Beautiful Dereliction: The Thames Shoreline by Convoys Wharf, Deptford, a set on Flickr.
Regular readers might recall that, three weeks ago, I posted a set of photos of Deptford, the lively, historically important and frequently maligned area of south east London, between Greenwich and Rotherhithe along the River Thames, and also reaching inland up the River Ravensbourne (which is known, as it nears the Thames, as Deptford Creek). The set was entitled, “Deptford: A Life By The River Thames,” and in it I had the opportunity to discuss Convoys Wharf, a vast, derelict riverside site (40 acres, or 16 hectares) of huge historic importance, which, for the last ten years, has seen developers queuing up to turn it into some kind of inappropriate high-rise housing development for bankers and international investors, intended to include over 3,500 new homes for 9,000 people with the money required to buy into a project that is estimated to cost a billion pounds.
In that set, I also included a handful of photos from the shoreline in front of Convoys Wharf, where there is a listed pier, incorporated in the plans for the site, but only to be tarted up as though it were new , and — as has already been proposed — to serve as the location for a ferry to Canary Wharf, where many of those who would live in Convoys Wharf would, presumably, be working.
The problems with the Convoys Wharf plans, as I outline below, involve: 1) their lack of concern for the area’s historical significance; 2) the lack of affordable housing for people with more of a claim to the area (established residents of Deptford, for example); 3) the outrageous height of the towers; 4) the inability of the area to incorporate a huge increase in traffic; and 5) the cleansing of this stretch of the riverside of its wonderful desolate charm.
On a more personal basis, I would like to see the site redeveloped to revolve around its significant maritime history, and encourage those interested in this to see the local campaign here on the “Deptford Is” website, and also the new “Build the Lenox” campaign, which is calling for a replica of the Restoration warship Lenox to be built in the dockyard where she was originally constructed. Another campaign, “Sayes Court Garden,” aims to restore the writer, gardener and diarist John Evelyn’s garden at Sayes Court, which occupies part of the Convoys Wharf site, and which, as the organisers state, “was one of the most famous and revolutionary gardens of its time.”
For myself, I’d also rather have the site given over only to low-rise social housing (once the historical importance of the site has been recognised and celebrated), because I’m sick of London’s grossly distorted housing market, with high-rise glass and steel towers and other “luxury” developments rising up everywhere, funded by the same banks who crashed the global economy in 2008. Bailed out by taxpayers and by quantitative easing, they are now back investing in the London property bubble, building properties designed to appeal either to the very richest members of society, or to the foreign investors who are constantly being encouraged to buy up British property — and London property in particular.
Primarily, though, what I love about Convoys Wharf is the beautiful dereliction — and desolation — of the shoreline in front of Convoys Wharf, where there is nothing but the weathered pier, the huge river walls, pebbles, stones, the remains of the wharf’s industrial history, the detritus of the Thames and the sounds of the river too — the gulls, the lapping tide, and the wind rattling through the pier. It may be that I’m an old school Romantic, drawn to the wilderness and to places of emotional resonance in which chaos and nature are more attractive than order and places fashioned by man, but I know that I’m not alone in this, even if greed is still the only game in town.
Strictly speaking, of course, Convoys Wharf is a decaying, abandoned place rather than a wilderness, but my appreciation of it is the same, especially as almost every other stretch of shoreline in inner city London that can be developed has been — their history, mystery and poetry wiped out, and replaced with marketable “river views,” and, in many cases, a ferry or otter transport connections to Canary Wharf and the City of London.
Below, for further information, is the story of Convoys Wharf, from 1513 to the present day.
Visible here and here in its current derelict state, Convoys Wharf was the site of Deptford Dockyard (also known as the King’s Yard), which was the first of the Royal Dockyards, established in 1513 under King Henry VIII to build ships for the Royal Navy. As the Evening Standard explained in October 2011, “It was the harbour to royal yachts, where Francis Drake was knighted aboard the Golden Hinde in 1581, and where Elizabeth I’s Spanish Armada-defeating fleet was built. It is a place of astonishing, nationally important historical significance.”
After its glory days under the Tudors, the dockyard still found its place in the history books — in 1768, for example, when Captain James Cook set sail for Australia. The final ship built on the site was the HMS Druid, a screw corvette, which was launched on March 13, 1869. The docks continued as a victualling yard making and storing food, drink, clothing and furniture for the Navy until 1961, when they closed down, and the site remained abandoned until 1980, when it was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and was used until 2000 for the import of paper for newsprint from Finland.
