The myth of Thamesmead’s isolation is badly outdated

Once again in recent weeks with consultation into a DLR extension I’ve been reading and watching many reports stating how it’ll help many in Thamesmead which is akin to the Outer Hebrides in terms of remoteness.

And once again I’m thinking, you what? Have you ever been or tapping into stereotypes which were flimsy at best decades ago and a simply wrong now?

Thamesmead blocks are 10 mins walk or two minutes on bus from Abbey Wood station

Usually when watching TV news clips of Thamesmead or articles about the town they show the de facto image or videos of the place. You know the ones. Those 1970s concrete blocks as someone speaks over or writes beside that it’s in the middle of nowhere and the residents have had to walk three days to find a shop or something.

Yep, those same blocks that were and are as little as two minute’s walk from Abbey Wood station which for decades had the semi-fast trains call in addition to the all stoppers giving a better service than many areas.

Now demolished but not the remote place of myth. A four minute walk to Abbey Wood station

Those fast trains would get to London Bridge in less than 20 minutes – with Charing Cross in the heart of London taking 25 mins or less. Plenty of places had it worse than that.

The fast trains got progressively slower (though only by about five minutes) as they became all-stoppers yet frequencies rose along the line to compensate. By the 2000s there were six train per hour to London Bridge off-peak taking 27 minutes and two semi-fasts taking 23 minutes.

Thamesmead blocks 5-15 minutes away from Abbey Wood station located just behind where photo taken

Now there’s no semi-fasts but still six trains per hour to London Bridge plus the Elizabeth line with trains as frequent as every six minutes. Of course that’s six trains per hour too heading east. Abbey Wood wasn’t some rural halt and much of Thamesmead’s first phase was walkable from it.

Pretty much all of what people think of as Thamesmead – the classic concrete architecture – is 15 minute’s walk maximum. This area below, for example, is 10 minutes.

Thamesmead blocks 10 minutes walk from Abbey Wood station

And these were five minutes away. In fact this area could well be the first ever homes built in the new town.

Phase one homes on harrow Manorway

I mean I know it’s a short walk from this part of Thamesmead to the nearest station but I thought I’d have a play with Google Maps for those who may not know Thamesmead and have doubts.

So here we are, the area two images above heading to Abbey Wood station. A 10 minute walk.

10 mins walk

In fact I looked at various areas of Thamesmead’s original 1970s housing (though I accidently included a bit of Abbey Wood by mistake) and pretty much everywhere within the red outline is 10 minutes of less walking time.

The orange is over 10 minutes and up to around 15 minutes. If that’s too far many buses will get you to the station in two minutes.

Red area = 10 mins or less walking time. Orange is 10-15 mins. Buses are two mins from pretty much everywhere#

That really isn’t much worse than many, many areas.

Central and North Thamesmead

Ah, but what of the rest of Thamesmead north of the spine road? Well that was a different story 30-40 years ago. Yet even those areas have been well linked to Abbey Wood and Woolwich for decades now. Good bus links have been around since at least the ’90s when I started using them.

I’m writing this on a Sunday night. The worst time for bus frequencies during the week excluding overnight. And this is from Central Thamesmead. Not bad is it?

Buses from Central Thamesmead. As little as three to four minutes to Abbey Wood station

Much of north and west Thamesmead’s housing is different. It’s 1980s (or later) low-rise cul-de-sacs and not the concrete housing so often shown around Southmere Lake when saying how out of the way it all is.

Only a small part north of the spine road is part of the original masterplan and that’s Phase 3 which is still well-linked by buses. The departure times shown above are a stop beside Phase 3 housing.

Southmere Lake. Abbey Wood station is closer to here by some way than planned DLR station whether on foot or by bus

Live in north or west Thamesmead? Take your pick with numerous buses and get to Abbey Wood station in 5-10 minutes. There’s so many areas that have it worse in London let alone outside in other cities when it comes to transport links.

This isn’t to argue that things can’t be better. Of course they can. To build 10k new homes they’ll have to be. But many of the stereotypes are tired and the clichés have been moot for years.

Thamesmead low rise housing in early phases. Again, 10 mins walk to station

What’s also a tad worrying is those myths are often used as PR to extend the DLR to north Thamesmead which may not be in the best interests of the wider area in years to come. For example, onwards extensions to Belvedere will be expensive and need to be grade separated unlike a tram, yet Belvedere has seen almost 2,000 homes already approved and Bexley Council planning up to 8,000. Then add similar in Erith as part of the area’s Growth Strategy.

The grade-separated DLR may scupper connections to other growth areas in north Bexley borough that other modes could provide as the need for tunnels or viaducts is necessary.

These homes are far closer to Abbey Wood station than proposed DLR station

DLR station location

It’s a 40 minute walk from many areas in south Thamesmead to the proposed DLR site. Far longer than it takes to reach Abbey Wood. Buses take twice as long. No one is doing that when Abbey Wood station is closer and offers so many more transport options with the Elizabeth line, Thameslink and Southeastern.

Even in central Thamesmead the DLR makes little sense for many. Currently it’s as quick as a three minute bus journey to Abbey Wood. The DLR will too be three minutes in the opposite direction on a bus or 20-30 mins walk. Unless you really want Beckton you’ll be going Abbey Wood. It’s quicker when on a train to many destinations and offers far more.

One solitary Thamesmead stop. The dangling carrot of onward extensions made more expensive by need for grade separation

Even some areas scheduled for new housing in north Thamesmead as part of that designated 10k regeneration area will be closer in terms of transport time to Woolwich station than the proposed Thamesmead DLR station when the new express bus starts. And of course DLR frequencies on the Beckton branch are not as good as the sheer number of services on offer in Abbey Wood or Woolwich – let alone destinations.

With all that in mind any DLR extension to Thamesmead is likely to be of limited benefit to some new residents – let alone existing residents – with just one solitary stop proposed.

Factor in limited or expensive forward infrastructure extensions due to a need for a viaduct or tunnel to serve growth areas to the east and it’s not looking great. And remember, it won’t even link to Abbey Wood station.

Abbey Wood station.

There’s simply too many niggling doubts as things stand. The costs we’ve seen mentioned so far (above £1.5bn in some council reports) and ideas around the solitary station site mentioned so far aren’t too promising. That could change and hopefully more information comes about soon.

To sum up, the tired old myths about much of Thamesmead and particularly most of the original 1970s development are wrong. It was wrong in the 1970s and it’s very wrong now. Using those areas as justification for the DLR doesn’t stack up.

Central Thamesmead now 3 minutes from Abbey Wood on Superloop bus

Most residents aren’t just cut off as badly as often portrayed. They never were. They certainly aren’t now. Much of London and other residents of UK cities would like such frequent buses to various town centres and quick walks to major stations.

So can we please cut the old tropes? It’s lazy and wrong.

As for residents elsewhere in the town? It’s still as quick and easy to get to Abbey Wood or Woolwich than it will be to the the planned DLR for the majority – and even some at future development sites.

Further substantial high capacity improvements are certainly needed to enable mass housebuilding and to get to that 10k homes figure – but I’m not sure the DLR plan does that as things stand.



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J Smith

I've lived in south east London most of my life growing up in Greenwich borough and working in the area for many years. The site has contributors on occasion and we cover many different topics. Living and working in the area offers an insight into what is happening locally.

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