Deptford: Upper Watergate Stairs, St George’s Stairs

upper-watergate-stairs

UPPER WATERGATE STAIRS

Access

These steps are in quite good condition (2017) though they can be very slippery as high tide covers them. As part of the new commercial development the approach ( an alley continuing from Watergate Street ) was gentrified and a safety rail installed on the steps.

Access stairs to the Thames foreshore at Upper Watergate in Deptford

However, none of this influences the will of the Thames and if the retreating tide leaves mud you can be sure that it will be thick and plentiful where the steps are .. especially at times when the ‘clipper wash’ isn’t helping to rinse the beach. The photo below was taken on a foggy Sunday morning. I’ve now become accustomed to planning visits to Upper Watergate for weekdays, after the clippers have started running.

Mud and fog at Upper Watergate in Deptford

Hazards

This is the only entry/exit point for this stretch .. cut off by Deptford Creek downstream and (except at very low tide) at the protruding walls just this side of Deptford Strand upstream. The tide comes in very quickly and it happens to cut off the stairs location first .. so always make sure you’ve got your eye on it and allow enough time to get back to the stairs

Special warning July 2017 Upstream from the steps, one of the large metal walkways connecting the land above to the disused loading dock out in the water has recently collapsed. Although there is still enough headroom to walk underneath, technically this is unsafe .. it’s only a matter of time before it sinks more or breaks apart and you don’t want to be underneath it when it does! If you do want to continue underneath, you do so at your own risk .. but at least reduce the danger by walking close to the river wall.

Local history

Upper Watergate Stairs 1860s, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

The OS Map 1860s shows a surviving dockland featuring engineering works and foundries, but this was soon to change. The stairs are now squeezed between the new residential riverside downstream and a high wall which surrounds the former Master Shipwright’s house which was built in 1708. This whole area had been the centre of naval shipbuilding since the 15th century and under Henry VIII it became the foremost royal dockyard for the construction of warships. This changed gradually over the centuries as other dockland areas gained favour and after its official closure in 1868 the immediate area became a Foreign Cattle Market. Animals had to be slaughtered on-site before they were moved on so this may account in part for the number of animal bones that litter the whole stretch.

There was a ferry service indicated by the straight line connecting Deptford with Millwall opposite. This couldn’t have been operating long before the mid 19th century because until then there wouldn’t have been much call to travel to the Isle of Dogs unless ‘en route’ to somewhere North.

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, chalk beds at Deptford

One can see it at many other locations but there’s a particular concentration of chalk along this Deptford stretch. The chalk is not naturally occurring but was laid down mainly as a secure and less abrasive bed for barges to rest on. Along with the chalk came the flints, including fossils such as corals and sea urchins.

Opportunities

When we moved to Deptford in 2008 I assumed we hardly ever saw anyone else down on the beach because nobody knew about it. At the time the approach was white-boarded and looked like the entrance to a building site .. a little later the whole of the downstream stretch became one. I’ve since learnt that the seasoned ‘mudlarks’ don’t rate the location as very fruitful, but unless you’re looking for the best or most preserved examples of specific things, there’s enough here to satisfy.

Upper Watergate Stairs are cut off fairly early on by the rising tide so the window here is no more than the average recommended ‘two hours before low tide to two hours after’. If you happen to go two hours before there’s plenty of interesting shingle but the few outcrops of ‘historical mud’ are very low on the beach i.e. only accessible around the point of low tide. The stretch to the right, downstream going towards the Deptford Creek inlet, is pretty barren .. it’s far better to wander in the other direction.

Embeddded piece of pipe, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

In my ‘advice’ article I referred to the value of checking the exposed edges of built-up mud and here above is an illustration. I have found a number of clay pipe fragments or longer examples from all periods in Deptford, but the majority have come from the later 18th century, as is this one. It’s often really surprising how clean looking the pipes become when they are on their way out of the mud. Those that have to be excavated wholly from the mud are sometimes completely black, but this colouration fades almost completely within a few days of contact with the air.

Drainage pipes, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

At first I assumed the above was a chimney pot but it’s probably too small and it would be blackened inside so it’s more likely something to do with drainage, and not very old. There are a great deal of thick ceramic fragments on the foreshore and one can be forgiven for thinking that they are ancient pottery .. but they’re more likely smaller pieces of something like this!

.. more to come!

