Posted in London on Tuesday 14th August 2012 at 8:08am
This is something I posted on Facebook, largely in response to some of the negative comments I received following expressing my views on the London Olympics. It's not the post I'd like to have written which details my personal connection with the area, but it goes some way to explaining why I feel how I do about what's happened here over the last several weeks. It should be read as a hurried, rather fractious response to having to stay fairly quiet for a while!
So, it's over...
There have been some emotional moments over the past two weeks - from athletes shedding hard-earned tears of joy and pain on the podium, to people venting their spleen in my inbox! It's been a very strange and uncomfortable time to be an Olympic Sceptic, and I'm aware it's made me come across as more humourless and cantankerous than ever in the process. But was I anti-olympics really? I certainly think there were some amazing displays of endurance, strength, speed and humility - all the values which the Games were founded on. While I'm not a sports fan, and I didn't recognise most of the names which seem to have had everyone on the edge of their seats, I've never, ever commented negatively on Team GB or indeed any of the athletes from any nation. I wouldn't dare to have done - they're all astoundingly good at what they do and maybe the Games will propel a whole new generation of youngsters towards Rio in 2016 too?
My concerns about the Olympics are based essentially on two things - firstly, the big stuff: the whole circus of the bidding process, the role of the IOC and the financial risks to the host city, the security and militarisation which we may never now be rid of etc. Secondly, I'm really concerned about the specific effects on everyday life in a little corner of London - one that struggles and usually survives, but which is genuinely threatened by the 'legacy' if things go off course. I've not idly jumped on a bandwagon here just to be contrary. I've read many, many documents running to thousands of pages and learned a huge amount about democracy, planning and environmental issues. I've tried hard to see both sides and find the benefits among the drawbacks - and of course I recognise that there are benefits, but question where they'll land. I've repeatedly gone out and walked the park and it's environs as far as I've been able over the past seven years, trying to understand its changing role and character - and I'll carry on doing that. I don't do this for any reason other than finding it a fascinating and surprising, if perpetually liminal, place to wander. Not least, I worry a great deal about the acceptance of 'private' public spaces which are not for everyone - and the Park may well become one of these in time.
We may never know the real price tag - and the leaps in cost over time have casually and repeatedly multiplied a figure which was already so big that it was beyond comprehension for most of us. £2bn became £4bn, then £9bn then something closer to £11bn of public finance. This doesn't include the compulsory purchase of lands, remediation of polluted soil, or any contribution to the transport infrastructure or Westfield Shopping Mall. After all, these are being sold as Olympic Benefits! What is certain is that we can't afford this just now. As for Freedom of Information, the Olympic Delivery Authority is not a wholly public body - so we'll never really get the numbers.
The legislation which has entered statute around the Games is a really worrying legacy. It has seen global brands using the law to protect themselves from competition, has seen democratic and local planning processes sidelined, and has seen the individual rights of citizens limited. Today ministers are talking about retaining the relaxed Sunday Trading laws post-Games - in itself probably not a bad thing. But it illustrates how these laws will tend to remain in place, and how the right to walk certain paths, to protest peacefully and to choose which companies you support with your money has been eroded in the name of the London Olympics.
Life around the games was tough for people in Stratford, Hackney Wick, Leyton and Bow - from the start of "Dig, Demolish, Design" in 2007 right up to this morning. I number some of these residents as my friends and correspondents, and they've suffered upheaval with a degree of dignity because many of them thought this was a fantastic, positive expression of British hospitality and sportsmanship. However, it seems only fair then that these communities should share in the prosperity. Largely though, they didn't. They were treated desperately unfairly during the planning and building of the venues, were marginalised during the games, and the danger is that as the Olympic Park is transformed into its post-games state it will form a new, very separate neighbourhood which has nothing to do with the landscape it inhabits. For the people who were evicted from their homes and who saw their jobs moved away from the area though, they will defnintely not get to share in the local legacy of the games. And the term "legacy"? It has been strangely redefined during the games as something you can build in advance rather than something you leave behind. And again yesterday it was being hastily rewritten to focus solely on the sporting and cultural legacies, rather than the bricks and mortar and economic legacies which were a major component of the bid. I'll watch this process with interest over the coming months and years.
Finally the question comes - am I not proud to be British today? The answer is, yes I am - but some of the things I'm proud of are the facts that we can question the decisions of our authorities without fear of reprisals, can express our frustrations and disappointments alongside our triumph, and that we let local people have a say in what happens in their neighbourhoods. All of these things have suffered setbacks since July 2005, and not all of them due to the Olympics. However, it has provided the ultimate rug under which to sweep some pretty dramatic changes in the UK. It's time we stepped back from this mob-culture thing of "if you're not waving a flag you're clearly a terrorist" - it's lazy, dangerous and pretty damn silly.
