Standing on a raised gravelled bank a short walk from Plumstead station, the views in front of me could hardly be described as picturesque. Looking in one direction I could see some Southeastern trains parked up in their sidings, while looking the other way there was an expanse of cleared industrial land flanked by a self-storage warehouse.
With a Stagecoach bus depot and two prisons (the infamous Thameside and Belmarsh) a little further away, tourist London this was not. So, if I was not here for the McDonald’s ‘drive thru’, why was I here?
Before this visit, I had never before been to Plumstead (the closest I had been was Woolwich town centre, a place I wrote about recently). But on this occasion I was about to embark on a walk led Rob Smith, who is part of Footprints of London, which was to explore part an area of London hidden away for many years when the land was owned by the military. It turned out to be a fascinating trip.
But first, some history…..
By royal appointment
Woolwich was founded in Anglo Saxon times and it developed into a small medieval town with particular focus on the wool trade. But if you read my earlier blog on Woolwich, you will know it well and truly took off when Henry VIII founded a dockyard to build his warship, the “Henri Grace A Dieu”, in 1512 and in the years that followed it became a vital military site.
It was expanded in subsequent years as the threat of war increased and the testing of guns began in the 1650s at what was known as the Warren. And in 1696 a workshop called Warren Laboratory was established to make fuzes, gunpowder and shells. By the mid-18th century, the military site covered 100 acres.
The marshland that I first saw when I left Plumstead station was used as the testing grounds of the Royal Arsenal (a named it gained in 1806), before the manufacturing of explosives was added later. For many years few Londoners would have been aware of what went on at the site because it was hidden away behind a wall (which was strengthened over time).
After walking down from the raised bank (under which Joseph Bazalgette placed the pipes for his pioneering Victorian sewer system), we walked through a shopping precinct and reached the remains of a wide canal, dating from 1812. It was dug out by convicts and, as well as having a defensive role, it was used for bringing in gunpowder from north of the Thames, as well as a site for testing torpedos.
The canal was used right up to the early 1960s, but in the later years its main role was bringing coal to gasworks, a site of which remains derelict on one side of the waterway. On the other side, houses have been and a pedestrian walkway created on land where rockets used to be built. And a disused lock gate and swing bridge can still be seen.
Rob had plenty of stories to tell about the area, including how the narrow gauge tracks in the area had been brought over form Sudan (an area of enormous interest to the British in the 19th century). And as we walked along the Thames footpath, he provided accounts of tragic accidents of the dangerous Tripcock Ness bend and the terrible conditions that prisoners on hulks moored along the river faced.
‘The Venice of South East London’
By the 1960s part of the vast Royal Arsenal complex had been left redundant and the Ministry of Defence offered land to what was then London County Council for social housing. New schemes for homes had been approved for the likes of Hatfield, but they weren’t considered to be enough to re-house all those living in overcrowded back-to-back Victorian housing around the capital.
London County Council (superseded by the Greater London Council – the GLC – in 1965) planned to create a ‘city in a city’ with homes for 60,000 people and an adjoining business park providing jobs for them so they would need to travel long distances for work. Canals (creating “the Venice of South East London,” as Rob put it) would be built and even a marina would be created, so that the area could attract cruise ships and provide further employment for workers in a strip of tourist restaurants along the water’s edge.
But early on Thamesmead – a completely new name conjured up in a competition attracting more than 500 entries – faced difficulties. The marshy nature of the land meant that foundations needed to be dug down further than intended and builders encountered unexploded military ordinance which needed to be dealt with, thus slowing things down.
The architects of the new ambitious scheme seemed more interested in what the tower blocks of flats would look like, rather than the practicalities of creating sound housing. Indeed the first family to move on the estate didn’t have any neighbours for many months because of a flaw with the construction and water apparently poured into their living space.
We stopped for lunch in Thamesmead town centre which boasts a selection of cafes, takeaways and a range of shops. Given that it borders onto a retail park with supermarkets and outlet stores, residents are spoilt for choice when it comes to shopping options. And despite the dull modern architecture the authorities have tried to make what they can of the precinct – a canal runs through it and an old clock tower was brought by boat down the Thames from Deptford Royal Dockyard.
But it wasn’t always like this. The town centre development only really got up and running in the 1980s. Early residents lacked the essential facilities they needed – the nearest place for decent shops, a post office or pubs was in Woolwich (it was cut off from Abbey Wood, which was technically nearer, by a railway line). But bus services were really patchy so life was a struggle. Schools were oversubscribed and the first doctor’s surgery was in a portakabin in the middle of a muddy construction site.
Thamesmead was meant to be somewhere modern that would appeal to those living in miserable, slum-like conditions. But it developed a notorious reputation and was considered by many a miserable, isolated place to live (indeed the parents of one of the people on Rob’s walk refused to move there from slums in another part of London such was its reputation in 1971). Private developers showed little interest in building homes there and with spiralling costs in the 1970s there was talk at one stage of demolishing Thamesmead and starting over again.
The residential blocks (some 12-storeys high) may have looked futuristic (some would say even appealing) from a distance, but the raised walkways connecting them became dangerous and dirty places to walk. Residents also complained that their homes were draughty, while the GLC found they were expensive to heat.
While the town centre did eventually get built, the marina project was abandoned and the lake area is shut off and used for fishing. On the other side of the development, the original blocks were built around Southmere lake. If you blot out the concrete towers (some of which are earmarked for demolition), the setting seems pleasant.
But as we got closer to a boarded up leisure complex, some kids on bikes cycled past and shouted that “you need to be careful, there is lots of knife crime in Thamesmead”. Indeed, just a few days before my visit a 22-year-old man had apparently been stabbed on one of the walkways in broad daylight.
Many people seemed to write off Thamesmead from the start and more than 50 years on it doesn’t seem to have ever recovered. And given that it is the setting for gritty films like A Clockwork Orange doesn’t help. But can its poor public image ever be repaired?
Unless you like brutalist architecture in many respects it’s a pretty miserable estate (there was a stench of urine in some parts that we walked). Some of the early blocks, with dark and somewhat unsafe stairwells remain – and some garages are boarded up. But in many parts – particularly the canals leading from the town centre – there is a considerable amount of greenery and there are points where London feels a long way off.
To the west of Thamesmead, you get a sense of how in recent years the area has tried to appeal to more affluent people. Gallions Reach Eco Village was built about 10 years ago and has a wonderful tor built as a feature that you can climb to the top of, providing wonderful views.
From here you can see the City and other parts of London, but at the foot of the mound there are the remains of dangerous buildings where explosives were made. Rob shared a number of well-researched accounts of industrial accidents that took place in the Thamesmead area over the years one of which took place here (I won’t spoil his story by repeating here).
And after years of uncertainty, there is hope that things will now improve for residents of the original Thamesmead estate homes. Peabody took control of the entire development two years ago and has pledged to spend £225m and create 4,000 homes (some of which will replace the original ones). The local authorities have also promised to inject cash into the scheme as well.
Thamesmead had had a tough time since the Greater London Authority was abolished in 1986 and it fell under the responsibility of two local authorities, neither of whom were that interested in developing it. It was therefore became the first estate in the country to pass over to a residents controlled, private company. But while those at the helm had experience of running residents’ associations, running Thamesmead as a whole was perhaps a step too far and it ran into considerable debt.
But now with the Peabody and local authority investment, in addition to Crossrail at nearby Abbey Wood and Woolwich, can Thamesmead finally silence its critics and be widely considered as a pleasant place to live? Only time will tell.