Greenhithe to Woolwich - April 24th 2022
The final section of the England Coast Path part of my Sea to Source challenge was from Greenhithe to Woolwich. The highlight today would undoubtedly be walking under the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge that carries the southbound M25 over the Dartford Crossing. Northbound traffic crosses under the river through the 2 Dartford Tunnels. No disrespect meant but the low point today would be the almost 2 hours of walking alongside the rivers Darent and Cray, simply to cross from one side of the Dartford Creek Barrier to the other – a width of maybe 60 yards!
So, on a beautiful spring Sunday morning I caught the train (well 3 actually) from Huntingdon to Greenhithe and by 10:15 I was back where I’d left the path earlier in the week, by the side of a very large Asda. 2 tankers were unloading at Navigator Terminals Thames on the opposite side of the river. Navigator claims to be the largest bulk liquid terminal in the UK by throughput volume. The concrete towers and steel cables of the QEII Bridge looked amazing against the blue sky and to my right were the 2 giant pylons carrying the 400kv Thames Crossing power lines. Happy days!!
After less than 1 mile I was standing underneath the QEII bridge. Compared to some of the bridges I’d walked under along the Thames Path, this gives the impression of being quite a slender bridge due to its height and the fact that it ‘only’ carries 4 lanes of traffic. It is a very attractive bridge close up.
After passing a giant Amazon distribution centre and a Thames Water sewage treatment plant, suddenly the landscape on my side of the river changed completely as the path entered Dartford Marshes; it all looked quite remote. In the near distance I could see Dartford Creek Barrier. What hit me, thankfully not literally, was the incessant noise of shooting, which I now know emanated from a nearby clay pigeon shooting club and a separate shotgun and pistol club.
The Dartford Creek Barrier has an important role to play in the flood defences of Dartford and Crayford. It was built in 1981 across the mouth of the River Darent to reduce flood risk from the Thames Estuary. The flood risk arises because the floodplains of the rivers Darent and its tributary the Cray lie below the maximum tidal height of the Thames. Unlike the much better known Thames Barrier at Woolwich, the Dartford Creek Barrier could never be accused of being a thing of beauty; it is a brutally, utilitarian structure. It comprises 2 metal gates, each about 30 metres x 5 metres that when lowered, sit on top of one another and form a barrier across the Darent. The gates are supported between concrete towers that contain water-filled counterbalance weights and a chain driven mechanism for raising and lowering the gates.
In order to continue upstream alongside the Thames, ideally there would either be a footbridge across the mouth of the Darent, or the barrier itself would provide a pedestrian crossing. However, neither of these is the case nor likely to be anytime soon and instead, the path continues down alongside the Darent before coming back up the Cray and the other side of the Darent. Whilst I describe this as a low point, I know I shouldn’t really because in so doing I’m looking at is as a detour along the Thames Path, whereas this is a part of the England Coast Path. Anyway, I made my way down the Darent, which in some places looked almost dry enough to cross on foot – although I know this would have ended in tears if I’d tried.
When I reached the bridge carrying the very busy A206, I made a sizeable mistake. Instead of using the bridge to cross the Darent and double back on myself to the Cray, I must have missed a sign and ended up walking alongside the A206 to a roundabout in Barnes Cray, where I then got myself back on track again. It wasn’t the end of the world but it served to lower my spirits a little! So, following the new blue & white signs, the path continued alongside the Cray up to its confluence with the Darent and almost 2 hours after passing one side of the Dartford Creek Barrier, I reached the other side of it at Crayford Ness. After rounding the tip of Crayford Ness, the path left the river at Erith Yacht Club and briefly continued onto the streets of Erith, before rejoining the riverside at Erith Pier.
London’s longest pier, Erith Pier, has had mixed fortunes since the original wooden pier was first built in the 1840s. It extended far enough out into the river to allow ships a deep water wharf until the 1950s when it was replaced with a new concrete pier. However, as industry in Erith declined, the pier was eventually abandoned until in the late 1990s Morrisons bought the site of the old wharf and brought the pier back to life as a public amenity.
For the next couple of miles the path continued next to the river, passing numerous factories, warehouses, cranes and piers; not really very inspiring at all. I think this area comes under Belvedere. After a bend in the river I passed the modern Cory waste incinerator. This gets fed with London waste brought to it on barges and produces enough energy to power 66,000 homes. It was completed in 2011. The huge Crossness Sewage Treatment Works came next. These are being upgraded at the moment as part of the London Tideway Tunnels project and will greatly increase the amount of sewage that can be treated.
Next to the Crossness works was a very impressive looking old building – Crossness Pumping Station. This is a Grade 1 listed building, formerly a sewage pumping station, the interior of which has to be seen to be believed. It features spectacular ornamental cast ironwork, described as "a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian cathedral of ironwork". It is now a museum open on a few days each month. This is somewhere I’d love to visit.
The path continued by the river and very soon the first houses of Thamesmead came into view. Thamesmead is a huge housing estate first developed in the late 1960 as mainly social housing to deal with serious overcrowding in South East London. For such a large estate it has no tube or rail stations and originally had virtually no shopping facilities. This led to a feeling of it being cut off and unloved and gave rise to numerous problems, including a higher than average crime rate compared to the rest of London. Bus connections to Abbey Wood are now much improved and there is a large retail park centered around a Morrisons supermarket.
With the houses and apartment blocks of Thamesmead to the left, the river completed a bend and the familiar skyline of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers came into view for the first time; it was like seeing old friends again! To the right on the opposite bank, Barking Creek Barrier could be seen. Like the Dartford Creek Barrier across the Darent, this was built in the 1980s to a similar design, although at 38 metres it is much wider as well as being much taller. Barking Creek is the name given to the tidal section of the River Roding as it flows into the Thames. It was once home to England's largest fishing fleet.
The path from Thamesmead was paved all the way to the end of the walk at Woolwich, making it a very pleasant experience and there were plenty of people taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along the river front. The entrance to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel was right by the Woolwich Ferry terminal and was easy to find. The walk had taken me about 7 hours to complete almost 20 miles – not very fast but as ever, I stopped many times to take in the scenery and take photos.
This was the end of the England Coast Path section of my challenge, so it was mandatory to celebrate in the accustomed way with a pint and cake at the Dial Arch in Woolwich. I think it fair to say this had been the least enjoyable of the 3 walks, with Grain to Cliffe second and Cliffe to Greenhithe the easy winner.