My ramblings find me at Thameside youth hostel which is situated in Rothehithe, the site of the old Surrey Docks. I took the opportunity to walk along the Thames footpath from Rothehithe to Tower Bridge on the south side of the Thames and then along the north through, Wapping, Limehouse and eventually Canary Wharf, before meandering down alongside the Isle of Dogs to the Greenwich foot-tunnel. Once across to the other side it was west again through Deptford, the site of a famous naval yard in Nelson’s time, back to the hostel. A wonderfully enlightening walk that left me with many observations and questions concerning the quality of River life.
London was once the greatest sea port in the world, with ships crowding into the docks from Tilbury in the estuary right down to Tower Bridge and the London Pool. Tragically the arrival of the container trade destroyed most of the old communities around Bermondsey, Rothehithe, Wapping, and Limehouse, leaving it in much the same way as Tyneside and Merseyside in the north… totally redundant, with communities wondering what was next. It wasn’t enough to work hard for year after year, providing for one’s family – for the huge Globalist monster’s appetite will never be satisfied until the last of us are squeezed dry.
So ‘times have a changed’, as Bob Dylan thought they would, and I suppose if a clean, non-working river is one’s heart’s desire, then all is fine and dandy. After all, who cares about the odd community hear and there? No more unions means no more protection for the workforce who are now utterly at the mercy of rapacious employers throughout the nation. So all those nasty rabble-rousers campaigning for a decent living wage for a hard day’s work, can jolly well sod orff.
So what now?
Well, there’s no doubt that the wealth generated from the dockland redevelopment is huge and that some folk have benefitted massively; however, I couldn’t help feeling that the endless, post modernist, glass buildings and twee, new build apartments lack something. Where were all the people? Having been bought up on the banks of the River Tyne, there were so many folk around. We played by the river, our relatives worked alongside its banks, from Newcastle and Gateshead, right down to South Shields. We were the river, and the river was us.
If I’m honest, I’d have to conclude that the nation’s most important river has lost its soul. The ghosts of the sounds of children playing have been replaced by the bleak wind that whistles through the soulless new properties. From time to time the Thames path would enter an area of the old fifties and sixties social housing and it was here that the only community I encountered seemed to be, with the sound of reggae pounding through the apartment blocks. These scary, old developments used to be no-go areas back in the time of the Brixton riots, but now, ironically, I was almost glad to leave all the concrete and glass for something a little more human.
The foot tunnel between the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich is truly an amazing feet of engineering and rarely encountered by tourists unless accidentally. It was finished in 1902, enabling dock workers to cross the river from the south bank to their place of work in the many working docks on the Isle of Dogs. It is 1,217 feet long (371 metres).
On ascending the other side into Greenwich, the appearance of the masts and spars of the ‘Cutty Sark’ is enough to truly raise one’s spirits, and for me cancelled out the sadness of the bleak dockland development.
Isn’t it incredible how mankind is capable of such beauty and horror?
I returned to the hostel with the chilly, easterly wind blowing discarded litter and fast-food cartons alongside me. My reflections after a long walk were a mixed bag. Yes, I know this is a globalised world and ‘progress’ rolls on relentlessly. I also remember personally, the hard and often dangerous conditions of the dock and shipyard workers, but are we losing our souls? Where is the beauty? What is the point of all this money? When was the last time you actually had a conversation with a stranger that had any degree of profundity without a mobile phone distracting you or having yet another task to complete? What actually is the point of living?
I hope we haven’t gone too far down the road to the god of materialism, but I can’t say I’m optimistic. One visit to the London Docklands makes be glad to be living my strange, but genuine little life and I am truly grateful for it. My heart cries inwardly for the children who never played as I did, with my pals by the big river…