Walk 7: Blackheath walk to Woolwich Arsenal

Walk 7 BLACKHEATH walk to WOOLWICH ARSENAL

3 hours

Routing note: This walk connects in Blackheath with walks 6 and 12. It connects in Charlton with walk 5. Finally, it connects in Woolwich Arsenal with walk 8. It will also connect there with DLR walk 8.

The train line was opened in 1849 as the main line to Kent.

BLACKHEATH

The station was opened in 1849 along with the train line to Kent going to Charlton via a very long tunnel (about 1 mile, which is very long for the time it was built). A branch railway was opened in 1895 by a minor train company to serve Eltham and Bexleyheath. The minor company later went bankrupt and the line was taken over by the main train company -they had refused to build the line and they got it for free after the bankruptcy.

Blackheath station

Actually, the train company tried to build as few new lines as possible in order to ensure that the existing trains would be really full. You will not be surprised to hear that the company was seen as being the worst company for commuters due to overcrowded, dirty and outdated carriages, frequent delays and occasional accidents. It would be unfair to compare with present conditions – overcrowding and delays do occur frequently, but carriages are cleaner and more comfortable than in 1849.

The station building dates back to 1869 and was built by the architect who also designed Greenwich train station (on my walk 5). He had a very elegant taste and kept to simple shapes and classical colours at a time when mock-medieval bombast was very fashionable. I haven’t been on the platforms but I have read that the awnings are the original 1849 ones.

Shop fronts on Tranquil Vale

Exit the station

L Blackheath Village

L Tranquil Vale (note very nice, old shop fronts along this street)

When the road meets Duke Humphrey Road and Hare & Bullet Road, turn R into Black Heath towards the church.

Parish church on Black Heath

All Saints Church enjoys a very conspicuous location and outclasses nearly all competitors from London suburbs from this point of view. It was built in 1867 and is normally closed; seen from the outside, it is one of the better examples of gothic revival. With the empty green space around it, it is actually pretty enough to look like a postcard motive.

Long Pond on Black Heath

Pass the church on the higher side and aim for the crossroads with the Princess of Wales pub, a very popular place with a lovely pale blue, neo-classical front. The building dates back to about 1800 like the neighbouring houses on Montpelier Row.

The small pond opposite the pub is a former gravel pit as this was the main use of Black Heath. The ground was too dry and too sandy for agriculture and the heath was therefore mainly used as a grazing ground, training ground for military and hideout for purse snatchers.

Take South Row past the pond to the crossroads with St German’s Place.

The Paragon on Black Heath

On your right, you pass a curving row of properties called The Paragon. Originally, this was a row of town houses intended for the “upper middle class” and built between 1794 and 1806 for John Cator. He was already a filthily rich timber merchant when he decided to diversify into property development, purchasing a rundown mansion with a huge estate in Blackheath for a bargain price. He then sold to architect Michael Searles a lease on the areas along the south edge of Black Heath. Because of the shaky economy during the many wars against Napoleon, development went on very slowly and Mr Searles had serious liquidity problems at times.

Side view of the Paragon

The houses are actually rather plain, typically Georgian dark brick buildings like all middle class housing of that period. But the white colonnade linking the houses enhances significantly the appearance, particularly at a time when air pollution made it difficult to keep the white colour clean. White colonnades were therefore much more a sign of wealth than the houses themselves and do remind at a more modest scale of the royal colonnade around Queen’s House in Greenwich or of the decidedly upper class terraces overlooking Regent’s Park near Marylebone church. The practical use of the colonnades was to give sheltered access to the stables and carriage rooms.

The developper sold the houses with only the outside walls and roof finished so that there were different designs inside. The houses have been converted into flats after bombing damage during World War II. I am not sure that the flats are luxurious as the cars in the street are not exceptional.

Morden college lodge

From the crossroads with St German’s Place, you can see a pretty little entrance lodge with a driveway into a large enclosed estate. You need to take the public footpath along the edge of the estate (between the driveway and a road called Kidbrooke Gardens).

Central building of Morden College

The footpath skirts the grounds of a substantial neo-classical building, Morden College. Despite the name, it is actually a retirement home founded as almshouses by a successful merchant who was made a baronet as Sir John Morden. The statue above the main gate shows him with his wife. The building dates back to 1695 and was built by the master mason working for Sir Christopher Wren; the building is not particularly ornate but very dignified and well proportioned. The rear façade that you can also see from the public footpath apparently includes a few additions of lesser quality. The grounds of Morden College are beautiful but I expect you are not supposed to enter unless you visit a person living there.

