Saturday, 7 August 2010

Going to Greenwich

This is another of my occasional nostalgic 'memories of' postings.  It takes me back to a time in the mid to late 1990s when I lived in East London.  Thinking about this posting was partly prompted by what I wrote recently about launderettes.  Anyway in the mid-1990s I left Oxford for a better paid job (with far fewer hours) in East London.  First I lived in Poplar which is at the northern end of that southward pointing meander in the River Thames known as the Isle of Dogs (apparently because royal dogs were once kennelled there).  It could have been termed the Isle of Docks because in the first two-thirds of the 20th century it was filled with docks and warehouses unloading ships from around the world bringing food and other materials into London.  This trade began to fade by the 1960s and in the 1980s the docks were closed and Docklands was re-vitalised (in part) by filling some docks, turning others into marinas and putting in office blocks and luxury apartments.  However, alongside these expensive places continued ordinary East End housing, parks and pubs (though many of these clothes), though of course with the work in the docks gone unemployment in the area for ordinary people has always been high.  From Poplar I moved about 3 Km North-West to Mile End but would still often cycle through Poplar and down the Isle of Dogs.

The reason why I would go that way was to get to Greenwich.  This district sits on the southern bank of the River Thames, opposite the southern end of the Isle of Dogs.  Its history has been very different, being a location of a royal palace in the Tudor era and then home to a major naval college.  It is also the location of the historic Royal Observatory on which the Greenwich meridian, i.e. where each stay is deemed to start, runs.  Whist there are districts around Greenwich such as Charlton which are not wealthy, none of the area is as poor as the Isle of Dogs.  It used to strike me when I stood in Island Gardens on the North bank and look over to Greenwich that the divide used to remind me of when I had looked over the West German - East German border in the 1980s, though I must say the difference in wealth was more visible here in London than when I had looked across the Iron Curtain border in rural Hesse.  My trips to Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs generally preceded the extension of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) under the river to Lewisham which was completed in 1999.  From 1994-9 the DLR (first opened in 1987; extended in 1994) stopped at Island Gardens high above street level, but now it dips down and goes under the river with its next stop in Greenwich.  This changed the dynamic of the journey to Greenwich because up until the 1999 extension, DLR passengers had to get off in Island Gardens and then go through the Greenwich foot tunnel.  Thus in the period 1994-9, the foot tunnel probably had the greatest flow of traffic it had seen in decades.  Now they simply ride on the DLR all the way to Greenwich and beyond.

The DLR is a train service without any driver.  It runs automatically around East London linking the City with Docklands but also now North and South London.  There is usually a ticket inspector on board but a lot of children have fun sitting at the front of the driverless train pretending to drive it.  It winds its way through the large office blocks like a monorail at some World's Fair of the 1960s but also passes by very ordinary streets and allotments.  The sharp contrast between the wealth of big business and pretty poor streets is one thing that always struck me.  Of course, generally I cycled rather than took the DLR.  Once when coming back late one evening from seeing friends in Charlton I carried my bicycle up all the steps and put it on the DLR train at Island Gardens.  Aside from me there was only a ticket inspector and one other passenger.  The floor was covered with vomit but the ticket inspector constantly berated me about why I had brought my bicycle on the train (it was not against rules to do so) as there was a chance oil would get on the train.  Given the rubbish and vomit there already I found it rather alarming that he felt the need to have a go at me.  I told him there was no indication when you bought your ticket that bicycles were not permitted and I was not travelling in the rush hour, quite the opposite, but clearly my action exercised him greatly.  In the end I got off at Poplar and cycled the rest of the way back to Mile End.

