Posted in London on Saturday 28th March 2015 at 11:03pm
I left the bus at Limehouse Station - maybe it was the urge to get walking, or the curiosity which had managed to get the better of me? It's hard to say, but as I edged my way around the road crossings and under the brick arches which carry the railway and DLR overhead, I felt very glad to be back. I had half a mind to head for St.Anne's Church, with the lantern of Hawksmoor's tower glowering at me, stark white on the leaden sky - but I'd walked that way before and I knew that wasn't for today. Instead I wanted to skirt the river, striking a course across the top of the Isle of Dogs. My targets lay east of here, and the walk to get there wasn't planned or arranged at all - so I did what I always do, and headed for water. I've visited Limehouse Basin before - a fleeting circumnavigation during the summer of 2012 - but I'm curious to work around the perimeter again. Passing the lock which gives entry to the Regents Canal, I spot a curious statue on the skyline - Christ the Steersman looking out to the river and granting safe passage to sailors, or perhaps just regarding the tall crane which is building something to obscure his view? As I cross the entrance to Limehouse Cut I recall being harangued by a group of Spanish students here before. Today it's quiet, a solitary homeless man parked under the footbridge.
Here I decide to take a route slightly inland, along Narrow Street and Limehouse Causeway. I'm curious to follow the straightest path here, to cut a swathe directly eastwards as far as I can. This is largely uncharted territory for me, and while I've flitted around the river fronts, this stretch of remarkably well preserved warehouses and wharves is a mixture of the charming and depressing - which so often sums up gentrification east of the city. Every authentically painted wooden door gives entry to either a range of utterly unaffordable loft apartments or a faceless media company - some buildings hosting both. Do people live 'above the shop' here like they did in the 18th century, I wondered as I passed Ropemaker's Field by way of a larger-than-life statue of a Herring Gull. Looking north, a development of low-rise public housing was dominated by two stark, grey concrete clad blocks - Malting House and Brewster House. I marvelled that, although I'd passed on the Docklands Light Railway many times, these blocks hadn't ever troubled my view south - no doubt dwarfed by the massive blocks of Canary Wharf in the near distance, the eye drawn involuntarily upwards. At this point, my route headed inland while the Thames turned sharply south. I followed the railway arches towards Westferry Station where the tangle of roads roared in the near distance. Again on instinct, I stayed south of the arches, edging along the railway which I knew took broadly the path I wanted to follow. For a while at least I was separated from West India Dock Road by a large fitness centre which dwarfed the grand Dockmaster's House and a quaint row of brick cottages, marooned in the glass and steel landscape which was now surrounding me. At the end of my path I noted the huge triangular DLR junction looming on narrow concrete viaducts. The various extensions and additions to the basic three-way pattern soared and dipped over the triangle giving a crazy sense of distorted geometry. The path ended at the cul-de-sac loop of Hertsmere Road. A black Mercedes was parked across the pedestrian access onwards, rear windows tinted, driver wearing sunglasses. I passed the car and edged around the rear to access the path. Clearly but inexplicably irritated he glanced in his mirror, started the engine and sped west with much noise and tyre-screeching.
I emerged from the tangle of railway viaducts onto a path beside Aspen Way, the busy six-lane arterial which scythes across the top of the Isle of Dogs, taking traffic from the Limehouse Link tunnel to the Lower Lea Crossing. It was moderately busy, providing a shrill metallic soundtrack to this part of the walk. I crossed the entrance to the Canary Wharf development - a permanent security checkpoint, manned by uniformed guards in Police-grade stab-vests. The guard was busy instructing a wayward wanderer in how to get back to civilisation when I passed, and I couldn't help suspecting I'd have got the same treatment had he not been busy. Shortly after crossing the entrance, a marine aroma announced Billingsgate Fish Market. This 'new' site, no doubt chosen back in 1982 for its relative distance from polite city life was now nestled at the foot of banking towers and expensive apartment blocks. It presented a strangely swift transition to the ragged margin of the Isle of Dogs, the development suddenly petering out into wasteland carparks and recession-paused building projects. Over it all, One Canada Square and its sister blocks glint and reflect the view back at the pavement. There was no-one around on a grey, windy Saturday morning - neither banker nor fishmonger - which just made it all feel even stranger.
Here I had to brave a complicated road crossing, feeling thankful for the sudden eerie quiet which descended on the street once I'd passed the Market. Diving under the flyover I emerged not far from where my previous walk had begun on Poplar High Street. Once again skirting the bulk of Robin Hood Gardens, I found myself disappearing between the undistinguished buildings of the East India Dock Development - an enclosed loop of buildings, turned inward for protection from the flailing economy of the early 1990s. The Borough of Tower Hamlets has leased part of this complex at tremendous public cost almost since it was built, and no-doubt still will unless their ever-wayward Mayor gets to realise his ambitions for the former Royal London Hospital buildings. The streets hereabouts all bore the names of spices - the stock-in-trade of the East India Company - and the area still had the feel of being held in bond. Lifting gates and security kiosks bookended a bus stand, the vehicles allowed through under sufferance. I tried to look as innocuous as possible as I stalked purposefully along Saffron Avenue, a rank of gently ticking 277 buses resting, their drivers relaxing in the deserted calm of this spot at a weekend. Emerging onto the public highway at a large roundabout, I spied a service station up ahead. I was hungry and thirsty - ever aware that my decision to start my walk further west meant I'd yet to even begin to achieve my goals. I ducked across Silvocea Way, passing the mighty red brick dock walls which marked the site of the former Pepper Warehouses, and entered. It was a strange amalgam of convenience store, urban coffee outlet and filling station which appeared to expect customers to pay for different commodities at a series of different checkouts. I made the simplest circuit that I could to obtain coffee and food, and retraced my steps to the Dock Walls, disappearing through the portal flanked with the emblems of Mercury, protector of merchants and tradesmen. At last, a broad, open view across Bow Creek greeted me. It was time to rest and take stock of my walk so far.
