Deptford is a funny place. You don’t tend to see many tourists venturing to this part of London, despite it being only down the road from the centre of Greenwich, but it does have a distinct culture and life of its own that is worth seeing. Deptford’s the place to get a sense of a real local London life, and it has just has much history as Greenwich (and potentially a more interesting history at that).
The area was originally a fishing village, until Henry VIII built the first of London’s Royal Dockyards here. If you’ve ever seen old maps of London from the 16th or 17th centuries, the community of Deptford is a prominent feature of southeast London, virtually one of the only important sites between here and the City of London, the rest being filled with modest villages and farmland. Deptford’s now humble ground has been trodden by Kings and Queens, famous sailors and artists—the explorer Sir Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in Deptford, and Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered and buried in Deptford (more on that later). It’s an important area just in terms of London’s history, never mind England’s (the pilgrimage route in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales runs through Deptford).
The best way to get to Deptford is the DLR line from Bank station, which will take you to Deptford Bridge, at the top of Deptford’s high street. While the more interesting places are on the riverside, it’s worth a walk through Deptford main shopping street, especially on a weekend when the market is on. Here, you can find all kinds of bargains on fruit and veg, so it is worth a look if you need to stock up. In the middle of the high street is the recently converted Deptford Market Yard, a collection of shops and cafes under converted railway arches. It’s an interesting spot, and I’ve been tempted one or two times by the smell of fresh coffee from the cafes, but it does make quite a contrast to the rest of Deptford, which has prided itself on a sort of edgy-grimy aesthetic. The Market Yard, by comparison, is pristine, all clean cobbled pavement and quaint chalkboard cafe signs. Deptford’s original railway station is still in use here, and offers another convenient way of travelling back into central London from the southeast.
Towards the bottom of the high street, you can almost imagine this area as it was in the 18th of 19th centuries—all dark, cobbled streets and busy with industry. Indeed, it’s still busy now—in the morning you’re likely to see shopkeepers chatting with their neighbours or students walking into Greenwich or New Cross for class. My favourite part of Deptford, and the bit I’d recommend seeing, lies the other side of the high street: cross the main road at the end of the high street and turn left into Watergate Street, which leads you all the way to the river.
Here, the sounds of the high street are completely blocked, and it’s like another area entirely. At the end of Watergate Street, though it looks like a dead end, carry on towards the river, now visible behind an apartment block, and you’ll find a little beach—dirty and dark, yes, but a beach nonetheless. There’s a great view from here over the river towards the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, and it’s a lovely little hidden spot to take pictures. You’ll see almost no-one venturing round here, despite it being on the Thames Path, and you’ll have the riverside almost entirely to yourself.
Heading away from the river again and follow the road past the apartment, carry on in a loop along Deptford Green and you’ll reach St. Nicholas Church. This really is a hidden part of Deptford—many a time I’ve tried to find the church and failed, getting lost in the Charlotte Turner Gardens just opposite and missing the church by only a 30 second walk. Admittedly, it is easy to get lost among the housing estates this side of Deptford, but it’s not as if the church is easy to miss with its entrance pillars topped with sculptures of skull and crossbones, something which I cannot find an explanation for other than the connection to shipbuilding in the area. There’s been a church on this site since the 14th century but the current building dates from the 17th century, comprising of a picturesque red-brick exterior and stone tower. Wandering around at 10am on a Sunday, I dared not interrupt the service by wandering into the church, and kept to the empty grounds.
The main reason for seeking out St. Nicholas is the church’s connection to an infamous murder in Deptford. On 30th May 1593, popular playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered in a house in Deptford and then buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas. Today, there is still not gravestone to mark his grave, but a plaque on the eastern wall of the churchyard commemorates the playwright. For fans of drama or literature, this is an important place—and if you’re not a fan, seek it out just for the scenery and quiet.
It’s worth retracing your steps back up to the river at this point, joining the Thames Path again at the Ahoy Centre, a sailing club. This stretch of river also has great views of Canary Wharf, and, if you’re standing in the right place, the grand exterior of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Where Deptford Creek flows out into the River Thames, there’s another hidden Deptford curiosity—a statue of Tsar Peter the Great. I remember when I first stumbled across this on a walk from Greenwich to Deptford, and being utterly confused as to who or what the statue was commemorating. A description says that the statue commemorates Peter the Great’s visit to Deptford in 1698, where he learnt shipbuilding from the great Royal Shipyard here, and Peter is clearly the tall figure standing at the centre of the group, looking out over the Thames with a telescope in his hand. More baffling is the little man beside him, a figure I cannot place, and the whole thing becomes more comic than serious the longer you look at it. Either way, it’s an interesting sight, and one that is worth the detour to find.
These are my favourite little parts of Deptford, an area of southeast London that really does have its own community and ‘feel’, definitely different to other places in the area. If you’re in Greenwich for the day, I’d definitely suggest taking a walk down the river to explore this part of the southeast—the combination of a unique and colourful history and a modern quirkiness is hard to find anywhere else.