At the height of its arms manufacturing operations, during the First World War, Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal employed 80,000 people and covered more than 1,300 acres, stretching as far as what is now Thamesmead.
It gave rise to two mighty institutions: Arsenal Football Club, which started life in Dial Square in 1886 before moving to north London in 1893; and the Royal Arsenal Co-op - motto Each for All and All for Each - which was started in 1868 by 20 arsenal workers and had at its peak in the Fifties more than half a million members.
For hundreds of years Woolwich thrived and prospered on the manufacture and storage of munitions but for the past 60 years, the town and the arsenal have been in a slow decline.
The arsenal closed its gates for the last time in 1994, but this once proud Thames-side town in south-east London is now being reborn with regeneration schemes that will bring nearly 6,000 new homes over the next 15 years. Already more than 2,000 new homes have been built in the old Royal Arsenal where, since 2001, Berkeley Homes has been creating Royal Arsenal Riverside, a new quarter combining new-build homes and flats converted from the historic - and often listed - arsenal buildings.
In Woolwich town centre, a bold new town square is emerging with a water cascade, a giant outdoor screen and new seating and planting. To the south of this the cranes are poised above Woolwich Central, a large island site where a new library and council offices are already built.
Developer Spenhill, the regeneration arm of the Tesco chain, is building a huge 1.4 millionsq ft development containing a 24-hour branch of the supermarket, 960 flats and more shops.
In Powis Street, Woolwich’s high street, the beautiful Edwardian Royal Arsenal Co-op building has been saved and will become a new 120-bed Travelodge hotel with shops on the ground floor. Sadly, the future of the equally beautiful art deco Co-op department store on the opposite side of the street is still in doubt.
Woolwich also gets its moment of Olympic glory this summer when the shooting events take place in a series of futuristic temporary structures (designed by German studio Magma Architecture), erected in front of the Royal Artillery Barracks on Woolwich Common, which has the longest continuous Georgian façade in the country and a baroque gatehouse.
Properties in Woolwich: there are new and second-hand flats and houses to buy and rent in Royal Arsenal Riverside. Estate agents London Stone Properties (020 8855 2155) which specialises in the development has second-hand homes for sale ranging in price from £185,000 to £468,500.
In complete contrast there are also streets of Victorian terrace houses off Eglinton Hill, those near the top of the hill have magnificent views north over the Thames and the City. The Royal Herbert Pavilions on Shooters Hill Road is a former military hospital built to Florence Nightingales’s design. Flats currently for sale vary in price between £189,950 and £319,950.
David Gibbs, of estate agents Beaumont Gibbs, says Woolwich is one of the cheapest areas in London, but he expects to see this change over the next five to 10 years as the area is improved.
The area attracts: first- and second-time buyers, looking for two- or three-bedroom houses that can be bought for the price of a one-bedroom flat in more expensive areas of the capital.
Postcode: Woolwich, Shooters Hill and Plumstead are all in the SE18 postcode. The best roads are Royal Arsenal Riverside and the Shooters Hill hillside roads such as Eglinton Hill, Shewsbury Lane and Cleanthus Road.
What’s new: Berkeley Homes is selling The Warehouse (020 8331 7130) in Royal Arsenal Riverside, a new-build warehouse-style building of 290 one-, two- and three-bedroom flats, plus penthouses, with an internal courtyard. Flats are priced from £250,000.
Durkan Estates has converted the regency Old Royal Military Academy (020 8104 1111 and 020 8293 1143) on Red Lion Lane into flats and houses. When the scheme is finished in four or five years’ time there will be 330 new homes, of which 100 will be new-build. The first phase is now nearly sold out; with only a one-bedroom conversion priced at between £200,000 and £212,000 and a two-bedroom new-build penthouse priced at between £290,000 and £315,000 remaining.
Getting an education
Woolwich has two primary schools judged “outstanding” by education watchdog Ofsted: Christ Church CofE in Shooters Hill and Cardwell in Frances Street. The following are judged “good”: Notre Dame RC in Eglinton Road, St Peter’s RC in Crescent Road, Foxfield in Sandbach Place and Saint Mary Magdalene CofE in Kingsman Street.
There are three local secondary schools: Woolwich Polytechnic (boys ages 11 to 18, with girls in the sixth form) in Thamesmead is judged “outstanding”; Plumstead Manor (girls ages 11 to 18 with boys in the sixth form) and St Paul’s Academy RC (mixed, ages 11 to 16) in Abbey Wood are both judged “good”, as is Shooters Hill, the local sixth-form college.
Shops and restaurants
Woolwich has a long-standing market with a charter which dates back to the 17th century selling fruit and veg and general merchandise. Powis Street, the main shopping street, has a Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s but is heavily reliant on the budget fashion chains. Locals hope new shops at Woolwich Centre and the Travelodge in the old Co-op building in Powis Street will bring a wider range of retailers.
Fine dining hasn’t reached Woolwich yet, but there is a Young’s pub - the Dial Arch - serving gastropub fare in the arsenal.
* MORE ON THE BOROUGH OF GREENWICH:
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Open space and leisure
The Thames Path passes through the arsenal and there is surprisingly wild local heathland, good for dog-walking, on Plumstead Common, Winn’s Common, Bostall Heath and Oxleas Wood.
Leisure and the arts: an enterprising group of local people has rescued an old Woolwich cinema - now the Grand is putting on comedy nights and weekend crafts markets. The café is one of the nicest places in Woolwich for a coffee and a homemade cake. The Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre is based at the Tramshed in Woolwich New Road. The Waterfront Leisure Centre on Woolwich High Road was one of London’s first leisure pools.
Travel: Woolwich Arsenal is in Zone 4 (annual travelcard to Zone 1 is £1,672). The station is on the DLR (21 minutes to Canary Wharf, 28 minutes to Bank), and the mainline railway (21 minutes to London Bridge and 30 minutes to Charing Cross). The Thames Clipper (30 minutes to Canary Wharf) departs from a jetty in the arsenal.
Council: Royal Borough of Greenwich (Labour-controlled); Band D council tax for the 2012/2013 year is £1,287.63.
Buying in Woolwich
One-bedroom flat £148,000
Two-bedroom flat £187,000
Two-bedroom house £174,000
Three-bedroom house £229,000
Four-bedroom house £256,000
Renting in Woolwich
One-bedroom flat £700 to £750 a month
Two-bedroom flat £800 to £850 a month
Two-bedroom house £850 to £900 a month
Three-bedroom house £1,000 to £1,100 a month
Four-bedroom house £1,100 to £1,250 a month
Five-bedroom plus house £1,300 to £1,500 a month
Source: Beaumont Gibbs
Pictures: Graham Hussey