Above: View from the old riverside walkway in 2006 of a few barges remaining at Piper’s Wharf.
For those who have known Greenwich and its old riverside footpath, they will probably have different stories to relate, according to how far back you can remember walking the route. In the 1970s there were people in Greenwich who had grandparents who could remember walking along the footpath when it extended from the junction of Pelham Street and Ballast Quay all around the Greenwich Peninsula and ended at the slipway at the end of River Way.
Those days were during the latter decades of the 19th century. What caused the access to the footpath at the northern end of the peninsula to be limited was the extensive gas works, built between 1881 and 1886, covering a large part of what had been Greenwich Marsh. It was supplied with coal delivered to a massive jetty where it was unloaded. The jetty was demolished just before the Millennium exhibition at today’s O2 Arena. The enormous piers of that jetty remain beside North Greenwich Pier.
Until the 1980s and 1990s, it was possible to drive across part of the NE of the Greenwich Peninsula via Blackwall Lane, then under a disused railway bridge and into River Way. The old railway bridge once carried a remote railway track that linked to the Angerstein line. Beside River Way was the lonely pub called the Pilot. River Way crossed derelict land and ended at the Thames where there was a slipway for launching small yachts and other vessels.
When the gas works were constructed, most of the land towards the northern end of what is now the Greenwich Peninsula became inaccessible. From that time onwards, the old Greenwich footpath started at the junction of Pelham Road and Ballast Quay and ran almost due north to a point where it turned sharp right (away from the river) and ended in a no-man’s-land beside the main road leading to the old Blackwall Tunnel.
Writing about all this seems such a long time ago now. It was over 20 years ago and that is probably a long time for many people. It’s not so much the number of years that have passed but the remarkable changes that we have all seen since the Millennium Dome came into existence to help celebrate the coming of the millennium.
We will start our journey of memories from where the old footpath used to lead off Pelham Road and seemed to allow those who walked there into a completely different world. The footpath passed a substantial brick wall beside Lovell’s Wharf. On the wall was painted with huge black and white letters spelling out Lovell’s Wharf. They had to be that large so that vessels in the river could easily read them and know where they were on the Thames. If you were lucky, there was a cargo ship moored beside the footpath which all added to the experience.
After passing Lovell’s Wharf, the footpath seemed to meander a little and then pass large amounts of sand or aggregates (or both) on Granite Quay. The aggregates were loose and sloped up within high walls at the back. They had been scooped up by a crane and dumped on the wharf. To a pedestrian walking past, the mounds seemed very large indeed.
Walking further north, the path narrowed as it led between high corrugated-iron walls. In one wall was a small gate and sign above it which read ‘Beware of Cranes’. There was never any evidence of any cranes. Whether they were fixed- or travelling cranes it was not possible to find out. This was at Badcock’s Wharves.
Above: View looking north from the old footpath beside the beach at Piper’s Wharf. A large gantry at Enderby’s Wharf is just visible. Behind it can be seen the concrete silos at Amylum.
The confined passageway gave way to an open vista across the Thames once more as you walked beside a variety of barges moored close to the beach. This was Piper’s wharf. You could not mistake the location because on a further corrugated iron wall on the landward side of the footpath, painted black and white, were more large letters, this time spelling out ‘Piper’s Wharf’.
If there were any workers to be seen, repairing the barges, it was interesting to watch them usually applying Oxy-acetylene welding torches and adding large steel plates to the side of a barge. In the 1970s there were probably 20 to 30 barges to be seen at Piper’s. Over the years, the numbers dwindled to just a few and eventually none at all.
The narrow footpath led further north, passing a very large factory on the land which was, in its later years, part of Standard Telephones and Cables (STC). There were strong railings on the landward side of the footpath for security reasons. Walking past in the 1960s and 1970s, quite often you would see a cable-laying ship moored in the deeper part of the river. It was there for several weeks while an ocean telephone cable was manufactured in the factory and fed out on pulley wheels suspended above the footpath to the ship. The ship could carry enough cable to reach across the North Atlantic, including repeaters. Once all the cable had been stored, the ship would lay the cable – in all weathers – being at sea for many months until the work was completed.
Cable manufacture ended at Greenwich and work was transferred which meant that no cable-laying ships moored on the Thames at this point anymore. Beside the footpath (and behind the metal railings) was what looked like a normal domestic house. It had been the home of the Enderby Brothers who pioneered cables under the sea. The site was known as Enderby’s Wharf and, by the 1960s, the house was in use as the board room for the directors of STC.
The next part of the footpath always seemed a little curious because it was lined beside the river with large willow trees. Perhaps they were a remnant of the old Greenwich Marsh. The wharf acquired various names over the years. In the later years, the company was known as Amylum, Tate and Lyle, and Syral. The site was used for the storage of various foodstuffs. The plant closed in September 2009. The concrete silos were demolished soon after that.
The footpath followed an irregular river shape and arrived at Morden Wharf. This was in the form of a large red-brick building without any windows. The footpath had originally crossed the site – not at the edge but an odd angle through the middle. Because the factory did not want pedestrians to be hit by any fork-lift trucks or other vehicles, the factory had been built as a continuous building but with a covered passageway running almost through the middle. As time went on, a new footpath route was devised around the river’s edge of the large site. (That new footpath route is still in use at the time of writing.)
As you approach Morden Wharf from the south, the footpath takes a 90-degree turn to the left. At that point, the old footpath route through the large factory building can be seen. It is still there but sturdy steel fencing prevents any pedestrian access and has done since probably the 1990s. By the way, the site is known as Morden Wharf because the land was owned by Morden College, a charity that still stands on Blackheath.
The footpath continued past Molassine Meal Works before passing through the middle of Bay Wharf. Bay Wharf was another barge-repair company. They had huge sheds on the land accompanied by long elegant cogged slipways into the river. The original footpath passed beside the top of the slipway and the large sheds on the landward side. Probably in the 1980s, the footpath route was diverted around the site of Bay Wharf which meant that you lost sight of the river as you made an awkward detour.
Further north, in the 1970s, the footpath crossed Victoria Wharf. This had been redeveloped into a container terminal and a large blue crane was installed for loading and unloading containers out of ships moored alongside. The footpath was a great problem for the wharf which had been renamed Victoria Deep Water Terminal. Due to health and safety concerns, the public continued to use the footpath which was marked out with thick white lines on either side and large notices to stay within those lines. Since you were constantly being watched by those who worked on the wharf, everybody obeyed the rules and no accidents were ever reported.
Having walked past the land of Victoria Deep Water Terminal, the footpath took a sharp 90 degree turn to the right and your path was constricted by chain-link fencing until you reached the main road. This was the road that led to the original red-stone entrance to the old Blackwall Tunnel. The new tunnel opened in 1967 but was some distance from the old entrance which is now used for northbound traffic.
Having reached the point just described, there were only two options. The first option was to walk back to Ballast Quay, following the same route as before. The second option was to walk some distance around a slip-road, provided for overweight lorry loads and then walk to Blackwall Lane where it was possible to board a bus. The second option was so cumbersome that most walkers would return from whence they came and return by the footpath back to Ballast Quay.
How things have changed! The O2 Arena, North Greenwich underground station and all the many facilities nearby have created another world on what was once just Greenwich Marsh.