Rear façade of Morden College

The original purpose of the almshouses was to house traders who would be ruined by unforeseen circumstances such as their ship sinking – and these gentlemen needed to be bachelors or widowed, although I am not sure why it was more deserving to be alone than to suffer poverty together with your wife. You can now apply as a couple, but you still need to be a person of significant standing in the economy who falls on hard times for reasons you cannot help.

Cross a minor road (Kidbrooke Grove) and continue to the end of the footpath.

Sports Ground in Eastbrook Road

L Kidbrooke Park Road

R Wricklemarsh Road

Aim the the footbridge across the A102 motorway (starting a bit to your right)

The exit ramp turns L

R Wricklemarsh Road (just a few yards)

L Brook Road along sports grounds

Path across Cherry Orchard Estate

R Hervey Road, turns L

Ahead Russell Close

R Rectory Field Crescent, turns L

There is a very pleasant footpath between the blocks of the former Council Estate. Cherry Orchard Estate was built in the 1930s on what was still then farm land; it is now owned by the main London housing association as this made it possible to transfer the responsibility for maintenance and renovation to a structure working like a private company.

R Charlton Road (just a few yards)

L Victoria Way

R Wellington Gardens

L Charlton Church Lane

Charlton station

CHARLTON

The station was opened in 1849 on the North Kent line via Blackheath and Woolwich. A branch line to Maze Hill was added in 1873 and extended to Greenwich in 1878, providing two different routes for trains between London and Charlton.

Side entrance of Charlton station

When I took the picture in 2011, the station building looked like a cheap temporary container, but is probably just a normal product of cost-effective planning in the 1970s. There was certainly a much more stately building in Victorian times. There is an additional access on the North side of the tracks that has been renovated recently and looks much nicer. It is just white canopies above the ticket machines, but the shapes remind faintly of sails and this is appropriate for an area close to the Thames.

Exit the station

R (uphill) Charlton Church Lane

Springfield Grove Estate in Charlton

You pass at some point a very recent development called Warren Court Estate. It is really interesting on this walk to compare housing estates over time: Cherry Orchard Estate from the 1930s, Springfield Grove Estate at the top of the hill from the 1960s (same owner) and Warren Court Estate from the 2000s. Shapes went from curvy with balconies to tower blocks to low-rise, but buildings now form long ribbons rather than isolated units as this prevents hooligans from lurking in back alleys and protects children in the gardens or playgrounds at the back.

Warren Court estate in Charlton

There is also more experimentation with a few flashes of colour, occasional geometrical decoration and wood. I suppose building costs have risen, but mortgages for everyone make things possible that were impossible to imagine in the 1950s -appliances and materials have also probably fallen in price due to industrial standardisation.

R The Village

Village Green in Charlton

You are now passing a very pleasant village green with a lovely flower bed and a cute steep-roofed pavilion. The pavilion was actually a drinking fountain opened in 1902 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII. The parish church for Charlton, St Luke, overlooks the village green. According to the borough website, it has interesting memorials and dates back partly to 1630, but it is difficult to visit as it is only open on some weekdays between 10 and 12. One funny item is that some of the bells disappeared after World War II on their way between emergency storage and the church – they must have been stolen for their metal content, but a bell is not exactly a light item to carry away unnoticed.

Interesting building on The Village in Charlton

A bit further east at the start of the main street, you can see a brick building with a magnificently decorated front to the road. I am not sure what it is. The style reminds strongly of a very specific German architecture called Weser-Renaissance, popular in parts of northern-central Germany in the 17th century. It mixes the love of baroque architects for curves and counter-curves with a very Renaissance love for triangular shapes and scrollwork.

Summerhouse on Charlton Estate

Also on the south side, but directly on the village green, you can see a corner pavilion called the “Summerhouse” or the “Banqueting Room”. It was popular since Tudor times to have meals served occasionally in a finely decorated pavilion at the edge of your garden, enabling you to look at life beyond the walls.

