What a fantastic walk! I'd readily do this walk all over again, just for the pleasure, and even the sullen grey skies of this pathetic excuse for a summer failed to ruin it. This section is fairly unique among tubewalks – the closest is perhaps the section of the East London line along the Thames – and even though it's the second longest tubewalk in my entire route – the Northern line loop from Kennington to Euston and back is half a mile longer – the scenery is so breathtaking that the miles just just fly by.
The only problem with this walk is that it's hard to break into smaller chunks, as it only visits one station en route. The way I've mapped it out – with a lot of meandering, in other words – it's a walk of 6.8 miles from Canada Water to Canary Wharf and 6.3 miles from Canary Wharf to North Greenwich, though if you were a crow flying, it would be just 1.4 and 1.0 miles respectively. The reason for all this extra distance is, of course, the Thames getting in the way, and the only sensible place to cross the river is at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs (I briefly considered taking the ferry from the Hilton Docklands pier, but this is a tubewalk, and I thought that would be cheating). But it's this extra distance that makes this walk such a thrill; you spend the entire day looping round the huge skyscrapers on the Isle of Dogs, heading slowly for the Dome, and it's such a thrill to climb up to the top of Greenwich and look down on your entire walk before completing the final stretch.
So we've got a walk that covers modern suburbia, luxury riverside developments, massive skyscrapers, historical parks, great views, heavy industry, and to cap it all, we finish at the crazy spires of the Dome (or the O2, as it's now known). What's not to like about that?
Canada Water to Canary Wharf
The approach to Canada Water from the west is a fairly gritty affair, with a long walk through the housing estates of Bermondsey, but from the moment you reach Canada Water, things improve considerably, and the positive effects of regeneration are plain to see. Just south of the station is Canada Water itself, a lake that is all that remains of Canada Dock. It's pleasant enough, even though there's a massive sports mega-store lurking on the other side, but the Albion Canal that links Canada Water and Surrey Water is an absolute delight. This canal used to be Albion Dock, but like so much of the Docklands area, it's been filled in and converted into quality housing. It was incredibly quiet as I wandered along the canal, the pleasant apartment blocks on either side eerily silent, but even though the canal is currently smothered in pondweed and there's nobody about during the day, I liked the place. It's clean, it's well laid out, it's peaceful and the buildings are rather pleasant.
Away from the canal the suburbs continue to be completely silent, with endless cul-de-sacs winding around each other, until you suddenly pop out of the end of St Elmos Road and there, standing in front of you like an ecological pyramid, is Stave Hill, a 30 ft-high grassy mound created in 1985 from waste material and rubble. The views from the top of this eye-pleasing hillock are impressive, and to the east, almost close enough to touch, is the first glimpse of the Isle of Dogs; the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf are a constant companion on today's walk, and this is the first view of many.
Stave Hill isn't just a hill, it's also an ecological park that stretches for 5.2 acres across what used to be Stave Dock (there's a map of the old docks on top of Stave Hill, which shows just how much of this area used to be taken up with water). The Waterman's Walk weaves through this ecological park, taking you past ponds and through enjoyable woodland to a tunnel under Salter Road, where signs proclaim that this is Nelson Walk, and that there used to be a pumping station nearby. The path reaches Rotherhithe Road, where some original dock buildings make a welcome appearance, and by turning right and then left you can reach the river, which is going to be our companion for most of the rest of this walk.
The Thames Path passes this way, and I can't think of a better companion to take us all the way to Greenwich Foot Tunnel. The signposts are clear, it's hard to get lost when you're following such a large river, and even though the route is subtly different to the one in the rather old guidebook I have (I've got the 2001 trail guide, while the latest dates from 2007), it's a breeze to follow. The views over the river to Canary Wharf are breathtaking and constantly engaging, and the residential developments along the shoreline are impressive, to say the least, even if there's hardly anyone around.
Not far south along the banks of the river, the Thames Path takes you to Surrey Docks Farm, through which you can wander when it's open (the signs for the Thames Path take you round the outside, just in case it's closed). This thriving little farm covers 2.2 acres and has goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry, bees and donkeys, and out on the riverside are rows of vegetable plots, just past a working blacksmith's shed. It's such a strange place to find a farm, opposite the colossal skyscrapers of the Isle of Dogs, and it's utterly charming. Sculptures of animals line the river bank, including an intriguing model of a crane standing on water that's made entirely out of rubbish, and although it's small, the farm is perfectly formed.
