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‘I took the Woolwich Ferry and discovered East London’s most unloved historical gems’ – Callum Marius

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In the time you read this, you could make a full journey on the Woolwich Ferry. Just like this article, it’s entirely free and when you get to the end you might have learnt something.

The five to ten minute journey from North Woolwich on the northern bank of the Thames to Woolwich on the southern bank is a total anomaly of London’s transport network.

Shuttling vehicles and foot passengers back and forth, the ferry is one of three (soon to be four) different methods to make the short hop: the DLR, Woolwich Foot Tunnel and soon to be Elizabeth Line run almost parallel.

READ MORE: ‘We need the London Underground’s Oyster card nationwide for £2,600 per year just like The Netherlands’

Yet the ferry carries on, just as it has done for the past 132 years.

In the shadow of an abandoned railway station, the remnants of its former pier, an underdeveloped North Woolwich staring at an overdeveloped Woolwich, the ferry is a lesson in East London’s modern history.

King George V DLR station is at the centre of North Woolwich, five minutes’ walk from the former station. The tunnel at the end of the platform takes trains under the Thames to Woolwich

Venturing to North Woolwich from other parts of London illustrates how much of an oddity the area is.

First of all, that North Woolwich is even called that as it is isolated from Woolwich, 550 yards across the river in a different borough, with different postcodes and a different atmosphere.

Secondly, that North Woolwich clearly is some sort of inconvenience to capitalism. The area, which is boxed in by the Royal Docks and the Thames, is surrounded by private-jet-soaked City Airport on one side and massive gentrification under the guise of ‘riverside development’ on the other side. #

The three tower blocks which mark the centre of North Woolwich look like they have been photoshopped into the view.

Finally, and most apparent to me as a transport correspondent, there’s only really one way in and out of the area.

The A112 road, which acts as the North Circular by default, skirts through the area to avoid the City Airport runway. The 473 and 474 buses trundle along the road with healthy amounts of passengers. The other option is the DLR – which is the sole option of making a quick getaway.

The North Woolwich Station

The former North Woolwich station isn’t easy on the eyes

The ferry and the foot tunnel, which provide the link to Woolwich (or “Woolwich Woolwich” as I overheard several times on my journey), are imperfect.

The ferry does not run after 7.30 or 8pm in the evening and has a late 11.30am start on Sundays. The tunnel is straight out of a horror movie. The sort of thing I imagine someone with anxiety would struggle with. It’s dimly lit, cold, smells like salt and echoes sounds in the most invasive, triggering fashion.

North Woolwich is unloved.

As I stepped off the DLR at King George V, I wondered why the DLR station was not called North Woolwich. The former North Woolwich station around the corner closed one year after the DLR station here opened.

King George V Dock is walled off from the station and takes a good ten minute walk to get to. Actual King George V isn’t the most celebrated royal either. It’s as if there’s a shame attached to the name.

The surroundings are modest. No flashy million pound penthouses, there are men smoking outside the pub, unbranded and branded corner shops.

North Woolwich

The abandoned station site is semi-dismantled. A Silverlink ticket office was on the left when the line operated services to Richmond via Canning Town, Stratford, Willesden Junction and Gunnersbury on the current DLR and London Overground lines.

A couple of steps away from the DLR, I spot North Woolwich Police Station, which has no front desk so looks abandoned from the outside. Next to the building is an actually abandoned annexe full of smashed up windows, graffiti and rusted metal.

I turn the corner to find the abandoned North Woolwich railway station and museum which once occupied the original ticket office.

Through the gaps, I could just spot the remnants of railway paraphernalia. An electrification post, station lights still in the Silverlink livery and pillars without their roof.

The station closed here in 2006, followed by the museum in 2008.

A dozen to fifteen years later, the sorry site sits awaiting its next Urbex enthusiast instead of its next train. The Grade 2 listed building is in a sorry state, windows boarded up, pungent with foul odours which shouldn’t be there and yet unfortunately it does not look at all out of place.