Such buildings often had a ground floor used as a wintering place for fashionable but fragile orange trees while the upper floor was used for entertainment. Orangeries, as they were called in France and Germany, were a standard item in large estates. It is interesting to note that people on the Continent would stress the use as wintering store while people stressed in England the use as reception room. At Charlton, the small building is typically Palladian in style and looks very different from the main palace built 20 years before. Although it is supposed to have interesting architecture inside, it is dilapidated and closed. Its last use was as “public conveniences”.

Pass the summer house and turn L to Charlton House

Charlton House

This is an important attraction, one of the few and possibly the best Jacobean palace in London. It was built in 1612 for the tutor of Prince Henry, then heir to the throne (unfortunately, the prince died 18 years old and his father was succeeded by Charles I, Henry’s brother). There are not many large palaces from the Jacobean period for the simple reason that it did not last very long.

Former entrance arch for Charlton Estate

You approach the building along the semi-circular access road past the beautiful flower beds, but the original entrance faced directly the main door and is still marked by a triumphal arch sitting now in the middle of the grassy forecourt. The central entrance stands duly out with stone columns and large expanses of glass (a very expensive commodity at the time). The decoration details include symmetric scrolls and lion heads, a reminder of Renaissance aesthetics that was beginning to fall out of fashion on the Continent.

Renaissance decoration of Charlton House

The palace is built in E form (three aisles protruding from the main body). This was typically Jacobean and also typically English. In Tudor times, most palaces were built around courtyards as this afforded better protection from mobs and enemies. When protection became less of an issue, European palaces were usually built on a simple rectangular layout while English architects experimented with more complex E and H layouts.

Like all Tudor and Jacobean palaces, Charlton House is built mainly out of bricks, the reason being simply that building stone was not easily available in England and was very expensive. Brick was also used in Flanders and Northern Germany for the same reason whereas brick was only used in France for decorative purposes.

Charlton House

Charlton House was used by a number of later owners for different purposes (including as a wartime hospital) and is council property since 1925. It then housed a borough library, but the library was closed in 1991 in order to cut costs and most of the building stands empty as a sort of community centre available for hire to local associations. The northern aisle was rebuilt after World War II due to bomb damage, but all inside decoration and furniture had disappeared anyway long before.

Central hall of Charlton House

If you happen to visit at a time when the library is open, it is well worth looking at the entrance hall as it has been restored to its original style; there is an exhibition in a side room about the history of the palace. The ceiling of the main hall (now used as a café) shows typically Jacobean plaster scrolls on a pale colour background. It is very nice although you can see better examples in London, for example at Forty Hall in Enfield.

Entrance to the grounds of Charlton House

Walk past (or across) the house to Charlton Park at the rear of the building

Peace Garden

You will later continue ahead towards the railings and the large open space beyond, but you should take the time and explore the gardens to the right of the main building. You will first enter a lovely “peace garden” with a sculpture and a memorial. The garden is called Amnesty International peace garden, hinting at a sponsorship agreement.

Amnesty International Peace Garden at Charlton House

Although I find Amnesty’s action very laudable and important, I wonder whether I can approve spending donor funds on sponsoring a specific borough park. I may be wrong here and I will be pleased to correct my comment if the borough decided all by itself about the name without a financial background.

Walled garden at Charlton House

Passing through an arch, you then enter the reasonably large walled garden with lots of planting -in my eyes, the tall plants are a bit overwhelming and there is not much colour except at the height of summer, but this is a matter of taste.

Walled garden annex at Charlton House

Off the main walled garden, an other arch gives access to a secluded courtyard that is particularly enjoyable and affords interesting views of the ancillary buildings of Charlton House.

Grounds of Charlton House

If you leave the main walled garden to the east, you go down a few steps into a rectangular lawn with flower borders on each side and a tall hedge all around. There are no seats but it is very nice nonetheless. It reminds a bit of a playground where people would have played lawn croquet or tennis, but I am not certain about this. Beyond the hedges, you are back into the main Charlton Park with a number of magnificent trees. Some may date back to the original construction of the palace in the 1600s and documents actually show the king ordering to plant a mulberry tree here in 1608.

Rear façade of Charlton House

Before leaving the palace, have a look at the garden façade. You notice easily the small turrets on either side of the main building. I can imagine they were used for staircases. In any case, they are remnants of Tudor architecture still used in Jacobean times -except that Tudor palaces had many more towers. Ten years later, staircases would be integrated within the main fabric of a building and towers would disappear. You can see this at Queen’s House in Greenwich, built in 1617. It contributes to the important switch from an architecture emphasising the vertical and ornate (as in gothic churches) into an architecture emphasising the horizontal and monumental (as in palladian façades).

