The sound of Woolwich’s future?

When people bang on about “Olympic legacy”, most sane observers’ eyes glaze over. But, ahead of the hassles of 2012, here’s a glimpse of what this area is expected to get in return…

While hundreds were turned away from a Trafalgar Square screening, about 100 people settled down in General Gordon Square, Woolwich, for a screening of the Royal Opera House’s Madam Butterfly on Monday night. More significantly, it marks the partial-reopening of the square after a renovation scheme.

Until it was shut last year, the square was a wino-attracting mess, with council staff having to lay down rat poison and scoop out turds from the fountain each morning. Now that’s all gone, and a new-look square has taken its place, although proper lighting has yet to be installed and the turf is yet to bed in.

It all seemed very pleasant and serene when I passed through. Greenwich Council wants to hold more events in the square, and next weekend BBC London radio will be hosting shows from there. They’ll include one from indie champion Gary Crowley, poignantly being held just a hundred metres away from Woolwich’s long-lost gig venue the Tramshed. From the look of Monday night, they could well be on to a winner. Bearing in mind the list of failed schemes to improve Woolwich, that could be some achievement.

Rebuilding the square makes the screen (attention drones!) look less of a desperate attempt to distract people from the state of Woolwich, even if Greenwich Council still insists it is a “focal point for the borough”. The point is, really, to stop much of the borough turning its back on Woolwich, and give people reasons to go there again, instead of heading to retail parks or out-of-town centres.

Part of the scheme’s aim is to make Woolwich look good as the Olympic shooting events approach, although you don’t have to look far for evidence to the contrary. Just around the corner lies the crumbling Connaught Estate, possibly south London’s worst housing project and a place where many council staff refuse to work alone. Only now are moves beginning to rebuild the estate – its neglect a hidden scandal in a town that’s usually brushed under the carpet anyway.

Most of the recent regeneration efforts have been hidden behind the walls of the Arsenal – another challenge will be breaking down the mental barrier between the swish apartments within and the rest of Woolwich, even if the physical barrier is, in fact, listed.

The biggest is yet to come – council staff are packing up and moving into their new Woolwich Centre on Wellington Street, a prelude to the huge new Tesco development due for Woolwich New Road. Redevelopment is also coming to the old Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Society buildings at the other end of the town centre while another hotel is planned to go above the DLR station.

And don’t forget Crossrail, if funding can be secured.

So, by the end of the decade, will we see Woolwich as a thriving shopping hub, hosting cultural events and providing tourists with a place to stay the night? Maybe, but the area’s current landowners don’t seem to be playing their part in regeneration. Whatever you think of the council’s overall vision for Woolwich, sticking a branch of Paddy Power inside the old Woolwich Equitable House doesn’t really indicate a town on the up. Better days are yet to come for Woolwich, hopefully.


  1. If someone dumped a 50″ Chav-o-vision TV in the middle of Woolwich they’d be fined. Woolwich Council dumps an even bigger eyesore in the middle of General Gordon Square, presumably to entertain the Tennants Association and their vagrant pals, and we’re supposed to applaud. Yet another elaborate and expensive Council joke.

  2. Is the Connaught the worst in South London? It must be pretty bad then. I havn’t passed through in a while, but worse than Tavy Bridge in Thamesmead or the Morris in Woolwich is quite something.

    And listing the wall seems a bit much. It does act as a big divide, and it’s really only a wall. Isn’t a lot of it going to go when the crossrail station and surrounding towers built where the car park (and parts of the wall) are today?

    I think Crossrail is almost certain now isn’t it? The developers have agreed to build the box last I heard, and I think TfL will fit it out. The decision about it has chopped and changed so often though it’s hard to know.

    The plan is to have cafe’s in parts of the Woolwich building I believe, and possibly that parade under the Vista tower, with outside seating in the new square. Planning permission for that has recently gone in. I’m not sure if it’s possible to put in some more units in the Woolwich building? Hopefully it can be done as it would be a great spot for it, and make the square a more enticing prospect.

  3. Dennis I’m not sure the council paid for the TV. There’s loads all over the country and I think it may have been paid for by outside parties. The positioning of it is pretty rubbish though. Leaving the station you get to see the drab grey back of a huge screen.

  4. The screen’s a joint council/ BBC/ LOCOG project. As for Crossrail, the station itself needs to be paid for, and it’s Greenwich’s job to find the money. Berkeley Homes is building the “box”.

    Not 100% on the Arsenal walls being listed, but I’m sure I’ve heard it said a few times.

