Monday, January 12, 2009

Woolwich Arsenal

And why is Woolwich station called Woolwich Arsenal? Because the nearby Royal Arsenal at Woolwich used to be UK's most important munitions factory, that's why. If you were once a subjugated citizen of the British Empire, it's quite likely you were subjugated using ammmunition from here.

Military Academy, Artillery SquareKing Henry VIII kicked things off in Woolwich nearly 500 years ago by establishing a royal dockyard. The isolated conditions alongside the Thames estuary were later thought perfect for the storage of gunpowder, so the Board of Ordnance moved in and snapped up 31 acres of Woolwich Warren. Facilities grew, the site expanded, and more and more factories were built (that Napoleon bloke, he took a lot of beating). The Royal Arsenal reached its peak during World War I, employing more than a hundred thousand workers and stretching more then four miles downriver to Crossness. Munitions aplenty were churned out during World War II, but then a steady decline set in. In the 1950s Woolwich was home to a top secret outpost of the Government's Atomic Weapons Establishment (but don't worry, people of SE18, because they only made the detonators here not the nuclear bits). Finally in 1967 virtually the whole site was shut down and sold to the GLC, who promptly nipped in and built Thamesmead instead.

A couple of Royal Arsenal sites lingered on in MoD use until the 1990s, one of which is at the heart of the latest redevelopment activity close to Woolwich Town Centre. It's so close to the town centre that the original Royal Arsenal Gatehouse now stands cut off in the middle of Beresford Square market, severed from its historic hinterland by an arterial road. Cross the A206 and you'll find what's left of Royal Arsenal West - several preserved military buildings and a lot of very new flats. At the moment the old outnumbers the new, and the old is mostly rather lovely. The Royal Brass Foundry and the Military Academy boast bold Georgian frontage bedecked with with painted coats of arms and gleaming clockfaces. The Paper Cartridge Factory and the Carpenters' Shop have been occupied by the Firepower Museum and the Greenwich Heritage Centre respectively. Walk down No 1 Street to the pierhead and you can still (almost) imagine this as unspoilt history.

Building 47 (or some similar number)Several of the old riverside munitions buildings have been converted to apartments, and highly desirable they look too. But also very exclusive, as you can tell by the series of metal entrance gates around the perimeter that swing automatically open and closed as residents come and go. This is fenced-off heritage, a residential fortress, with all the personalised numberplates on the inside and all the riffraff kept firmly out. Priorities for residents include their own first-floor parkland, their own deli (no mere corner shops here) and a gymnasium housed inside a marvellously ornate 18th century Shell Foundry (I've never seen anywhere quite so appropriate for pumping iron). If you've bought a flat in this part of the Royal Arsenal development, you'll rightly be rather smug about it.

But not all the flats are so appealing. Some rather more contemporary blocks have been erected as infill, of the kind that would look pleasant enough anywhere else, but whose architectural ordinariness here appears particularly out of place. Alas they're only the start. A whole new swathe of construction is underway between the river and the town, and this is going to be anything but historic. 1700 properties are promised, most of them apartments, courtesy of developers Berkeley Homes. They coughed up a small fortune to get Crossrail to stop in their half of Woolwich, and for that they get to create their own small town worth a rather larger fortune. The Armouries development will have eco-heating, brown-roof technology and a central lagoon - all fine and dandy I'm sure, but the sole link to the past will be its name. Even Dial Square, home to the founding fathers of Arsenal Football Club, is destined to be reborn as apartments. Precisely the same fate as the old Highbury Stadium, in fact.

If you can get yourself a mortgage and you fancy living somewhere relatively cheap yet swanky, maybe the new Royal Arsenal will suit you fine. There's a convenient DLR station, as well as a Thames Clippers pier on your very doorstep. But if it's history you want, I'm afraid your new flat may be partly responsible for wiping that out.

www.flickr.com: my Woolwich gallery
(Now with 24 photos of the new DLR station, the Royal Arsenal and the surrounding area)

 Sunday, January 11, 2009

I was still eight stops from the newly-opened Woolwich Arsenal station when I realised something unfortunate had occurred. Something that's going to annoy me every time I travel eastbound on the DLR. Because the new line terminus has a name that's slightly too long for the infrastructure's existing systems. Sixteen characters - it's one too many to fit on the next train indicators on the platforms. Which has created a bit of a problem. And the chosen solution, a premature apostrophe, is very ugly indeed.
At King George V (photo from Ian Visits)
W'wich Arsenal

Ooh that's nasty, and desperately unhelpful. Where the hell is W'wich? It sounds like it ought to be in Wales, probably deep in a valley somewhere. Or it could be a reference to that evil character from the Wizard of Oz. It certainly doesn't sound like the name of a well-known Thames-side settlement. And the destination's just as unreadable on the rolling display on the front of a train.