Charlton Park

Ahead across Charlton Park towards a children playground. You should begin to see markings for the Capital Ring.

Charlton Park belonged to the extensive estate around Charlton House when the property was bought by the Council in 1925. The athletic grounds of the park were opened to the public in 1929.

Follow the markings as they lead you L before the school towards the road

Ahead Cross the road into Maryon Wilson Park

Routing note: my directions follow here the more interesting route, but a small section might be muddy. If you have light shoes, I suggest you keep to the marked Capital Ring as it is paved until you reach the main exit of Maryon Wilson Park near the tennis courts.

Deer enclosure in Maryon Wilson Park

Maryon Wilson Park keeps the name of the family who owned Charlton House and its estate in the 19th century. The upper part of the park was a wood called quaintly “Hanging Wood” because of the steep hill. It still  keeps a feeling of wilderness despite the convenient paved path. At the bottom of the valley, you will find a series of enclosures with animals, of which the deer are the most conspicuous. The park rangers organise very popular tours for children during which they can feed the deer.

Take paths downhill across the park to a minor road

R Thorntree Road

L Enter Maryon Park on a unpaved track at the bottom of the hill and follow the main path below the cliffs to a footbridge over the railway tracks.

Clearing in Gilbert's Pit Nature Reserve

This tract of land was full of sand pits. The family lost interest in the industrial activity and had little use for the wasteland remains, so that they offered them generously to the then-London County in 1891.

The cliffs at Gilbert’s Pit are the remains of the sand quarrying activity. They are of interest to botanists because it is one of the few places in the London area to see specific plants adapted to sandy soils and a warm micro-climate. The cliffs are also of interest to amateur geologists. They are off-limits to climbers as sand is of course brittle.

View towards Canary Wharf from Maryon Park

Possible detour: you can climb a steep flight of stairs above the train tracks just before reaching the footbridge. This flight of stairs leads to a viewpoint with a good view of the Thames towards Canary Wharf. You have to come back down the same flight of stairs afterwards.

Cross the train tracks via the footbridge.

R within the park towards the NE exit, then R again still within the park following again Capital Ring markings to the tennis courts.

Maryon Park

You hardly notice here that you are crossing the train line again as this is in a tunnel. The park has a grassy bowl with a minor flower bed near the exit; according to the borough website, this was used as a location in the 1966 film “Blowup” whereby the grass had to be painted more green as it was not convincing in the takes.

Exit of Maryon Park

L to park exit on Maryon Road

L Maryon Road, turns R

Ahead Parish Wharf Place

L across the railway tracks on road merging with Woolwich Church Road

R Frances Street

L Belson Road

WOOLWICH DOCKYARD

Woolwich Dockyard station

This minor station is named after a very important Admiralty dockyard that was closed in 1869. The station opened in 1849 when the train line was built. It is in a cutting and the only remaining building is a modest brick structure of indeterminate age.

R Borgard Road

L Frances Street

Ahead Repository Road

R Green Hill

The layout is unusual with the road being in a sort of cutting while a peculiar circular building sits on the embankment to the right. There is a wood behind the embankment called Repository Woods. A repository was a storage area (from the French word “repos” for “leisure”, although there is no such word as a “repositoire” in French) although this one was also used as a training ground.

Former Artillery Museum from 1814

The circular building was actually built in 1814 by influential architect Nash as a small museum set up in the ground of St James’ Park in central London. It housed a collection of guns and trophies and was a sort of celebration of the final victory over Napoleon (the celebration was premature in 1814 as Napoleon made a short comeback in 1815 !). I suppose the shape of a tent was appropriate as a hint towards military encampments.

The building was transferred to Woolwich as early as 1819 as the main artillery arsenal was nearby. It is disused as far as I know and closed, but I read that the tent roof is actually borne by a central pillar and a wooden structure – the design is exceptional, the technology is not.

Mortar from 1856

On the embankment left of the road, there are a few scattered old guns on the grass in front of the inconspicuous buildings now used by the military police. The most interesting one is a fat mortar from 1856 as would probably be used against fortified positions during the Crimea war. I wonder whether the army engineers responsible for erecting the mortar here indulged into a practical joke by positioning it and the two cannonballs the way they did.

