Saturday, May 20th 2017
The Millennium Dome, aka The White Elephant, was built at the end of last century on Greenwich Peninsula (see map below) to house an exhibition called The Millennium Experience held during the year 2000. The project to build the Dome was controversial from the outset continued to be so in view of the fact that ticket sales and other income failed to cover the cost, leaving the taxpayer to pay the debt. Once the exhibition closed, there was uncertainty as to the future of the Dome and demolition seemed a likely outcome as nobody could be found to take it on. Its appearance is hardly prepossessing as it looks more like a deflated balloon supported on crutches than what I imagine when I see the word ‘dome’.
The current ownership of the Dome and surrounding area is a complex issue that I will not go into but that you can read about here. Suffice it to say that that Dome now forms part of an entertainment, dining and shopping complex bearing the name The O2.
We travelled to the Dome/O2 on the Jubilee Line tube. North Greenwich Station is close by the site. The Dome of course, does not stand in splendid isolation but is surrounded by other buildings. We did not explore these. Their presence does make it a little difficult to get agood photo of the Dome as a whole. The best way to do so seems to be from the air, a tactic currently beyond our means.
My name for this lame piece of architecture is the Cowpat, because I think its looks like a cow’s dropping with straws stuck in it. A more unsuitable structure for an exhibition or for use as an entertainment centre is hard to imagine.
From a distance you wonder whether there is even any space underneath the curved roof which seems to hug the ground with the intention of keeping people out. There is a strange ‘Tardis effect’, however, for when you arrive, it gives the impression of being bigger on the inside than on the outside! This was fortunate as confined spaces make me feel uneasy, especially when crowded.
On entering you are greeted by courteous and friendly uniformed security staff who politely request to see the contents of any bags you may be carrying. Some people regard this as an intrusion into their privacy – which it undoubtedly is – but given the dangers of the times in which we live I consider this a quite reasonable precaution and am happy to go along with it. (If you really do not want to undergo a bag search then you can refuse but in that case you will probably be denied admission.)
We walked around the interior intending to make a complete circuit but this proved not to be possible. There are considerable building works in progress inside the Dome and you eventually reach a dead end and have to go back. There follow below eight of the photos that I took as we went (photography is allowed) without comment as none seems needed. Some are multiple frames stitched together and may show a small amount of distortion. (Click to see larger versions.)
As mentioned, we did not explore the other buildings on the site though this colourful structure, which looked as though it had been made out of Lego, caught our attention:
We continued along the south bank of the Thames in the direction of Woolwich and thus arrived at what must be the oddest of the Thames crossings.
The Emirates Air Line is a cable car service crossing the Thames from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks on the north bank. As well as providing a transport link, it is advertised as giving superb views of London and providing an exciting experience in itself. I cannot testify personally to these advertised benefits as I have not yet used the service though I hope to give it a try one day. The service has operated since 2012 and was planned and built by TfL (Transport for London) who operate it. Costs, as happens too often with public projects, quickly escalated from the initial estimate of £25m to £60m and public finance was sought. Emirates, the airline company, offered £36m in a deal that included branding the service and cars with the Emirates name for a ten-year period. The name ‘Emirates Air Line’, though perhaps appropriate for a cable car service, is obviously a transparent pun on the company’s business name.
The Thames engages in a huge meander in this area, first making a loop to the south, creating the Isle of Dogs, and then a loop to the north, making the Greenwich Peninsula. As we look downstream from here, the river makes two swings to the left carrying it out of our line of sight. I marvel at how different the Thames looks at different points along its length.
I was happy to see two cormorants perched together drying their wings. Cormorants are fascinating birds who use their wings to ‘fly’ under water in pursuit of fish. If they catch one, they bob to the surface and swallow it there. (The Chinese have a tradition of using trained cormorants for fishing, putting a ring around the bird’s neck to prevent it swallowing the fish.) Unlike other diving birds, cormorants need to dry their wings after fishing and they do this by holding them open to the wind and sunlight. Cormorants are often seen flying low over the surface of the water or floating and paddling along. They dive from a floating position, giving a little jump to help them on their way. They often reappear at the surface quite some distance from their entry point and it’s easy to miss them altogether on a crowded Thames. I once watched a cormorant fishing and tried to hold my breath each time it dived until it reappeared. I didn’t always manage to do so! The presence of colonies of cormorants is a sign of how much the once poisonously polluted Thames has recovered and now supports aquatic life again.
A little further on, we came the the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, which is run by the Conservation Volunteers, and walked some way into it. It provides a habitat for wild life species that like a marshy environment.
There are human dwellings on the edge of the park in what looks to be a very pleasant setting.
The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was established in 1671, initially as a facility to store gunpowder and other materials and to carry out the proofing of fire arms. Over the following two centuries it grew, acquiring new roles. The Royal Arsenal Gatehouse was built as its main entrance in 1829 (with later modifications) It is also known as the Beresford Gate in honour of General William Beresford, 1st Viscount Beresford (1768-1854), who was Master-General of the Ordnance and Governor of the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. It is Grade II listed.
When I first saw this building with the royal coat of arms at the top and the cipher of George V incorporating the date 1935, I thought it must be an old post office, though it did seem unusually small for that. It turned out to be the Woolwich former County Court. It has been closed and is now up for sale. This is not an isolated example of a courthouse being declared redundant: there are many such all over the country being put on the property market as witness this site.
This lovely library with its unusual bay window was obviously going to attract my attention. It was built in 1901 by Church, Quick and Whincop in a tasteful combination of stone and red brick. Its days as a library are over, however, its duties having been taken over by a newer Central Library, and it has been repurposed. Happily it is Grade II listed so, all being well, it is protected for the future.
Woolwich’s old town hall was built in 1842, as an inscription declares. It is relatively unpretentious in its classical style but, I think, elegant in its way. Woolwich was to grow and develop quickly in the latter part of the 19th century and its administration soon outgrew its accommodation. A new town hall was built in 1903 and continues in use. This one, given over to other uses, is Grade II listed.
I was intrigued by this building with its terra cotta decorations. Over the door we can read the legend
I think this must have been founded by Quintin Hogg (1845-1903) who is better known for the YMCI in London that became known as the Polytechnic of Central London (now part of the University of Westminster). This Grade II listed building was erected in 1890-1 and includes a gymnasium. I do not know anything more of its history other than that it is now part of the University of Woolwich.
The main focus of today’s outing was the Millennium Dome, aka the O2, and we spent relatively little time in Woolwich. Perhaps we will return on another occasion and pay it more careful attention.