Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Travel Tuesday : the Thames Path, day 16 - Thames Barrier to Dartford Creek Barrier

Walked June 10, 2002

I felt pretty nervous before this stretch of my walk. I was going to be walking without a guidebook, with just a map and some hopefully decent (existing?) signage. 

I wasn't even going to walk ... I got up and put on my gym clothes, and then opened the curtains to find a bright blue sky in Fulham. Given the wet, stormy forecast for the weekend, I decided to seize the day. I bustled round, throwing stuff in my rucksack while listening to the radio. Got the news I had been listening for... France lost to Denmark 201 in their final World Cup game. Une trag├ędie nationale.

I headed out to the Thames Barrier again, via tube and then bus. I walked back from the road to the barrier to ty to figure out the pathmarker signs. After much wandering around, I reluctantly accepted that I needed to go back up the Green Chain walk and up to the road where I had gotten off the bus. I got a sick, scared feeling, compounded by the fact that the skies were suddenly filled with black clouds and an icy breeze started to blow. I actually toyed with the idea of just going back to the road and getting on a bus headed back to the Dome. Perhaps a stop at the eco-friendly Sainsburys that looked like where the Teletubbies live (now, apparently the eco-friendly store has been demolished...).

As I trudged up the path I went around a corner and saw a flash of red: a fox stood in the path only a few feet away and we both froze. I imagine we both looked like cartoon characters, rearing back, eyes popped out of our heads. The fox recovered first and leapt into the high grass, disappearing in an instant. 

I took this as a good sign, and went on with my walk. Arriving back at the road, I saw the Thames Path Extension marker about 10 feet from the bus stop where I had alighted. Grumble grumble. But as the rain held off, I went on my way.

As I meandered along a busy road and past a roundabout, I noticed that the arrows on the fingerposts had been replaced with ships. Perhaps an admission that oaks are few and far between on this stretch of the river. Then again, masted sailing vessels are pretty rare here too.  

Wandering through a housing estate (left, left, right, right, left, right, left, right) I finally regained the river in Charlton.

A few hundred yards along I came to an elaborate, modern footbridge -- named "Linkbridge 2000" according to its sign -- which crossed not a stream or a canal but a brick and concrete wall. Why they couldn't just put a doorway through the brick wall I can't say... At least it's a handsome and interesting structure.

Shortly thereafter the path was signed away from the river -- but the fingerpost was somewhat ambiguous. did it really want me to go through the old housing estate? Or did it want me to go to the main road? Given my horror of doubling back, I decided to go to the main road where I knew I could get through. Oh, me of little faith. But, umm, I did get to experience a main road in downtown Woolwich:

As traffic sped past me, I notice a path --- so close, yet so far -- on the other side of a fence. Sure, it wound through an old brownfield site full of litter, but it was a bit more peaceful.

I made my way to the tiny Woolwich ferry -- that yellow tower is the MIDDLE of the boat. This is the only vehicle ferry on the Thames, and I'm sad I didn't realize that pedestrians could use it too! While writing this up for the blog I found a fascinating article about the ferry from Reuters | The Wider Image with glorious photos and some good history. (There has been a river crossing here since Saxon times!)

The good thing is that I was able to rejoin the path at the loading dock. I suddenly realized just where Luton Airport is when I saw this plane landing!

These little ferries cross the river constantly throughout the day -- cheaper than a bridge, eh? Coming as I do from Seattle, where some of our ferries are large enough to span the Thames at Woolwich, I found these fat little ones sweetly amusing. They load and unload pretty quickly at either end, though the process took longer than the short trip across the river. The two boats -- the James Newman and the Ernest Bevin on my day; the third, John Burns, must have had the day off -- changed places in about 10 minutes.

I also regret that I hadn't realized there was a TUNNEL under the Thames at Woolwich. I never saw this handsome entrance, even:

Image from thames-path.org.uk

Note that the fingerposts are legion! I would love to take a little round trip of the ferry and bath through the foot tunnel. Next time, next time...

The fingerposts on my walk had been messed with and turned the wrong way, but the path continued along the river until it reached the former Royal Woolwich Arsenal:

The old Royal Woolwich Arsenal was in the process of being turned into yuppie housing.... still, if it preserves part of the building, then it's a good thing.

Tilfen, the folks doing conversion, built a fine new stretch of path: 

Soon the path became more rural along Galleons Reach--built on a former landfill. It reminded me of a conversation I had in a pub a few days before, where I was informed that the only new greenspace anymore was old landfills, now grassed over. You get it where you can, I suppose.


