At the North Greenwich Pier in southeast London, I step off the new passenger boat the Venus Clipper onto Olympian Way, a riverside boardwalk lined with native grasses and wildflowers. Back by the jetty, cable cars rise up and over the River Thames for a journey north to the Victorian docklands. Beneath them, a tangle of delicate steel rods is anchored in the river: Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud sculpture, a beguiling artwork that a flock of chatty seagulls has chosen as its roost.
I follow two toddlers up a ramp to the Tide, the new landscaped elevated walkway inspired by New York’s High Line park. Its fibreglass platform twists and swoops past a series of sculptures, including a pair of blissful bronze sea creatures by Damien Hirst. Its highest point is just over nine metres but seems higher. From my vantage point on the Greenwich Peninsula, a growing community and mixed-use urban development encircled by a sharp bend in the River Thames, I can see across London’s post-industrial landscape, from Canary Wharf through the docklands to the Shard, Europe’s tallest tower. The actual tide is lapping calmly at an empty bronze-coloured beach.
A century ago, the shores of the Thames belonged to London’s highest and lowest classes. Industry clung to the river in the east and west, while palaces and strongholds dominated the centre. When the sun came out in London – and it does, periodically – there was nowhere on the river to go. Despite the incredible length of the Thames, it’s still a struggle to get near it, but things are improving. The period following the Second World War was a time of massive redevelopment on the south bank; the Canary Wharf business district stumbled into being in the 1990s. But riverfront architecture never really hit its stride until the London Olympics of 2012.
The successful repurposing of Olympic Park into a desirable neighbourhood for eating, drinking and living has had a ripple effect. Four years ago, it spawned the Line, a new outdoor sculpture walk blazing a trail down a tributary of the Thames in line with the Greenwich Meridian to the old industrial riverside. It ends at the water’s edge in North Greenwich, where outdoor artwork rings the shoreline. When a 45-metre twisted-steel needle seems to pop up out of nowhere, I realize it’s been planted at zero degrees longitude and named the Peninsula Spire.
The Line paved the way for a standalone art gallery called Now. Designed by the architecture practice Marks Barfield with curved banks of glass, Now’s exhibits by emerging artists are absorbing, interactive and always full of colour. It’s why I started coming here to the Greenwich Peninsula, along with a growing audience of culture lovers.
It’s all kicked off since Now opened. The new Venus Clipper began stepping up service here and this funny horn-shaped bend in the Thames began to catch on – but not overwhelmingly so.
When I migrate from the Tide to the central piazza, the late-October crowds are beginning to form around street dancers, yet I’m still able to nab a free lounge chair to watch a trio of jazz buskers. I still got a last-minute table at Craft, the swish gastropub designed by Tom Dixon. Sitting at floor-to-ceiling windows on the action, I marvel at the evolution of British food that’s made home-baked bread and home-cured meat a draw. Later, I walk down to the empty beach at low tide, with a beer from the outdoor kiosk, passing the lineups to see John Mayer at the 20,000-seat O2 Arena.
I come for a slow good time, a change of pace from my usual haunts in East London. Others have actually moved into the neighbourhood, inhabiting apartment blocks such as the sleek, green-roofed Waterman and the copper-slat-fronted Fulmar, which flank a tidy “prayer garden” for spiritual reflection and a health club decorated like a Manhattan show home. The neighbourhood planners, tasked with selling space in a new low-rise artist’s colony, encompassing 1,800 new affordable residences, imagine a future of rooftop basketball tournaments, weekend craft markets and a modern beer hall.
Soon it will all seem much more central than it has been, as London’s nerve centre continues to push out eastward. This fall, a massive cultural district will open in a 300-year-old arsenal two stops further on the Thames Clipper route. Comprising four old warehouses, including a one-time fireworks factory, it incorporates a block of creative ateliers, an opera house, an orchestra hall, a dance studio and an experimental theatre.
Transit officials expect it’ll be just few months later that the long-awaited Queen Elizabeth Line, part of the extensive new Crossrail transit network, will finally open. Then Woolwich will be a direct shot from central London and Heathrow Airport. By then, the beach might not be so empty.
Where to get a drink on the Greenwich Peninsula
The top floor of Craft London is a cocktail lounge with 360-degree glass windows and an outdoor terrace with skyline views. Tom Dixon designed the interiors, but the drink list, starting at a reasonable £4.50 ($7.80) for a healthy glass of wine and £8 for spirits, is what put it on the map.
The Basque wine bar Vinothec Ardoa gets a steady parade of customers from the Tide, the elevated park running past the front door. The wine list veers into Eastern European territory, but there’s not a weak bottle in the bunch. Small-plate pintxos – anchovies, octopus, Iberico ham – are divine, if pricey.
The InterContinental Hotel snagged a prime spot on the peninsula for its top-floor lounge with west-facing sunset views that take in the city, from Tower Bridge to Canary Wharf. Whisky is the thing here – the list runs three pages – but you can also choose from 25 Champagnes and a bathtub’s worth of gin.
This is one of a four-part series sponsored by Visit Britain, which did not review or approve the story.
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