Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Travel Tuesday : the Thames Path, day 15 - Tower Bridge to the Thames Barrier

Walked June 8, 2002

Today was my last day on the official Thames Path, and I'd be walking to the Thames Barrier, something I had never seen. 

I got up early-ish and took the Tube to Tower Hill. I glimpsed the "Glass Testicle" (or Greater London Authority / Mayor's Office) across the river:

Then I crossed pretty Tower Bridge, still happily quiet on a Sunday morning. The hordes would come later, but most were still tucking into their full English breakfasts at their B&Bs.

You get a nice view of the Tower of London from the bridge -- look how quiet it is!

I also love that they have labeled the bridge -- maybe so idiots in Arizona don't get confused again...

 I do love Tower Bridge, with its fairy tale turrets and robins egg blue trim (Queen Victoria's favorite color, it's said). But the path beckoned, so I didn't linger. 

Once across, I turned down cobbled Shad Thames, Butler's Wharf. Shad Thames is a corruption of "St. John at Thames", after the Templar Knights who once controlled the area. I love this street. But I would turn down the alley glimpsed to the left, Maggie Blake's Cause, and go through an arch to the riverside. 

The path opened up shortly thereafter, passing the amazing Design Museum -- seriously, if you are at all interested in the design of things, go to this museum! I had walked this stretch of the riverside on a number of occasions -- once trying to go further along the river but getting hopelessly lost.

The path crossed a new drawbridge to run behind China Wharf, with its poppy red arches. Its rear facade, however, is muuch less showy -- more in keeping with its neighbors, many of whom are converted warehouses. In the Victorian Era, this area was known as Jacob's Island, a notorious slum. 

A little farther along I crossed a footbridge for a view of old St. Saviour's Dock, still lined with (now converted) warehouses. I wonder if people can use the cranes to move their Agas in to their new flats?

A few more (thankfully well signposted!) twists and turns later and I emerged into Rotherhithe at Cherry Garden Pier, and, just beyond, Angel Wharf. I noticed this cute cat sculpture by Diane Gorvin, part of the "Dr. Salter's Daydream" artwork. You can see Tower Bridge in the background. 

Looking at the new-built housing around the ruins of Edward III's moated manor house, I instantly fell in love with the area and bemoaned the fact that I had let friends talk me out of looking for lodging here. Sigh.

I also spotted an adorable pub -- the Angel at Rotherhithe -- and decided to end my day back there with a pint. 

Nearby I passed the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe -- which stands on the site of The Shippe, from where the Pilgrim Fathers set out in 1620. Another Mayflower Pub factoid: they are the only pub licensed to sell stamps. A pint and postage, please!

I was much more interested in Brunel's engine house. Being something of an engineering nerd, I paid my £2 and visited the little exhibit. The achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel are justly celebrated -- he was one of the greatest and most versatile engineers ever -- from his Paddington Station and the Great Western Railway, to the Avon Gorge bridge in Bristol and the Great Eastern -- his giant steamship that had to be launched sideways into the Thames from its shipyard near Burrell's Wharf on the north band as a conventional launch would have run the ship aground on the opposite bank.

Less celebrated, however, is his father, Marc Isambard Brunel. The elder Brunel made his name as an engineer in the US -- he built many things for the city of New York, and submitted a plan that was praised albeit rejected for the US Capitol building. 

His greatest achievement however is the Thames Tunnel -- the first tunnel beneath a navigable river anywhere in the world. It took 18 years, £468,250 in Victorian money, and 7 lives to finish the Great Bore. After the 1828 breach in the tunnel work was suspended for 7 years -- during which time the company directors ordered the end of the tunnel against the tunneling shield to be bricked up and a large mirror placed against the wall so they didn't lose the tourist revenue! There wasn't enough money to build the approaches to allow horses and coaches, so it remained a pedestrian tunnel, filled with souvenir sellers by day, and vagrants by night, who were allowed to bed down in the tunnel for a penny per night. 22 years later, when the London Underground was built, the tunnel sold to the railway. The East London Line still runs through the tunnel -- which was extensively renovated -- in accordance with English Heritage guidelines to protect the vistas and the general look of Brunel's original brickwork.