I probably won't get back the lost Facebook friends and twitter followers - but if you actually know me in real life, none of the above will have surprised you one bit of course!
Posted in London on Saturday 14th July 2012 at 10:53pm
I'm not a Londoner. Never have been, and it's fairly certain I never will be. My relationship with London is a strange and complicated one - sometimes bordering on reverence, and sometimes borne of a strange distaste. Spurred on by literature and music, snippets of legend and odd coincidences, I've gradually mapped out a city of my own during the last twenty years. This has grown eastwards - from my early timid steps out of Paddington towards the City, then over the boundary and into Spitalfields and Hackney. As my knowledge grew, so did my appetite for the literature and history of the eastern edges of the city. I was hooked, finding untold possibility in every dead end, every scruffy side-turning. Having carefully evaluated this view from safe distances I was sure it wasn't some dreadful middle-class 'slumming' thing. I was genuinely finding myself bound up in the boroughs, and wanting to understand them as best I could.
Today was wet, and as I stepped out of Bow Road Station I was met with a shining roadway and trees dripping dolefully on me. I shouldn't be here. I'd vowed again that I'd made my last trip before the Games, but as the activity and focus intensifies in the press - so does my desire to be here. I've got this horrible feeling that it won't be the same again, that this is the end of things. Perhaps it's melodramatic - but it seems like the end of London. My London at least. But it doesn't feel like it this morning, and the margins of Bow Road are as raggedly familiar as ever - the Ferodo Bridge sheltering me as I tap out messages which scud over the channel to a desperate friend. Everyone is on the edge. Turning into Fairfield Road, the leafy quiet descends. This residential corner of Bow has always felt pleasant and perhaps a little dull from the train above, but here at ground level it's a surprisingly busy walk. People shuffle out of their buildings, taking the chance of a gap in the torrents. Once under the railway bridges - carrying the Great Eastern on its run into Liverpool Street and the little used curve from Bow to Gas Factory Junction - the Lexington Building becomes a dominating presence. The ornate gatehouse signals a former use - Bryant and May's sprawling match factory, site of one of the earliest feminist actions in the 1888 strike organised by Annie Besant. Closed in 1979 and left to languish along with much of this part of the city, it is now Bow Quarter. A gated village which has hosted celebrities on the up, and sometimes on the way down. But my journey here is once again related to the Olympics. On top of one of the startlingly tall, red brick watertowers are surface-to-air missiles. Part of a ring of defences for the Olympic Park which do not offer much in the way of reassurance - if these missiles with their five mile range need to be fired, a plane will fall over the eastern reaches of London with all the attendant misery and horror. There is no assurance in the presence of these weapons at all. I circle the building - there is only a glimpse of the hardware available - a sinister presence on top of the building, capable of dealing death - indirectly - to many thousands. The locals are stirring. A pretty, but stiffly miniskirted young woman swishes along the path under her umbrella, finding my shambling presence a worry and crossing the road quickly. A blonde, rakishly housecoated young man smokes and drinks tea barefoot on his doorstep. It's quiet. No vehicles move except the occasional Tesco or Ocado van, and the relentless stream of 488 buses heading for Bromley. I remind myself that's where I need to head too, and speed up my circuit of the building in search of the photograph which sums it all up. I'll know it when I see it. On Wick Lane, a mad traffic scheme has made it hugely difficult for pedestrians, and under the railway bridge it is blocked by a works compound. There is no way to double back through Bow Quarter so I'm forced to retrace my steps. As I pass the gatehouse, two figures silently emerge - both uniformed, one in the olive green of the British Army. My lurking has not gone unnoticed and I have questions to answer.
