This is the new home for an article that I previously wrote for the Westcombe Society and hosted by my past employer. Having now retired and needing to refer others to this work, for historical record purposes, I thought this was the best way to do it as I no longer have access to my own server.
Some edits (highlighted in italics) have been made where things have changed over the course of the past 15 years, so I hope the walk can still be followed today. The Thames Path is still very much in place even if many features referred to here, such as the Red Boot Pub, have now long gone. Perhaps having re-visited this piece, it might encourage me to return and take a new set of pictures to show just how much has changed over that period of time. For now. enjoy a little nostalgia..
It struck me these balmy October weekends that since everyone has two legs, and not all have two wheels, that it might be worth encouraging you all to take advantage of a local walk. Yes.. that’s correct.. a walk! Surprisingly, perhaps, there are now some pleasant walks that you can take from the Westcombe Park area, other than to Greenwich Park. Either do the whole thing on foot, or catch a 422 or 108 to the Dome (if you are from outside the Greenwich area and reading this, catch a Jubilee Line Tube to North Greenwich station instead). From the station it is now possible to enjoy a pleasant walk and take in a mixture of industrial heritage, straddle ‘the line’, view some modern art, if the tide is out enjoy a spell of amateur ‘twitching’, get spooked, view a wide range of modern architecture and finally sup a pleasant pint or even snatch a bite to eat in a ‘country’ garden.
On September 18th, 2001, the Dome section of the Thames Path opened. First off, how do you join it from the station? Well, that bit is quite difficult to explain! When you get off the bus, wait for it to depart. Where you want to go is just across the entry road, the bus lay-by, and approach road to the terminus. Err to the right, rather than the left, and you will find the way. There are some signs, but they are difficult to spot. Follow them through the fence bounding Ordnance Way and turn to the right, sticking as close to the Dome as possible.
Take a right turn in to Drawdock Road. There are still lifting barriers here, but pedestrian and bike access in uninhibited. Bear left with the road and to your left is one of the Ventilation Shaft No. 4 of the original (now north-bound only) Blackwall Tunnel.
Blackwall Old Tunnel, Ventilation Shaft No. 4
This is a somewhat smaller structure than the relatively enormous equivalent belonging to the new tunnel to your right which was incorporated in to the structure of the Dome. A slight incline takes you to the start of the new Path. If you were to turn left it is now possible to ‘walk the river’ all the way to Greenwich Town Centre. Instead, take the path to the right that initially runs parallel with the old ‘drawdock’ slipway down to the river (actually occupied by a large barge on the 27th). Straight ahead is one of the best views of the original Canary Wharf tower, its two newly completed cousins, and three smaller towers still under construction.
The Triple Towers… + two new ones.. or is it three??
The Path turns to the right at the end of the slipway and after 50 yards or so you will enter the perimeter of what used to be the Dome compound. This is now separated off from the Dome itself by the standard-issue 10ft high blue fencing, lighting and CCTV surveillance
Canary Wharf + Tower Hamlets ‘Waste Disposal Facility’
To the right is a second ventilation shaft of the original tunnel. The mysterious ‘timeline’ plaques on it (removed by the 27/10/01 photo-shoot) are the remains of one of the Dome’s many original art installations that originally played sounds related to the places referenced from concealed loudspeakers mounted under the roof overhang.
Blackwall Old Tunnel – Ventilation Shaft No. 3 – ‘Time Piece’ Art Installation
Just beyond this point you will find yourself walking over some ‘tramlines’ in the tarmac, and then a single ‘rail’. Bizarrely there is no representation of the ‘line’ across the path itself, but where it should lie is slightly extended out over the river.
A similar extension is located on the nearby jetty, while turning through 180 degrees and following the ‘line’ south hits a ‘mirror wall’ with the line going through it. This is the Greenwich Prime Meridian, one of the few locations where one can encounter a physical representation of what is, after all, a purely artificial creation. Here, as in Greenwich Park, kids can have fun placing one foot in the ‘East’ and one in the ‘West’.
Shoot the ‘Line’
The nearby jetty is unusual to say the least. Although originally scheduled for renovation, and then by Dome visitors, it was only used during the construction phase of the Dome. Too expensive to demolish, it has been planted with a variety of native riverside grasses, shrubs and small trees!
