Going Home Is Just…Different: Part 1
No longer a place of dirt and danger
Today I returned to my birthplace, Greenwich in South-East London. For most off its life is was a cut-off corner of London, awkward to reach at a point where the river broadens and switchbacks to create two traditionally isolated peninsulars, one containing the leafy elegance of maritime Greenwich, the other a jigsaw of 19th century slums and creeks, the Isle of Dogs.
I wanted to follow the new Thames path along the Southern side of the river. A strange experience, because the old route is fixed in my childhood memories as a place of dirt and danger, and that’s no longer the case. The creeks, once silted with reeking green weed and filled with old tyres, tin baths and hawsers, have all been cleaned out and mostly filled in, with the foreshore partially sanded. The narrow bridges over the waterways have gone – why waste prime real estate?
Instead of weaving my way between rough old sailors’ pubs I now find myself in a wonderland of open-air dining and glassine waterfront apartments. My brother and I used to dare each other to gallop across the paved alley beside the Thames which flooded every winter, and to run beneath the cranes of the terrifying junk yard that was butted up to the river. All gone and cleaned up, of course, and a good thing, one supposes.
Opposite, the Isle of Dogs, once crisscrossed with interlocking canals and docks, a swampland known as Stepney Marsh and therefore eventually filled with cheap terraces whose basements regularly flooded (often fatally for the inhabitants) is now inhabited by soulless Canary Wharf.
The pandemic has changed Greenwich’s celebrated Thameside pub crawl overnight. Now you book an outdoor table on your app, tap in your order and have everything arriving as you sit down, which is efficient but a little sterile. The serendipity of discovery is destroyed when you have to plan ahead, and London has always been about not planning your day (or night).
But it’s a good time to visit at least one of the big four in Greenwich (the town having been branded and packaged for tourist consumption). The choice is: the Queen’s House, the Old Naval College, the Royal Observatory and er, something else – oh yes, the formerly wonderful, now dumbed down Maritime Museum.
Greenwich teeters on the edge of becoming its own parody. There are still anchors everywhere, more certainly than I remember. The smart pie and eel shops can’t be there for locals – they once provided cheap meals for workmen, mystery-meat pies with green liquor – and now look far too clean. Sure enough, a peek through the door reveals a table of exquisitely dressed Japanese girls attempting to discreetly eat eels by lowering their face masks for a second. But why not? The old Greenwich market now sells Chilean empanadas, bao buns and sushi – apt for a seafaring spot which imported goods from all over the world.