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.


10 comments on “Going Home Is Just…Different: Part 1”

  1. Joel says:

    London is losing its ability to surprise, especially for those of us born here and still living within it. As a kid, I used Red Rovers (unlimited one day bus travel tickets) to explore as well as collecting bus numbers, alone or with mates. Everywhere had something to stare at, possibly risking a knuckle sandwich if the staring went on for too long. Age, familiarity and universalisation has reduced but not eliminated the power of ‘wow!’

    This is now the rediscovering phase – after many years of crossing Waterloo Bridge daily to and from work at the station’s Control Room then more in ‘retirement’ (sometimes thinking I should go back to work for a rest), I recently re-found the view from the Bridge – the curve in each direction, the Art Deco-ish skylines, the trees along each embankment, the sense of 1950s from seeing the Festival of Britain site; and, **** *** to Churchill for pulling down the Skylon.

    London ain’t wot it woz, but she’s still me ‘ome. Some of the grot I don’t miss but my Freedom Pass (Covid and schedules permitting) lets me revisit what I once knew and might know again.

  2. Debra Matheney says:

    One of my happiest memories is a visit to Greenwich, the trip on the Thames and then the pianted hall and the chapel with its magnificent organ. My husband enjoyed the Observatory. So much history. I will dedicae today’s gin and tonic to Wren and Charles II.

  3. davem says:

    My school cross country run used to go through Greenwich Park, through the foot tunnel and around the Isle of Dogs … lots changed since then,

    I used to live not far from you in Victoria Way and the Cherry Orchard Estate, and remember the old river walk very well, as you say so different now.

    Lots of hidden alleyways and walks in Charlton which only us kids used to use as they were very overgrown and not particularly safe … I’m sure they have all gone now … I should check one day.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    From 1994 to 2000 I lived by the side of Greenland Dock in the redeveloped Surrey Docks, now called Surry Quays. This is on the south bank of the Thames near Greenwich. I thought it a great and very attractive place to live, more than I would have done in the late 70s’ when I used to visit a dockside pub there called “The Ship and Whale”. I wouldn’t have dreamt of living anywhere round that area then. By the ‘eck, it was rough. I also had a female friend, born in a Rotherhithe (just down the road) slum in the early 30’s , whose mum had to traipse down 2 flights of stairs to draw water from the only tap in the building. Give me the present day anytime! And the pub was much improved by the new people moving into the new reasonably “Up Market” dock area.

    “The Ship and Whale” and the area feature in the 1962 film “The Leather Boys” A popular watering hole then for anyone trying to pick up a “bit of rough”

    Admin is right-the Maritime Museum has been ruined.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    Manchester has changed no end, the Northern Quarter improved no end but it means people are now being priced out of the city. it’s odd hoe the rich to flow out and then flow back into cities over periods of time, so the poor in reverse. There is a programme on Manchester called Manctopia on the Beeb about the property boom mid-August.

    Actually there was a good London programme on BBC4 about Grime (a music for youngsters, mainly poor and back) which was London based until form 696 began to push outside the city and in ways forced it to grow. The Met dropped the form a few years back but other forces are using a similar form. It shows how the underground scene can thrive in the cracks, pirate stations in blocks, and how it adapted . Angry young music being demonised, who’d have thought it.


  6. Dawn Andrews says:

    This reminded me of a Futurama episode that had ‘sailors on the moon’ replacing the moon landings in an ‘historical’ theme park. I’m sorry to hear about the Maritime museum trivialisation.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    My husband the geographer had to “do” Greenwich and I enjoyed his enjoyment. The Observatory was mandatory but we missed the ball drop. We had lunch just outside the park at the Admiral ~ someone can tell me which admiral it was named for. There was an interesting looking book store just down the way but it was closed at the time. The funny thing was that coming in from the Park it seemed a small place with almost no one there but if you went over to where the sound was coming from there was a big room with lots of people. Were we in a snug? If so it was very pleasant with a portrait on the wall. We had to examine the clocks in the Observatory, all the forms developing a stable marine chronometer to establish longitude.

  8. Davem says:

    @Helen … The Admiral Hardy

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Okay, Davem, so my fractured memory was correct and it was a portrait of Hardy on the wall. It was a very pleasant day and we enjoyed the pub lunch, too.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Manze’s on Tower Bridge road. Pie. Mash. Liquor. What else do you need?

    I’ve tried jellied Eels – they taste fine – but the ‘mouth feel’ is so, so wrong. I’ll pass, thanks. Leave more for the next man.

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