Moving on, the building to the right, just inside the Dome perimeter is the Greenwich Pavilion. This was paid for and built by Greenwich Council as a combination of restaurant and exhibition area with large models and plans of the whole of the Peninsula site. The original idea was to use it as a ‘watering hole’ once the Thames Path was open to the public, but whether this will now happen is doubtful. Although there were a surprising number of people taking advantage of the new Path on what was admittedly a wonderful Saturday afternoon, whether it would ever make economic sense to open this up until the Dome itself has new tenants is debatable. Winter days with the wind in the east would make this location less desirable!
I see no ships… but yes.. you do! Another piece of artwork. This time it’s a 25ft long section through the bridge of a small coaster, just sitting there on the mud offering perches to the gulls at high water. Called, appropriately enough, A Slice of Reality. there’s not much more to say about it really!
Captain to Bridge: “Hello…… are you still there?”
Some comfortable seating is available near here, so if you are feeling tired already, take an early break. When the tide is out there are huge expanses of both mud and something that is closer to sand than mud in colour, but hardly Camber Sands. Nevertheless, mudflats are much better at attracting wildlife than expanses of sand, and here you should be in for a treat. Gulls of various types, terns, cormorants, shag, grey herons, rooks, Canada Geese, mallard.. all were present on my visit.. and not just in one and twos. I counted 30 Canada Geese alone.
Over on the other side of the river are three things to note. The hi-techy building with the satellite dish on the roof is the relatively new Reuters building. To the right of that, and still under construction, are the new offices for Global Switch, and to the right of that is the Telehouse. Both are used by Internet Service Providers as their satellite link points to the global Internet.
Reuters, Global Switch & the Telehouse
Immediately downstream (that’s to the right) is a large Barrett’s development called Virginia Quay. This occupies the site of the newly restored First Settlers Monument, dedicated to those who left these shores in the 18th century to colonise the ‘New World’. At the extreme downstream end of this site is a small and still active fuel wharf. In the area behind this and to the right, currently not developed on the river front, is East India Dock Basin, an ecology park that is open to the public, which can be accessed from the road system that feeds the River Lea Bridge.
Barrett’s Virginia Quay development & Virginia Settlers Monument
Time to move on now. In order to maintain a constant level, the new Path at this point has made some inroads on an ecology area that incorporates a series of flood terraces open to the high tides from the River. Inside the perimeter fence at this point is a small pond and an area of grass and sedges. Hopefully this will be allowed to recover, but at present it is looking rather mistreated.
Graded River Terracing
Close by there is also an interesting set of information panels on the wildlife of this area and the nearby mudflats
Looking across the River once more you will be in for something of a shock. Yes.. that’s correct.. it’s a lighthouse! Although now disused, located at the mouth of the River Lea, this is the only inland lighthouse in the country. It is located at the offices of Trinity House, the organisation responsible for all the buoys and lighthouses around our coasts. This was their training centre, and the lighthouse was used to explain the operations of these structures to future Eddystoners. With the demise of many of our offshore lighthouses and their replacement with boring automatic beacons, Trinity House sold off the site, and it now occupied by artist’s studios and performance spaces. In addition, there are usually a number of vessels in various stages of restoration by preservation groups.
Trinity Buoy Wharf & Lighthouse
A fourty foot high, bright yellow, warning sign hoves in to view inside the perimeter fence. What is it for? This is the very tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, so for ships proceeding downstream it is the first opportunity to spot the fact that there is a potential hazard up ahead at the far end of Bugsby’s Reach. The Thames Barrier has special radar and radio channels that can be used by both pleasure craft and commercial shipping to check the status of the Barrier. The sole purpose of the sign is to encourage mariners to use them!
Thames Barrier WARNING! Notice
If you think you’ve been walking for a while then let me warn you that you’re probably less than half way round the circumference in relation to where you got off the bus. There is not a lot of special interest in the next couple of hundred yards or so, although from here on the vast majority of the northern embankment is occupied by warehouses and still-active wharves. One of these was refurbished last year and is occupied by Abel-Nobel the parent company of International Paints organisation.
A working wharf… tug and barge repairs
This is probably the best point to peer in to the vacated Dome and to see.. absolutely nothing! Although it took some nine months to reach this state, there is now nothing left inside the huge envelope that last year housed the Millennium Exhibition (the MEX).
It would be interesting to know whether any of the workmen who now roam this vacant structure have ever witnessed the ghost of George Livesey, the ‘Godfather of Gas’ in S.E. London. Dr. Mary Mills reported sightings of his ghostly presence while the original construction was in progress.