North Woolwich

Some of the station’s original features remain intact begging to be reimagined. The station was Grade II listed in 1998.

I follow the signs to the ferry along the dilapidated Pier Road straddled with construction equipment and splodges of debris seemingly chucked out of queuing cars.

The entrance to the foot tunnel sits facing another abandoned part of an abandoned building. There’s a bus stand and not much else.

I opt for the ferry and much to my surprise find a bus stop shelter for foot passengers to wait under. No buses use the ferry today. It reminds me Ken Livingstone wanted to build a bus-only bridge in the area anyway, the closest he got must be this.

0 Ferry bus stop

You don’t need to put your hand out at the ferry stop

The view awaiting the ferry here is bittersweet, after pacing through North Woolwich, to turn back and look at it as a private plane takes off from City Airport, heading over Canary Wharf is cruel.

The ferry sets off from the pier opposite and does a sort of U-turn to reach us.

It crab walks sideways from bank to bank on this choppy stretch of the river. The operation is incredibly slick. Within a minute of docking, vehicles drive and passengers walk off.

Usually two ferries do a dance across the Thames on weekdays to keep East London moving and plug the gap between the North and South Circular Roads.

There’s only one right now and for 11 days last month there were zero because of industrial action by workers who are angry with Transport for London (TfL).

They are angry with TfL due to a breakdown in relations, use of agency staff and problems with Health & Safety training.

Woolwich Ferry

The ferries used are called Ben Woollacott and Dame Vera Lynn and were both built in Poland. TfL now owns and operates them.

The boat, called Ben Woollacott after a 19 year old crew member who tragically lost his life in a 2011 accident, has an indoor seating area for passengers and operates like clockwork.

The crew members stack the vehicles onto the deck like a game of Tetris and the ferry takes off within five minutes of arriving.

I meet two fellow foot passengers during the rapid eight minute voyage. For the purpose of this article, let’s call one of them John.

John grew up in Barking but moved up North decades ago. For the first time in 12 years, he decided to make a return trip to East London, with a friend, to explore his old haunts.

“I used to use the ferry all the time to go to school on the other side,” he tells me.

North Woolwich

The abandoned railway pier on the North shore

We discuss how the ferry has changed, no longer running on steam as he remembers.

He points over to what I identify as a scrap of metal barely holding up on the bank we just departed from.

“That was the old ferry pier from when the railway linked up to the ferry. It used to go right across.”

I ascertain it must almost be exactly above where the DLR goes now.

The ferry has a sentimental value for John, who explains how he named a narrowboat he owns ‘Squires’ after one of the Woolwich Ferry vessels which used to shuttle him back and forth in his youth, ‘The Squire’.

Other passengers left their cars and took in a moment from the front of the ferry. The view is London iconic. Isle of Dogs and The O2 in the distance, Thames Barrier up front and those three tower blocks and dumped construction materials at North Woolwich.

Woolwich

Following the raw abandon of North Woolwich, entering the 21st century Woolwich Town Centre with its EV Rapid Charging Hub is quite a shock

The ferry lands me in the middle of Woolwich. The most Zeitgeist manifestation confronts me, a photographer taking photos of a man posing with an electric vehicle charging point at the brand new ‘rapid charging hub’.

It’s noisy here, people are rushing in and out of shops, I hear music playing from modern looking apartments and see joggers pacing along the river. North Woolwich isn’t really Woolwich and if it is, it’s forgotten.

I decide to use the foot tunnel to get back to where I started.

As I turn into the entrance, a ferry undocks itself and pivots away.

I head through the tunnel and emerge at the other side at the same time as the ferry unloads. I can’t help but feel a little sad as I make my way back through North Woolwich, I wonder what John would have made of it all.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel

The alternative to the Woolwich Ferry, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel

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Have you ever travelled on the Woolwich Ferry? What are your impressions? Tell us in the comments below!

Read MyLondon’s Woolwich-related news stories and features on our dedicated page here.

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