Archive for November 2009
Smoke wouldn’t exist today if Malcolm Hopkins, who was in charge of periodicals at Borders’ Oxford Street store when we began, hadn’t thought the magazine – and dozens like it – worth supporting. Whenever a new issue came out, we’d take him 350 copies on the 159 bus, and he’d position them subversively among the Grazias and Worlds of Dogs. But, when we breezed in with issue #10, we found no Hopkins, just a surly goth skulking in Esoterica. “He’s gone,” she said. “Gone?” we said. “Why?” “Dunno. Probably didn’t like the uniform.” Half of issue #10 came back as returns. Or the covers did.
Borders wasn’t perfect – in fact, some of its US former parent firm’s employment practices were downright evil. But, without any tradition of independent non-second hand book retailing in this part of south-east London (the nearest independent that I know of is Sydenham’s Kirkdale Bookshop), it’s been the chains or nothing.
So Books Etc in Canary Wharf snagged me very early on, when the Wharf’s shopping centre was a ghost town at weekends, by giving me their poster for the film version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for nothing when I asked if they had any for sale. So I stuck with them.
And while Books Etc and Borders were stocking small-scale magazines like Smoke, giving them a leg up and valuable shelf-space. I personally discovered that Waterstones couldn’t care less when I strolled into their Trafalgar Square branch one evening and asked if they stocked it. “We don’t sell magazines,” murmured a surly bloke behind the counter, oblivious to the pile of Time Outs under his nose. I gave Waterstones a swerve for years after, and still try to avoid it.
But the writing was on the wall when Waterstones took over the two Canary Wharf branches of Books Etc a year or so ago, not so long after it’d taken over Ottakar’s in Greenwich, meaning I’ve no choice in local bookshops any more. The closure of the flagship Oxford Street Borders this summer indicated that the game was up. At least a resurgent Foyles is keeping some kind of quirky bookselling going in London. Despite the sins of its US parent, Borders was one American import to London that actually will be missed.
I went to Brockley at the weekend to sample something pretty rare… the opening of a new pub. Well, it wasn’t really new – The Talbot, just off where Lewisham Way meets Loampit Vale, was left crumbling and derelict before new owners stepped in, did it up, and flung open the doors on Friday night so the discerning drinkers of SE4 and around could see their new local for themselves. They’ve done a lovely job of revamping somewhere that looked just a few months ago to be a dead cert for the wreckers’ ball. I popped along to say hello to Brockley Central’s Nick, but the place was so jam-packed I couldn’t spy him at all – presumably he was being mobbed by grateful BC readers. So I took in the atmosphere and the slight whiff of fresh paint, downed my Heineken, and decided it was a sign to return home, and attempt the Talbot another day.
Half-an-hour later I was back in Greenwich, back in my own local, where a mate’s band was playing. All was good in the world. Strolling back later, I saw scaffolding up outside one of the area’s oldest pubs. The Old Friends was never a favourite of most people – grim inside, and its later owners had a charmless slogan chalked into a blackboard outside for one St George’s Day: “ENGLAND – LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.” Next to it was some more information – “WE SELL FOSTERS.” Few people mourned when it closed a couple of years back. Squatted for a few weeks a year ago, it’s been dark ever since.
Now, though, according to the signs on the boards, the demolition gangs are in. Whatever’s happening to it is a mystery – there’s no record of an application to do anything with the site on Greenwich Council’s planning database, apart from the erection of a new sign in 2000. But while the old pub was a blot on the landscape, it’d be a tragedy if it came down with nobody having the chance to start afresh, to allow the pub to be reborn in the same way that Brockley’s Talbot has been.
Of course, it may all be in vain – it’s not a promising location, especially with nothing happening at the former hospital site opposite, and it’s a tiny site. But it’s a shame to see another bit of Greenwich’s heritage destroyed, with east Greenwich alone having lost the Lord Napier (noodle bar), The Victoria and The British Sailor (both flattened and redeveloped) in the past decade or so. Times change, of course – cheap supermarket booze, increased taxation, the smoking ban, and the astonishingly incompetent greed of the pub industry have combined to turn the pub trade into survival of the fittest.