These airshafts vented the tunnel:

nice grillwork in the windows of the airshaft:

Back on path, I wound in and out of new developments, sometimes along the river, sometimes not. I could see the entry to Limehouse Basin from across the river -- it was built to service Regent's Canal. From here, believe it or not, you could follow the Lea Valley Walk to Birmingham. 

As we rounded the bend in the river, I got a great view of Canary Wharf in the distance.

A bit farther downriver I found this obelisk in search on an honoree, at Pageant Steps. I recently read it has something to do with the estate being laid out on an axis with Canary Wharf, and this obelisk would like on the westward axis. Or something. 

Then a pleasant surprise: Surrey Docks Farm -- a working farm in London. They grow vegetables, raise chickens, have donkeys, and a farm shop and cafe. 

I fed goats and sheep, and had a little wander around and spotted a bored donkey and a sleepy pig. As I approached the pig, a goose and a gander hurried along the path ahead of me. I stopped to chat with the pig ("Hello Mr. Pig -- good heavens, look at the size of you!") when  suddenly I noticed the gander hurrying toward me. I said, "I don't have any food" but apparently he didn't want bread -- he wanted MEAT. He then proceeded to attach me -- nipping at my legs and making enough contact to raise more than one bruised lump.

I felt silly -- I didn't want to hurt the goose, especially with kids around, so I didn't kick him -- though he deserved it! I just stood there backing away and saying "Stop that! Shoo! You horrid goose!" Eventually he realized he wasn't going to be able to tear through my trousers and gave up. Moments later a tiny child -- seriously, 3 or 4 years old -- ushered the geese into a pen. I swear -- later I passed the gander, who glared at me with his bizarrely blue eyes. 15 days of walking, staring down young bulls and climbing over stills and my only injury on the path was a goose attack.

While standing on the riverfront again, I saw a dozen or more speedboats zipping along the river in some kind of race. Those in the front were having a pretty easy time of it, but those towards the back were hampered by the wakes of the boats ahead, having to speed up and slow down as they bounced over the waves. Later I read that it was a powerboat grand prix. 

Soon I came to Greenland Dock, the only large water-filled dock that remains on the river. An old swing bridge guards the entry, where once huge ships unloaded their contents. Its at places such as these that the size of the ships -- and of the trade in general -- is appreciable.

I passed the aptly named Wibbley Wobbley floating pub in Greenland Dock. It was owned by comedian Malcolm Hardee, who drowned in 2005 while rowing between the pub and his houseboat.

Further along the Thames is the Pepys Estate -- named for noted diarist Samuel Pepys, who was secretary of the Admiralty from 1685 - 1688. He lived nearby, but the estate is on the site of Henry VIII's Great Storehouse, which later became the Royal Naval Dockyard or the King's Yard. Between 1545-1865 some 350 naval ships were built here, including HMS Neptune, Nelson's flagship at the Battle of the Nile, when he defeated Napoleon's fleet. 

This "wall of the ancestors" artwork on the tower block at the Pepys Estate depicts the following people, left to right, starting at the top:

Top row: Catherine of Aragon, Tsar Peter the Great, Debra Lee
Middle row: Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth I
Bottom row: Michael Hamilton, Metrina, Phineas Pell

Looks as if this artwork has been moved and some new heads have been added. Some of the buildings in the estate are converted warehouses, including this enormous rum storehouse, where that essential lubricant was kept. 

The path turns away from the river at this point, and I found myself about 10 yards behind a young couple. Wanting to increase the distance between us, I showed down and even stopped to look at things ... but they did too. I then tried to speed up, only to have them speed up too. Finally they turned off the path, though I did glimpse them again in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford, famous for its 18th-century charnel house and skulls on the gate pillars. 

I got back to the riverside and looked upstream towards the former Burrell's Wharf--where the Great Eastern was launched. I read that the new Brunel Museum offers boat trips to the site. This is seriously the #1 thing on my "next time we're in London" list. 

