diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 18, 2009

Random borough (23): Greenwich (part 1)

Ten to one against, but out of my jamjar came the London borough of Greenwich. Sorry. I know you've just suffered a week of suburban ramblings down the Greenwich meridian, but my latest random safari has taken me straight back again. But don't worry. Greenwich is a large and diverse borough, most of it well to the east of the town of Greenwich, so there was plenty of opportunity to go absolutely nowhere near the meridian at all. I headed instead along the banks of the Thames, and deep into the southeast London hinterland, to explore the lovelier and less lovely parts of this historic borough. It's not all about time.

Somewhere famous: The Greenwich Meridian
Greenwich's fame spread around the world 125 years ago this week when a line of longitude through the Royal Observatory was selected as the starting point of space and...
Stop it, stop right there. Obviously I had to pick the meridian and the Observatory as the most famous things in the borough, but I think I've covered both of those in sufficient depth recently. So, if you don't mind, we'll take that as read, thanks.

Somewhere infamous: The Millennium Dome
It was never meant to be this way. Ten years ago a nation held its breath as Peter Mandelson struggled to build a big tent on the North Greenwich Peninsula before Big Ben struck 2000. The Millennium Dome wasn't quite the spectacle he'd hoped, and once 2001 came round the site faded away into mothballed desolation. Government didn't have a clue, but big business eventually spotted a major opportunity (knockdown price, tube station alongside, kerching) and transformed the DustbinLid into an entertainment supernode. Two years on and the rebranded Oxygenmolecule is a huge commercial success, luring in a succession of musical megastars to perform in a huge arena surrounded by tapas bars. In 2012, the Olympic gymnastics and wheelchair basketball competitions will be played out beneath the MobileNetwork's glass fibre ceiling. And this weekend they've been having a practice.

The World Artistic Gymnastics Championships have come to North Greenwich. I could tell this because there were an awful lot of supple folk in tracksuits hanging around Peninsula Square, rather than the usual spotty youths and tourists in Michael Jackson t-shirts. Some of the gymnasts were pulling suitcases, some babbling away in foreign, others merely looking disturbingly fit. A telltale laminated badge dangled from their clothing, distinguishing them from the mere spectators, friends and family. The latter could be seen hanging around outside the Warm Up tent in London Plaza, or nipping off to one of the multitude of restaurants for a nibble while their proteges prepared.

Outside the arena there were only a few nods to the presence of the world's best pommel-horsers and ring-hangers. Adidas had a stand near the entrance selling stripy lycra merchandise, and souvenir t-shirts were also available from stalls located in front of the void where the luxury casino isn't. Further round, near the bored-looking Herta hotdog sellers, security staff guarded a rare additional back-of-house exit. Outside the building, just out of view, taxis and coaches waited to whisk athletes and press back to wherever in not-Greenwich they were staying. But most excitingly, the barriers beyond the British Music Experience were down, allowing curious visitors a rare opportunity to wander into the Dome's undeveloped southwestern quadrant. No cafes here, nor overpriced exhibitions, just a curved pathway in a gaping void beneath the original tented ceiling. This route was open for access to media accreditation facilities, not that there was anybody around other than a cleaner, so I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the space as it used to be before the pizzerias invaded.

Without a ticket (what? £45!), I wasn't getting inside the main arena to watch the tumbling, flexing and rolling. So I wandered back outside instead for one of my favourite walks, around the circumference of the Dome2000 along the curving banks of the Thames. A lot of demolition's been going on along the western side of the Greenwich Peninsula, with the industrial area around Delta Wharf being rapidly reduced to heaps of unlovely rubble. A variegated trio of new-build office blocks near the QE2 pier gives some hint as to the ugliness of what might be replacing them. Round the back of the Ohtwo, one end of the millennial wetland garden has recently been turfed over to provide a helipad for visiting performers with tight schedules. I much preferred the long grasses and bullrushes, but needs must. And nearby, beyond the locked-away Greenwich Pavilion, somebody has shifted a bench across the paved line that marks the Greenwich Meridian... Stop it, stop right there.
by tube: North Greenwich

Somewhere sporty: The Valley
The ValleySomewhat unexpectedly, Greenwich boasts a surprisingly high number of sporty locations. The Royal Blackheath Golf Club is the oldest golf club in the world (caveats and qualifications apply) and Blackheath Rugby Club is similarly the oldest public rugby team (ditto). Arsenal FC were founded in deepest Woolwich (been there, blogged that). And competition for the 2012 Olympics will take place not just in "North Greenwich Arena 1" but also, controversially, in Greenwich Park and at Woolwich Barracks. So much choice. But on a mid-season footballing Saturday there was only one place to go, and that was the home ground of Charlton Athletic.

It's called The Valley for a reason - the surrounding land really does slope down from surrounding heights, so the stadium's fairly well hidden if you don't know where to look. It stands on the site of a levelled chalk quarry, now engulfed by a sea of surrounding terraced and council housing. The pitch is surrounded by a red and grey construction with a web of metal poles perched on top, augmented by a giant club badge slapped onto the front wall of the north stand. The team's not always been based here, in particular exiled for a lengthy spell to Selhurst Park two decades ago while The Valley fell to rack and ruin. But the place has perked up rather since, and yesterday it was the scene of a mighty top-of-the-table Division One clash.

I turned up mid-morning, well before the earliest spectators arrived, but the ground (and street outside) were already a hotbed of crucial pre-match action. Several stocky black-suited blokes were massing by the East Stand turnstiles, preparing to do whatever men in black suits do at football clubs. Security, or stewarding, or selling Courage Best - something like that. Other lesser folk stood around in fluorescent orange tabards, waiting to direct a crowd that wouldn't be arriving for several hours, and waving in the Huddersfield Town team coach through the stadium gates. Charlton's official doughnut van had been wheeled into position beneath the giant club badge, while a gaggle of burger trolleys stood idling off-road waiting to have their spitting grills fired up. A girl in a white trailer looked nearly ready to serve up her first hotdog of the day, but there were no queues as yet for her one-quid cups of steaming Bovril. Over at the Charlton Athletic Superstore, a fresh delivery of krbs-sponsored kit arrived in the back of a UPS van. But this early in the day, apart from myself, the only unpaid passer-by was a black cat darting through the pedestrian arches beneath the nearby railway. It brought good luck for Charlton who, by five in the afternoon, were celebrating being back on the top of Division One. Ah, for a return to the golden days when CAFC being in the First Division really meant something.
by train: Charlton   by bus: 380, 486

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