From the Isle of Dogs to Tower Bridge, just how much of the celebrated Thames riverside is actually open to the general public - and what does it tell us about money, politics and space in contemporary London? A specially assembled exploration party finds out
-Published in The Guardian
-Follow the link above for more photos and a special map detailing contested space along the walk
-London, February 2015
Just past the Prospect of Whitby, reportedly the oldest tavern still standing on the banks of London’s River Thames, is an alleyway down to the water bordered by high metal fences, coils of razor wire and a large security camera trained down upon the flagstones.
George Jeffreys, the notorious 17th century ‘Hanging Judge’, once counted among the pub regulars here. Rumour has it that he always supped his drink by the windows, enabling him to gaze down approvingly upon a set of gallows standing a bit further along the foreshore at Execution Dock – where condemned criminals were left dangling until three tides had washed over their corpses. Had Jeffreys still been alive and sitting in his customary chair on a recent bright winter’s morning, he would have commanded an excellent view of something rather different: four people on the wrong side of those high metal fences – a Guardian journalist and photographer among them – clambering somewhat inelegantly over low walls and through small bushes in an effort to chart an illicit new pathway by the river.
As a staunch disciplinarian and upholder of private property rights, Jeffreys would doubtless have been enraged by such a transgression. But the hardline judge didn’t get everything his own way: he was eventually turned upon by a rebellious people’s mob who were tired of his injustices, and forced to flee to the Tower of London, where he met his end. Along the Thames, formal governance has never quite felt absolute. Today, as it always has been, authority over riverside spaces remains sharply contested; up against the water, rules and regulations have a habit of getting slippery.
The Thames Path, which gained official National Trail status in 1989, is a 213-mile pedestrian route from the river’s source to the Thames Barrier that takes in some of Britain’s most iconic sites along the way. Sixty miles of the trail run through London, on both the north and south bank of the capital’s most famous waterway; Transport for London classifies this stretch as one of the most important pedestrian thoroughfares in the capital, and in 2013 Lonely Planet declared it to be among the finest urban walks on Earth.
In the centre of town it is possible, in many places, to stroll uninterrupted by the Thames and enjoy green parks, comfortable benches and vibrant cultural institutions along the way. Elsewhere though, the path bears more resemblance to a high-security prison corridor than a public right of way: gates, spikes and CCTV warning notices stand sentinel over fragmented patches of riverside that start and end abruptly, and whose access rights are shrouded in a veil of bureaucratic obscurity.
In this canyonised universe of visible and not-so-visible boundaries, some campaigners see a microcosm of the contemporary city as a whole: one of soaring inequality, in which the line between public and private is becoming dangerously blurred.
“What developers are counting on is that ordinary people want to avoid threat and confrontation, and so spaces like this are designed to feel threatening and confrontational,” argues Bradley Garrett, a lecturer in human geography at the University of Southampton. “The answer is to defy them and invite the confrontation. We need to drag these divisions to the surface.”
In late 2014 the Guardian invited Garrett – who, in addition to his academic duties, is an urban explorer: someone who seeks out off-limits spaces and traverses the city in unconventional ways – and Anna Minton, a writer specialising in the spread of land privatisation and ‘pseudo-public’ city quarters, to conduct an alternative walk along a section of the Thames Path between the Isle of Dogs and Tower Bridge.
For several hours, our party rang buzzers, pushed at doors, begged, cajoled and scrambled our way through partially sealed-off corners of the riverside – Bradley leading the way, the rest of us usually lagging exhaustedly behind. We got ourselves stuck down windswept passages that are supposed to be public but have been blocked off by developers engaged in the construction of luxury new housing projects; we rang caretaker mobile numbers in an effort to pass through closed gates; we climbed over barriers of dubious legality onto corporate patios, and mumbled apologies as we exited past confused office receptionists to make our way back out on to the street.
Our aim was to find out just how much of the celebrated walking route, which wends its way around some of London’s most expensive property developments, was actually open to the general public. What we discovered was a bafflingly complex labyrinth of private obstructions and municipal confusion – and a struggle over land rights that could have serious consequences for common access to the river.
From the moment of its foundation, London’s identity has been bound up with the Thames. “Who the river is for, and who has a say over how it is used and how its water and banks are managed – these are questions that throughout history have come around again and again,” says Vanessa Taylor, a research fellow at the Greenwich Maritime Institute. Since the late 1960s, those questions have been particularly relevant to the riverside east of Tower Bridge – formerly the home of London’s upriver docks, and subsequently a site of fierce argument between port workers, governments, community groups and corporate developers, all of whom envisaged profoundly different futures for the area.
