Sunday 21 May 2023

Thames Path parkrun, Woolwich

Woolwich [Wuul-ij] is a district in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, London. The area's name is thought to indicate that the settlement was orignally a trading place for wool. The Anglo-Saxons called it 'Uuluuich', and they first settled here on the south bank of the River Thames in what is now known as Old Woolwich or Woolwich Central Riverside. The land within the ancient parish of Woolwich extended across the Thames where you will still find a small area called North Woolwich (now part of Newham). The two halves of the ancient parish have been connected by a ferry service since at least 1308 and of course this connection is maintained in the form of the modern-day Woolwich Ferry which came into operation in 1889 and has always been free-of-charge. There is also a foot tunnel which opened in 1912.

The area remained a fairly small settlement in Kent, with likely industries thought to be small-scale shipbuilding and repair, pottery and milling. This all changed when King Henry VIII established a dockyard here called  'Woolwich Dockyard' or 'The King's Yard' in order to begin work on the King's naval fleet. His flagship 'Henry Grace a Dieu' or 'Great Harry', at the time the largest and most powerful warship in the world, was built here along with many other warships. In fact, Great Harry also finished its service at Woolwich in 1553 when it was accidentally destroyed by fire. HMS Beagle which carried Charles Darwin around the world was also built here. The industrial presence was subsequently expanded with the addition of a gun yard and a rope yard.

Gun proving took place locally in an area called The Warren, and this developed into military research, armament and storage establishments. In 1805 these were brought together by King George III and named the Royal Arsenal. The arsenal produced all kinds of weapons and military equipment from small guns, bullets, bombs, through to field guns, mortars, tanks and torpedoes. Gunpowder would have been delivered via barge from the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey (now home to Gunpowder parkrun). In later years it was even involved in the development of the UK's first nuclear weapon. There were 147 miles of railway tracks laid within the 1,285 acres of grounds which helped move the materials between workshops.

In 1886 munitions workers who worked in the Royal Arsenal formed a football team called Dial Square (named after one of the workshops), but changed their name to Royal Arsenal the following year. In 1891 they became known as Woolwich Arsenal and were the first London football club to turn professional. They moved to north London in 1913 where they are now known simply as Arsenal. The club retains a link to the Royal Arsenal through their crest which still features a cannon. The Royal Arsenal's peak came during the first world war when around 80,000 people were employed on the site which covered 1,285 acres. The history here is so vast that I cannot cover it all here, but if you are interested there is a brilliant website called Royal Arsenal History

The military link with Woolwich has been strong for hundreds of years and in the 18th century large barracks were constructed and these eventually became known as Woolwich Garrison. The dockyard eventually closed down as it was unable to compete with other dockyards which were building the newer ironclad warships. By Victoria times part of the riverside area known as Old Woolwich had become a slum and the worst part of this slum was named the dusthole. It was given that name due to the dust from the coal wharves which had been established. The riverside area also became home to a gas company and a power station. The first and second world wars saw a huge uplift in the production of ordnance, but in times of peace the factories switched production to train carriages and other items like knitting frames. The industrial nature of Old Woolwich continued until the late 20th century when the power station and other industries gradually closed down.

Woolwich has sadly been in the news as a result of terrorism on more than one occasion. Firstly, in 1974, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb in a local pub, killing two people. Secondly, a soldier, Lee Rigby, based at the Royal Artillery Barracks was murdered by Islamic terrorists in 2013 on his way home to the barracks. Woolwich also has quite an interesting claim to fame, as it became home to the UK's first-ever McDonalds in 1974. While on the subject of retail establishments, I worked in the Woolwich branch of Iceland Frozen Foods during 1999 and 2000. Since the mid-2000s the Old Woolwich area has been undergoing a huge redevelopment project, which really gathered pace when it was announced that Woolwich would be gaining a new train station as part of the Crossrail project (Elizabeth Line).

The redeveloped area contains a mixture of both new and repurposed buildings - many of the new apartment blocks have been named after ships built at the dockyard. There is a very strong sense of its history and as you walk around there are field guns, cannons, historic buildings, steam hammer bases, cannon balls and a statue of The First Duke of Wellington who was Master General of the Ordnance 1818-1827.

It is largely residential but also contains shops, bars, restaurants, gyms and everything else this newly established community could need including a twice-per-month farmers market. There is also the Woolwich Works Creative District which is a cultural hub with spaces for performances, galleries and studios. As of 6 May 2023 it also has its very own free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Thames Path parkrun, Woolwich. The main meeting point for the event is at James Clavell Square (named after the screenwriter, director and World War II veteran and prisoner of war) where there is a bag drop area and the first-timers briefing is held. Fittingly, at the meeting point is a sculpture called 'Assembly' which is intended to represent a group of people coming together.

