Start: Belvedere Station
Distance: 5.6 miles (9 kilometres)
Terrain: Flat and paved
This walk, between the river's edge and the Erith Marshes, offers magnificent views of the London skyline as you walk westwards towards Woolwich.
1. The starting point of this Thames Path walk is Belvedere Station (zone 5). There are frequent direct trains to this point from both Cannon Street and Dartford stations. From the station head north along Norman Road, to Yarnton Way and cross over Clydesdale Way, keeping The Morgan pub to your right. Walk over the bizarrely named Picardy Manorway and rejoin Norman Road. The view to the left becomes more rural as Crossness Nature Reserve appears. This is one of a few pockets of Erith Marshes that still remains. To the right is an industrial estate, whose name, Isis Reach, announces the arrival of the river within a few hundred metres. Isis is the name given to the Thames along certain parts of its route. Sadly, the name has recently been commandeered elsewhere.
2. Just ahead, before the river, is a small modern power station with a tall aluminium chimney. This is an ‘energy from waste’ electricity generating station, known as the Belvedere Incinerator. Over 600,000 tonnes per year of burnable waste, from the borough of Wandsworth and the City of London, are brought by river in containers to this site. The tugs pulling trains of barges are a frequent sight along the Thames. The waste is converted, by combustion, into 480,000 MWh of electricity each year.
Follow the footpath to the right of the power station and up onto the river wall, turn left and head westwards. The view of the Thames here is dominated by a huge T-shaped pier, where waste containers are unloaded and driven into the incinerator. On the opposite shore sits the Dagenham Ford Motor factory.
3. Further along the path, adjacent to the river, another modern industrial structure looms. This wave-shaped building is the Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. All the sewage of south London flows to this point for processing. The site was established in the 1860s following Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s masterplan to improve the sewage network for London. The original Italianate Gothic pumping station is visible at the western end of the plant. The glorious Byzantine interior can be viewed on certain days of the year.
Unfortunately the Thames is not visible from the path in front of the pumping station, but is hidden behind a large concrete sea wall to defend the facility against flooding. Walkers are however are ‘compensated’ by several twee paintings depicting life and activities on the Thames over the centuries. Thames Water really should consider commissioning a large mural here.
4. Just beyond the sewage treatment works the path becomes very verdant and, as the river bends to the south, the spectacular skyline panorama of modern London reveals itself: the 02 Arena, Canary Wharf, the Shard and the City of London. This vista continues with you as you continue to walk westwards towards Woolwich. On the opposite shore, over Barking Creek, sits a tall flood defence barrier. Whenever London is at risk of very high or spring tides it is lowered into place.
5. The Thames Path now skirts around the northern edge of Thamesmead. Thamesmead was built upon the Erith Marshes in the 1960s as a response to the demand for more social housing within the capital. It was believed that the presence of water in the form of a river or a canal would have a calming influence on the inhabitants.
6. Along this stretch of the river, spare a thought for the 650 passengers who perished nearby in 1878, when the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice was struck by the collier SS Bywell Castle. Many of the passengers trapped within the ship drowned almost immediately. Some of those on deck, who ended up in the Thames, may have died of poisoning as, just prior to the collision, the sewage plant on the north shore at Beckton had just discharged 340,000m3 of raw sewage into the outgoing tide.
7. The path now heads south-westwards with another small remaining section of the Erith Marshes to the left. On the opposite shore are the lock gates to the former Royal Docks and aircraft can be seen (and heard) landing and taking off from London City Airport, on what was formerly the Prince Albert Dock.
8. The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, was once a huge, 520 hectare military armaments research and manufacturing operation for the British armed forces. An academy for artillery and engineering officers was established here in 1720, and for nearly 300 years Woolwich was renowned as military town. Many of the armament and offices that face onto the Thames have been converted into residential apartments.
9. There are several ways to complete this section of the Thames Path:
- Head to Woolwich Arsenal railway and DLR station, located about 750m to the south east.
- Cross the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry. Originally established to enable troops and supplies to cross the river, it is now a free service for pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles.
- Walk under the Thames, to the north shore, via the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. It was opened in 1912 to enable dock and armament workers to cross the river without relying on the ferry.
- Alternatively, one could continue walking westward along the Thames Path towards Greenwich and London.
All maps and illustrations © David Fathers
David Fathers is author/illustrator of The London Thames Path (Frances Lincoln). And can be followed @TheTilbury