Thursday, 19 April 2012

My trip to Greenwich on the world's first suburban railway -- as good as a holiday

I’ve been to Greenwich – rather nostalgic for me, because I went there so much in 1999 (I was writing a book) that my oldest son, William, became mad about Nelson.  He still is.  My down journey took me to London Bridge.  As we rattled, pleasantly if at no great pace, through South London, my eyes boggled at the changes that have taken place in the course of a decade.  The scene used to be shabby and featureless, now it lined with new buildings, with cloud-piercing towers in the mid distance.

I was reminded that this line represents the world’s first suburban railway.  At the end of the battle of Waterloo, the new means of going from London to Greenwich – then detached from the rest of London – was the paddlesteamer.  But coaches continued to operate: the journey took about an hour, which isnt’ that different from the car journey today, depending on traffic.  A railway was proposed in 1824, but slammed by the Quarterly Review which feared terrible things for ‘those who are to be whirled at the rate of 18 or 20 miles an hour’.  The Kentish Railway Company, as it was called, expired.

It took a former lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers, George Landmann, and George Walter, from a family of financial risk-takers one of whose members had lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble, to form the London and Greenwich Railway in 1831.  The railway strode down to Greenwich on arches – nearly 1,000 of them.  The viaduct, the purpose of which was to keep a steady gradient for the track, was a wonder in itself.  ‘As a work of art it it undoubtedly very striking, while the minor considerations involved int he plan are novel and interesting,’ commented the Penny Magazine in January 1836.  Even before the first trains were running, the company obtained a modest income from charging the public sixpence to walk down the line.

At Greenwich, I was shown around the Cutty Sark, which has been restored at a cost of £50m, to be opened by HM the Queen on April 25.  I then returned on another transport medium, the Docklands Light Railway, gliding drivelessly between the towers and over the landscaped ex-dock basins of Canary Wharf.  That bustling mobile-phone-to-ear district – devoid of old people, poor people and children – is a foreign land to me.   Altogether, my Greenwich trip was as good as a holiday.

By the way, my Greenwich book, commissioned at a time when it was thought the Millennium Dome would be a roaring success, has been out of print for ages.   But I have just checked on Google Books and most of it is here.  Amazing.


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