Our journey starts at the Thames Barrier, although brave souls with boots and a decent guidebook can go and have a look at the estuary by using a route with the glamorous title of the London Outer Orbital Path (or LOOP). Any lingering taste for adventure is satisfied on the journey out – south east London is not known for public transport and you’re on the wrong side of the river for what little there is. The best option yet discovered is Charlton rail station and a ten-minute walk, beginning on a four-lane highway and continuing on a track which appears to lead only to a breakers’ yard. But soon you’re by the river and it all turns leafy and charming. You can while away time and money at the visitor centre seeing how it works. But you’ll probably be itching to set off.
Docklands means dirty, heavy industry under the huge, clean East London sky, the wrecks and ruins of the maritime past, slogging round the back of the Greenwich peninsula to avoid the Dome and trying not to get run over at the Blackwall Tunnel. But it’s a landscape like no other that you’d have precious little chance of seeing otherwise. In beautiful Greenwich the path is summed up neatly – the tranquil, historic, lovely Trinity Hospitale beside a hideous power station. Greenwich is elegant and lovely and, outside the Naval College the Thames washes the pavement at high tide, leaving it silty and slippery.
The Cutty Sark, Island Gardens across the river, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Then Deptford and an alarming section through a housing estate – there’s no riverside route. Definite hours-of-daylight stuff and you’d have to pause before recommending it to tourists. Back on the river at Deptford Strand and New Docklands starts to emerge as blocks of yuppie flats interspersed with more traditional communities in social housing. Sometimes you work surprisingly hard to tell the difference. Approaching Shad Thames and Tower Bridge you discover byways you wouldn’t imagine existed if you didn’t know the area – it’s a London you’ll never normally see and, once more, it’s fascinating. After Tower Bridge you’re back on the tourist trail. Try to look at The Tower with new eyes – how often do you see a mediaeval fortress that well-preserved?
Southwark; overcome your cynicism for a glorious whiff of history. Time’s well spent on this familiar section just to make sure you take it all in. The amazing modern architecture beside London Bridge. Southwark Cathedral, The Globe and Bankside. Old commercial buildings re-used as desirable shops, offices and addresses. Then Gabriel’s wharf, second-hand bookstalls to delay you on the riverside and the South Bank complex, especially the National Theatre.