Bridging the Miles
By deciding to walk into London via the south bank of the Thames, and then walking down into Essex via the north bank, I witnessed various bridging methods: I chose Westminster bridge as my crossing point. Other options I could have used were:
- QE2 Bridge, Dartford Crossing – going upstream
- Woolwich Car Ferry
- Emirates Cable Car
- Tower Bridge
- Westminster Bridge
- QE2 Bridge, Dartford Crossing – downstream into Essex
River Defences, Mud, Regeneration, Waste, and Commerce (Walking the River Thames)
The decision not to take the sensible (!) option of a ferry across the Thames from Gravesend to Tilbury added an extra 85.5 miles to the overall Victory Walk distance – but it was worth it.
It was a fascinating journey, observing the smart, tatty, muddy and smelly parts of London. At times I found it utterly depressing, relieved just to return to my base camp in Abbey Wood on the south side of the river, east of Woolwich Arsenal. As each leg finished I decided on the best way of getting to and from the Victory Van.
The Dartford Barrier, part of the Thames flood defences system, forced some extra miles. To the eye, only a short hop across the Dartford Creek, but for the walker a detour inland, the negotiation of two smaller creeks, and back down the other side. It was the Thames Barrier with its series of vertical silver ‘ships’ bows’ that captured my interest. Sadly, the Visitor Centre was closed for refurbishment.,
The 180 miles of the Thames Path National Trail officially commences at the Barrier, leading you to the river’s source. This Path became my main route into London; at times signs just ‘ran out’, or a diversion for some unknown reason took me away from the river bank. When the acorn sign wasn’t apparent I was often able to pick up the Jubilee Greenway pavement signs instead. The Jubilee Greenway path was completed in 2012 to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Games.
Evidence of waste disposal and power generation was everywhere. Apart from all the illegal fly-tipping, vast areas of land have been given over to landfill sites. Snakes of lorries waited patiently to discard their loads, before driving away to fill up again. Low level barges, towed by a tug-like vessel, bearing shipments of numerous containers full of waste are also moved up and down the river.
Sewage treatment works are a regular sight. The works at Crossness is one of the largest in Europe handling enough sewage to fill 20 Olympic size swimming pools, every hour of the day. At the Crossness Sludge Powered Generator, dried sewage sludge is burned to generate renewable energy. Before this was introduced the sludge would have been transported in boats, leaving the Crossness Jetty daily and dumping their cargoes out in the North Sea.
My route also led me past many wharves where ships were taking on aggregates. Conveyor belts carried rocks and chippings to the ships, while chutes spurted out cargoes of fine sand. With so much house building taking place products such as these are in constant demand. In contrast to these noisy and dirty industries were the swish, futuristic office blocks of Canary Wharf, or the Shard clad with its 11,000 glass panels. And then there’s the tourist industry, offering the tripper everything from bus trips to a spin in the London Eye – disappointingly it was closed for maintenance on the day I passed!
With London’s constantly changing skyline it’s really good to see excellent examples of regeneration, where old buildings have been given new leases of life. Being a dedicated tea drinker, I think my favourite is Hay’s Galleria. Formerly Hay’s Wharf, built around an enclosed dock, was regularly visited by the majestic tall tea clippers bringing in their cargoes from India and China.
The restoration of other old buildings has given them a new purpose too. Old warehouses now provide upmarket housing, and who would have thought that the former armaments production site at Royal Woolwich Arsenal would become a smart residential area.
This was the London of contrasts I saw when I tramped up the Thames, crossed at Westminster Bridge and walked out along the north bank.