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Thumping Self-Centred Vitality: The Nature Of Woolwich

July 23, 2013
Statue of Nike, by Angelos Kougioumtzis, at Royal Woolwich Arsenal

Statue of Nike, by Angelos Kougioumtzis, at Royal Woolwich Arsenal

In the 1960s, British architectural critic Ian Nairn described Woolwich as a place of “thumping self-centred vitality”, always rebuilding itself as “that is its nature”. In its 48th volume, the Survey of London covered Woolwich’s many booms and busts in more than 400 pages of meticulous research.

In 2013, is Woolwich on the cusp of yet another resurgence in its long and mercurial history?

I’ve been pondering this a lot lately. As an unapologetic fan, I’m all too wary of falling into the wishful-thinking trap. I don’t want to grasp at straws, nor do I want to blindly talk up something that is merely a rose-tinted mirage, an illusory by-product of my fond imaginings. And as a newcomer still fresh from my early faltering steps into Woolwich (first stop, Sam’s Chicken) I’m self-conscious about making a call on a place into which I wasn’t born, didn’t grow up, spent no formative years, and have no memories older than January 14, 2011.

Ah, but bugger it. I’m calling it anyway. Newbie, fan, resident, I reckon that Woolwich is “on the up”. Again, and for the umpteenth time. The nature of and reasons for this renewed vitality would make a great topic for a doctoral thesis. I’m not going to attempt that here, except to say that the seeds have been sown over many years, by many people, and in many forms.

You can sense it when you walk through the town centre almost any day of the week, but especially on Saturdays. The history books tell us that Woolwich is not what it was. But that’s history. What is happening now is the important bit. The sheen of its most recent golden era may have dulled in the ensuing difficult years, but 2013 finds a Woolwich that’s alive, bustling, embracing, ecumenical, always defiant, often joyous, and occasionally edgy.

In the last few months I’ve met many people who agree. Some have lived in Woolwich for a few years, some have just moved from other parts of London and the U.K. and one is from Melbourne, like me. Some are born-and-bred SE18 or from very nearby. Many either have an established local business or are starting one up.

On several occasions we’ve had lively chats about plans and dreams, and the nuts and bolts of establishing and running a business. And all these chats about plans and dreams and nuts and bolts keep circling back to the one theme: how good it feels to be doing it in Woolwich.

It all makes for delicious reading, too. A brewery on the Arsenal, selling real ales to local pubs. Regular street food markets in General Gordon Square. Sushi-making classes. Bespoke cakes made to order. Kentish farm produce delivered to SE18 doorsteps. Authentic Greek souvlakis made fresh in the market. Treats crafted by a chocolatier. Independent cafes that care about coffee.

Add to this mouth-watering mix the cultural enterprises that seem to be going from strength to strength. The likes of the Woolwich Grand, with its eye-popping variety of events. Second Floor Studios and Arts, with its regular open days and exhibitions. GLYPT at the Tramshed, with its vibrant programmes. The Greenwich Heritage Centre and Firepower Museum, bringing history to life.

I’m writing this blog at this time because I can sense the thing and I wanted to try and put it into words. But enough from me. What do you think? What’s next for Woolwich?

  1. Forgive me but your vision appears somewhat rose tinted, at least to me. I have been a Woolwich resident for nearly 30 years. I moved to south east London whilst helping refugees from Viet Nam to settle into the area and have seen several attempts to lift its fortunes. The major effort was, of course, the Arsenal development but that, an act of gentrification,was bound to fail to help those already resident. Gentrification is a great way of improving local statistics …. but not much else.

    The real problem is employment, its lack and its erosion. Riverside property is relatively easy to sell and for a good price but this is where, traditionally, employment has been located. A long time ago, the river itself was the reason for so much local industry; shipbuilding was obvious and then it was apparent that both raw materials and finished goods could easily be moved by water. Eventually, the Thames became less significant but the industry remains. The River still has significance with millions of tonnes of aggregates landed in Charlton every year, for example, but all of this has created large areas of mixed industry and consequent employment.

    Of course there is a local cultural renaissance but this cannot counter the thousands of jobs threatened by de-industrialisation nor will it employ those whose jobs are destroyed by new housing encroaching on industrial land. The witless Royal Borough of Greenwash has great plans to increase housing – for the relatively affluent – at the expense of strategic industrial land. This erodes not only jobs but a plethora of goods and services on which the community depends. I’ve been working with students from UCL and we have discovered something of the extent of the rich mix of skilled and semi skilled jobs at risk. Sadly, some, at least, of the new arts intake appear to have been convinced (aka bought and paid for) by the Greenwash gentrification mob.

