While you’re reading this, you could take a full trip on the Woolwich Ferry. Just like this article, it’s completely free and when you get to the end you might have learned something.
The five to ten minute journey from North Woolwich on the north bank of the Thames to Woolwich on the south bank is a total anomaly in London’s transport network.
Shuttling between vehicles and pedestrians, the ferry is one of three (soon to be four) different methods of taking the little jump: the DLR, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel and soon the Elizabeth Line run almost parallel.
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Yet the ferry continues, as it has for 132 years.
In the shadow of an abandoned station, the remains of its old pier, an underdeveloped North Woolwich looking over an overdeveloped Woolwich, the ferry is a lesson in modern East London history.
Venturing to North Woolwich from other parts of London illustrates how strange the area is.
First of all, this North Woolwich is even called that because it’s isolated from Woolwich, 550 yards across the river in a different borough, with different postcodes and a different feel.
Second, that North Woolwich is clearly some kind of downside to capitalism. The area, which is framed by the Royal Docks and the River Thames, is surrounded on one side by an urban airport steeped in private jets and massive gentrification under the guise of ‘waterfront development’ on the other side. #
The three towers that mark the center of North Woolwich appear to have been photoshopped in sight.
Finally, and this is most obvious to me as a transport correspondent, there is really only one way to get in and out of the area.
The A112 road, which is used by default as circular north, bypasses the area to avoid the runway of the city airport. Buses 473 and 474 run along the route with a fair amount of passengers. The other option is the DLR – which is the only option for a quick getaway.
The ferry and pedestrian tunnel, which provide the connection to Woolwich (or “Woolwich Woolwich” as I have heard several times during my trip), are imperfect.
The ferry does not run after 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. and departs late at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. The tunnel is straight out of a horror movie. The kind of thing I imagine an anxious person would struggle with. It’s dimly lit, cold, smells of salt, and echoes sounds in the most overwhelming and triggering way.
North Woolwich is not liked.
As I walked down from the DLR to King George V, I wondered why the DLR station wasn’t called North Woolwich. The old North Woolwich station around the corner closed a year after the DLR station opened.
King George V Dock is walled off from the station and takes a good ten minutes on foot to get there. The real King George V isn’t the most famous royal either. It is as if there is 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 stores.
A short walk from the DLR, I spot the North Woolwich Police Station, which has no reception and therefore appears abandoned from the outside. Next to the building is a actually abandoned annex full of shattered glass, graffiti and rusty metal.
I turn the corner to find the abandoned North Woolwich station and museum that once occupied the original ticket booth.
Through the gaps, I could just spot the remains of railroad paraphernalia. An electrification station, station lights still in Silverlink livery and pillars without their roofs.
The station closed here in 2006, followed by the museum in 2008.
A dozen to fifteen years later, the desolate site awaits its next Urbex enthusiast instead of its next train. The Grade 2 listed building is in a terrible state, the windows are boarded up, pungent with foul smells that shouldn’t be there and yet sadly it doesn’t look out of place at all.
I follow the ferry signs along the dilapidated Pier Road, riding on construction machinery and splashes of debris seemingly thrown out of queued cars.
The entrance to the pedestrian tunnel faces another abandoned part of an abandoned building. There is a bus stop and not much else.
I opt for the ferry and to my surprise, I find a bus shelter for pedestrians waiting below. No bus uses the ferry today. It reminds me that Ken Livingstone wanted to build a bus-only bridge in the area anyway, the closest he got has to be this one.
The sight that awaits the ferry here is bittersweet, after surveying North Woolwich, to turn around and watch as a private plane takes off from City Airport, heading for Canary Wharf is cruel.
The ferry leaves from the pier opposite and makes a kind of U-turn to reach us.
This crab walks sideways from one bank to the other on this choppy part of the river. The operation is incredibly smooth. Less than a minute after docking, vehicles roll and passengers move away.
Usually two ferries cross the Thames on weekdays to keep east London moving and bridge the gap between the circular routes north and south.
There is only one at the moment and for 11 days last month there has been none due to industrial action by angry workers against Transport for London (TfL).
They are angry with TfL over a relationship breakdown, the use of agency staff, and health and safety training issues.
The boat, named Ben Woollacott after a 19-year-old crew member who tragically lost his life in a crash in 2011, has an indoor seating area for passengers and runs like clockwork.
The crew members stack the vehicles on the deck like a game of Tetris, and the ferry takes off within five minutes of arriving.
I meet two other passengers on foot during the quick eight-minute trip. For the purposes of this article, let’s call one of them John.
John grew up in Barking but moved north decades ago. For the first time in 12 years, he decided to take a round 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.
We discuss how the ferry has changed, no longer running on steam as he remembers.
It points to what I identify as a piece of metal that barely fits on the shore from which we just started.
“It was the old ferry pier when the railroad was connected to the ferry. Before, it crossed to the other side.”
I see it must be almost exactly above the current DLR position.
The ferry has sentimental value to John, who explains how he named a classic he owns “Squires” after one of the Woolwich Ferry ships that brought him back and forth in his youth, “The Squire” .
Other passengers left their cars and took a moment from the front of the ferry. The view is iconic of London. Isle of Dogs and The O2 in the distance, Thames Barrier up front and those three towers and building materials dumped in North Woolwich.
The ferry drops me off in the middle of Woolwich. The most zeitgeist protest confronts me, a photographer taking photos of a man posing with an electric vehicle charging station at the brand new “fast charging hub”.
It’s noisy in here, people rush to the shops, I hear music in modern apartments, and I see joggers pacing along the river. North Woolwich is not really Woolwich and if it is, it is forgotten.
I decide to use the pedestrian tunnel to return to my starting point.
As I turn into the entrance, a ferry undocks and pulls away.
I cross the tunnel and emerge on the other side at the same time as the ferry unloads. I can’t help but feel a little sad as I return to North Woolwich, I wonder what John would have thought of all of this.
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