Enderby Steps

Look like they’ve been here forever, don’t they? In fact the first thing I thought of when I saw the steps at Enderby Wharf on the west side of the Thames Path was the crazy coastal rock carvings by the Abbé Fouré on the northern French coast.

In fact they’re not that old and they’re not even stone but that doesn’t stop the Enderby Steps being one of my favorite secret things about Greenwich. And like so many secret things – and I sigh to say this – they are in danger.

It will be no surprise to regular Phantophiles that they were initiated by prolific local artist Carol Kenna, of the Greenwich Mural Workshop responsible for so much amazing public art around here.

The initiative to re-established Enderby Steps was supposed to be  for the leadup to the Millennium, but time ran out so Carol, impressively un-putoffable, suggested it to be part of the Groundwork Thames Gateway project, which put the seating there and – somewhat pointlessly in the event – sugested improvements to Enderby House and a revitalisation of Enderby Wharf.

Oh, yes, there were big ideas. All manner of environmental improvements and art projects along the waterfront between Lovells Wharf and Bay Wharf. If you’re wondering what the large metal circle in the ground between the Dome and the aggregates site is, it’s the site of a proposed sculpture.

A steering group was formed – including unlikely bedfellows Alcatel, Amylum Refineries, Greenwich Council – and Greenwich Mural Workshop (mainly because the year before GMW had held a conference of their own, called When Land Meets Water, but also because I think that even that short while ago, there was a different attitude to the arts. Sadly money – or the lack of it – has eclipsed any idea of corporate involvement in making the envrionment beautiful. Just look at the fate of two of the delegates mentioned above…)

The steps were actually carved by sculptor Richard Lawrence. They were based on the original steps that formed part of a landing stage that ferried workers between Alcatel and the ships moored in the deep water that received the cables produced in the factory onland. There is still some of the winding gear on Enderby Pier that guided the cables onto the ships, where they were stored in giant conical piles on ship. If you’d like to know more, there’s a website about it all here.

Carol and Richard researched the industrial history side with the help of Mary Mills and the Alcatel archives (no one seems to know what happened to them when Alcatel was literally reduced to rubble).

I had thought the carvings on the steps were random abstract designs but they actually show the industrial history of the Peninsula from rush makers to high tech cable production.

They’re are made from a special hard wood that will stand decades of water washing over them and Alcatel undertook to keep them clean of algae before they sold the site. I certainly (somewhere) have a relatively recent photo of them clear of green goo – but ever since the company went, nature has moved in.

Of course, knowing Greenwich, nature is the least of the worries regarding history and art.

I’m not really sure how I missed this on the Cruise liner terminal planning permission that was granted on March 30th 2012 – but there you go. I guess I was looking at the buildings – and the way Enderby House would be treated within the landscape ( I still think it would make a great pub or tea rooms, though less charming in the middle of all that tedious glass and steel – when IS that fashion going to have run its course?) If memory serves I was also keen to look at what would happen with the Aluna project – more about that another day.

The artists impression doesn’t include the steps, which would be between the two piers (sorry about the horrid quality):

The permission reserves agreement for hard and soft landscaping under Condition 9 which has to be approved prior to development beginning. Carol’s spoken to the Greenwich Society and they have no minutes amongst planning applications that refer to the steps and also are not aware of Condition 9 being activated.

As far as I can see though, there’s no reason why the steps can’t be kept. If we were to get traditional ‘coast’ instead of corporate grass leading down to the river, which would be much more in keeping with the site and easier to upkeep, then the steps could be saved, along with the rocky beach, the wild flowers and, of course, the tidal aspect, which would make grass look a bit daft anyway.

Carol’s going to talk with a man who may be able to put this matter into the right hands (for all I know he might BE the right hands) but I wanted to mention it to you guys, as I think if she felt she wasn’t alone, that she had backup from local people, it would be easier to argue her our case.

Carol says

If they and all the piers were to be removed I think this would be a sad indictment of how little our history is appreciated or the worth of a mixed visual landscape along our waterfront. Greenwich is one of a few London boroughs which still possess some waterfront industry to our benefit both economically and historically.

I agree with every word.


the attachments to this post:

Enderby Cruise Liner plans low
Enderby Cruise Liner plans low

enderby steps low
enderby steps low


6 Comments to “Enderby Steps”

  1. Michael says:

    Here is a link to an article about the steps:

    http://gihs.gold.ac.uk/steps.html

    Also Phantom, any chance you could provide a Google Map link to the object/building/place of interest being discussed in your article(s) as I don’t always know where they are. Thanks.

  2. Mary says:

    thanks Phantom – have been on about this for a long time. I think the archives might be at Porthcurno – and also they might be helpful in a number of other ways

  3. Bill Burns says:

    Cable historian and researcher Allan Green, whose article on Enderby’s Wharf I have on my site, rescued quite a bit of the former Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company Ltd (Telcon) archive from a skip at Alcatel, and as Mary says it’s now at the Porthcurno telegraph museum in Cornwall.

    http://atlantic-cable.com/Article/EnderbyAG/

    Another large part of the archive is at the National Maritime Museum just up the river, but they have zero interest there in undersea cable history, quite surprising considering the huge economic impact this maritime industry had on Britain for well over a hundred years.

  4. Mary says:

    In addition to all this I am currently working on a vast pile of documents to go into my new peninsula history site. One of the things I have is a document drawn up by Groundwork in 2002 on environmental improvements and art work on the river walk of which the work on the steps was part. I have a scan of the document but I am a bit nervuous of putting it on the site because I have no idea who to ask about the copyright. Happy to send it on to anyone interested. Most of the art works, etc done then have now been destroyed by new site owners and developers

  5. Alan Burkitt-Gray says:

    Alcatel is now Alcatel-Lucent, following a merger in 2006. The group includes Bell Labs, the place in New Jersey where many of the significant inventions of the 20th century took place (the transistor, TV/comms satellites, Unix, for example). In theory, that means they *should* be interested in their history.

    I know a few people fairly high in the company. If I can put anyone in touch with them, let me know.

  6. joe says:

    Current developments, particularly in Greenwich it seems, seek to maximise profit (for some) without considering impacts on local environment, history or aesthetics – hence all the glass and steel junk going up.
    The grass idea is especially silly when there is a natural looking and more biodiverse shoreline already there, and the steps work very well with that. It would be a real shame if all the character was removed from the riverside and it became just another bland corporate space that you could find anywhere.