The stretch of almost 12 miles between the Thames Barrier and Crayford Ness/Slade Green arguably includes some of the least attractive parts of the path so far. Indeed at the semi-official final point at Crayford Ness you are standing with your back to a huge metal reclamation yard. However the route passes some significant points and it does provide evidence of the diversity to be found along the Thames. It is not all a rural idyll. It was the only day where at one point I asked my self “why am I doing this?” But that soon passed as I approached the end.
Here is a 6 minute video of photographs of this stage.
The barrier is an impressive piece of engineering, and more impressive when you consider the journey you have made from Kemble to get here. So time for a frisson of pleasure before setting out on the next leg. I won’t say “final leg” because I still have three days on the north bank to walk and there is still the Dartford to All Hallows very final stretch. The first few minutes, (say half a mile) takes you away from the river because the path extension appears not to be able to go along the riverside yet, though there are plans.
From the barrier the path goes down some steps and along a long underpass. All along the wall is a sketch map of the entire Thames path from Kemble to the Barrier, all 184 miles. At the end is a terraced garden area and playground. Go up the steps and through a garden toward the road. This is waymarked here with a signpost for The Green Chain Walk, though this soon changes to The Thames Path and Capital Ring signs. When you get to the main Woolwich Road, turn left by the Royal Greenwich Trust School. The School (website here) is a “free school” formed out of a former University Technical College created in September 2013. The college was converted from a UTC to a free school in 2016, after the UTC closed owing to low admission numbers.
Walk past the school down to the roundabout, then going down Ruston Road. Shortly after there is a tall brick tower, part of the Woolworth Royal Dockyard Steam Factory built in 1837. (Well, there isn’t a great deal to see on this stretch). Walk down Ruston Road to a small estate on Harlinger Street and you are back to the river.
Across the river is the huge Tate and Lyle sugar factory. Controversially linked to the slave trade, it was formed in 1921 from a merger of two rival sugar refiners: Henry Tate & Sons and Abram Lyle & Sons.
In 2006, Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin was awarded a Guinness World Record as the world’s oldest branding
In February 2008, it was announced that Tate & Lyle granulated white cane sugar would be accredited as a Fairtrade product, with all the company’s other retail products to follow in 2009Wikipedia
Stepping over some boat-like steps and passing the two-cannon gun battery of 1847, off in the distance are the gateways of the Woolwich Ferry. Reaching two disused dry docks we are now on the site of the old Woolwich Dockyard, founded by King Henry VIII in 1512 to build his flagship Henri Grâce à Dieu (Great Harry), the largest ship of its day and remained so for 200 years.
In 1886 the employees of the dockyards formed a football team called Dial Square, which changed its name to Woolwich Reds after they were given some red shirts. Shortly after they became Woolwich Arsenal. In 1913 they moved to North London and dropped the Woolwich.
In 1886 workers at the Arsenal formed a football club initially known as Dial Square after the workshops in the heart of the complex playing their first game on 11 December (a 6–0 victory over Eastern Wanderers) in the Isle of Dogs. Renamed Royal Arsenal two weeks later (and also known as the ‘Woolwich Reds’), the club entered the professional football league as Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 and later became known as Arsenal F.C., having moved to north London in 1913. Royal Ordnance Factories F.C. were another successful team set up by the Royal Arsenal but only lasted until 1896.Wikipedia
Dial Square FC was reestablished in January 2020 as a protest club angry at the direction of Arsenal FC under the ownership of the Kroenke Sports & Entertainment group.
The path crosses over the approach road to the Woolwich (Free) Ferry (website here). This, along with the Rotherhithe Tunnel is the only way across the river between Tower Bridge and Dartford Tunnel/QEII Bridge. Around two million passengers use the ferry each year. The service is free for all traffic and opened in 1889 after tolls were abolished on bridges to the west of London. In 2012 Transport for London estimated a subsidy cost of 76.5p per passenger.
Walking round the London Ambulance Service brings the path back to the river and the Waterfront Leisure Centre. Copious signposts tell us we still have 9 miles to go before Slade Green. Tucked outside the Leisure Centre is the Grade II listed rotunda that houses the entrance, lift and stairs for the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. It opened on Saturday, 26 October 1912. A 2016 survey showed that around 1,000 people use the tunnel each day.
