a walk in South East London

First I took the train from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street and walked through our new little Manhattan off Bishopsgate to see the latest skyscrapers we used to call them and the weather was and has been for some time so grey the clouds so low that it’s easy to see why. They keep somehow inserting new ones, now almost touching last year’s, a bit like that game where you have to pull out sticks one by one without the whole thing falling over, stealing each other’s light. They have privatised space, eaten it up and locked it away in their huge foyers where it is proudly displayed behind huge sheets of glass. It’s not used for anything, and security guards and receptionists sit at desks the size of cricket pitches and no one ever turns the lights off.

There’s a curious wordlessness to it all. While nonsense screams at us throughout this city, like the poster at the end of my street which just now begs me to STREAM KILLER MOVIES even though I thought this was supposed to be what they like to call a quiet residential area, parts of the City exhibit minimalist calm. The new towers may shout out all the way to the hills of Kent and Hertfordshire, and trample on St Paul’s and the river, but they tell us very little and at their heart it’s quiet, their bulk even blocks out traffic noise; their identity and purpose are hidden, like the secrets of a tax haven. Unless you peer closely into the foyers they seem to be wordfree zones, like the shores of the river. Some blocks display names discreetly, others are completely anonymous. You can zoom in on Google maps just east of Bishopsgate and discover perfect blankness, except maybe for a sneaky little coffee bar.

But there is also Art. And that does demand words: “Frequently Rothschild’s (not that Rothschild) works demand the viewer to navigate their own presence in proximity to the work and the architecture of the surroundings. This work serves as a spacial interruption or threshold, reorienting the passage and behaviour of the viewer. A mise-en-scene or backdrop for performance, Rothschild’s installations also invite the idea of the chance encounter, as spaces in which to reflect, watch, dream and act.”

And so on to London Bridge, where TS Eliot’s words from the Waste Land are forever installed in my mind, inviting reflection, or just asking to be sung out loud:

                     A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
                     I had not thought death had undone so many.

And to the shard, which remains acceptable, being still the only really big thing in that part of London, and still much bigger than anything else anywhere in the land, and being in the comfortable image of a spire, the topmost part serving no practical function at all, and then up and down and up inside the new London Bridge station, the one useful outcome of the new development, to platform 2 and a train to Falconwood. The information board on the platform warns us that the approaching train has no onboard toilets, which condemns me to spend most of the way to Lewisham wondering if there might be such a thing as toilets which were not on board, might they float or bounce behind the train?

Trains are a new colony of the Kingdom of the Word, of information and injunctions repeated again and again, on screens and in recorded announcements by supersmooth ladies. It’s there to protect us all, the gap between the train and the platform, we’ll sort it, something that doesn’t look right.

But arriving on time at Falconwood I find myself almost immediately in the woodland of Eltham Park, one of those blessed open spaces where a man can easily and without offence pee against an oak tree. But we are still among signs, mostly related to the Green Chain Walk and the London Loop. There is indeed in this part of London a big green woodland chain, interrupted but extensive, and largely unknown to complacent north Londoners like me. I read that the woods were part of a huge royal park, that in the 19th century as the city grew and grew, unlike the oak trees, and the royal family needed the money, parcels of land were leased out and mansions built by the newly rich which have almost all now fallen into ruin and been demolished, the land brought into public ownership and saved from development by local authorities and the efforts of public campaigns. The signs are keen to stress how ancient the woods are. Going back nearly to the end of the last ice age. With famous ‘indicator’ plants, like bluebells and wood sorrel, which prove the existence of constant woodland for centuries and centuries. I would need to go back in spring, but I have to say that both here in Eltham Park and in the neighbouring Oxleas Wood, and over on Shooter’s Hill, all the oaks appear to be no more than a hundred years old at the most, and the woodland floor is covered in brambles, not in dense thickets but of a year or two’s growth, as if occasionally cleared, so I couldn’t see where the spring flowers might appear. Yes, the woods are maybe thousands of years old but I wonder if the claims on the sign boards might make people think that the trees are? It’s hard to see the woods for the trees, and they are not the same thing. Of course I’ve hardly scratched the surface, hardly squelched the winter mud, and maybe I’ll go back and be able to find primroses and those indicators the ecologists love.

It’s another grey mild day between christmas and new year and there are quite a few people about, mostly with dogs. I look at all the people I meet, some keep their eyes averted, some smile or nod or say hello. It’s nice to be recognised. I don’t mean, hello, I know you from somewhere never forget a face, I just mean, recognised as another human being.

   '  …. as Barbara Cassin notes in her illuminating essay on the concept of nostalgia or the longing for 
   return, to come home does not so much mean to come to a specific place as to come to a place where
   you are recognised.'             Gabriel Josipovici in Forgetting.  