But it’d be wonderful to see someone – anyone – open a new pub in Greenwich. Especially in the centre. It’s always been a strange place to go drinking – Greenwich town centre has been bereft of decent boozers for many years now, with many locals objecting to the domination of the area by the Inc Group, which owns four out of the five bars in the market block, one being the former Cricketers, a much-loved traditional pub turned into an unsuccessful gay venue, then a suburban bar, then, most surreally, into the “Tiki Lounge” before becoming, sadly, empty. Instead, Greenwich’s best-loved pubs lie either side of the park, with the Royal Hill trio of the Greenwich Union, the Richard I and the Prince Albert on one side; and the Plume of Feathers, Hardys Freehouse and Star & Garter on the other, the latter two being nowhere near as fearsome as they may look from the outside.
Indeed, from the real ales in the Ashburnham Arms to the bands at the Pelton Arms, the real innovation’s taking place far from Greenwich town centre, whose pubs desperately need a bit of character. The best of an odd bunch is probably the Gypsy Moth, but it’s so over-decorated inside it’s fallen foul of that typical south-east London syndrome of trying too hard. (I should make an exception for the Lord Hood, 200 yards up Creek Road, a locals’ haven which proves what can be done with a bit of love. And jazz nights, which aren’t my bag, but bring in the punters.)
On the whole, though, if you’re looking for decent drinks, maybe some decent food, and somewhere quiet to chat… you’re best off heading east or west of the town centre. I’d love for someone to come in and restore the Cricketers to its former glory, put some warmth into the King’s Arms, or a bit of life into the Spanish Galleon Tavern. It gives me a reason to keep on buying Euromillions tickets, at least. It’d be a sure-fire winner for anyone with some money to invest. But will they ever get the chance? Greenwich town centre needs a new, vibrant, independent pub… but with all but one of its pubs part of chains it’s hard to see anyone getting a chance soon.
Am I being harsh on Greenwich town centre’s pubs? Should I give them a second look? Or does it really need something new? I’d love to know what you think. (Partly because I’ve been moaning about Greenwich’s pubs for as long as I’ve been legally able to drink…)
UPDATE – 2 JANUARY 2010: Have you come here from greenwich.co.uk or Andrew Gilligan’s Telegraph blog? If you do, you might want to take a look at this piece I’ve done on his criticisms, and the other things I’ve done on Oyster.
So, it’s finally happening. Six-and-a-half long years after it was first introduced on the Tube and buses, Oyster pay-as-you-go will be introduced on London’s National Rail routes from 2 January, it was confirmed on Monday. Two cheers – as mayor Boris Johnson quite rightly said, “After what feels like eons of negotiation and much gnashing of Londoners’ teeth we can finally announce the Oysterisation of all London’s rail services. We’ve finally ended the crackers situation of Londoners not being able to use Oyster on every mile of London’s track.”
Actually, he hasn’t – Heathrow rail services are exempted, and so are the fast trains from St Pancras to Stratford International, which begin next month. No East End plebs on those, ta. Our mayor has never been known for being a details man, you see.
I’ve done a summary for greenwich.co.uk which details the effects this will have on SE10′s three National Rail stations – on the whole, you can adapt most of that to any of the zones 2 and 3 stations in this part of south-east London. The full set of fares were covered on this blog earlier this month, and you can see what happened last week when I found one of the readers working at Blackheath.
And there’s even a colourful new map of all the new Oyster routes…
However, the price London’s privately-run National Rail companies have extracted from London’s commuters shows just who’s really in charge. Not the Conservative mayor, not the Labour government, but these private interests and their shareholders. The new fares system is fiendlishly complicated – more complex than any expert or anorak ever anticipated.
Not only does it punish occasional customers – a trick we’ve seen on London’s transport in recent years, it also completely screws some of their best customers – a prime feature of unaccountable, private monopolies.