The meeting point is conveniently located just a stone's throw away from the new Elizabeth Line station, which is simply called Woolwich. However it is not the only station. Just across the road near the main shopping area, you will find Woolwich Arsenal Station and this is served by Southeastern trains that run between central London and Dartford/Gravesend, and also by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR)(only two stops from the London City Airport). The platform of the DLR station was used in fifth Bourne film where it was transformed into Athens metro station. There is a third station called Woolwich Dockyard, this is also served by Southeastern trains but is further away. Woolwich is also served by an abundance of buses, and it also has Woolwich (Royal Arsenal) Pier which is served by the Uber Boat service. Sadly, from what I can see the earliest Saturday boat service doesn't run in time to make it viable for travel to parkrun. However it could provide an interesting post-parkrun journey into central London.

This is one of those venues where public transport is the best way to arrive, but if you do happen to use a vehicle, the car parking options are really well covered on the event's official course page. In summary, there is no on-street visitor parking within the new developments. The remaining options are the New Warren Lane car park, Cannon Square car park or one of the other town centre car parks, and these would all incur a charge. For some free parking the Woolwich branch of Tesco apparently allows up to three hours free-of-charge (accessible from Woolwich New Road). If you look carefully you may even find some restriction-free on-street parking further along the riverside to the east. Should cycling be of interest, this venue has great links via the Thames Path, which is a designated cycle route, going both East and West, plus the Woolwich foot tunnel (open 24 hours, but bikes must be pushed through) makes it really easy to access from the other side of the river. There are bicycle racks right next to the pier. For anyone travelling from further afield who may require an overnight stay, there is a Premier Inn within the new development and a Travelodge across the road within the main shopping street.

The main public toilet facilities used to be across the main road on Beresford Square, which has been home to Woolwich's main market since the 1600s. These toilets have now been demolished (Nov/Dec 2023). You would have passed them on the way to the meeting point if you arrive on the DLR or Mainline Rail. The current arrangment is that Woolwich Works (next to meeting area) open their toilets from 8.30am for parkrunners. Alternatively there's always the UK's first branch of McDonalds on Powis Street or the large Tesco on Woolwich New Road. As the name of this event suggests, this parkrun takes place on the Thames Path. The majority of the Thames Path is part of the Thames Path National Trail, which runs from Trewsbury Mead in the Cotswolds all the way to the Woolwich Ferry. The section which the parkrun uses is an extension, which, in total, runs all the way through to Crayford so is not part of the National Trail. An interesting fact is that it forms part of the brand new King Charles III England Coast Path - South East.

The parkrun itself starts about 400 metres to the east of the meeting point, just next to the remains of a historical landmark called T-Jetty and just on the other side of what I believe may be part of the entrance to one of the old dry docks. The main briefing takes place here. The course is a single out-and-back but with a nice surprise at the far end, but we'll come to that later. Underfoot is mostly tarmac, but there are also sections where the path changes to a rougher, looser gravelly surface. However this is definitely a course for road shoes at all times of year. There's a special note regarding buggy running, and that is that while regular single width buggies are fine, double-width buggies are not suitable for this course.

The usage of the River Thames has historically been quite different depending on the location. The further west you travel, the more genteel it becomes. This part of the river is on the eastern side of London, so it would have been, and still is, more of a working river. To that effect, the pathways and surroundings are harsher, than you will find, say, on the Thames Path at Richmond or Oxford. You certainly won't spot anybody punting on the river in Woolwich! The parkrun starts next to the T-Jetty and very soon after passes the J-Jetty; both remnants of the area's previous life as the Royal Arsenal. The parkrunners keep to the left at all times, there are also points where the path is divided into lower and upper sections. On the way out the course sticks to the lower path which is the one closest to the riverside.

The opening section is a fixed width which has a safety railing on the left and some small bushes and the retaining wall for the upper path on the right, so there could be some congestion to start with, especially on a busy day. After a short stretch the safety railing ends and is replaced by a brutalist concrete riverside wall on both sides of the path. You can't see it from the parkrun course on the way out, but a water channel runs under the footpath. This was the entry point for the canal system (built 1812-14) that was used to deliver supplies to the Royal Arsenal. The Grade II Listed Broadwater Lock and Swing Bridge are located in this area. The swing bridge was installed in 1876 to allow the site's railway line to cross the canal. The Lock and Bridge have recently been renovated, but there is a risk that housing developments could see the remaining section of the historic canal filled in.

