Scattering virtual ashes

I am at home in Hastings while the ashes of an old friend are being scattered from a bridge we helped to build. In memory of Pete Pope and in recompense for not being there today, I want to get the story of the Ha’penny Hatch online.

I was researching Turning the Tide: the History of Everyday Deptford (published 1993) when I came across this most mysterious of pictures. On the reverse was the note “Edgar Wallace used to play here”. Steeped in Deptford’s historical topography, I knew that this little footbridge was attached to the south side of the longest listed building in the world – the 878 brick arches of the London & Greenwich Railway viaduct. The first urban railway in the world, it included a road along its whole length for those who could not afford to travel on trains. For two years, while engineer George Landmann worked out how to get the line across the busy and tidal Deptford Creek, the viaduct made it only as far as Deptford and the footbridge was the only way Greenwich passengers could board the new trains. Once it did cross the Creek, the viaduct had to be lifted to allow boats through. This took 12 men an hour to achieve until a new “most modern” structure was built in 1963 – the imposing landmark which straddles the site today.

Tragically the Ha’penny Hatch itself was lost some time in the 1930s and I have never found an explanation as to why.

Sixty years later, three people came together with their own peculiar skills and obsessions and an overwhelming shared passion for Deptford: Richard Walker (environmentalist, economist, party fixer, crane-lover), Jess Steele (historian, publisher, entrepreneur, arguer) and Pete Pope (artist, communitarian, pedant, drinker).

Privileged to know many other local people with a fantastic range of skills, we set up the Deptford Discovery Team to bring these talents to bear on protecting, enhancing and celebrating local heritage, environment, tourism and sustainable travel.

The Discovery Team was named, proudly if rather perversely, after the Discovery convict hulk moored at Deptford in the 1820s after serving on Captain Cook’s last voyage.

First and foremost on our to-do list was always the replacement of the Ha’penny Hatch. Inspired by the past and fully alert to the frustrations and dangers of a modern walk to Greenwich, it seemed obvious that we should recreate this most useful of amenities.

It was a long fight that I’m going to gloss over in the hope that Richard will join in here and describe it properly.

We helped win an £8.2m regeneration programme for Creekside – it was called ‘Building Bridges’ – and we helped keep it rooted. There were a hundred hurdles and a dozen doubtful moments. Negotiating with Railtrack was one of the lowest points of my regeneration experience. But in the end we did it! The new Ha’penny Hatch opened in 2002.

Pete died on 11th May 2012 and last Friday we had the best funeral I’ve ever been to. A great turn-out of Deptford’s finest, a cycling cortege, and the perfect humanity of Billy Jenkins’ humanist service.

We made it to the Dog & Bell (‘Woof/Clang’) just as the heavens opened and were treated to free drinks on Pete (a most uncommon phenomenon), an endless buffet from Eileen and a bizarre set of eulogies from seven friends – Brigitte from Bench Outreach who took the best care of Pete that he would allow; Jim Carey who used to take cans to the hospice on a Friday night and AWOL whose tales of teenage debauchery at the end of life had us in shocked laughter; Tony O’Leary, distributor extraordinaire, who told a tale of trying to get Pete to do some hard graft; Bill Ellson, the Other Half of Trouble; and Clare McRandall who reminded us that Pete believed in theatre because it actually changes lives. Inevitably it was Richard’s speech that touched my nerves, capturing the brilliance and the frustration of Pete as we knew him. Both of us have left Deptford (for Hastings aka ‘Deptford by the Sea’ and Bristol aka ‘Deptford with Knobs On’) and Richard ended with a plaintive ‘I don’t know where’s home anymore’. But of course home is where the heart is, and our hearts get bigger when we have friends like these.

@deptfordis has just tweeted me to say the ash scattering ‘went off with a bang’. They’ll all be back at the Bird’s Nest by now, just as Pete would have wanted. I raise my glass to you Mr Pope in memory of a bridge we built…

Deptford Discovery Team

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8 Responses to Scattering virtual ashes

  1. Anita Gwynn says:

    Thanks for that. I remember Pete telling me about this at the time. Lovely to read.

  2. Bill Ellson says:

    The Crossfields development tends to be thought of as just the residential LCC blocks, but was in fact the comprehensive re-development of the entire area between Deptford Church Street and Deptford Creek that had consisted of intermingled housing and industry. The LCC zoned the land between Creekside (the road) and the Creek itself as industrial and built housing on the other side of the road. This involved moving the entire residential population out of the area before demolition.

    The Southern Railway took advantage of the temporary absence of residents and demolished the footbridge. The Chief Engineer of the Southern Railway, my great-uncle George Ellson is the most likely culprit. I discovered this about two months before the Ha’penny Hatch opened and told Pete. You can imagine his comments!

    Video of the parade from the Nest and the scattering of the Ashes is now on my blog at: http://j.mp/Ky5sjv

  3. Colin bodiam says:

    Terrific! I’ve posted this up on facebook.

  4. Colin Bodiam says:

    I forgot to say just how handy the bridge is when I’m making my way to The Morden Arms after a swift pint in The Birds Nest!

  5. Thanks for that,it did go well ,he would have liked it.

  6. Ali Perotto says:

    That was brilliant Jess. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: Pete Pope z”l | EastSouthEast

  8. Pingback: For Pete Pope | 171bus

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