Firstly, though, the companies are using the Oyster change to quietly slip through a stealth fare rise. Off-peak returns using paper tickets are being scrapped, in favour of a standard rate closer to what rush-hour passengers pay. To be fair, we’ve been here before. Soon after Oyster was introduced on the Tube and buses, TfL – then with Ken Livingstone behind the counter – jacked up its cash fares to a stonking £4 on the Tube in Zone 1, and £2 on the buses. That was explicitly designed to persuade passengers to switch to Oyster. It took a while for many to accept the change – but the vast majority did, thanks to the huge publicity surrounding each fare change. (And Evening Standard-based outrage, of course; some years before it introduced its own Eros pre-pay system for buying papers at a cheaper rate.)
However, unlike the Tube, boring old mainline trains don’t really make headlines unless they crash, and it’s not in the train companies’ interests to tell people they could save money by switching to a system they didn’t want to have to introduce in the first place, and that isn’t run by them. So while there was a big TfL publicity campaign to get Tube users to use Oyster cards, don’t expect one for mainline trains. It’s not even as if their ticket machines are compatible with them.
And even if you do switch to Oyster, if you travel during the day, you face paying a peak fare if you travel during the morning or, for the first time in decades, the evening rush hour. Peeking at the new timetables, it’ll be 60p cheaper to go home to Charlton on the 1901 from London Bridge than it will be on the 1855. To a Zone 6 station like Crayford, the gap opens up to a yawning £1.70. Not what the suburbs voted Boris in for. That may be a crafty ruse to free up more space for homeward bound commuters, but it’s no good for families taking their kids for a simple trip into town during the school holidays.
A higher farescale for people using both the Tube and mainline rail services in zone 1 is also another sly money-raiser. Don’t fancy the awkward interchange at London Bridge to reach Charing Cross, so want to use the Tube from Cannon Street instead? Delays at Charing Cross, and it’s simpler to use an alternative station? Tough – it’ll cost you.
Secondly, comes the oddest part, the punishing of the railway’s best customers – Travelcard holders. The very best of them, annual ticket holders, hand over more than £1,000 a year to London’s transport organisations, but have as much influence over their train services as someone who prefers to get stuck in a traffic jam each morning. However, for over 20 years, annual Travelcard holders have benefited from a third off mainline travel in the south-east of England. I have a Gold Card (for a couple more weeks, at least) and it’s brilliant. It makes a massive difference if you’re heading out for the day – or even longer – to somewhere like Canterbury, Oxford or Reading, the kind of journey where you might want to plan ahead.
But if you’re heading just a little way out of your zones, even if you have an Oyster card, you still have to go through the same hoops as you would for a night by the sea in Brighton for a quick drink with a pal in the suburbs. Ticket machines won’t sell the extension tickets required, so you need to queue at a ticket office, and ask someone for “return from the boundary of zone 3 to Bromley North, please, with a Gold Card”. All this for a ticket costing about £1.50, which probably won’t get checked at the other end. It is, quite frankly, easier to skip the fare on many journeys in London. Oyster pay-as-you-go should resolve this nonsense – but it won’t. Even though the Oyster smartcard knows it has an annual ticket on it, the train companies refuse to allow Gold Card holders to take advantage of their discounts without forcing them to queue up at understaffed ticket desks. Is this the way to treat your best customers?
And, of course, for all Travelcard holders, there’s the nonsense of the Oyster Extension Permit, not mentioned at all in publicity issued by TfL and the train companies on Monday, but it is happening. If I want to use my Oyster card for that quick drink at Bromley North, I’ll need to find a ticket machine, ticket office or Oyster newsagent, or ask them to load on a pemit, or I risk getting fined by a ticket inspector. The theory is that the rail companies want to protect against fare-dodgers because their stations don’t have ticket gates, but the Docklands Light Railway works very well without ticket gates, and without putting a presumption of guilt on Travelcard holders travelling outside their zones. Diamond Geezer studies just what Transport for London needs to tell its Travelcard holders.
Despite what Boris says, the situation’s still crackers. The fare scale is fiddly for anyone who isn’t a geek like me, people get punished for daring to use two different modes of transport, and people who put thousands of pounds into the railways get treated like children. But who’s going to stick up for rail passengers? London’s media either glossed over or ignored the downsides of the Oyster changes, with the Standard declaring it a “revolution” in a headline probably dictated from City Hall.