By and large, the latter won out. Once the core of London’s industrial heartland, the riverfront wharves of Wapping and Limehouse have been transformed over the past few decades into some of the city’s most exclusive apartment blocks. That process was fuelled largely by the development of the Canary Wharf complex on the Isle of Dogs by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) – a controversial regeneration agency established by the Thatcher administration in the 1980s. The LDDC was given the power to override local planning decisions and vowed to make isolation a ‘thing of the past’ by integrating the surrounding neighbourhoods and the waterway they bordered firmly into the life of the city.
Wapping and Limehouse have certainly been radically altered; whether or not the development of their riverfronts has been as inclusive and imaginative as the LDDC once promised is another matter. Back when the Thames was a working waterway, saturated with maritime detritus and raw sewage, wealthy London turned its back to the river. Today the situation is reversed. Follow the Thames Path west, along Narrow Street and Wapping Wall, and you’ll find yourself walking mainly alongside a series of high brick walls screening off self-enclosed bubbles of private housing; London’s elite now look out upon the river, and turn their backs to the rest of the city instead. A 2003 London Assembly report warned that to many people the riverside seemed to be mutating into a thin strip of affluence, characterised by a “sterile monoculture” – a world barricaded off from the rhythms of the metropolis that lay on its doorstep.
The Thames Path was supposed to be a way of combating that sense of exclusion by ensuring that the general public was granted access to the riverfront and enjoyed a shared sense of common ownership over London’s greatest natural asset. To obtain planning permission, developers would agree to provide pedestrian access to riverside walkways; rather than creating an unambiguous right of way, however, landowners were generally allowed to offer ‘permissive’ access which could be tempered by locked gates and timing restrictions, the details of which were negotiated individually for each property. The outcome has been a patchwork quilt of asphalt scraps from which the public can supposedly indulge in walks or views of the Thames. The problem, aside from how disjointed these spaces are, is that it’s nearly impossible for ordinary people to find out exactly where they are – or when they are legally allowed to use them.
It’s a problem that we encounter from the very beginning of our walk; as the Thames Path leaves behind the Isle of Dogs and enters Limehouse, it immediately plunges down a forbidding passageway with a closed gate at the end, overlooked by a CCTV camera. “Everything about this is designed to suggest that there is no way through,” observes Anna. “If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume it was just private property and turn on to the road instead.” In fact, a series of buttons does let intrepid walkers make their way to a small fenced-off car park by the river at certain times of the day, before swiftly twisting them back out on to Narrow Street – once the site of London’s original Chinatown and a home to many of the city’s most colourful political agitators and social reformers in the 19th century. Today, apartments here sell for upwards of £1m, and pedestrians are forced to trudge alongside car traffic at their rear. Glimpses of water are few and far between.
Further along the road is another hidden slither of public riverside that technically constitutes part of the Thames Path: an empty and somewhat forlorn wooden jetty, accessed through a heavy electrically controlled security gate and mouldering in disuse. According to John Biggs, a London Assembly member who has worked extensively on these issues – and tangled in the past with residents who illegally blocked off pathways by their homes or used other tricks to try to dissuade passersby from coming near them – lack of public awareness about such nooks and crannies plus the prevalence of security features and what Anna calls “the architecture of fear” (landowners rarely want to provide benches or other public-friendly amenities for fear that will encourage loiterers) add up to more than a petty inconvenience. Public access permissions to these private spaces rest partly on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis: over time, if members of the public don’t utilise them then landowners – for whom exclusive riverside walkways are a lucrative asset and who nearly always prefer to restrict access if they can – will claim to have a strong case for total privatisation.
“The idea that London’s spaces have always been open and democratic is a myth,” explains Anna. “It took a long, hard fight to bring streets under public control, and there is a constant push-back against it – if people aren’t galvanised and engaged with these spaces then they will slip away into private hands.” But engagement requires knowledge: with erratic signage along our route and plenty of places where the status of public access rights is completely unclear, how are walkers supposed to know where they are allowed to go and when they are being wrongly forbidden from continuing?
Our portion of the Thames Path runs entirely through the local authority of Tower Hamlets; when the Guardian asked Tower Hamlets for a map or other explanation of which parts of the route were public rights of way, which were merely ‘permissive’ paths and what the access details were for each section, we were met with befuddlement – no one had collated that sort of data, we were told, and it was buried deep within the planning documents and ‘Section 106’ agreements for each individual property, which were themselves scattered between a number of different agencies. After more than four months of to-ing and fro-ing, and a rejected Freedom of Information request (denied, absurdly, on the grounds that the information was ‘reasonably accessible’), the council issued a statement insisting that despite not being able to provide us with any information, public access to the Thames Path was an important priority for the borough.