The Woolwich foot tunnel crosses under the River Thames in Woolwich, in East London from Old Woolwich in the Royal Borough of Greenwich to North Woolwich in the London Borough of Newham. The tunnel offers pedestrians and cyclists an alternative way to cross the river when the Woolwich Free Ferry service is not operatingWikipedia
Continuing along the promenade past some new apartment blocks brings us to the Woolwich Pier and Royal Arsenal, Woolwich site. Originally built in the 17th century for “the manufacture of armaments, ammunition, and explosives research for the British armed forces,, over the next two centuries, the site expanded massively. At the time of the First World War the Arsenal covered 1,285 acres and employed close to 80,000 people. It finally closed as a factory in 1967 and the Ministry of Defence moved out in 1994. Today the area, so long a secret enclave, is open to the public and is being redeveloped for housing and community use” (Wikipedia)
Some of the original buildings remain albeit many converted into residential accommodation. However there is much still to see on the site. There is an official series of walks around the site by the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust.
By Woolwich Pier, from where boats go to London, are the two Grade II listed octagonal East and West Riverside Gatehouses built in 1814. They flank the river entrance to the Royal Arsenal, originally its main entrance. In from of the Gatehouses are 16 cast-iron figures, entitled Assembly by Peter Burke. These were installed in 2005 and aim to depict a collective human presence.
Some of the original buildings demonstrate an architectural commitment to proportions that give them a pleasing symmetry.
After the Royal Arsenal the promenade continues though blue railings and up along a viewing platform to some seemingly old metal blue gates, after which the path changes to a gravel path through trees. To the right are some new low-rise flats, nowhere near the opulence of Greenwich. But I was surprised at the noise from across thre river – until I saw a passenger aircraft rise above the blocks of flats – this was London City Airport, developed by the engineering company Mowlem in 1986–87. “London City had over 4.5 million passenger movements in 2017. It is the fifth-busiest airport by passengers and aircraft movements serving the London area and was the 14th-busiest in the UK in 2017. In 2019 the airport handled over 5 million passengers” (Wikipedia).
I was quite lucky to be passing at low tide, when the extent of the rich ecosystem for birds, waders and gulls was visible. This is a far cry from yesterday’s experience. Here is a quiet, pleasant rural walk with wild blackberries and roses on both sides of the track. However, it was not always so. Between 1776 and 1857 this area was used to house thousands of convicts in old and disused boats. It is said one in three prisoners died on board. Indeed Charles Dickens highlights this through the character of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations.
However, this are is also the location of one of the countries worst ever disaster. On the evening of 3 September 1878, the paddle steamer Princes Alice, full of passengers, collided with another ship The Bywell Castle. The river was cold and toxic with waste and sewage from pumping stations (which we will pass shortly). To avoid the Bywell, the captain of the Princes Alice unfortunately turned the wrong way, collided and sank within minutes. Over the next few days nearly 700 bodies were recovered, but others are assumed to have been lost forever. One positive outcome was that the pumping of of raw sewage into the river was stopped forever and a treatment works constructed – now the biggest sewage treatment works in Europe…as we will see, and smell, very soon.
Across the river a huge gateway begins to appear – this is the Barking Creek Tidal Flood Barrier which stands guard at the moth of the Barking Creek which joins the river Roding to the Thames. It was built in the 1980s to prevent flooding in Barking and Dagenham it can be lowered at high tide.
In the 1850s the Barking Creek was home to England’s largest fishing fleet. The fish were landed at the Town Quay and stored in ice houses prior to being transferred to London’s fish markets.Historic England
Pass a disused pier, and reach Tripcock or Margaret Point. Here is and WWII gun emplacement, built late 1930s/early 1940s adapted from standard hexagonal pillbox type. The column survives for mounting an anti-aircraft gun and a slot for extensive field of fire over Thames for heavy machine guns. Then the tall red metal Margaret Ness Lighthouse. It was built in 1902 and at 30 feet high shows a light visible for 8 miles. (There is another one at Cross Ness.)
