Guest Post: Ways To While Away A Weekend In Woolwich
By Paul Breen, author of The Charlton Men
BACK in the middle 90s, I watched a movie called Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. It was a crime flick in the era of Pulp Fiction imitations. Probably, the only memorable feature of the entire show was the title. The rest was just a story of guys with cliché nicknames shooting at other gangsters in sharp suits.
However, I always thought that title could give rise to a cool variation set in London – things to do in Deptford when you’re alive. But by now, twenty years after first seeing that movie, Deptford has become well-established as a vibrant and energised place to hang out, despite possibly lacking in the calibre of bars and restaurants that you find just up the road in New Cross. A few years back people were even starting to christen New Cross as South London’s Camden. But it could turn out to be another part of the beautiful south that steals all the headlines as the place to be seen in the next few years, especially with the development of Crossrail taking people in and out of London’s heartlands in a matter of minutes.
Already reenergised by the Docklands Light Railway, Woolwich appears to be on the verge of further regeneration and modernisation that paradoxically is going to sweep back the decades to where it stood a century ago in London folklore. Once upon a time this suburb of South London was a Kentish town at the heart of the British Empire. Ships rose out of the royal docks, and furnaces roared on the side of a thriving industrialised waterfront. Some of the finest and most prestigious stores in the country came to the outskirts of London to a place where people had money in their pockets. But then after the rampant destruction of bombing raids in the Second World War and the closure of Woolwich Arsenal’s armaments factories the place fell into decline.
More recently, it suffered fresh damage during the London riots. Then it had the negative publicity generated by Lee Rigby’s murder just up the road from the Town Hall. But thanks to Crossrail and the work of Greenwich Council, Woolwich has managed to rise again from the wreckage of these various events and is fast becoming a place that can once again attract visitors from outside.
So instead of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, I’m thinking of Ways to While Away a Weekend In Woolwich. In my new book, various scenes take place in this part of London and not always happy scenes, since it’s a psychological thriller with elements of crime fiction, so maybe this is my way of showing another side to Woolwich. And if you do visit and do read the book, you could even spend some time checking out the locations that are given a mention.
But back to our imaginary weekend, which should probably start with a boat ride out of central London and past the Thames Barrier towards Woolwich terminal. Once you land you pass through a riverside development that was formerly part of the historic Arsenal, which gave its name to a certain football club. They left in 1913 but you can find traces of one of their places of origin – Dial Square – where there’s now a pub called The Dial Arch that allows for sitting outside and sipping a pint across from the small sculpture that marks the story of Arsenal’s birth. The Arsenal angle could be a whole tourist adventure on its own. Dotted around Woolwich and its surrounds, as far out as Plumstead Common, you can find places with a connection to the club. An Arsenal F.C. pub crawl would take in quite a bit of walking and a fair chunk of local history too. But if it’s history you’re after in Woolwich the Greenwich Heritage Centre is well worth a visit. This includes a gallery that tells the story of the Royal Arsenal, as well as the broader story of Woolwich, and the whole of Greenwich Borough. There’s also a lot of history to be found in the Bathway area of the town, particularly in landmark buildings such as the Edwardian Baroque Town Hall and the old public baths on Polytechnic Street.
On the whole, this part of Woolwich feels a bit like one of those old factory towns you get up north, with lots of grand old buildings made from red or brown brick slightly blackened by the smoke of time. If that’s what interests you, there’s a lot to see in the architecture around here. If not, and you prefer somewhere with the feel of Sloane Square, maybe skip these back streets!
But if you are a fan of old buildings and of walking, there are a lot more historical sights to see in the outlying areas of Woolwich. Amidst waves of Council housing, you can find the hidden gem of The Garrison Church of Saint George which is currently earmarked for refurbishment to bring it back to something of its former glory in the days before it was bombed in the Second World War. Across the way from this you can find The Royal Artillery Barracks, and further up the road across Woolwich Common, the Royal Military Academy which has now been converted to private housing whilst retaining its grandeur on the outside.
