Tall Ships 2017: Woolwich divided?

Tall ships in Woolwich, 15 April 2017

So the 2017 Tall Ships Regatta is over and the vessels are sailing off to the North Sea. How was it for you? It all seems to have gone well from the little I saw – you may be able to say more.

If you pay council tax in Greenwich borough, you’ve a direct interest in whether or not it was a success – it costs the council £2 million. They’ll have to have shifted a lot of £5 programmes to make that back. Local Tories have long grumbled that the event should be making money and it should be more heavily sponsored. Indeed, the list of sponsors did look like a roll-call of usual suspects – the developers and hotel firms that benefit from “brand Royal Greenwich”. You could have had your firm’s name all over the riverside walk for £19,000 plus VAT.

But for the council leadership this is an investment in local businesses – a good old-fashioned Labour intervention in the economy, like building a cinema in Eltham. (This argument never stretches to Blackheath fireworks, mind.)

Tall ship at the Thames Barrier, 16 April 2017

The trouble with this kind of one-off event is that it’s hard to quantify any benefit. There’ll no doubt be a report within a few weeks that indicates the local economy benefitted by squillions, so there’ll be lots of back-slapping. Whether or not this is really the case will be harder to tell. That said, it certainly reinforces Greenwich’s position as one of the very few real tourist draws outside central London.

But it’s also meant to draw people to Woolwich, too. And this is a more difficult sell. Indeed, local business there weren’t impressed with 2014’s event, something this website reported on last year.

Draft Business Engagement report, 2016

Essentially, because it takes place on the riverside, it benefits the businesses in Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development, and does nothing for those in the traditional town centre. A few plans were set out to fix this, including “a joined up event management plan that links the main town centre with the Arsenal Riverside Festival site”, “integrated way finding and high street dressing to link the town centre to the Arsenal Festival site”, and “animation of Beresford Square, Powis St and General Gordon Square”.

Greenwich Council draft business engagement report

A draft business engagement report suggested the council should “host (non-competing) stalls and attractions in General Gordon Square and Powis Street to encourage footfall and dwell time in the main town centre”.

Woolwich town centre, 15 April 2017

Except that there was – as far as I could tell – nothing outside the Royal Arsenal. I had a quick look in Woolwich on Saturday and – a few bits of bunting aside – it seemed to be a normal day. Nothing happening in General Gordon Square or Beresford Square, just the odd performer in fancy dress avoiding the costly food and drink in the Arsenal. General Gordon Square, with its big screen (pictured above on Saturday), was its usual mildly depressing self.

Instead, all the effort seemed to have gone into social media. Here, cabinet member Sizwe James pleads with us that if we visit the Earl of Chatham pub, his captors will set him free.

Woolwich being a hub for tall ships could be a brilliant thing – but the benefit seems to be flowing towards one particular developer rather than the town as a whole.

Now, I may have missed something – and if you saw a choir of Jack Russells performing sea shanties in front of the big screen, please use the comments box below – but by neglecting the traditional town centre again, I can’t help thinking the council has unwittingly made the divide between Woolwich town centre and the Royal Arsenal that little bit wider.

Tall ships at the Thames Barrier, 16 April 2017

Anyway, the best place to watch Easter Sunday’s Parade of Sail wasn’t Greenwich, it wasn’t Woolwich, it was the Thames Barrier. If the tall ships return – and I’m sure they will – make a note for next time.

11pm update: Greenwich Council deputy leader Danny Thorpe says “loads happened” in Woolwich town centre “and all over the borough”. I’ve added an image of the report which made recommendations for Woolwich.


  1. Thanks for the tip on viewing from the Thames Barrier. Was that on any day of the festival or just when they arrived and departed?

  2. “But for the council leadership this is an investment in local businesses.” Is this the same council that is trying to destroy the industry in Charlton Riverside, and with it some 6,500 jobs? That same council that has refused to support existing Thames jetties for historic ship moorings?
    Or another bunch of incompetents?

  3. I was very surprised that there was nothing going on in Woolwich town centre itself, it was a huge missed opportunity, Woolwich/Woolwich Arsenal, two completely different places

  4. Agreed about the Thames barrier: no parking issues and great view. Although, it is a spectacular amount of money to waste really. We should contribute our half to the fireworks instead – only £30k !!

  5. Came on weekend coach trip to Greenwich for theTall Ships, Sunday. Dropped offon Charlton walk, wonderful morning sunshine. Gradually headed past Observatory, right down to the Maritime Museum, Naval College, Cutty Sark, went right, then back to the left, by the helter-skelter and beyond, to the bandstand, for a 3.30 performance which was well worth walking along and waiting for, even on a grey afternoon. But the place definitely felt like the outer edge of what was going on – only the Sail Loft was festive, all tables packed,
    inside and out. So where is Woolwich, actually? My provincial self has yet to discover… Yet I know it’s a very historic place – but I didn’t see any evidence of this. Have I missed something?

  6. As a tourist coming up to Woolwich with family (12 of us) for the day. I have to say that we were very disappointed. We all arrived around 11.15am by train/clipped boat which was nice. Met up in the brewery cafe nearby, which had toilets …good. wandered down past the Cutty Sark to our lunch destination. Good food and toilets. Then visited the Cutty Sark which was excellent. Noted that there was a cafe to sit in and toilets which was good. Then headed to the river front around 4.45 in readiness to watch the tall ships, however at that time there were only the few who had been there all day. We waited for a while, expecting the ship’s to come and line up for the ‘off’ but gave up waiting as no ships appeared, and children were needing the toilet, so we gave up andd went home. I have to say that the web sites all said that around half the ship’s would be moored at the Woolwich Arsenal and the other half in Woolwich and that those in the Arsenal would come round to Woolwich around 4.30 so that they would all be ready to sail at 5pm. …..what happened???. Four of our group who left earlier by clipper towards Tower Hill passed some of them… As a visitor I suggest that two things…groups of mobile toilets around the site and a clear and presise plan for each day. Everything else was very enjoyable including the role playing of life in soldiers, and life in that era. Good that some of the museum’s were open, etc. It was just a shame that something was clearly amiss with the ship / websites planning of the day.

