Explore the changing faces of Greenwich Peninsula on a self-guided walking tour

It’s thought that the peninsula in South East London was once a collection of marshy islands. We take a walking tour that charts the neighbourhood’s evolution across the years, from factory-strewn wasteland to creative heartland.

Greenwich Peninsula's topography has been reimagined by entrepreneurs for centuries.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Nora Wallaya
Published 22 Mar 2022, 18:00 GMT

For all the concrete and scaffolding that towers above you as you emerge from the bowels of North Greenwich Underground station, you’d never know that not so long ago the land here, well, may not have been one solid piece of land at all. Spend the day on a self-guided walking tour to explore the peninsula's evolution through the ages as it transformed from a boggy marshland to London's industrial and creative heartland.

The walking tour

Head southeast from North Greenwich station to reach Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park. Here, four acres of freshwater habitat thrive on what was formerly a steelworks. The park’s urban wetland is home to bats, birds, butterflies, newts, frogs and toads, as well as wildflowers, insects, grasses and trees — all species that are likely to have frolicked in the area before industry moved in. Up until the 17th century, the peninsula was, in fact, a vast stretch of mostly uninhabitable marshland called Bugsby’s Marsh, or Greenwich Marsh. Archaeologists believe the area was once even a collection of islands and tidal marshes — a floodplain for the River Thames that was brimming with biodiversity. Today you can stroll the park’s boardwalk for a tangible sense of this lost natural landscape. 

Next, walk north and pull up a chair at The Pilot. The pub, built in 1802, is, surprisingly, the oldest surviving building on Greenwich Peninsula, such is the rapid rate of redevelopment in the area. But modernity made its mark long before coal workers swept into the bolthole for a refresher after a day’s hard labour. In the early 17th century, Dutch engineers drained the marshland here in a bid to keep the Thames out and create commercial pastureland. Because the main source of transportation then was by water, it made sense for merchants to have easy access to the river to tout their wares upstream. During this agricultural period, farmers and traders raised cattle, grew cash crops, trapped eels or wild fowl, and even wove baskets for sale made from the trees and grasses growing in the area, including willow and river reed. Paintings from the 19th century held at the National Maritime Museum and Greenwich Heritage Centre depict the bucolic rural scenes that could have been observed here.

Follow the Thames Path east of The Pilot to pass several artworks that have helped to bolster the peninsula’s creative gravitas. First, Antony Gormley’s cast-iron creation, ‘Quantum Cloud’, then Damien Hirst’s mythical bronze sculpture, ‘Mermaid’, and finally, ‘A Bullet from a Shooting Star’, constructed by artist Alex Chinneck. Erected in 2015, the construction — an upside-down electricity pylon that appears to spear the earth — is a whimsical interpretation of the peninsula’s industrial history.

Artworks and installations have helped to bolster the peninsula’s new reputation as a hub for London's ...

Artworks and installations have helped to bolster the peninsula’s new reputation as a hub for London's creative industries.

Photograph by Alamy

Spitting distance from ‘The Pylon’, as it’s referred to, is Magazine London. A sleek black monolith, it offers a dynamic new events space for the capital. Its name is a tribute to perhaps the peninsula’s first and most contentious industrial building of all time: The Gunpowder Magazine, built in the late 17th century. Its residency here sparked local protests that succeeded in ordering its closure in the 1760s, some years after its construction, on account of its vulnerability to ‘treachery, lightning strikes and other accidents’. Nothing remains of the buildings today, but a print held at the Greenwich Local History Library reminds us of its brief existence.

Make a final stop to see the structure that changed the landscape of the peninsula most profoundly: Sir Alexander Binnie's Blackwall Tunnel. The subterranean road crossing — which, at the time of its original completion in 1897 was the longest underwater tunnel in the world — traverses the river in East London, connecting Tower Hamlets to Greenwich. Its construction, and the scale of environmental scarring that followed, changed the natural landscape of Greenwich Marsh forever, and what was left of its natural state was finally uprooted.

Left: Top:

Fishermen in rowing boats off the shore of Greenwich Peninsula at Blackwall Reach, possibly painted by artist G. W. Butland around the year 1830.

Right: Bottom:

A print created in 1738 by London topographer and engraver William Henry Toms, which almost certainly displays the Gunpowder Magazine. In the foreground are grazing cattle, a courting couple and a peat-cutter, which indicates the marshy nature of the terrain.

photographs by National Maritime Museum Greenwich

Three more historic wonders to visit in Greenwich

The Cutty Sark pubThe 200-year-old pub, named after the Victorian tea clipper of the same name, is Grade II-listed. Originally called The Union Tavern, it changed its name in the 1950s when the defunct ship became a permanent fixture on the Thames Path, less than a mile west of the peninsula.

Blackwall Lane (or Marsh Lane): This road, now a major artery through the peninsula, appears on the first recorded maps of the area, dating from the 17th century. Tracing an ancient line, it was the main route through the marsh. At its southern turn-off from Woolwich Road was a field famously named Cat’s Brains. Nobody knows why.

Blackwall Point: At the northernmost tip of the peninsula is the notorious location of criminal hangings. Having been trialled and hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping, their remains were transported to this ships’ passing point where they’d be hung in cages and left to rot.

For more information about the peninsula's past read Greenwich Peninsula – Greenwich Marsh: History of an Industrial Heartland by Dr Mary Mills.

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