During the First World War munitions workers would travel home on the 44 tram from The Royal Arsenal to The Progress Estate in Eltham. Some fifteen years earlier on 22nd March 1900 Queen Victoria visited the Royal Arsenal and then went on to see soldiers wounded in the Boer War at The Herbert Hospital, Shooter’s Hill. Following this visit she granted the hospital her royal patronage. This walk will take you along these routes and covers the main historic sites on the way.
Start at Royal Arsenal and head south towards the market and town centre. Information about the Royal Arsenal can be found on a separate post on this blog or in the Heritage Centre. You will cross Beresford and General Gordon Squares. You will not fail to see the Tesco Extra in General Gordon Square. The scale of this building is too big and with its brash colours now dominates and is unsympathetic to the many historic buildings in the town including its neighbour Equitable House. Take Woolwich New Road to the left of Tesco. You will pass St Peter’s Church 1843 designed by A. W. N. Pugin. Restoration of the south entrance was promoted by English Heritage, Spike Milligan and local parishioners. During the Second World War Spike Milligan was an unskilled labourer at the Royal Arsenal. About 100 metres along the road there are some stone steps on the right that will take you to Garrison Church of St George built in 1863. This was destroyed by a flying bomb in 1944. A temporary roof has been put in place to protect mosaics including one commemorating members of the Royal Artillery awarded the Victoria Cross.
Cross the road to the Royal Artillery and take the path that runs along its front. The Royal Artillery was built between 1776 to1802. It has the longest continuous facade of any building in the UK and is one fifth of a mile long. The parade square is also the largest in the UK. There is a bronze figure of Victory in the parade square which is cast out of canon captured in the Crimean War. The 16 Regiment Royal Artillery had been based in this building from 1716 but re-located to St George’s Barracks in Rutland in 2007. The King’s Royal Horse Artillery moved into Woolwich in February 2012.
There is a left turning on the path that will take you towards Woolwich Common. On your right you will see the distinctive rooftop of the Rotunda. In the summer months this may be obscured when the trees are in leaf. The Rotunda is a 24-side polygon, single storey building designed by John Nash. It was first erected in the grounds in St James’ Park in 1814 for a fete to honour the Allied Sovereigns during Peace Celebrations after the Napoleonic Wars. It has a distinctive concave lead roof. It moved to Woolwich in 1819 and converted into a military museum containing the gun collection of the Royal Artillery. This is now housed at Firepower museum on The Royal Arsenal.
Take the left path before you reach the T junction. You will pass over a small bridge across the ha ha (sunken road) which separates the Royal Artillery Barrack Field from Woolwich Common. This long and deep example of a ha-ha installed in 1774 was to prevent sheep and cattle wandering on to the gunnery range. Woolwich Common was used as a resting place for farmers taking their cattle to the London meat markets. Cross over to the Common and you will see the distinctive corner towers of the Royal Military Academy. There is normally a route via Circular Way but works to restore the common following the Olympics has resulted in some areas being cordoned off and you may need to walk around. Walk towards the Royal Military Academy.
The Royal Military Academy Woolwich was founded in 1741and its first home was on The Royal Arsenal site. This larger building was designed by James Wyatt and built between 1796 and 1805. Many notable academics taught here: Michael Faraday, Olinthus Gregory, Peter Barlow and Henry Young Darracott Scott. General Gordon was resident at the Academy from 1848. It closed in 1939. During the Second World War the buildings were used to house the Coast Defence and an Anti Aircraft Wing of the Royal Artillery Depot. In 2006 Durkan estates purchased the site for conversion into apartments.
Once past the Royal Academy cross over the road and continue towards Shooter’s Hill. On the corner of Academy Road and Shooter’s Hill Road there is an empty building Victoria House. It was formerly the headquarters and living quarters for members of the Queen Alexander Royal Nursing Corps who worked across the road in the Royal Herbert Hospital when that was still in use by the military. Cross over to The Royal Herbert Hospital.
The hospital was originally in a 19 acre site and almost half of this space was given over to parkland so that soldiers could convalesce in the open air. It was the first hospital of its kind for two reasons: it was a specially designed for the military and the first to use the pavillion design advocated by Florence Nightingale. This comprised six parallel ward blocks connected by a central corridor. It was named after Lord Sidney Herbert who was Secretary of State for war and opened in 1865. It closed in 1977 and was saved from demolition by being listed and incorporated into the Woolwich Common Conservation area. In 1990 a specialist developer converted it into private apartments. Continue the walk along Well Hall Road.
The Welcome Inn,which is now demolished, was located on the corner of Well Hall and Westmount Road. There is a plaque on one of the new houses, that has taken its place, commemorating Status Quo’s first gig in 1967. Further along Well Hall Road you will enter The Progress Estate.
The estate was built in 1915 to house the additional workers required at the Royal Arsenal. It was constructed in just 10 months. It is a fine example of a Garden Suburb built by the Government during the First World War, and was granted Conservation Area status in 1975. Many of the roads are named after aspects of weapon production, for example, Shrapnel, Arsenal and Congreve. Notable people who lived on the Estate include actor Sylvia Sym and politician Herbert Morrison. Well Hall Road was the scene of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and there is memorial plaque on the road.
At the Well Hall roundabout take the first right to see St Barnabas Church which was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed St Pancras station. It was built between 1857 and 1859 but originally located on Woolwich Dockyard. In 1932/33 the church was taken down and re-built on to its current site. It was damaged in the Second World War and restored in 1956.
Turn back towards the roundabout and the former Coronet Cinema built in 1936. The site has been re-developed but the original facade maintained. Sadly, few of the retail opportunities have been let. Continue along Well Hall until you reach Well Hall Pleasaunce and Tudor Barn.
With the aid of Heritage Lottery funding Well Hall Pleasaunce was renovated in 2003. Its history dates back to the 13th century. It originally contained a manor house in Tudor times. The 16th century Tudor Barn was originally built by William Roper and his wife Margaret who was the daughter of Sir Thomas More. It is now a restaurant serving evening meals and light lunches.
In 1899 Edith Nesbit and her family moved to Well Hall, Eltham. The three-storey house, which was demolished, was in Well Hall Pleasaunce and surrounded by orchards and farmland adjacent to the Tudor barn and was their home for 22 years. Its proximity to the railway line must have been the inspiration for her novel “The Railway Children”.
The train and bus station is directly opposite Well Hall Plesaunce. From the Pleasaunce it is a short walk to Eltham Palace. However, at the time of writing the Palace was not open. It opens 28th March at which point I will continue this final stage of the walk.