I thought of those moments in the Alps of mutual recognition, like the woman who called out to me as I sat under a tree, almost the last tree before the white screes of the Pic de Bure, and I was tired already and the heat was beginning though it was early in the day, and I walked up away from the path to sit under that tree for a few moments, and she called out cheerfully, déjà à l’ombre! (in the shade already!) Why should I remember that with such affection? I felt a companionable recognition.

A small woman leans back against the pull of a very big dog, the size of a sheep. It’s an Anatolian shepherd dog, she says, my first dog and my last. Are you from Turkey? I said, like a fool, but she didn’t seem to mind. No, she said. Where are you from, I asked. Mauritius, she said. I should have asked why she had this huge strange animal. All right with people but hates other dogs. She’s going to get him cut. That probably won’t do it, I thought, Like so many things, it’s probably habit more than hormones, but I don’t want to be the bringer of bad news.

Next to Oxleas woods is Oxleas meadow, sloping gently to the south west from, for London, a great height. On the edge of the meadow is a mysterious building which does not contain fire extinguishers.

But it’s got brooms

At the top of the meadow is a lively cafe run by friendly women. You can actually buy a coffee called a filter coffee, for only £1.50. Do you want milk with that? yes please. You can get scrambled egg on toast, all that sort of thing. Outside is a dog free area, fenced off, and outside that more benches for people with dogs. A woman who doted on her spaniel whose mouth was stopped with a ball seemed too frail to play. I stroked the spaniel and she said, full of the joys of life! I don’t think she meant me. I thought about how when I was still at school people used to say to me, cheer up, it might never happen! Of course it had already happened, it happened every day. Anyway, recently I have found that if you can just keep the suggestion of a smile on your face, if you can relax your mouth and encourage a hint of an upwards curve, people somehow respond, because we are so sensitive to the even the faintest expressions on each others’ faces, we read and interpret so swiftly, though we do sometimes make mistakes. I found myself back at the cafe after a turn through the woods and the woman with the spaniel was still there, I threw the ball for the dog, she smiled and thanked me.

The woods near the cafe are well brambled and laureled. I found myself on a beaten track off the beaten track.

Depending on the wind and the lie of the land there is always a murmur of traffic in that part of London, or a rumble, or a roar, all through the woods. Being unencumbered by houses it was easy to drive roads through it, Rochester Way, the A2. I left the woods for a while for the suburbs. There I remembered a little satire I wish I could find again, I only remember a part of it: an alien gives his impressions of us. Cars are in control. In the evening they stop outside the houses and make the people go inside. They then stay outside the houses all night to make sure that people don’t escape.

Once out it was hard to get back in; I followed a long long street, numbers way up in the hundreds, which backs onto the woods of Shooter’s Hill but gives no access to them. Just one person did I see, a slow man with a slow terrier and the faint ruins of an Irish accent who told me to keep going and I would find an entrance. I took the first entrance I came to, between high fences, and a man called out hello over the top of the fence, are you trying to get into the woods? This just leads to private garages, he told me, I’d turned off to soon, and I wasn’t sure if he was a neighbourhood watch kind of person (can I help you?) or a genuinely helpful person and I wasn’t sure either if there’s a clear difference. Retracing my steps I overtook the first man again who really was keen to be helpful, in a way that made me think he might be lonely, but I had no right to suspect that. He might be friendly and chatty because he was Irish, but I had no right to assume that either. He told me that there was a castle up there, and if I went up and took a left and then a right I would find it. Everybody I spoke to that day had a dog. Of course I had a dog too and was I lonely? Without even realising it?

Down the slope from the castle gardens as I go up comes a man and his small son on a thing like a sledge with wheels, knees up siting almost at ground level rolling nicely but bumpily down along a curving path – I said that looked fun! He smiled.

The castle is a late eighteenth century gothick structure, like a Tudor tower, on top of the hill, restored and kept by Friends, a focal point. You can sometimes climb to the top of it and enjoy enormous views. Naturally, there’s a cafe. Sitting outside it were some people with two enormous dogs, dogs the like of which I never see in north London. One in particular was lively and voluble. Not as fierce as he looks? I said. Just a baby, said the man. They grow to be 45 kilos, at least. It was a surprise! said the woman. We didn’t know what we’d got!

Information boards at the castle provide lots of historical detail, though missing was one fact which I later discovered in wikipedia (I sent them some money the other day, time to acknowledge my debt and not pretend that I’m consistently an old fashioned bookish person) and which explains the bizarre name of the tower, Severndroog castle: it’s a corruption of the name of a pirate stronghold on the Malabar coast, destroyed by Sir William James, a sea captain in the employment of the East India Compny, in 1755. The tower was built by his widow to celebrate this action in 1786, the year after his death. Thus the development of Britain’s mercantile and imperialist hold on India is made to appear like an act of selfless humanitarianism, because from another point of view the pirates, who had been obstructing first Portuguese, then French and British trade since the 16th century, were patriotic freedom fighters. I also read that “after eight years in India, Sir William became extremely wealthy.” No details of his enrichment are offered, it’s just what happened naturally to well connected Brits in India. And when he came home, naturally he became a Tory Member of Parliament. But his origins in Wales were humble, though little referred to, possibly out of shame. The firm foundation for British power on the west coast of India, the Malabar coast, was the marriage in 1662 of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, to King Charles II. She brought Bombay as part of her dowry. Why the king of Portugal would want to throw away huge chunks of his empire so that his daughter could make a good marriage, I’ve not discovered. Apparently the royal couple never got on.

