Walking with Robert Thomson on 14 May 2010

Erith to Greenwich

I am walking with Robert, a friend from my student days (though Robert was a year above me). Robert is currently training for the Edinburgh marathon and has decided we should walk one of his running routes, which for the most part sticks close beside the Thames. If walked in full, it is 11 ¾ miles long. Robert, having checked Google, advises me that, based on average walk speeds, we should complete ours in just over 3 hours. This calculation, however, does not factor in the time it takes me to snap photos (in this case, a total of 70).

We arrive at Erith train station just after 4pm and walk down to the river. The tide is low, the mud flats exposed. Multiple signs warn of the dangers here – deep mud and strong currents. Numerous shopping trolleys and traffic cone are sinking slowly in the sludge. More picturesque are the slowly disintegrating wooden piers, testimony to other times and different river traffic. Not far along our walk, another accidental sculpture – a bail of squashed plastics, presumably heading for recycling, but somehow escaped the confines of its transporter boat and now nestling in the river edge’s wild flora. The fragments of plastic washed ashore all along the route, though like permanent confetti in their rainbow of colours, is quite devastating.

Aggregate factories with their huge mounds of material temporarily block our view of the Thames. I had no idea that aggregate would smell so strongly. Further along, we’re given a special sign (a good portent?) – a removal firm called Dee-Dee’s. And from here on to the sewage works where the smell is truly pungent – yes, it really does smell like shit. (Robert has not noticed it when he’s run here, so either he’s a very fast runner or the wind is blowing a different direction today.)

Information signs inform us of London’s sewage history, a history also written in the architecture before us, from the functional structures that resemble  modernism in their harsh practicality, to the beautiful Victorian buildings, all white, shiny tiles and classical aspirations encoded in pillars, to the gleaming, curvaceous new building that reminds me of the Museum of Modern Art in Bilbao. Robert, pointing to high rises in the shimmering distance, reassures me that we are getting nearer our destination. I worry, though, that this view is as deceptive as a mountain one; there’s always another peak to climb before you get to the top… A National Cycle Network Millennium sign helpfully tells us that it’s 1191 miles to Inverness, but ‘only’ 7 ¼ miles to Greenwich. Given that we’ve been walking for a fair old time by now, and that my feet are beginning to measure that time, we question the accuracy of the signs.

The route changes again as we pass through newly erected flats. For a Friday afternoon, which is periodically sunny, it’s very quiet. In a copse of trees Robert searches for the sapling transplanted from his own garden. The new spring foliage makes it impossible to locate, though he assures me that when he checked last month it was sprouting leaves and had settled into its new habitat.

The setting sun glances off the mud flats, turning them golden. Ducks hoover the expansive, wet muds in search of dinner. Our own – in Greenwich – is still a long way off. The Tate & Lyle factory sits iconically on the opposite bank. Planes landing at nearby City airport roar a short distance above us. No wonder there are spray painted protest signs on the walls and pavements nearby, resisting the airport expansion.

At Woolwich, the path heads inland, away from the river. Grabbing an opportunity for some much needed respite, we catch a bus at Warspite Road, alighting beside the newly developed Millennium Village (which in its ‘fun’ colours and shapes resembles a toy construction). On the beach, there’s a sculpture constructed from flotsam (it could easily pass for John Fox’s work – see 10th April walk). An unnoticed heron takes flight out of the manmade wildlife pond. The Millennium Dome is empty tonight, save for some geese waddling inside its perimeter fence. Anthony Gormley’s almost imperceptible man stands sentinel to the emptiness…

The most startling contrast of the entire walk lies just ahead, as on the other side of this Millennium Development are the undeveloped remains of the last century. We drift directly through the middle of an aggregate industrial site that lies entirely open to the walker. We could run in the pyramids of sand if we wanted. For a moment, I imagine myself in a James Bond movie, hiding from the ‘baddy’ and waiting for the right moment to squash him. It’s Friday night, though, so the site is entirely empty, no cranes are moving, no metal sparks from welders, no noise of any sort.

Another short detour alongside the motorway and finally we’ve reached a pub – the Cutty Sark, built in the mid-17th Century. We’re extremely weary travellers (I can hardly climb the wooden steps). It’s 8.30pm already (so much for 3 hours.) The lights on the high rises across the water sparkle. Battered fish, chips and peas, and a pint of lager shandy. A rest for these tired, throbbing feet. Then the last mile into Greenwich proper, the beautifully grand old naval college and observatory and our ultimate destination: the Cutty Sark itself, hidden behind a huge tarpaulin. ‘Should we hug or something?’, asks Robert. No wonder – it’s been such a long walk that it really does feel like we should be congratulating ourselves for having got to the end.

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