In politics, Labour is fatally compromised by the fact that it has created this situation by privatising every single one of London’s rail franchises, bar one – the London Overground service taken back by Ken Livingstone. The Conservatives are similarly silenced by the fact that they invented this insane system in the first place – even though Boris Johnson has said a couple of times how frustrated he is by his lack of control over London’s rail firms. Interesting how both mayors see things differently from their parties.
The Lib Dems have an effective transport advocate in Caroline Pidgeon, but once again, her credibility is undermined by the fact that her party also backs rail privatisation. Which leaves the Greens, my own party, who back renationalising the railways, but are unfortunately very quiet on the issue at a London level, which is something I find perplexing because it’s such a clear point of difference, and a if better-known would be a hugely popular policy.
So London’s voiceless commuters get screwed again, but there’s nobody who’ll really stand up for them. The politician or party who’s brave enough to take these issues on, and keep on bashing away at them, is pushing at an open door. But has anyone got the guts to take up the challenge?
- Journalist Jude Rogers has done many good things, like helping to found Smoke magazine. Her latest baby is a corker, though. 50 Songs, 10 Years is an exploration of the 50 songs from the past decade which mean the most to her. Including No Danger by the Delgados as her first choice endeared this to me straight away. It’s fascinating, touching, and will bring back memories for you if you have any taste. Sadly, it’s got one of those Blogger templates which prevent me from commenting, so you’re spared my own tales of woe or drunkenness. For now.
- I went up to Severndroog Castle on Friday, still looking lonely and beaten-up. (The castle, that is, not me.) But walking through the woods, out to the cafe on Oxleas Meadow, was a reminder how lucky we are in this corner of south-east London to have the Shooters Hill landmark on our doorstep. The Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust is trying to raise cash to open the building to the public once again – after Greenwich Council tried to lease it to a developer in 2002 – and is now offering bricks for sponsorship at £5 each. You even get a certificate for it. A great Christmas present idea, eh?
- A new local blog, Subterranean Greenwich, which does what it says on the tin, and a bit more besides.
- The South London Press – which owns the Mercury freesheet delivered in Greenwich and Lewisham – has lost £500,000 since local paper magnate Ray Tindle bought it two years ago. Tindle blames Lambeth Council’s propaganda newspaper Lambeth Life for contributing to the loss (because of the loss of council advertising), even though the SLP also covers Wandsworth, Southwark and Lewisham, and is also on sale in Greenwich and elsewhere. Lambeth leader Steve Reed told ITV’s London Tonight the SLP is losing sales because it’s too full of crime stories. The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle – Tindle needs to make sure his paper properly reflects the area, Lambeth Council should butt out of newspapers. Simple. Mind you, Lambeth residents should count themselves lucky – they still have a proper paid-for local newspaper. Greenwich hasn’t for decades, and we have to put up with a weekly from our council…
- Anton Vowl on some Mail muck-raking: “Is this what Twitter has become – a dredging ground for crap journalists to harvest boring gossip about people you’ve hardly even heard about, who aren’t being exposed as hypocrites or liars but just people who have relatively normal lives? Who gives a crap about all this? And what’s the point of this tragic little bit of bathos?”
According to uber-transport geek blog London Reconnections, Oyster pay-as-you-go won’t be introduced to south-east London’s mainline trains until 2 January. Indeed, Southeastern has confirmed this on its website. But at the moment, if you use Blackheath station, and you’re travelling towards central London, you might be able to get an illicit sneak preview.
On the London-bound platform at Blackheath station, two Oyster card readers have had their black covers removed. One still has a NOT IN USE sticker on it, together with a warning about usage of carnet tickets, abolished in Tube zone 1 a couple of years back. Good to see old machines recycled, I guess. The other has its NOT IN USE sticker half-ripped off, and of 8.15pm last night, was working. I know, because I gave it a try. I’ve still got a zones 1-3 Travelcard on my Oyster (for the next couple of weeks, anyway) so my ticket was valid anyway. It responded with the usual BEEP! and an “ENTER” message on the screen.
I jumped on the 2019 to Charing Cross, and hopped off at Lewisham. Down to the Docklands Light Railway platforms, where I knew there was an Oyster top-up machine. I checked my balance. It’d registered me at Blackheath.