As Anna points out, this imbalance – between private landowners who are able to vigorously defend their land rights on the one hand, and the general public who find it nearly impossible to discover what rights they even enjoy on the other – serves as a form of covert exclusion. “It makes us feel uneasy and alienates us from these spaces,” she argues, “so we don’t get a sense of being connected to the river.” Our own offbeat walk, which aimed to stick as close to the river as possible even when the route of the Thames Path or the access rights ahead of us were unclear, was designed to expose and undermine that exclusion. “By prodding at these hidden divisions and occasionally stepping over them, you open the debate,” explains Bradley.
Towards the end of our journey, we wind up on a terrace overlooking the Thames at the back of an office block named Devon House, near St Katharine Docks. The terrace is legally accessible by the public and part of the Thames Path, but few passersby would ever know it and to reach the riverside you have to pass through a corporate foyer and walk by a security guard, who darts over to interrogate us as soon as we arrive. “You need permission to be here,” he claims, “you need to book ahead or sign in.” We point out that according to the – albeit barely legible – writing on the building’s doors, this terrace is public space and nobody needs permission to be here. “You have to tell me how long you’re going to be here and what you’re here for,” the guard maintains. We politely refuse. When he insists on an answer, we speculate that we might hold a protest, or perhaps just have a picnic, or do any of the other things that people are allowed to do in public spaces without corporate dispensation. “A protest?” he says, eyes widening. “A picnic? What’s in the picnic?” Before we can answer, he hurries off to contact a supervisor.
It’s important to avoid conjuring up an imaginary golden age of public waterside walkways in this part of the capital. When the docks were still in operation, the river was screened off from Londoners by high security walls; by comparison, the access pedestrians have to the river today is in many ways better than it ever has been. But the Thames is not the domain of any private individual or company, and those who have developed the riverside – through a planning process that many Londoners felt was undemocratic and unresponsive to local concerns – were only able to do so, and rake in lucrative profits as a result, by promising to ensure that the riverbanks would be inclusionary spaces that linked the city to its liquid artery and provided everyone with access to the river. In many places, those promises have simply not been met. Without easily accessible information on the subject, regular citizens stand little chance of pushing back, or holding to account those who would snatch away public space into private hands.
“There’s a symbiosis between the economic forces which are dominant in our society at the moment and these models of development, which lean towards the private, the profitable and the pseudo-public,” remarks Anna, as we cast our eyes up at Tower Bridge and wait to be shepherded out of our desolate little terrace. It’s telling that of all the spaces we passed through on our irregular walk, it’s one of the very few genuinely public areas by the river – the lovely King Edward Memorial Park that stands by the water between Limehouse and Wapping – that is set to be ripped up when construction is started on the Thames Water ‘Super-Sewer’ in 2016; locals have launched a campaign to save it.
Bradley, who has explored most of London’s underground Victorian-era sewage network, including the grand embankment in Victoria designed by Joseph Bazalgette, is quick to point out the historical contrasts. Back then, a river-based project designed to provide a public good was carried out by government in the face of fierce opposition from wealthy private landowners, whose property was affected by the plans; today, a river-based project designed to provide a public good is being carried out by a private company owned by Australian financiers (Thames Water) who are outsourcing construction (rival
We wind up our perambulations at City Hall, on the other side of the river. London’s seat of democratic governance now sits entirely on a private estateowned by a Kuwaiti investment outfit. John Biggs, the London Assembly member, tells me he has been prevented from doing television interviews outside the building by private security guards who insist he needs a special permit; protesters are not allowed to gather without corporate permission. “I think that as active citizens we’ve got a reasonable responsibility to test and push at these public/private borders,” he tells me. “It’s clear we’ve got the balance wrong at the moment.”
The Thames is a permanent conduit for political struggle. Judge Jeffreys found that out the hard way; the glass cases of the Museum of London Docklands, which tell the history of the river, are littered with protest paraphernalia stretching right back through the centuries. As debates continue to rage today over the many ways the Thames is or should be exploited – from the luxury property developments at Battersea Power Station in the west, to the divisive Garden Bridge proposal in the city centre and the mega-urbanisation plans for the Thames Gateway in the east – the fences and fault lines of the Thames Path throw up a number of critical questions that London’s authorities, so far, appear to have made little progress in answering.
It may be that if we are to resist the encroachment of private ownership upon public space, a bit of tactical encroachment in the other direction – the public barging their way into the private – will be required. What form that might take, be it citizen mapping, innovative data-sharing or direct action, remains to be seen. “We need a Kinder Scout moment for our cities,” concludes Bradley. “The Thames is for everyone – let’s crank up the pressure.”