Caffeinated in Woolwich

Note: This non-fiction is a response to the non-fiction piece “Lights Out For the Territory” by Iain Sinclair where he follows the same route in the 1980’s. It was also in by book Caffeinated in Woolwich

We sit in deep faux leather sofas at the new Coffee Lounge in Woolwich, with a large cappuccino each on the wooden table before us.

            J: You know H, we are in Equitable House? This was the Woolwich Building Society from 1935. Neo-classicism outside and Baroque Deco inside.

            We ponder the expense and opulence of this place, that is now half pub, and half coffee shop, with offices above. Stuck as it is, by the side of the brutally modern General Gordon Square, which is stamped fully in the centre of Woolwich. The square, with its big T.V. screen, water features, for unofficial paddling, and strips of concrete and grass. Bus stops on two sides, framed by a road which is in turn bordered by Costa, the DLR station, Wilco, Poundland, Tesco Extra and a handful of small independents selling anything from phones, haircuts, cosmetics, seafood to nail fashion.

            We leave the coffee lounge after our caffeine fix and turn right along the pedestrianised Greens End road. Passing the bookies (set into Equitable House too) and then the other DLR portal, we pass through the small but busy market; the sellers crying out how good a price their strawberries are. To our left another pedestrian street is lined with shops into the distance. To the right, the Elephant and Castle pub, and beyond it The Old Gun Pit pub or, The Ordinance. Beyond that a wide road, the A206, heads down past the covered Public Market and on towards Thamesmead.

            We carry straight on as another bookies passes by and a Poundstretcher. We pass the stinking public toilets and cross Beresford St, aka the A206. On the other side we step into another world. This is Woolwich Arsenal.

            J: This was called the Royal Arsenal. They used to make guns, ammunition and explosives here. At the height of operations during the First World War the Arsenal was over 1,285 acres.

            The contrast is marked. No tacky shops here, the grubby feel is gone, now just plush looking apartments and high-end corner shops (M&S et al) and swanky cafes. To our left as we walk along the cobbled private road, called No.1 Street, there is frantic building work as they wedge in the new Crossrail station.

            J: That is going to change everything, Crossrail. But I’ve heard that it may fragment Woolwich proper from Woolwich Arsenal. Already you can feel the division. Thatcher strangled this area by cost-cutting and sticking in the pathetic DLR instead of extending the tube. All they have done since is desperately tried to reverse that stupid decision. Canary Wharf, the new financial district, served by a toy train! Of course it wasn’t long before the Jubilee line extension to Stratford and connecting Canary Wharf to the city in 1999.

As we near the high concrete bank of the Thames, after passing the terminally closed Firepower Museum, before us we have several sculptures in human form, wrought from cast iron.

J: This group of 16 figures is called “The Assembly” by the artist Peter Burke. Each figure is missing a quarter of their side so you can see inside. Creepy.

A tight left-hand turn takes the path up onto the bank, the Thames Path. Here you could walk all the way west into the city or east out into the marshes beyond Thamesmead. The view over the wide Thames is of North Woolwich and East Beckton. The Beckton view of a new build, residential towers slapped onto redundant dockland. North Woolwich, lower, houses, Royal Victoria Gardens, and the old rusty teeth of North Woolwich Pier and the abandoned end of the line, once of the Eastern Counties Railway.

            By where we stand the Thames Clipper pier sticks out to receive the high speed (28 knots max) catamaran river bus services. They allow you to arrive in the city fairly quickly after sipping an onboard Costa coffee and toastie.

            We look out over the Thames. To the east, a wide sweep out towards Rainham Marsh and on towards Dagenham, Grays, Tilbury and Dartford. To the west, the 02 Arena, Canary Wharf and the Thames Barrier. Nearer is the Tate and Lyle sugar factory, still belching away after so many years. And closer, the Woolwich Ferry.

            Across on the river are three pontoons. The first holds several small tugboats, the second a single tugboat with “Assassin” written on its nose. The third a very ugly ship with what look like greenhouses on its decks.

