Thames Path Extension

Published 10 December 2014

Thames Barrier at the start of the Thames Path Extension

The water rippled gently on the river, more so when an orange motorboat zoomed by. Suddenly the river was filled with noise for a brief moment until it disappeared leaving the Thames Barrier, and all around it, to slumber once more.

Come early enough – and 10am on a cold Sunday morning seemed to fit the bill – and the area around the Thames Barrier provides a sense of isolation, tranquillity and remoteness; very little noise and not much going on. Which is clearly bonkers as you’re surrounded by tonnes of reinforced concrete, several large buildings, and there’s a noisy and busy dual carriageway just a short walk away. Oh and a giant flood barrier.

I was back at the Thames Barrier to walk some more of the Thames. Not this time though the Thames Path, but for another trail. Which, according to the signs, was also the Thames Path.

Okay, officially it’s the Thames Path Extension, but as a name, it’s a bit cumbersome so it’s generally abbreviated; the only difference between that the signs west of the Thames Barrier feature the National Trail’s acorn symbol, whilst those to the east have a stylised picture of a traditional Thames Barge instead.

Thames Path Extension waymark sign

The Extension is a walk that is born out of a question. Why does the Thames Path stop thirty odd miles short of the point where the river meets the sea? Why not go further?

The Thames Path Extension doesn’t quite make it all the way to the Thames Estuary. It only goes ten miles, ending at Crayford Ness, right on the edge of Greater London. It’s an end point born out of partly out of pragmatism (it is funded by the capital’s tax payers), but also out of practicality. It ends at the point the River Darent meets the Thames, and there’s no easy way to get across the Darent to continue further downs the Thames.

Still, whilst it may not reach the sea, the Thames Path Extension is, at least, a start.


Signpost at the start of the Thames Path Extension

The signs at the Thames Barrier are, perhaps, a tad confusing. One informs the walker that the Thames Path Extension can be found by heading on the river to the Thames Barrier visitor centre and café, whilst another suggests following the “Interim Route” and heading for a dual carriageway instead.

It’s not abundantly clear what the “interim” route is all about. At least, not unless you go to the café and find the dead end there. The “proper” route is merely an aspiration, as it has been for many, many years. Which means the interim route is anything but temporary, and shows no real sign of going away.

This is a shame as the first mile the Thames Path Extension is spent wandering around suburban streets. There are no boats to see, just a dual carriageway, a school with an old tube carriage in its grounds, a branch of McDonalds and an industrial park. Only when the trail arrives in a housing estate does the river appear, providing a glimpse of the Woolwich Free Ferry and the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery over on the other side of the river in Silvertown.

Tate and Lyle at Silvertown

Sugar has been on the Thames since the Victorian era, the river allowing the raw product to be shipped in easily for processing. Although their operations started elsewhere – Henry Tate (also known for founding the Tate Gallery of course) started in Liverpool in 1869, and Abram Lyle in the Scottish town of Greenock in 1865 – both soon set up shop on the edges of London. The pair were bitter rivals and it was only after their deaths that the two companies combined creating the modern empire.

Although these days it’s an empire that’s not particularly sweet. The company sold off its sugar business – with branding rights – to an American company in 2010, and these days Tate and Lyle concentrates on the thrilling business of deriving food ingredients from corn instead. At least the proud history of sugar on the Thames continues though, which is more than can be said for Tate’s Liverpool factory which closed in 1981, and the Lyle’s Greenock facility in 1997.

The former South East London Aquatic Centre

Also closed is a facility whose decaying remains I passed next. Opened in 1979, the South East London Aquatic Centre was built out of two old Victorian dry-docks, and used to canoeing, diving and fishing. Now the windows are mostly smashed, and a series of not particularly substantial looking fences do their best to keep people out from the dank, dark pools. It may not always be so however. In January 2012 a plan was approved which would see the area redeveloped with a 16 story building placed on site with flats and shops, with facilities for the local angling club who apparently still use the place. This piece of derelict Thames may soon be no more, although quite when that will happen is anyone’s guess.

