An all-day walk following the Thames Path upriver. Approximately 12 miles.
No matter how grand it might have become, London is a city that has clambered out of the slurry and the silt of the Thames flood plain. The tips of our ancient towers and twinkling skyscrapers have forced themselves upwards through the mudflats and marshes of the former countryside. A trip to London’s most ragged south east outreaches gives a reminder of the city’s roots; of where it has come from and where it is going.
The walk along the Thames from Erith to Greenwich is 13 miles. It charts London’s ascent and evolution as a city. You begin in boggy Erith and go west, moving inwards towards the Emirates Airline and Docklands – along the bottom lip of the Chelsea smile cut into the left cheek of England.
You should start the walk from Erith station and amble through the town centre in the direction of the river bank. Erith might be technically in London – in the Oyster Zone, at the very least – but it feels a long way off. An old saying about the place holds that:
There are men in the village of Erith that nobody seeth or heareth
And there looms on the marge of the river a barge that nobody roweth or steereth.
You feel this solitude – this sense of things happening behind closed doors – as you go down Bexley Road and then turn left onto Erith High Street, towards the River Gardens where the towpath begins. When you get to the Thames look right to see the famous Erith Pier, jutting out before curving back on itself, perturbed, like the fin of an Orca. Behind it the pipe cleaner-thin Dartford Bridge runs along the horizon.
The path is made of crumbling concrete. An unsteady handrail separates you from the river. The Thames here has grown girthy and pythonic. It throws its weight about. The green grass of Essex on the other side seems a long way off. The river slides past in great muscular piles, like magma, and near to the bank the water turns into stippled mud. Gulls or ibis birds pick grubs from the wood skeletons of jetties and old boats. Washed up shoes, clothes and bottles arrange themselves into shantyish piles.
As we head upstream we spy depots and clunky pieces of mechanical equipment stretching into the water. It’s hard to tell which are in use and which are not. Rusty hooks swing over the water. On one of these mysterious pieces of equipment the word “GRANDAD” has been written in spongy capitals – as on the side of a hearse.
After about two miles the dark satanic chimneys start to appear. You pass the Belvedere Waste Incinerator. Then, round a bend, an uncharacteristically lush corner of the riverbank appears. It is fertile as a paddy field, perhaps because of the nearby Crossness Pumping Station. Over the river, almost directly opposite, sits Beckton Sewage Treatment Works. The two aromatically conspire. We are, in effect, downwind of the city's great “better out than in”. If you are one of those slightly strange people who are squeamish about sewage, then we urge you to not be over-wary: “That they may dream their dreamy dreams. I carry off their filthy streams”, as James Joyce once wrote.
Past the modern pumping station is the Grade 1 listed ‘Crossness Engines Industrial Museum’. It’s based on the old 1865 site, and is worth a visit (although it’s only open a handful of days over the course of this summer).
Immediately behind the nature reserve is the Thamesmead Estate, where A Clockwork Orange was famously filmed in 1970. You’ll just be able to make out the imperious towers from the towpath, or you can get a closer look by taking a mile detour inland. Billed during construction as “The town of the 21st century”, the estate was never properly connected to transport systems, and has become an exemplar of the flawed architectural idealism of the 1960s.
A dusty half mile of genuine countryside, speckled with briars, pylons and pillboxes, takes you through to Woolwich, where flats overlook the Thames. On a warm day you can see windsurfers. Through the fog or summer mist you can now make out the Docklands financial centre for the first time, a cluster of rude protrusions. A series of cannons face out to sea, seemingly at war with the coast of Essex (further downriver, you'll find the opposite arrangement, with the guns of Tilbury Fort trained south on Gravesend). Given that, thanks to a lack of bridges, it can take as long as an hour to drive the 2 miles from here to Dagenham, you can understand the suspicion!
Within a mile you reach Woolwich Arsenal, the first point in the journey that feels unequivocally in London. Home of the Greenwich Heritage Centre and the Royal Artillery Museums, the plaza is a strange mix of modern art and grandiose pieces of historic weaponry. We are now at the periphery of the TfL system, with the DLR and riverboat services both making an appearance. The Woolwich Ferry is five minutes on, crossing the river like a trawler and creating the feeling, for a second, of a miniature Calais.
After the South East London Aquatic Centre, you can gaze across at the Tate and Lyle sugar factory and notice how much the river has narrowed. This is a good place to cut inland. Take a left and wiggle through industrial and housing estates to Ruston Road and Woolwich Road. The latter booms with traffic, and two old-school boozers – Clancy’s and The White Horse – provide watering holes. The third member of this proposed trilogy, The Victoria pub, is sadly closed and gutted, with an eerie feel to it. Turn right immediately before it and walk for five minutes to reconnect with the river, where the Thames Barrier Cafe provides more wholesome refreshment – i.e. food instead of drink. The information centre lets you look out over the barrier as it protects the city from flooding, like a glimmering succession of miniature Sydney Opera Houses.
From here, an arid feeling returns for over a mile. This is broken up by The Anchor and Hope pub, nestled in the gravel and sandbags of industrial Charlton. It does food. From the river garden you can make out The Emirates Airline, a necklace pulled taut over the river. We may now feel just a stone’s throw from the centre, but we still have a way to go. Lead pipes poke out of walkways, and at low tide you can see a fleet of jade shopping trolleys, embedded in the sludge like an elephant’s graveyard.
Only after you pass Greenwich’s yachting club and ‘ecology peninsula’ does this relent, turning into a harbour-side development with bright colours, glass buildings, and clipped expanses of grass. Tourists queue up to take the cable car, and music drifts from the O2 arena. After The Dome there is another wasteland, as the Thames jack-knifes back on itself. The river becomes choppy here, and you pass a series of storage containers and graffitied breezeblocks. Half an hour later you finally arrive in central Greenwich, thoroughly exhausted (if you’re anything like us). You’ll be just about ready to collapse into the abundance of pubs, bars and eateries the area has to offer – struggling to remind yourself that life was ever any harder than this.
The walk from Erith to Greenwich takes between five and seven hours, and could look very different in a few years’ time. With George Osborne announcing that Britain’s first new garden city in 100 years will be being built in Ebbsfleet – just 5 miles further on from Erith – there’s a good chance, for both better and worse, that the unglamour of deepest darkest south east will soon disappear. The walk is a trip from the riverbed molasses out of which London grew, to the gloss and matte finish with which it is now furnished; an exploration of the city’s tapped and untapped potential. Whether you’re a tourist or a lifelong Londoner – a family, a couple, or a lone walker in search of solitary contemplation – it’s a journey we thoroughly recommend.
By Chris Clarke