diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 08, 2014

A walk around Albertopolis, Kensington's museum district. A walk down the Longford River near Hampton Court. A walk through Bexley village, on the Cray. And not just London - Dartmoor, Durham and the Wirral too.

They're all part of Discovering Britain, a treasure trove of walks that's free to download, created by the Royal Geographical Society. Wherever you are in the UK, from Margate to Belfast, there'll be one near you.
"Discovering Britain is an exciting series of geographically-themed walks that aim to bring these stories alive and to inspire everyone to explore and learn more about Britain. Depending on your pace, most walks take between two and three hours. The urban walks are normally no more than two miles long while those in the countryside or at the seaside are somewhere between two and eight miles long. Some walks are along very easy terrain while others are a little more challenging, so check the level indicated for each walk."
I thought I'd try Deptford. I don't know the area as well as I should, but it has lots of history, not all of it obliterated. The walk's called District 45, a chance to "travel back in time to London’s Deptford 100 years ago" - a 2½ walk from the High Street to the Thames and back.

Various resources were available to help me along the way. An online map to check the route, complete with 21 pins showing points of interest. A gpx file, in case my device finds that more useful instead. An image gallery to see what I might be enjoying. And a pdf booklet with directions and a shedload of background history and useful weblinks, which is 40 (FORTY) pages long. Someone's put a lot of effort into all this, although possibly too much because I didn't fancy printing out forty pages of rainforest for half an afternoon's stroll. So instead I went for the audio file option, that's 21 mp3 files in a zip folder, the idea being to listen and enjoy on the way round. It took me the best part of an hour to get the tracks onto my iPhone in a locatable manner, in the course of which I discovered I needed to print out a separate 16 page document or I'd not have the directions. I couldn't possibly describe the entire set-up as straight-forward, but was hopeful that the resulting experience would be rich.

The starting point for this walk is "the large anchor at the end of Deptford High Street, SE8 4AD", which is already a problem because "note: In 2013 the council put the anchor in storage during improvement works to the High Street; whether ot not it will return is unknown." It's not back yet. Instead the High Street, on a non-market day at least, is a raw chain-free shopping street that needs a commentary to bring it to life. The theme of the walk is Deptford at the time of Charles Booth's 1899 poverty map, with plenty of first hand extracts from his notes to flesh things out along the way. Prepare to listen to a lot about what things used to look like, even when there's nothing left of what he saw.

The walk soon heads off up a backstreet, nowhere any normal guided tour would venture, to track down the site of a former ragged school. But by this point I was already struggling to connect what I was hearing with what I could see, a theme which continued at the next few stops beyond the railway, across the council estate and down to Deptford Creek. It was only at this point that I realised my smartphone was on shuffle and had been serving up random historical snippets rather than the sequential commentary intended. Nobody thought to number the tracks, you see, and I spent the rest of the walk repeatedly checking I was on the right track before pressing play.

An architectural treat, if 100 years too late for Charles Booth's pen, is the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, a translucent dance studio behind Teletubby hills. Rather more evocative are the old docks along the Thames foreshore, amply brought to life in the audio commentary, but long gone and now covered by flats. They're faceless flats too, bland late 20th century to the west of the Ravensbourne and fresh slums of the future to the east. The trail points out some unexpected survivors - a jetty, an amazing statue of Peter the Great and a hemmed-in part-medieval church where a stone marks the local death of playwright Christopher Marlowe. I missed the stone, alas - it wasn't in the commentary, only the 16 page instructions, so I only noticed when reading more carefully later.

The streetname Deptford Green merely hints at what this flat-packed neighbourhood must once have been, likewise the brick wall that once held back the cattle market - these amply described by Booth's turn of phrase. By this time the walk is nearly complete but there is the treat of Albury Street to go with its fine run of listed Stuart houses. Deptford would be much better known, and loved, were all its residential stock like this. I blew the finish because St Paul's churchyard was locked, so audio track number 21 played out beside a nailbar rather than at "the Pearl in the Heart of Deptford".

So, all in all, the Discovering Britain walk was a mostly worthwhile experience. I learnt a fair amount about Deptford, although the focus on 1899 meant I felt I barely scratched the surface. The physical highlights were rarer than I'd have liked, but the commentary helped to bring the intervening ordinariness to life. I suspect the trail is best followed on a tablet, with a big screen to show the 40 page document and map all the way round. But you have to admire the thorough research that's gone into this multimedia resource, and all the other geographical trails across the country. If you can cope with the technology, why not seek one out?

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