I didn’t touch in at Lewisham DLR but took the next train, and touched out after a ride to Cutty Sark station. There, the top-up machine confirmed it… Oyster is alive and well at Blackheath station.
Of course, I should point out that anyone trying to do this with a pay-as-you-go Oyster instead of having a paper ticket is liable to be fined, as Oyster is still not valid on most of Southeastern.
This is probably on test, it may well be that all stations have to go through this, and it’ll be a common sight between now and the new year. There’s probably a small army of people doing nothing but travelling around London, checking how the system works. But it’s an encouraging sign of progress after so many years waiting. Let’s hope it works properly when it does come in.
A new organisation, London’s Screen Archives, has started putting some wonderful old footage of the capital on YouTube. LSA is trying to bring together the various different film archives in London in one collection. Among them is this amazing 1927 colour travelogue, The Open Road, which includes some footage of the (then) Royal Observatory:
It also includes a couple of Greater London Council films with some local interest – including this from 1968 on the new Woolwich Ferry terminals…
There’s also a 1975 film about the construction of the Thames Barrier. The full collection is available here. After having seen some of the gems made on behalf of London Transport in the 1950s and 1960s at a London Film Festival even in Trafalgar Square a few weeks back, I hope this collection will grow as the months and years go on.
Today’s closure of London Lite, while terrible news for its staff and distributors, hasn’t exactly been greeted with much sadness from the capital’s newspaper readers. For despite its chirpy name, it was actually one of the most sour, spiteful reads around; a freesheet that promoted a culture of envy and entitlement, which looked like a dog’s dinner and left a similar aftertaste. It’s no surprise that today’s final edition suggests readers switch to the Daily Mail’s website, best known for promoting homophobe Jan Moir.
But it brings to an end a three-year chapter in London’s media history which saw competition for newspaper readers that hasn’t been seen for over 20 years. When Rupert Murdoch announced his plan to take on London with The London Paper, the capital’s media looked ripe for a shake-up. The lumbering, complacent Evening Standard was already seen as out of touch, a paper which hated London. The London Paper would love London. The Standard’s response was to launch a spoiler against a spoiler – to convert its free afternoon Standard Lite into London Lite. After all, Associated Newspapers had cracked the morning market with Metro, now 10 years old, so what could go wrong?
Everything. London Lite was panned by critics, but lost money. The London Paper was praised by critics, but still lost money. And the Standard’s fortunes went into freefall.
Eventually Associated raised the white flag… and sold a weakened Standard. A change in priorities at News International sounded the death knell for The London Paper, and without its rival, there was no point to London Lite. And in between, the Standard’s new management raised its own white flag, and started handing out the Standard for free, removing it from newsagents across Greater London and concentrating on central London distribution.
So what are we left with?
In 2006, London had a fairly strong evening newspaper, wildly out of touch with the city it claimed to serve, but widely available, with its billboards wielding great influence across the capital.
In 2009, London has a severely weakened evening newspaper, still wildly out of touch with the city it claims to serve, and neither it nor its billboards are often seen outside the centre of the capital.
Did anyone think the battle of London’s evening papers would lead to this? What should have happened is that the Standard should have raised its game – maybe switched to a part free/part paid-for model – and started covering London properly and not obsessing over the concerns of a moneyed minority. Instead, it’s stayed aloof from the concerns of most Londoners, and now even doesn’t even appear in the areas where most of them live. Effectively, much of London doesn’t have an evening newspaper. After all, there’s no point in the Standard writing about Deptford if the paper’s not available in Deptford.
You can say many things about Rupert Murdoch, but he has a reputation as a newspaper man and I really don’t think his intention when launching The London Paper was to completely kill off London’s newspapers. This week’s Private Eye claims the Standard is due to make a £10m loss this year, will lose £15m in cover revenue from going free, and losing the £5m London Lite paid it to use its stories will punch a bigger hole in its funding – together with paying an army of distributors (the old Standard vendors were self-employed). The Eye claims Associated Newspapers is waiting for the Standard to fold before launching an afternoon edition of Metro in London.