    When gentrification erodes employment and hope, then new divides appear and the trade of burglary soars. That is what has happened elsewhere and Woolwich is a very great deal more than the Arsenal.

  2. MaryB permalink

    I’m afraid that sounds like over-romanticism of a different sort to me. If anywhere is ripe for a spot of gentrification it’s Woolwich. OK, I’ve only just moved here (not to the Arsenal, as it happens), but I’ve visited for years. And I come from Chatham, which also lost its industrial raison d’etre and where gentrification has never really taken off. Been there recently?

    Needs change, and places change with them, or they die. Transport is crucial. Woolwich is 25 minutes from the West End and will be closer still in a few years. It’s ludicrous to think of it in isolation. London has a serious shortage of decent housing; of course that’s going to take priority over low-density industrial space, much of it derelict. It’s not been “rich” in any sense for years.

    And yes, there is a new buzz about the place. If that’s due to gentrification, bring it on. New residents, many of them young and energetic, fresh ideas, start-up businesses, a local cultural renaissance…what’s not to like?

    • Maryb permalink

      Sorry – this little rant was in reply to Roy. Should have pressed the right button!

  3. Interesting stuff. It’s always tempting to seek out the positive in somewhere you live. After all, you’ve chosen to live there and you think it’s brilliant, so why doesn’t everyone else? It’s also easy to take criticisms of where you live very personally indeed. I’ve certainly written blogposts like that when I’ve felt personally hurt by an implied criticism of my choice of where to live.

    The other side of that is to be overly critical of where you live and everything about it.

    There’s probably a happy medium to be struck somewhere, so when someone finds it, if they could let me know, I’d be grateful.

  4. I can see both angles – the part that is on the UP and UP, and the part that will always remain a place for the low-income. Those on drugs and the gangs. It’s just a reality of life in London, I think – particularly in the South East. With that said, I still remain eager to see Woolwich continue to develop and offer its residents more – I just think it’ll always be split, unfortunately.

    On Tue, Jul 23, 2013 at 10:02 PM, towiwoolwich

    • Forgive me JR but your comment does appear to be most amazingly patronising as well as wholly incorrect. Perhaps you wrote it without thinking through what you were writing? You do appear to be suggesting that low-income equates to “those on drugs and the gangs”. If that was your intention then I’m not sure whether you are being gratuitously offensive or just ignorant. Perhaps both?
      And what do you mean by the phrase “on the UP and UP”, a rather meaning free cliché, at best? Adding a relatively small enclave of more affluent residents to a much larger community that has suffered economic downturn and job loss may make a small change in economic statistics but it doesn’t change or resolve the underlying problems. Economic regeneration is brought about by job creation and by lifting the indigenous community. A few enterprises serving the enclave just don’t achieve that.
      I mentioned, in an earlier post, the potential eradication of existing employment, on a large scale, by the destruction of the Charlton Riverside Strategic Industrial area. Housing that will likely not meet local needs taking away employment. Employment is key to the financial and social success of any community, including Woolwich. The Council appear to believe that the loss of many thousands of jobs can somehow be made up by new jobs in the creative ad media industries. Simple mathematics demonstrates just how unsound this is; 10,000 arts jobs? Really!
      The Thames still has significant value as a transport conduit and Charlton offers potential for cleantech development in recycling industry. A major London waste company already operates, on the River, within the Riverside area. A link up with University science departments – UCL, IC, QM – could lead to real regeneration as well as to the development of a much needed circular manufacturing economy. More housing for Central London workers won’t.

  5. Mark permalink

    TOWIW – just stumbled across your blog – I think you’re spot on. There’s a real sense of energy about the place these days and with Crossrail arriving I think Woolwich will go from strength to strength. I’m sure you’ve seen Darryl’s latest post though – let’s hope the Woolwich Grand isn’t a casualty of the rush to redevelop.

  6. Gabriella permalink

    As Woolwich is on the up that explains why in the 4 years I’ve lived here the town centre’s got worse and worse even M and S are pulling out. Not good.

  7. By way of responding to Gabriella (but also everyone), I guess I’m just glad that my blog gets people talking, Is Woolwich on the up? Is it getting worse? Will it ever attain the heights of its glory days? All questions for the crystal ball, in my opinion. There are a lot of people who are happy to be living here. We went out in Woolwich the other night. A couple of drinks in the sunshine at Dial Arch, followed by a bite to eat at Blue Nile (Ottolenghi’s favourite Eritrean restaurant) and then some live music and performance poetry at Koffees and Kream. At the latter we enjoyed a beer with the guy who brews the beer, James from Hopstuff. All of this happened in Woolwich, because people are putting their energy and faith into this humble and resilient part of London. Anyhoods, rant over. I think I might turn some of this into a post!

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