The Thames is always beckoning for these New Year Walks, an easy option if the trains happen to be disrupted by snow or storms. They weren’t, but habit grips hard, so for this New Year 2016 ramble we approached the river from Blackheath and Greenwich rather than (as previously) starting riverside and staying there.
A good turnout: Starting mostly from Dalston on the wondrous Overground were 16 walkers, Roaders and off-Roaders, all of them seasoned in the tradition of not quite getting lost, but not being absolutely sure where they were either.
The sun shone for a nice villagey start in Blackheath, near the delightfully named Tranquil Vale which turns to be a busy local shopping street at a guess named by a 19th century estate agent. We toiled up the hill, distracted for only a moment by a nicely traditional cash butcher who would Accept No Credit Cards.
Then we turned into the salubrious Blackheath Park private estate of fine houses of various generations, including some distinctive 1960s flats by the notably progressive Span Developments that still look good today.
The houses got posher as we went on, and included the residence of the French composer Charles Gounod, best known for his Ava Maria and his opera Faust. He was not audibly at home. Then past the impressive Paragon, a fine 200-year-old apartment block, and across once highwayman-haunted Blackheath, now populated by fitness fanatics and Canada Geese. And an early chance to stand at the marker of the Meridian along which we then walked for much of the rest of the morning… with one foot in the western hemisphere and one not. As we did so the weather changed to rain.
On the wall of the adjacent Greenwich Park (grander, royaller, bigger) we paused at the memorial slate of the Cornish revolutionaries who marched on London this way in the 15th century, rejoicing the hearts of those with a working knowledge of Cornish, in which ancient tongue the plaque is (partly) written. Others wondered at the Cornish sense of geography, and why these West Country rebels entered London on the Dover Road.
On entering the Park we began to walk in circles..not the traditional error but a deliberate ploy on the part of the volunteer planners at the Saturday Walking Club to add a mile or two to the ramble and thereby arrive at the chosen luncheon venue at lunchtime, symbolised by the ball that is hoisted up the pole atop Greenwich Observatory at 12.55pm and falls precisely at 1pm GMT, signifying the correct time to mariners passing up and down the Thames. We adjusted our watches.
But before that we took in the glorious terrace view of the Naval College and Canary Wharf from the terrace near the observatory, with a tentative rainbow enlightening the Great Wen and new towers whose whereabouts was impossible to establish from that unfamiliar viewpoint.
We circumnavigated the Royal Observatory, observed the Ranger’s House and Queen Charlotte’s chilly open air bath (no visible Q.C., although she was famous for her raunchy parties), saw plenty of elderly trees and Sir John Vanbrugh’s Castle peeping over the Park walls.
He built it for himself before designing castles for others, notably Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He was also a spy, a noted (and spicy) playwright and theatre proprietor. Good egg.
A nice passerby took the group photograph on a convenient bandstand in the Park, obviating the normal need for hours of Photoshopping to insert the snapper into the picture.
After the ball came down (see above) we repaired (as Vanbrugh might have said) to the Plume of Feathers, oldest pub in Greenwich and (as it was started in 1691) one which Vanbrugh may well have repaired to as well. The ales were fresh though, changed brews since two days previously when a recce team had sounded them out.
After lunch the party dwindled as happens particularly on urban rambles, some home to S. London, some to Pepys at the Maritime Museum, and some took the foot tunnel under the Thames, now 114 years old. Always exciting, but a nice distraction at the north end was a gaggle of glitteringly dressed young women who utterly ignored the (aged) Ramblers.
And up the lovely round lift to the Isle of Dogs, that odd mixture of faraway dockworkers’ villages, distant banking towers, and new apartment blocks with terrific river views but apparently nobody at home. It is as though some nasty Neutron bomb had left buildings intact but destroyed everyone who lived in them. They do things on their own here; we ORRA ramblers could only observe (smugly) that community it ain’t.
Back north under glowering skies by DLR and bus. Home at 4.43pm GMT, exactly.
Words and pictures by Annie and Peter
Want to relive past walks? Find them in the Archive