diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 03, 2011

Random borough (29): Bexley (part 1)

Bexley's a sprawling patch of suburbia on the southeastern edge of London. Its elder residents remember when it was part of Kent, and wish it still was. Three trunk roads and three railway lines make it easy to travel across the borough, but not down. It's green, spacious and comfortable. And because I've been studiously avoiding the borough for the last seven years, waiting for it to emerge from my jamjar, there was much to see. And much to recommend.

Somewhere famous: Thamesmead South
Even if you've never been to Thamesmead (and there are good reasons why not), you've probably seen it on screen. Four droogs walking along the water's edge in A Clockwork Orange, that was Thamesmead. Stanley Kubrick choreographed his bowler-hatted thugs a-strolling, a-fighting and a-knifing along the "flat-block marina" of the South Mere [video]. Jonathan Harvey set Beautiful Thing in neighbouring Tavy Bridge, including a liquid tussle off the very same promenade. More recently C4 series Misfits has taken up residence amidst the lakeside concrete, with various moody shots of grumpy asbo teens in orange jumpsuits staring out across the water. That's Thamesmead South, that is.

The estate was built in the late 1960s as a supposedly utopian overspill community. The earliest parts are modernist brutalist, with a peculiar layout of geometric flats and 12-storey tower blocks [photo]. Pedestrians make their way around on raised walkways, through a maze of passageways, piazzas and platforms [photo]. The architects thought it would be cohesive, whereas it hasn't quite turned out that way. Most of the shops near the lake are shuttered and empty, while the local pubs have all the appeal (from the outside) of a lock-up garage. Even today, four full decades after residents moved in, the best option for jobs and services remains to get on a bus and get the hell out.

But on a sunny morning, South Mere's almost pleasant. Past the health centre, beneath the flats on stilts [photo], and you step out onto the same concrete promenade that milk-drinker Alex strutted down [photo]. No threats, no danger, unless a bike mows you down or a swan hops out of the water. There are even a couple of sailing boats moored up belonging to the local watersports centre, it's all very civilised [photo]. Further round is the Misfits youth centre, in fact the Lakeside Bar. From a distance it could be a 60s boathouse - from closer up a concrete bunker [photo]. The terrace is all locked up before opening time, but that doesn't stop the evening's clientèle standing patiently in the car park with their faithful hounds.

Further round the view improves somewhat with the raised contours of Southmere Park. It looks like the spoil from digging out the artificial lake, piled up with a skin of turf, but that's much better than another long edge of flats [photo]. Tethered horses graze the slopes - it seems Bexley has more than its fair share of tethered horses [photo]. And then back to the tower blocks and the concrete, with two long parallel promenades between the downstairs kitchens and the duck-topped lake. You can see why film makers are drawn here, because there's nowhere quite so scenically dystopian anywhere else in London. As Alex might have said, it's funny how the colours of the screen only seem really real when you viddy them in the real world.
by train: Abbey Wood   by bus: 177, 180, 229, 244, 401, B11

Somewhere random: Crayford Marsh
Last year I walked the Thames Path from Woolwich to Erith. Yesterday I walked the last bit, the final two miles east, to the very edge of London. And yes, it was as delightfully bleak as you might expect. I kicked off from Erith jetty, where it's still possible to walk out into the middle of the Thames across an expanse of tidal mud, then past Erith Deep Water Pier, ditto. There's not much riverside walk for the first mile - the path swiftly shifted inland behind a protective barrier of warehouses, scrap metal merchants and car washes. But then, oh yes, out onto a sinuous path by the yacht club, and it was wilderness all the way [photo]. The path follows the breakwater which divides Erith Saltings on the riverward side from the pasture inland. This is the largest fragment of salt marsh in London, which to be honest isn't difficult, and hides the remains of an ancient forest if you know where to look. It's also quite dangerous, but only because the path is a favourite haunt of local speed merchants on mini motorbikes.

The Thames turns at Crayford Ness [photo], beneath a rotating radar beacon, before passing the mouth of the River Darent a few hundred yards later. This is as far east as south London goes, with a fine view ahead (if you like that sort of thing) of Littlebrook Power Station and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge [photo]. There's a matching footpath on the Kentish side, but that's impossible to reach on foot without taking a four mile detour inland. The Darent's lower reaches are guarded by a massive flood barrier, its 160-tonne gates protecting a considerable 'at risk' area beyond [photo]. And just where you might expect to find nothing but marsh, Bexley council have squeezed in an extensive industrial estate, out of sight and mind of all but the hardiest walkers. A lot of it seems to involve piled-up metal such as containers or scrap vehicles (either pre- or post-rust), plus the sort of lock-up warehouses where men in white vans come to do business. Not everyone in London goes to work in the City amid gleaming skyscrapers - these low-key commercial plots are the peripheral reality for many.

Watch out, here come the mini motorbikes again. They have a clear run down the Darent, with nothing but grass and wildlife to disturb all the way down to the dual carriageway viaduct. This footpath's actually the opening shot of the London Loop - has been since Erith - and brave ramblers can continue through Crayford on a complete 150 mile circuit of the capital. I veered off instead at the first available opportunity, up an unlikely country lane lined with thickets and blossom. Off to one side is a scheduled ancient monument, Howbury Moat, whose waters date back more than a millennium. Only the square outer wall of the medieval manor house still stands, that and the Jacobean tithe barn beyond. The cottages here mark the edge of Slade Green, Bexley's easternmost settlement, which grew up to serve the adjacent rail depot when the railways came. Not the residential hellhole I'd been led to believe, but still very much a settlement living on the edge.
by train: Erith, Slade Green   by bus: 99

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