 

Location of St George's Stairs (Google Maps), Thames Foreshore, Deptford

ST GEORGE’S STAIRS

Access

At the top is a metal latch-gate onto the steps. These are stone, reasonably broad and in good condition though, as with all, they are slippery when wet or muddied. This is the only entry/exit point for this part of the Deptford stretch, interrupted by the inlet to South Dock just a short distance upstream while downstream the gate for the other set of stone steps (known as Queen’s Stairs or Drake’s Steps) is permanently locked .. the steps themselves are becoming increasingly unsafe!

At low tide it’s possible to walk all the way to Deptford Creek though the foreshore becomes very narrow after Queen’s Stairs. On my last visit I had to wait until at least 1hour before low tide for it to be just about passable wearing Wellingtons, but I think this was a relatively high ‘1.2m’ low tide.

Hazards

One can’t go far to the left but the mud which collects in the area approaching the South Dock inlet can be very soft and deep in places and these patches can be very difficult to judge from their appearance i.e. some look sandy or gravelled on the surface but are just as quicksand-like. You’re unlikely to be swallowed completely but you could easily lose a boot! In the other direction, as mentioned, you have to watch as it approaches 1hour after low tide ..in other words, tide coming in. Make sure that you’ve still got enough beach to return on.

Local history

St George's Stairs 1860s, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

Part of the Royal dockyard upstream from Deptford Strand was used for victualling (stocking with provisions) the navy’s warships from the 17th century onwards and in 1858 this was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard. When the rest of the dockyard closed in 1869 the victualling yard remained in navy ownership. A few of the 18th century buildings remain, some converted into modern flats. The yard finally closed in the 1960s and it was quickly utilized as a new housing estate .. the Pepys Estate.

Downstream from St George's Stairs 1 1860s, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

Downstream from St George's 2, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

Upper Watergate upstream 3, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

Opportunities

At about 1.5hours before low tide there’s enough beach in the vicinity of St George’s Stairs to do some beachcombing. This isn’t a richly yielding stretch but it’s not boring! There isn’t quite the variety or number of antique potsherds one sees at Greenwich and there are fewer pipe fragments.

River offering, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, St George's Stairs, offering to the river

Present day offerings to the river, usually in the form of figures or vessels, are a common find throughout the Thames Foreshore. I don’t agree with pocketing them myself .. even fragments .. though I have been told by a very experienced mudlark that it’s not an issue if the water has already received them. For me the photos are enough though.

Calcined flint, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

The Deptford stretch is a good place for unusual or ‘aesthetically’ shaped flints! The distinctive ‘craquelure’ on this one above is apparently because at some time the flint has been heated. In Neolithic times this was done to use the stones as so-called ‘pot boilers’ i.e. to heat water up at a time before there was the means to put a vessel on the fire. There are a lot like this in Deptford and Greenwich but whether that makes them Neolithic tools or not I’m not sure. I noticed a number of ‘Flint kilns’ labelled on the 1860s OS map of the Isle of Dogs opposite, so they could also have come from there.

Unidentified stone, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

I’ve noticed at least two of these flat, round stones .. around 30cm across and each with a hole in the middle. One guess is that they may have something to do with milling, since directly above was the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard (see the last map section above).

A curious thing about part of this stretch, roughly in the area of Queen’s Stairs, is that I’m always finding knife handles. What is even more curious is that they span the ages right up to the present! Considering that the victualling yard was directly above it may not be a surprise to find the remains of knives from up to the early 20th century perhaps. But it doesn’t explain the Stanley knives or the plastic-handle kitchen knives that are amongst them! I’m very unsure about the dates of the older looking ones anyway.

Undated knife handle, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

For example, the one above has the remains of wooden halves either side of the ‘tang’ as it’s called (the continuation of the blade as part of the handle), with large rivets of a copper alloy binding the parts together. This has some resemblance to an example recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and identified as 14th-15th century .. pure wishful thinking on my part!

Medieval knife handle, Portable Antiquities Scheme

 

Log

24/01/2017  I’ve used this elsewhere as an example of the ‘shape/signs’ to look out for and how one can always expect the unexpected! When I happened to see this I thought it must be a ring, perhaps even a precious one .. and for a moment I couldn’t shake off the Tolkein.

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, St George's Stairs January 2017

.. but it changed into a clay pipe, the first one of this kind that I’d seen. These were popular from the 1830s to 1860s and usually depicted dragoons, turks or druids. They were also much shorter than the regular ones, not much longer than what’s survived of this one.

David Neat, Thames Foreshore, St George's Stairs, 19thc 'Turk' pipe

The modelling of the faces was most often (politely termed) basic and unskilled, as evidenced by this similar one found in Oxfordshire courtesy of bluerow.co.uk.

Mid-Victorian tobacco pipe, bluerow.co.uk

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