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...

Across the Thames to Bugsby
Across the Thames to Bugsby's Marsh

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.

Trinity Buoy Wharf
Trinity Buoy Wharf

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 Velodrome
The Velodrome

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.

Poplar to Hackney Wick Walk


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.

The Museum of London, with the Barbican in the background
The Museum of London, with the Barbican in the background

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.

St. Pauls Cathedral. South Door
St. Pauls Cathedral. South Door

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.

Bishopsgate, Early Morning
Bishopsgate, Early Morning

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.


Posted in London on Saturday 28th June 2014 at 10:52pm

It's been a while since I got to travel to London - and certainly it's a long time since I found myself alone there. In fact, it's become so usual to be part of a pair, visiting and revisiting haunts, that I'd forgotten some of the associations which Paddington has accumulated in recent years. As well as being the launchpad for many a wander and the welcome first sight of the way home, it's become associated with separation and loss - and I chewed this over a little on my journey east. Today would unravel some of that in a sense - I was here alone, but I'd be travelling back to my wife and my new home later. It was a remarkably cheering - and still weirdly novel - prospect, and after an unexpectedly bright journey up I greeted the vaulted roof of the station with the warm familiarity gained only by enduring both happy and melancholy moments together - Paddington is an old friend who I don't see nearly as often as I'd like.

Taking advantage of the early arrival I hopped directly onto a 205 bus. The city was busy - as ever I'd utterly failed to predict events, and there were various goings-on which were adding to the traffic - not least Wimbledon. We made slow but steady progress around the arc of the Euston Road. It was good to see the familiar, solid sights as we edged forward. I'd repeated this trip so many times, eastward with hope and expectation and westward with satisfaction, tired feet and a checklist of new prospects to investigate - the city slowly revealing itself by being walked. The Crossrail works were still affecting the ever-excavated Moorgate, so we zigzagged into Shoreditch, approaching Liverpool Street from the east and north. A few confused passengers scrambled off in surprise and we pressed on, the bus almost empty now. It still hadn't started to rain, despite an ominous cloud, so I bailed early, finding myself on the dry pavement near Whitechapel Road Market. I had a loose itinerary, as ever fanning out eastwards from the city edge - and this time based on a reading of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. This tangled, dense web of prose had provided much food for thought, but most immediately it had opened my thoughts to the array of tiny Jewish burial grounds scattered through the eastern edges of London. I had worked out a very rough route which led to several of them - including initially the Ashkenazi burial ground on Alderney Road which had initially sparked this walk. Opened in 1697, the site is enclosed by the houses fronting Mile End Road and a high wall facing a tired but interesting square of homes. It was quiet and rather humid, voices carried from a nearby playground and a large St.George flag flapped from an upstairs window. The door in the wall was closed, and a chink of light through a letterbox jammed with circulars unwanted by the dead revealed little. I skirted the site which connects to the Velho - the oldest of these sites, and entirely enclosed by the properties. No amount of trespass was going to get me a view inside, so I set off across the quiet square towards Bancroft Road. Here, almost in the precincts of the weird ziggurat of Mile End Hospital, there is more to see. The cemetary is now a quiet green space, most of the stones lying flat on the ground. Beyond, a shallow viaduct carries the line from Liverpool Street, little hope of eternal peace with trains to Chingford and Cambridge shaking the graves. After following my instincts into a dead end near the hospital grounds, I retraced my steps. The old men sitting outside a polish cafe seemed amused to see me re-emerging from the little network of streets. I wandered back to the main road, a little footsore given how long it had been since I walked.

Bancroft Street Burial Ground
Bancroft Street Burial Ground

Having been mostly thwarted in my primary purpose I needed to decide how to proceed. The answer of course lay eastwards - it had been too long since I'd walked this way, and I needed to feel familiar pavement underfoot. I set out along the endless corridor of Mile End Road as it turned into a valley between cliffs of new-built student dwellings, occasionally punctuated by heritage buildings now featuring gourmet burger joints. The traffic was incessant, hypnotic even. The clouds rolled forward - already there was a haze towards the river, and rain threatened. As I reached the Green Bridge near the Regent's Canal, it began. A heavy downpour of the type which cannot ever sustain itself long. I dived into the cafe I'd often spotted under the bridge. A young, smiling woman broke off her cleaning to make my latte. A sole other customer sat nearby, staring at us as we conducted the transaction. I sat near the window, pulled out a map, regrouped and watched the rain slow to a trickle. The cafe owner arrived with friends, dripping gold and sarcasm. He clasped his friends necks like a cartoon Mafiosi and chortled unpleasantly, leering at the cafe girl. "Your boyfriend here?" he glared at the other customer, whilst addressing her. She coloured up, looked away and he pointed out the purple stain of a bite on her neck to his friends who snorted and gurgled. The boy scrambled for the exit in shame and horror. The girl's smile faded. I left too - the vague sense of despair hanging over the place was too much to bear. It was still raining a little but the pavement was preferable. I pressed on east, and let the rain soak into my sweater - it began to feel a little too wet as I approached Bow Road station so I sheltered at a bus stop, exchanged messages home, and waited...

