London Thames Cycle Route part 1: London Waterloo to Woolwich

Sunday’s bicycle trip was a lot grittier than the bucolic country rides I normally take.  Starting from London Waterloo, I cycled 54 miles down the Thames, mostly along the London Thames Cycle Route, which follows the Thames Path for much, but not all, of the trip.  The first 8  miles were urban, but the next 20 miles were mostly industrial, sometimes on very rough and narrow paths, threading between barbed wire fences and abandoned factories.  If you want to follow my trip in another window,  a map with mile markers and elevation is available on the Mapmyride site.

Greenwich Peninsula

The first five miles of the trip were mostly on roads (sometimes roughly paved) through Southbank and Southwark.  Just after 9am on a Sunday, there was very little traffic. I encountered a few other bikers, but unlike rural and suburban bikers, and the bikers later on in this trip, we didn’t acknowledge each other’s existence with a friendly nod.  I passed behind some popular tourist spots, like the Globe Theatre (both the reconstruction and the original site), but didn’t stop to look at them. If I hadn’t looked up when crossing Tower Bridge Street, I wouldn’t even have noticed the familiar towers of that popular London feature.  Just past the Bermondsey tube station, at mile 3, I stopped along a roundabout to consult my map, and made a course correction into Rotherhite, quickly picking up the cycle route as it zigzagged through roads and parks. I think it would have been easier just to stay on the B206 all the way around Rotherhite.  After riding across the lock gate for Greenland Dock, I finally reached the Thames at Surrey Quays, which has a beautiful view of the back side of Canary Wharf.

Surrey Quays

About a half mile along the Thames the path takes a sharp right at a very quirky statue of Peter the Great, who apparently had made a big impression on the citizens of Greenwich in 1698.  Here the cycle route alternates between the Thames and nearby roads, finally ending up at the glass-domed entrance to the Greenwich pedestrian tunnel and what’s left of the Cutty Sark at mile 7. Just beyond that is the baroque splendour of the Old Royal Naval College.   The National Maritime Museum is nearby (which I did not visit). Surprisingly, it is no longer on the Prime Meridian, which has been slipping downstream ever since the GPS satellites were put in orbit.

During the next two miles, the path winds through a number of deserted factories, old wharves, and piles of sand and gravel.  The path is very narrow in spots (see top photo), and extremely rough along the west side of Greenwich Peninsula, but there are some lovely views. I stopped to watch a very graceful old steam-driven paddlewheeler cross in front of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Just north of the dome, at mile 10, the path widened, and for 1 mile, I could make good time on a smooth cement surface.  Then for another mile, the path zigzagged around some aggregate yards where small ships were offloading gravel onto conveyors that crossed above the path.  Although no working people were actually visible, many of the conveyors were operating.

The Millennium Dome

Just after mile 11, I finally reached Thames Barrier.  Built between 1972 and 1982, it is essentially a temporary dam that can be raised to block the Thames in case of an especially large tide.  572 yards across (523 m), large steel sections lifted hydraulically between nine concrete piers and two abutments.  It is usually necessary to close the Barrier about 4 times a year. Covered with a skin of stainless steel sheets, the world’s second largest movable flood barrier is beautiful and functional.

Jay Heiser and Thames Barrier

From the Barrier, the path headed inland, past one of the many former pubs I passed on this trip, and then down Woolwich Road, which turned out to be closed on Sunday for the “Run to the Beat” half marathon.  I stopped to chat with a fellow in front of a pub, draped in the Union Jack, who was watching the race go past.

Union Jack

Woolwich is an interesting area that probably would be worth a longer visit. There’s an auto ferry that crosses the Thames, and another foot tunnel, which is entered through a round brick building housing the staircase, like the tunnel in Greenwich.  The path crosses between the river and the  former Royal Arsenal, which manufactured and tested armaments, and is now being redeveloped.  The view across the river is dominated by the huge Tate & Lyle sugar factory.

Tate and Lyle Sugar Factory

For those who want to follow my tracks–don’t. Just before mile 14, I found myself on a lovely, smooth cement bicycle path, and had a brief quarter mile at speed before it dead ended into a chain link fence.  I diverged through a residential area, cut through a park, lifted my bike up some steps, and found myself on a nice, smooth cement bicycle path–that dead ended in a quarter mile.  I circled around a residential area for a while and finally asked directions. It turned out that the real path was a dirt one, out of site and closer to the Thames. I carried my bike down a stairway and headed off across Thamesmead, 15 miles down, and 40 to go.

You can see more pictures from this trip on my Thames Cycle Route gallery. A map of my trip appears below:

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