“The Standard is the one paper devoured daily by all London’s decision makers and opinion formers, by its influentials,” writes Standard editor Geordie Greig in the introduction to its annual Influentials survey, its attempt to butter up those with cash and influence by giving them even more coverage. “Indeed, it is now read by more than a million Londoners, from cabbies to cabinet ministers, builders to bankers: an influential paper for the most influential city.
The problem is, though, if your paper’s not seen across London, then it becomes about as influential as the Paddington & Westminster Times. That title reports what goes on in central London, and is widely seen in central London. But beyond there… zilch. And rightly so. The Standard should be bigger and better than that, but at the moment, it isn’t. If Geordie Greig’s pals are so “influential”, could one of them do London a favour and tell him to sort his act out before it’s too late?
I’ve had lots of generous feedback on my Capital Ring posts, for which I’m very grateful. If you’ve enjoyed reading my words and looking at my pictures, I hope it inspires you to get out and try it yourself. It’s a fascinating trek around London, and I guarantee it’ll introduce you to new places you’ve never heard of, and will want to visit again. It may be 78 miles long, but it puts the capital city into a new perspective, making it feel a smaller, less daunting place.
Looking back, I’m surprised that it took me so long to complete (11 sessions over six months), but with the exception of the final section (and a miserable bit around Greenford); I generally picked clear, sunny days. The beauty of the Capital Ring is that most of it is so close to public transport links, it’s easy to do as little or as much as you’d like. There’s certainly enough variety to spend long, satisfying days traipsing around London – but set yourself too long a walk, and you may miss the chance to linger at unexpectedly interesting points.
On the whole, the walk itself is very, very easy to follow. Negligence is more likely than vandalism to send you heading off in the wrong direction – with the walk passing through 18 different boroughs as well as the land of organisations like Royal Parks and British Waterways, some bits will be better-signed than others. It’s easy to see where the Capital Ring’s promoters got their cue from – the south-east London Green Chain, which forms a great chunk of the early route and is almost perfectly signed along its way.
While it’s my home borough and I give it a lot of stick, Greenwich Council seems to have paid most attention to making sure Capital Ring walkers don’t get lost, along with Richmond-upon-Thames, another council which puts a lot of effort into promoting local walks. In fact, most of the south-of-the-river boroughs do well.
But this shouldn’t lull you into a false sense of complacency – a good guide book is a must to make sure you stay on track. I used the 2001 edition of Colin Saunders’ The Capital Ring, which has since been updated, but my old copy more or less stood the test of time, and is a fascinating guide to some of London’s less talked-about districts.
The worst parts of the route to follow are through the entire stretch in Barnet – where the signage is very patchy, with one vital turn not marked at all – and Ealing, where the route is awkward, poorly-signed in parts and badly maintained. A section through Stamford Hill/Stoke Newington hasn’t been signed at all by Hackney Council, and the Royal Docks section is awkward due to a missing sign or three.
But on the whole, it’s easy to walk. A bit muddy here and there, mind, but this is simple stuff. Having the route sealed off at Wandsworth Prison due to a shooting wasn’t expected – Thames Water flooding on the Lee Navigation probably was. There are parts that are terribly dull – although, Grove Park aside, they’re not the bits that snake through streets. The industrial bit of the Grand Union Canal near Greenford’s not much fun, especially when you’re clambering over landfill sites. But this comes after following the canal through Brentford Lock, and before climbing Horsenden Hill. The little bits of rough are far outweighed by the smooth. And there are some bits that feel needlessly long. But these are minor quibbles.
The best bits? Wimbledon Park through to Richmond Park is a beautiful walk and was a wonderful way to spend a warm, summer evening. Harrow-on-the-Hill is like a journey back to the 1950s, while Fryent Country Park feels as if it should be 20 miles further away from London. I’d love to visit the Welsh Harp reservoir again, while simple places like Preston Park in Wembley and Cherry Tree Wood, East Finchley were just pleasures to visit.
The cemeteries – particularly at Wandsworth, St Andrew’s in Kingsbury and Abney Park in Stoke Newington – were fascinating and, particularly at the former, moving. Views into Surrey and into London from various bits of Norwood were treats. Passing over north London rooftops on the Parkland Walk is fun, whe whole stretch from Springfield Park, Clapton, down to the Olympic Park was an insight into a London many do not know.
