Walking Back To Happiness

Tony asks:

“For reasons best known to myself I’m planning to use a free day coming up to walk from Greenwich into the West End, something I’ve wanted to for a long time. However, I’m stuck on which is the best route.

Taking the Thames Path on the north side of the Thames seems the most obvious route. It takes in a number of classic sites – Canary Wharf, Wapping, The Prospect of Whitby etc. However, my loyalty to South London makes me wonder about the mysteries of the southern route – I know far less about the areas I’ll be going through.

Can anyone recommend one path over the other (I won’t have time to do both, alas)? Or is there perhaps a third way – Evelyn St, Jamaica Road? I’m looking for history, sights I haven’t seen before, a chance to experience a different side of London.”

The Phantom rubs spectral hands with glee. This is the sort of question I live for…

At first sight, yes, the Thames Path to the north does seem to offer delights – and I’m not pretending for a moment that it’s not an extremely pleasant affair, especially if you’re into the ancient pubs of Wapping. A walk through Canary Wharf will yield all kinds of hidden joys – I love the new glass city, but the history and old architecture isn’t completely gone – in fact its hidden nature makes it even more fun to find. And short deviations later in the route take you to wonders such as Wiltons Music Hall and St Georges in the East (who have got our cast-off church tower…) not to mention St Katherine’s Dock and the Tower.

But the path isn’t always distinct, and while I can’t claim perfection on the southern route either, let me be a cheerleader for the south in this post (as opposed to all the others, ahem) and tell you a few of the highlights I enjoy most about the walk between Greenwich and Tower Bridge (after that I’m guessing you’re already familiar with the South Bank, though maybe it would be worth another post sometime to deal with that. I’m a Greenwich-oholic but I’m not beyond spending far too much time wandering round the rest of the capital…)

The first thing I would recommend is the Thames Path National Trail Guide, by David Sharp. I got mine from the Visitors Centre in Greenwich but I’m sure Waterstones have it too. If memory serves it’s about twelve quid – but it may have been updated to include the new bit east of the barrier. I like it because it covers both sides of the river on the same page when it gets to London, and it tells you good things to look out for along the way.

I can’t put my hands on it at the moment, so I’ll have to talk about the Southern side from memory – I’m sure other people will chip in with things you shouldn’t miss too.

At the moment the start is a bit inauspicious, as it involves a trudge across the bridge on Creek Road, but hopefully when the building work is done(fingers crossed) we’ll have a nice footbridge connecting Millennium Quay with Greenwich. Don’t miss the slightly creepy statue of Czar Peter the Great and his even creepier dwarf…
You can walk up past, on one side, new build flats, on the other side some old piers, then fiddle your way up a small cobbled street behind old warehouses. Planning permissions currently being haggled over for the site, so see it now before it all changes (again.)

Continue until you get to Watergate Street, where the walls for the old wharves get in the way of the path. Still – it will give you a good excuse to see the wartime stretcher railings around the flats there.

If you get the opportunity to divert and pop to St Nicholas Church, it’s a fantastic sight inside, with a famous wood carving by local-ish boy Grinling Gibbons, but even if it’s not open, it’s worth the detour just for the gateposts with the sinister skull and crossbones. Legend has it they were the models for pirate flags; I don’t know if it’s true, but I don’t really care. It’s a good story. Just round from there is the Dog & Bell pub, a bit of a Mecca for real ale enthusiasts round here.

Cut through what’s left of poor old John Evelyn’s estate, Sayes Court (I’m convinced the mulberry bush in the park there is a remnant of his garden) and through the more modern estate to get back onto the Thames Path. It will lead you up past the groovy ex-council block that was turned private and became the subject of the TV docco last year. It has good ‘head’ sculptures round it.

The bits all around Surrey Docks are fascinating – in that there are still little pockets of history nestled among the 1980s reworking. Just be aware that if you start walking round the docks, it’s lovely – but a loooooong way round.

From now on, it gets really interesting – and frustrating – in equal measures. I keep meaning to log all the gates onto bits of path by the Thames that have been gated and locked outside new-build flats to find out whether or not it’s been done illegally. I’m willing to bet developers have been forced to create access, but when no one’s looking they’ve just locked the gates – there seem to be an awful lot of restricted access places in builds that are too young not to have had a Section 106 access order stamped on them. A project for the future – and perhaps one for the Ramblers Association.

Even with the annoying detours around modern flats, there’s still much to see. The City Farm, for example, which always manages to be closed whenever I’m there, but which advertises random produce available if you don’t mind carting a leg of organic pork around with you on your walk.