The nearby Waterfront Leisure Centre, however, was firmly open for business, eagerly waiting the queues of excited children dragging their parents into the building to enjoy the swimming pool’s slide, and being buffeted by the wave machine.

There was no time for swimming though; I had a few miles to go, but first needed to make use of the facilities in the public toilets opposite. On entering, I couldn’t help but notice a man stood motionless and completely silent at one end of the urinal, next to the door. There was no movement and no sound as I took up a stall at the opposite end, then washed and dried my hands and shuffled quietly out again. As I left, his head could be seen peering out of the door, waiting for whoever else may turn up next.

“Wouldn’t see that on the Pennine Way,” I muttered to myself as I headed on once more.


Cannon near Woolwich

Cannons. They were suddenly everywhere, providing a reminder of Woolwich’s military history. An ordnance storage depot was first opened here in 1671, and over the years the site grew to include the manufacture of gun carriages, research laboratories and much more. The Royal Ordnance reached its peak during World War I when 80,000 people were employed in facilities covering 1,300 acres of land. It even provided a sporting link when a group of workers founded a football club called Dial Square in 1868. The team soon went professional and moved out of its home area, but its historical link can be found in the name the club now trades under: Arsenal.

The Royal Ordnance’s importance began to decline after World War II, with land taken over for industrial and residential use, although it wasn’t until 1994 that the area I was now in, ceased to be a military establishment. Part of the site is now the clunkily named “Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum”, with the remainder inevitably a mixture of apartments in old and new buildings. Posters extolling the virtues of living here, including easy access to central London by river boat, a residents’ gym and whole “half a mile of riverside walks”.

The path actually goes on just a little further. All that actually happens when you leave the residential development is that the path ceases to be paved. Oh, and you enter a slight wilderness. The other side of the river remains industrial, lined with scrap yards and warehouses, but on the south bank the path is, well, nothing.

Wilderness near Tripcock Ness

The OS map of Tripcock Ness shows a a shipping beacon and not much else. Just 100 acres of plain white; the only features being a small pool and a clump of trees on the riverside path. It’s a void; one that splits Woolwich from neighbouring Thamesmead. I presumed it once was part of the Royal Ordnance, but now it was overgrown; full of brambles and grass. Ripe for development you may think, however the nearest train station is nearly two miles away. With poor transport links, chances of development any time soon, may be remote.

The area seemed to be slumbering. Since I’d left Woolwich behind, the number of people on the Thames Path had decreased dramatically. A few cyclists, the odd dog walker and myself. Yet just outside Thamesmead was a sign someone had expected this to be a bustling place.

Strange and deserted plaza near Thamesmead

I’d reached a riverside plaza, filled with benches, and a raised concrete platform where – by the look of the metal struts – some further benches once sat. Clearly some thought had originally gone into this little spot; designed to be somewhere to congregate and relax, and a series of yellow metal sculptures – supposedly wind chimes, I read later – had been placed behind the benches, along with – for reasons best known only to the designers – three lances. But the place had a neglected feel about it. Bits of the wind chimes were clearly missing, and the benches were covered with lichen and had obviously seen better days. It felt unlikely that this spot – with its view of scrapyards and the enormous flood barrier over the mouth of the River Roding – would ever be a popular point to meet and chat.

Although maybe it wasn’t the view that put people off, but the music instead. Someone, somewhere on the north bank was playing the radio at an extremely loud volume; loud enough that I, over a kilometre away at least, could hear the songs and make out all the lyrics. Worse still, the radio station was playing Christmas music. It was mid November, six weeks away from Christmas Day, yet here at Thamesmead the festive season had started already.

Having worked in my youth in a supermarket where – to complaints of the customers – the Christmas music appeared on the tanoy before Halloween one year, I have firm views oin such things. Especially the fact that it’s always the same ten records you hear everywhere. The idea of hearing them for over a month before the big day just isn’t my idea of fun. Although I’d also feel much happier if the endless loop of “feel good music” had banished the dire, patronising dirge that is “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. Can someone please tell Bob Geldof that it does snow in parts of Africa, and that there are many Christians on the continent who probably do know its Christmas. I continue to be amazed by the fact this awful song still survives on radios and Christmas compilation CDs. Does anyone actually like it? I’ve yet to meet anyone who will admit to doing so, and it’s hardly cheery festive fayre. Rather than fun and frivolity, all it offers is doom and despair. If I was in charge of making and marketing a Christmas CD, I’d put big stickers on the front proclaiming “BAND AID FREE!” Sales, I am sure, would rocket on that basis alone.