It’s hard for me to judge familiar south-east London corners against places I’d never visited before, but if you’re not from these parts, I challenge you to visit Maryon Park, Oxleas Woods and Eltham Palace and not be impressed.
Capital Ring 1: Charlton to Grove Park
Capital Ring 2: Grove Park to Crystal Palace
Capital Ring 3: Crystal Palace to Wandsworth Common
Capital Ring 4: Wandsworth Common to Richmond
Capital Ring 5: Richmond to Hanwell (Two walks in one post)
Capital Ring 6: Hanwell to Harrow on the Hill
Capital Ring 7: Harrow on the Hill to West Hendon
Capital Ring 8: West Hendon to Stoke Newington
Capital Ring 9: Stoke Newington to Olympic Park
Capital Ring 10: Olympic Park to Charlton
722 photos taken on the route
And now, the end is near… well, not all that near, as it happened. There were still a good 10 miles to go on the Capital Ring as a I hopped off the 108 at Stratford High Street. All around, the changes to E15 as 2012 approaches were apparent, as builders worked on creating approaches to the Olympic Park and developers continued making the place look unrecognisable from what it was a decade ago. From here, the walkway follows the Greenway for a couple of miles – quite literally, walking on top of a sewer. Part of Joseph Bazalgette‘s Victorian scheme to rid London of pongs and disease, the Northern Outfall Sewer runs from Hackney Wick to Beckton. The Capital Ring sticks with it for most of the way.
It’s not thrilling stuff, to be fair. The first section is surrounded by Olympic Park works, as work takes place to upgrade the walkway towards West Ham station in time for 2012. It passes the ornate former Abbey Mills Pumping Station – another part of Bazalgette’s grand plan. A clear view down to the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf reminds you which side of London you’re in. Passing over the District Line and London, Tilbury and Southend rail line, by a park and a cemetery, the pathway becomes more peaceful. Neighbourhood cats prowl through the bushes, while all around, the Plaistow rooftops stretch out.
Finally, it’s off the Greenway, through some residential streets, over the A13, and into Beckton District Park, covered in autumn leaves. I’d expected a grim, modern, featureless open space, but in most parts it’s actually anything but that. The park’s older than it looks – dating back to 1903, a couple of decades after the creation of Beckton, named after the governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company, Simon Adams Beck, whose works dominated this area for decades. The park alternates between little bits of woodland, grassy mounds and formal gardens like the walk featuring examples of trees from aroud the world. The Capital Ring takes a twisting route through the park, with Tate & Lyle’s huge Silvertown plant coming into view.
But it’s the great roars which start to dominate again, from the dual carriageway running north of the Royal Docks, and from London City Airport, whose planes make this walk a noisy one. The business customers who use the flights from here don’t have to come home to the housing estates which are dotted around Beckton.
The Capital Ring passes by New Beckton Park – padlocked for reasons best known to Newham Council – through some housing, and to Cyprus Docklands Light Railway station. Built in 1881, the Cyprus estate was named after Britain’s capture of the Mediterranean island. Bit it’s more a more recent building project that snatches the attention if you take a short diversion through the DLR station – the student accommodation at the University of East London’s Docklands campus, a series of cylindrical buildings which face the Royal Albert Dock. They also overlook London City Airport’s runway – perfect for plane-spotters, but I hope those student halls have good soundproofing.
Then it’s the grimmest part of the walk yet – past a boarded-up pub, over a nightmare-to-cross roundabout, just at the point where the Capital Ring signs dry up. Thanks, Newham. The map in my 2001 guide to the walk indicated a walk towards the river, but here the route appears to cross the dramatic Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge over the Royal Albert Dock, past King George V Dock, past the old work site for the DLR’s extension to Woolwich, ending up in a dull housing development at Gallions Point – stubbornly titled Galleons Point. Here, though, the path finally reaches the river, with a view across to Thamesmead and Woolwich, the water lapping up on a grassy bank below.