Hmm. What else? Oh, yes. The old Custom Houses are fun, and further on, I take great delight in arrogantly marching straight through the Hilton Hotel which has annoyingly plonked itself in the way of the Thames Path (though I’ve never had the gall to traipse the bike through too.)

By now, you’ll be coming up towards Rotherhithe, which, frankly, is worth a trip in itself. The ventilator houses for the Rotherthithe tunnel are curious, one each side – at least I’m assuming that’s what they are.

Just before you get to the villagey part of Rotherhithe, don’t miss one of the saddest sculptures in town, Dr Salter’s Dream, depicting Doctor Alfred Salter, who stayed in Bermondsey at a time of serious contagious illness to tend the sick at the cost of his own family – his daughter died, aged 8, from scarlet fever. Dr Salter now sits on a bench in perpetuity, fondly watching his daughter play with a pet cat by the river wall.

Moving onto Rotherhithe, if you have an opportunity to nip into the Brunel Engine House Museum, it’s worth it. It will take about 20 minutes to see the exhibits and another hour and a half to talk to the passionate curator there. They do nice cake.

The Sands Film Studios almost certainly won’t be open to the public on your visit, but they occasionally have guided tours and I would highly recommend joining one if you can. The also have a very eccentric film club, where you can see extremely obscure movies for free – just put a donation in the film cannister at the end.

Also in Rotherhithe, the Mayflower pub (the esteemed Dame was unimpressed with the fare last time she visited, but a pal visited the other night and reckons it’s improved. On the plus side you can fulfil your US postage stamp requirements at the bar…

Oh – and look out for the Charity Children on St Mary’s, a classic riverside church.

Right. Where are we… Ah, yes. More sundry Bermondsey new-builds with the odd bit of Tudor ruins and curious stuff (that’s where the guide comes in handy, telling you what the hell it all is – and where to go when the path runs out) before reaching the area around Shad Thames street/ Butler’s Wharf, Tower Bridge etc.

I could go on, but I’m really out of the blog’s area now. Besides, this post is indecently long. Tony – whichever path you choose, you’ll get a great view of the other bank of the river as you walk. And let’s face it – unless you’re planning emigrating to Mars anytime soon, presumably you’ll have other days off when you can explore different routes. Take the Clipper home afterwards to see yet another view of the Thames.

Ahhh. I almost wish I was coming with you. But I think I’ll leave the weather to warm up first…

32 Comments to “Walking Back To Happiness”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think both are great walks.
    If you do the south side walk, in addition the the good point that the phantom makes about gates (legal or otherwise), I always struggle where the path meets the Hilton. Maybe it's just me but I always get trapped in the hotel courtyard…

  2. Deptford dame says:

    Totally agreed Phantom, the south is my preferred route, although I think both sides are equally marred by the loss of riverside frontage and the locked gates can be particularly frustrating if you are on foot, rather than bike as I normally am. There are also long stretches of particularly ugly apartment blocks around the Rotherhithe section, similarly on the opposite bank. Just make sure you gaze at the river rather than the river banks!
    Nearer to town the converted warehouses of Shad Thames and the neighbouring ripe-for-redevelopment buildings are also fascinating.

  3. will says:

    Last summer, in a not-desperately-succesful attempt to lose a few pounds, I was walking home 1-2 times a week from Westminster to Maze Hill.

    I was taking the South Bank to City Hall, then Jamaica Road/Evelyn St route. It's fast – 2 hours door to door. But the Jamaica Road/Evelyn St stretch is not scenic.

    If you do it, you'll learn one main thing: The Luftwaffe must have more or less followed Jamaica Road/Evelyn St, because it is almost completely lined with 50s/60s build tower blocks. I played spot the pre war builds. So I'd say it's worth doing once to get a sense of the amount of damage that was done. But for a scenic walk, stick to the river.

  4. Mrs Bins says:

    I did thew walk from London Bridge to the Thames Barrier on the South side a few years ago and many of the Thames Path signposts had been turned round the wrong way or broken off. Hence I ended up getting very lost in Deptford and had to seek information in a run-down old pub amongst the building sites. As it turned out, the landlord of said pub (name escapes me, alas, was incredibly helpful ~ but the detour added about two hours (and two pints of ale) to my walk!

  5. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    I understand that the Evelyn/Jamaica Road is the preferred route of cycle-commuters as it's pretty much straight – but it's not pretty. Certainly not the route for a jolly day out.

  6. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    Samuel Pepys used to regularly walk between Seething Lane and Deptford/Greenwich/Woolwich. It would be interesting to see which route he would have taken.