The light-touch interrogators claimed my presence had "upset the residents". I bit my tongue, thinking how theirs had probably in fact caused far more upset. But I'm allowed to leave unmolested with a suggestion that I avoid the area until September 14th on pain of arrest. There's no paperwork, no proof of the injunction. This is instant service, delivered without a smile. I'll have little choice of course. But I'm late for my meeting with a friend, so I plough on into the rain, back to Bow Road and across into the quiet centre of Bromley. I follow estate paths and quiet residential roads. Families scuff quietly through the rain, snakes of children dawdling, either idly ignorant or indifferent to the changing face of their locale. I come upon the station from the north, and red faced, breathing hard and feeling distinctly old I meet my friend who has agreed to join me for a walk around some of my recent trails. I relate the morning's tale to her amusement, and we head out of the station, alongisde the Blackwall Tunnel Approach road and into Three Mills Lane. We talk about how she is now a Londoner and wants to see the city - all of it. She can circuit Buckingham Palace on her bus to the station, but it's these wanders into the unknown which interest her. I retrace recent steps, wondering just how much of the walk I'll be able to achieve post Lockdown. Our first taste of the Games comes just on the edge of Three Mills - the towpath south of here is closed, the swollen mouth of Bow Creek off limits. Tour groups shuffle damply behind their leaders, still being told there is no means of entry to the Park but that they can see the sights. I wonder where and how, given the route these opportunistic guides have been taking is now severed? Avoiding the groups we wander onto Three Mills Green, the new wholesomely crunchy pathways under puddles of water after the last few weeks of rain. The lock on Prescott Channel is silent, the bridge to Abbey Mills closed. My friend spies the building and is transfixed by it. We'll get there I promise, silently wondering if we can? Skirting the park we cross Three Mills Wall river and take to the streets. My friend remarks how quiet it is, and how it could be 'anywhere'. The calm streets of current and former council properties seem immune to the events just a short walk away across Stratford High Street. The rain starts to sheet horizontally across us. Visibility diminishes. We struggle up the slippery wooden steps onto the Greenway and find a vantage point where the vast temple of the Pumping Station can be appreciated. Its strangely eastern influences seem out of place in the misty, drizzly air. The chimney stumps, inert since 1941, look sinister and squat. Ahead of us Channelsea House towers, apparently unaffected by regeneration and near abandoned. We turn and walk towards the Olympic Park, the increasingly irritating Orbit structure dominating the skyline. The temporary bridge remains defended by razor wire, so we edge down to the crossing then work back towards Stratford. Warton Road is closed to cyclists and pedestrians, so we turn into the Carpenters Road Estate. I get a sudden, amusing realisation that all those railway junction names which seem so exotic and unknown when plotting unusual routes represent this topography. Carpenters Road Junction to Channelsea Junction - and there is on the map at least - a watercourse between the estate and the railway, a ghost of the buried Channelsea River? If so, it is now entirely gone. Culverted in 1958, the river has a legendary past linking it back to Alfred the Great. There is no way through for us though, great iron gates claiming we're "Welcome to London 2012". I've never felt less welcome.
We follow shoppers over the footbridge, descending at Stratford Station. The tide heading for Westfield is a shadow of that sunny Saturday throng I witnessed just a couple of weeks back. The rain, and the threat of exceptional crowds holding them back perhaps. We head over the rust-coloured bridge, pausing to look at the park. "It's horrible, from here at least" my friend remarks. It's her city, not mine - but usually I'd have felt that pang of defensiveness. There's nothing there though, and I agree with her wholeheartedly. We head into Westfield and find a pub where we can catch up properly - The Cow is a strange effort - a glass and metal shed on the edge of the shopping centre, looking out over the Stratford Gate to the Olympic Park. Inside, the exposed utilities are accompanied by amusingly silly wooden beams and lots of bovine memorabilia and signage. Drinks are expensive, but the staff are surprisingly polite. Throughout our conversation, I keep returning to the Olympics - perhaps people are right, and I am obsessed? I mention the fence again and again, it troubles me - haunts my walks, offends my eyes. I explain the lineage of my concerns - from reading early, worrying accounts of what would occur here, through endless crossings and recrossings of the park by rail, and eventually on foot while I still could. An urgency caused by the increasingly draconian attempts to render the park inaccessible. We touch on radioactivity, Clays Lane, the allotments, football pitches. All the old arguments rehearsed again. I try to pitch the difference between wilderness and wasteland. I have a sympathetic audience, but it's all too late. It still feels like the end of London. After we part at Stratford Station, I walk to the edge of the Westfield site. Over the fence near the International Station, groups of children are practicing for the Opening Ceremony in the precincts of the Athlete's Village. The fence is a presence even here. I dare not linger, and catch the driverless DLR train to Stratford, curving through the park, the alignment following old curves of railway lines then dipping under the buildings. At Stratford I change to the older DLR line which uses part of the railway which cuts north-south through Bow and takes me back to my starting point. On route, we linger at the closed Pudding Mill Lane station waiting for the line to clear. In the midst of the Olympic Park, this is a deleted station. Beside us, the piers of it's replacement are half made, work on Crossrail abandoned until after the event. London is on pause. Waiting. I alight at Bow Church and ascend to the street just feet from the end of Fairfield Road, where I began the strangely frustrating journey today. Blocked at every turn, but oddly I want to walk these streets more than ever now. I want to explore every possible route through this complex and ancient district. I desperately want to come back.