We are now on the edge of Thamesmead, which we reach through a promenade with rather strange yellow railings. No Damien Hurst or Anthony Gormley artwork here. Built from the mid-1960s onwards on former marshland on the south bank of the Thames, most of the land area of Thamesmead previously formed about 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of the old Royal Arsenal site. It was built with high hopes, to include lakes and waterways,
Thamesmead was built at the end of the 1960s. Efforts were made to solve the social problems that had already started to affect earlier estates. These were believed to be the result of people being uprooted from close-knit working-class communities and sent to estates many miles away, where they did not know anybody. The design of the new estates meant that people would feel more isolated than they would have done in the terraced housing that had been typical in working-class areas. The solution proposed was that once the initial residents had moved in, their families would be given priority for new housing when it became available.Wikipedia
The estate is somewhat isolated with limited public transport.
Thamesmead’s location between the Thames and the South London escarpment makes it difficult to build new road and railway infrastructure. As a result, Thamesmead has no underground or above-ground rail lines. Most residents travel by bus to the nearest rail stations. There is, however, a disused railway track from Plumstead which originally served the Royal Arsenal. The London Assembly proposed on 4 October 2016 to build an extension of the DLR from Gallions Reach to Thamesmead. With a population of almost 32,000, it is one of the largest districts in Greater London with no railway infrastructure.Wikipedia
Walking past the real difference between the expensive middle/upper class areas up river are stark. Here, pathways are uneven, bricks missing, weeds sprouting between paving, and more obvious, from the river the houses are not that visible. It feels as if only the wealthy are entitled to “extensive riverside views.” A further difference of course is what we are about to pass shortly – the largest sewage treatment centre in the country.
Four old canons point across the Thames early on in Thamesmead just before Cross Ness or Leather Bottle Point. Here is the second lighthouse which in all ways is identical to Margaret Ness, but Cross Ness is placed in front of a modern luxury penthouse type of housing at Thamesmead. It was built in 1895 and today at 41 feet high shows a light visible for 8 miles.
After a view across the river of the extensive tanks of the Stolthaven oil storage depot at Dagenham Dock with around 200 tanks for storage of petrol, distillates, aviation fuel, biofuels, tallow, ethanol, fertilisers, urea etc. we begin to approach Crossness. Crossness is the location of a large sewage treatment works and the Victorian Crossness Pumping Station, built at the eastern end of the Southern Outfall Sewer as part of the London sewerage system designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and constructed between 1859 and 1865. It was here Bazalgette decided the sewage from across London emptied into a reservoir before being pumped out into the Thames. There is a smell in the air….
The Grade II listed Crossness pumping Station is a beautiful building nevertheless, though the site did look somewhat bleak. A lot of the workings and machinery was lost or vandalised after it was closed in 1953 but it is apparently now a beautiful building inside thanks to the Crossness Engines Trust, a charity set up to restore the engines. The building houses four steam powered beam engines believed to be the largest in the world.
Having received over £2 million in initial funding, including, in 2008, £1.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £150,000 from English Heritage and £700,000 in match funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, work began at the site to build an access road, protect the buildings and to develop a museum. Financial and other support was also provided by Thames Water, Tilfen Land, the London Borough of Bexley and the City Bridge Trust. A further £1.5 million in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund was secured in April 2015, the 150th anniversary of Crossness’s official opening.This was to help fund a museum exhibition focused on the “Great Stink” of 1858 and the role of Crossness in improving London’s sewerage system.Wikipedia
The pathway along the Pumping Station is not attractive but does have view holes and information boards about the birds etc that populate the river hereabouts.
Right next to the old pumping station is the Crossness Sewage Treatment Works which is a modern sewage plant – the largest in Europe apparently. Initially this was merely a storage not treatment works.
