Walking Interval 1: North Greenwich to Cutty Sark
The hoardings to keep people out of the building sites start to funnel walkers very quickly if they head the “wrong” way out of north Greenwich Tube, that is, away from the Dome and the bars and restaurants. The building work on both sides of the road towards the bank of the Thames is concealed behind great promises about the wonders of the completed structures. All the painted surfaces are filmed with dust, as is the tarmac underfoot, and the empty road. The sound of large machines bangs to and fro as if in a metallic tennis match.
Then suddenly the right-hand side opens up – the Isle of Dogs on the far bank is two rows of double windows, clouds are stratified, and the river just is, a matter-of-fact span of stirring light and moving sound.
The tide was very low, and at first reed-beds stretched in glutinous mud on the shoreline below. The hoardings continued on the left, although with occasional glimpses into a kind of void space strange to see in the middle of this city in particular.
Of course, this space isn’t void – it’s owned and invested in. In effect, it is already billions of pounds in mortgages – the larval form of the new-build flats across the water. Gloomy perspectives see this as the fate of all London in the coming years.
As I went, the quality of the hoardings fell. Their paint was cracked, scored with neglect; they had broken to reveal a buddleia-spotted wasteland, no contractors visible. And the path too broke up, roughened underfoot. The view across the river started being interrupted by great concrete structures stained with the water that had run from their uneven tops and down the knee-deep pillars of their supports. Long-stemmed plants just blooming white, yellow, or a barely visible blue, flourished in the joints between slabs. The rigid lines along which they grew were an odd contrast with the wind shaken confusion of their stems.
Moss and lichen extended green, and orange and blue-grey, beyond the plant lines. Among these patches chunks of iron rusted, as though a vandalous water monster had reached up and wrenched off all the lifting gear and hauling equipment like so many windscreen wipers, and chucked them into the glittering river.
It’s not clear that these spaces have a future, just an industrial past, now silenced and subject to Clean Air Acts. Only the caterpillar track-scarred zone, stretched with immense puddles, outside the depot of a concrete company was still active, but in a scrunched-up, intermittent way. A huge transport barge clanged against the wharfs, empty but for scrapings of sand in the corners of its hold. Rust gave colour to its metal, in odd contrast to the steely Thames and sky.
All this time, ahead of me, was the neo-classical gleam of “Maritime Greenwich” – the Wren-designed Naval Hospital, once a Tudor royal palace, now a university campus, and one reason why Greenwich has such valuable land. I’m familiar with that view – it is excellent – and so kept being distracted by the willows. Like many of their species, their branches were like crazed experiments in drawing curves, while at the base of their trunks roots spread out in cruciform shapes, along the gridlines of the slipways they had sprouted from.
The leaves were just in flush, fresh vivid green against water-stained bark, around their feet-which had the look of raptor talons hooked into the ground – plastics, wood, the strew of water-smoothed bricks long since lost to the river, had crowded, the first sediment of a new shoreline to the Thames. One stretch of them, between the battered wharves and long-demolished factories, carried a series of indictments of the finance-mortgage-career London visible on the Isle of Dogs.
These indictments were painted on bits of driftwood and pushed into the crooked arms of the young willows., I felt at once the artist’s relief in saying these things, and his or her reflection that the only people to see them would be walkers like me with the time and inclination to pause and read.
I want to say that these willows are beautiful trees. Certainly they were a different texture from the background taste of dust, rust and mould. But to assert their beauty seems to diminish the effect of the rest of the landscape. I also loved the cold river, the stratified sky, the nailmarks of gulls along concrete walls. I have always been drawn to the remains of human endeavour, whether Neolithic or mid-twentieth-century – a post-Romantic attachment to ruins abandoned places. Still, the willows were beautiful.
They stopped appearing where more new luxury flats were being built, to the sound of saws and shouting men. The hoardings had returned to professional standards – KEEP OUT, adverts – except for the film of dust. My gaze was taken back across the river, where the church spire above the roofs marked a friend’s neighbourhood, and the trees of Island Gardens stood like miners coming up after a long shift underground.
The rest of the way to Canary Wharf is a sort of cleaned-up version of the past. The pub of that name is in a stage-set Georgian street; the old power station is a close friend of the Tate Modern. I would like a week in one of the Stuart alms houses immediately beyond: river, Greenwich, walking (although the proximity of pubs could prove expensive).
After the alms houses’ false-crenellated eaves and dense-looking gardens, postcard Greenwich proper begins. Everything seems to sparkle either side of the footpath – on one side, the Naval Hospital, on the other the river. The Cutty Sark, like the building sites at the start of my walk, is ringed by barriers, although these are glass and invite the passer-by in, if he can afford the astronomical ticket prices.
The river was busy with vessels, and tourists bunched and scattered in slow motion along the embankment. A cold fresh wind circulated among the gulls.
The last few steps to the DLR station are through a modern/heritage village centre, where old buildings appear and disappear among the ever-present buses. I love this part of London, have happy memories here. It seems impossible that only fifteen minutes earlier I was passing through that string of empty lots, the smashed equipment of a recent past now erased, except where opportunist wildlife has made a home.