the chance to weather and age into the landscape, but because they’d been built right up on the river, overhanging the water. The new-built apartment blocks are quite different. In some ways, the river is the reason for their existence; they were built where they were because the developers know people will pay good money for a river view. But it’s a view. The river is something they look over and look across. It could be anything; as it happens, it’s a river. The apartment blocks don’t even have a relationship with each other; the Thames Path regularly has to leave the river to skirt around buildings not because they are physically blocking the way, but because they have big walls and fences covered in private property signs. I understand the desire for security, but there’s something faintly depressing about a whole row of apartment blocks all treating each other as the enemy.

Just occasionally you find a corner that gives you an idea of what this part of London could have been like: a city on the water, a kind of Venice with docks replacing the canals. Perhaps Venice is a bit optimistic, but the redevelopment of a whole area of London has to be an opportunity to do something remarkable; on the whole that opportunity has been wasted. Not that the area is a disaster; hell, I wouldn’t mind one of those apartments with a view of the river for myself. But it’s not a triumph, either.

apartments reflected in water

The most striking collision of architecture and the water is Canary Wharf, where from the right angles, the skyscrapers seem to rise out of sheets of water. Which is spectacular, in a 60s-vision-of-the-future sort of way. I remember when it was just the Canary Wharf Tower standing alone, then the tallest building in Europe, towering over the area. It had only just been completed when the property market collapsed, and it stood half-empty for a long time. You used to be able to see it from all over south London. In the post-binge guilt of the early 90s, it seemed like a visible symbol of the greed and hubris of the 80s. Now, with Canary Wharf a major centre for London’s financial industry, and a whole rash of big new tower blocks planned for London, that original building seems ahead of its time; visionary, almost. Timing is everything. Since it looks like we’re about to have a serious economic downturn, the builders of all those new super tall skyscrapers may that find out the hard way.

After lunch, I went down to rejoin the river and was startled to find myself looking at Tower Bridge. You wouldn’t think something like that could creep up on you, but the geography of the river is such that I hadn’t seen even a partial view of it until going round the bend in the river at Wapping. And next to Tower Bridge, the Tower of London. Just as it’s hard to get a sense of the industrial past of the Isle of Dogs, it’s hard to think of the Tower as a military installation and prison. I believe the tour guides do their best to play up the gorier elements of the Tower’s history, but on a day with the sun shining on the honey-coloured stone walls and tourists wandering aimlessly around, it’s hard to think of the building as the Lubianka of medieval and Tudor London. Tower Bridge doesn’t help. I think I’ve mentioned before how odd I find the juxtaposition; the genuinely medieval Tower right up against the Victorian medieval pastiche.

girl in sun

It says something about the self-confidence of the Victorians that they built the bridge there at all; the Tower is one of the most historically important buildings in the country, and the bridge is right up against it, looming over it. The Gothic styling on a cutting-edge piece of engineering just adds to the intrigue. I’d love to know what the planners thought they were doing. Did they think that it would make the bridge complement the Tower? Or were they just following the fashion of the moment? If they did intend it to be a sympathetic piece of design, I think they failed. The two are too close, too much in competition. It almost feels like the bridge is poking fun at the Tower. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Tower Bridge is a fabulous construction. It’s the complete opposite of a purist’s bridge. I think bridge aficionados typically enjoy a kind of engineering aesthetic, where the beauty arises from the structure; the builders of Tower Bridge clearly had no time for such asceticism. And the result is slightly bonkers. In fact I think it’s only familiarity that stops us from seeing how bonkers it is; but it didn’t become one of the most easily recognisable bridges in the world by being normal.

» Once again, these photos and others are posted to my Thames Path set on Flickr. I’ve tagged all the ones taken on this section with thamespath2.

The Thames path, Charlton to Greenwich

The Thames Path is what it sounds like: a walking route that follows the Thames. It runs 184 miles from the source in the Cotswolds to the Thames flood barrier. I walked from the Thames barrier to Greenwich. My plan is to do the London part of the route in occasional sections; I’m not planning to walk all the way to Cirencester. Though it might be quite an interesting long-term project.

Thames Barrier

The section I’ve just done started at the Thames Barrier itself and went along the south bank, looping around the Greenwich peninsula past the Millennium Dome, with all the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf just over the river, and ended by going past the Royal Naval Hospital.

Despite the engineering marvels of the barrier and the dome and the shiny pointiness of Canary Wharf, it really was not a glamorous walk. The shipping which once would have made that stretch of river one of the busiest in the world now goes into more modern, deeper ports that are equipped to deal with container ships, and heavy industries have largely moved overseas, but despite a few outcrops of upmarket apartment blocks it’s still a working part of London. I noticed a Tate and Lyle factory, probably making sugar from EU-subsidised sugar beet, and an aggregate recycling plant; there were various yards that seemed to be stockpiles of gravel and sand for the construction industry. But most of the time I had no idea what businesses I was passing. I would guess some were chemical processing plants; at other times I was probably just passing behind warehouses. It was dusty and sometimes smelly, and for several sections of the walk the Thames Path ran between eight foot high chain-link fences, and felt like a peculiar and frivolous intrusion on the area.

bit of industrial stuff

Even so, it wasn’t without bits of wildlife. There were little groups of teal on sheltered spots all along the river, and hundreds of gulls. And hopping around in that most urban of shrubs, a dust-covered buddleia,
was my best bird of the day: a chiffchaff. These little greeny warblers are supposed to be in Africa at this time of the year, but a few stay for the winter. The RSPB suggests 500-1000 birds overwinter here compared to 800,000 pairs in summer.

gulls

I won’t be rushing to walk this route again—once was enough—but it was interesting, even so. From here on I have a choice of which side of the river to take, so I think I’ll probably cross over the river (well actually under the river, via the Greenwich foot tunnel) and walk around the Isle of Dogs side as far as London Bridge.

» I’ve started a Flickr set of pictures from the Thames Path. All the pictures in this post come from there. I’ve also posted a picture from the walk to Clouded Drab.

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