Continuing on the outward-bound stretch the brutalist riverside wall concrete ends and is replaced by some trees and bushes. At the same time there is a gate to pass through and the surface underfoot changes to the gravelly surface. It's not exactly like what you'll encounter at the other end of the Thames, but the path meanders along nicely through the tree cover. If you keep your eyes peeled you may be able to spot an old wooden slipway, again this was once part of the Royal Arsenal. By this point the route has taken the parkrunners into West Thamesmead where the course now leaves the Thames Path and at 1.3 kilometres turns right into Gallions Reach Park via a gate which has a width restriction. Incidentally at this point, the course is directly in line with the end of the London City Airport runway, which is just across the river. Every now and then you may hear and see a place taking off.

Gallions Reach Park is a relatively new addition to the local area, but the land was also part of the Royal Arsenal and there are still remnants of its past hidden deep within the bushes. The extended area contains a range of wildlife habitats including scrub, wildflowers, grassland, and woodland. My preconceptions about Thamesmead led me to assume that the park would be a little rough around the edges, but what I found was the complete opposite. The gloriously sunny morning probably helped, but this park was beautifully manicured with lush green grass and neatly spaced trees lining the path. Such a lovely spot to parkrun through.

The name comes from the Galyons family who owned large amounts of property on both sides of the river during the 14th century. This whole section of river 'Gallions Reach' is named after them. You'll also find many references to the name across in East London. The parkrun course only passes through a very small section of this area, but it is beautifully landscaped and covers 40% of the total percentage of the 5 kilometre course.

The path meanders around to this venue's pièce de résistance, called Gallions Reach Hill, but I understand the local West Thamesmead residents call it Teletubby Hill. It is one of six artificial mounds present within the park, which were created from left-over building materials when the local housing was constructed, then landscaped into these quirky features. So, in case you were not already aware, the course goes up to the summit of the largest mound where the parkrunners loop around a marshal and then head back down.

The path winds its way around the hill creating a spiral shape to this part of the course. From the base to the top is around 500 metres, so in total you spend a full kilometre on the hill. The top features a 360 degree view where can see the Barking Creek Flood Barrier to the north. To the east, the Crossness Sewage Treatment Works, and also the tower blocks overlooking Southmere Lake, constructed in the 1960s and was used as a filming location for the TV series Misfits and also for the film A Clockwork Orange. HMP Belmarsh is to the south with Shooters Hill in the far distance. Finally, you can see Canary Wharf by looking to the west.

With the hill out of the way, the course heads back towards the riverside and then onwards towards Woolwich. The return journey takes place on the upper section of the Thames Path which is a hard surface, and mostly paved, underfoot. It is split into a people-path and a cycle-path, so take care not to wander into the bike lane. It continues all the way back past the lock (where this time the swing bridge is visible), the jetties, the start area, and then the circular shaped building with a turquoise roof - I understand this is a ventilation shaft for the DLR which runs under the river into east London. The course then continues back to the original meeting point at James Clavell Square where the finish can be found. The barcode scanning takes place here and the official post-event refreshments can be had right next to the finish line in the cafe within Woolwich Works. If you don't fancy that, there are other cafes dotted around the immediate area. You could also pop over to the main Woolwich central shopping area where there is a Wetherspoons pub called The Great Harry or a wide selection of almost all the familiar high street coffee shops and fast food outlets.

I did of course record the parkrun course with my Garmin so you can check the course out in detail by viewing the data on my Strava account or you can watch the Relive course fly-by video which is on YouTube. The results were processed and published online a short while after. At time of writing the amount of participants is being heavily skewed by the high number of curious locals and parkrun tourists, so the average is higher than it will eventually be. Saying that, the section of the course that goes up the mound has very quickly become one of those quirky details that people just love, so I suspect that it will permanently continue to draw people to this event for many years.

After the parkrun we explored the area and found so many details and references to the area's past. There were a lot more original buildings than I was expecting and we also found more old cannons including some from Germany, France and Egypt (made in 1530) dotted all around. We also went back to see the swing bridge and lock in more detail, before finally heading back over to Gallions Reach Park where we went back up to the top of the mound to fully take in the view. Despite living only 15 minutes down the road, we had never considered spending time in Woolwich, but having the parkrun here has really opened my eyes to what an amazing history this place has. You can also walk along the Thames Path past the Woolwich Ferry and if you carry on walking you can see the Thames Barrier up close. Finally, I'd like to extend a massive thank you to all of the volunteers.

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