W'wich Arsenal     [blip]     v City Airport     [blip]

The word Arsenal is clear as day, which conjures up images of football, Highbury and Islington. But no, all that's ten miles away. And so we get lumbered with W'wich instead. Sigh. The whole point of this new railway line is that it goes to Woolwich, not Arsenal, but Woolwich is the word the powers that be have chosen to abbreviate. Couldn't they have tried shortening the name another way?

Woolwich Arse'

OK, maybe not.
Is there some other way to do it?

Woolwich A'nal

Bugger, no.
There's a completely different approach on the display in the ticket hall at London City Airport.
At London City Airport
Woolwich Arsena

Brilliant, just ignore the sixteenth character as if it doesn't exist. That's no good either, is it? But there is an obvious solution, one that would make sense to the vast majority of passengers, and it's this.


I know that the station isn't called Woolwich, it's called Woolwich Arsenal. And I know that there's another Woolwich station called Woolwich Dockyard, even if the DLR doesn't go there. But plain old 'Woolwich' would be so much better. Please, someone, bend the rules a bit and stick this simple eight letter word on the DLR's destination boards instead. Make it easy for everyone to tell where they're going. Because by slavishly following convention you've done something ugly, impractical and unhelpful to poor old Woolwich. Arse.

 Saturday, January 10, 2009

Visit Woolwich

So, if you take advantage of the DLR's new link to Woolwich (available from 0521 this morning), what might you find there? Well worry not, because the DLR website features an extra-special tourist guide for the benefit of inbound visitors. Apparently "the station gives you the perfect opportunity to take advantage of what Woolwich and its surrounding area has to offer". Here's the website's list of suggested attractions. I wonder if you'll be as thrilled as I am?

• All major UK bank branches.
No really, that's the first thing on the list. Apparently the most interesting thing about Woolwich is that it boasts all major UK bank branches. If there are no banks where you live, why not take the DLR to Woolwich? But there's no mention of the financial institution which put the town on the map. The Woolwich Permanent was one of the UK's first building societies, launched in 1847, and also one of the country's biggest. But when it demutualised in 1997 it aimed too high. The Woolwich was bought out lock stock and barrel by Barclays in 2000, and now exists only as a mortgaging brand name. Probably not worth the effort to come here especially for that.

• Reference, heritage and lending libraries.
No really, that's the second thing on the list. Apparently the second most interesting thing about Woolwich is that it has libraries. If there are no libraries where you live, why not take the DLR to Woolwich, because it has three. Two of these are in the same building, with the poky single-room reference library on the floor above the cheerless lending library. Closed Wednesdays. This is no Woolwich highlight, this is 100% municipal ordinariness.

• A great variety of shops to suit everyone's taste including Marks and Spencer outlet, Sainsbury's and Primark. Woolwich is particularly noteworthy for its factory outlet and discount stores selling products at very low prices providing an outstanding opportunity for bargain hunters.
Now if I've got this right, one of the best reasons to visit Woolwich is supposedly because the shops are cheap? Iceland, Peacocks, Chicken Cottage, McDonalds, that sort of thing. Charity shops galore. So if there are no pound shops where you live (maybe you live in Chelsea or something), why not take the DLR to Woolwich? It's the perfect credit-crunch retail destination.

• Beresford Square and Plumstead Road market is located in the heart of Woolwich town centre. The market is open Monday - Saturday selling food and goods at competitive prices.
And there are two markets, one in the street and one under cover. That's hardly unique for London, isn't it? The market in Beresford Square sells specialist stuff like 29p dishcloths, bananas in plastic bowls and dodgy-looking puffa jackets, while the indoor hall echoes with badly-punctuated emptiness. Both markets are in "a fully accessible, vehicle-free environment", according to the Greenwich council website, which pulls no punches attempting to make the place sound appealing. There's also a big painted sign on stilts between the two to remind shoppers how historic the place is, royal charter and all. So hey, if there are no markets where you live, why not take the DLR to Woolwich?

