CANNING TOWN walk to WOOLWICH ARSENAL
2 1/4 hours
The Docklands Light Railway was originally built in 1989 to connect the former London docks undergoing conversion with the City of London. As authorities were sorely short of funds and did not expect much traffic initially, they settled for a lightweight service comparable to a driverless tram. It is a railway and not a tram because it runs on dedicated tracks and never on rails laid on a road.
The high success of the initial line led to an extension of the network over the years. The section between Canning Town and King George V opened in 2005 in order to improve the connections to London City Airport. The airport was hugely popular with businesspeople because it is close to Canary Wharf and to the City, but also because the smaller size of the airport made passport controls easier to organise and much quicker (this is less the case nowadays, particularly after 5 pm). But the airport had no good connection with public means of transportation and the fleet of taxis was causing congestion in the area.
The line was then extended to Woolwich Arsenal in 2009, providing a useful link between the train line from Kent and Canary Wharf bypassing the overcrowded interchange at Lewisham. The line was built by a private consortium and leased to public authorities, which enables the government to pretend it did not occur a debt although it is actually a debt in disguise as the leasing contract must be honored and includes a healthy profit margin for the private interests. It is uncertain whether the consortium built for a significantly lower cost than the government would have had, this being the only potential justification for fattening private profits with public leasing payments.
Before the DLR line was built, there was a cumbersome connection between Canning Town and Woolwich via a train line and a ferry, but the train line ran over a different route. As a result, the DLR line did not re-use the old tracks. These are still visible in a few locations.
The DLR is a system similar to a tram. Travel is ticketed in a manner similar to a bus and you need to be aware that Oyster cards are occasionally charged surprising amounts if you are not very careful about where you touch the machines.
Routing note: This walk connects in with Underground Jubilee line walks 9 and 10 and with DLR walks 5 and 7. It connects in Woolwich Arsenal with London Bridge network walks 7 and 8.
The station was originally a normal train station called Barking Road and was renamed Canning Town in 1873. It opened in 1847 on the railway linking Stratford with the Woolwich ferry. The railway closed at the end of 2006 and was partly converted to a DLR line that opened in 2011 (my DLR walk 7).
In 1999, London Underground opened services on the Jubilee line through Canning Town. Finally, the DLR line to Royal Victoria and Beckton opened in 1995 and the additional DLR line between Canning Town and London City Airport opened in 2005.
These many lines imply a complex set of platforms. The lower level includes the former train platforms, now used by the DLR from Stratford, and the Jubilee Line platforms. They need to be kept strictly apart due to the different power system. An upper level was built in 1995 for the DLR line from Poplar.
There is no real station building, but there is a half subterranean concourse for the Underground platforms. The unusual layout of one platform above an other one, but both being open-air, was solved by the architect with rather elegant, unobtrusive shapes. The roof above the upper platform reminds of an airplane wing. Unfortunately, it was fashionable in the 1990s to use undecorated concrete and this material turns grey and dirty over time.
Exit the station and turn R along the main road Silvertown Way
When the main road rises on a ramp, keep R to level ground, this is unmarked Peto Road
At the end L under the highway viaduct, you are now on Victoria Dock Road
R across DLR tracks using the obvious footbridge
You are crossing here the DLR line between Canning Town and Beckton, a line using the track bed of the old dock railway. It was the first railway built specifically to serve a dock in 1855. Before that, goods were transferred from docks via canal barges for longer distances or via horse-drawn carriages.
Ahead (away from the big roundabout) on Tidal Basin Road
Walk to the riverside
R (south) along the end of the basin
The basin is Royal Victoria Dock, opened in 1855. It was a landmark development as it was the first dock built specifically for the new large steamships with a railway connection. The dock looked very different at the time as it was subdivided by piers bearing warehouses. Business dwindled to nearly nothing in the 1970s when container transport became widespread and the dividing piers were dismantled. This happened possibly in order to provide a good venue for water sports as there are not many convenient reservoirs available for sailing in London. There might also have been safety considerations as the basin is used as the runway approach for London City Airport in easterly wind conditions.