            J: Assassin. Funny name for a small to medium size tugboat. Not its original name of course, was renamed when purchased by Predetor Charters of Essex. It’s a Damen 1500 pushycat, 42 tonner, 50 footer. Really, but for the odd bit of towing it’s a bed levelling or dredging boat. I saw it dredging the Royal Albert dock down at the marina end not so long ago. A lumber bus compared to the Clippers, 10 knots max. I love the all-black colour scheme with the white cabin.

            On the third pontoon is the ugliest ship possible. Two greenhouses have been plonked on the front and rear decks. It has no redeeming features. The glass is green with mould.

            J: And what about that “thing”, former roll on roll off ferry, now moored permanently for no reason. Formally known as “Sound of Scarba”. It seems a concern bought it to provide a commuter experience. This was clearly before the Thames Clippers. I mean, why would you want to take three times as long getting home? I wish it would sink.

            We continue to walk along the bank while watching the Common Turns and the Seagulls. The eye is drawn by the two ferry boats constantly swapping sides with each other. A third always stands by in reserve, or in constant maintenance.

            J: You know, those ships are over 50 years old? Before them were paddle steamers. Those three are called, John Burns, Ernest Bevin, James Newman, all built in 1963. I’ve heard they are being replaced next year by two new state of the art ships. The free ferry started in 1889. That’s a lot of crossings! Of course we could take the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. It’s been there since 1912, so no chance of flooding when we cross! Of course the DLR is under there somewhere too but we’d have to go back into town for that and spend £1.50 to cross.

            Bicycles fly past us on the cycle path as we walk on the pedestrian side and stare out mesmerised by the ferry and the river. A tug passes pulling a barge of waste from the city. There are many skeletons of old dock works now seagull perching posts. Soon we reach the portal that covers the top of the stairs and lift shaft down to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. It is squeezed in a space where the leisure centre has been built around it. We carry on, forced away from the river by the Woolwich Free Ferry offices. Rounding the offices we are drawn onto the approach road for the ferry. A queue of cars and lorries are waiting but we stroll up to the closed gates. There are no other foot passengers. Shortly the wide and flat ferry arrives and the announcement reminds the passengers to leave. After the ramp has sunk onto the deck the gates automatically open and we walk towards the ship.

            At the end of the ramp we step onto the ship and follow the steps down into the bowels. At the bottom of the steps we pass along the thumping engine noise of the corridor down her spine and to the seats at the other end. Soon the ship is off and makes its way across yet again. We then mount the steps and stand watching as the identical off-ramp is lined up with the identical other end of the ship.

            Soon the lady speaks again the same message as before as the ramp thumps down on the deck. A man clangs the gates open and we are free to follow the ramp. We pass another queue of traffic as the other traffic offloads and passes us.

            Rounding the corner we see the North Woolwich bus stop with the Woolwich Foot Tunnel portal, again, identical to the one on the other side but this time all alone on the wide tarmac bus stop. We have now arrived on the north bank of the Thames but are well and truly still in East London.

            To the west the road heads into an industrial estate. While, eastwards, beyond the bus stop is the old end of line rail station. Once it was a railway museum but at the moment the grand building is derelict. We pass it by and to our right is the gate to the Royal Victoria Gardens. Beyond this is the concrete fortress of the Police Station and to our other side some fast food outlets. We reach the zebra crossing and run the gauntlet of the mad, and blind, motorists.

            Now we are in North Woolwich. We pass the post office and a few shops. There is a café called “Roz Café”. Inside the menus show pictures of Full English and roasts alongside kebabs and pizza.

            J: A proper East London café that though, you want to hear London accents, there you go.

            The road narrows and we reach King George V DLR station. Swiping our Oyster cards we then head up the steps above the platform. At the top we get a view of the old docks. Slapped in a jetty up the middle is a runway for London City Airport. On the far bank of the Royal Albert Dock is the University of East London. Next to it is a new build, currently being erected, a new financial area for China and India.

            J: With Crossrail and that, this area is going to change big time.

            We walk down the steps to the trains. One direction is to Bank or Stratford and the other will send us back to Woolwich.

            J: I have no idea how much that journey will all change in the next 20 years or so but I expect it will be a lot. Where do you want to go now? The world is our Oyster, haha! Well, London at least.