site unseen Greenland Dock, Deptford, London SE16

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The Independent Online
The difference between reputation and reality can often be staggering. Superstars who preen themselves on their image of generosity and plenitude turn out to be Scrooge's younger brother or sister. The public smile becomes a snarl when cameras are pointed elsewhere.

The same is true of places. Many tourist "hot spots" seem seedy and sleazy while numerous heritage "highlights" are anything but. Fortunately, the process can also work in reverse. Towns and cities that hearsay condemns as a sightseer's hell are in fact full of fascination. Warrington, Huddersfield, Bermondsey and Bethnal Green spring happily to mind.

And Deptford. If a tourist asked me which part of the capital most stylishly encapsulates London's history in the course of a two-hour walk, Deptford would be in my top five.

The churches (St Nicholas complete with skull and crossbones columns, and the baroque masterpiece of St Paul's) are magnificent. The old railway station is a trainspotter's paradise, while Goddards Pie and Mash is a gourmet's delight. As for the Town Hall in New Cross Road, anyone yet to marvel at its extravagant exterior or at the decorative plasterwork inside should hang their heads.

But the real glories are by the riverside. The Royal Naval Dockyard was established here in 1513, and in 1581, Francis Drake, his vessel The Golden Hind "laden with treasure", was commanded to put in at Deptford by Queen Elizabeth. After a magnificent banquet, he was duly knighted. Today the site is marked by a plaque.

Eighty years on, Samuel Pepys came here to check that the Navy was ship- shape. And, by the by, to engage in some extra-marital sport after a brisk walk through the fields.

The construction of the Howland Great Dock in 1693 allowed a safe berth away from the Thames. Avenues of sturdy poplar trees offered additional security. Ten years later the Dock's value was confirmed when a great storm decimated the ships moored in the river.

Surely this is all ancient history? Far from it. The Howland Great Dock, now the Greenland Dock, is still with us. Fringed by council housing, the expanse of choppy water strikes fear into non-swimmers. Nearby are the inevitable superstores.

Samuel Pepys would have to find somewhere a little more discreet to conduct his amours.

Greenland Dock, Deptford, London SE16