Deptford began from the Ravensbourne river – a ‘ford’ crossing the water – but its geographical importance at the eastern end of the Thames’ entry into London soon made it a key shipping and trading area. It was a jump-off point for Elizabethan exploration (Sir Francis Drake was knighted on board The Golden Hinde in Deptford Creek) and, of course, drinking – fire-and-brimstone Kit Marlowe met his notoriously embarrassing demise in the environs, apparently stabbed in the eye after a tavern brawl.
As the site of the East India Company’s yard for a time during the seventeenth century, Deptford was also a key point in the business of empire. It was one of the three key stop-offs on slave-merchant John Hawkins’ ground-breaking ‘triangular trade’ model, through which he made a profit at every port. And Royal Navy sailors in the 1860s claimed that Deptford Dockyard was playing host to another grisly flesh-trade – when young Fanny Adams was murdered in Alton, Hampshire, her eyes were removed and thrown into a nearby river. These, and other parts of her, were said to have drifted (impossibly) down to Deptford, where sailors claimed to have found buttons in their tins of chopped meat – suspiciously, the Royal Navy had just retired the salt beef rations and replaced it with an inferior alternative (quickly dubbed, mnemonically, ‘sweet Fanny Adams’).
Deptford Creek, where Drake’s famous ship was moored until it disintegrated, is the tidal branch of the Ravensbourne, hemmed in by sheer wall on all sides. Freshwater, it is an early point of change for water that eastwards, until London, is salty. Today, the nearby Discovery Centre is full of finds from the waters and evidence of modern commercial life (credit cards, golf balls, old mobile phones) and antiquated, unwanted technology – VHS tapes, compilation CDs, primitive laptops. As an urban waterway, the Creek is indeed full of shopping trolleys, old mattresses and other ephemera of city life. But it seems creek-life thrives on such cliches – an attempt to clean it up in the early 2000s resulted in wildlife numbers dropping by nearly a half – as a tidal stretch, the Creek attracts small animals and invertebrates that spend their first year alive incubating quietly here, away from the dangers of larger animals. One reason is the cage-like structure of a trolley, which becomes a haven for animals seeking a hiding place who would otherwise have nothing but wall.
Foreign species, too, abound here, having stowed away in boats from all over the world. Mitten Crabs from the Yangtze populate the Creek in (possibly problematic) abundance, though their most obvious traces are the empty shells they’ve climbed out of. As they grow bigger, they unzip and migrate, leaving what look like crab carcasses strewn along the river bed.
The Creekside Discovery Centre run monthly low-tide walks through the Creek – well worth a visit.