  7. Edith says:

    Someone should chase gated areas of the Thames Path – using local authority planning enforcement powers. However I remember only too clearly on the north bank in the 1980s the LDDC were giving planning consents on riverside access which were different on adjoining sites. The result was chaos and we got Parliamentary questions asked about it. However – as you say – the Ramblers are very good at chasing up on this.

  8. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    I think what we need to do is walk along the path, making a note of every time we're forced to deviate around a modern build.

    Once we have the addresses (not that easy – I started doing it and found that I couldn't find the official addresses of the offending buildings) we can submit them to the Ramblers who would be v helpful, I'm sure.

  9. Old China says:

    I cycle to/ from the West End every day and have tried many different routes.

    I think I concurr with the GP's recommended path, although I'd maybe consider crossing the river through the Rotherhithe tunnel so you get to take in the south up to Rotherhithe and then cross to Wapping to take in the northside there on in and missing out Jamaica Rd. You CAN'T miss out on Wappings superb historical riverside pubs!

    Also, if you go into St Mary's Church in Rotherhithe look out for the table and chairs made from timber reclaimed from the Fighting Temeraire (of JMW Turner fame). Rumour is that Christopher Marlowe is buried in St Nicks in Deptford too.

  10. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    No rumour, Old C – it's pretty definite – trouble is no one knows exactly where Kit Marlow's buried. I didn't know about the Fighting Temeraire table and chairs – I feel another visit coming on.

    Surely the problem with crossing the river at the Rotherhithe tunnel is that pedestrians can't go on it – perhaps there's a bus that goes through, though?

  11. Latelygay says:

    The South route would be my recommendation. I have done both by bicycle many times.

    The north side I'd have to say is very samey, while on the north you have the best views of the Canary Wharf skyline. You also have interventions and diversions such as Surrey Quays, where incidentally they constructed sections of the Mulberry Harbour, so vital to the success of the D-Day landings; then there's the remannts of Rotherhite village where the young Tony Snowdon had a riverside studio visited frequently by Princess Margaret and where he once put up John Betjemen, and finally the approach to Tower Bridge.

    Bear in mind that on the North side there's very little river walking available after Limehouse.

    Yes, definitely the South side!

  12. Steve says:

    May be wrong but last time I looked, it was OK to walk thro' the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

    Unlike the Blackwall tunnel which I did run through once (having just moved to the area). Big mistake!

  13. scared of chives says:

    …Turner's 'Fighting Temeraire' – with the sun in the wrong place…

  14. Joe F says:

    May I add to the list of items along the southern riverside route: the remaining buildings of the Royal Victualling Yard in Deptford (alongside the inaccessible remains of the Royal Dockyard) such as the Rum Store building and Drake's Steps where the Queen knighted Drake on his arrival from his round the world voyage (Cook also sailed from here on his great voyage); Greenland Dock and South Dock, the remains of the once extensive Surrey Docks; Rotherhithe church containing furniture made from the wood of the scrapped 'Fighting Temeraire'; alongside the churchyard are the former Free School building and the local Night Watch station; Rotherhithe Street is often said to be London's longest street (although I haven't established by what criteria); at Bermondsey, the quarter alongside St Saviour's Dock was where Dickens put Fagin's Den. By the way, I believe the 'ventilator houses' for the Rotherhithe Tunnel were additionally formerly pedestrian entrances to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, presumably on a similar pattern to those of the Greenwich foot tunnel. Enjoy the walk – it is a treat.

  15. darryl says:

    Another vote for the south path – I did it (although from Charlton and via Greenwich Park and Deptford High Street, not hitting the river until Deptford Strand) last summer, walking to meet some pals in Soho. I hadn't walked the full length of the river walk for about 15 years before that, and it was fascinating to see what had changed.

    The last bit of the wander along the Rotherhithe loop seems to take forever, though, but as soon as you hit Bermondsey and Tower Bridge appears it's tempting to keep going forever.

    The north side has better pubs, though – Canary Wharf along to Wapping and St Katherine's Dock is a great mini-walk and a lovely excuse for a pint.

  16. Old China says:

    GP, I'm pretty sure pedestrians can use the Rotherhithe tunnel. I've not done it myself and don't suppose it's a great event in itself, but it'd be a handy place to cross in order to cram in Rotherhithe AND Wapping.

    Joe F, I think I'm correct in saying that the original Rotherhithe foot tunnel was much grander than the Greenwich one, being built by Brunel and two storeys tall. People would travel from all over the world to see the worlds first underwater tunnel.

    Yes, St Saviours is cool, that'd be the one regret of crossing the river before Tower Bridge. But since it is right next to the Bridge, maybe it's worth a quick skip aback across the river for a look-see?

