Thames Path Stage 2: Greenwich to London Bridge

Published 20 November 2013

The banks of the River Thames on a sunny day with lots of people.  Also shown is the domed building that houses the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel.

The May sun shone brightly on the water; glimmering and glistening as the Thames moved gently.  Up river a large cruise ship named “Deutschland” stood dominating the skyline, as swarms of people basked in the good weather.  

Greenwich was busy; packed to the rafters and almost overflowing.  The plaza near Cutty Sark was full of tourists and locals alike.  People queued happily for churros and fudge from the various market stalls which lined one side of Cutty Sark gardens.  Dogs ran around happily; children frolicked; parents sat on walls and steps wherever they could, to chat and relax.

We picked our way through the crowds, weaving Sam’s buggy through any gap we could find, to find a spot where we could munch our sandwiches and put on sun-cream.

It had been nearly two months since we’d last been at Greenwich. Two months where the Thames Path had had to do without us. When we had been there last, we anticipated that we’d be returning within a week or two, returning eagerly to walk the next stretch. Only later would we realise that such long gaps would be the norm for a plethora of reasons. This time it had been because the weather had turned against us, as heavy rain and even snow and hail had battered down on London. Family occasions had taken up three weekends, with even the Easter break booked out. There were friends to meet, places to go, things to do.

And so it was May before the weather and a free diary returned. And even then, it was only partial. It may have been the May Day Bank Holiday, but Sam still had his swimming lessons at 10am sharp. Still, the afternoon was at least free so as soon as Sam was dry he found himself strapped in his buggy and being whisked to Greenwich for his second day on a National Trail. Well after a hasty sandwich for his parents anyway.

Cheese buttie duly scoffed, we fought our way through the crowds and headed on our way to join the River Thames as we made our way slowly, but surely to the source.

The Thames former pub

No sooner had we joined the riverside path than the trail headed inland, through a tired set of council flats and past a batch of swanky apartments being built next door. The battered and boarded up Thames Pub was a sign of the old area, run down and forgotten, whilst the new apartment complex offered its residents the delights of a brand spanking new Waitrose, opening soon.

Housing, in its many forms, would be a theme for most of the day as the Thames Path wound its way through unloved social housing and tower block monstrosities from the 1960s, through to modern housing with price tag to boot. When the Thames was more dirty and industrial, land was cheap. Now there was money to be made from a penthouse with a view of the water.

Several times though, the more exclusive accommodation reminded us that we weren’t the builder’s priority. More than once the Thames Path found itself routed inland whilst the river bank sat locked behind a heavy metal fence; reserved for the exclusive use of the even more exclusive owners of the flats nearby.

Deptford was our next stop. And when you think of Deptford, you probably don’t think of Peter the Great. Although to be honest, these days if you were to mention Deptford to most people, you probably wouldn’t get much response at all. But anyway, what does a Russian tsar who died in 1725 have to do with the Thames Path as it snakes its way through Deptford?

Statue of Peter the Great

The answer is, inevitably, on the banks of the Thames and comes in the form of a statue, and a rather odd statue at that. Peter stands in the middle, tall and proud, but with an incredibly small head. Then, to his right is a small and dumpy character with a big hat who is holding a globe and has a cherub on his shoulder. Oh and on the left is an empty chair, whilst the whilst whole thing is surrounded by two replica cannons.

It all looks frankly bonkers, and the automatic instinct is that it was made by someone who didn’t particularly like Peter. In fact the statue was actually a gift from the people of Russia, for whom Peter remains one of the great rulers of their nation. Their love and affection for the long deceased tsar knows no bounds; a kind of combination of the Queen and Winston Churchill. This strange piece of art was clearly supposed to be a tribute.

Designed by two Russian sculptors, Viacheslav Bukhaev and Mikhail Chemiakin, the whole thing was unveiled in 2001. Why? Well to celebrate 300 years since Peter’s visit to London of course. For in 1698 Peter travelled to the country incognito to learn about ship building. For three months Peter worked at the Deptford Dockyards by day, and held drunken parties by night, before heading off to such glamorous cities as Leipzig, Vienna and Manchester. Quite what he would have made of the statue commemorating his visit to Deptford, we will never know. Although if you asked him in the evening, maybe you’d get a slightly more favourable response.

Inland walking

Babies. They just don’t understand the concept of a good walk. Although, given Sam was spending most of his time happily gurgling in his buggy, the idea of a walk was perhaps a little alien to him. Now that he’d reached six months old, we’d recently replaced his pram with the buggy, and were already feeling the benefit. To say he hated the pram was an understatement. He’d wail, moan and whine if he spent too long in there. And as for going to sleep, no chance. The older he’d got, the more traumatic using the pram was, so much so that by the time he’d reached three months old we’d pretty much given up on it and just used baby carriers.

The reason he hated the pram was quite obvious. Even at a young age, he wanted to see everything he possibly could. In the baby carrier he could move his head from side to side and see all sorts of new and interesting things. In the pram all he could do was lie on his back and stare at the clouds in the sky. He’d struggle to go to sleep, and when he did and then woke up, he’d let the entire world know.

