The London Borough of Deptford isn’t on anyone’s tourist top ten of London. It’s hard to imagine that, of the millions of tourists who visit London every year, more than a handful have heard of it. The majority of London’s seven million residents, at least those who don’t live in Deptford, would struggle to pinpoint it on a map. Feeling underwhelmed as I walked the streets, it was easy to understand why it’s one of London’s less loved boroughs.
Deptford struggles with high levels of poverty and crime, including a significant level of gang-related crime, and has definitely seen better days. Given this, it is almost impossible to understand why a couple years ago the New York Times enthusiastically encourage Americans to visit the area. The NYT described Deptford as “a boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism“.
I’m not really sure what this means, but it sounds like the sort of soundbite typically reserved for areas like New York’s East Village. It certainly doesn’t describe the Deptford I encountered.
Deptford is now going through a painful process of gentrification, it also has a lot of historical associations. Chosen by King Henry VIII in 1513 as the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard, it is known as the birthplace of the Royal Navy. Queen Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake here in 1581, following his circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind. This event is commemorated by a gateway above the Drake Steps, reputed to be where he famously laid his cloak at the feet of the Queen.
The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, stayed in this area when he came to inspect the dockyards in 1698. The dockyards reached their zenith in the 18th and early 19th Centuries as British military and economic power spread around the globe. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford’s docks declined in importance. As the docks declined, so to did Deptford; little of this grand history remains today, many of the centuries old buildings destroyed in acts of historical vandalism.
A planned new development of apartments would destroy what remains of the Royal Navy Dockyards. Consigning this history, and tourism potential, to the scrapheap seems poor reward for an area which played an important role in London’s history. There is an alternative vision, supported by local groups: preserve the dock as a heritage site and build a working replica of a 17th Century ship. The decision has been taken out of local hands, now resting with London’s clown-like Mayor, Boris Johnson. Preserving 500 years of history or a 40-story block of flats. Which way will Boris jump?
Walking from the much better known Greenwich, and leaving the magnificent Cutty Sark behind, I walked back towards the City of London. It is a lovely walk, offering spectacular views of Canary Wharf and the river. The entire route is littered with the detritus of Britain’s global maritime trade, creating some interesting ‘modern art’ forms along the river.
These leftovers are evocative reminders of Britain’s industrial heyday, but you really have to work hard to imagine the area as it would have been – teeming with life and full of ships carrying cargo from around the world. Inland, there are a series of wharfs and docks where ships would load and unload their bounty from around the world.
Today, those docks which remain are little more than water features surrounded by apartments, but they provide an insight into the history of this area. On the border between Deptford and Rotherhithe lies the huge Greenland Dock. This was once known as Surrey Dock, but was renamed Greenland Dock when it became the centre of trade for whaling ships. After the decline of the whaling trade, the area was known for timber imported from Russia, Finland and Sweden.
My route eventually reached Rotherhithe, close to Tower Bridge. Rotherhithe is a fascinating and historic district where I found myself wandering aimlessly and bumping into some extraordinary history…but that’s for next time.