  17. Marmoset says:

    If we're taking the south route, you can cut out a part of the Rotherhithe loop and cut across through the surprisingly extensive park/woodland around Russia Dock and Stave Hill. This site is devoted to the area: http://russiadock.blogspot.com/

  18. Benedict says:

    Its a great walk, although I used to get stuck at The Mayflower because it has a great riverside patio (nothing to do with the refreshments sold on the premises ) Also just along from it is/was an old warehouse that used to put on illegal raves in the 80's a hotbed of Cheesy Quavers…

  19. Sven Ellis says:

    Dr Salter's Dream is well worth looking out for, but I think it's after villagey Rotherhithe, on Bermondsey Wall East. The site of Edward III's Manor house is nearby.

  20. TonyJ says:

    Hi all, Tony of the original posting here! Well, it definitely looks like I should start with the southern path – any idea how long it would take, pub stop aside? Many thanks to GP for posting my question and running such a great site.

  21. Old China says:

    Tony, if you do everything that everyone here recommends, I'd set a whole day aside! With pub stops, meal breaks, seeing all the historical places en route it could fill a day easily.

    After todays posting I'm stoked up enough to do this myself one day this summer.

  22. Old China says:

    Btw Phantom, regarding the Temeraire furniture at St Mary's, I recently read Ouladah Equiano's great autobiog (on your recommendation) and was thrilled to see that he was present with the Royal Navy captured said vessel from the French! How many historical legends was that man involved with?!

  23. Idris says:

    I cycle to work on the south side from East Greenwich to London Bridge, taking the coast path (where possible) and occasionally stopping at the Dog & Bell when my resolve fails me, but only in the evenings. It takes about 30 mins (net of pub time) and is just shy of 12 km. If you were walking at 5km/h (about average), you would get to London Bridge in 2-2.5 hrs….however, the pubs are some much more accessible when you are on foot, so i'd give yourself the whole day….and get the bus home.

  24. Deptford dame says:

    To answer the Rotherhithe tunnel question – yes you can walk through, there is a narrow footpath on each side. But I really wouldn't recommend it!

  25. Ghostwhisperer says:

    Hi Phantom
    Re Mulberry
    there is some info re Evelyn's planting in "London Old & New". The text to these books is now available on line and I think the following will take you to Sayes Court entry .

    I have a feeling Mulberry's were introduced around time of James I somthing to do with silk worms but the wrong species or mulberry was introduced. I think there are others in Deptford/Greenwich area possibly in the grounds of Trinity Hospital, one at Charlton (unless its gone)


    It may also help in planning the walk into London to look at other chapters of London Old & new regards things of interest – for example Oxstalles Lane (I think its called) must correspond with section on the provision of a place for slaughter of foreign animals brought into the Port of London

    I have an actual copy of the South London volume but all volumes seem available online

  26. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    Ah – yes, a fine set of volumes. I only have four of the six (that's why I got 'em cheap) but they're wonderful to rifle through.

    The mulberries were indeed brought in by James I who wanted to start a silk trade in England (not sure if it's too early for there to be importation problems from France, I think possibly so.) Anyway it was a resounding disaster as he brought the wrong type of trees over and the silk worms just spat them out saying 'yeuch!'

    The mulberries I know of round here are at Charlton House, Trinity Almshouses, Sayes Court and the Swarf Orchard in Greenwich Park.

  27. darryl says:

    The East London Line is back in action from early April, so you'll be able to travel between Rotherhithe and Wapping without poisoning yourself in the road tunnel.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Take ear plugs if you want to walk through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. As the tunnel runs SW-NE it makes more sense to enter from the north side if you're heading towards Central London.

  29. RogerW says:

    As regards mulberries, there's another at Well Hall Pleasaunce, and a huge one at Down House at Downe.

    As for which side of the river, I'd have go along with the majority of the comments so far and say south.

  30. Emma says:

    South is good as you come up to Shad Thames before the Design Museum – you get a great view of the Downings Road gardens on barges


  31. Martina says:

    a bit late comment to this discussion – but i have just discovered this website! I walk the Rotherhithe part of the path at least once a month and I recall the gates previously blocking the path at the apartments were open. I remember thinking at one point that something was different. It makes sense now, they must have been opened recently.
    I have also walked the tunnel from rotherhithe to limehouse and i do not recommend it at all. My breath must have been grey for couple of days afterwards… :)

  32. Christine Race says:

    Just to say that sadly the statues of Dr Alfred Salter and his daughter have recently been stolen from their previously peaceful position by the river!!!