In 2002, News International applied to Lewisham Council for planning permission for 3,500 homes on the site, and commissioned Richard Rodgers to produce a masterplan, which can be seen here (and also in the photo to the left — click to enlarge). In 2005, NI sold the site to Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong Holdings, companies based in Hong Kong, but seven years later — and with just one year to go until the 500th anniversary of the original Royal Dockyard — it is unclear when, if ever, the £1 billion scheme — intended to include 3,541 residential units for 9,000 people — will go ahead. One particular problem for the developers involves the designation of the site as a “protected wharf,” whereby half of it is supposed to be safeguarded for freight use, following a decision to protect London’s remaining freight wharves that was taken by the last Tory government in 1997 (for information about Convoys Wharf’s safeguarded wharf status, see pages 59-63 of this GLA report). Perhaps even more troubling for the developers, however, is the opposition of numerous respectable organisations and protest groups.
Insufficient regard for the site’s historical importance
In a letter to Lewisham Council in November 2011, for example, English Heritage complained about the developers’ refusal to acknowledge sufficiently the site’s history, stating that they were “particularly disappointed that the opportunity to re-engage with the site’s outstanding historic significance has not been grasped.” As the East London Lines blog explained, “They say the importance of the remaining features of the wharf, including the large basin that connects the river and a Victorian warehouse, are sidelined, and that the history of the former Royal Dockyard, built by Henry VIII, was not considered in the creative process.” A spokesperson said, “The form and scale as currently proposed in this application fails to take account of the context and location. The current approach does not offer a legible link with the river and the former activity of the site.” In addition, in a letter to Hutchison Whampoa, Lewisham Council’s head of planning pointed out that the plans are “not, by a long way, a sufficient response to the history of the site and associated areas of historical significance.”
Lack of affordable housing
Another problem with the planned development is its lack of affordable housing. As the East London Lines blog reported in November 2011, of the 3,541 residential units in total, only 500, or 14 per cent, are designated as “affordable.” As the blog explained, “Campaigners say that this falls far short of Lewisham Council’s own target of 50 per cent total affordable homes on new developments in the borough, and fails to meet local housing needs.” Julian Kingston of “Deptford Is” said, “There is not enough housing provided for local people’s needs. I think it shows the colour and character of the current development and sums up what the developers are all about. Personally, I would like to see different uses of the site — with more space dedicated to employment and less housing overall, but with a higher proportion that is affordable.”
The disproportionate height of the towers
Another major problem is the height of the towers. As the Crossfields blog explained in September 2011, “There are three towers proposed for Convoys Wharf — Tower A is 148m tall with 46 storeys, Tower D is 124m with 38 storeys, and Tower I is 106m with 32 storeys.” In addition, some of the buildings around the towers are planed to be as high as 60m.” In comparison, the Aragon Tower on the Pepys Estate nearby, which dominates the skyline currently, is 92m tall. In English Heritage’s complaint in November 2011, they also criticised the plans, expressing their opposition to “proposals to include three towers of over thirty storeys, which would obscure the panoramic view from Greenwich Park,” as well as the “rectilinear, grid-like planning,” and a spokesperson said, “We believe the development should have a relationship with the local scale of Deptford and Greenwich and not to the metropolitan scale of, for example, the City or Canary Wharf.” See the Deptford Dame blog for an excellent article incorporating various views of what the development would look like from Greenwich, Deptford High Street, the Isle of Dogs and elsewhere.
There are understandable concerns that Deptford’s transport infrastructure will be unable to cope with the cars owned by 3,500 new residents. As the Deptford Dame blog explained after the latest public consultation in July 2012, “Around 1,800 car parking spaces are proposed, and this has a number of implications for the development and its neighbouring estates. Firstly the fact that those cars have to get in and out of Convoys Wharf, and local roads are ill-equipped to allow this. Moreover, in excess of 300 spaces are proposed for non-residential use.”
In July, the developers held a public consultation regarding their plans, which the “Deptford Is” campaign analysed in detail here. There was supposed to be a follow-up in September, but that didn’t happen, although I will provide updates if there is any further information. The latest news from the “Deptford Is” campaign is here.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Ruth Gilburt wrote:
loving these photos, Andy…and the research you’ve done too! Not that I’d expect any different from you…but so thorough and I agree with all of it! x
Thanks, Ruth. I’m so pleased that you’re enjoying the photos – and that you agree with my analysis of the development plans. It’s become something of an obsession for me since I cycled down to the shoreline on July 16, in the drizzle (down the passage put up by the developers at Paynes & Borthwick Wharf, next door) and found that the tide was out, and took the walk that led to these photos. The shoreline was like a magical world, and it made me think how little there is that hasn’t been taken over by developers, speculators and their pawns in the architecture industry.
Rachel’s Page wrote:
your photos of London are stunning Andy , keep up the good work
Thank you, Rachel. That’s very encouraging. Actually, I just set up a tumblr account tonight, in addition to my flickr account. I thought I’d try it out. I must be mad. It’s not as though I don’t have enough going on. Do you put your lovely photos up on flickr and/or tumblr?
Well done Andy. An outstanding article, just spent an hr reading this along with the associated links. This does so much to bring awareness to the cause. I had no idea about Aragon and what went on there.
You’re welcome, Sat. I’m very glad to hear such a positive response!
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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