Thamesmead

I headed off the river, towards the centre of Thamesmead. I didn’t particularly want to, however I needed to get some lunch and the river at this point was strangely devoid of riverside pubs with bustling beer gardens, gourmet food and a wide range of real ales. Here the Thames is more utilitarian, so it was either divert off at Thamesmead or hope I’d pass something in Erith a few miles further on. Given my stomach had been rumbling pretty much all day, I opted not to wait. I followed a signpost for the town centre, which proceeded to dump me at a dual carriageway opposite a series of grey and dour looking high rise housing blocks.

1960s housing estates never have the best reputations. Built to replace aging and squalid slums, tower blocks were designed to give people a better life by providing modern, spacious housing that was well equipped with modern facilities. It rarely worked out that way. There was always something that went wrong. At Thamesmead the problems were transport and shopping. Both were some way away.

The latter has, it must be said, improved over the years. Assuming you can find it. I optimistically went to a nearby bus shelter in the hope that it would have a map of the area, but there was nothing. The map in my guidebook suggested there was a supermarket nearby but neglected to mention anything else. But with a paucity of ideas, it had to do.

Thamesmead town centre

As it happened, I’d gone the right way. What the map labelled simply as a “superstore” was actually a retail paradise. A large, “could be anywhere” out-of-town style shopping complex was drawing the crowds with its mixture of major chain stores, a KFC and the inevitable McDonalds. And next to it stood a simple 1990s style arcade of smaller shops, with further chain stores and a few independent businesses including a café and a large soft-play centre.

The pub had yet to open, and the café was packed full of people munching on fried breakfasts. Given the choice of other food options, I headed into Greggs and bought a prawn mayo baguette, returning to the river to eat it on a bench where I could “enjoy” the Christmas music. I swiftly rued my choice in filling when the watery and sloppy mayonnaise seeped out of the sandwich and found a new home on my jumper.

With a sigh, I scoffed the rest and disposed the wrapper in a nearby bin which looked like been set on fire several times, perhaps by some other soul wishing to reek revenge after suffering the indignity of finding oily gloop on their clothing. Or maybe they’d got lost and frustrated trying to find the shopping centre instead. Although, perhaps the bin was just as old and shoddy as the nearby bench I’d sat on. Who could tell?


The sound of Slade etal eventually disappeared – and thus my sanity was restored – as I bade Thamesmead farewell. The residential properties began to fall away, for reasons that may, or may not, have been related to the sulfurous aroma that began to fill the air. Ah, the smell of rotten eggs. Always lovely to get a whiff of in the morning. Especially as it greeted and welcomed me to the next stage of the walk: a tour of sewage and waste disposal.

Crossness Pumping Station

First stop was Crossness Pumping Station. Formally opened in 1865, Crossness pumped sewage out of the capital’s then new sewage system, for what we shall politely call “processing.” Initially this meant little more than dumping the sewage straight into the Thames at high tide. Naturally people began to suspect this wasn’t very sanitary or pleasant, so in 1891 a replacement system came on scheme which all agreed was far superior. They loaded the sludge onto ships, which took it out to the middle of the North Sea and dumped it there instead. Sorted.

True they didn’t quite have the methods for treating sewage back then that we do now, but amazingly it wasn’t until 1998 that the last sludge ships was loaded up with tge grim cargo from the nearby jetty – a jetty that’s now used for Thames Water’s “bubbler” boats which pump the river with oxygen when required. Even Crossness pumping station itself didn’t even last that long. It was decommissioned in the 1950s, and lay forlorn and vandalised for many years until work began to restore the stunning architectural interior (seriously), prior to its re-opening as a museum. Sadly it was closed as I went past, with posters helpfully that the “next open day” had actually happened three weeks earlier.