As originally conceived the works comprised reservoirs covering 2.6 hectares designed to retain six hours’ flow of sewage. No sewage treatment was provided and the sewage was discharged untreated into the River Thames on the ebb tide. Following the Princess Alice disaster in 1878 a Royal Commission was appointed in 1882 to examine Metropolitan Sewage Disposal. It recommended that a precipitation process should be deployed to separate solids from the liquid and that the solids should be burned, applied to land or dumped at sea. In 2010–14 the Crossness works were upgraded to treat 44 per cent more sewage to reduce storm sewage flowing into the Thames during heavy rainfall. The works cost £220m (2010 prices).Wikipedia
It is now a very modern operation, though a bit whiffy. Not surprising as it processes four Olympic swimming pools of sewage every hour. There is a further waste disposal site ahead – a white building with a curved roof – the Cory Riverside Energy From Waste complex, now the Riverside Resource Recovery Ltd T/A Cory Riverside Energy
Founded in the mid-late 1800s and incorporated in 1896 as W.M. Cory & Son, Cory Riverside Energy has evolved from a coal distribution company on the River Thames into a resource management, recycling, and energy recovery company serving London and the South East of England. Cory can process up to 785,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste a year. This residual waste comes from local authorities and commercial & industrial customers and is sent to Cory’s energy from waste (EfW) facility via four river-based waste transfer stations. Situated in Belvedere, Cory’s Riverside facility is one of the largest operational EfW facilities in the UK, and the only one with both river and road infrastructure for receiving waste. A by-product of the combustion process is steam. This steam is used to drive a turbine in the EfW facility that can produce partly renewable baseload electricity to power the equivalent of 160,000 homes. Metals are extracted for recycling from the ash produced by the incineration process. Up to 200,000 tonnes of ash can be recycled annually into aggregate for construction and roads. ‘Air pollution control residue’, which is the final by-product of the combustion process, is re-processed into cinder blocks for construction.Wikipedia
Across the river from here is the Ford Dagenham car factory. operating since 1931 until 2002. It is now a centre of excellence for the design of diesel engines, and Fords only wind powered site.
Moving on from waste disposal, we enter Erith Marshes, owned by Thames Water and the 25 acre Crossness Nature Reserve, an award winning wildlife area. It is a major site for water voles, and 130 species of birds have been recorded, together with some rare invertebrates, including five species of water beetles. Scarce plants include knotted-hedge parsley and Borrer’s saltmarsh grass.
After this, the path does though get a little industrial for a short way as it passes a building on the right with a large overhead channel stretching out into the river, where aggregates are loaded onto ships. The is then a longish stretch between a low concrete wall and metal fence behind which is a huge building site – I was told it was to be a distribution centre.
Another industrial site looms which h appears to be a chemical works where chemicals are loaded onto passing ships. Here the path climbs rapidly over pipes and drops back
As the river bends right here, you see ahead what looks like a piece of rural England in the shape of a large grassy hill. What you don’t see – yet – is that this is a huge landfill site being constantly fed by lorries approaching from the road – we can see that once we get to Erith.
We are now approaching Erith, passing same old disused and dilapidated piers. The path goes pas some new houses and around an old wharf and a high wall with metal railings on top.
Come up at the end of West Street and turn left along the promenade of Erith Riverside Gardens which runs parallel to Erith High Street on which is the Running Horse pub. This has a patio overlooking the Thames and … the largest landfill site in the country.
At the end of the gardens is Erith Causeway, that allows small boats entry to the river. Turn right up the causeway to the High Street, where the Thames Path is signed left along to the Cross Keys pub and Erith Playhouse, where it turns left down Wharfside Close and back to the river. The path goes along to the entrance to Erith Deep Water Jetty and surprisingly, the longest Pier in London, even though it is now only half as long as it was in 1957 when it opened. It was abandoned for years in 1999 it was restored by the supermarket Morrisons as part of the agreement for them to open a supermarket on the site. The pier is now a public amenity for locals to stroll along, fish from and generally enjoy.
Erith has other claims to fame in 1950…
The 1950 United Kingdom general election was the first general election ever to be held after a full term of Labour government. The election was held on Thursday 23 February 1950, and was the first held following the abolition of plural voting and university constituencies. The government’s 1945 lead over the Conservative Party shrank dramatically, and Labour was returned to power but with an overall majority reduced from 146 to just 5. There was a 5.8% national swing towards the Conservatives, who gained 90 seats. Labour called another general election in 1951, which the Conservative Party won ()Wikipedia
Margaret Roberts was the Conservative Party candidate for Dartford which included Erith (Erith was only made a constituency in 1955) and whilst campaigning she met the Managing Director of Atlas Preservative Company based in Erith. His name was Denis Thatcher. In 1950 she lost (24,490) to Norman Dodds, Labour (38,128). She lost again to him in 1951 when the Conservatives won the General Election. She did not win until 1959 in Finchley.