After a brief detour to view the dramatic curve in the river here, I pressed on. My first objective was just across the water, but was still a short walk away along the river path. The west bank of the Lea has been improved here - a wide expanse of footway, benches and lamps edge north towards a tangle of bridges - but the scheme is unfinished. This abandoned attempt to make the river walkable to its mouth would return to confound me again and again today. Not even the mighty juggernaut of the Olympics or the seemingly omnipotent reach of the LLDC seems able to push this project forward. What has been built though is the 'blue bridge', or more formally the Jubilee Footbridge. This stocky, imposing crossing is a little lost between the ghosts of other crossings and the massive road scheme which takes the A13 over to Canning Town, and as a result it has a curiously abandonded feel too. Litter drifted across the path, and the ominous sign told me that there was a "Pollution Control Valve" nearby if required. South of the bridge, the old iron railway swingbridge remains intact but decaying. I wondered why it wasn't pressed back into service to get walkers onto the peninsula rather than building a new bridge? North of the blue bridge, the road bridges swung away to the north east a little - an impressive iron structure from 1935 sandwiched between two concrete slip-roads and bus lanes commissioned by the London Docklands Development Corporation. Descending towards the park I noticed an elegant sweep of red brick with a steep slope down to the bank - one of the abutments of the 1896 replacement to the original 'Iron Bridge' which carried Barking Road over the creek remains here, sandwiched between new crossings, filling with litter and looking forlorn and forgotten. I marvelled about this tiny reminder of the past importance of this spot, left to obscurity here. Turning south, the gates of Bow Creek Ecology Park were before me. This tongue of land, pinched by the bulging turn in the river, had been given over to nature once the DLR viaduct had been completed, and was now open as a public park. It was, predictably, deserted. A DLR train descended from the viaduct, touching ground just feet from where I stood - the disinterested faces of the passengers on board looking blankly back at me. I walked the well-kept path around the loop, seeing places I'd already walked from new perspectives across the water. The overcast skies broke a little and afforded me some sunshine too. On the eastern side of the park, a view across to the City Island development showed progress - with the new, red, high-level footbridge in place but not commissioned up ahead. I reached the end of the path. A footbridge carries a path over the DLR here from the entrance of the Ecology Park to the eastern side of the tracks, but the way forward was barred by railings. I surveyed the footbridge, wondering if doubling-back and taking that route would get me further, but in the distance I could see more barriers near the new high-level bridge. Once again I cursed the lack of a continuous walkway along the bank.
Forced to retrace my steps, I pressed on past the blue bridge and walked along the road access to the park. The DLR swoops upwards here to reach a former railway alignment, and Wharfside Road passes under it in a spot I think I can declare the worst place in London bar none. As the underpass is too low for vehicles, the road travels in a hollow channel dug deep between two raised footpaths. This gives the pedestrian a dark, claustrophobic experience, hemmed in by railings and roof, with the echoing chasm of the road beneath. The whole area is a swirling trap of litter and dust. Dumped chemical barrels and the ragged remains of rough-sleeper's bedding are strewn across the path. The opposite pathway is perhaps worse, stopped off at one end by railings, it is an even more popular haunt it seems with syringes and special brew cans littered across the concrete plinth. But worst of all, it is oddly, eerily silent here between passing trains. The remoteness and deserted nature of this spot is no doubt its attraction for many of its regulars, but right now it was perhaps fortuitously empty of any obvious signs of life. I moved on hurriedly, out into the dusty mess of Stephenson Street, running alongside the Jubilee Line. I'd seen this long, straight stretch of road from the train many times and wondered about it - particularly the Durham Arms. An apparently closed, crumbling traditional pub which sat among factories and makeshift corrugated iron yard fences. Clearly older than most of its surroundings it must once have been busy with dockers and local workers, but now it was marooned between river and railway. Amazingly though, it was still open. Through the grimy, stippled glass windows a dull light glowed. A notice threatened dire consequences for incorrect parking, and another suggested - as I skirted an inflated and bursting steel drum of some sort of foaming chemical dumped on the path - that I try the beer garden at the rear! I didn't, but looking into the history of this place later, I almost wish I had. Linked to the shady past of the area, once owned and operated by the Sabini Gang, and later operated by the Metropolitan Police to front a secret corruption investigation, this was far from an ordinary boozer. The only traffic here was a constant stream of "out of service" buses thundering in and out of the nearby depot. As I paused to look along the long, dusty line of the street, a bus halted beside me and the door opened "Are you lost mate? I can take you back to the main road if you want". I was almost tempted, this wasn't somewhere to linger. But I had further to go yet.
