A London View: The first of ten pieces in which writers (and two painters) select a city view which means something to them.
At the top of the escarpment, facing north, the General leans forward slightly. One corner of his tricorne hat is to the front, the folds of his bronze cloak deep-furrowed, his nose prominent, the deeply receding chin not at all a manifestation of wimpishness; his gaze is fixed on the glittering skyscraper two miles away named, appropriately, Canada Square. James Wolfe used to come to this spot when he lived for several years during the 1750s at Macartney House, four minutes’ walk from here on the western edge of Greenwich Park. The day before he embarked for Canada in 1759 to assume command (at the age of thirty-two) of British forces there, he went up from Macartney House to dine with the Prime Minister, Pitt the Elder, and some of his ministers. Wolfe flourished his sword, striking the dining table, while discussing his plans. When he had left, Pitt said, ‘Good God, that I should have entrusted the fate of our country to such hands.’ Wolfe was never again to see what he called ‘the prettiest situated house in England’, nor the distant prospect of London from Flamsteed Hill. But Pitt’s concern had been misplaced. Wolfe died not long after in Quebec, ensuring that North America would be British, not French. The statue was given by the Canadian people in 1930, and chivalrously unveiled by the Marquis de Montcalm, descendant of the French general Wolfe defeated. Wolfe is buried in St Alfege’s, the Nicholas Hawksmoor parish church whose white bell-tower can be seen from up here. The plinth of his statue is pockmarked by shrapnel from a German landmine that exploded on this hilltop during the Second World War.
I have lived in Greenwich for twenty-seven years and walk here three or four times a week. The prospect from the hill is best seen in winter, early on spring or autumn mornings, or during a long summer twilight. The tourists and French schoolchildren and lads kicking footballs have mostly gone home. Scanning from north-north-west to just north of east, I’m presented with foreground, middleground and distant views. In the first, to my immediate left are the handsome yet homely red-brick and stone buildings of the old Royal Observatory, hiding the slopes toward Crooms Hill on the western edge of the Park. Then the slim brick tower of the 1930s town hall (Pevsner-approved, unloved by most), St Alf’s, the topmasts and yardarms of the Cutty Sark (in permanent dry dock), the buildings of the Maritime Museum and what we still call the Naval College, council flats, the four immense chimneys of the power station (like an upturned billiard table) that used to provide electricity for London’s trams and eventually back-up power for the underground, a sea of nineteenth-century houses and twentieth-century flats in East Greenwich, and then the green promontory of One-Tree Hill, our hill’s eastern neighbour in the Park, with the early eighteenth-century battlements of Vanbrugh Castle on the skyline. In the middle distance—also left to right—Deptford’s tower blocks and ro-ro ferry wharf with a slab-sided newsprint freighter alongside (paper for the Sun and The Times); snatches of Thames between and beyond buildings, Canary Wharf and the last decade’s office-developments in Docklands; and next, on the old gasworks site with the gasometer still standing, our most recent object to focus on, the Dome, a stranded mammoth jellyfish skewered by twelve pylons. In the hazier distance, the City of London: Tower Bridge, NatWest Building, St Paul’s (still the dome to conjure with); and, swinging east, the ridge of Highgate, Hackney Marshes, the Lea Valley, Barking, Dagenham… Looked at like this what I see isn’t obviously a great city though it is manifestly a great urban sprawl, which seems to lap at the borders of this hill. The viewpoint shapes it as a panorama. Possibly, it is also a series of portraits taken over time.
Over the last quarter of a century in which I’ve stood up here, changes: fewer ships on the river, less use of the docks opposite, fewer funnels and superstructures passing in front of the Naval College; no sirens now to be heard blaring-in the New Year, although the occasional warship goes up to the Pool, a cruise liner now and then moors to the big buoys just west of Greenwich Pier, and the sludge boats continue to haul London’s waste downstream. ‘Docklands’ has absorbed Fleet Street. Movers of money have replaced cargo-handlers. Mr Pelle’s pencil, as a friend of mine calls it—an off-the-shelf skyscraper supposedly designed for Düsseldorf—has gone up on the Isle of Dogs, where Henry VIII may have kennelled his hounds, though the effect hasn’t been as disastrous for Greenwich as pundits feared. From here, the building’s huge blandness is less apparent. I’m more aware of it as providing a point of concentration in the middle distance, and with the western sun on it in late afternoon it looks like a pillar of fire.
Fewer ships but more planes. Greenwich is a pivot on which they turn for the westward descent to Heathrow. As the squealing 747s and Airbuses slip into and out of low cloud, their passengers—nervously gripping the arms of their seats—look down on us, and then on Battersea, Barnes, Hounslow, the ground, thank God. At a lower altitude, with the wind in the east, the quieter, smaller jets and turboprops line up for the runway at City Airport, on the other side of the river beyond the Dome. I come from a generation which still, fifty-odd years on, looks up and once in a while thinks, ‘Good, one of ours.’ My NatWest branch, opposite St Alfege’s, used to display a photograph whose original was taken from a German bomber crossing the U-bend of the river, about to blitz the docks. In the autumn of 1940 and the following winter many bombs fell on Greenwich as the Heinkels, Dorniers, Messerschmitts and Junkers flew towards the docks and the City. The Naval College was hit and the Greenwich Power Station (thirteen killed on 25 October 1940) and the Azimuth Building of the Observatory up here. In the big raid of 19—20 March 1941, St Alfege’s roof was destroyed, and the church with its Grinling Gibbons carvings gutted. Bill Mullins, the milkman whose shop was opposite the town hall, served as an ARP warden and used to tell of nights when he brushed incendiaries from the town hall roof. Later in the war V1 rockets, the so-called doodlebugs, cut out over the park and landed in Crooms Hill, Burney Street, Stockwell Street and Greenwich Church Street, making space for post-war dereliction, in the form of long-lasting bomb-sites and spiritless new building.