  7. Christine – have you got Woolwich and Greenwich mixed up?

    (Greenwich = Cutty Sark; Woolwich = not Cutty Sark)

  8. Darryl,
    Sorry but my Kindle had made name changes, I should have checked before I finished my comments. Of course I meant Greenwich. We arrived at the Greenwich pier by clipper boat which is very close to the Cutty Sark. Chris

  9. Darryl – where did you get the £2m figure for the cost of hosting the tall ships festival? Seems extortionate if true. Would love to see a breakdown.

    As for the benefits not being shared beyond the Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich – that’s largely due to geography and the fact that RA development is effectively a gated community. I would question the wisdom/motivation for tying a publicly funded event to a private development like that.

    The approach in Greenwich was much better imho – where there was a lot of active river frontage involved and the main “hub” was square beside the Cutty Sark (which is also conveniently close to the town centre)

  10. Interesting post…

    I saw a number of bands playing in Powis Street and on a little patch outside Snappy Snaps so there were things going on outside the Arsenal.

    As for local businesses, the point on Geography is a good one. Powis street doesn’t have the maritime heritage of Greenwich town centre and the arsenal. Also, it’s filled with loads of banks, mobile phone shops, cut-price shoes and furniture, and fast food outlets. It’s not like Greenwich with proper independent retailers that aren’t factory outlets (though they are starting to pop up). Great pubs like the Equitable face away from the arsenal and the ships.

    So if the amount of money being spent on this is ‘to support local businesses’ then I’m not sure how many people will open a new bank account of browse a catalogue in woolwich argos as a result of there being some ships in town.

    But I do think some amount of money is worth giving Woolwich that festival feel. In the long term this festival could grow, Woolwich could even become a mini tourist destination. It’ll be getting a cinema and a leisure centre in the town centre in the next few years which should help bridge the gap between the Arsenal and the rest of the town. The town needs some confidence, which Greenwich town has bags of.

    Slightly unrelated but I think the one idea that would sort the whole thing out is whacking the stretch of the A106 by Woolwich Arsenal station into a tunnel to stop it splitting the town.

  11. Doesn’t make sense..At least the majority of those people visiting would have come from the DLR (or train in years where it’s less of a f-up than this) -in the town centre. I bet they didn’t all hold their breath until they reached that one M&S on the nicer side of town.

    But hey, if woolwich hates it so much, I’m all for having all ships in cutty sark next time, much nicer to have the fun concentrated at one place. Do think that considering the cost they could do it less often.

  12. Putting roads in tunnels is not happening. TfL will never be able to afford it given their budget has been cut by £700 million by central government and they are looking at cuts eg all over the bus network. Developer cash is not going to as most of Berkeley’s s106 contributions mainly funded the Crossrail station and their simply isn’t the money from future plans to do it. And it’s hardly the best use of up to a billion quid.

    I can think of dozens of places that thrive and are buzzing day and night despite a busy road running in the middle. It’s far from the major problem in Woolwich. Nice as it would be to go it’s not the main issue. I hope it isn’t distracting council staff from planning and lobbying for far more attainable transport improvements – 12 car trains on all South Eastern rail lines, more DLR trains so all are 3 cars long, LO/DLR/Tram to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood from north of the Thames with tram/express bus branching from that to North Greenwich along the old Greenwich Waterfront Transit route plan etc.All things TfL and central government are more likely to agree to in the next 5-10 years.

  13. Ok fair enough the tunnel is a bit of a silly idea, I just think the way that road cuts through the town is awful… totally agree with the point about it being a distraction to winnable arguments.

    Walt, from the town centre I believe there is a snappy snaps, the elephant and castle pub, a couple of phone shops and an Iceland. So it’s not really a case of holding your breath until M&S…. there’s just not enough in and around Powis Street. Look at the demise of clockjack…

  14. @fromthemurkydepths – you’re right, there are plenty of places with a busy road running through them that thrive despite the presence of the road, but they usually have far better traffic control and pedestrian access than the A206.

    The perennial problem in Greenwich is poorly thought out and very dated town planning. But I don’t need to tell you that 🙂

  15. @Lj
    exactly. It highlights the problem of Woolwich is not a festival being organized, or the fact that there are new developments, it is that the area is in a seriously decrepit state. So I wonder who were the ‘local businesses’ that were being interviewed; I can understand if the local Iceland and betting shops indeed didn’t get massively gains. It would have been an opportunity though, for the entrepreneurial minded local.

  16. LJ – Thanks for pointing out there was some stuff happening in Powis Street. I’m still a little baffled as to why it would be there and not in General Gordon Square or Beresford Square, though…

    Murky Depths – Denise Hyland floated the idea of burying the A206 about 18 months or so ago at one of those Q&A events the council’s started to do; Barking & Dagenham is planning to bury a chunk of the A13 too (https://www.lbbd.gov.uk/business/growing-the-borough/great-connections-great-infrastructure/a13-riverside-tunnel/). Not sure whether it would work in Woolwich or whether it would even be the right thing to do, though; and I expect there isn’t the money for it.

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