At this point, things began to get frustrating. My feet had entered the strange zone which all urban walkers will know - where stopping was advisable, but starting again would be unlikely. I'd noted a range of possible footpaths to the river, linking Cody Dock with Twelvetrees Crescent, but the map was unclear on whether there was a way through. This whole stretch of the Lea was to be linked to Stratford by "The Fatwalk" - a shared pedestrian and cycle facility - in a plan dating back to before the Olympics. The games briefly re-energised the plan, and bits of the route have appeared, but crucial chunks are missing. The project is now once again shelved, and as a result I found myself picking my way around an industrial park, deserted save for a young eastern European couple who clearly had hoped to find privacy and were mildly annoyed to find me lurking. The businesses here were a little more salubrious than those I'd passed on Stephenson Street, mostly large national or multinational outfits. After what seemed like an interminable walk between these vast prefabriacted warehouses, I found the gates to Cody Dock resolutely locked. This is an interesting spot - a social enterprise has secured ownership of a small dock which branches off the Lea nearby, and runs projects and events on the premises. They hope to raise money to replace a bridge over the dock to link with the very path I wanted to access. But today, no chance of getting through to even see the progress. I retraced my steps and turned north into the Prologis Distribution Park, passing a deserted security check to enter. This was another odd space - apparently public, with bus stops and pathways through, but assuredly private as the Security Office and uniformed guards made sure passers by were aware. I walked through the park to reach its north eastern extremity, where there was the suggestion on the map of a path running beside Abbey Creek and the Channelsea River. Once again, I found my way barred by a semi-permanent fence. This was becoming all too predictable. Again retracing my steps, I caught sight of the statue of Sir Corbet Woodall surveying the towering gasholders which his company had built from a pleasant little woodland nook in the midst of all this industry. Thwarted again, I headed west, crossing the Lea at Twelvetrees Crescent where on a previous walk turned back because of the security presence, assuming there was no public right of way over the river. From the middle of the bridge, while looking over at Bow Locks, I spotted the pleasant, riverside walkway along the eastern bank which had been constructed as part of the planning gain for the nearby new industrial units and which would, if the plan ever came to fruition, link Cody Dock with Twelvetrees. I didn't have the heart to walk that dead-end today - there had been one too many frustrations to my progress already.
On more familiar territory now, I figured it was time to use my local knowledge a little. After a visit to the supermarket, I returned to the river at Three Mills, pausing for refreshment and a rest. As I sat, unkempt and fatigued, poring over my 1972 A-Z for clues, a group of senior walkers turned up and sat nearby. All greying, but bursting with almost indecent fitness and well-being, they carried all the appropriate gear - modern maps, good boots, spiked walking sticks and a sensible packed lunch. As I furtively fished in my Tesco bag and tried to make sense of the map which was the same age as me, I felt them looking at me with curiosity, maybe a little distaste and perhaps some pity. It was time to move on. I turned east again, onto Three Mills Island, in the hope of either finding a path around the back of the House Mill and turning towards Abbey Creek, or crossing the Prescott Channel at Three Mills Lock and picking up the Long Wall path. Both seemed unlikely - the path around the mill was stopped-up at its entrance, so I crossed into the pleasant but quiet park and walked to the lock instead. The bridge here had been closed when I first visited in 2012, and remained so. Across the water, work continued on the Lee Tunnel which seemed to be taking forever to complete. Getting somewhat used to finding the way blocked now, I recalled the route I'd taken along the Three Mills Wall River through the little residential estate to the Greenway, and decided to follow that. Today though I headed under the sewer and into Abbey Lane, passing a row of attractive workers' cottages, now relatively cut-off and sleepy since the road was severed. Here the continuation of Abbey Lane swings right, heading back towards Abbey Creek. With the impressive towers of the Victorian pumping station on my right I headed along the strangely busy road to a tight curve with a bridge parapet on one side. Crossing the fast-flowing stream of traffic and perching on the tiny sliver of pavement behind the crash-barrier, I looked over into the remains of the Channelsea River. In fact, long before I saw it, I could smell it. The combined odours of a long-since stopped up river and a major sewer flowing overhead just feet away were pretty overpowering. The Lee Tunnel works haven't only affected the Long Wall path it seems, with the Greenway also closed between the two points. The sewer, scaffolded and plastic-sheathed, shadowed the mud, silt and filth below. The Channelsea is gone. A ghost of a river, filled in in the 1970s, and now I wanted to walk the path which had been laid on top. I'd finally found my second goal.
The Channelsea Path, although I'd walked a long way and taken a ludicrously convoluted route to find it, was a pretty unremarkable walkway. From its terminus on Abbey Lane, in less complicated times it should be possible to ascend to the Greenway, or even join the path to Three Mills via the Long Wall. But for now it comes to an abrupt halt here at the busy curve in the road, Disappearing between trees, it follows the line of the street initially, with the Jubilee Line's Stratford Market Depot fanning out in the space between the former river and Bridge Street. Soon, with the road giving way to the back of large industrial units, all is quiet. The former river walls, green with moss and dotted with occasional ironwork appear on what would have been the western bank. A tiny brown rat scampers out into the path and eyes me suspiciously, before scampering into the undergrowth and shadowing my walk - presumably hoping I'll drop some scraps or litter, as it seems many have before me. Otherwise I'm alone, walking slowly but purposefully, occasionally stopping to investigate the fading public art or the information boards which are still just about readable, giving context to this path and its history. Sooner than expected, I find myself deposited into a new development of homes, just off Stratford High Street. I've survived another excursion off the map, and I'm back in civilisation almost sooner than I'd hoped.
