Thursday, 13 August 2009

Surrey Docks and surrounds

The Guardian's recent 'let's move to' bemoaned the lack of green space in Deptford, claiming that you had to 'heft up the hill' to Greenwich Park or Blackheath for any parkland.

Of course locals know that not to be the case at all - and in fact I think we are lucky to be more fairly served with public spaces and parks than a lot of London. While the green space might be in smaller portions, it is more evenly distributed between us. Anyone who has had to walk the length of more than a couple of streets of Victorian houses, whether north or south of the river, can only envy us our proximity to play areas and green spaces, however modest in size. Just consider St Pauls and St Nicholas' churchyards, Twinkle Park, the Sue Godfrey Nature Park, Brookmill Park, Douglas Way, Fordham Park, Folkestone Gardens and Deptford Park, not to mention the numerous play areas and green spaces around the Evelyn, Crossfields, Pepys and Woodpecker Estates, and the river frontage where it's accessible, and you can't help but agree that we are very well off for green spaces - albeit not the grand sweeping vistas of royal parks. For myself, I'd rather live in a greened environment than have to make a special trip to the park.

One of my favourite places in the area, however, is actually just across the border in Southwark. It's a place that's perfect for a bike ride early morning on Sunday or in the evening after a hot day. It starts on Grove Street, and after passing Pepys Park, turn right along Bowditch Lane. This will lead you up to the historic setting of the Foreshore on the river bank, and if you turn left here and go along the river, you will pass The Tower, subject of the infamous BBC documentary a couple of years ago.

Following the riverside path brings you to South Dock, which can be circumnavigated quite easily by bike, since it only has a road along one side.

Its neighbour - the enormous Greenland Dock, is similarly very pedestrian/cycle friendly, although somewhat larger in scale.

On the far side of Greenland Dock, about halfway along, you will see a pub. From here, duck down below the underpass and up the other side and you will find yourself at the start of Russia Dock woodland.

This park was built on the infilled Russia Dock; one side of the old quay has been left in place, complete with cobbles and mooring buoys, to remind us of its former incarnation. I think of this park and its environs as a really magical place - unless you live nearby you really have to know where it is in order to find it, it's tucked between houses and roads with the utmost cunning.

Look on a map and you will see how small this area really is, but it has been so cleverly designed that you can actually get lost in it! There is a chain of ponds and small streams along its centre, with wooden bridges here and there, many of them topped by little decorative metal signs.

Footpaths lead off in numerous directions - many of them just linking into the surrounding housing estates - but their presence adds to the mystery; so many paths to explore, so little time! Every visit I take a new route and it's a great place to discover different corners and new vistas. I also love the metal seats that are scattered throughout the park, some in twos and threes, others in half a dozen or more. They are not really like park benches, they are more like thrones, and with the large groups in particular, I always imagine them being the meeting place of some ancient court.

Come down here on Sunday morning and you may see a few dog walkers, an old chap reading the Sunday papers on a sunny bench, perhaps a Chinese family of four doing their morning exercises in formation on the old dock wall. I even happened across someone doing what looked like tightrope practice on a webbing strap fastened low between two trees! It's a place that is constantly full of surprises. Read more about Russia Dock Woodland here.

For nature lovers there's the excellent Stave Hill Ecological park, including great views from the top of the hill itself. More about its insect life (and great photos!) here.

There's also the Surrey Docks Watersports Centre - the building is currently in the middle of being refurbished but due to reopen later this year.

And if you are a fan of industrial history, the docks themselves have many stories to tell; the old bridges and locks are worth a look, and it's a great place to ponder the changes that the area has seen.

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