Just after the farm the Thames Path turns away from the river to circumnavigate New Caledonian Wharf, one of the many prestigious residential blocks along this part of the river. It's private land, so you can't walk along the river at this point, and instead you have to go round the back, where there's a surprise in store, namely a pig-ugly tower block standing right next to the luxury gated community that was built in 1989. This is Custom House, and it's bizarre to find two totally different standards of living, literally side-by-side; I should think each one annoys the other equally.
After New Caledonian Wharf there are two docks that are still in use, namely Greenland Dock and South Dock. It's fun to explore these huge expanses of water, and South Dock has a busy marina and a lock system that's operated by a team of staff who only let you cross when it's safe. The lock staff were all smiles, but the people in the marina looked at me as if I shouldn't be there, which is odd, considering this is the Thames Path and they must get walkers through here all the time. I tried smiling at the men in the boatyard, but they didn't seem to care; perhaps they were having a bad day. Still, it doesn't stop both these docks being quite beautiful, and the redevelopment around the edges is sympathetic and impressive.
The housing to the south of the docks is a lot grittier than the posh developments to the north, coinciding with the switch from Rotherhithe to Deptford. Outside the Pepys Estate along Deptford Wharf, I witnessed a young boy of about ten trying to throw a bicycle into the Thames, only to be shouted back from the brink by a voice from the tower block above. So the kid chucked the bike on the ground and ran off, clearly not phased one little bit, but this does introduce the next section of the walk quite well, as it's quite a contrast with what we've seen so far. The faded tower blocks round here are completely at odds with the luxurious apartments alongside the river, and here the Thames Path turns inland to go round the back of Convoy's Wharf, a huge site that was originally developed in 1513 by Henry VIII to build ships for the Royal Navy; it's now owned by News International, but it may be developed into residential blocks if the planning application goes through. The Thames Path wanders through the shadow of a monstrous tower block and across Pepys Park to Grove Street, where the apartment blocks have peeling paint and there's little to suggest that this is a prime riverside location.
The Thames Path does get back to the river eventually, and not surprisingly, the expensive developments return. There's even room for a statue of Peter the Great outside the luxury apartment block on the northwest corner of Deptford Creek; as a young man in 1697 and 1698, the future Russian Tsar travelled to Europe to study shipbuilding, and for much of his four-month stay in England he lived near the Royal Dockyard in Deptford at the home of the writer John Evelyn. Typically, the scene he overlooks at the moment is one of heavy construction, as Deptford Creek – the mouth of the River Ravensbourne, a different Ravensbourne to the stream I came across in Elm Park on the District line – is soon to be home to Millennium Quay, another modern housing development.
It's a short walk from Deptford Creek to north Greenwich, where we leave the Thames Path for the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which runs under the river, joining Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs. It was opened in 1902 and has a domed entrance at each end, both of which contain lifts and stairs (I took the stairs, as taking the lift would be cheating on a tubewalk). It's a slightly eerie walk across the river, with plenty of tourists yelling down the echoing corridor.
On the other side of the river are the pretty Island Gardens, which date from 1895. They have great views across to Greenwich, and from here it's yet more shoreline walking, all the way round the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs towards Canary Wharf. The Riverside Walk is your constant companion, and apart from a few short inland sections, which are clearly signposted, all the walking is along the riverbank, and the views across to the likes of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich Power Station and the Dome are excellent (and indeed, the second half of this walk is along the opposite shore, so it's a chance to scout out what's in store). This part of the world is known as Cubitt Town, after William Cubitt, the Mayor of London from 1860 to 1861, who was responsible for developing this area. He built housing here in the 1840s and 1850s, mainly to house the growing population of local dock workers, and these days the area is an interesting mix of the old east London working class and the new influx of city workers.
The shoreline alongside Cubitt Town is almost exclusively residential, though there aren't as many huge, modern developments as there are on the banks of Rotherhithe and Deptford; instead, the developments are smaller and more modest, and the result is a very enjoyable walking environment. There's even a beach at London Yard, overlooked by the pleasant houses of Vermeer Court, Van Gogh Court and Frans Hal Court. OK, so there's a deeply ugly tower block to the north of the beach and I came across my only drunks of the day sucking on cans of Fosters in its shadow, but this tower block aside, the housing along the eastern shores of the Isle of Dogs is excellent, and after the tower it's straight back into the modern blocks of New Union Wharf, with modern developments taking you all the way to Preston's Road.
