I'm making an east-west cross-London journey along the 51½th line of latitude, and for my second post have awkwardly relocated across the Thames from Havering to Bexley. The line's uncompromising alignment means that much of today's journey is across Thamesmead, you lucky people, but first there's some unattractive estuarine hinterland to tackle. [map][photos]
Belvedere Industrial Estate [51.5°N 0.170°E]
One thing about the Thames in outer East London is quite how much low-level commercial activity there is. The river is wide enough for 'neighbours' on the opposite bank not to be disturbed, so all the essential mucky infrastructure which keeps the capital ticking over is sprawled out across huge expanses of former marshland. The Belvedere Industrial Estate is a case in point, covering an approximately triangular slice on an inside bend between the Erith Oil Works and the Crossness sewage plant. My target is one particular jetty south of Jenningtree Point, which despite being on the Thames Path is annoyingly hard to reach as the estate permits no river access except at either end. I climb up to the top of the concrete battlements, then weave round thickly grooved muddy beaches to the rear of sheds and depots, until I'm finally opposite where I was two hours before.
Here at Mulberry Wharf I find a rare gate in the river defences, painted with yellow and black chevrons, firmly shut and overseen by CCTV and spotlights. Behind the iron bars sit maintenance trucks, caravans and a man in a forklift surrounded by pallets, while a thin pipe bends over the footpath to feed the padlocked jetty. This is T-shaped and mostly concrete, although one arm consists of two metal gantries to nowhere, linked via a central pillar. The surface is crumbly and overgrown, the only signs of activity being a rusty hopper connected up to a blue tube, and a couple of bright orange lifebelt holders, at least one of which is empty. Buddleia overspills the path. A cyclist careers by. The tide is sludge-low.
The top corner of Bexley, where land is cheap, has proven the ideal location for numerous logistics hubs and Customer Fulfilment Centres. Lidl dispense your shopping orders from a huge depot backing onto the river, Amazon distribute from a site on Crabtree Manorway, Tesco's Dotcom Centre is a bit nearer Erith, and Ocado have by far the most gigantic warehouse of all. As for Asda's CDC, their white fortresses lie slap bang across 51½°N on Norman Road, and that's where I'm heading next.
Crossness Nature Reserve [51.5°N 0.151°E]
A large portion of the Erith Marshes remain somehow undeveloped, including this 60 acre site to the east of the Crossness sewage works. A rare reedbed haven, it's half private courtesy of Thames Water, and half accessible via an unpromising footpath link from Norman Road. A minute up the track I disturb a heron at close quarters amid the rushes, which flies off majestically followed by several startled waterfowl. I soon find myself in the middle of a scrappy field grazed by shaggy horses, who eye me up from a safe distance, while the Bexley Incinerator dominates the near horizon and thistledown drifts across a barbed wire fence. I feel distinctly uncomfortable, rather than at one with nature, and retreat from the field just before a man with a van drives in and greets me with a suspicious smile.
South Mere [51.5°N 0.123°E]
Most of Thamesmead is relentless housing estate, or empty, but I've hit the jackpot and arrived at its most famous landscape feature, South Mere lake. This is where C4's Misfits was filmed, and Beautiful Thing, and a particularly dystopian Stanley Kubrick classic. To the east of the lake is Southmere Park, littered with goose-droppings and abandoned barbecues by the water's edge, but increasingly bleak and paddocky on the extensive flatlands beyond. It seems a minor planning miracle that nobody's covered this underused recreational wilderness with a thousand homes, and equally remarkable that the 51½°N line of latitude has yet to hit a single residential building, even four miles inside the capital. We're about to change that.
Binsey Walk was the location of one of A Clockwork Orange's most famous scenes, as Alex and his droogs strut along the edge of Southmere Lake before being booted, submerged and sliced. A single row of flats with staggered concrete balconies overlooks a stepped waterside promenade, where any 21st century hoodlum could don a bowler hat and codpiece and... oh hang on, it's been fenced off! A blue hoarding juts out just far enough to prevent even acrobatic access, while the swans brooding on the overgrown promenade suggest that this is no recent development. Another film location bites the dust.
These famous flats, along with the majority of the original Tavy Bridge neighbourhood, are being demolished and rebuilt in modern vernacular. The shopping parade is part of Phase I, where wealthier incomers will get the waterfront block while denser affordable apartments are packed in behind (including ground floor homes for the first time following the relaxation of flood-risk regulations). Binsey Walk is scheduled for later, but has already been decanted, with access to its upper walkways permanently blocked and several of its net-curtained windows either smashed or boarded up. It should be good news for the 'temporary' portakabin library and the gutted Lakeside social centre, but what's planned is a strip ofidentikit buildings no location scout would ever pick for a movie.
Birchmere [51.5°N 0.106°E]
Across the dividing line of Harrow Manorway, Thamesmead is younger, and less iconic, and belongs to Greenwich. This is also where the 51½th parallel crosses the massive sewer and dual carriageway which divides Thamesmead more physically, and makes a beeline for further open space. The eastern end of Birchmere Park consists of recreational glades, the central section is 100% grass and the western end boasts a twelve acre landscaped lake (which is the hub of all the waterway corridors hereabouts). I follow a typical family on their journey through; a bullet-headed Dad leading an unwilling hound, a young son driving a miniature red car, and an elder daughter being shouted at when all she was trying to do was follow instructions. They stop to feed the geese, beside two cannons left behind to remind residents that this used to be Woolwich's firing range, while a pair of weary anglers wait for this cacophony to pass.
I find to my cost that there is no pedestrian connection between the two estates beyond Central Way, the intermediate wasteland awaiting massive redevelopment after the Gallions Reach Crossing one day, maybe, leaps off the drawing board. The yellowbrick houses along Newmarsh Road aren't ageing well, and some owners aren't taking as much care of their properties as others, so I'd say this faded enclave has future slum written all over it.
Thamesmead West [51.5°N 0.090°E]
Zero points to the planners who named this disconnected estate after a neighbourhood centre they can't easily reach. Conveniently located only for staff at Belmarsh prison, this labyrinth of flats andtownhouses is enlivened only by an artificial hill added in an attempt to give the place some character, and a landscaped drainage channel. I descend a set of log steps to the one wooden pontoon the ducks haven't occupied, while a total handful of a boy rides over the footbridge in a state of midsummer agitation. If you live round here, the Princess Alice is your sole pub/carvery option, a cheerless building named after a local mass drowning. If you don't live round here, and aren't called for jury service at Woolwich Crown Court, I suspect it's best avoided.
Gallions Reach [51.5°N 0.084°E]
51½°N has hit the Thames again, at one of the first East London locations where private developers thought high rise living might be a good idea. Now Woolwich is getting in on the act, big-time, but here we are a mile downstream on a godforsaken bend where many of the first residents weren't as happy as they might have been. But the Royal Arsenal development has tugged the place somewhat closer to the action, and Crossrail may be the breath of life everybody needs. I watch, perturbed, as a local family ascend to the highest point on the river wall and their youngest child announces "I can see the sea!" Newham's a fair way across the water, as well as where all those noisy planes are landing, but City Airport's hardly overseas.