    As for the worst estate in south London – well, there’s some competition, but now the Aylesbury estate in Walworth is empty and the Ferrier is nearly gone…

  5. The Madam Butterfly event was well attended, but did you get along to Les Girafes a couple of days earlier? That was absolutely heaving and I loved that the promenade performance crossed Beresford Street; the traffic having to stop for a heard of giant giraffes.

    The new library has opened and I’ll pop in soon to see what it’s like. We’ve got to be really thankful that we’ve got new libraries (refurbished one recently opened at Plumstead Common), where our neighbours in Lewisham are just having theirs shut down.

  6. I thought that replacing a bank with a bookies seemed stangely apt. The new square looks good, fine masonry (with a chewing gum proof coating apparently) and neat planting. it will be interesting to see if the masterplan comes together when the new lighting and outdoor seating is in place – will people flock to the square at all times of day and night, thus making it a busier, friendlier place?

    The new library is very impressive, and is easily the best one for miles around, (along with manor house in Lewisham). Best of all, it has a hugely expanded collection, and because it takes up the entire ground floor of the new council building, it’s spacious, light, and a huge improvement on the old and rather cramped library. The new council building it lives in is also well done, and murkydepths gave it a positive appraisal. Just opposite the council offices, the Woolwich Grand Cinema is being renovated by a small group of artists with a mind to turning it into a venue along the same lines as the union chapel, so all going well, it could put Woolwich right back on the live performance map. There have been some efforts to improve the Connaught Estate, with the addition of a large children’s centre (which can be visisted on open house weekend) and an outdoor skatepark. As you mentioned, the art deco co-op may now be turned into a multi-unit shopping centre, which comes as something of a surprise/relief, as at one point it was destined to become a multi storey car park (rumours are circulating on the welovewoolwich site). Overall, it seems not unreasonable to be optimistic about Woolwich’s future after a fairly difficult few years in its history.

  7. Is the Woolwich Grand Theatre plan actually getting off the ground?

    Pangloss – didn’t make Les Girafes, unfortunately.

  8. After visiting the new library the other day, I bumped into Adrian outside the Grand, which stands directly opposite the shiny new Council Building, he’s the man with the plan to restore the building to its former glory. He and a few others were busy working on the front of the building, and I’m pleased to report that he has been making some progress in getting things off the ground. First of all, it appears that he has seen off the competition in terms of occupying the building, and secondly he’s planning to hold an arts market there in the first instance, prior to getting started with the nocturnal program of live performance. He comes across as a man of integrity, and whilst there have been some successful top-down efforts to regenerate Woolwich (The new Council Building and Library, the squares, DLR, Crossrail), the success of the whole scheme must rest in part on grass roots initiatives such as his. If I may be so bold, here’s a link to the facebook page. It is probably very hard to achieve anything like this without some sort of high level support, and it’s probably a bit harder still in Woolwich, but let’s just say that if it does get off the ground, it could be the icing on the regeneration cake. This whole area is a bit short of venues, so there could be some real potential there, it worked at the dome didn’t it?

  9. @hilly bank and building society branches that close can be turned into bookies without any change in planning classification; they are currently in the same class as far as planning is concerned. It might seem amusing but will be anything but when the Nationwide branches in SE london that are slated to close get turned into betting shops.

  10. Indeed…Nationwide…what an inappropriate name that’s turning out to be. Their old branch on Powis St hasn’t been occupied yet, and a high street ‘bookiefication’ such as that seen in Deptford would probably hinder Woolwich’s efforts to improve itself.

  11. Excellent piece on the Woolwich Squares. Of course there is much to do but the Woolwich Squares will bring vitality to the area in the longer ter. It was a joy to see so many people at the event from all parts of the Borough. Bumped into some friends from the Arsenal enjoying their Picnic. I do hope that the developing cultural programme leading up to the Olympics will be equelly enjoyed. There is much more to do. The regeneration of the Estates being a priority but will happen. Yes the Betting Shops are an eyesore but the wider development of Powis Street will bring new business opportunities to the Town Centre. A special plea to the developers to protect the Cooperative history of the area. I know Ron Roffey,our Coop stalwart is on the case.

  12. Readers might be interested to know about another regeneration/restoration project in the pipeline for Woolwich.

    St George’s Garrison Church on Repository Road was hit by a flying bomb in 1944 and almost completely destroyed. Only the apse, walls and the Victoria Cross memorial mosaic remain. The Heritage of London Trust is actively working to fundraise for the site and devise a long-term use for the church. As part of this project, it is envisaged that the site might become a local outdoor (summer) cultural venue run by a Friends association.

    Planning is very much in the embryonic stages at the moment but it would be great to hear from anyone who might be interested in getting involved in this project. I’ve just set up a Facebook page for the fledgling Friends Group to keep people updated on developments.

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