After a brief coffee stop in the colourful, dizzying whirl of the Stratford Centre, I hopped on a bus back west for a final quest. Someone had tipped me off about the location of some graffiti related to saving bees, and I was keen to see if it had survived over-painting. I disembarked at the East London Mosque and crossed the street onto a narrow strip of pavement created by the Cycle Superhighway improvement work. Fighting my way along the contested path, I finally turned into Osborn Street and made my way along an equally difficult-to-navigate Brick Lane. I somehow always feel like I'm walking against the crowds here, so I wasn't sorry to duck into the alley leading to the old Shoreditch Tube Station where I knew there was a fair amount of street art. No bees this time, but a chance to watch some artists working on a memorial to Sir Terry Pratchett which was taking the entire wall of the former station. Back on Brick Lane, I dipped into a bookshop to buy a card before again leaving the fray for the backstreets around the newer Shoreditch High Street station. Here I found where the bees had been, but alas new work had overwritten the landscape. The vacant plots of the former Goods Yard were fenced off and parcelled up for development now, and it clearly wouldn't be long before this sort of thing became more public nuisance than public art. Finally, after a day of idle threats, it began to rain at last. It was time to duck into Liverpool Street station and begin the journey westwards, and towards home.
Today had presented a strange mixture of curious finds, objectives achieved and frustration at the disconnectedness and fragmentary nature of the river path. While it felt like a privilege to share in the secret history of this sometimes overlooked part of London, it felt equally sad that an attempt to open this to everyone had once again foundered. Even more worryingly, where private space encroached on the riverbank, the path looked likely to remain severed with access controlled by bored, uniformed guardians who would pick a fight for sport. But just like always, this walk had suggested new turnings to take and different approaches to this part of the world. It's time to plan for the next trip east....
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 28th February 2015 at 11:02pm
The day had a strangely unsettling start. Despite having very little time in their presence nowadays, as ever First Great Western have done their best to make things complicated. Today it's a lack of hot food, no working toilets and the promise of a 45 minute delay east of Reading. As it goes, the delay was resolved long before we got to that end of the line, and despite a little leg-crossing the journey was mostly relaxing. The slight frisson of uncertainty persisted at Paddington though - it was curiously busy, there were queues everywhere, and getting around the place was frustratingly slow. I finally found a quick, less than optimal breakfast, recharged my Oyster card and headed gratefully for the Hammersmith & City Line. On reflection, I think I was just eager to get moving - and rather surprisingly I felt a little nervous about the walk. I recalled how trips east of the city would sometimes feel strange and disconnected, how I felt like I was pushing at an invisible frontier. I also recalled that it was probably that very feeling which had kept me coming back for many, many years. In any case, I had a very loose plan and so far, the misty morning weather was mostly on my side. It was time to press on.
I surfaced at Aldgate, the city rising out of the mist to my right. I immediately turned my back on it - the lure of coffee and comfort was strong just now, but I'd planned at least the first part of my day and would inevitably berate myself if I didn't see it through. A few steps to the bus stop and onto a No.15 headed for Blackwall. We lurched into the traffic and turned onto Commercial Road. I'd walked parts of this route before - but my travels had criss-crossed the street rather than tracing it's path. This was, then, a rare pleasure - to take in this long eastern byway in relative comfort. The street is a weird mixture of bustle and decay, like much of the inner East End. A tumble of chicken shops, travel agents and dubious colleges give way to little gems of history, like the majestic Troxy - rescued from the inevitable fate of all such buildings - a Bingo Hall. Finally I found myself on more familiar ground in Limehouse, passing the former Town Hall and the grim white flank of Hawksmoor's St. Anne, before plunging into side-roads and emerging on Poplar High Street. Alert to needing to alight somewhere around here I let my instincts take over, and on sighting a Tesco Metro I hopped off the bus. It's strange - logically I know I'm in the midst of one of the biggest conurbations in the world and never far from food and drink, but something about these walks into the unknown makes me feel the need to stock up. Never wishing to be caught without the means of sustaining myself, I bought a few items and turned the corner onto the road as yet unwalked...
The meeting of ways here is a stark lesson in how planning can make life difficult. Passing the brutalist blocks of Robin Hood Gardens, still standing despite renewed efforts to progress their removal, I wandered into a complex mess of subways and paths which cut under and around a roundabout. High above, the Dockland's Light Railway crossed on a surprisingly elegant viaduct considering the heavy-handed nature of the buildings here. Looking up from this modern-day amphitheatre, all was concrete and glass. Cranes towered to the east, more dockland infill arriving soon - and to the west, the shining fascias of Canary Wharf reflected grey sky back at me. The tops of the towers were lost in low cloud, the pyramid atop One Canada Square coruscating as heat escaped from it's complicated internal systems. I wound around the roadway, rising south of the tracks with the former wall of Poplar Dock separating me from a classy marina development. I turned east, crossing the quiet street and delving into a mess of new buildings - half-finished mid-range hotels curved around a residential site nestled between the air intakes of the Blackwall Tunnel and a rank of earlier, dated looking housing developments from the first wave of Docklands development. I followed the road as it curved to run alongside Aspen Way, the arterial which delves under the remains of East India Dock in a nearby tunnel. Squeezed against the road and the DLR, at East India station I turned towards the River looking for open ground - more by instinct than plan - and found myself walking a long, straight avenue of trees with a metal line inlaid into the paving. A glance at the street sign explained things - Prime Meridian Walk. Looking beyond the avenue, I saw the ribbon of silver river, and almost floating above it, the bulge of the O2 in North Greenwich. I walked the line south, local and prime merdian converging at a gushing outfall of dubious aroma, the river shrouded and still. Cable cars edged along the wire to the east, while the baleful hulks in Docklands glowered from the west. It was here that I noticed for the first time that in a city of a rough eight-million or so, I was entirely alone.