Putting him in the buggy was a revelation. Suddenly he could look around happily, and we could walk around without getting crippling backache from carrying him. And when he woke up after a doze, he’d simply stare around and continue his mission of watching the world go by.

Sam was enjoying the walk

Still even with him now in his buggy, walking with a baby does bring the hiker challenges that are a bit more varied than “how do I cross this flooded river?”

“What was that noise?” I exclaimed as we crossed the corner of the small Pepys Park, next to a raft of flats. This was quickly followed by “Hmm. Where can we change Sam?”

True, a small urban park is an easier place to change a baby than, say, the sides of Bow Fell in the Lake District. But then, finding a spot to discretely change a nappy and give a feed is easier said than done when the park is surrounded by flats. Eventually we found a corner and parked up whilst the strains of hip-hop were being kindly pumped out to the entire neighbourhood, from a distinctly empty balcony in a block of flats. Surprisingly Sam didn’t seem to notice.

Viewing Platform

We’d been taken into the park after an extensive tour of Deptford’s side streets, but at least we could now return to the river banks for a bit, just in time to see a mysterious set of steps leading up to to a small circular platform. The set of eleven steps looked quite modern, and the sides were surrounded by metal railings. This was truly a staircase to nowhere by design.

As we stood, baffled, a pair of cyclists pulled up and also started looking at the stairs, similarly mystified. Then one of them, a man in his fifties, took the initiative and took the daring move to actually walk up the steps to see what he could see.

“Wow! It’s really amazing up here!” he shouted down to his partner. “You should come up!”

For some reason, she remained unconvinced and certainly wasn’t tempted by his enthusiasm, but I bit the bullet and headed on up.

“You’re right! This is brilliant!” was all I could say.

For it was. It really was.

The platform had been placed with a view of the towers of Canary Wharf. Whilst the same view could be seen from the ground, there was something about looking at it a metre and a half higher off the ground. It seemed to lift the whole view wonderfully, and made for a much better photograph. Whoever had decided to put the viewing platform there clearly knew their stuff.

Surrey Docks Farm

I was reluctant to get down but we had to push on to Greenland Docks, now home to even more assorted housing; the upmarket brushing elbows with the social housing. Unlike early in the day, the Thames Path now stayed close to the river and even the trail’s quick detour through the grounds of Surrey Docks City Farm didn’t leave the Thames too far behind. When the farm is shut the walker is required to make a more lengthy detour round the back streets, but that wasn’t a problem for us.

The place was heaving as young children gawped enthusiastically at the farm’s collection of animals. Goats, sheep and cows wandered around, whilst a group of ducks paddled happily in a pond. It was a mecca for children, especially the more urban ones who probably rarely got to see farm animals. Sam didn’t seen particularly interested though. He’d fallen asleep way before we got to the farm, and no animals bleating happily nearby was going to wake him.

Canary Wharf seen from the Deptford viewing platform

Canary Wharf. Shining glass tower blocks, clustered together as if for warmth. A beacon of modern architecture and design; home to the financial powerhouses of the world. It had been a dominant part of the skyline during our walk pretty much since we’d left the Thames Barrier, yet strangely it never seemed to get that much closer. Thanks to the way the river twisted and turned, sometimes it felt we were getting incredibly close, yet it remained so far away.

Rotherhithe however would be where we’d finally draw level with the towers, and start to leave them behind. But not before the Thames Path took us on a tour of a hotel grounds, and posted us on a variety of deserted roads. Path along the river? Hotel residents only if you don’t mind sir.

It seemed to be the story of Rotherhithe. Walking on the river bank one minute, shoved on an inland road the next. A couple of the roads did, at least, have enticing pubs, although mostly closed for the daytime. One invited customers in to try the wonderful Thai food, only to present a locked door. Back on the riverside, a short walk away, one pub had opened its doors to the Bank Holiday crowds. The Old Salt Quay – part of the strangely named GK Flame Grill chain – was heaving. Crowds of customers sat on the pub’s many balconies supping pints and enjoying the sun.

Glorious looking lift bridge

Nearby, less popular, stood an old mechanical rolling lift bridge. Manufactured by the Scherzer company, it spanned an inlet, allowing the road to cross. When boats needed to pass through, the entire bridge would “roll up”. The road would rotate clockwise, moving from horizontal to vertical – the whole thing suspended tall on the right hand side of the river. Several were erected in Rotherhithe, this one being used to allow boats of timber through to Surrey Docks. With the timber trade gone, the bridge is now no longer needed to lift and simply sits there; a relic of a bygone age.

More modern was the nearby row of blue hoardings, holding back a working site for Thames Water’s proposed “Super Sewer” – a multi-billion pound project designed to provide relief to the capital’s Victorian sewer system, and thus prevent sewage from having to enter the Thames at times of heavy rainfall. The choice of Chambers Wharf as a construction site hadn’t gone down well, with several buildings in the area displaying anti-sewer posters, citing the impact the construction site would have on a residential community for several years.