Even at Paddington, the Games dominate proceedings. The Mayor's voice - ill-suited to public announcements - lisps and quacks through his urge to travel differently. Pink signs point the way to the park like it's just around the corner rather than a city away, greeters stand idly on the Heathrow Express platforms waiting for athletes and media representatives to arrive. Beside the exit, a new tunnel has opened to provide access to transport for Games officials. I can't remember this passageway before, and any hope of exploring is scuppered by security guards. On the way home, I flick through reports about the Army presence. Anyone who'd walked the area knew they were here weeks ago, and now they're here in remarkable numbers. G4S get the blame for falling short, but it feels like the military were always coming and this is just a great excuse to explain it to the public. And its these things - disingenuous accounts, towpaths suddenly closed, pedestrians banned - which make me wonder if we'll ever get any of this back? Will the towpath along the Lea ever be walkable again? Will the soldiers ever leave the area completely? It's for these reasons that this feels like an ending - like London won't ever be the same post-Games. Looking west from the 205 bus, there is a hint of sunshine on the horizon, but back east it's black and ominous.
Posted in London on Saturday 30th June 2012 at 10:06pm
Dear reader, I lied to you. Not deliberately. I swore myself off London until after the Games. I didn't want to endure the crowds, the indignity of queuing for trains, the ever increasing paranoia as the perception of a threat ratchets up uncontrollably, and bored security guards itch to act. But faced with this huge absence from my summer, and with something of the spirit of walking reawakened by my last trip I guiltily booked again. I'd not decided what to do - leaving it largely up to coincidence this time. This isn't always a successful way of working with these trips - but this time it produced a memorable day of walking and thinking.
My first coincidence was stumbling across a mention of the Moselle River the night before I travelled. I was at my parents place, browsing on my 'phone while they watched tennis on TV, and the curious tale of this tributary thrice removed of the Thames popped up. Finding a picture of it surfacing in Tottenham Cemetery I tracked it's course back. It wasn't easy - it appeared to take all kinds of odd turns - but finally I had a couple of sections of above-ground route. I planned no more, distracted by reading around the area, but left it until this morning. Bleary-eyed and slightly bemused, poring over an A to Z on the train, and hoping for sunshine as I'd left my coat at home. As we thundered through slate gray Oxfordshire and drizzly Berkshire I feared the worst. I descended onto the Circle Line at Paddington wondering what I'd face on surfacing at Kings Cross. In fact, once I'd negotiated the seemingly circuitous route to the departures side via the new ticket hall, and found my way onto a stopper for Stevenage, the sun was riding high in the sky, with clouds drifting speedily by. I alighted at Hornsey and crossed the bridge, distracted by a view into the rail depot. Immediately after the bridge, a stub of road crossed the New River. I spent a while taking pictures and getting my bearings, before plunging across the street, near a bored parent and his smirking child, and into Harringey. I'd crossed the 'Ladder' once before - further south, and I expected the mix of terraces and town houses. The recycling scheme here seemed as complex as at home, but the result was that the front gardens of every home were jammed with various receptacles for waste. Where a house was divided into flats, the bins jostled for space and supremacy. It was a tawdry sight in an otherwise pleasant area.
I left the ladder, crossing Duckett's Common and passing near to the wonderful art-deco shell of Turnpike Lane underground station. Dodging around the bus depot, I made my way back into the suburban hinterland, the quiet street punctured by distant crying babies and piano practice, then cutting through the narrow band of Mannock Road Allotments and into the hazily defined Belmont area which stretches along Downhills Park Road. This passes a fine old school and it's pretty caretaker's cottage, now converted mostly into a Professional Development Centre for Harringey Children's Services. The difficult associations that brings aren't lost as I shuffle towards the mini-roundabout at Downhills Way. This broad, suburban avenue is typical of many link roads, and is oddly quiet as I cross and note the land rising towards the lip of the Moselle Valley. I follow the hill right to it's peak, but find the views obscured by buildings, so backtrack far enough to find the entrance to Lordship Lane Recreation Ground. I realise I'm worrying a woman walking her dog who thinks I've doubled back to follow her - so I hang back as she heads into the strip of preserved woodland, fearfully checking if I'm following. I'm not, its getting hot and I've spied my first goal where a pathway from Walpole Road marks the culverted entry of the Moselle. As I head for this part of the park I realise something isn't right. Most of the area is fenced off, and there is a major Lottery funded redevelopment of the park underway. I get to the east-west path where the culvert of the Moselle crossed and find an unexpected scene. Beside me, a sluice opens out into a broad artificial river meadow. The channel curves and divides, solid wooden bridges criss-crossing them. At the eastern end, water fills a broad lagoon where it's filtered of its debris and pollution. The real Moselle feeds it here when in flood, the water running off the culvert and entering the channels. I pause to take a picture of the towers of Broadwater Farm reflected in the pool. Beyond here, the channel is a damp bed, aquatic plants just beginning to take hold. I follow along the broad path which has been built over the culvert of the river. It was originally planned to open this out, but the flood risk was too great. At the end of the path a temporary bridge connects the as yet unimproved northern part of the park, and another concrete sluice takes the new channel back into the culverted Moselle as it disappears under the looming bulk of Broadwater Farm. It's impossible not to feel awestruck by these buildings. Their own grim associations echo back from the last great recession and period of civil unrest, and the odd mish-mash of designs and types of housing has only one thing in common - they all stand on stilts above the threat of the Moselle in flood. I find a way in, and note that there is no official walking space. In the ground level carparks I feel vulnerable, and out on the grassy square I feel even more exposed. There's no real threat - the crime rate here is excellent nowadays, the community has taken back it's home turf. But it's an alien culture for a white, middle-class Somerset boy. On the edge of the estate as I leave a white van stops and asks the way to Tangmere - one of the blocks, all named for Battle of Britain airfields. The cockney driver is effortlessly rude, calling me a "Fat fucker" before I've even had a chance to answer him. He explains triumphantly: "I'm asking YOU because you're the first white face I've seen around here". Having a rare chance to respond to his insult I say "Sorry, I'm not from round here. Ask a black face." and leave him cursing me and still lost. I cut along a cycle path through a decent development of old folks places, and find myself on Lordship Lane. I buy fizzy drink and drown a thirst. It's hot and dry, but I've found my walking rhythm again.