L continuing along the waterside
You get good views from this quayside towards the newest developments around Victoria Dock. The older developments were publicly-owned and located on the southern side of the dock where you are walking now. The area was considered unattractive for commercial development because of the vicinity of industrial premises, noise from the airport and a glaring lack of conveniences such as shops and pubs. The architecture is standardised and not very imaginative in order to limit cost but it was considered a very good quality development at the time. The awards it gained appear justified as the buildings look as good as new after twenty years and residents keep the roads in very good and clean shape.
The north side of the dock, which is better served by the DLR and located closer to employers such as Canary Wharf offices and the exhibition centre, started to be developed by speculators in the 2000s. You can see that the area caters to affluent buyers but not to rich investment bankers as the buildings are very massive with plain shapes, trying to maximise the number of flats on the ground available in order to compensate the fact that individual flats do not find buyers at the same outrageous prices than along the Thames in Wapping.
The spidery footbridge in the middle of the basin was built in 1998 in order to link the new developments on the south side of the basin with the DLR station at the Exhibition Centre as the line to City Airport did not exist at the time. The footbridge is designed in a manner reminiscent of the masts of 19th century sailing ships. It was built high enough to enable sailing and boating underneath.
R Keats Avenue (it should be the 3rd road marked by a double set of former harbour cranes, all other roads having no cranes to mark them)
Ahead Beaulieu Avenue
Ahead across a small park
Ahead West Mersea Close
The station opened in 2005 together with the new DLR line in order to serve nearby housing developments.
Although the station is an unmanned stop, it appears much more substantial than the flimsy viaduct stations built on the older DLR line from Poplar to Beckton. The colour theme is particularly drab, the red pillars of the older line having been judged a little too 1970s. The staircase blocks are a bit blocky and there is something strange about one block being encased in glass and the other one being left open to the wind and rain.
The platforms are encased in a rounded shape that appears to flow seamlessly into the core viaduct. This is indeed an elegant solution and the awnings protect passengers much better than in the older stations.
L along the DLR viaduct (you are on North Woolwich Road)
R Bradfield Road
The road soon turns R and passes the entrance to Lyle Park. Do not walk on the road beyond the park entrance. The park looks initially like a small playground but is much deeper and wider than it looks from the entrance.
The park was laid on the grounds of a sugar factory in 1924 when the owner (Mr Lyle, co-founder of well-known corporation Tate & Lyle) moved the factory away and gifted the ground, providing the only park in what was at the time a densely populated area with tenements for factory and dock workers. The borough put a bandstand on a raised area near the Thames but there were not many other amenities. The bandstand has disappeared but was replaced in 1994 by an imposing cast iron gate salvaged from nearby repair shipyard Harland & Wolff. The planting is low maintenance without formal flower beds, but the rose bushes around the old gate are lovely in summer. There are also a few other nice bushes and a heather bed near the entrance.
The park is nearly always empty, people being more attracted to the larger and more accessible Thames Barrier Park. As the park looks out over the Thames, you get a view towards the industrial premises in Charlton. My picture shows a seagoing ship, which is not very often the case upstream of the Thames Barrier.
After visiting the park, come back to North Woolwich Road
R continuing along the DLR viaduct
The station opened in 2005 together with the new DLR line. There are only smaller housing developments in the area, but there are some industrial premises and what was planned as a major park.
The station is an exact copy of the West Silvertown model and does not warrant an additional comment. My picture taken from below shows that the rounded shape of the awnings does not actually flow seamlessly into the main concrete beam of the viaduct, but the optical effect is reached by steel trusses and this is enough to be elegant.
I suggest you climb up to the platform as it will provide you with a nice view of the Royal Victoria dock. As you can see on my picture, there was only wasteland between the station and the dock at the time and you had a very interesting view of a derelict warehouse and polluted factory sitting threateningly over what was the new London Cruise Terminal. Actually, most ships use the much larger cruise terminal in the Tilbury docks because this avoids going through narrow tidal locks. For ships that are small enough to go through the Thames Barrier, a new cruise terminal is planned on derelict industrial premises in North Greenwich.