I thought of an old BBC course teaching Spanish. Impressionable young man visits Spain and stays with an accommodating family. But the young man is informed that Sir Francis Drake was a pirate. He protests, but she says, ¡Si, era pirata! And she was right.

Beyond the tower surrounded by thick woodland should be the water tower which a sign said was more than 500 feet high! A monster of a water tower, a hundred feet higher than the spire of salisbury athedral which you can see from twenty miles away! But then I realised that they meant to say 500 feet above sea level. Even peering through the branches I couldn’t make out any height of water tower at all. Then on through the rump of Eltham common to the site of a big old hospital. The only thing they seem to have kept is the perimeter wall, which provides an excellent start for an extensive gated private development. See photos. More public space brought into captivity. Words like private replace displays of historical information. Silence. Cameras. Guard cars. Round that, a long walk since you can’t go through, at least half a mile down Broad Walk before you come to the main locked way in, and a sign that names the development as Brook Village, and then further to the first road that takes you round eventually onto Woolwich common, and so after a hospital, a cemetery and another park which we will hurry past now, you come, after crossing Woolwich Road, to the coastal strip: scrap, pallets, recycling, skips, old sheds, car repairs, caffs, church shacks, laid out on a grid of potholed roads and crumbling pavements, and we still seem to be some way from the river, although the Thames barrier is down there somewhere and I expected the whole neighbourhood to have been given heritage treatment. Instead, film locations to make any scandi-noir director envious. Surely there’s nowhere like this in Stockholm. A development in the heritage business could be to make visible and open up the low tide of commerce, down by the river, where it all began, where it all ends. Most districts like this are fenced off industrial estates. Soon I saw that I’d ended up there because I’d missed a last link in the Green Chain, a landscaped strip which takes the visitor on a salubrious route to the barrier from the Woolwich Road.

google maps shows Bedlam Paintball, Indoor Lasertag, Rite2Bite Kitchen, Tarmac Charlton Asphalt Plant, Living Springs Christian Centre, The Lord’s Chosen, TeamSportGoKarting Docklands, KingsWord International Church, Open Arms Drop in Centre, AJL Recycling, Sandwich Fix, Believers’ Loveworld Greenwich Church, Thames Barrier Autos, Teddy’s Cash 4 Clothes, Ideal Scaffolding, Brixton Coffee Roasters, Christ Apostolic Church Canaan Land UK, Transit and LDV Van Parts, etc. (most of the dirty – I mean merely literally – businesses are not named). But a few yards to the east, a different class of business picks up: the Reach Climbing Wall, Thamesside Studios Gallery, Sabre Graphics, the Gate Darkroom CIC, Traia Photlab, Andy Porter Music Photography Graphics, Aircraft Circus Academy, etc. At the heart of this area the old Siemens factory survives. It’s not named on Google but is a famous local landmark over which politicians, developers and local people are now arguing and which still employed 6000 people when it closed in 1968. It’s been given the full decorative hoarding treatment, with history and art and community and imagined futures and a tribute to the observational powers of small children, their freshness of vision.

It was growing dark. Behind the barrier the towers of Canary Wharf are breeding. I’m sure there’s twice as may as when I last saw them. They crowd together in the distance like bristles on a pig’s back. A little way down river on the north bank a big ship was moored by Tate and Lyle’s Silvertown sugar refinery which is now owned by an American company but keeps its heritage name, and still imports and refines sugar cane. Naturally, these days all their sugar is fairly traded. Tate and Lyle now make artificial sweeteners.

A few photos:

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2 Responses to a walk in South East London

  1. Myna says:

    Jonny, I’ve just read the bit about being recognised. I’ve been cycling or walking on paths between Stockport and Manchester and it’s almost like being in the countryside in that a lot of people smile, nod or even say hello, good morning. A surprising proportion. Like being in the countryside, a recognition that you’re doing a slightly unusual thing kind of together. People are also beginning to do it in the suburban streets round where we live.

  2. Judith Trustram says:

    Lovely to read this post from you Jonny; I’ve missed them. And to continue from Myna’s comment – some people in the big urban park where I live say hello. Mostly the dog walkers early in the morning. And at night, I make a point to say hello to solitary men that I walk past. It seems to take any potential danger away for me. They always reply.

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