Turning onto the busy A10, I pick up the end of the Roundway, a sweeping curve around a manufactured crescent shaped estate, and then to All Hallows Church. Here, a historic link with Scotland comes into the story - with nearby Bruce Castle and this church a gift from King David I in the 12th Century. It's a crumbling, appealing old building which merits exploration sometime. Instead I head north onto Church Path, a long straight procession passing All Hallows original churchyard and cutting through Tottenham Cemetery between high municipal railings. It's an odd place, and not a comfortable one. Odd scufflings and flutterings in the hot, damp air help me to realise I'm likely not the only living thing here. But I am mostly alone. The sickly smell of lime trees bears down on me as I pass on further into the mass of graves, finally coming across a truly curious thing - a tunnel underneath the Church Path linking the two sides of the cemetery. A simple junction would have sufficed, but instead steps lead down under an arch and ascend the other side. The 1883 built structure is listed, it's listing suggesting some formal role with the chapel and war memorial, but they don't align in a logical sense at all in this oddly unplanned conglomeration of burial lands. A few feet on, I find the Moselle again at last. A fast-flowing stream here, it cuts from west to east across the cemetery. Chuch Path crosses on a high concrete bridge, while a link between portions of the site crosses on an older bridge further upstream. Despite a slightly off-colour smell and a proliferation of insects, it's a pleasant scene and a relief from the sea of graves. Picking my way to the lower bridge to take pictures I see part of a monument to 'Dad' lying in the river bed. I try to follow the river now towards the edge of the site, but it's not easy. The ground is rough, and tends down towards the river running in a brick trough. Graves slip crazily towards it, monuments leaning unsafely. Eventually I find my way to the corner of the field, and pushing through a gap in the trees, find a strange corner clearly frequented by rough-sleepers. The soft, mossy ground slopes down to the river where it disappears under White Hart Lane, not to be seen again. I don't trust the ground enough to get closer, and I don't want to be in this oddly silent little haven any longer. I crash out into the air, and find the nearby gate locked. Instead I trudge to the main entrance and the gatehouse chapel. I'm not sorry to be leaving Tottenham Cemetery. I recuperate on a long bus journey through Stamford Hill, with the orthodox Jews pouring out of synagogues in their shtreimel. The bus is packed, hot and noisy - but I'm glad of the company of the living.
