Woolwich

Probably inhabited since the Iron Age, with a name believed to be from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘trading place of wool’, Woolwich is a suburb in South East London famous for the Royal Arsenal, that spawned the now more famous Arsenal Football Club; The Royal Artillery, and a decline so rapid that a town deemed suitable for the UK’s first McDonald’s in 1976, is now filled with budget and charity shops.

Woolwich grew exponentially with the British Empire and its myriad conflicts, with its dockyards and the massive arms manufacturing plant of the Royal Arsenal being the town’s main employers from the beginning of the 17th century up until the 1950s when the atrophy of Empire saw the start of the phased closure of the plant. The Royal Artillery, headquartered at Woolwich, has also been a major contributor to the local economy, but with the post-Cold War scaling down of operations, its impact has declined to the point of negligibility.

Higher education in the form of Woolwich Polytechnic also played its part in the makings of the town since 1890, before becoming the Thames Polytechnic in 1970, and then the University of Greenwich in 1992. The University had satellite campuses all over the London Borough of Greenwich, but the main one was in Woolwich until it began its move to the Old Naval College in nearby Greenwich. Since then Woolwich has fallen into a state of decline that is trying to be reversed by a series of regeneration projects that have been helped by the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Woolwich Arsenal Station.

Despite its problems, Woolwich is still a fascinating place to visit for a few hours, possibly as an excursion from nearby Greenwich. Places of note worth visiting are:

  • Firepower, the museum of the Royal Artillery that bills itself as ‘a world-class heritage attraction, a major educational resource and simply a great value day out’. The museum houses an impressive array of, believe it or not, firepower through the ages. Firepower is based in the grounds of the old Royal Arsenal.
  • The Woolwich Ferry, instigated by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, father of London’s sewage system, and operating since 1889. The Ferry runs back and forth across the 400 wide stretch of river and provides good views for the Thames Flood Barrier and beyond, and it’s free.
  • The Woolwich Foot Tunnel; the setting for almost every other music video these days. A musty tube of concrete and steel and its rotund brick and glass entry points are a fascinating example of post-Victorian architecture and engineering. Also free.
  • The Coronet Cinema, now closed, is a wonderful example of art deco architecture over the road from the Ferry.
  • The Royal Artillery HQ up at Woolwich Common has a resplendent frontage almost unrivalled by any other military establishment in the UK.

Woolwich can be reached by train and Docklands Light Railway to Woolwich Arsenal Station and by bus routes 53, 177 and 180 from Greenwich.