Although North Greenwich is increasingly known for the big white dome thing that has managed an unexpected rejuvenation in recent years, and being the terminus for a number of Jubilee Line trains – it also has an area of unspoilt charm running along part of the riverside.

This is no pleasant amble along posh Victorian embankments or modern sterile equivalents, nor is it a green and verdant pastoral paradise – this is an industrial wasteland.

And I love it.

As much as I approve of regeneration itself, many of the buildings going up at the moment seem to lack substance, and converting entire swathes of land to residential seems to suck the energy out of the area as they become busy twice a day and almost abandoned the rest of the time.

Ever since it was populated, North Greenwich has been industrial and nothing but industrial, and that heritage spans everything from whaling to submarine telecoms. Today, the area which was active, if not much changed since the 1970s is undergoing conversion to bland blocks of flats.

Tight, difficult to use, uneven paths along the river will be replaced with wide open broadways and in doing so will become pedestrian motorways along the riverside, with all the charm and appeal of a motorway replacing a curving country road.

The old light industrial buildings are slowly being torn down, and while frankly a two-story building on a plot of land that could accommodate 10 stories seems a waste, they seem to have missed the opportunity put the flats on top of a light industrial ground floor and retain employment, and daytime activity in the area.

As this work goes on, much of the riverside is periodically closed off – but recently part of it reopened following the removal of two huge concrete silos. They were ugly things, and because they were ugly, they belonged here and were landmarks as vital to the area as church steeples defined English villages.

IMG_3600

Leaving Greenwich by the riverside path, the first obstacle is a new housing development with a very odd way of redesigning the river path so that it doesn’t actually sit next to the river. Around that and past the building site for the next expansion, and you can finally get back towards the river along a narrow alley way.

Eventually getting back to the river proper, there is the remains of the ship repair company, but you are now approaching the former Alcatel factory – where whaling was replaced by telecoms cables.

Alongside several old piers, are some modern steps which were installed about 12 years ago in memory of the areas former cable history.

Sadly as you walk along the narrow path, you’ll not see a single hint of the huge concrete silos that were removed last year – they have been utterly vanquished from the landscape. That said, one of my favourite old riverside signs is still there.

Head around the corner and you approach the aggregates store – which is practically the only working bit of industry left on this part of land. One slight upside to the closure of the grain silo factory – the smell has gone. I don’t mind industrial smells in small doses, but this short stretch of riverside could have people running to escape so vile it was.

In places, some bizarre concrete blocks remain. Covered in graffiti, some of it quite good, they are variously hangouts for local teenagers at night and “castles” for children during the day.

A selection of odd concrete "tubes"

Part of the reason why I like this walk though is that there is absolutely no pretence at making the path “safe” for gentle feet. It is rough, muddy in places and totally unforgiving of high heels.

The riverside also lacks a wall by the aggregates area – simply as that interferes with loading their gravels – so here is a wide expanse of gravely concrete industrial path. Occasionally a boat is moored beside it, but rarely at weekends. If the tide is low, then peering over the edge of the riverside can be daunting for people with a fear of heights.

Moving on, a plot of land that used to be empty is now an overflow for the gravel store, with huge mounds of soil piled up along the edges to create a makeshift barrier.

I defy any children to demur from excitedly scrambling up and down these earthen mounds – so long as they don’t go down the other side. Kids will come home covered in dirt, but isn’t that the whole point?

Gravel stores - and a childrens paradise.

Sadly, past here the riverside is still sealed off – and you divert away from 1970s paths and waste into dereliction as old warehouses long abandoned are slowly being torn down.

A series of narrow alleys – with brambles that caught one fellow traveller by surprise with their thorns — leads to a formerly bustling road sitting just above the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnels.

Do take the chance to peer over the edge into the tunnel – the best view is the other side away from the river, and then along an wide empty road that only occasionally caries deliveries to the Dome.

You’re approaching the Dome now, and can either turn right towards the tube station, or left and head back to the river and catch the last glimse of its industrial heritage at the Drawdock – a ramp were flotsam would be dumped by the river authorities for the locals to carry home as firewood.

By the Drawdock

Past here, the riverside is a bland pedestrian motorway, albeit it one that is hardly used, which only seems to accentuate the bleakness of the area with its modern sterility.

The path loops around the Dome, until it hits another blockage, this time for the Cable Car construction, and you can divert to the pleasures of the Dome entertainments, or in my case, head home.

We don’t have much industrial wasteland left in London, and it would be a shame to lose this as well, but lost it will be under the endless march of modern residential tower blocks.

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10 Comments

  1. David S

    I remember travelling to that area when i was little on a short working of route 185 to Blackwell Tunnel Delta Metal Works . It was a very much an industrial area then .

  2. Jimmy

    North Greenwich is NORTH of the Thames, no?

    Is there an IanVisitsInHighHeels site ;-)

    • IanVisits

      No to both questions.

    • Will

      North Greenwich was once north of the Thames, a la North Woolwich http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Greenwich

      Great post – one of my favourite walks in London – better do it again while I still can. Past the dome it is far more orderly, and less interesting, but if you persevere and get to the nature reserve, Greenwich Yacht Club and then onto the Barrier, it gets less ‘motorway’ the further east you go

  3. Philip

    Thank you Ian,
    I have loved this walk (and also as a safe cycle ride with kids) for years for the same reasons.
    I despair of how developers are allowed to close “temporarily” close paths to allow demolition/construction and then mothball the site.
    The council should be allowed to repossess the site if agreed dates for path reinstatement are not met, and then fund reinstatement with proceeds from the sale.

  4. mary

    Glad someone appreciates it. I’m sure you will have read my history of the Greenwich Industrial waterfront – (out of print, so this isn’t an ad) – or even come to talks (I used to do them for Birkbeck at the Docklands Museum and before that at the North Woolwich Railway Museum).
    But – most of all – I trust you have picked up Ian Nairn’s little para from 1966.
    – and this is just to say that there is lots of info around.

    • Maria Macc

      Hi – I just found your post… I am developing an art project around the cleats and the blocks that you have featured. Mary, could you refer me to your publications so I can appreciate the history of the companies on this stretch of water? Thanks

  5. Kit Green

    Most of this riverside development has a short design life and will be the slums of the future.

  6. Thanks for your report. I love this part of the Thames too and walked it last autumn with my children. Here are my pics: http://www.eleventhvolume.com/photos/intro/thames-1.html

  7. scarlett

    Really love these images, I need to visit these sites , how do i know where to go from north greenwich tube ? any sort of directional information would be great .

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