The story of human society can be told in many ways. One way is to study the role of the bullies, the violent men, the brutes who think nothing of killing. That’s what we most often study in history. Civilisation – Britain – is built on armed conflict, on invaders, soldiers and left-tenants, whose prowess comes from aggressive behaviour and superior weaponry.
There’s another story told more often these days – farms. And there are places where that might be fitting, but it’s hardly possible to step more than a few yards from Eltham en route north through Woolwich without encountering again and again reminders of weapons of war and defence.
We being this walk at Eltham Station, a tangled knot of busy highways and side streets and railways, much like our journey around the North Circular, where we get a sense from the noise, of the hustle to come. We climb into the woods – the ancient woods – although it’s hard to see their age, as they’re much like other woods, just trees – of Oxleas. And still we hear the echo of armory.
In these trees are gun mounts, of home front defence for the second world war, and a high velocity missile battery to protect the 2012 Olympic Games. In these woods a castle, a folly, named, wrongly, after the island fort which its master – Commodore William James – to his glory, destroyed.
This is Shooters Hill, most likely named for the archers who practiced here, how to bring death on a stuffed straw man. A rain of steel tipped shafts, whose clumsy forced entry could mercifully snuff out a soul, or – more likely – permit disease to penetrate and bring painful and ebbing demise. Named too for the thieves – local men – who hung out in the woods waiting to rob and to maim. We all of us experience that fear from time to time.
Across the brow of Shooters Hill, as straight as a bow, the roman road, marching without deviation from the encampments by Dover, to Westminster, the Thames and the North. The short sword was the romans’ weapon of choice – small, stiff, up close, a deadly rugby scrum. The romans brought death, and their own order.
These days the roman era is seen as an interlude. And one more civilised than what came after.
A barrier designed to contain livestock – the sheep being brought to market waiting on the Woolwich Common, with no access to the barracks land beyond.
Down into Woolwich, for centuries a military town, though now a mixed community, a warship building port and home of the royal artillery barracks until 10 years ago when globalisation meant they needed a bigger place. Here we see the garrison church of St George, once a tall, grand edifice, humbled though not fully destroyed – a metaphor – by a V1 missile, a new era of weaponry ushered in three quarters of a century ago, death by remote control, a flying bomb.
Past the site of more weapons – a car, a knife and a cleaver – the attack on Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, killed deliberately, though randomly, by Michaels Adebo-lajo and Adebo-wale, both from Woolwich. And the three CO19 specialist firearms officers who did not kill but wounded, then stemmed the blood, and made them stand trial.
Down in what was the arsenal, now converted to new homes and a heritage centre, though there’s no easy escape from the parade ground feel, the soldiers ‘at ease’, the cannons as sculpture, capable when ignited of damaging a target 16 miles away, perched oddly by luxury new builds.
Then we cross. The Thames. The London Spiral is defined by the crossings of the Thames. On the Woolwich Free Car Ferry. The river is calm, the view is wide and thin. We look back on Woolwich, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning wool port, suggests softness, a jumper slightly itchy on bare skin.
Meeting place: just outside Eltham station, (overground train from Charing Cross or London Bridge)
Date & time: Sunday October 8th 2017, 1pm
Distance: the walk is about 7 miles, with a break
End point: Gallions Reach DLR
Route Map: https://binged.it/2xvsme9
Cost: No charge, the ferry is free, however severndroog charges a small admission
Terrapin basking by the Long Pond
View south from Oxleas Common.
I always like Stairs leading up through a wood or mountain pass. Here in Oxleas Wood.
Severndroog Castle. From its turret you can see, on a clear day, far across the city.
Glorious oak tree in Jackwood, Shooters Hill.
Kite between the two television transmitters at Croydon and Crystal Palace. Seen from Oxleas Common.
Billy Davis Fairground attractions on Woolwich Common.
Crows in tree on Woolwich Common.
Hard to see the barrier to livestock from here …
But up closer …
Ha-ha. The ditch and the wall keep the grass of barrack ground secure from livestock. The fence is for people.
The Barracks of the Royal Artillery, 1776 until 2007. Still some cadets on parade.
Across the road, St George’s
On the wall a golden mural of St George and the Dragon.
Dramatic new residential buildings in central Woolwich, carry a denser population than the terrace houses they replace.
Cannons made at the Arsenal.
Statue to Nike.
Peter Burke naked iron navvies, waiting by the jetty.
View from Woolwich west to London. At this scale it’s hard to see, but you’ve got another ferry boat, the Thames Barrier, Silvertown to the right and the Tate & Lyle sugar factory, Canary Wharge beyond, and the distant thread of the cable car, the previous crossing of the spiral over the river.
Woolwich free car ferry
From the north bank, a view back to the changing waterfront at Woolwich, with Shooters Hill in the low distance beyond. The place remains but what is there has completely changed.
extract (c) Google Maps
Like to join the London Spiral? Contact: email@example.com 077932 00932