Crossness Sludge Incinerator

Although the pumping station’s long closed, there remains a sewage plant next door and just beyond is the replacement for the sewage ships. Crossness Sewage Sludge Incinerator incinerates the stuff, turning it to electricity. Given the function of the building – and its location in an industrial wasteland – you may well expect the incinerator to be housed in a nondescript box-like building, but it’s anything but. What stands near the Thames is a find a graceful, sleek metal building, full of curves and wavy lines. Even the incinerator chimney is beautiful to look at, with gentle curves that stand tall and elegant against the skyline. Sludge processing has never looked so good.

It’s a shame that that care and stylistic attention hasn’t been taken on the neighbouring, and very cumbersomely named, Riverside Energy from Waste centre. Despite the grand name, it’s another incinerator, and a controversial one at that. This far more boxy building generates electricity not from sewage but from non-recyclable waste. And it’s the source of the waste that causes the problems; rubbish being shipped by barge from the distinctly richer areas of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham. The residents of the expensive riverside properties in those postcodes need not worry; waste disposal is just a problem for someone else.

Crane along the side of the Thames

Even on a Sunday the incinerator appeared to be busy. Energy never sleeps I guess. Lorries bustled between the incinerator building and it’s jetty, travelling between the two via an elevated ramp. They’d park up the jetty, under a giant cranes which would strip the lorry of its container, which would then be neatly placed on a waiting barge. Another container would then be taken off a second barge and placed on the lorry, which then scurried back to the incinerator building.

The cranes were slightly hypnotic, at least until I realisied there was something far more worthy of my attention. At low tide the mud flats of the Thames are also home to an incredibly large range of birds, and it was notable that the few visitors to the Thames Path round here mostly had cameras with huge zoom lenses, who had come to watch and photograph nature amongst all this industry. It’s one of the contrasts of the Thames. In one respect, Man rules the roost. Yet for all the factories, piers and purveyors of sludge that human kind has created, there’s still space for wildlife to thrive.


Erith’s a town which owes its presence to the Thames. For years it was a small port; a place for boats to unload cargo in order to release some weight before going up the shallower water to the city. Then in the Victorian era it had a burst of life as a riverside resort. A new pleasure pier was opened in 1842, and scores of daytrippers came to visit it and the nearby riverside gardens and hotel.

Erith Pier

The town’s current concrete pier dates back to 1956 when it replaced the wooden original. The wooden version’s role as a recreational destination was short lived, and it was soon converted to commercial use. Its replacement remained used in the same way until the 1990s when, rather fittingly, it was transformed into a recreational facility. I wandered out on it to check out the views, which seemed to mostly consist of a nearby scrapyard and a landfill site on the opposite bank. It’s hard to imagine anyone travelling from far and wide to visit it now, although it appeared to be particularly popular with local anglers who lined the walkway with small tents, sheltering themselves from the afternoon’s blustery wind and gentle showers.

Erith would make a natural point for the Thames Path Extension to end. Okay, the views may not be much, but there are pubs, shops and a railway station. But it doesn’t. Instead it continues down the Thames a few more miles to Crayford Ness and the edge of Greater London.

It wasn’t exactly a nice walk. Much of it isn’t even next to the river. Industrial usage meant that the riverside was blocked off, and the Thames Path Extension instead leaves town down the road which provides access to the various businesses that line the river. Only once Erith’s limits have been reached does the trail get closer to the water once more, as the path joins an embankment adjacent to some muddy fields.

The end of the Thames Path Extension, at Crayford Ness

The vaguely rural scene it short-lived. A mile out of Erith sits another industrial park, and it’s here, next to a scrapyard that the Thames Path Extension end at a spot marked by a signpost which had clearly seen better days. One arm pointed out north east, over the river, vaguely in the direction of Dartford, and informed me that if I followed it, I’d arrive eventually at Kingston-upon-Thames. Yeah, right. I’ll let someone else try that if it’s all the same.

In the distance – where Kingston apparently was – cars were busy crossing the river at the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. To my right, a large flood barrier stood guarding the River Darent. And behind me a fire burned merrily in the scrapyard. Hardly a triumphant ending.