Possibly the most interesting thing left is an integral part of the Dome itself, and that is the drains or to be more precise, the structures that collect the water from the huge expanse of the Dome roof. It is worth being here in a thunderstorm, or simply in very heavy rain to witness the racket this makes on the roof covering, and the spectacular torrents of water that pour from the funnel-like structures spaced at intervals around the roof. All this water disappears into very elaborate soakaways surrounded with huge boulders. The sumps feed a huge rainwater ‘sewer’ that follows the perimeter of the Dome and is large enough to drive a Land Rover round to check for possible blockages. This water in turn is/was collected and stored for use in the site toilets.
A short way on, right by the path is a towering Thames Wildlife information piece. This provides information on the huge range of animal life that has been found in recent years in the adjacent tidal Thames. Now rated as the cleanest ‘industrial river’ in Europe, the list is certainly impressive and includes some ‘exotics’ such as goldfish and Chinese Mitten Crabs.
Long view of information pillar, Millennium Pier and Richard Gormley’s sculpture
The last feature of note on the Dome side, sadly no longer available to those beginning to gasp by now, is the Dome’s own Pub, The Red Boot. Quite why this has so far survived the destruction whereas the site of what was, for a year, the largest Macdonalds in Europe lies in tidy ruins is anyone’s guess although it is quite an attractive structure along with the semi-protected performance area outside and another sculpture. The foundations of the former SkyScape cinema on the other hand are far from tidy and are in use for rubble collection. The children’s play area next to the Boot and associated equipment has also gone, although the soft surface remains.
The Red Boot and Performance Area
Back on the riverfront, the Millennium Pier, now unused, will hopefully find some new purpose once a new occupier is found for the Dome. Adjacent to the Pier, is the third item of Dome art. This is an elaborate sculpture called Quantum Cloud, some 75 feet high that looks like a huge Christmas tree made out of stainless steel tubes. Designed by Antony Gormley, an alumnus of the nearby Goldsmiths College, who also created the spectacular ‘Angel of the North’ figure at Gateshead, it has been constructed on one of the original triangular Doric-style support columns of the old Gas Works jetty, Phoenix Wharf. An interesting feature of this structure is that if viewed from the correct angle, a human figure can be visualised within it (look back over your shoulder at the ‘turn’ *).
The ‘Quantum Cloud’ & Millennium Pier (spot the figure inside!)
From here on is a very long straight stretch of Thames Path that is clearly divided into a wide pedestrian and standard green tarmac cycle path, with some additional gravel areas on the river side of the path at its northern end which are planted with grasses and other ground-hugging plants.
On the nearby riverside railings, an elaborate historical timeline of the Greenwich Peninsula is displayed on one continuous information panel some 150ft in length. There is some more seating here. At this point, looking straight down below the safety rail, and assuming it’s not high tide, it is possible to get a good look at the new river terracing that has been put in place on the river frontage to provide new reed-bed habitat and opportunities for wildlife (including those mitten crabs). Across the river, and rising above the rooftops of the wharves, are the white-painted triangular roof-trusses of the new ExCel Exhibition Centre.
Long view of Time Line and the Thames Barrier
Now heading away from the Dome you are currently prevented from making a short cut back to the station via the road alongside the old coach park (now the location of the Emirates Skyline terminal). Instead you are forced to make a 200 yard detour and to take the next right turn* and join the original sign-posted Thames Path that prevailed prior to September 18th 2001. Prior to the opening of the Path, this effectively chopped off the tip of the Peninsula and the Dome altogether and cut across the new Central Park to link with the pedestrian footbridge over the A102 adjacent to The Tunnel night-club.
Turn right for the return leg…
When you reach Central Park you have two options. If you fancy a drink and/or something to eat, then turn to your left and you will spot the only collection of ‘old’ buildings left on the Peninsula, the Pilot Inn and Ceylon Cottages, now with their own courtyard/car park. Highly recommended!
Look left… The Pilot Public House and Ceylon Cottages
However, if you want to get back home, turn to your right and walk down the length of the Park if it’s dry, or down either of the roadside paths if not, pointing yourself at the, now distant, Dome.
Look right… Central Park and the Dome
The last feature of note that you will encounter is a marble-lined multi-jet fountain that has been created at the northern end of Central Park. This has a series of metre-high computer-controlled jets that play various sequences. Unfortunately this is now rarely operational.
All that remains is to head off across the red tarmac towards the old Dome ticket booths, and then bear left towards North Greenwich Station and the start of your journey. Make sure you find the correct bus stop for your return journey, especially if you plan to catch the 108, otherwise you will end up in that den of iniquity otherwise known as… Stratford!
Time for a nice cup of tea and a nap!