I could see the Barking Barrier in the distance:

Walking along Barking Reach I passed this WW2 pillbox guarding the Thames: 

And I had a good view of the Barking Barrier across the river:

On a strange little viewing platform in Barking Reach, one suspects opened with much fanfare by a local politician, I looked downstream:

I was a bit nervous, as my map indicated that I would have to make a lengthy detour around the new sewage works at crossness. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the "Crossness Path" was open -- a stretch of river front that had been closed to the public for some 150 years and reopened in 2000. First up was one of my favorite buildings in the world: Bazalgette's Crossness Pumping Station, which still houses its mighty beam engines. I'm thrilled to discover that it's now a museum, and has a beautiful website full of interior and exterior images: http://www.crossness.org.uk/

It's not as elaborate externally as its glorious counterpoint at Abbey Mills, its handsome brickwork and gothic touches elevate the structure from its onerous task. (Note: I wrote this in 2002. I was a bit more sonorous then!) Seriously, it's gorgeous inside: 

photo by Peter Scrimshaw, from crossness.org.uk
Bazalgette, I should note, was the savior of London when he designed the London sewers. He's a marvellous engineer. 

As I walked past the enormous tanks of sewage, I thanked my lucky stars that a fresh breeze was blowing in off the river and that, obviously, sewage treatment technology had improved so much that even these gazillion-gallon tanks emitted no odors. 

The wind changed suddenly, blowing full force over the tanks and into my nostrils. It was like the worst outhouse I'd ever smelled -- and then made more intense. I felt like a stablehand in the Augean stables, or as if I had my head inside a sewer; the stench made me retch and it was only my empty stomach that kept me from actually vomiting. 

Unsurprisingly, the path ahead was completely deserted so no one got to witness my mad dash to get away from the tanks, hands clapped over my face while I breathed shallowly through my mouth. I was only about 100 yards away from the end of the tanks, but it seemed like miles. Finally, the tanks just behind me, the wind changed back and I could slacken my pace. 

I looked up and noticed a strange, metal-clad building -- all swoops and curves, like a more restrained Guggenheim Bilbao. Later I learned that it was the new sludge-powered sewage treatment plant. I like that they built a stylish modern building rather than just an ugly box.

Sludge power! 

From there the path wandered pas more industrial land -- vast warehouses, rusting metal sheds, gravel conveyors (who knew there was such a big market for gravel?), mysterious tanks and silos. Across the river I could see the massive Ford Motor Factory, and the ferries that cross the river with its workforce:

As I approached Erith everything was super industrial. I like the built environment -- even factories -- but it's pretty clear why I was the only person on the path here.

I could also see an enormous landfill across the river in Coldharbour -- mainly evident by the swarms of seagulls following the dumptrucks. Part of it still looked -- at that distance, anyway -- like a field of flowers... an illusion aided, I'm sure, by the millions of brightly colored plastic shopping bags waving in the breeze.

This sign, near Erith, made me chuckle. If the razor wire isn't enough to keep out trespassers, perhaps this friendly sign will help... 

I the path essentially disappeared here, so I had to turn away from the river and into the streets. This did take me to the pretty Erith Riverside Gardens, so it wasn't so bad:

I also spotted the White Hart, Erith, where I decided it was time to take a break... just in time to catch the end of the Ireland game. Ireland made it to the knockout rounds, having just defeated Saudi Arabia 3-0. In my hopeful mood, I noted that an England - Ireland final was still possible. (Sigh.)

The crowd in the pub was happy and chatty, and being the only female in the place I attracted a lot of attention. "Come watch the footie, darling" and so on. But I sat, wrote, sipped a pint, and then moved on.

My notes refer to this as the "deep water jetty, Erith", but I think it's Erith Pier. Which may be a new name for the older structure? 

I walked out on to it and could see Queen Elizabeth II Bridge far in the distance:

I also saw some graffiti written by one Hanna Downey. "Ben Smith is a gay wanker." Perhaps this is the result of a lover's quarrel, because Hanna also <3s Damien M. 

Looking back along the pier toward Erith:

I left the town of Erith and returned to a nice path through Crayford Ness:

Before long I reached the end of the Thames Path Extension:

I continued along the Cray Riverway to the mouth of the Darent River, seeing QE2 bridge in the distance. 

I turned up the muddy Darent at low tide, walking toward the Darent Flood Barrier.

You'd think this would make a good spot for a footbriddge... but really the Darent Flood Barrier (also known as the Dartford Creek Barrier) doesn't have one. From the side it's just a giant wall, blocking my path. At the time I wrote that a footbridge was envisioned in 2005 or so. An article from Remote London from 2019 says that there's still no pedestrian access, but "Instead, the river path heads inland, along the Darent and Cray rivers. This creates a lengthy, but interesting detour for walkers of the Thames Path." 

So I walked up the Darent, feeling a million miles away from London. Here's a look back:

according to RemoteLondon.com
The Darent here is one of the last remaining natural tidal creeks in London. Silting and reduced flow mean that very few boats now disturb the wildlife, but this was once an important trade artery for industry, with river traffic recorded as far back as pre-Roman times.
I passed these sweet and friendly horses on Dartford Marshes:

And an old moated building on Howbury Farm:

I love how England is dotted with ancient structures. In writing up this post I did a little research; this medieval site is listed as a "scheduled monument" and contains a moated structure, walls, and inside a ruined house known as Howbury, dati.g from the 16th or 17th century.

Here's the site as seen on Google Maps:

I'd walked 11-ish miles, so decided to call it a day, walking up "Moat Lane" (hee hee) to Slade Green station and heading home. 

Next up: Darent to Gravesend

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