But there was nowhere else the Thames Path Extension could go. I’d reached the very edge of London. On the other side of the Darent was Kent, and whilst there was a path which went along the Thames over there, there was next to no way to get it that didn’t require a four mile detour in order to cross the Darent and then get back again. Every now and then, someone suggests extending the Thames Path National Trail all the way to the sea. Maybe one day it will happen. But it hasn’t yet. For now, only the really dedicated would bother going any further.

I stood there, wondering what to do next. Not only did Crayford Ness not look much, but there’s also no public transport there at all. I had two choices. Head back to Erith, or head down the Darent a couple of miles towards the town of Slade Green where I could pick up a train.

The River Darent at Crayford Ness

Neither seemed an appealing prospect. At low tide, the Darent could hardly be described as an attractive river; full of brown water and banks that were covered with oozing grey mud. But going back to Erith seemed equally pointless. Slade Green it was

As I walked down the Darent, I wondered what walkers of the full Thames Path – those who started at the source and, after many days work, had finally reached this point – made of it all. Did they get to Crayford Ness and wonder why on earth they’d bothered going beyond the Thames Barrier? After starting in the heart of rural England, it must be a come down to walk 200 miles only to finish it all next to piles of rusting vehicles, and a large, rather brutal looking flood barrier.

But in some respects it had to be seen. The Thames may be pretty and picture perfect on the other side of London, with its pretty tow paths and attractive riverside pubs, but that is not really the true story of the river. For centuries it has been a river that brought commerce and industry; which fuelled the economy. Not that long ago, standing on this very spot, I would have seen commercial shops with goods going to or from all corners of the globe. The Thames had brought power and money to the country. It’s commercial role may have been lessened in recent years, but out here it was still playing its traditional role. And with land cheap, and no drivers to line this section full of expensive tower blocks, no doubt it will continue to play the same role for many years to come.

Planning Your Own Thames Path Extension Walk

At ten miles, or 16km, the Thames Path Extension is an easily achievable in a day walk, running from the Thames Barrier to Crayford Ness. It is fully signposted and very easy to follow.

The nearest railway station to the Barrier is Charlton which has regular services from London Bridge. At the other end, you need to do an extra two miles from Crayford Ness in order to reach Slade Green, which has regular services to London Cannon Street or London Charing Cross. Both stations are in Greater London so Oystercards can be used.

The closest thing to an official website for the Thames Path Extension can be found as part of the Transport for London website, which has instructions for the route, along with details for the Thames Path National Trail within the Greater London area. As mentioned above, the Extension is essentially treated as a continuation of the main Thames Path, rather than a distinct entity.

The route is also detailed in the “Thames Path in London” guide book, published by Aurum Press. This is the official guidebook, and also covers the National Trail all the way up to Hampton Court. This is an excellent guide book to choose as it contains Ordnance Survey street mapping at the 1:10,000 scale, which is extremely useful for city walking.

Photos

Thames Path Extension

Your Comments

mu

25 November 2016 at 5:18 pm

I is outside of TFL area of Greater London though so may not be on their map.

Here is a Google Streetview of how to get across using a narrow but useful path on the road bridge over the Darent:

https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@51.458915,0.2106803,3a,75y,29.77h,71.93t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1su6Ulxyvd_Q7rX_fUb_VomQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

on Bobb Dunn way.

Perhaps this could widened slightly for National Trail use? There is plenty of room.

The next path goes past the Dartford and Crayford tidal flood barrier (with tourist signage) and where the Darent joins the Thames. (End of Darent valley way ) Then you can continue past the sewage treatment plant and past the now on standby power station and under the QE2 suspension bridge and past several sandy beaches to Greenhithe where there is a train station and a giant Asda just d Crayford tidal flood barrier (with tourist signage) and where the Darent joins the Thames. (End of Darent valley way ) Then you can continue past the sewage treatment plant and past the now on standby power station and under the QE2 suspension bridge and past several sandy beaches to Greenhithe where there is a train station and a giant Asda just off the path. This would be a fitting end to the Thames path extension for sure. off the path. This would be a fitting end to the Thames path extension for sure.

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