Deptford Creek London Landscape Archaeology


I wish I could tell you whether this rotting barge is a ‘wreck awaiting removal’ or a ‘scheduled monument awaiting a viewing fee’. I fear the former. Deptford Creek is a very interesting place. Henry VIII established England’s first Royal Dockyard here. Peter Romanov, son of Alexis I, was born in the Kremlin and came to Deptford in 1698 to learn shipbuilding. This was 4 years before he became the Czar who became Peter the Great. An exceedingly strong man, he worked, drank and womanized with the shipwrights. From 1871 until 1914 Deptford was the City Corporation’s Foreign Cattle Market. But almost all the evidence of this fascinating history has gone. The Docklands Light Railway was as heartlessly perched over the river as if it  been in Tokyo.  Then, with the 1990s YBA’s and Britart, Deptford became an artist’s enclave.  Most certainly, the old ships should not be removed. But nor should they be restored. They should be allowed to sink, ever so gradually, into the mud.

20 thoughts on “Deptford Creek London Landscape Archaeology

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes I do.
    But I also think believe that the intervention of a conductor ‘transforms’ a place even if the conductor makes no physical or visual change.
    By the way, I very much like the word ‘conductor’ because it is the word John Claudius Loudon used when giving an account of his travels:
    Loudon believed that a place could not be regarded as a ‘design’ unless it was recognizable as a ‘work of art’. Hence his gardenesque style.

  2. Christine

    Thankyou Marian for recalling Pevsner to mind. I revisited his amazing ouevre and in a review published in Technology and Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1977) of his book ‘A History of Building Types’ read the following description of its content;

    “The volume surveys the development of twenty different building types over the centuries from the late middle ages to the present, of which several, notably libraries, hospitals, prisons, hotels, banks and warehouses, had gone largely unnoticed by previous historians.”

  3. El

    Thanks for the photo -I find the textures and muted colours of the barges, their intrinsic fragility so fascinating. Reminds me of the rotting hulls found along the fringes of the North Kent marshes, and the semi-submerged canal boats within the Flashes on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

    I’m always bewildered why more of us don’t recognise the beauty of these rare scenes. I question regularly the value of much urban regeneration. Sitting in meetings with developers, listening to them grumbling over their 5 year return on a new Harry Ramsden I wonder how the Council Planning Officers can value this kind of regeneration – a kind that will be outdated in 5 years and then required to be re-regenerated – over the loss of this transitional and ephemeral beauty.

    I wonder if we need a new type of landscape designation for these places? I’m just mulling this idea over so may contradict myself further down the line… Conservation Areas are usually designated according to architectural merit, and anyway as you say, restoration just isn’t right for these areas. Maybe a designation isn’t quite right and we shouldn’t seek an ‘official’ recognition of the value – perhaps we should seek a blanket ban on development within these areas – say for 20 years – to give them the time to naturally degenerate? I’m just thinking out loud.

    Anway, it’s inspired me to start my own record of the places that I value so much. Thanks

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I remember suggesting, at a ‘public participation in planning’ meeting in Greenwich, that the Greenwich Maritime Trust should have some Medway-type ‘rotting barges’ on the shore near the Cutty Sark. A lady from the Cutty Sark Trust said, in a shrill voice, ‘Ooh – that’s a horrible idea: our job is to preserve the maritime heritage’. But the ‘landscape movement’ has always recognized the romantic fascination of ruins. I think we all need to photograph and praise elements of the urban fabric which are in danger of being ‘restored’ – it is like putting the arms back on Venus di Milo.

  5. stefan

    this discussion reminded me of one of my favourite places, Ironbridge in Shropshire. as a World Heritage site, little restoration, never mind development is permitted and the place (last time i visited) was being allowed to gently crumble. in the woodlands you can find old furnaces overrun by plants and now to wildlife. the result is a place with more atmosphere and meaning than any mere development or building could hope to achieve.

    it would be great if developers could say – this place is going to change but we dont know how! all we can do is enable interesting things to happen ….

  6. El

    mmm… thats interesting.
    maybe planners should take scissors to their development plans to create holes where simply nothing is proposed to happen?

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    Stefan, I am puzzled. When I visited Ironbridge in 1973, it was just as you describe. There were factories and furnaces decaying in the woods. But when I went back c1990 it seemed to have been made into a World Heritage Site Visitor Attraction and, to me, seemed a lot less interesting. Are there still crumbling places to explore?

  8. stefan

    havent been there myself for over ten years (the one and only time), but there must have been enough crumbling places left for me to find it fascinating! the town centre its true had gone a bit Heritage, but not enough to make me uncomfortable …. its an interesting arguement. do you allow the place to crumble, perhaps to the detriment of people who have to live there, or do you take measures to encourage tourism and make it amenable to residents

    i dont know if we should create spaces where nothing is proposed to happen, rather that something will happen, but we dont know exactly what it is! and designing space to enable things to happen takes some craft in itself – sort of setting up the right conditions. i see good landscape design as the opening up of possibilities, for nature and people.