A few more twists and turns and suddenly the path arrives in Greenwich, near the Cutty Sark.

I managed to resist the siren song of Greenwich and its market (I was worried about getting the stuff I  already owned home!) and walked along the river frontage of the Royal Naval College, built as a hospital for injured sailors, spying the Queens House and the Royal Observatory between the wings.

I also caught my first glimpse of the Millennium Dome ... but I would pass it later. 

Once past the college I saw the Trafalgar Tavern, home of the famous "whitebait dinners".  (Bella Wilfer takes her father to dinner in Greenwich; when I read "Our Mutual Friend" I imagined they ate here.) I was on new ground from this point on.

The path passed Trinity Hospital and the disused Greenwich Power Station...

... before entering a long stretch of non-touristy, industrial riverfront of silos, cranes, smokestacks and mountains of gravel being unloaded from ships. This is the London that most tourists wouldn't see.

Oddly enough -- or perhaps because I wasn't distracted -- I moved quickly through this stretch and could look back at downtown Greenwich:

It's a terrible photo, but there's a glimpse of John Outram's postmodern "crayola egyptian" pumping station across the river:

Here's a better view, from an article highlighting that the building had received a Grade II* listing:

The big hairpin bend in the river curls around the site of the then empty Dome. In November 2000 Suz and I visited it to see the Millennium exhibition. Hardly anyone was there and everything was heavily discounted in the gift shop. #winning.

Then I skirted an industrial estate that was all about gravel. Here's a ship uploading (or loading?) gravel. 

And some huge gravel stores. What is it all for???

Soon I caught my first glimpse of the Thames Barrier ... such an odd sight! The river here is a third of a mile wide. 

When I arrived at the Thames Barrier, one gate was turned upwards. If the tide from the North Sea was in flood, all the gates would turn up and protect London.

I always feel like the barrier looks like a line of hooded metal figures ... guardian monks or something. 

I saw these Thames Path signs at end of established path, but as there was still some path, I carried on donwstream. 

Looking upstream to the Thames Barrier;

And then I reached this sign noting the end -- or beginning? -- of the Thames Path.

I was pretty hungry by this point, so stopped into the cafe for a celebratory lunch of Diet Coke, sandwich-in-a-box, and crisps. But apparently didn't photograph them or the cafe!

I then made my way back -- let's be honest, probably via bus or the Tube -- to the Angel. 

I have a few "favorite pubs / bars" here and there in the world. And I never really know why a particular place is a favorite. But the minute I got my pint and settled in, I knew the Angel would be on the list. It's a friendly riverside pub, with decent food, tide tables on the wall, the Beatles on the stereo. Oh, and there's a view of Tower Bridge in the distance:

Oh, and my pint of cider cost £2.16. When pints in a lot of places were more than £4. Sure, this was 2002, but that was still super cheap!

After finishing my pint -- and noticing that it stopped raining -- I went for another little walk to see St. Mary's:

and the cute school kids on the facade of St. Mary's charity school:

When I got to the riverside again and looked downstream, I saw that the tide was out:

I walked along -- loving the weird sky and the quiet and the neighborhood.

The view of Tower Bridge from Rotherhithe with that moody sky:

Then, because the tide was out, I walked down the stairs onto the tidal foreshore, near King's Stairs Block. It was fun to be there, though I wish I knew then what I know now about "mudlarking" and looking for pipes and pottery. Next time. 

I saw this derelict building on the riverside and imagined a world where I could buy and renovate it. I'm sure that between 2002 and 2020, someone has. 

It's amazing to see the waterline on the embankments ... and how low this tide was.

This had been a very good day. Cool technology, engineering marvels, a big ship, industrial London, and a new favorite pub. 

Next up: Thames Barrier to the Dartford Creek Barrier


  1. What a brilliant description of your walk. Thank you. I've walked the other side from Tower Bridge to a nary Wharf (via the pubs) bug didn't realise there was a south side walk of such distance or interest - it'll be done this summer I hope.

    1. Hopefully the route is still accessible -- I know there's been a lot of construction in the last 18 years. Enjoy your walk!