The path continues in front of some flats, a couple of signs pointing out that this is private property and only Galleons Point residents are allowed on the adjacent grass. Nice. You have to press a button on a gate to be allowed out. From here, it’s along a narrow, dilapadated riverside park to Royal Victoria Gardens. Opened in 1851 as Woolwich Pleasure Gardens, its fairgrounds were initially popular, but it later fell into disrepair and became a haunt for prostitutes. It reopened in 1890 under its current name, but suffered from wartime damage and today looks, like most of North Woolwich, like it’s seen better days. This small area had been part of Kent since the Norman Conquest, and was part of the old borough of Woolwich until 1965, when it became part of Newham. As far as I know, no trace of it being run from south of the river remains nowadays.
North Woolwich was always run-down, but it looks more down-at-heel than ever now, with Pier Road eerily quiet. Its pride and joy, the old station museum, a terrific but underpromoted little gem, was opened by the Queen Mother in 1984, but quietly shut its doors in January 2009. It’s now boarded up and vandalised. This huge building was the first North Woolwich railway station – the second, which replaced it in the late 1970s, also lies derelict and boarded up next door; superseded in 2006 by the Docklands Light Railway extension to nearby King George V and across to Woolwich. A heritage railway group had wanted to take on the old stations and the rusting remains of this leg of the North London Line – part of which is earmarked for eventual reuse as part of Crossrail – but their plans appear to have come to nothing.
Perhaps the DLR’s extension to Woolwich, which opened in January, had contributed to North Woolwich looking like a ghost town – plenty of people had always travelled from south of the river to use the North London Line, and later the DLR. Now they can just travel direct without walking down these streets. After all, the railway had always been an important part of North Woolwich’s history. It first opened here in 1847, long before the arrival of the docks, with a ferry service to “South Woolwich”, which didn’t get its own trains for another couple of years. The ferry to the south bank was killed off by the Woolwich Free Ferry, but the north pier stayed in use for excursions until World War II. Its remains are still there, opposite the old station.
After all this thought – and stopping to chat to a man who was waiting to photograph a bus – it was down into the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. The lifts were out of service, and chicanes have been placed inside the tunnel by Greenwich Council in a vain, aggravating attempt to deter cyclists from riding through the long, damp passageway. At Woolwich itself – the official start/end of the Capital Ring – the path runs through the car park of an ambulance station, through the traffic jam at the Woolwich Ferry (which has been operating a one boat service for some time), and then onto the Thames Path, past the smart flats at Mast Quay – built on stilts in case of flooding – and alongside Woolwich Dockyard Estate, where the path looked sad and neglected. The long-closed aquatic centre still looked as gloomy as ever.
The riverside path stops abruptly short of the Thames Barrier, denying Capital Ring users the chance to see London’s best-known flood defence close up. Instead, it’s through isolated housing at King Henry’s Wharf – a housing development built in anticipation of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, axed by Boris earlier this year – and past some industrial units, and into Charlton. Where it started to rain. I’d gone 77 dry miles on the Capital Ring. The final one wouldn’t be so lucky.
But Maryon Park and Maryon Wilson Park – the former best-known for its starring role in Blow-Up, the latter much loved for its wonderful childrens’ zoo – seemed at their best in the gloomy conditions. Once part of a highwaymens’ hideout called Hanging Wood, both parks feature steep hills and huge trees. Clambering up a sharp incline in Maryon Park, leaves flying down from the trees, I was pleased I’d saved one of the Capital Ring’s best-kept secrets until last. The stands at The Valley come into view at Maryon Wilson Park, where – for the final time – I gazed back at the London Eye and the City. It’d been a long way…
Finally, it was out of Maryon Wilson Park, across the road, and into Charlton Park, where the football pitches and semis on Canberra Road came into view again.
A squirrel formed the welcoming committee as I reached the back of Charlton House, turned around to see if anyone was looking, and touched the sign post to mark the completion of my walk. Eleven separate walks and 78 miles later, my Capital Ring journey was all over. Ahead of me stretched the path back around to Shooters Hill, Eltham, Grove Park, Beckenham, Streatham, Wimbledon, Richmond, Isleworth… and the rest. Behind me stretched another path. With aching feet and fading light, it was time to go home.