Past Travellers to Greenwich
For the Romans established in Londinium two thousand years ago, it was the first hill downstream, beyond the marsh – and the point, on that bleak heath above the green woods, where the imperial highway swung away from the River and across the rolling hills of Kent to Dover and the Channel.
For later travellers, the five miles of River with its swift tides competed strongly with the road. The crest of the hill above Greenwich was the point where Crusaders, pilgrims to Canterbury and countless other venturers looked back for their last sight of the spires and ramparts of London. Equally, it was the point where ambassadors from the continent and other travellers paused with, suddenly, the capital at their feet. Here, rebel armies, such as those of Wat Tyler mustered, and countless military reviews and public demonstrations took place. Meanwhile, the town by the River prospered; the Royal Dockyards, founded close by at Deptford by Henry VIII, and the vast expansion of port facilities brought other trade and industry and many more people to the River. It is not surprising that the people of London streamed out on high-days and holidays to the great fairs at Greenwich, Blackheath and Charlton and came down the River to see the endless procession of ships or simply to smell the sweet country air.
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In the 17th and 18th centuries the hostelries and entertainments of Greenwich had multiplied and catered for many tastes. The citizens of London came to frolic, to escape the plague. Or else they sent their wives for the summer. As one writer of 1700 put it ‘there is in Greenwich no manner of Dainties to incline them to extravagance’. The twice-yearly horse and cattle fairs on the Heath grew into major public entertainments. Like Samuel Pepys, many came to Greenwich often to detach themselves from from the narrow tumult of everyday city life and ponder upon wider issues.
The 19th century brought day-trippers by paddle steamer, on what the Times called London’s fairy stream; and also, from 1838, by railway. They ate Greenwich whitebait, drank porter and swipes in the many taverns, played kiss-in-the-ring in the park, tumbled hand-in-hand down One Tree Hill and were locked for misdemeanors in the 12th century hollow oak, which is still there. They patronised the music halls, toured the limestone Hellfire Caverns under Point Hill and continued to frequent circuses, fairs and shows. Although the great Spring Fair, which Charles Dickens described as ‘a three-day fever which cools the blood for six months’, was suppressed in 1859 on account of hooliganism and the Caverns closed after a notorious masked ball, Greenwich retained its popularity.
Although the Royal imprint was now faint and the Royal Hunt had moved elsewhere, the gentlemen of the area still kept large stables. Golf, first played on Blackheath by James I in about 1608, was pursued with vigour. Rugby, football, ballooning and cricket were also being enjoyed. Above all Greenwich Park was still a place for lovers, with its enchanting hillocks and arbours, its quiet glades and walks and its splendid views. As the Comic Guide to Greenwich put it ‘the Park was where the soldiers caught the nursemaids and the children caught the cold’.
The 20th century brought electric trams to Greenwich; for a short time, a Penny Steamer service, but gradually also fewer trains, slower buses and little relief for the private car.
Even more industry and suburban sprawl swallowed up almost every patch of green apart from the Heath and the Park. After 1945 on the River, the crumbling wharves and empty docks were gradually abandoned; many of the bombed sites sprouted weed and verdure, untouched.