Ballast Quay – Part Three – Grot Beach and Beyond

Okay – so part three of Hilary Peters’s fabulous memories of living, working and gardening in Ballast Quay/Union Wharf in the 1960s and seventies. If you recall, she’s found a place to live, persuaded Morden College not to knock it down, built a garden with the help of the local kids and is now a successful gardener working for, among others, St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals. Her latest big job is at St Katherine’s dock, where an old East End docks is being transformed into a playground for the gin-palace brigade. her brief is to make the place ‘look like a million dollars.’  But back at home…

Union Wharf never looked like a million dollars. It was a working wharf. I didn’t do much loading and unloading from the river, but I did get a boat. Tamar was a small clinker-built yacht, with a brown sail and an inboard engine. I never got the hang of sailing, but I used Tamar a lot on the tideway, which was quite dangerous enough, even with a reliable engine. I kept her at Bugsby’s Hole (on the peninsula – TGP). She’d have been smashed to pieces in two tides against my wharf and the pieces would have settled on an old shopping trolley.

Tamar was used for gardening though. She was craned into St Katherine’s before they got the lock gates working and from her deck, I planted crack plants in the dock walls. Years later, I’d overhear ecologists exclaiming to each other:
“Gypsophila! Extraordinary! I’ve never seen it seed itself in a dock wall before.”

There were flood scares. I never understood why. The highest tides flooded the footpath outside the Naval College (and still do – on the five-foot-walk – TGP) but never ventured onto their lawns. It was the same at Ballast Quay. Even our cellars were always dry. Experts thought otherwise, so a flood wall was built along the edge of the wharf. It was two foot high and served only to trip up lightermen and ruin the wharf’s effect of grass to the water’s edge. I remember Mr. Robinson (of Robbo’s) looking sadly out of our first floor window and saying ‘times are changing.’

By this time, I had two goats, Tosh and Cud, in a friend’s garden in Blackheath. When one kidded and the other was ill, I nursed her in the back garden at Ballast Quay and she convalesced on the wharf and went for walks to Grot Beach (Pipers Wharf – the bit that’s still a working boatyard – if you’re on the Thames Path it’s the bit that has the giant blue corrugated iron walls – TGP).

With Tosh and the hens on the Wharf, the place began to look a bit rural and I suppose it was giving me ideas. Something was. We flourished as St. Katherines Dock flourished and bought a Dutch barge. We ran a café in the hold, selling our produce and advertising our gardens. We weren’t successful. St Katherines wasn’t popular yet. Still, it was only a matter of time before we needed more produce. For that we needed more land, so I asked the PLA if they had any waste land (can you imagine such a thing as ‘waste land’ now? – TGP)

They lent me Surrey Docks, which had closed in 1970. Acres of scrub, abandoned water and old dock buildings! I took the hens and goats and bought more of both. Local kids again joined in and their parents started an allotment scheme (the current Surrey Docks City Farm is on a different site – it was moved in 1986 – TGP)

Surrey Docks Farm was an expanded version of Union Wharf Nursery Garden and we still did the odd gardening job to pay for it. Its effect on Ballast Quay expanded too. The neighbours gave me their cauliflower leaves, cabbage stalks,  stale bread, roast joints… We had to wade through offerings to get to the front door.

As city-farming took over, the greenhouse became redundant. We clad it to look more like a Kentish barn and the wharf became the Tea Garden. (We had to apply for Change Of Use)

The plane tree was still quite small. When its roots reached the river it suddenly grew like mad and broke up the paving stones which we had laid for the tea garden. But in those days the paving stones were covered in tables and chairs, which extended all along the top lawn. Customers even came by boat. In winter we lit a brazier by the shed. Then the neighbours’ talents for baking and giving really came into their own. People came from all over London (and indeed from Western Australia) to eat our cakes. They queued up for cream teas at 11 in the morning. A notice on the gate said Dogs Welcome.

Along with the kindness and warmth, another great feature of SE London was the bickering. The kids quarrelled with each other and formed rival gangs. Their parents quarrelled about whose cakes were best, whose made most money, who was cleanest, quickest, most efficient. Some put up posters and others tore them down. Some wouldn’t join in because others were in, and others took over and blamed everyone else. Rivalries dating from Victorian times were dug up and picked over. All human life was there.

But oh, don’t you wish it was still happening? Home made cakes and tea in the cutest garden on the riverfront? Sigh…

And of Hilary now?

I am a part-time hermit. I live in a fantastically beautiful gatehouse (In the West Country, I believe – TGP) and carry on the eighteenth century tradition of being the estate hermit. I look after the building and I have made another garden.. Hermitting includes hospitality, so I show people the building if they want to see it, and have people to stay.

I do, and sometimes teach, pegloom weaving. Recently, I have started a Social Enterprise called Cards From Prison, using art by prisoners.”

Hilary only occasionally gets back to Greenwich, but she has said that next time she comes back she’ll have a rummage around to see if she can find some pictures for us. In the meantime, though, this extraordinary woman does have one other project that will interest anyone who loves Greenwich. She is the editor of the magazine Follies which is how I came to be in contact with her – the next edition will carry a feature about the Rotunda (not by me, of course, by someone who knows what they’re talking about…)

I am delighted to have ‘met’ her. Thank you Hilary, not just for these memories, but for what you have done for Greenwich.

the attachments to this post:

phantom goat
phantom goat

4 Comments to “Ballast Quay – Part Three – Grot Beach and Beyond”

  1. Old China says:

    I’ve loved Hilary’s telling of her garden and life on Union Wharf. I would sell my left kidney to see someone walking their convalescing goat along the Thames path now. Maybe both kidneys.

  2. tintinhaddock says:

    Inspirational. Thank you Hilary.

  3. 16" East says:

    Utterly wonderful story, wonderful to think that an individual’s hard work lives on and is appreciated long after they move on. That garden is a rare pleasure and exactly the kind of thing we need to keep here. although, I fear that the future looks more like Lovells Wharf next door, a monstrosity that imposes itself on the small scale streets and has ruined our Thames Path!

  4. Pedro says:

    A wonderful tale, many thanks Hilary.

    A great reminder of the special spirit of Greenwich, when it was tattier and rather more interesting, let’s hope there will always be some of it left.