It was a feeling which persisted for much of my walk in fact. I spend far, far less time alone now than I have for a very long time, and it was suddenly - almost pressingly clear that I was the only human being walking these paths today. Of course, every mirrored window of the expensive Virginia Quay development very likely hid another, possibly just as convinced of their solitary condition inside the insulated post-modernist block with the clouds pressing against the windows. As I navigated the river's edge via the silted remains of East India Dock basin a dog walker briefly appeared, crossing the park which was developed here to celebrate the turn of the last century. It remains as a monument to a previous era of hope and expectation - a "year of hope" totem inscribed with promises local children made to be harder working, better, more productive citizens sits beside an inert beacon - one of the chain which lit up the country at the appointed hour. Blackened and tired, it's corporate inscription lives on. I exit the park somewhat gladly - and delve between the high walls of former factories and yards which line the almost ridiculously misnamed Orchard Place. This twisting, narrow byway edges out to the very end of the peninsula separating the River Lea - or at least it's final incarnation as Bow Creek - from the Thames. Along the way, there is evidence of contest - a transport yard creaks and rumbles alongside artists' studios, a huge paper-clad fish dangles over 'The Causey' - a narrow, trash filled chasm which leads between buildings to river stairs. At the entrance to Trinity Buoy Wharf a decommissioned London cab sprouts a tree festooned with lights. They always said the artists would leave the Wick for Poplar - and it seems they're here before me. At the end of the road, the scene opens out into an expanse of dockside. The old lighthouse is one of the few permanent buildings here, beside a range of repurposed shipping containers turned into offices and studios. I pick my way between the parked cars and take pictures of the end of the Lea - the conclusion of a walk which I've never officially started. Across the river the metal works clatters and shudders. I find the cafe in a nearby container, it's outdoor area filled with objects reclaimed from the silt and mud. It's time to eat, grateful just to be among other people for a while.
Setting off again, I feel a little more adventurous. My feet are holding up well despite being so unpracticed, and the weather is at least consistent so far. I'd contemplated various options for the next leg of the trip - but the one which appealed most was to cross the Lea via it's last bridge. I'd checked variously via Google, and the Lower Lea Crossing was walkable. Indeed it had a broad, segregated cycle and footway beside its two carriageways of traffic. However, it seemed very few people actually did this. The ease of access by DLR and bus, and the strange lack of population in the immediate environs meant that this just wasn't a useful thoroughfare for pedestrians. As I retraced my steps and climbed up onto the pathway, I understood why. The road was quiet and empty, the hump of the bridge buckling in front of me. It was dry, dusty and windswept despite the damp stillness of the day. I climbed and surveyed the landscape - to the south, an elevated view of where I'd just walked. A forest of cranes, not from the long-deleted docks, but from the endless new identical blocks of flats being spawned along the river. Looking North, the oddly duodenal reverse curve of the Lea as it twisted onto itself, the empty isthmus of land earmarked as City Island rapidly growing into a small town in it's own right. Beside it, the dense green wedge of the Limmo Peninsula Nature Reserve supported the curving DLR tracks. Nearer to the bridge, the source of the dust - a Crossrail tunnelling site. As the road descended to the east bank, a scrubby embankment emerged. Just as I was beginning to feel once again that this was the least human place I'd walked for a long time, I spied a little well-worn pathway into the undergrowth. At the end of it was a makeshift den, hung with pictures and scattered with cushions. Someone lived here! Apparently undisturbed among the thunder of weekday traffic and the fumes of the nearby metal works. I mentally saluted them for surviving here, which felt like the very end of things, and climbed the stairs onto Silvertown Way.
As I descended from the viaduct near Canning Town station, I noted that civilisation was returning, albeit a very different one to that I'd left west of the Lea. Beside the road, the Canning Town Caravanserai project filled an entire vacant plot. Makeshift wooden theatres, play areas and restaurants crowded into the space - it was confusing and intriguing, and reflected the sort of community action which has quietly been happening around here for many years. This is an area where the mythical and the real East End collide - where waves of immigration wash on an overwhelmingly white, sometimes unwelcoming shore. Stereotypes linger in the heavy industrial air out here - at first I was amazed how many black cabs were ranked along the side streets, but then I realised that this is where the cabbies live. This is the honest, hard-working east which people tell you has long since disappeared. At the station I hopped on a bus to take me the short distance to Plaistow. It was walkable, for sure - but my feet were beginning to ache and I was aware that time was a far scarcer resource now these trips are much more infrequent. Weaving in an out of stops along the busy Barking Road, I alighted at Balaam Street and lurched into the suburbs again. A little way ahead, a rise in the road topped by a Pelican Crossing signalled the intersection with the Greenway - I turned west again, a little sadly. The temptation to pursue the path to it's distant end at Beckton was strong - but that's for another walk. This stretch of the path is less elevated and better used that the sections which I was more familiar with. Running between two sets of solid but ill-kept railings, the path crosses streets regularly at humps, a decorated metal arch welcoming the walker to the next long, straight section. Frequent cross-sewers join beneath the footway, denoted by a mass of gratings and a tell-tale whiff of decaying matter. At first the path was busy, but as I delved deeped into West Ham, the walkers fell away until I was again alone. Descending a slope onto Manor Road I realised that I'd been here before - the brief sense of familiarity disappearing as I turned north and set off once again along the long, walled chasm of the street as it wound around estates reclaimed from the ranks of victorian terraces.