Firepower – the Royal Artillery Museum. The Museum, based in the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, tells the story of the men and women who have served as Gunners in the Royal Regiment of Artillery since it was founded.
Ooh, hang on, genuine tourist destination! Not just because North London's finest football team kicked off right here in 1886, but because Woolwich has a rich military history. The Royal Arsenal started off as Tudor dockside ordnance stores, and grew eventually into the UK's largest gun repository. Proper huge and important it was, until it closed in 1967 and evolved into an elite-ish housing development. And a museum, which is yours to enter for a fiver. They're doing some major shuffling around at the moment, so 2009 may not be the year to visit, but it's got to be worth doing one day.

• For another piece of local History, visit the Greenwich Heritage Centre. Bringing together the former Borough Museum and Local History Library it offers a wealth of information and fascinating displays about the history of the borough.
And back to libraries again. That's the second time that the Heritage Library has been mentioned, which suggests it must be pretty damned exciting. Trust me, it isn't. A few local archives to look through, a humbly-stocked heritage shop and a transient art display. Plus a half-decent exhibition about Woolwich Arsenal, which rescues the place somewhat. But not quite enough.

Thames barrier visitor centre. Completed in 1984 the Thames Barrier is over 1,700 feet in width with four 200 foot openings. The best view of the barrier is by boat- several of the Thames tours stop here.
That's the most underwhelming description of the Thames Barrier I think I've ever read. The barrier's more than a mile from the new DLR station, and it's not a lovely walk either. But still the most amazing thing in the area.

Waterfront Leisure Center. A water park with 65 metre anaconda slide, a hot tub, a wave machine, a waterfall, water jets and five-lane multi-slide, there's something for here for everyone!
There's nothing here for me, sorry. It's just a souped-up swimming pool, and they're ten a penny these days. But if you're bringing hyperactive children to Woolwich, don't take them anywhere else, take them here.

Not mentioned:
» The Woolwich Ferry (presumably because it's competition for the new DLR service)
» The Woolwich Foot Tunnel (presumably because it's competition for the new DLR service)
» The DLR Information Centre (a few chairs in a disused retail unit with free leaflets)
» Woolwich Arsenal DLR station (I bet this'll be the most popular tourist attraction in town today)
» Woolwich Barracks (it may, or may not, be home to the shooting at the 2012 Olympics. And it has the longest continuous facade of any building in the UK. You can't visit, not unless you enlist in the army or something. But it's possibly the most fascinating place in Woolwich, and it isn't even on the list. Beats the bank and the bloody library, that's for sure)

click here for some photographs of the newly opened Woolwich Arsenal DLR station 7pm photo update: a few of mine (and rather more from Ian)

 Friday, January 09, 2009

With the Woolwich

DLR to Woolwich ArsenalIf everything goes to plan, tomorrow's the day that the DLR reaches Woolwich. Lucky Woolwich. Trains on the three-year-old City Airport branch will no longer have to terminate at the unlikely-named King George V, they'll continue down a brand new tunnel under the Thames and emerge beneath the heart of Woolwich Town Centre. Change here for services to Erith and Dartford (or, if you're a bit nervous, just stay on the train and head straight back to Newham).

It's an impressive little infrastructure project, this. Completed in 3½ years flat, it's a great example of the effective impact of a bit of well targeted funding. There may be only one additional station, but reaching it has involved some technically awkward underwater boring using a 540-tonne drilling machine. The new tunnel links the north and south banks of the Thames via public transport, the only such crossing for three miles upstream and ten miles down. And it yanks not-so-affluent Woolwich into the wealth-creating reach of Docklands and the City, literally overnight.

Attempt to cross the river here today and you have to use the ferry. That's an experience in itself, and the passenger quarters below deck drip with an atmosphere of mid-fifties austerity. Or there's the foot tunnel, the poorer cousin of its Greenwich neighbour, whose subterranean character was recently wrecked by the installation of architecturally insensitive cycle barriers. Neither journey is quick or easy. But from tomorrow you can sit in a nice comfortable train and be whisked beneath the waves in style, in only a couple of minutes. It's the 21st century way.

