An Ode To Thamesmead

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 91 months ago

Last Updated 28 October 2016

An Ode To Thamesmead

"WHO asked what living in Thamesmead is like?" yells a bespectacled man, charging out from behind the bar, and wielding a pub stool above his head. This, thank god, is a mock comeback to the question we've just volunteered, rather than a display of Kubrickian ultra-violence. We're in the Cutty Sark, a dated boozer in Thamesmead town centre, talking to some of the locals, and though our stool-wielder is now chuckling, he still looks puzzled at our presence — as, probably, do we.  

Like many of Thamesmead's denizens, decanted here from the late 1960s onwards, we've arrived partly by fate, partly by choice. With the Woolwich Ferry hampered by fog, so too is our article on it, and we suddenly find ourselves on a traffic island in the A206 with a 177 pulling up in either direction. It's one of those Matrix moments; do we take the red bus (to Peckham) or the red bus (to Thamesmead)? Neo would have plumped for Thamesmead, surely.

Of course, Thamesmead is better known as the shooting location of a lesser box office smash, A Clockwork Orange, in which a handsomely-codpieced Malcolm McDowell boots two of his mates into the ornamental lake and does much worse besides (the preponderance of water in Thamesmead was the idea of GLC architect Robert Rigg, intended as a calming influence). To add to our wariness, the last time we were in nearby Abbey Wood, we were very nearly kicked in the head by a goon outside Paddy Power, for whom we'd refused to put on a bet. There had been nothing mock about that, and to use another Matrix reference, we're not quite sure we want to find out how deep this Thamesmead rabbit hole goes.

Brother Jim (left) and Tom enjoy a drink at the Cutty Sark in Thamesmead town centre

But on a mid Monday morning, there's a hush in Thamesmead town centre — peacefulness cranked up to the point of melancholy. The industrial sized water features are still in force, although the canal doesn't so much flow by the clocktower (which is part 18th century, part 1980s), as it does stand next to it in a solid block of green. Ducks skim over the gunk, leaving a clear trail in their wake. A couple of oversized cannons aim at a loft of pigeons. Other landmarks of this town centre in miniature — which has the air of a down-at-heel seaside town, without the sea — are a chip shop which doesn't give off any smell, and the World's Worst Public Toilet, which does.

It's eerily quiet, although next to where we're standing, a man cranes his neck at the window of an estate agent and mumbles "Thamesmead" under his breath, as if, when you've lived here a while, they're the only two syllables you can muster. We check the house prices, and realise it still isn't that affordable. Time for the pub.  

The people inside the Cutty Sark are a welcome sight. Landlord Martin has been at the helm since 1986 (his wife points out to us that the number is an anagram of 1869 — the year the tea clipper that's now down the road in Greenwich first set sail). Thamesmead, Martin says, is getting busier, although there are fewer using his pub, as the many African people now living in the area aren't as partial to a drink.

Plans for Thamesmead were drawn up, screwed up and started over. Image courtesy of BFI

But retired rail worker Tom is. He's now moved from Thamesmead to Plumstead, but the Cutty Sark remains his local and he's here with his brother Jim, enjoying a pint in what is one of Thamesmead's community hubs, along with the library-leisure centre and, presumably, the giant Morrisons. There is, however, a wry glint in his eye when we ask Tom what he likes about Thamesmead in particular; in particular, he likes the Cutty Sark.

What Tom isn't so keen on it Thamemead's inexplicably poor transport connections. This must be especially frustrating for a man who worked with trains most of his life. Woolwich has its ferry (usually anyway) and Abbey Wood has its train station, but Thamesmead must make do with buses, and that, along with all this water, gives the place the feel of an isolated island.

It isn't just getting in and out that can be testing. Though GLC architects pored over plans for Thamesmead for years, screwing them up, restarting, and eventually coming up with a plan "as fluid as the great reach of the Thames that formed its northern boundary" (as described by a drably-narrated but cutely optimistic video from 1970) things soon got muddled. Overhead walkways — the must-have of 21st century town planning — were soon abused, with some later demolished. As Thamesmead expanded — Thamesmead South and North in the 1960s and 70s, then Central in the 80s, and West in the 90s — it became harder and harder to join the dots. Maybe that's why the town centre feels so strange: it isn't really a town centre at all.

Thamesmead then is essentially Barbican's bumpkin brother; though it has the brutalist quirks of its City boy sibling, and the mazy architecture to boot, perhaps it's too thinly spread to be all that endearing. As we push on to find the true heart of Clockwork Orange land — that is the concrete metropolis of Thamesmead South — we're bamboozled by canalside walks with bridges you literally have to limbo under and pathways that end more abruptly than José Mourinho interviews.


Eventually we break through into Crossway Park, made comely by autumn, spoiled only by the perfume from the Crossness Sewage Treatment Works (although Crossness Pumping Station itself is magnificent — we were there shortly before that goon threatened to kick us in the head). It's here, among the canals and the arch bridges and the dog walkers and the buggies that Thamesmead starts to make some kind of sense. This place doesn't feel like any London we know, but there is green space and more of that melancholy peacefulness in spades — a peacefulness that some obviously don't find melancholy.

Zigzagging over concrete bridges, we're taken across the roaring Eastern Way, and find ourselves at Thamesmead South — as unabashedly ugly as you'd hope it might be; all pebbledash cuboids, limp water features, faded murals and swans screaming out for a transfer to Richmond. 'Please do not put rubbish in the lake. Use the waste bins provided', sighs a tired sign. 'No Swimming', scolds another. This is a brutalist lover's dream, and a thousand times more haunting than the South Bank.

And despite grey seeming to ebb from every orifice of this place — not helped by today's fug — like the rest of Thamesmead, there is the odd spark of light. The Link is a community hub, championing arts ("Whether you aspire to be the next Adele... Mark Ronson, Keira Knightley, Robert Pattinson... or Aliona Vilani, The Link Thamesmead is the place to be!" chirps the website). Just like in the town centre, there's a library, with people filing in and out. And on the fringes of the old estate, a construction site is 'Building Britain's Future'. The slogan may sound overtly Tory, but the houses look a darn sight cleaner and habitable than their predecessors. Thamesmead is softening around the edges, just like Peckham and Woolwich and Plumstead before it.

A lone figure stands across the lake smoking a cigarette, watching us intently. It's time to go. But next time the Woolwich Ferry stands us up, we might just come back.

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