Two tower blocks, Brassett Point and David Lee Point, lurched over the walls strangely and captured my interest. They stood out simply because despite the high density of life around here, there are very few tall blocks left. It's perhaps no surprise given the divisive nature of high-rise living in this part of London - the memory of Ronan Point is just a short walk away and ingrained in local legend. At the junction with New Plaistow Road I sensed a change again - the walk along Manor Road had been long and unusually warm in the February afternoon, but there was a chill wind whipping along this street of abandoned pubs and shuttered takeaways. The people are different too, and I'm aware that for the first time in a very long time in East London, there are only pinched, glowering white faces. This part of the world is culturally complex and highly contested - in the sense that there ever was a 'traditional' East End of cockney tradition, it was probably here - but anyone who scratches the uneasy surface knows that the real tradition here is of waves of immigration and - when things work - integration. Frighteningly, the thing which threatens this long-standing and uneasy equilibrium is opposition to immigration itself. The fear of difference, whipped up by odious cartoon right-wingers, is making integration harder and harder and creating the very difference which scares them. They're fuelling their own noxious fire, and here on the unassuming, practical face of things, I hear passing conversations about UKIP, 'pakis' and 'coloureds' similar to those which have probably taken place on these street corners for centuries, but rarely with such zeal. The only refuge is a church - and it's an ancient and peaceful one too. All Saints stands as a sort of traffic island, surrounded by the lowest-budget hotels and guest houses I can imagine. The churchyard is a puddle of mud, as an ill-conceived extension is being build in a quesy, 21st century ecclesiastical style. The long, gabled walkway to the main door is closed off and I'm forced to circumnavigate the building, taking in it's charmingly mossy older sections which are bolted unceremoniously onto Victorian alterations. During my circling I spot - and deviate to photograph - an abandoned pub - The Angel. Oddly complicated with a small tower and spire, and with the bold remains of a painted gable advertising port for 3/- a bottle, it's a shame to see it in decrepitude. Returning to All Saints via the eastern gateway, I hoped to gain entrance, but today the church was off-limits. I found a bench in Stratford Park and rested for a while, finally digging into the supplies I'd purchased in Poplar, which felt like a world away.
The final section of my walk took on the desperate rush which often descends on these jaunts in the afternoon. An awareness of time, of the limitations of my own tired body and of the sense that I'm still in unfamiliar surroundings which pushes me to head for safe ground. This time, it wasn't far away - and there was still time for a brief detour along the route to familiar surroundings. Edging into the centre of Stratford, I tried for coffee but gave up at the sight of the queues. In defiance of all the doomsayers, the Stratford Centre remains bustling despite Westfield towering beside it. The shabby, unpredictable shopping centre remains a magnet for the locals while the tube brings outsiders into the shinier, newer buildings just feet away. I explored a little, finding Joan Bakewell's Theatre Royal snuggled in between new buildings and curving access ramps. The bright, blood red frontage is a reminder of yet another different East End, nestled against the new. Unable to face the crowds of Westfield, I skirted the station and zigzagged along Angel Lane, over the railway and into the strange interface between Leyton and the Olympic Park. My aim here was to walk through the former Athlete's Village, now emerging as a new suburb. Access was via Penny Brookes Lane - a long, straight road which divides Westfield from the unimaginatively dubbed "East Village", coming to an end on Celebration Avenue. Aside from the contrived street names and the eastern bloc architecture, the place doesn't feel entirely artificial. It is incomplete and unresolved of course - the ground floor of each block gaudily advertises the space inside and how it could be used. Some of them show promise - "reserved for dry cleaner" or "let to wine merchant" - but most are as yet empty. Above though, many of the windows show signs of life - bicycles on balconies, washing hanging. Trains rumble close by, under the earth. Just like Leamouth and Canning Town though, there are few people around. I cut through a pleasant urban park - just beginning to lose it's 'planned' feeling - and cross into the Wetlands Walk part of the park. noting that even now a security guard is directing people walking along Olympic Avenue. The wetlands are interesting and peaceful, populated by water birds unconcerned with the manufactured nature of the habitat. The pathways through the park however are sealed off - not for security now, rather to see work done to rationalise the huge bridges into a more reasonable post-games walkway. I ascend to cross the River and head down to the towpath. This is possibly the last section of the Lower Lea I've not walked - the tantalising gap between where I left my last walk and the Eastway. Glimpsed longingly from the road many times, but always out of reach until now. I savoured the walk, taking in the sweep of the park and the Velodrome glowing in low sunshine beside the permanent Olympic Rings.
In a sense, this completed a ten-year long excursion through this part of the city. The sense of completion wasn't lost as I slogged the last few steps to the bus stop on Ruckholt Road, and made my way back to contemplate the walk over coffee in a familiar station haunt. My pattern of exploration here has followed a method - albeit unintentionally - over the years. The railway is the advance party - and I'll strike out through new territory first in the safety of a train - but then, slowly but surely I'll edge out on foot, covering the terrain in detail. Today's walk marked both a new eastern frontier, and the end of a long-standing exploration of what lay within it. As ever though, the very act of walking and choosing a path suggested future walks in the turnings I couldn't take. I can only hope it won't be long before I can take those paths too.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 29th November 2014 at 11:42pm
Aside from a brief walk across the eastern fringe, it's been a while since I wandered in the City. Thinking back, once I'd overcome my earliest misconceptions about London, my first great interest was this odd city-within-a-city, with its unusual traditions, archaic governance and strong sense of tradition. It always seemed particularly odd that this layer of the exposed medieval City existed as a backdrop to the intrigue and misdeeds of ultramodern high finance. The strange stories of Livery Companies, giants and royal subservience found homes in those few buildings which survived the great fire, and the evidence which that - and successive more planned conflagrations - has revealed. So, we'd hastily planned our first trip here in some time to be based around the 'square mile'. Yesterday we'd arrived and made a slow bus journey east through the Black Friday crowds. The unwelcome tradition imported from the US was filling Oxford Street with teeming crowds. Finally we alighted at Blackfriars and navigated a clutch of tight little streets skirting the still-noticeable dip of the Fleet Valley to find our hotel for the night. It was good to be back within the city walls.