Detour from the DLR station into Thames Barrier Park
The park opened in 2000 after many years of difficult and costly work as the land had been used by a chemical factory and was heavily polluted. It was a core project to make the developments on the south side of Royal Victoria Dock sufficiently attractive and proved extremely popular with local residents but also later with people from further away due to the very convenient DLR access.
A good proportion of the park is the typical set of wide open green spaces as this is popular for football and picknicks. One peculiarity is that most trees are birch trees, a pioneer tree that is happy with difficult, quickly draining ground such as former industrial soil. There are few locations in London with parks on this type of soil and therefore not many occasions to see large clumps of birch trees.
The formal part of the park will come as a big surprise to people used to the English style of gardening. The landscape architect was a French company and the result of their planning is indeed the kind of postmodern park that has been quite popular in Paris and Brussels since the 1990s. It involves very geometric planning with long straight lines compensated by thick hedges pruned in wavy shapes.
Flower beds in the typical English style are eschewed in favour of coloured planting between the hedges. Postmodern landscaping likes curving walks meant to lead you along the most interesting viewpoints, a little like in traditional Japanese gardening, but this was not done in Thames Barrier Park, you can just walk along the hedges to enjoy the colourful flowers in season. One advantage of the hedges is that they cut wind (it can get really hot in summer, with people sunbathing); in addition, they are evergreen and provide an attraction in winter as well.
The main sight within the garden is a structure that looks like a pavilion on thin pillars. It does not protect much from wind and rain as the roof is very high up with no side protection, but this is linked to the fact that the structure is actually a war memorial commemorating the victims of German bombs during World War II in an area that was a prime objective due to the docks and factories.
The park looks out to the river and provides a very good view of the Thames Barrier, possibly even a better view than you can get from the official information centre on the other river bank. The barrier was designed in the 1970s once it became apparent that large seagoing ships would not need to visit the upstream docks any more, using rather the container terminals in places like Tilbury. The structure was finished in 1984 and is used half a dozen times a year, in most cases in order to prevent the rising tide from adding to a swollen river after heavy rains. The principle is simply that of rotating gates that lie on the ground of the river in normal times.
On exiting the park, resume walking along the DLR viaduct
At the road roundabout ahead, still on North Woolwich Road. The road merges into Factory Road
The building that looks like a sizeable church on this road was indeed a church built in 1857 and is a listed monument since 1971 because of its unusual structure. It is actually built in steel with the bricks being just a covering. The borough had intended to convert the former church into a local museum, but the roof burned down in 1981 and the building ended up being converted into a commercial music hall in 2003. It specialises in matinees with catering.
You might want to pay attention to the small war memorial in the grounds of the music hall. The wall behind the memorial has been painted beautifully with two scenes, one with a view of the area in the early 20th century with a large ship looming in the background due to the local repair shipyard, the other scene with a poppy field in Flanders. If you travel to Flanders nowadays, you are unlikely to see many poppies as this very fragile plant cannot resist the herbicides widely used in the industrialised agriculture of Flanders. Note that the sun rises over Flanders while it is still dark in Silvertown in the picture, which mirrors actual conditions.
Shortly afterwards L across a former train line using the old footbridge
The footbridge gives you a good view of the derelict train line from Canning Town to the Woolwich ferry, now being converted to the future Crossrail line. The large factory in the background is the London basis of food multinational Tate & Lyle and is a sugar refinery. It is one of the very few industrial premises still having full normal production activities within London, helped by the fact that smaller seagoing ships can reach it as it is downstream of the Thames Barrier.
R along the former train line on Connaught Road
L Parker Street
At the end R up a short ramp to reach the access road for
LONDON CITY AIRPORT
The station opened in 2005 together with the new train line and was the main reason for building the line.
