Hustling and bustling, Deptford Bridge is a charming mish mash of unconventional markets and arts in the shadow of glorious Greenwich.
‘Down and out in dirty Deptford’ – the best local description so far. Alliterative, potentially Orwellian and undeniably flattering, the clearly-rehearsed quip could well be the title of a low budget sitcom. But, is it an accurate depiction of this south east London enclave?
Deptford’s roots are firmly planted in the annals of London history. As its name suggests, ‘Deep Ford’ was where the mighty Roman Road from the port of Dubris (Dover) crossed over the not so mighty River Ravensbourne on route to Britain’s biggest city: Londinium. It just so happens that my destination – Deptford Bridge – is almost exactly where the ford enabled safe passage.
At first glance, this may seem a trivial point, but hold with me: the aforementioned road (now the infamous A2) has been in constant use since its construction; the most direct road route from London to the Continent for almost two millennia. Emperor Claudius may not have that much in common with Eddie Stobart, but their employees do – all have been aided by a bridge at Deptford. I think that’s quite something.
Alas, practicality is not a precursor for mental stimulation and the current crossing leaves a lot to be desired. So, my friend and I pootled down past Deptford Broadway to the High Street – a shop-lined boulevard dubbed the ‘Oxford Street of South London’ during the 1850s.
Oxford Street it is not. Not even close. But, given the plight of high streets during this Amazon age, I wouldn’t say that Deptford is faring badly. A generous helping of kebab vendors, £1 stores and clothes stalls are not the usual recipe for lively, but the High Street was humming.
We stopped off to ask a man about his dog and were told to keep our phones in our pockets and head to neighbouring Greenwich if we wanted a nice, theft-free, day out. Deprecatory locals are nothing new, so we continued unperturbed down the street, past a Butchers / Cash and Carry and then a House Wives / Cash and Carry. What came first: the competition or the innovation?
Soon we came to Deptford Market, which, I can safely say, is unlike any market I’ve ever seen. Local estate agents would probably call it a ‘charming bric-à-brac bazaar’, but Deptford Market just sells junk. This isn’t snobbery either: the market vendors accept and advocate that they’re selling junk. Well, one man’s trash…
If you’re on the lookout for blunt garden tools, board games with missing pieces, old tennis balls, lampshades, Lord of the Rings figurines or a cricket pad, you will be in seventh heaven. Bikers’ leathers, electricals from the 80s, partially-used stationary? You’ve come to the right place. And that’s just one stall. I absolutely loved it and nearly reduced my daily budget by splurging on a Discman and some chipped golf balls.
Lying submerged in the jumble jungle is the Albany. Dating back to 1899, the Albany is a community arts centre that celebrates the cultural diversity and creativity of south east London and has recently become a bastion for spoken word poetry. One of the UK’s leading poetry collectives, Chill Pill, is a regular fixture, but looking through the programme, there was an eclectic mix of performing arts, including: the Insect Circus (‘arthropod aerialists, balancing beetles and beauteous butterflies’), Meet Fred (a two foot tall cloth puppet who fights prejudice every day) and Spring Reign (real-life accounts of the Syrian conflict). Alternative, sure.
Next up: Deptford Market Yard. Lined with cobbles and set up underneath a restored carriage ramp from 1835 (London’s oldest surviving railway structure), the railway arches are now home to a smorgasbord of quirky, independent boutiques. You’ve got an artisan florist, a ‘curated lifestyle store’, an ethical hair salon, ‘cocktails in teapots’ and a tuk-tuk emblazoned with Frankie goes to Bollywood. Need I say more. Smack bang outside the glass-fronted Deptford station, it’s not much of a surprise that anti-gentrification graffiti adorned its walls pre-opening last November. Given gradual economic decline, a high student population (Goldsmiths and Greenwich universities), the proximity to central London (a 10-minute train to Cannon Street) and the surfeit of street art, the ‘next Dalston’ tag seems justified. Deptford may not be ‘dirty’ for much longer.