  9. Erica

    I would attach floating pontoons to the boats and fill them with fower and vegetables. Many people have to survive on the edge of water or fluctuating water levels.

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    Good idea re the pontoons. I guess the real requirement is a landscape strategy/plan/design for the waterspace and bankspace. A lot of money is being spent on re-developing the waterside land.

  11. Christine

    So this is the Black Redstarts favourite type of habitat….”traditional nesting sites at open arid urban wasteland and old buildings, which tend to be associated with canals and railway lines”?

    In the link you gave to the Black Redstarts plan for Deptford was the following:

    “In London old flood defence structures along the Thames and the Lea Valley are of particular importance for Black redstarts….The algae and flora attached to old timbers help to support large numbers of Chironomid midges [NB. the midges emerge from aquatic larvae], an important food source for the black redstart. Development sites adjacent to rivers and canals should seek to improve flood defences to ensure that, where there is no timber present, it should be installed to provide a valuable vertical habitat for the black redstart.”

    I never really thought of parts of London as being somehow equivalent to ‘an arid mountain style habitat. Obviously Black Redstarts view things differently from people!

    The Laban Centre and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron should be congratulated for the inclusion of a ‘brown roof’….

  12. Fiona

    Interesting thread, I’m an urban design student at the Bartlett school of architecture battling with some of the issues mentioned above. I’ve chosen the site for my thesis project because I was initially attracted to the remnants of industrial activity at Brewery Wharf and wildlife before I became completely hooked on the sleepy, decaying atmosphere of the place. The only problem now is that I don’t want to adjust it or ‘design’ it in any way, which frustates my tutors because they just want me to call in the bulldozers and to ‘regenerate’ the area. I agree with El in that I think restoration isn’t the answer either but it’s a pity that more people don’t take the time to appreciate these beautiful decaying scenes.

    Apart from letting nature run its course, is there any other way we should be protecting the area? Perhaps a slight augmentation or focusing of its natural beauty would allow more people to appreciate the creek so maybe it’s about setting up conditions for people to pause on it and celebrate it. I think it would be good if the creekside was more accessible also, apart from the Laban and the footbridge, it’s difficult to get close to it. Any further thoughts or suggestions are welcome.

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Fiona, you are right in spirit (and your tutors are disgracefully wrong!) but it is also necessary to strike a balance between the past, the present and the future. My view of how to approach Deptford Creek is by looking at the area from many different points of view, which can be regarded as those of ‘stakeholders’ (though it is an ugly word). Local history enthusiasts, remembering when it was a royal shipyard and Peter the Great worked here are important. So are ecologists who care about the redstart. So are dancers. So are boat owners. So are landowners etc. I like the theoretical idea of each group preparing a ‘plan’ and then seeing what can be done to integrate the plans. The greatest danger is of handing each plot over to money-mad developers who, like your tutors, want to just call in the bulldozers. This is a key difference between architecture, which has to be client-led, and urban design, which OUGHT to take on wider briefs from more disparate community groups, past, present and future.

  14. Jacquey Thurlow

    I fell upon this site quite by chance when looking into the history of Brewery Wharf. I am the Partner of one of the Barge Skippers who has been about on the London River for a long time (50+ years). Maybe the work of these sea-faring men should also be considered in your Thesis, Fiona. You know, each barge load saves at least 10 lorries being on our roads-not just in Deptford but in Fingringhoe which is a very small village in Essex and en route too. Please lets not get rid of all traditions. After all, the original Ocre Sailed Barges are being restored and everyone loves to see them about our rivers and coastal waters, they are mainly used for sail training schemes now and would not be viable for transporting goods etc nowadays but there have already been comments on the more nautical sites like “where are the Prior Barges gone? they have been running up under the bridges for over 100 years and are missed by local people”. Brewery Wharf is the furthest they go a present, it’s difficult to understand the skill that is needed to deliver a cargo or two in there and ‘turn’ on the tide to get away again weighing up the course/exit speed of the land-water from the River Ravensbourne too. We all need the aggregate which is brought in, sometimes overnight, depending on the tides, it takes roughly 2-3 hours to unload two boats, just think of how that reduces noise ad pollution from lorries. Just a few thoughts which may help your studies from a ‘practical student’.

  15. Jacquey Thurlow

    in reply to your comment number 17, Tom. There are all sorts of regulations with regard to ‘working the river’. Contact the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or the Port of London Authority and if they give you a straight answer, let all the seamen working the River know please as they are totally confused about what is needed nowadays!! LOL

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I support Boris Johnson’s idea for making the PLA a department of the GLA – so that it can embrace the non-maritime objectives of river management.


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