After recuperating with coffee, I find myself drawn eastwards again. I board a train for Stratford, keen just to see the environs I explored recently again from above. Once again, there's no plan - and on arriving I haven't thought about what to do when an announcement suggests that the new, northern ticket hall is closed due to an "incident in Westfield" and suggesting we use the link bridge instead. I decide to have a look at the bridge, and find myself swept into a tide of people climbing the stairs onto a rust coloured, broad span crossing the station. The mass of humanity is impressive, and there's little hope of stopping to look across at the Olympic Park - but I notice people wandering along Montfichet Way below and wonder about getting down there. Once near the entrance to Westfield I pause. Police are turning people back from 'The Street', an avenue of sportswear and mobile 'phone shops which leads to the Olympic Park entrance. A little listening indicates that there has been a murder - a broad daylight knife-fight involving five men. The shoppers seem only mildly inconvenienced, most of them pushing for a place in the main mall. Some are redirected by pink tabard wearing "Olympic Park" representatives. The space is confusing - who does it really belong to? Finding stairs I head down and find the northern station entrance now open, tatters of Police tape still fluttering. The taxi-rank is closed until September, and so from tomorrow are most of the roads here it seems. Dodging the "LOCOG exclusion zone" of the taxi drop-off, I start to wander along the new, concrete sided bridge. There are small knots of other people walking and even cycling. A tour party cycles by, the leader claiming that "well, it wasn't exactly a wilderness here, but it was somewhere you'd never go". It soon became apparent why all the activity was occuring - this was the last chance to walk the route pre-Games. As of tomorrow, the exclusion would be complete. I took in the view across the complex of railway curves, then to the Aquatics Centre and the inexplicably silly Arcelor-Mittal Orbit sculpture which I'd watched slowly take shape over the past few months. I was filled with an odd amalgam of revulsion and occasion. This senseless waste was about to explode into life, and the hope was it would drag economic benefits in it's wake. Looking across the still unfinished expanses of concrete, dry dust still drifting on the breeze, I doubted it. Pressing on, the road dipped and the forbidding fence climbed into view. At the bottom of the hill a gateway provided access to the National Grid cable tunnel into the site. It was guarded by a security operative, and a man in a deckchair who's main task was to depress a button which lowered a barrier and let the parade of BT Openreach vans and expensively new Olympic-liveried BMWs in and out of the site. The road takes a right angle here at a mini-roundabout, and a family sat on the barriers enjoying the sunshine. The father climbed the grassy bank to look into the site. The security guard wandered over but didn't engage. As I left though, a black car crawled up beside him. I didn't dare watch and headed under the railway bridge, passing the Olympic Park Vehicle Emissions Testing Plaza on my way to the High Street. On the corner, a bit of incomplete planning gain is rising in the form of a high block of dwellings with a Tesco Express at it's foot. The signs urgently claimed to be "Opening before the Olympics!". I was tired, I'd had a lungful of dust and my boots burned on my feet. Slogging along the road I found the Greenway open south of the new bridge and climbed up to it. I sat for awhile, watching people walking and cycling, the minarets of Abbey Mills in the background. I felt oddly content here, and was sorry to leave. As I made the final push for the bus stop at Bow Church, a caterpillar-tracked miltary vehicle passed me at the Interchange.
Thinking over my walk as I dozed my way back to Paddington, completing a probably ill-advised full-length trip on the 205 bus route in the process, I was pleased I'd come back despite my promises. The series of coincidences was odd - being here on the last day I'd be able to walk some of these routes, the day after the terrible events at Westfield. I have this habit of turning up at the best - or indeed the worst moments. I was heading home to the sleepy West Country, and our own set of development and planning issues. The next time I saw these places would likely be on the television - a sanitised, dust-free version, all healthy bodies and shining structures. But, six miles north, hidden in its cemetery ditch the little Moselle would be flowing - into Pymme's Brook, then in turn the Lea, and right back here to Bow Creek. The links were unavoidable, as I fear, the Games will be.
You can see more pictures from the walk here. As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue line is the walking route, the red line the rail and bus journeys.
Posted in London on Saturday 26th May 2012 at 10:05pm
Just now, the whole world seems to be on pause. Events are grinding to a halt to accommodate the twin national patriotic rallying points of the Diamond Jubilee, and more disruptively the 2012 Olympiad. I've written copiously about this, fact and fiction, and I risk painting myself as an obsessive if I'm not careful. Already, it's assumed by many that I'm nothing more than a disciple of Iain Sinclair who can't form my own opinions on the issues as I'm not resident in those distressed eastern environs. Well, much as I admire Sinclair's stance and very much love the way he expresses it, my own view has been formed by passing through the site over the six years since work began, watching it change in character and tone - and most alarmingly in it's loss of the sense of being a public wilderness. But I've never quite dared to walk the waterways myself - afraid of bumping into others like me who are compelled to visit despite doubting the wisdom. I realised though that time was running out. And so, I had to act.