Down and out of Deptford we strolled, passing through the exquisite Grade I listed St Paul’s Church and over Deptford Creek, until we found ourselves amongst soulless riverside flats and plazas of chain coffee shops: western Greenwich.
Greenwich – despite this hiccup – is phantasmagorically lovely. So lovely, I felt I could use that preposterous adjective. Outside the Square Mile, it’s hard to find a place richer in historical beauty and importance. No wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ll just rattle through a couple of reasons why: Greenwich Foot Tunnel (a 113 year old thoroughfare under the Thames); the Cutty Sark (last surviving British tea clipper); the National Maritime Museum; the Old Royal Naval College; the Queen’s House and the Royal Observatory. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s like loving everything on the menu; a splendid nightmare. Where the hell do we start? To give us direction, we accosted a security guard at the Royal Palaces, who told us his favourite place was ‘King Henry VII’s Palace under the Queen Anne building’. ‘But’, he added with a cheeky smile, ‘you can’t go in there. It’s restricted for the Greenwich Foundation’. His enthusiasm for the area was infectious and helped to put Greenwich’s glut of riches into perspective. The Painted Hall in the Navy College – Britain’s equivalent to the Sistine Chapel – was next on the list, but was closed for refurbishment. The views from the Royal Observatory took bronze.
Before we set off up the vertiginous slope to the Observatory, we decided to have a pit stop at the riverside Trafalgar Tavern (half pint of Loose Cannon – £2.40), before getting side-tracked by a lunchtime piano concert in the College Chapel, where the wonderfully-named Minji Kim serenaded us with some Schubert in B-flat.
Commissioned by Charles II in 1675 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Royal Observatory is a tour de force. The location is nothing short of spectacular – I didn’t want to include another ‘London Panoramic’ photo, but it’s hard not to.
Yet, location is nothing when you consider its global significance. Home to the Prime Meridian, this is where all time is set from. Where all charts and maps take their bearings. 0° longitude. Democracy, Empire, Time: if anything highlights Britain’s former international importance, setting the world’s clock has got to be up there.
The Observatory is understandably a major tourist attraction, but the crowds were not overwhelming. The architecture and history of the building are well complemented by more recent additions, such as the Planetarium – a self-styled ‘tour bus of the Universe’ (I’ve been before; it’s great). However, what caught our eye was an exhibition of the Astronomy Photographer of Year award. The exhibition is not for the faint-hearted: nebulae, constellations, galaxies, aurorae – it’s mind-blowing. Just as you are basking in Britain’s significance, you are given a celestial smack of reality by unfathomable numbers and indescribable beauty. The Best Newcomer Prize – a photo of the Magellanic Cloud – is a mere 14,000 light years away. Even a lump of rock at the entrance claims to be the ‘oldest object you will ever touch’ at 4.5 billion years old. Nothing like being put in your place by a lump of rock.
Doctors have long prescribed a dose of fresh air when feeling light-headed, so we then set off around Greenwich Park: one of eight former monarchical hunting grounds, which make up London’s Royal Parks. Given the area’s Roman heritage, the ‘remains of a Roman Temple’ seemed a good place to start, but it would appear that someone forgot to add the word ‘no’ before the description, as we only encountered a path and a faded plaque. Next up was the Deer Park, followed by the Flower Garden, until we crossed the A2 onto Blackheath.
Extensive, flat and open – the Heath has been an oft-used assembly point for armies – both of the Crown and rebels – since the 12th century. Most notably, it was the rallying point for Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.
Now, Blackheath is a picture of serenity. The only disturbances coming from the occasional joyous yelp of a preparatory school sports lesson or a gaggle of yummy mummys deciding upon which independent café or middle class clothing outlet (think Fat Face, Jigsaw and the like) they were going to frequent. I must admit though, it’s rather delightful.
Just the 15,000 steps this time round, but that felt quite enough. We breached the doors of the Railway and settled down to a pint of Ubu (4.45) and a quinoa burger (£10). Yes, that’s right, a quinoa burger. Well, because I’ve never seen one before. Yes, it was delicious, thanks.
Time: 5 hours, but depends where you go in Greenwich.