This is the Docklands Light Railway's first venture into Zone 4, which may also be why this is the first DLR station to be kitted out with ticket barriers. No coasting into town for free from here, nor sneaking onto a Southeastern train for nothing. And it's only the first of a slew of new DLR stations that Boris will have the privilege of opening (even though he had nothing to do with their creation). The line from Canning Town to Stratford International should open next year, and that'll make a damned fine Mayoral photo opportunity too. But sorry Dagenham, you can only watch the Woolwich opening with a jealous sense of what might have been, because Boris no longer has plans for the DLR to make tracks to you.

Oh lucky people of Woolwich, your life's just about to get a little better. And then, when Crossrail arrives in 2017, a lot lot better. Yet another tunnel under the river, plus trains to the West End and Heathrow, which might almost make the much-vaunted Thames Gateway an enticing place to live. But a word of advice to SE18's current residents. Don't get too carried away in a flush of opening excitement, because your existing rail service may still be the way to go. To the heart of the City via DLR will take you 27 minutes tomorrow. But it's only 20 minutes from Woolwich Arsenal to London Bridge today. Way to go.

Detailed project background to the DLR Woolwich extension
Local-friendly launch information about the DLR Woolwich extension
Some behind-the-scenes photos of the new Woolwich Arsenal DLR station
200 behind-the-scenes photos of the new Woolwich Arsenal DLR station

 Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year on Primrose Hill

New Year 2009 on Primrose HillYou don't have to cram onto the Embankment to see London's New Year fireworks. Anywhere with a decent view of the London Eye will do, be it a nearby bridge, a Lambeth rooftop or a BBC1 TV camera platform. So for the dawn of 2009 I decided to step three miles further back, to one of the best unobstructed views across the capital. To the dark northern slopes above Regent's Park. To Primrose Hill.

A swarm of onlookers covered the entire top of the hill, like an apocalyptic crowd watching the heavens waiting for the end of the world. I couldn't quite get through to the summit, so thick was the mass of people, but the natural amphitheatre afforded everyone a decent line of sight. The crowd was quite young, mostly twenty somethings in unintentionally comic woolly hats, plus a couple of police officers enjoying the easiest New Year shift in the capital. At the foot of the hill someone was setting off intermittent rockets, just to keep everyone entertained, while up top a series of hot-air-filled plastic bags rose slowly upwards into the overcast sky.

New Year 2009 from Primrose HillThe midnight hour approached. We stood facing southwards, waiting for the distant ring of pulsing lights to explode into life. The bunch of friends to my right misjudged their timing somewhat and lit their sparklers 90 seconds early. Several false countdowns were started - not a chance of hearing Big Ben out here in the middle of nowhere. And then... And then... And then, finally, 2009 was heralded by a series of bright flashes on the banks of the Thames. The hilltop erupted with a yelping cheer, just in time for my neighbours' sparklers to splutter out. There was much indiscriminate hugging, and some slightly over-excited cuddling, plus the popping of several bottles of champagne. Happy New Year everybody!

In the distance the Eye erupted, puncturing London's sodium glare with flashes of red and white. From up here in NW3 they only filled a tiny portion of the horizon, but (unlike last year) every pyrotechnic flourish was clearly visible. A number of other unofficial firework displays could also be seen, randomly spluttering from Camden round to Hampstead, while the Primrose Hill rocket man provided further lofty explosions much closer at hand. There was much whooping, and plenty of drinking, and even a hug or two for the Metropolitan Police from some of the merrier youths on the hillside.

For ten minutes we watched, not always intently, as a million quid's worth of gunpowder burnt itself out. And then the main display was over, leaving just the lights of the BT Tower and a cluster of cranes twinkling away in the distance. Most of the crowd stayed put, enjoying the atmosphere and the opportunity to see in 2009 with friends and family. I had nobody to share a plastic beaker with, so I weaved my way slowly down the grassy slope and joined the steady exodus to the gates. My tube train home beckoned, which I reached far quicker than if I'd been stuck in the seething throng on the Embankment. The fireworks may not have looked so spectacular from atop Primrose Hill, but the elevated New Year experience was a whole lot more enjoyable.

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