Sometimes you just want to go for a drab walk, nothing too exciting, a beast of a stroll, little to see, grim views, monstrous buildings, distant from public transport, no refreshment options, mildly risky, won't take long. So here's a cheerless mile and a half along the estuary east of Thamesmead, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a not nice walk all the same.
Let's start in Thamesmead at Cross Ness, a barely-perceptible headland on the inside of a slight bend on the Thames. Its chief distinguishing feature is a red lighthouse, or rather a metal tower with ladder access painted bright red with a lamp on top. Another of these old navigational signals shines forth at Tripcock Ness but we're not going in that direction, we're going east. A fascinating fact about Cross Ness is that it's the most northerly point in south London, beating Blackfriars, Rotherhithe and North Greenwich by about half a mile, thus considerably beyond any cabbie's remit. It's also one of the few spots on the upcoming walk where a grass track encourages you to leave the main path and explore the foreshore, but don't expect to get far.
If you choose to soak in the view, north London has been reduced to a thin stripe across the estuary sandwiched between heavy sky and choppy grey water. Upstream the outlying suburb of Barking Riverside is taking shape atop a spoilheap, while downstream the banks are almost entirely industrial with bulk silos for liquid storage, lengthy sheds, heaps of aggregate and the occasional pier. Meanwhile on this southern side, screened behind stark concrete flood defences, we find the last outposts of the Thamesmead estate. Here urban planners designed a tortuous network of liminal cul-de-sacs, and a few 'lucky' souls on St Andrews Close get to look out across the estuary at all the gribbly stuff London needs but would rather not share. Even for Thamesmead this is living off the grid.
Then the houses stop, and indeed won't reappear for almost three miles because the south bank is full-on muckydustrial too. First up is a disused golf course because, unsurprisingly, estuarine Thamesmead proved a hard sell for Pringle-jumpered players so the nine holes closed in 2014. You won't see much of it but you will see the sign alongside welcoming you to the Ridgeway, the sewertop path that's southeast London's answer to Newham's Greenway. Were you seeking an alternative off-piste safari you could walk all the way to Plumstead, but we've only just started on this walk and that's still marginally more 'not nice' than the Ridgeway. Best commit now because the next escape point is a long way ahead.
Crossness Sewage Works is renowned amongst industrial archaeologists for its stupendous Victorian ironwork, but unfortunately the next Open Day's not until mid-March and you won't see anything amazing from the path. Instead you're about to be trapped behind an incredibly secure perimeter for half a mile, occasionally glimpsing pumping stations, blending tanks and sludge digesters through the fence. Here you'll find barriers to weave round, concrete ramps to climb and umpteen warning notices to read, possibly even a disturbing smell, because south London doesn't get to expel its excrement here without a grubby backside.
This is the Crossness Pathway, kindly opened by Thames Water in 2000 with cyclists and step-free access in mind. It may not be Thameside nirvana but it's much better than Beckton where you can't pass along the river at all. Expect to meet several joggers, but only keen ones because they must be on some phenomenal loop. Expect to meet several feral hounds, hopefully on a leash, because Thamesmead's residents believe in owning dogs of fearless character. Expect to meet several people carrying binoculars because the marsh/mud interface brims with seabirds at low tide. And expect to have to dodge out of the way once or twice while a youth on a motorbike buzzes by, probably helmetless, because this side of Bexley is very much unlike Sidcup.
The extraordinary silver building with a curvaceous chimney belching steam into the sky is the Crossness Sewage Incinerator. It's become a landmark on the estuarine horizon for miles since it was opened by Prince Philip in November 1998. Here raw sludge cake is combusted at temperatures up to 950°C, then cleaned of pollutants before being ejected, and however amazing it looks the underlying process is very much not nice. A sign here announces that you've just entered the Belvedere and Erith Marshes, although this may be hard to discern with so much waste-based infrastructure built across it. But a thin marshy strip survives between the incinerator and the next silver beast, which if you choose to step down leads inexorably into the Crossness Nature Reserve. I walked halfway in once and was dazzled by the bleak emptiness of the place, and would advise waiting for a less squidgy month before attempting to follow suit.
The next metal monster is the Riverside Resource Recovery Facility, a swoosh-topped chamber which turns London's waste into useful energy. A lot of this comes in by barge via the stonking great pier with its orange cranes, though hopefully not while you're here because that would block your onward progress. The RRRF generates up to 72 megawatts of electricity which is a dozen times better than the sludge incinerator, and is so successful that a second plant is just about to be built nextdoor, hopefully coming online in 2026. No authority would dare construct anything like this in Richmond or Wandsworth, but here in liminal Bexley there's plenty of space to hide all this and a whole lot more.
What's being hidden next is distribution centres. Most of the major supermarkets have huge logistical warehouses out here in the Erith hinterland where no customer will ever see them, including Ocado, Tesco, Ocado again and Asda. Closest to the river is Lidl who've recently added a second megashed fed by a sequence of numbered lorryports to help keep the Kent and South East region well stocked. Behind that is an Amazon depot from which spew forth dozens of delivery vans at unnervingly regular intervals, because all that stuff that arrives on your doorstep has to be despatched from somewhere. I often smile at the fact that this area is called Belvedere because scenic it definitely ain't.
I've chosen to end my walk here because a mile and a half is enough misery for anyone, but however you choose to proceed you're going to have to walk a lot further to reach non-industrial civilisation. The normal continuation is to bend south along the Thames Path past more sheds and silos until you ultimately reach Erith, enjoying wheeling seabirds, acres of estuarine mud and downbeat views of Rainham across the water. Or you can divert inland down Crabtree Manorway past commercial fortresses, potholed drives and hoodied minimum-wagers until TfL eventually deign to provide a bus stop. And whilst some will argue that the walk from Thamesmead has been invigoratingly panoramic and stimulatingly bleak, your average Londoner is never coming all this way, not when it's as not nice as this.