Here the main road crosses the entrance to West India Docks, and it's time to turn west into the massive skyscraper city of Canary Wharf. It's quite an event, walking into the city, with all its anti-terrorist concrete barriers, police checks and security guards. One kindly couple of guards outside the Barclays building told me I wasn't allowed to take pictures of their building 'because of terrorists', and they went on to explain that 'all of Canary Wharf is privately owned, and you aren't allowed to take any pictures without a permit.' Then again, they were only bothered about their building and were just warning me in case I got stopped by anyone else, and although I didn't have any problems snapping away, it didn't exactly make me feel welcome (though walking through Canary Wharf in jeans and T-shirt makes you stick out like a sore thumb, so I'm not sure I felt that welcome anyway). Having done some research on my return, it's only professional photography that requires a permit and amateur photography is allowed, though you may get questioned if you're outside the normal tourist spots around the Tube station, just for security reasons. There have also been reports of over-eager security guards clamping down on tourists, so watch out for them, though the two I spoke to were genuinely pleasant and helpful.
The spiritual heart of Canary Wharf is Canada Square, around which the largest skyscrapers loom. The most recognisable is One Canada Square at the western end of the square, currently the tallest building in the UK with its distinctive pyramid-shaped roof, while the HSBC and Citigroup towers flank the north and south sides respectively. The eastern side is taken up by a monstrous Waitrose, deep within a huge steel and glass cage. To say that the architecture is imposing is to miss a trick – it's staggering, and practically impossible to photograph from the ant's view you have as you wander along the immaculate streets, weaving through businessmen making terribly important-sounding mobile phone calls.
The much-lauded Canary Wharf station is to the south of Canada Square, down a set of steps that gives a grand view of the open space in front of the station. The busiest Tube station outside of central London, and the busiest single-line station on the whole network, Canary Wharf is absolutely massive, though most of that bulk is below ground. Above ground, the Norman Foster-designed entrance is little more than a lovely steel-and-glass arch at the western edge of a wide open square, but you have to go inside to appreciate the splendour of this staggering building. You don't need a ticket to go down into the main entrance hall, so the detour is well worth the effort (and there are toilets down here, too, which might be useful after all that walking). Canary Wharf is regarded as the centrepiece of the Jubilee line extension, and it's been a source of national pride since it opened in 1999; the praise is well deserved, I have to say.
Canary Wharf to North Greenwich
From Canary Wharf, my plan was to head south through the middle of the Isle of Dogs, cross under the river again, explore Greenwich, and finally head up the riverbank to the Dome, where North Greenwich station signals the end of this long day's walk. It is again an enjoyable walk, and is surprisingly different to the hike from Canada Water to Canary Wharf.
The first task is to negotiate your way out of the skyscrapers, and the quickest way is through the glass shopping centre to the south of the square, beyond which is the West India Quay footbridge, a small suspension bridge that has great views along West India Docks. To the west is a bridge carrying the Docklands Light Railway north to Heron Quays station, and after a short walk along Admiral's Way, you rejoin the railway as it runs above your head. The DLR's South Quay station is just along the road, and it's fun to watch the little red trains scooting around the corner, like a snippet from a futuristic 1930s movie.
I thought I'd head south along Millharbour to get a feeling for the southern Isle of Dogs, but almost all the road is surrounded by rabid construction work, and exclusive residential blocks are springing up left, right and centre. It perhaps might be more pleasant instead to walk along the western edge of Millwall Inner Dock, which I joined sometime later along Pepper Street, after the developments had calmed down a little. Again, the views along the dock towards Canary Wharf are stunning, and crossing over the dock takes you to a walkway that hugs the eastern edge of Millwall Outer Dock and takes you through the lovely houses along Clippers Quay, where you have to stick to the dockside as this is private property. There's a huge piece of red machinery at the entrance to the quay, which turns out to be part of the machine that used to raise the gates across the river at Surrey Docks, and there are moorings all along Clippers Quay, though they're all empty; presumably the idea of having a private mooring is more attractive than actually owning a boat.
The modern housing ends at Spindrift Avenue and switches to pleasant Victorian terraces, which are a lovely surprise after such a long stretch of modern architecture. Heading across the road into Millwall Park again provides good views of the skyscrapers across the grass, and there's an old viaduct you can walk alongside, all the way to the Island Gardens DLR station. This brick viaduct was originally part of the Millwall Extension Railway, which opened in 1872 to join the West India Docks to North Greenwich, and when the DLR was originally built, this viaduct was used to take the railway from Mudchute to the then terminus at Island Gardens. The DLR was later extended south to Lewisham via a tunnel under the Thames, and Island Gardens station was moved 100m to the south to access the tunnel directly, leaving the viaduct unused. Island Gardens itself is a short walk south of the DLR station, and then it's back into the Greenwich Foot Tunnel for the short walk under the river to Greenwich.
