See, I get these ideas. They always seem so simple. Having lunch with docoDom at a riverside restaurant by the Design Museum on the South Bank of the Thames, I suddenly thought how nice it would be to keep going. At least as far as the Thames Barrier, which I had never seen up close. Dom, bless his heart, was up for it. It would be easy, I told him. Look, it’s only five miles. It says so here on Google Maps.
Famous bloody last words.
The following week, we reconvened at the Oxo Tower, and considered the route over coffee and bacon rolls. Sticking to the South Bank seemed to be a route with an excess of fiddle, and we wanted to stay near the river if we could. I’d borrowed TLC’s nice camera, and was keen to get some nice riverside pics.
The plan, then. South Bank as far as Tate Modern. Cross the Millennium Bridge, then take the North Bank past Tower Bridge and up to Greenwich through Docklands, before the final push past the 02. Piece of peasy.
Those of you who know the area are probably already wincing at our blatant lack of understanding of basic London geography. We were aiming for the wiggly bit of the Thames that fans of Eastenders know very well. The bit with the whacking great peninsula in the middle. And we were planning on sticking to the river, going the long way round. Couldn’t be that much of a detour, right?
Off we jolly well trotted, with a brief stop at Tate Modern because you know, Tate Modern. And we needed a wee. Then across the Millennium Bridge, with St. Paul’s glowing ahead of us in the late morning sun. Funny, I’m not religious in the slightest, but I love churches. Something about faith transcending earthly matters, creating the divine here on earth. Framed between two office buildings, the view is deliberately awe-inspiring. It gets me every time.
Along Cannon Street and Mansion House, hitting the Thames Walk properly for the first time, and the gloomy skies that had greeted us that morning were beginning to clear. Chinks of blue in the grey were a cheering sight, and spurred us on. The river was still and calm, and two military boats on exercise scudded past, engines howling. That’s the way to travel. The big machine guns mounted on the prow gave us pause. You could do some damage to a busy South Bank with that pair of cannons if you felt the urge.
Round the Tower Of London and past Tower Bridge, and the tourists began to thin out, replaced by joggers. Lots of joggers. Hundreds of ’em. We felt like we were the slowest things on that side of the Thames as the path nudged us away from the river and into the quiet streets of Wapping. Lots of lovely refurbed warehouses that we couldn’t have afforded if we mortgaged our souls.
An old hydraulic power plant housed some site-specific art. Doorways to nowhere, including one up a tree. A nice idea, but Dom and I were more interested in the building, which had retained its dignity despite losing the turbine hall to a restaurant. It had been cleaned up a little, but not enough to lose the interest.
Lunchtime was beckoning at about the same time as our dogs started barking. Coincidence and luck took over and guided our steps to The Grapes on Narrow Street. This is a pub with history. Dickens used to drink in here, and so did I when we had a friend that lived just round the corner. The boules ground we used to play in was still there, sadly neglected. It seemed far away and a lifetime ago. A lovely pub, but like most of the area, eerily quiet.
Dogs quietened, we took to the river again. A southerly track now, down past Canary Wharf and the huge workings at Westferry Circus. Pilings too thick to get your arms around, the foundation for yet another massive building that the area doesn’t really need. That soon-to-filled gap offered a little breathing space in a very built-up bit of the Smoke.
In and out of Westferry Road, prototypical East London with prototypical East London humour on display. The river beckoned through gaps in the buildings, but we had to get past the Northern and Steel building, home of the Daily Star, before we were back on the backside. It was quieter now, past three o’clock, and the joggers that had dodged past us were long gone. Back west, back at their desks. The only company was a scruffy gathering of cormorants, flapping their wings at passing clippers. Alright darlin’, nice prow.
One more stop to relieve feet, thighs and “ease the pressure”. The Ferry Inn, round the corner from Island Gardens and the old Greenwich river crossing was empty apart from the sweet barmaid who offered me a choice of glasses for my Jack, and a couple of geezers on the other side of the bar trying to puzzle out the video jukebox. Sounds Of The Seventies. The landlord came in and began writing up the food menu. He wasn’t sure how to spell “mussels”. The geezers were making a right meal out of that one, if you’ll pardon my French. It was a nice place to hang, but time was hurrying us on.
