The Woolwich Ferry, London

Woolwich Ferry, London

The Thames is a dead river. Save a stray tourist boat, and the Tate ferry that goes from one branch of Nicholas Serota’s World of Adventures to the other, London’s huge, majestic river is totally unused, and even in ‘Docklands’ it’s difficult to find any sign that it ever was. There’s one major exception to this, and that’s the Woolwich Ferry.

Not only is this a strange fragment of a past in which the river had some sort of function rather than being the backdrop to the ubiquitous ‘stunning developments’, it's also gloriously free. Just queue up at either side of the river : Woolwich SE18 or North Woolwich E16 – there’s a concrete shelter in case of rain – and at no point will anyone ask who you are or what you’re doing there, let alone ask for money.

The Woolwich Free Ferry was introduced in the 1880s by Joseph Bazalgette as one of his ‘improvements’, and the current terminus and ferries date from the mid-60s. The terminus is in shuttered concrete, with an angular staircase poking out, while the boats themselves are named after local politicians: all of a Leftish bent, given Woolwich’s history as a socialist stronghold. One of the three, marvellously, is called the ‘Ernest Bevin’, after the union boss and Cold Warrior foreign secretary in the Attlee government.

Go in the daytime or the weekend and the ferries are bracingly empty, with lines of benches sitting forlorn, while red-walled rooms labelled ‘SMOKING’ have their doors definitively locked. The ferry fills up at rush hour with people getting off at the DLR station on the North Side, going to the (until 2008) tubeless South. You can also stand on the traffic deck and gaze at this desolate stretch of river: the Tate sugar refinery (ironically enough) and the Thames Barrier dominate the riverscape here, with the leftovers of industry now overwhelmed by those riverside flats that cling to even the poorest stretches of Thames, with Canary Wharf (or ‘Thatcher’s Cock’ as it was once known) looming in the distance. At the front of each of the ferries is a little cylindrical lookout pod, creating a peculiar arch framing Woolwich Reach.

The best way to take the ferry is from South to North. Walk from Woolwich Arsenal station down the depressing consumer thoroughfare of Powis Street, and just by the river crossing are four fascinating buildings, remnants of Woolwich commercial and political. First, at the end of Powis St, there are the two wings of the former Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Stores. The earlier Edwardian one has a dome, screaming faces carved in terracotta, and a declaration ‘EACH FOR ALL AND ALL FOR EACH’: and the other, from 1937, is cream-tiled and Moderne, with its sweeping lines culminating in a stately tower. The 1903 building now houses some local government offices, while the later one awaits demolition in an imminent ‘regeneration’.

Just past these are two 1930s picture palaces facing each other and the Thames: the former Odeon, now the ‘New Wine Church’ (presumably as in ‘into old bottles’), a fantastical curved deco confection, and opposite the ex-Granada, now Gala Bingo. When opened in the late 1930s publicity declared this to be ‘THE MOST WONDERFUL THEATRE IN THE WORLD’, its elegant Dutch Modernist exterior housing a Gothic interior by Komisarjevsky, which the staff wouldn’t let me take photos of, so you’ll have to join the Bingo club if you want a look. In the distance from these two is the ‘London Teleport’: a crowd of satellite dishes massed by the Thames, for reasons best known to BT, and round the corner from that a preserved Edwardian rail station, open only on Saturdays and Sundays, where staff in period costume tend the old machinery.

The area around both sides is full of hidden history and places throroughly worth a wander when off the ferry: on the North side, the grey, rotting art deco hulk of ‘Spiller’s Millenium Mills’ at the Royal Albert Dock and the extremely unnerving ‘organic’ campuses of the University of East London, or on the South, the creepily rationalist 18th century Barracks and Rotunda, still owned by the MOD and criss-crossed by patrols, dogs and pockmarked with weirdly phallic vintage cannons at random points. This was always a military area, and the road signs by the ferry remind one not to take explosives on board.

If, for some reason, one finds the idea of this laconic, unhurried river crossing a little perverse, there is a foot tunnel, entered via a couple of eerie, ornamented little domes which are worth a visit on their own. But the Free Ferry’s days are now numbered, with the mooted ‘Thames Gateway Bridge’ upstream the likely replacement, so sooner or later this incongrous fragment of the working river will be gone, leaving the Thames free of any traffic obscuring the views from the yuppie flats. So go on it while you can.

Woolwich Ferry photos

More of Owen's Woolwich photos

How to get there

Woolwich Ferry is at Woolwich Arsenal, Woolwich Dockyard or North Woolwich overground, King George V DLR.

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