diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 16, 2017

7 Woolwich
It's week seven of my year-long project, and so far all my visits have been confined to three distinct geographical clusters. Today I'm heading back to riverside southeast London, to the former Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, which since 1900 had been the most stuck-out part of the County of London. It comprised the southern and eastern parts of the current Royal Borough of Greenwich, plus an anomalous bump north of the Thames around North Woolwich. I've chosen to walk an elevated footpath between Plumstead and Thamesmead - the Ridgeway - because criminally I never have before. And, golly.

The Ridgeway (2½ miles)

Every time you flush your toilet across a large part of South London, your bowlsworth makes its way through a network of Victorian sewers to the sewage treatment works at Crossness. At Plumstead the tributary sewers combine and rise above ground before heading in a straight line across the marshes, which were almost entirely undeveloped when Joseph Bazalgette delivered his plan in the 1860s. It was only in 1991 that Thames Water decided to open up the embankment covering the Southern Outfall Sewer to pedestrians and cyclists, adding arched entrances and motorbike-proof gates to create an elevated promenade from Plumstead to the sewage works. It's very similar to the Greenway atop the Northern Outfall Sewer in Newham, except this southern twin has been named the Ridgeway.

The western entrance lurks unappealingly down a spiral ramp beyond a concrete flyover opposite Plumstead station. Here to welcome you are a tipped-up traffic cone and several split bags of rubbish, but don't let that put you off proceeding along the edge of a self-storage depot and up a zigzag to the sewertop. Greenwich council realised the Ridgeway had an image problem back in 2014, and have recently completed an upgrade of access points, signage and surfacing. The path used to be grassed and occasionally boggy, but is now a wider gravelled stripe stretching off in to the distance, and far more likely somewhere you might take for a shortcut.

The main plus point of a walk on a major sewer is being six metres higher than the surrounding landscape. This means an enhanced view of southeast London, specifically Plumstead, more specifically the semi-industrialised sector to the east of Plumstead, which it has to be said is more atmospheric than pretty. Down to the right is a Crossrail worksite with stacked sleepers and corrals of coiled cable, plus a car spares unit intriguingly named Megabug. Down to the left are auto repair centres, levelled warehouses, and the HQ of England's oldest drinking water cooler specialist. And that brick fortress you can see nudging up beyond is Belmarsh prison, behind whose walls Jeffrey Archer and numerous other high risk male prisoners have been confined.

Blimey, this path is straight. There are also very few access points, meaning the next set of steep steps down to reality can be some distance away, adding to a general feeing of unease. Greenwich's latest upgrade has addressed this by installing a series of security cameras along the way, whopping great monsters on thick black poles, ruthlessly scanning the neighbourhood for misdemeanour. Some have a button at footpath level labelled Help Point, which you can press if a hooded knifeman or pack of feral Staffies approach too close, although during half term the biggest risk is being brushed aside by a phalanx of pre-adolescent cyclists.

White Hart Avenue is the first of only three roads which cross the Ridgeway, this via a flyover, providing a welcome breakpoint. On the far side stands the Plumstead phone mast, and a three-storey block marking the walk's first residential outpost on the edge of the Abbey Road Estate. Sewell Road runs parallel to the sewer all the way up to the borough boundary, faced by outstandingly ordinary flats and terraced houses, and with sets of battered garages nudged up against the embankment. On the opposite side are Greenwich's recycling centre and dustcart depot, because why wouldn't you hide these in Thamesmead, before the Western Way dual carriageway sidles up and roars behind a screen of poplars.

At regular intervals a small square concrete platform hangs out to the side of the embankment, originally constructed to provide access to inspection hatches, now part-fenced with railings lest anyone get the wrong idea and jump. Aside from this the banks are steep and often brambly, suggesting considerable potential for autumn harvest, with discarded cans and clothing chucked in for good measure. But hang on, the chain of security cameras has suddenly ceased, as if Greenwich council ran out of money or wasn't interested in surveilling the residential section, so for the half mile beyond the pumping station you are completely on your own. Thankfully I only met a well-behaved hound and a couple of tokers, so I was fine.

Harrow Manorway marks the dividing line between Greenwich and Bexley, originally an invisible north-south boundary across the marshes, now more administratively significant. The Ridgeway skulks beneath a low concrete slab to enter the centre of the roundabout above, where a swirly blue sculpture has been placed to provide a moment of wonder. Local residents generally disregard the sewertop path, despite two welcoming arches, preferring to cut straight across the Eastern Way footbridge or down past the library on more useful journeys. By rights I shouldn't be going any further either, because the remainder of the walk takes me out of my chosen borough, but I needed to see this through.

The Bexley section of the Ridgeway is very different, because it's what the entire elevated footpath used to look like before Greenwich threw some money at their end. That means it's all grass, not wheel-friendly gravel, with a narrow perhaps-underused track worn down the middle. Past the shell of the Lakeside Bar someone's been hard at work hacking away all the trees and undergrowth on one side, leaving a barren bank and an open vista down to the shores of Thamesmead's big lake. I've walked around Southmere several times without ever realising this sewertop walk was here, as I suspect have many others.

But the elevated section doesn't last long. At Eastern Way the pipes duck beneath the viaduct with almost no headroom, perhaps just enough to crawl, while the main path slopes down to one side and all useful signage unhelpfully disappears. The way ahead is broad but messy, littered with cans and ashes and several telltale piles of horse dung. Close by is a notice stuck up on behalf of Thames Water warning that any horses or ponies grazing on this site last weekend would be removed and either rehomed or sold at auction - a warning that must have been either enacted or heeded. Meanwhile up at the top of the bank is the main entrance to the Crossness treatment works, which is another reason why the footpath can no longer follow the pipes.

So the walk ends with a peculiar shunt through a gap in the fence to follow the edge of a landscaped open space. If it looks contoured and scenic, that's because it used to be a 9 hole golf course until economic reality caught up with this Thamesmead fantasy back in 2014. It's a bit muddy to start, but the willowy pools have matured nicely, and I loved watching a heron swooping up from the large pond and circling overhead. One last archway leads out to the Thames, roughly opposite Ford's Dagenham works, where the Ridgeway path concludes. Head left for Thamesmead and 'civilisation', or right for a walk past the sewage works... which is absolutely fascinating, but not for here.

» Here's what a walk along the Ridgeway looks like in summer
» 2011 Resonance FM podcast on walking the Ridgeway
» 12 Flickr photos (not all the same as those posted above)

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