This is one of the very few DLR stations with an actual building and even a staffed ticket office as arriving international passengers often need information and assistance. The station consists of a plain glass box below the viaduct and a rather drab grey oval box encasing the platform. The aesthetics is very “1990s financial sector”: cheap, plain but flashy enough. The view of the platforms shows a good colour scheme with blue steel girders giving rhythm to the curved glass surface.
By the way, the terminal itself is a small, utilitarian structure with a very plain glass and concrete front. It is clearly meant as a convenient terminal for businessmen, not as a flashy welcoming structure for tourists or as a high-throughput hall for masses of stag party candidates on their way to Mallorca. Airlines would love to land larger planes at this very convenient airport as there would be high demand from travelers, but the runway would be very difficult to extend and the tarmac is already congested at rush hour.
Leave the station using a subway under the access road (should be marked “Drew Road”)
L Drew Road
at the end R Leonard Street
L Newland Street
Just before the end of the road R into Sheldrake Close
Ahead on the footpath into the open space, then L still within the open space
This is the type of small open space that was not turned into an official park but has exactly the same function. It is clearly a legacy of the garden suburb movement and remained popular until the 1950s. Then came the time of the high-rise tower estates. Current fashion goes to inward-looking gated estates that look like classical garden suburbs but are off-limits to passers-by and force you to walk along main highways.
Cross a first road, continuing ahead along houses. The footpath turns R at the end towards a road corner with a small open space
From the open space, you have a view to a row of large satellite dishes on the other side of the main road and former train line. This is a location bearing originally the complicated name London North Woolwich Earth Station. It is now called the London Teleport but is still not a Star Wars teleportation terminal. It is used to catch signals from a large set of specialised satellites, some of them for financial institutions who need to keep in light-speed-contact with exotic stock markets in Central Africa or Pacific islands. Built by BT, it was sold in 2007 to a group of pension funds as it is the kind of low-investment, stable-return infrastructure business they like to invest in.
At the end L Fernhill Street
R Manwood Street
After a small park L to reach Dockland Street
At the end R for
KING GEORGE V
The station opened in 2005 as a temporary terminal for the new DLR line and was converted into a normal station in 2009 after the line was extended to Woolwich. It serves a number of nearby housing developments although these are not very sought after due to the noise from the airport.
As usual on the DLR network, there is no station building. The platforms are actually invisible from the road because of a particularly ugly and massive wall. Seen from the footbridge, the platforms are very plain with a simple corrugated iron awning.
At the east end of the DLR station, turn R on Pier Road (there is a pavement sign saying “ferry”)
The road crosses a small square with a few shops beneath rather low apartment buildings. The setup shows clearly that this is not a flashy suburb, but the shops are certainly very useful as they are the only ones within a significant distance.
The road turns R at the end past the former train terminal. Walk to the rotunda of the foot tunnel
The former train station is a very nice building from 1847, the time when train stations were still major landmarks and the access to a fascinating, nearly glamorous means of fast transportation. The terminal was built accordingly in a majestic neo-classical style. It was unusual to build stations in U-form in order not to lose valuable ground surface and the terrace above the passenger hall must have been very enjoyable for the station master whose apartment gave out on it. The building is in red bricks, a contrast to the more or less contemporary station in Greenwich, built in yellow bricks.
The building and the platforms were used for a small railway museum until 2008, when it was decided to use some of the grounds for the construction of the Crossrail tunnel. I have found no information about the potential future use of the nice railway terminal.
Take the Woolwich Foot Tunnel or the free ferry. As I comment on the tunnel in a Jubilee line walk, I suggest taking rather the ferry if it is operating. It is free since 1889 and runs quite regularly. It is actually the only ferry in London that really makes sense from a traffic point of view as there are no Thames crossings between Dartford and Greenwich. If you happen to cross with a GPS system one day, look at the screen while in the middle of the river. This gives interesting “riddle pictures”.
Once you are on the right bank of the Thames, walk up the ramp from the ferry pier to the large roundabout.
