diamond geezer

 Monday, July 07, 2014

It is ridiculously difficult to cross the Thames by road in East London. There are no bridges along the 15 mile stretch from the City to the Dartford Crossing. There are only two tunnels, one at Rotherhithe and one at Blackwall, on either side of the Isle of Dogs. And there's a dinky little ferry at Woolwich, which tries its best but can't keep up with demand. It is therefore a no-brainer that more river crossings are needed, which is why TfL are today launching a consultation for more.

One of these is the Thames Gateway Bridge from Beckton to Thamesmead - a project which, like Crossrail, has been on London's drawing board for decades. It appears in the Abercrombie Plan of 1944, then again in the aborted Ringway projects of the 1960s. In the 1990s it came close to being built, but protesters objected strongly to a link road being driven through Oxleas Wood and the project was dropped. Ken Livingstone brought the plans back ten years ago, with special lanes for public transport, but Boris scrapped the idea on cost grounds when he became Mayor. More recently a Gallions Ferry was suggested as a replacement for Woolwich, but the public laughed at that idea and said "but why can't we have a bridge?" So now Boris is all keen again, despite local opposition, and today's consultation looks likely to lead to eventual completion.

Being a long standing scheme, the Thames Gateway Bridge has one enormous plus - nothing needs to get knocked down. Indeed most of the main roads on either side of the crossing have been built already, with connecting infrastructure ready and waiting should the Thames span ever be built. To the north, slip roads and a flyover exist on Royal Docks Road to give traffic from the North Circular a clear run. A diagonal strip of land lies empty to the south of the DLR depot on Armada Way, which'd join up with Atlantis Avenue before launching into space. And on the opposite side there's absolutely nothing, just a vast former waste tip, previously part of the Woolwich Arsenal's gunpowder testing grounds. Another clear strip of undeveloped land runs between existing estates to join up with what could be a major roundabout to the north of Plumstead. Everything is lined up ready, at least for the bridge itself. [11 photos]

Before the bridge arrives, if indeed it does, its southern end is a remarkably remote spot. A string of flats runs along the waterfront from Woolwich, becoming increasingly less expensive as the curve continues. This is the unloved West Thamesmead development, built about 20 years later than the rest of Thamesmead, and geographically entirely separate. The 380 bus wiggles round the top end of this amenity-free estate, or you can save your money by lugging carrier bags of groceries home up the Thames Path to your designated box. The final block is Bridge House, named after the road that doesn't yet exist, and currently with a large England flag draped from one balcony. Living here ought to be really quiet, except the block lies directly below the flightpath for City Airport, so planes on approach come screaming overhead at annoying regular intervals.

After Bridge House the land opens out, first with a cultivated green strip which will one day be Gallions Reach Park. Not to be confused with the shopping centre of the same name, this reclaimed ecopark includes 800 trees and five conical-shaped hillocks to add character. It ought to be a pleasant place for recreation, except three years after its creation it's still undergoing a "period of establishment", and remains firmly fenced, gated and locked. All looked fine to me, and a woeful waste of resources, but maybe the developers are worried local youth might overrun the place and decapitate the saplings. Having observed a few, they might just be right.

And beyond the thin park, wilderness. The Thames Path runs ahead towards Tripcock Ness with woody waterfront to one side and fenced-off thicket on the other. Acres and acres of former waste dump are covered by undergrowth currently dripping with purple blooms, so much so that if Buddleia World was ever a viable theme park, this would be the perfect spot. This is also very much the foxes' domain - three eyed me up as I walked along the path, and I heard more cavorting beyond. And it's along the precise line where park becomes overgrown thicket that the Thames Gateway Bridge would be built. The roadway has to pass high enough that ships can pass underneath, so I suspect the riverside path would survive, but what a difference from today to have concrete and traffic soaring overhead.

For the best view, head back to the housing estate and find Gallions Hill. This is a high mound of recycled excavated material, rising way above rooftop level, with a spiral path leading gently up from street level. More adventurous souls, and one suspects every local child, much prefer the "straight up the side" route, stepping over low rails and a bench to reach the summit. I was fortunate and got the hilltop to myself, while a gang of lads mustered in a front garden below and a youth in trackie bottoms played a game resembling football with two bull terriers. And the 360° view was truly excellent, that is assuming you like flat estuarine views of residential and light industrial sprawl. Downstream is Thamesmead proper, with Rainham and Erith in the distance, and to one side the wooded scarp of Lesnes Abbey Woods. Upstream are Woolwich and Docklands, with a sea of intermittent tower blocks rising across the less glamorous half of Royal Greenwich. And to the north is that undeveloped strip of green, where one day could run the approach road to East London's first bridge.

It sounds too good an opportunity to miss, the chance to link communities and businesses across the Thames, and no doubt that's what TfL's consultation will find. But there is a catch, and it's the same catch that derailed the very same bridge 20 years ago, which is traffic. Although the existing road network on the northern side of the Thames should be resilient enough to absorb the considerable additional throughflow which would be generated, the road network to the south is insufficient. Sure there's a decent dual carriageway off towards Erith, and thence to Dartford, but no such speedy getaway exists through Plumstead. Traffic heading for south London and in particular the A2 would enter a grid of entirely unsuitable local roads, which would then mean greatly increased congestion and air pollution... or would require a massive bypass. Will the road lobby force through their bridge and damn the consequences, or will narrow streets and ancient woodland once again hold them back?

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