Arriving back in Greenwich, the white pavilions on the left hide the Cutty Sark, the 1869 clipper that has been on public display in Greenwich since 1954. On a fire ripped through the ship, which was in the process of being conserved, and it burned for several hours before being brought under control. The Heritage Lottery Fund has pledged a further £10 million to restore the ship, though until she reopens in early 2010, there's not a lot to see from the quayside.
From the Cutty Sark, I thought I'd follow another of Andrew Duncan's excellent walks from his London Walks Map, as I'd enjoyed his route through St James's so much. First up on his route is Greenwich Market, which dates from 1831; during the week there are a few quiet food stalls and some pleasant shops, but at the weekend it's much busier. Back out on the main road is the imposing St Alfege's Church, which towers over the traffic junction; the current church dates from 1718, though there's been a church on this site since 1012, the year when Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed by Viking raiders on this very spot.
From the church it's a long and uphill walk along Croom's Hill, and I have to say it's delightful. There are beautiful Georgian houses all the way up the hill, as well as the world's only Fan Museum near the bottom, the sharp spire of the 1793 Our Lady Star of the Sea Church halfway up, and a lovely little green space near Wellington Grove at the top. From here the short Park Walk leads into the Greenwich Park, where there's a lovely rose garden, more impressive buildings (such as the Ranger's House), a pretty lake and some delightful flower gardens; and finally, in the centre of the park, you can find the pièce de résistance, the Royal Observatory.
The view from beneath the statue of General Wolfe towards London is truly breathtaking, and it's especially satisfying to look towards the Isle of Dogs having just walked round it. This is one of the great views in London, and with the Old Royal Naval College in the foreground and the towering skyscrapers behind, it's one of those views where you could sit and stare all day, even on a grey day like today. The Observatory is also well worth a visit (especially as it's free), but that might be best saved for a dedicated visit, as there's still some way to go before the end of this particular walk. At this point, Andrew Duncan's route (which I followed) heads east to the edge of the park and then down Maze Hill to the northeast corner of the park, but if I had my time again, I'd probably head straight down the face of the hill, following the Greenwich Meridian towards the Old Royal Naval College, and head right along Park Vista... but they all end up at the same spot, and on the other side of Trafalgar Road we leave Mr Duncan's excellent route and rejoin the Thames Path, which goes all the way to the Dome.
There's an old Georgian pub here, the Cutty Sark, which has been serving ale since 1795, and more attractive Georgian houses line the streets right up to the old harbour master's office, which backs onto a huge housing development. The Thames Path gets diverted round the development, which takes quite a while to circumnavigate, and from this point on, the theme is industry and lots of it. Between here and the Dome there's not a hint of residential development, and it's all dark, satanic mills with amazing views across to the Isle of Dogs. You walk past shores strewn with rusting machinery and idle boats, under huge concrete silos, past a pier that you can walk on for great views along the river, through a large area that's sitting there doing nothing, past large piles of aggregate, along a massive quay that drops straight down into the churning Thames below without a hint of a safety barrier, and finally you turn into a wide open area of flat concrete, with great views of the Dome ahead. All the while the views across the river are stunning, and it's easy to trace the route we took through Cubitt Town and along the eastern edge of the Isle of Dogs.
North Greenwich station is not far off the Thames Path, and signs point you down Tunnel Avenue, where you flank the southeast edge of the Dome before turning into Ordnance Crescent and crossing the road to the station. The Dome is hidden behind ugly blue hoardings at this point and it's hard to appreciate its grace, but there's no denying the size of the thing, and the nearby station is equally grand. As one of the largest stations on the whole network, North Greenwich was designed to cope with 20,000 passengers an hour, and it is a huge beast, all steel, glass and concrete, with a very high roof and lots of space to cope with all the crowds that have failed to rally to the Dome since it was opened in 1999. Perhaps the Dome's re-christening as the O2 will pull the crowds in, but unless you're here when there's a concert next door, it does feel a bit like a white elephant. The area to the southwest of the Dome is an industrial quagmire, and while you can easily see the regenerative effect around stations like Canada Water and Southwark, it's not at all obvious around North Greenwich. It'll be interesting to see if things are quite as desolate to the southeast.
So that brings us to the end of a brilliant walk along the Thames, and definitely one of my favourite tubewalks. I wonder if the final day of my tubewalk, along the furthest reaches of the Jubilee line, will be as memorable...