Walk around the roundabout on the L side and continue ahead on the main road (John Wilson Road)
The corner building near the roundabout, the Gateway House, now houses a church named interestingly the “New Wine Church”. I love the name as it could be used to comical effect in a number of manners (drunken churchgoers ? wine made of some new ingredients ?) while I acknowledge that this church in the evangelical tradition has a number of highly commendable charitable activities. The building was built in 1937 as a film theatre in the Art Déco style typical for this type of venue at the time.
As opposed to the more decorative style of the early 1930s, the vertical shapes are not compensated by curving horizontal shapes and this gives a somewhat austere look fitting with the economic crises of the late 1930s. The building is used by the church since 2001.
Very soon L Powis Street
One of the most conspicuous buildings near the start of the street is also an imposing Art Déco building and was a direct competitor to the other one as it opened also in 1937. The style is more traditionally Art Déco, combining vertical elements such as the tower with curving horizontal shapes. Very large plain surfaces in red brick were the height of fashion, inspired by Dutch contemporary architecture (and conveniently cheap to build). It is now also a church in the evangelical tradition, part of a very successful organisation founded in 1989 by a gentleman of Nigerian origin. As opposed to the New Wine Church, it is known more for missionary enthusiasm and investment in impressive cathedrals than for charitable outreach.
Just after a large parking area, the street narrows between two very urban buildings. The left-hand one is a derelict building that looks like a factory from the 1930s with the typical band of large glass windows inspired by the German Bauhaus concept. The tower is not very ornate but it was indeed a department store belonging to the cooperative movement. The building is probably listed and renovation seems under way but I do not know for which further use.
The building opposite with the Edwardian entrance tower marked “Central Stores established 1908” was the central building of the shopping cooperative founded by arsenal workers in 1868. It turned progressively into of the most successful cooperatives in Britain with 500,000 members throughout the southeast of England. The 1973 crisis forced it to merge into the larger Co-op group.
Although I am very much in favour of the cooperative movement as such, I think some questions can be asked once cooperatives reach such a size that individual members have very little personal link with the organisation. The difficulties of the Woolwich cooperative were indeed closely linked to the fact that members saw no differences any more between their shops and capitalist competitors apart from a very small rebate at year end. More work on appropriate governance and communication structures would be warranted.
The building is very Edwardian in terms of colour scheme (red with cream-coloured highlights) and decoration (unashamed mix of styles including Palladian, Italian Renaissance, Dutch gables, neo-romanesque window arches and a statue in the baroque tradition). The building houses other commercial interests by now. There are several commercial buildings in a similar style further up the street, but they are all much smaller and less impressive.
The very last building at the corner opposite the DLR station is a concrete box used by a bank. It is worth a short look as it is a typical structure from the 1950s, a period when not much was built in London. The concrete boxes encasing rows of windows and curtain walls are typical and testify to a new construction method: a limited number of concrete pillars carry the weight of the walls and floors and the outside walls have no carrying function.
This enables much thinner walls, which saves a lot on costs and construction time although it proved a problem later in terms of insufficient insulation against outside temperatures, causing huge heating or cooling costs. It also provided a new aesthetics, the “shoebox style”. Fancy decoration in the Edwardian or Art Déco tradition was hopelessly out of fashion and plain concrete walls were decorated if in any manner with a contemporary abstract painting (popular for schools) or with a cast iron sculpture. In the present case, there is no decoration at all.
The road ends opposite the station
The station opened in 2009 when the DLR line was extended beyond King George V and is the terminal. It is one of very few underground stations on the DLR network. Although there is an easy connection to the nearby suburban train station, the two buildings are very different and clearly separate.
The station being subterranean, the only thing above ground is the entrance pavilion, a plain glass box that I suspect can be conveniently integrated into a shopping centre if the plot gets developed one day (there is a good example in Brixton). The awning is a fancy item where the light designer could have a little fun.
An other fun item is the mosaic encasing the stairs with depictions of everyday items in bright colours. Obviously, it is meant as a serious work of art in the direction of pop art.