The stars aligned when the London Topographical Society published a walk around the park. By the time their twice-annual journal landed the walk was dangerously out of date, but with a day in London and only the loosest plans I decided to tackle it in preference to other less pressing treks. It was, by far, the hottest day of the year - and perhaps for many years - as I stepped out of the train at Paddington. I breakfasted at leisure and took the 205 bus to Bow Road, a long and sluggish, but as ever interesting transit from suburb to suburb avoiding the city's core. Here I decided to use the Underground for the last leg to Bromley-by-Bow, just to avoid too much diversion before the walk began in earnest - and because there was a sense of purity beginning the walk by popping out of the ground rather than seeing the landmarks of the Olympic Park arise gradually. I surfaced again beside the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Passing under, and calling briefly into Tesco for water, I found myself giving to the local foodbank too. It felt right to pay tribute to those struggling in this hostile environment before setting off into Three Mills Lane. This triangle of reclaimed land between Bow Creek and the Prescott Channel is now far from the run-down, dereliction it once was - as it's home to a large complex of film and TV studios occupying two of the former mills, with a great deal done to preserve the character of the area. Crossing the Creek, I noted a tour group huddled around "Tony", their guide. He'd been outside Tesco earlier, holding up a sign saying "2012 Official Tour" and had looked quizically at me, obviously guessing I was a tourist of sorts. Now he was explaining the significance of the area's waterways, linking it back to the Olympics. The group, mostly non-British were a mix of experience-seeking adults and their teenage offspring who looked by turns bored and confused. I pressed on to Three Mills Green. Immaculately manicured, and a rather pleasant spot to absorb the sunshine, as a few locals lolled around on the grass never slow to take the opportunity for a free tan. I walked to the eastern edge of the green to gain a view of Abbey Mills Pumping Station across the tangle of allotments, and the new lock installed to allow building materials reach the Olympics by water. It was in the process of building this that lumps of the Doric Arch from pre-electrification Euston were dredged up, and now sit in storage somewhere awaiting the next development opportunity there. Edging around the park I noticed the tour group again, perched on the rather impressive polished concrete ping pong tables. Lingering in the sun to let them pass, I encountered them again near the Three Mills Wall River as Tony rattled off significant dates in Olympic History. He broke off briefly to ask if I was "trying to get a free tour or something?". I showed him what I was doing, and told him my own history as a guide of walks, and he seemed more relaxed and chatty. He talked about how business was good, how he could do seven or eight of these trips each day if pushed, and how he'd considered charging £20.12 for the walk - but "couldn't carry all that facking change about". He said I wouldn't be able to follow the planned route and "I'd see why" before returning to his group and saying "I can't get you into the Olympic Park - no-one can - but I can tell you about what we can see, and what you can't". On this metaphysical point, I left him to it. Veering onto the tight towpath I headed onwards passing a 'phone mast disguised as a giant Olympic torch as I emerged on the busy strip of Stratford High Street. Passing cars kicked up clouds of building dust, and my nostrils complained bitterly at the assault. I was sick, but determined not to let a summer cold stop this final walk before the games began.
The tangle of navigable waterways here was once a necessity due to the congestion and the politics of using the various routes. A price war between canal owners led to these channels becoming part of the vast canal network, and because of this they remain in the ownership of British Waterways. Here, my aim was to use the towpath of another stretch of waterway, the Bow Back River, to reach the Greenway. I crossed the High Street at the lights. Nearby a new bridge, apparently temporary, had been constructed to carry this footway over the road to cope with large Olympic crowds. How many would realise that their walking route was in fact a large, Victorian sewer I wondered? Turning west, I passed City Mill Lock and the river of the same name coming in from the northeast, before surfacing on Marshgate Lane. Here I was due to head up Pudding Mill Lane, beside the now beleaguered DLR station, and to ascend onto the Greenway. However, this was out of the question - Tony had been right. As I poked around trying to figure out the best way to go, a security car drew alongside me and three bored but edgy looking men clambered out. "Path's closed unless you want the DLR" he offered. I replied I was after the Greenway. "Why?" he asked "Been closed for months now. You can't get up there until after the games". The Greenway has been used a means of viewing the park since the build began, even playing host to a dedicated viewing position called View Tube and an associated cafe. Now, in the distance I could see it - a high-fenced channel running through the site like a bristling, protective spine, parts of it due to provide public access to the games while others apparently served as a sort of linear sentry emplacement for the security services. As I wandered off he called after me "No pictures, we know you've been taking pictures and you can't. Not here. It's illegal". I didn't turn back to argue the point. I got the sense that in training these people to protect this national spectacle, they've been told to expect something to happen. Every interaction, every encounter could be that event - and they are hyper-sensitised to it's potentiality. In short, these men felt dangerous to be around.
The official diversion signs took me back to the main road, and almost to the throat of the treacherous Bow Interchange which continues to claim the lives of hapless cyclists despite being part of Boris' Cycle Superhighway. Just before I arrived at the dusty concrete wilderness, a bridge and a stair dropped down to the path beside the River Lee Navigation. I gladly followed it into the cool green tunnel. Walking north, the high fence of the park with its razor wire and frequent CCTV points soon came alongside. Accesses from the towpath were discretely but absolutely closed, booms and anchor points ready to close the river to boats and this main towpath to feet and cycles as soon as the event begins. I felt unwanted - and I felt like I was being watched once again, shrugging off the suspicion as irrational but never quite escaping the sensation. However, there were lots of us walking - and there was an unspoken code of nodding or just exchanging morning greetings. Cyclists mostly rang their bells to warn of their passage too. A gently defiant population using the route, adapting to diversions, refusing to be excluded from their wilderness - and as I began to enjoy the walk despite the dust and heat, my wilderness too. We were trapped in a channel, an oddly idyllic single approved pathway through the chaos of the unfinished park above. As adjoining streams came in, I noted their walkways blocked by the last vestiges of the blue wooden fence that once demarcated the whole site before the security fence came. Little bits of ODA history, a history of corruption and displacement, preserved down here where no-one will look.