The road turns L until it reaches again

L Repository Road

R public footpath across sports grounds

Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich

The footpath passes on the left the incredibly long front of the former Royal Artillery Barracks. The building was used by Artillery until 2007 and is now used by several units previously located in smaller London barracks that will be closed and sold off to developpers. The sports grounds were used in 2012 temporarily for the Olympic Games despite concerns about security and access because alternative sites were judged to be too far from London.

Triumphal arch of Royal Artillery Barracks

The main building dates back to 1802 and took 25 years to built -understandably as it is the longest continuous building front in Britain. The dark brick fronts are typical for the time as are the two white colonnades – you saw a similar style at the Paragon in Blackheath. The triumphal arch in the middle is beautiful and would probably be a tourist attraction if it were somewhere in Westminster. As the footpath is very far from the gate in order to leave enough room for parades, try and use the teleobjective on your camera.

Cross Grand Depot Road near the church ruin.

Ruin of Royal Garrison Church

The church was the Royal Garrison Church. It was actually built as St. George’s Garrison Church in 1867 and became royal after a visit by King George V in 1928. It was partly destroyed by a bomb in 1944 and was demolished except for the apse. It is actually still a consecrated church used until recently for occasional open-air services. It was kept both because of the symbolic role for the nearby barracks and because of the golden mosaic in the apse. The mosaic is not very old (1903) and artistically not remarkable, but it is lively and sparkles on the gold background.

Go down the stairs at the back of the church

L Woolwich New Road, merges into a larger road with the same name

St Peter RC church in Woolwich

The road passes the roman catholic church of St Peter the Apostle, a low building in an elegant neo-medieval style. St Peter’s Centre next door (the former school) is in the same style and is a bit surprising by being rather larger than the church itself. Both buildings have been designed by Augustus Pugin in 1843. He was a celebrity architect who was incredibly influential in launching the fashion for neo-gothic churches and it is interesting to see that he was moved to do this by a religious purpose.

A convert to the Roman Catholic faith, he thought gothic architecture was closer to God’s will and to a healthy society than Tudor architecture as Henry VIII had split the Anglican church from Rome for less than honourable reasons of divorce and finance. Pugin apparently built several hundred buildings despite dying at the young age of 40.

Former bank headquarters from 1935 in Woolwich

Just before the station, the road widens into General Gordon square, an extremely busy square due to the vicinity of a popular market. Until 1926, the trains ran in a cutting off the site of the square, but it became necessary to cover the cutting for safety reasons when the train line was electrified. The new space was used i.a. to build a very imposing building in pure Art Déco style in 1935. This was the headquarters of Woolwich Equitable Building Society. The company was converted into a listed bank in 1997 (yielding a nice one-off profit to the clients who were mutual owners) but was nearly immediately gobbled up by Barclays who just kept the brand.

Woolwich Town Hall

Short detour: If you walk off the square a few yards along Wellington Street, you can have a look at Woolwich Town Hall. This imposing building houses the authorities for the Royal Borough of Greenwich, of which Woolwich is now part, and was originally built for the Borough of Woolwich back in 1906. It is a good example of Edwardian imperial architecture and is certainly meant to convey dignity and power. I think it would be nicer with thinner columns and cornices.

I have not been inside as I feared I would be challenged by security officers and prevented from enjoying the architecture or taking pictures.

To reach the station, go back to the square.

WOOLWICH ARSENAL

The station opened in 1849 along with the train line. A connection was opened in 2009 with a nearby station on the Docklands Light Railway.

Woolwich Arsenal train station

The original station building was rebuilt in 1906 and again in 1996. The latest version is smaller than you could expect for a large town like Woolwich, but is an interesting construction. There is a peristyle of columns in pink concrete with visible joints, a very popular decoration feature in the 1990s. The station walls are made of glass, which often looks cheap and boring, but is enlivened here through the unusually tight steel grid.

Woolwich Arsenal train station

The best idea is the cute round tower marking the crossroads. It is possibly a reminder of lighthouses. In any case, the station cannot be confused with any other suburban train station in London, and this is an achievement in itself. Obviously, although materials are not expensive, some money went into making the station just a bit better.

Mural on platform of Woolwich Arsenal station

If you take the train here, you can pay attention to a mural on the platform showing workers in the arsenal. The style reminds of vorticism, which was very avant-garde in the 1930s.

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