Anyway after all that walking there would be dire need to quench a thirst. Woolwich, in the past few years, has built up a range of pubs to rival neighbouring New Cross or Greenwich, though is still crying out for one located right on the edge of town facing over the river. There are a couple of Irish bars, with one slightly rough around the edges, and The Castle Tavern which is said to be great for African food, flavour, and entertainment especially during football matches. In the centre of the town there’s the historic Great Harry, named after a ship built in the sixteenth century heydey of the Woolwich Dockyard.Then there’s the venerable Elephant and Castle, which might seem as if it’s ended up in the wrong part of town. But this is very much at home a few miles down the road from its famous namesake and is the only pub in town that can claim to have an affinity with the local football club. No, not Arsenal. This is the team that drove the Gunners out of Woolwich and across the river to Highbury – none other than the mighty Charlton Athletic, for whom Irishman Andy Reid once starred and earned the nickname The Puskas of Plumstead. So if you want to pay homage to local football royalty, maybe the (Elephant &) Castle is the place for raising your tankard.
Across the way you then have The Woolwich Equitable which is located within the former home of The Equitable Building Society, and bears traces of that past in almost every aspect of the design and décor. There’s a nice selection of beers too and after a few craft ales you can almost hear the ghostly whisperings of clerks and administrators as you stare out into the fountain waters of General Gordon Square. This is the square at the heart of Woolwich town centre and one that has been extensively redesigned in the past few years. It now features a giant TV screen around which clusters of people from all corners of the world congregate on a nightly basis to give testament to Woolwich’s current diversity.
Indeed this square is likely to play host to some of the shows in the annual Charlton and Woolwich Free Film Festival, which thankfully doesn’t feature Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Details can be found here http://www.freefilmfestivals.org/filmfestival/charlton/ and this might well be a great time to start whiling away a weekend in Woolwich.
But back to the pubs and places you can sample in between films. Down towards the river once more, you’ll find The Guard House, which again like Equitable and Dial Arch, is housed within a historic building from the past. You can also find Hop Stuff Brewery within the Royal Arsenal Development, a place that makes its own range of ales and now has its own bar called The Tap Room. Though not an ale drinker myself, several friends have said this is the best ale they have tasted in London, and that’s even alongside the big name brands of huge breweries!
However if alcohol’s not your thing, there are plenty of other places to socialise and get a flavour of Woolwich these days. You might want to go see the site of the United Kingdom’s first ever McDonald’s restaurant in the heart of Powis Street, which opened in 1974 at a time when a quarter pounder with cheese cost 48p! But personally I’d recommend something more exotic than America’s most famous fast food franchise. The Blue Nile Café on Woolwich New Road is another example of Woolwich’s proud immigrant and African association of recent times. Combining Italian and Eritrean cuisine, this family run business is rated amongst the top 200 restaurants in London out of TWENTY THOUSAND on Tripadvisor. That’s quite an achievement and that statistic alone says more than words. And in terms of the diverse ethnic feel of Woolwich, you just have to walk down the street and you come to Saint Peter’s Catholic Church from the 1800s, partly designed by English Gothic architect Augustus Pugin, at a time when he was also designing interiors in the Houses of Parliament. Today this church stands not only as a relic to this popular style of architecture in 19th century England but also a reminder of the many Irish immigrants who settled in this part of London to work in the Arsenal’s factories. And going back to my earlier mention of the Town Hall there’s an Irish connection there too because if you’re familiar with Belfast you’ll see the similarity with the Northern Irish capital’s City Hall, since both were designed by the Baroque revivalist Alfred Brumwell Thomas.
So if it’s food, beer, architecture, or just plain, panoramic, or pacific riverside views you’re looking for then it might be a good time to while away a weekend in Woolwich as summer comes to an end. Maybe even since film inspired this article in the first place, the film festival might be a good time to start. Even if you don’t come by water the DLR takes you right to the edge of General Gordon Square so there’s no reason at all to miss the boat so to speak!
PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men, a novel set in South London, and his latest work of fiction is entitled The Bones of a Season. Information about that can be found here – http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/the-bones-of-a-season/about-book.html
You can also follow Paul on Twitter @CharltonMen