I think I’m at the start of a love affair. I decided to ride to a friend’s house in Wanstead a few weeks ago and planned a route that was as traffic-free as possible. It took me through parts of London that I had heard of, but never seen, and I loved it. At one point I was riding alone down a disused canal cut, past abandoned warehouses on a narrow tow-path with a steep drop into a green soupy canal, the next minute I was dodging around the side of hidden marinas and dry docks, and then the Olympic Park full of waterways, bikes paths and strange looking buildings. Yes I am 10 years behind the curve when it comes to discovering East London, but I made it in the end.
So with my wheel set firmly towards the rising sun, I set off on another journey of discovery. I planned to ride Quietway 1, which is a new almost traffic-free bike route from Waterloo to Greenwich, and then follow the NCN Route 1 to Woolwich and beyond.
The Ride. The route immediately out of Waterloo was slow and busy, with too many white vans doing U-turns, but at least the path was well marked. I was soon beyond Borough and heading to South Bermondsey on quiet back roads, and as I headed further east, Quietway 1 really did live up to its name. I passed the Millwall football stadium, where the biggest visible advertising hoarding was a local funeral directors and it reminded me of a guy I used to go to college with. He was a big Millwall fan and use to show off a mended slash in his leather jacket from a stabwound he had suffered at a particularly lively game! Onward and over the Ha’penny Hatch footbridge, which spans Deptford Creek just before it joins the Thames. Through the railway arch on my left I glimpse a small collection of boats moored on the eastern bank, and to my right a notice on the bridge inviting me to wade through the mud at low tide. For a mere £10 you get a pair of waders and the chance to get really muddy. I’m tempted!.
At Greenwich, the Quietway 1 spits me out on the main road in to town. I pass the Cutty Sark, which is always an impressive site, and follow NCN route 1 to a little Thames-side pub, just off the main-stream tourist trail, with the rather unoriginal name of The Cutty Sark. A freshly cooked scotch egg and half a pint later, and I’m back heading east. There are a couple of very big roads to negotiate which the route manages pretty well, and I’m soon back on the Thames path whizzing by a massive aggregates (sand and gravel) depot, with a multitude of conveyor belts and piers jutting into the widening Thames. With a backdrop of the Thames Barrier and the imposing Tate and Lyle sugar refinery on the northern bank, you could never be in any doubt that this is the working side of town. I wonder why I am attracted rather than appalled by such views, and put it down to a lifelong curiosity for how something works.
At Woolwich Ferry and I find myself making a split second decision to take the boat rather than the foot tunnel or carry on further east. It is free after-all. The foot passengers ‘quarters’ are below the car deck, all white painted metal, wooden benches and incomprehensible signs which only make sense if you are a ferryman. It reminded me of an oil rig; smelt like one as well!
And so to northern shores, and the bit of the ride that I was most curious about. I wanted to stay as close to the river as possible, following the Capital Ring walk around the eastern lock gates of the Royal Docks. I cycled through Royal Victoria Gardens and found my way along the front of the Gallions Point housing complex, and then to the first set of locks. At this point the ride took on a wild and wacky feel. The main lock gates where relatively easy to negotiate but the ones across the Gallions Marina where decidedly dodgy and not wide enough for a bike and rider. There was an alarming gap between the two lock gates which I had to hop over and I found the whole experience rather ‘knee wobbling’. The path out was completely over-grown with rather a desolate feel, and I was starting to imagine finding a dead body around the corner, but only found a pile of laughing gas canisters. Although the maps indicates paths and roads continuing along the Thames, most of them no longer exist, and I kept ending up at the back entrance to a Tescos Extra. However much I tried to continue along the Thames, in the end I drew a blank and conceded defeat. I turned landward towards the Greenway, a recently opened traffic-free route along the top of a sewer pipe that runs from Becton to Stratford.
I found the pros of the Greenway (traffic-free, wide, straight, high-up, good views) outweighed the cons (not breathing too deeply when you go past a vent), and any way it is the end of a hot summer so aroma could be seasonal. As it neared Stratford and the Olympic Park, there were some great views of Canary Wharf and Joseph Bazalgettes Victorian masterpiece, the Three Mills pumping station.
With the last leg of my trip to go, I felt in need of a coffee so I stopped at the Three Mills cafe for what turned out to be a massive bowl of the stuff. From there to Tower Bridge it’s like an adventure park for bikes, and with a coffee inside me I was whizzing along the gantries, wobbling down the pontoons, taking the curbs to say nothing of the jacob’s ladders and cobbled back streets behind St Catherines Dock.
I completed the loop back to Waterloo past the Tate Modern and couldn’t help comparing it to the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery. It seemed like a fitting end to my industrial tour.
The Verdict. A great ride. One of the ones that doesn’t need a second or third recce to improve upon. I have two version of this ride in ridewithGPS.com; one which includes the Gallions Point adventure and one which sticks to easier paths at this point in the ride.
click here ………With Gallions Lock
click here…….Without Gallions Lock
Post ride notes: I’m not normally someone who waxes lyrical about history (I was thrown out of history lessons and banned from taking the O’ level) but on my return I couldn’t help googling some of the things I had past and I found myself being totally drawn in by what I discovered.
The Ha’penny Hackbridge in Deptford appears to have been the site of The Battle of Deptford Bridge in 1497 and also the final resting place for Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. All of this and more can be found in a blog called the Greenwich Phantom.
Gallions Reach, which previous to my ride had evoked a rather romantic picture of tall ships, was actually named after the Galyons family who owned Thames-side property in the area in the 14th century. It was also the scene of the biggest Thames disaster and the site of an Inn that Rudyard Kipling stayed at and you can read more about it on the Hidden London website.
Three Mill pumping station was built by Joseph Bazalgette as a remedy for the Cholera outbreaks of the 1800’s. It pumped sewage to the outer reaches of London before allowing it back into the Thames on an outgoing tide. If ever there was a cathedral to sewage, it’s this!
Three Mills Island has been the location of a corn mill, a gin distillery, a gun powder plant and is still the worlds largest tidal mill. It is explained in more detail in the London Unveiled blog.
The two ships in front of Tobacco dock are replicas of pirate ships built in the 1990’s and are associated with a doomed shopping precinct that never came to be. They are now ghost ships crumbling into their dry docks. Read more on the Tired of London, tired of living blog