Our excursion last evening had taken us along the embankment, west towards Parliament. Rising from the underground at Westminster, we skirted the House at dusk. Lights were beginning to twinkle across the river, the bulging oddity of St.George's Wharf now evident on the skyline. We moved along Millbank, passing the weirdly tired looking Millbank Tower which still symbolises the Blair-era machinery of Spin, with its Rapid Rebuttal Unit. Suddenly, the vista opened out and the startling white hulk of Tate Britain appeared. Nestled between the modern extensions and neighbouring buildings, the gleaming building both figuratively and financially appeared to be made of sugar. Still impressive if looking strangely overdone in this setting, the building continues to play a vital part in the artistic life of the capital. Ascending the steps we found the cafe and waited our turn at the Turner exhibition. Deep inside the building, the halls stretched out into blank eternity, the ethereal canvases swimming into view. It was mildly dizzying at times, the blasts of light and tumbles of salt water leaping from the paintings. In a corner was "Rain Steam and Speed" - our first encounter in the flesh, so to speak. As oddly moving as ever it looked on a page, the turbulence of speed, the rush of landscape and memory, and the indistinct and temporary nature of the train crossing a viaduct all seemed less real and more otherworldy in person. It's hard to imagine how this would have struck an early Victorian, experiencing high speed travel for the first time. We left utterly impressed, and on the way out spotted what appeared to be comedic genius Chris Morris collecting his bags as the gallery closed for the evening. We were late leavers too, hailing a cab back to busy Blackfriars along the stop-start tumble of vehicles heading east along the Thames.
Today was planned at least to be a little less hectic. Setting out moderately early we headed to Bishopsgate by bus, breakfasting in a favourite spot from a while back, but alas finding no black pudding on offer. A leisurely start - followed by a much-earned walk through the City streets. Once we left the gravity of Liverpool Street, it fell immediately quiet. Workmen's hammers could be individually heard in the side-streets, the City as ever a continual churn of renewal and remaking. Streets closed for Crossrail were making our progress crazy and complicated. We zigzagged through Courts and Alleys, delighting in the fact they'd been there for centuries, before entering the Guildhall courtyard. The pale stone building gleamed across the amphitheatre, its modern extensions seeming to fall away from the main event. There was no getting inside today - but a moment in this quiet yard was enough, sandwiched between Guildhall and austere St.Lawrence Jewry with his sinister grid-iron weathercock. This was the centre of the city - and had been for many hundreds of years. It was hard to move on from this spot, but eventually we broke off west along the line of the ancient City Wall. At Wood Street, that edifice surfaces - beneath the victorian bricks, Roman stones mark the outline of a tower and the run of the wall along Aldersgate. We followed, ascending concrete stairs into the Barbican complex and the Museum of London. An overpriced coffee from the new concession, then down to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition. Entering through a bookcase, we were plunged into a gloomy corridor. Flickering excerpts from the Consulting Detective's manifold screen outings played on the walls, drawing us in. The exhibition managed to provide something for every kind of Holmes aficionado... For the literary purists there were manuscript pages and artefacts from Conan Doyle's life - his remarkably tidy handwritten notes set alongside the printed versions, indicating that he barely needed to alter a word! For fans of the filmed appearances there were endless clips and props, not least the overcoat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the detective's current masterful outing. Finally, for the topographer there was a wealth of material. Several adventures had been mapped across London, with time-lapse filmed runs through Holmes and Watson's routes through the modern-day city. There were also endless paintings and early photographs of the City as it would have appeared to Conan Doyle while he was writing about Holmes. Of particular note were the remarkable prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn - mysterious, only slightly focused cityscapes with brooding mists. His subjects were often not those which merited most attention either - canal scenes, wet pavements in Leicester Square, unusual views along Fleet Street. I was captivated.
We spent far longer than I'd imagined in the exhibit, and after a brief refreshment stop, decided to look around the Modern London galleries. It was very special to revisit this old haunt in company, and good to see the Lord Mayor's Coach again, shining in the last sun of the day leaking lazily into the museum. We headed out on foot, enjoying the Barbican skyline in the wintery glow before heading south towards St. Paul's Cathedral. It's a great omission, and a source of some embarrassment that I've never set foot in this place despite many hundreds of passings by. Today wasn't to be the exception, as a service had curtailed sightseeing for the day - but we resolved to return. We edged around to the southern face of the building to regard the phoenix carved above the doors with it's 'RESVRGAM' motto. It was time to head back west, on a bus headed through the main shopping areas which was unexpectedly and thankfully diverted around the bulk of the traffic, delivering us early enough to relax and reflect on our trip over a drink at another favourite spot. This had been a hastily planned, purposeful visit which had at last returned me to the very city streets where my true obsession with London had begun. I think it may have won the City a new devotee too.