Continuing north, I came to a spot where two huge pipes leapt over the river, and a substantial bridge crossed. It was clearly marked "Northern Outfall Sewer" and a sense of frustration briefly surfaced that I should be above this spot. The path zig-zagging up to the Greenway was closed, mesh gates and razor wire installed - a huge hospitality zone was being formed above from solid plastic mock-pagodas. But I realised if I had made that direct, diagonal swipe across the park I would have missed this walk through a geography I'd only seen from the railway above. I'd passed on foot the same cement works and sidings which were a tantalising glimpse of what might have been covered on railtours past. Continuing, the river opened out into a junction, with the other route closed by more blue signs. This river, from consulting the map, is the one which carves into the park behind the stadium, creating the Olympic Island and dividing the public areas from the Athlete's Village and other prosaic service sectors. Unsurprisingly, it's now entirely impassible, and I found myself instead crossing a narrow bridge to reach Old Ford Lock. Sitting on the edge of the lock apparatus for a much needed drink, I spotted a familiar sight through a fence. Now a private house, but unmistakable, was the former home of the Big Breakfast TV show. Beyond it, towering above a line of trees was the Olympic Stadium, looking more sinister than ever in this context. I turned and headed west. There was another security guard at the lock, less sure of himself on this non-Olympic property he just whispered into his radio and watched the procession of walkers and cyclists enjoying the weather.
The next part of the walk took me onto Fish Island and into the depths of Hackney Wick. I'd skirted this area previously on an ill-fated dash to escape from Milton Keynes, inexplicably drawn to it but also rather afraid of getting sucked into another desperate corner of London. As I plunged between former warehouses now become artist studios for the likes of Bridget Riley, I turned a corner and happened on a strange scene. On Dace Street, a glamourous but trouble-lined woman in an elegant evening dress was running a junk stall on the pavement, bohemian students picked over her wares and bargained over seventies crockery and oddly shaped lamps. Across the street in a reclaimed warehouse space a makeshift barbecue was cooking, with wonderful smells emerging. Another dilapidated warehouse block housed a cafe, offering ethically sourced goods and claiming to be London's finest. People milled around lazily. Despite being largely ignored I felt out of place in the urban oasis and swiftly passed by to reach the Hertford Union Canal via another footbridge. An ill-starred and little used stretch of water which never quite made the fortune it cost to dig, this cuts dead straight though Hackney Wick towards Victoria Park which was my final target. Having passed under the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road once again, a little before the ramp up to Cadogan Terrace, I noticed a strange bridge abutment practically in the back garden of a house it seemed. On checking later, I realised that this was the route of the railway to Poplar, once a passenger route and then a busy freight line. It was lifted in the 1980s, isolated and unused beside the Eastern Cross Route, its stations long closed. Only a few years later, the DLR took over it's southern reaches, but then turned east via a new route to get to Pudding Mill Lane and Stratford. The imprint of the junction at the former Victoria Park station is still visible, with trains now shuttling between Richmond and Stratford, straddling the Westfield shopping empire completely. Suddenly all of my interests and curiosities were coming together strangely in this tiny patch of dwindling wilderness amongst the city.
I lingered for an hour in the park, watching the sunbathers, frisbee players and walkers pass by. Looking back, the stadium leered angrily over the houses and trees, seeming very close indeed. Just two years ago, it hadn't been nearly this omnipresent or oppressive, barely showing over the curtain of trees. I made my way to the bus stop, elated from completing my walk but troubled by some of what I'd encountered. Oddly, my instinct was to return to the rails and take the diverted train service which curved through the geography I'd just walked from above. As we crawled into Stratford station, and the curved platforms which take the line to Coppermill Junction, I looked down on the tow path and the cement works, and peered hard into the tangle of green which marked the line of the river. The trickle of walkers and cyclists continued, the sun beat down on the dusty path and there was a heat haze rising over the stadium. In the still chaotic spaces around the main venues, security Land Rovers ferried back and forth, men muttered into radios and eyed with suspicion people passing on their way to shop at Westfield. I probably had left this walk a little too late, but I couldn't imagine a better day to have done it.
You can see more pictures from the walk here. As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue line is the walking route, the red line the rail journey.
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.