Even though you can travel direct to Greenwich, I would suggest if you can getting off at Island Gardens and using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.  You used to pass a classic 1960s tea rooms in Island Gardens (I do not know if it is still there) with the shape of a teapot outlined in white bricks built into its brick work.  Then you step into a huge circular lift with padded seats around the perimeter.  Bicycles are allowed in, but you are not permitted to cycle in the tunnel and the lift attendants have CCTV cameras so they can see who is breaking the rules.  Steps spiral round the lift if you do not want to wait.  The first time I went through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel (it opened in 1902 and was designed to allow dock workers from South London to cross to the Isle of Dogs easily) I half expected to stumble across some underground Victorian city.  The curve of the walls with their white tiles and the glass domed entrances at either end give it a nice steampunk flavour.  Often (though not at present due to refurbishment until March 2011) there are buskers in there and loads of people.  The bubbling voices make it seem very busy at times.  I have been through there with crowds of people and when it was just me and a guitarist strumming away at the mid-point of the tunnel with absolutely minimal audience.  I have even seen clouds down there from moisture that has gathered.  It curves and you have a sense of going under the ground then back up to the surface.  It is often used as a location for short movies; I saw once as a fake Channel Tunnel and then as a tunnel in which a woman was transformed by going into a poster halfway along and from an uptight businesswoman emerged as a kind of hippie-gypsy character.

Anyway, once through the tunnel you emerge in the shadow of the 'Cutty Sark', the famous clipper that used to sail to India and the far smaller and once as famous 'Gypsy Moth' used for single-handed around the world sailing.  These emphasise the maritime connections of Greenwich and whilst it is on a river, you certainly feel like you are in a seaside town rather than part of London.  Now aside from these sights a lot of what I will refer to now is drawn from my memories of the 1990s and there is no guarantee that these things will still be there.  Perhaps someone can email me and update me about what has come and gone since my time.  The last time I went back was in 2001 and on that occasion to the University of Greenwich for a presentation evening.  Greenwich as I remember it was filled with second hand and remaindered bookshops, one classic junk shop, two sorts of flea market and a more stylish covered market selling gift items like soap and stationery and things.  There were a number of decent pubs.  I remember drinking in one on the market and the 'Trafalgar Tavern' further along the river front which many people miss but it does get crowded.  I never drunk in the 'Gipsy Moth' next to the Cutty Sark ship because it was rather too 'chavvy' in contrast to the 'Trafalgar Tavern' which can be very 'yuppie' at times.  I have never drunk in 'The Auctioneer'  but think I was taken to the 'Greenwich Union' by a friend.  There are numerous cafes from chains like Cafe Rouge to indepedent ones so it is good for 'light lunches'.

Once you pass beyond the area of shops and markets in nice period buildings, interspersed with the occasional shop selling seascape paintings or even maritime supplies you begin to get to the historic buildings.  Greenwich has been visited twice by the archaeological programme 'Time Team' who have uncovered Roman remains on the hill and then remains of Henry VIII's jousting arena in the grounds of the former Naval College. The college sits to the East of the district centre and is now primarily owned by the University of Greenwich.  Its long pillared arcades often feature in television dramas (the whole area also features in the movie 'Blow Up' (1966); the tennis courts where the hero inadvertently photographs a dead body are still there, just East of there near Charlton/Kidbrooke).  There is a decent museum in the Naval College too.

Then there is Greenwich Park rising up to the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill.  The park is very pleasant and gives you good views over East London.  I have photographs that I should find out and scan in to illustrate.  The Royal Observatory is a nice small museum in the historic building with information on chronometers.  In its grounds you can stand astride the meridian line and so have one foot in the western hemisphere and one in the eastern hemisphere.  Fascinatingly in the park there is a service road and at some time a diagonal white line was roughly painted across it.  It actually runs North-West to South-East rather than North-South like the real meridian line, but it is in an area you do not have to pay to enter and so there must be thousands, possibly even millions of people around the world who have had themselves photographed straddling this random line thinking they are on the meridian.  You see them in their scores and never want to disappoint them by revealing the truth.

For me Greenwich is always in a bubble of a wonderful summer's day taken up with looking at some history, having a pleasant lunch, browsing for second hand books and dozing on the grass of the park.  For people who live in the packed streets of East London which ironically at weekends in certain areas seem devoid of live, it is a lovely escape to get over to Greenwich which has such vibrancy compared to the run-down shopping streets and closed pubs of the Isle of Dogs.  The fact you can look over from one to another I think heightens the poignancy of it all.  However, I found being able to get away from my single room in Mile End living above a chip shop with a bathroom shared by seven people to a place that was like going to the seaside was a great pick-me-up and even though I live (for the moment) in far better conditions I do miss the opportunity whenever I fancied to quickly go to Greenwich.

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