Posted in London on Saturday 19th July 2014 at 5:04pm
I know all too well that sometimes I have a skewed view of London. Coming here early last year with a new perspective on the city reminded me of how bewildering it can be - how diverse, how hard to fix in the mind, how shifty the place can feel under your feet. This visit amplified that sense for us in some ways, while also allowing us to find some curiously pleasant corners too. This time we found ourselves in Hoxton, staying at a hotel we'd fancied visiting for a while and exploring both nearby and further afield. It was a hot day when we arrived, maddeningly so because there was just no air to be found in the city. We slogged across town slowly, giving up and walking the last stretch, and slumped into the cool, pleasant hotel surroundings. Outside the pavements baked and reflected heat back up at us. We were at least safe in this little bubble of neatly designed, air-conditioned wonder.
But to be here without getting my feet on the ground was equally maddening, so for the couple of days we were here, I took to heading out early in the morning and pounding the still cool pavements before the city woke. It was already hot when I left the hotel, with the morning sun hovering just over the warehouses and collapsing factories of the east. Shoreditch was its usual enigma - a place being gentrified by a class of people bent on resisting the appearance of gentrification. I recalled a first walk here maybe twenty years back - the buildings weren't much changed in many ways, but their contents were wildly different. It would be easy to lampoon the specialist tea shops, artisan bakeries and high-end designer furnishing emporia - but it would also be unfair. The district is evolving and alive, despite the sense of dissociation from its history. This is change - and it's happened here, more than anywhere, for more than a thousand busy years. As I walked, a trickle of hipsters began to emerge - some heading home after their Friday night, others leaving for work. At the junction of Great Eastern Street and Shoreditch High Street, cultures clashed. The 'real' East End of halal kebab shops and travel agencies swings in from Bethnal Green, the gentrified north holds fast refusing to change, and the City leers hungrily to the south. It was an oddly contested spot which echoed the strange days we were having.
Pressing on south, I decided to enter the city. At a weekend always a strange pleasure with the feel of an inhuman landscape which has been suddenly abandoned by its inhabitants. Glasses grew sticky on tables outside pubs and little refused to whirl in the windless morning. Bishopsgate was silent and dry, the sun just starting to glare back from the glass monsters which line the street. The cleaners had been out before me and the vague hint of disinfectant drying in the air was apparent. I could hear my own footsteps as I trudged south past the row of Police cars which are stationed in the median of the street near the Police Station, but always look haphazardly abandoned. The only life was the faint buzz of activity around Liverpool Street station, so I wandered in for coffee and the opportunity to watch people. It was a curious and unsettling morning, and I needed to see the world waking up. Stations always anchor me, always fix me on a national and local map I'm capable of holding in my head mostly. After a silly customer service argument, I lingered over my hard-won cup for a while.
My next opportunity for a stroll came later that afternoon. The sun was still high in its arc, and the air felt dead and flat. But I'd been encouraged to get out and enjoy the visit despite the airless heat, if I could. I knew I could. The ridiculous feats of Summer 2012 - my own Olympic achievements - were evidence of this. I set out into the fringe of Hoxton this time - a little knot of streets I'd shamefully enough been happy to weave into my critical narrative but never truly explored. Crossing into Old Street by way of the curiously attractive, narrow winding of Rivington Street, I noted a pop-up market in full swing. Noted for later, I arrived at the impressive crossroads with Shoreditch High Street. The old station towered alongside the Town Hall and the Court building. A little knot of fading municipality which still felt vital because of the buzz of traffic and the overspill of Hoxton bars into the corner. It felt like the not-so-distant Dalston Junction in many ways. But in an earlier - or perhaps later stage of transformation. Not so shabby, not so vaguely dangerous, but just as strangely interesting. I lingered a while before pressing east onto Hackney Road. I'd traversed this path so many times on buses, dating back to an early stay in the area in fact, but I'd never really walked the streets. What a day to choose! The air crackled with heat and frustration. I looked and felt hugely out-of-place here. I trudged on, cars passing and oozing out loud music. Interesting views opened up through side-streets leading to alleys and estates, but I pressed on - pausing only to grab a drink before crossing the street and plunging into the cool green of Haggerston Park. Skirting the City Farm, I crossed the busy park diagonally. The locals were enjoying the place. Individual sunbathers read novels and baked, while little knots of youngsters drank and laughed. Families wandered through, sticking to the pathways. It felt strangely comforting in this inhospitably hot weather to see people out basking. Emerging on Whiston Road I contemplated a bus, but decided to press on to Albion Drive. To pay homage to Iain Sinclair? Perhaps - but also because I didn't feel I'd walked enough yet. So I set out again, noting the changes in the area since I'd walked it seven years ago. High rise buildings were being edged out by plesant low-rise estates. The area was quieter, less edgy and less ominous. Or perhaps the heat had beaten even the spirit of Hackney? A turn into Albion Drive is a turn into another century. Pretty villas, tidy frontages and only the preponderance of wheelie bins to ruin the illusion of time-travel. I did a circuit of the street, out to the east and back to the west, noting how it broke down into segments of single- and multiple-occupation. A book could be written about these homes, their strange stories and their unlikely survival in modern London. Nodding to Sinclair, I paused in the little square and rested on a bench. The throb of the city was just audible and was calling me back.
My walk and bus back were uneventful - an improbable dive under the newly reinstated railway line on Haggerston Road, and I emerged onto the splutter and drone of Kingsland Road. I let a bus pass by picking the quieter second one, which coincidentally took me along Old Street to a stop not far from where I'd started. Sometimes London does this - connects things up in strangely convenient and logical ways. It's this sense of things being well-fitted and close together which makes Londoners think that other cities don't work or are less convenient. But so often London disconnects too. We seek the journeys which make our lives simpler, and sometimes find the challenging trips seem impossible. London this weekend had, at times felt impossible to us. But like this bus, appearing just at the right time, there are always strange opportunities here.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.