Above: Map of the riverfront at Greenwich, showing the approximate position of some of the well-known wharves. At the time of writing, most of them have already changed beyond recognition (Click on image to enlarge to 1280×800).
If you like walking beside the Thames, you are today spoilt for choice. Depending on how far you want to walk, it is possible to start at London Bridge and walk east on the south bank of the river all the way to Greenwich. Apart from the occasional detour around a housing development, the walk will be almost entirely within sight of the Thames. Up to the end of the 1970s that was not the case. Nearly all the land on that stretch of the river was private land on which stood large warehouses. As you walked along the streets near the river, your view was blocked by high walls around the wharves and the large brick buildings. From the 1980s onwards, the land beside the river was redeveloped by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). Many of the large warehouses were redeveloped into housing, a new river wall was constructed and a walkway was built beside it providing access at any time of the day or the night. It has transformed our understanding of the Thames.
The comments above apply to both sides of the Thames – from London Bridge to Greenwich Pier on the south side and from London Bridge to Island Gardens on the north side. One stretch of the river that has always been accessible to pedestrians is a riverside walk from Greenwich Pier, passing the Royal Naval College and ending at the entrance to the older of the two Blackwall Tunnels. In the 1960s and 1970s that was a fascinating walk. The old footpath was a public right of way but parts of it crossed old wharves and workshops where barges were being repaired. Much of the walk was in stark contrast to the elegant Royal Naval College or the Trafalgar Tavern. The footpath took you on a journey past what was then the working part of the Thames.
Gradually, as the 1970s became the 1980s and 1990s, these working parts of the Thames closed down as the character of the river changed and by the turn of the Millennium the footpath remained but almost all the working wharves had come to the end of their lives. The result was that the land was sold to developers who took over. Riverside Greenwich was not part of the development area of the LDDC and so it has not been redeveloped until the last decade and some of it is still awaiting the bulldozer. A way of life has been swept away forever as overbearing housing developments take over. The only design criterion for the housing blocks is that they generate as much profit for the developers as possible.
The modern map shows the names and positions of some of the more well-known wharves. In contrast to the riverside views of the old wharves, lined with slipways and barges, there are now large modern blocks of apartments which sit uneasily beside the Thames. In fact, their design is such that they could have been built anywhere, beside a high street, near a railway station or any other part of a city or town. There is no sense that the buildings have an affinity with their watery surroundings. This housing is designed to maximise the space on which it is built and to provide access roads and car parking for the residents with the occasional convenience store – as the jargon would have it – so that those who live there can obtain ‘convenient food’ and a place to obtain the Sunday newspaper.
Above: Views of the ever-expanding housing that crowds the riverfront at Greenwich. Small workshops and slipways have been cleared to make way for blocks of wealthy residents living in unsympathetic housing developments.
Many watermen who know the river intimately will tell you that the new buildings beside the Thames all look the same and the old interesting and unusual wharves have now become just endless rows of housing blocks. As one architect put it ‘the boring housing blocks now have views from their lounge windows of other boring housing blocks on the other side of the Thames’. This article sets out a working map for reference for where the old wharves were situated which will act as a guide for other articles describing the old 1960s locations.
Comment – Memories of the Greenwich Penninsula
For this week there will be three articles remembering the working part of the river at Greenwich. People are already beginning to realise that the heritage and history of this part of Greenwich have been ripped from under our noses. Two of the wharves named on the map will follow, with others being added at a later date.