The elegant ramparts of Greenwich loomed on the other side of the river, and we had to cross again. Underneath this time. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel was deep and long, and my thighs complained at every one of the hundred-odd steps it took to get up and down. The lifts, of course, weren’t working. Dom mused on how loud it would be to rev up a motorbike down in the echoing chamber. The first job, I reminded him, would be to get the bugger down the twisting stairwell. It was hard enough walking it. You might manage a monkey bike, but a Harley would be out of the question.
Back out into sunlight and building work. The Cutty Sark is having a refurb, and the whole dockside area is in chaos. The old girl stood aloof from these worldly affairs, her spars and prow thrust up proud against a sky that by now was a flawless blue. We picked our way through the construction onto the river, and past the palladian arcades of Greenwich College. This was quintessential London, history rich in the air like a perfume. Something with roses in it.
As Greenwich faded behind us, the landscape changed again. Urbanity became plain urban, and our path became one of ugly, neglected wharfside. Pieces of old barge rotted in the sunshine. A suicide pact of old shopping trolleys lay like robot bones at the bottom of a dock, exposed by the tide. We were alone now, and the colour of the sky was starting to deepen.
This was a strange place. The rules of geography stopped making sense. We made steady progress, but the signs to the Barrier kept telling us that we were getting further away. By now, we had been walking for four hours. We were tired, and yet still babbling happily to each other. Dom was on graf-spotting duty, and found a fake Banksy rat that I would have dismissed as an errant red paint splurge. He has the eye for such things.
Now, finally, as the light went golden, we started making progress. A detour away from the river brought us to another old haunt; a bridge over Commercial Way where Dom had waited for extraction during the worst part of his day filming 24 Hours In London. A cold Sunday morning, dog tired and bone weary, watching the traffic stream by and trying to stay awake while running a camera. Was it synchronistic that he came to it again in a similar physical state? I like to think it has a pleasing symmetry about it.
The landscape flattened and tidied, the refurbs of the Millennium years carving wide boulevards through new patches of grassland. The 02 loomed in the distance, a flying saucer grounded on a godforsaken spit of land, taking over the view and the surroundings. Everything felt civilised now, somehow Scandinavian. Clean-lined buildings, blonde wood teamed with enamelled splashes of colour. I was reminded of provincial Sweden. The same sense of calm, the same air of the jazz-age future of old pulp novels and album covers.
We were close now. There was a thrum in the air, deep bass tones vibrating off our ribcages. We buzzed like tuning forks in the thickening light of late afternoon. One more stop would have been great, but the nearest pub, the Anchor And Hope, oozed menace. Dodgy characters dipped their heads together in pockets of gloom, casting baleful glances at the door. There were footballer’s rides in the car park–a Bentley and a Jag. Dom and I speculated as to the nasty contents of their boots. Probably best not to find out.
And finally, a line of chrome warrior’s helmets came into sight, low sun glinting off their high sides. A squadron of colossi, waiting in ranks for the moment when their city would need them to rear of out river bottom mud, and defend us all. They were bigger than I expected, and cleaner, and prouder. It would take one heck of a big wave to shrug these boys aside. Half past four, with the sky aflame, we had reached our destination. We were both quiet for a while, just looking at the line of giants blocking the mouth of the river.
There was nothing else for it, then. We had to turn round and start back the way we came. The half-mile walk to Charlton station was uphill, and painful. We weren’t having fun anymore. We had spent time with titans. Everything else was bound to feel a bit flat.
On the train ride back into town for a restorative pint and some Thai food, Dom dozed sweetly while I watched the sky outside bruise to darkness. It had been a day of psychogeography and old memories, of familiar roads and new ones. Even as the tops of my thighs and my feet screamed at me, I was thinking about the next one. A glutton for punishment, sure. But also greedy for wonder.