Back on the path, the next section is described by Phoebe Clapham in “Thames Path in London” as follows:
Join a quiet road, James Watt Way. Turn left down Wheatley Terrace Road, then immediately right up thre ramp alongside the cycleway. This road, Appold Street soon meets a T- junction; turn left into the bigger Manor Road and along a housing development. Continue along Manor Road for half a mile of so past warehouses, a recycling depot ans an unexpected blue weather-boarded complex housing Erith Safety. A large waste management site follows, and Erith Trading Estate leads of to your right. This is not the most scenic section of the path.Thames Path in London, p. 148-150
Relief comes on passing Erith Aggregate Industries, when a sign points left to Erith Yacht Club. Taking this left turn, going to the end and turning right brings you to marshland and a raised bank overlooking the river. You are on the final stretch.
The route becomes a gravel track with grassland on either side and the river off to the left. We are very soon on Erith Saltings, the very last remaining salt marsh on London’s inner Thames. This is a slight reminder of earlier days on the path with wide open spaces. For a (short) while this is a pleasant amble, but a large metal scrap yards and reclamation site to the right, by now the path comes back to the river. Visible for some distance is a tall metal pylon with a rotating radar arm. This is telling the control room back at the Thames Barrier details of the various vessels on the river. Past the pylon the path veers right with the addition of a low concrete sea wall. Asa you pass the bend off ahead in the distance is the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which carries southbound M25 traffic over the Thames; the Dartford Tunnel carries the northbound.
The bridge was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 30 October 1991.The total cost of construction was £120 million (£224 million in 2019), including £30 million (£52 million in 2019) for the approach roads.The proposed name had been simply the Dartford Bridge, but Thurrock residents objected and suggested the Tilbury Bridge, leading to a compromise.At the time of opening, it had the longest cable-stayed span of any bridge in Europe.It is the only bridge across the Thames downstream of Central London to be opened since Tower Bridge in 1894. The bridge deck is about 61 metres (200 ft) high, and it took a team of around 56 to assemble its structure. During construction of the approach road, a World War II bomb was found in its path, which required closure of the entire crossing.Wikipedia
Where the turns right is Crayford Ness – however behind you will be the deafening noise and chaotic sight of the reclamation yard. There was still a little way to go before the way was blocked by the River Darent. So I continued to the Dartford Creek, which is the mouth of the River Darent – which marks the London/Kent Boundary. There there is an information board and a great view over the QEII bridge. All this area – Erith Saltings, Crayford and Dartford Marshes – provides a haven for wildlife, hardly visited by people.
To the right is the imposing Dartford Creek Tidal Barrier, very similar to the one at Barking Creek, built in 1982 to protect Dartford and Crayford from flooding. In 2019, the Dartford Creek Barrier closed about 12 times. 2018 saw seven closures and 2017 saw eight. The barrier closed 12 times in 2016 to prevent flooding. This is an isolated and quiet spot. There wasn’t a soul in site. However it was not always thus.
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.Remote London
This was the end of the Thames Path – at least along the south bank.
There is still a couple of miles to walk to Slade Green Station however. At the barrier the path goes through a steel gate, over an approach road, then follows the creek for a mile or so leaving the reclamation yard and industrial estate behind. We are once again into open countryside the like of which is no where else on the path. When the creek bears left at a junction of paths, take the right path and come to a narrow lane with hedges both sides. After around half a mile further on are some houses, and in front the ruins of a moated house, Howbury Moat next to a tithe barn.
The house is almost certainly on the site of a much older medieval manor house, probably dating to the 11th century. It was in use as farm tenements until 1935 after which date it stood unoccupied and became derelict. During the Second World War it suffered blast damage and collapsed. In 2001, an archaeological measured survey of the walls of the moat and surrounding area were carried out.Historic England
Following the Norman conquest the manor of Hoobury was given to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (who also took Erith, Plumstead, Charlton, Lea and Eltham – a large chunk of present day southeast London). The manor passed down through centuries, its name slightly changing to the present Howbury and at the turn of the eighteenth century being in the ownership of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell who, aside from naval duties was also the Commissioner for Sewers, having responsibility for the upkeep of Thames embankments from Deptford to Gravesend.The Port of London Study Group
Past the Moat is as metal gate, which leads onto Moat Lane which leads down to a footbridge into Slade Green Railway Station, where trains go to Waterloo.
I took the train to Waterloo then onto Teddington, and stayed at The Lensbury Hotel. I still had three more days of walking form Teddington to Trinity Buoy Wharf.