For now, all was quiet whilst planning permission was being sought. But the locals were playing a long game, calling for donations with plans, backup plans and more. We, at least, could walk in peace on our visit.

Tower Bridge

Before we knew it, we’d arrived at the bustling Shad Thames, with its fine view of the mighty Tower Bridge. A few months earlier I’d sat watching a Japanese anime film called Steamboy. Set in a steampunk version of London in the 1860s, with robots and flying machines, it had turned railway engineer Robert Stephenson into an engineer of steam powered mechanical armies. And as I watched animated aircraft swoop across the Thames, I couldn’t help but notice that the writers had made a common mistake. They’d included Tower Bridge in the skyline.

Now let’s be honest here. This is a film that features massive metal steamships gliding through the air, where one of our greatest engineers has been busy inventing robots. When it came to historical accuracy for the story of London, this was not the film to watch. It’s a bit like people moaning about the wrong type of bus being in the background of a London based Doctor Who episode, when the whole premise of the show involves an ancient alien who has a flying box which is bigger on the inside than the outside.

Still, it irked me a bit. But then, to be fair, the age of Tower Bridge is a common misconception. The bridge simply looks far older than it actually is. Indeed the whole contraption was actually opened in 1894, with the gothic design being used to harmonise the tower with its neighbour, the Tower of London.

Unlike most of London’s river crossings, Tower Bridge was designed to raise so that tall masted ships could get through. For those unwilling to wait whilst it did so, two walkways were provided so that pedestrians could get to the other side. They’re an iconic part of the bridge design, but the walkways quickly gained a reputation for pickpockets and prostitutes, and in the end most pedestrians simply waited it out until the bridge lowered once more. The walkways were finally closed in 1910 before becoming part of the Tower Bridge Experience tourist attraction.

Tower Bridge still regularly rises to allow tall ships through, with the bridge’s website providing a timetable of openings. It’s a mighty sight to see, and one I finally saw after a mere thirteen years living in London. Stood at the front of a replica paddle-ship as it cruised down the river on a cool Autumn evening, I watched as the two rows of traffic stopped and the two sides of the road rose in unison. From my perch in the middle of the Thames, it looked absolutely stunning, although I spent much of it chastising myself for not bringing my camera.

As one of the iconic London landmarks, Tower Bridge is naturally a tourist mecca, and walking into Shad Thames after a relatively peaceful walk, we were suddenly surrounded by people everywhere, all snapping away at the plethora of landmarks that litter the river. Visitors from across the world stood outside City Hall, home to London’s politicians, snapping away on their cameras. A couple of police officers had been collared by a Japanese party; the police politely smiling as they had their photograph taken next to a grinning woman.

Hay's Galleria

Weaving Sam’s buggy slowly through the crowds, we headed towards HMS Belfast, now a moored floating museum, and past the covered arcade of Hays Galleria. Built as a warehouse and wharf, it became a shopping centre and visitor attraction in the 1980s and the crowds loved it as they bustled under its high glass roof.

Despite there being people simply everywhere, Sam happily slept through it all. Put him in a quiet room and tell him its bed time and you’d struggle to keep him asleep for more than ten minutes. Walk him along a loud, bumpy pavement near London Bridge and there was simply no stopping him. He’d slept through most of our day of walking. As we passed under London Bridge and stood outside Southwark Cathedral he barely batted an eyelid. We may have done our second section on the Thames Path, but for him it was just a way to get a good sleep.

Next time: the Doctor, art, culture, markets, skateparks, bridges, oh so many bridges, a big dock-off wheel and where some politicians live.



7 March 2016 at 6:42 pm

I have enjoyed two days of your Thames path hike. I have done little bits of it here and there around the Cutty Sark and Tower bridge. But I have done the Thames from Lechlade to Limehouse Basin on a narrowboat. Limehouse is opposite to where you walked. One thing I am enjoying so far is the tit bits you are telling us of places you passed such as Peter,s Statue. I would have visited it myself if I had known it were there, and even took photographs. This will be a good companion for others doing this walk as well as boaters. It is hoped you will allow this to be separately available. I am looking forward to reading more of your walk and seeing what I have missed on the cruise.
If you are a member of my Flickr A memory group I am in the process of displaying the cruise my friend and I did on the Thames from Lechlade to Limehouse, though photos of other areas that I have been are appearing amidst it,though I am coming down the other way.from you.
My favourite past time was walking. I have done the Offa,s Dyke path twice, half of the Pembrokeshire Coast path and the Wolds way. But now that is all curtailed by a stroke and a lung complaint known as C.O.P.D. and I am using a motorised scooter to get around.and that is only locally and get out into the country occasionally via my two carers when weather permits.
You are introducing your son to a perfect way of life, walking out in the open air and the love of the country.So many kids are missing out in their concrete shells, behind a computer screen or a game station and if a walk was mentioned they would look at you gone out.
So enjoy your walking whilst you can for one does not know what is around the corner. .

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