At the end of 2018, Abbey Wood will be one of the stations on the first section of Crossrail to officially open. More specifically it'll be the farthest station from central London, straddling the boundary between Greenwich and Bexley, three stops from Canary Wharf and nine from Paddington. The arrival of the Elizabeth line will lob a financial grenade into the local housing market, and open up an underappreciated part of town. I went specifically for the bluebells.
It would be true to say that the new Abbey Wood station is not yet ready, nor anywhere near being so. A series of construction zones have been cleared, some with the direct aim of doubling the number of platforms, others for the eventual erection of a brand new station building. This will squat above the tracks like a sleek silver spearhead and link to the bus stops on the concrete overpass, which is currently only accessible via an awkwardly convoluted alternative route. Two broad strips of sand pass through the station where the two new tracks are going to be, ultimately creating one island platform for Crossrail and another for existing North Kent services. A hard hat army are hard at work, not just at the station but along the tracks leading from the tunnel portal near Plumstead, and clearing space further on past Abbey Wood too. But if all goes to plan the fit-out will be complete by the end of next year, allowing Crossrail to run test trains we can all stare at and wish they'd bloody well hurry up and let us use.
What you won't be doing, any time soon, is visiting Abbey Wood for its cosmopolitan retail offerings. The adjacent shopping parade is a little down at heel, as befits what you'd expect beside a minor unregarded station, a takeaways and bookies kind of street where you can drop off your dry cleaning and pop in for a spray tan. And there's nothing wrong with that, indeed this part of London reeks affordability, at least for now. But there's evidence of the first shoots of change just up the road where a giant Sainsbury's has crashlanded, and a single nine-storey block of flats has appeared. In many other parts of London its brown and black brick façade would look perfectly normal, indeed blandly typical, but here it stands out as a first encroachment amongst the lowrise sixties concrete homes, a developer-led Crossrail-fuelled virus that can only spread.
The top places to go in Abbey Wood, if you're dropping in for a visit, are the abbey and the wood. The Abbey is Lesnes Abbey, the wood has the same name, and both are situated a short but not entirely welcoming walk away from the station. The abbey lasted from 1178 to 1524, when it became one of the first monasteries to be dissolved by Henry VIII, and now only a footprint of the ruins remains. They're quite extensive, and freely accessible amid a daisy-dotted lawn, though Bexley Council would rather you didn't clamber on the walls thank you very much.
The council know they have a good thing here and are nearing the end of a two year Enhancement Project to upgrade the facilities on site. There used to be an ageing information centre alongside, more a shed with a few boards locked inside but that was demolished a couple of years back and a larger swooshing replacement is nearly ready. This community hub should have opened last year, so don't turn up yet expecting refreshments and public conveniences to be available. Neither can you yet get back inside the Monk's Garden, sealed off while gardeners wheel plants and soil into position, although it looks like it'll be a more than pleasant resource once it's complete.
Permanently fenced off above all these is a mulberry tree reputedly from the time of James I. Its age is the reason for its low-level segregation, and for a series of posts propping up the heavier twistier more fragile branches. Meanwhile, further up the slope, a landscaped viewpoint is taking shape. Before long it'll have three 'stone' arched windows you can line up in photos, either of yourself or of the view, but for now only a low serpentine wall and some paving is in place. The view's very good though, looking down across the abbey towards the spires of central London, or over the grass towards the towers of Thamesmead. That's assuming you like looking at regimented brutalist estates, but I have to say, in the early May sunshine this one looked really rather fine.
And yes, bluebells. Lesnes Abbey Woods lie immediately behind the abbey, and they're thick with them. Three separate sections of woodland are lightly fenced off to provide secure havens for wild flowers, and at this time of year they really come into their own. Shady glades and ferny slopes are thick with blooms, quite enough to satisfy the most demanding bluebell lover. They line the other paths too, of which there are many, for this is a hugely extensive greenspace. It's wildly undulating too, with a host of footpaths threading up and down and through, all ripe for exploration and enjoyment. Take the right path and you'll stumble across the Fossil Bed, an extraordinarily rich repository of 55-million-year-old bones and sharks' teeth. This too is sealed off at the moment, while a few low-key visitor facilities are added, the most obvious of which is a sculpted wooden coryphodon.
So if you visit Abbey Wood today, go for the bluebells, which are splendid. If you come after the flowers have faded, go for the woods, which are splendid. If you come later in the summer, go for the Abbey and its surroundings, which should have been fully upgraded by August, and will be splendid. If you fancy extending your trip I can recommend a ramble along the Green Chain, perhaps along the ridge to Erith or more intriguingly down to explore the spectacle of Thamesmead. And if you'd rather wait until 2018, simply to see what's at the end of the line, rest assured there's rather more of interest around here than you might think.