Finally I decided I needed to move on. There was nothing to lose by getting wet, and I had plenty of time to dry off later. I edged carefully around Bow Roundabout and descended the steps to the towpath. A favourite spot - even drenched and still feeling oddly dispirited by the cafe, this was somewhere I felt at ease. As the canal surface sparkled with rainfall, I trudged the wet grit of the path, bumping into only the very occasional cyclist coming towards me. To my right, the heft of the Olympic Stadium bulked out the view. It was in the process of being dismantled and reinvented for its next incarnation. After passing the junction with the Hertford Union Canal I had a choice to make. I'd meant to head for White Post Lane, but the slope up to the Greenway was tempting . In the end I let instinct win and I found myself once again topping the Northern Outfall Sewer, striking out towards the View Tube where I knew coffee and shelter were available. Soon I was seated, steaming in the warm cafe and sipping an excellent coffee. As the mist evaporated from the windows, I found myself looking out at the Olympic Park and realised that it was now possible for me to walk in unmolested. Years of being excluded from the site were over at last, and here I was idly passing my precious day of walking in this makeshift cafeteria on the edge of the park. Finishing my coffee and packing away my notebook, I set out to break new ground...

Copper Bridges, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Copper Bridges, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

I thought first of Tellytubbies. That strange, hyper-real green sward which the odd humanoids danced and capered on was before me. The park undulated, bursts of colourful flora floated above it. Ranks of lighting columns marked the footpaths, and they led down - to the City Mill River. To that stretch of river which had been an impossible goal until now. I scrambled down the steps two and three at a time, and at the foot I found a junction. Southwards lay a fenced off path under the railway, not yet ready for me. Northwards, the river curved around the foot of the stadium. I followed the curve, a vast green bank to my right as the river edged the huge bowl. I had been close to the stadium before, but never this close. The bridges arced overhead, approaching the entrances - and I calculated with a look at careful notes I'd made exactly where the stockpile of low-level waste was stashed. I touched the aggregate pile which turned the horrible cargo into a simple bridge abutment and felt connected back to years of reading and writing about the Olympics. It had passed, things had moved on, but here was tangible evidence of all that had been expressed. I moved on, finding myself almost emotional at the thought of being inside the fence at last. So much change seemed to hinge on that period, personally, nationally even. It was a moment to take stock and move forward... and I did, towards the monolithic Orbit - less a sculpture and more a watchtower close-up. I wander around it, gazing up, trying to capture in a photograph the dizzying sense of queasy instability that it's odd curves elicit. It's still a very silly, unpleasant structure, a balancing lump of concrete sitting atop a twisted tower of steel. Without meaning or merit, neither beautiful nor sublime. The pathways radiating out from it took me towards another waterway, and I traced this to it's junction with the River Lea under a rather pleasant copper faced bridge, which reflected the water and it's pathways. It was hot and humid again, with dark clouds tumbling towards us from the south. I skirted the river, crossed it and emerged on the eastern side. Small concession stands selling overpriced snacks lined this route. Families and park employees wandered around yet I still felt like a trespasser. The pathway ended at a road crossing - across the street the park continued, and a stream of young people dressed in white t-shirts with coloured facepaint were streaming towards a makeshift stage. Wardens directed them as they trollied their cargo of lager towards the site. The Holi Festival of Colours sounded like a spiritual event, but appears to be a heavily marketed appropriation of an authentic Indian festival. People turn up colourless and leave scattered with paint dust and optimism. I turned aside and wandered along Loop Road which leads to White Post Lane. Territory became familiar. The rooftops and graffiti of Hackney Wick appeared overhead. It was odd and rather disorienting to see them from this angle. I wasn't ready for this conclusion so I turned back towards the stadium and edged along the River Lea, descending briefly into a wonderful nursery garden behind tiny wicket gates. It felt unreal and strange, under this ominous sky beside the sweep of the stadium. Unseen from this angle, the cranes removing the top layer of the stands hummed and clanked. I found myself following a makeshift pathway which wound towards the Navigation and deposited me on the towpath again, not too far from where I'd entered the park. The heavens opened. I sheltered under a bridge for what seemed like an age.

White Post Lane, The former frontier
White Post Lane, The former frontier

The break allowed me to gather my thoughts a little. I realised I'd been wandering aimlessly and letting the strange emotional twist of finally entering this site of exclusion and alienation getting the better of me. I needed to regain control of my walk, and I did so by following the towpath to White Post Lane, and ascending to the street. This was the sentry post - even a year ago blocked and caged still. But now it was simply a road between the forlorn edge of the Wick and the weird sheen of the park. Still a gateway, but unmanned and unacknowledged by officialdom now. I explored the bridge, walking back and forth over it, half expecting to be hindered by a passing security guard. It didn't happen so I renetered the park, and turned left onto a curving road called Clarnico Lane - a nod to the past which took me up to Waterden Road. The Lea continued into the North Park, but would have to wait for a day when it wasn't busy with revellers. I walked back to Stratford, battling against the tide of youngsters, bright eyed, expectant. More girls than boys, the odd strange older woman yelping and whooping among them. A strange mix. An odd idea. Such is the future of this biggest of public parks. I found coffee and electricity in the whirl of Westfield and made notes.

My route back east took my back along the same route by bus - looping into an as yet unused bus station near the press centre, soon to be a new media outpost at the east of the city. Then I was onto the familiar roads around Victoria Park. This had been the edge, but now it was just a stop along the way. I had new paths to tread, the possibility of completing my navigation by river in the area - and oddly I found I didn't entirely dislike what had become of the Olympic Zone. I missed it's oddness, its ragged rurality, the strange emptiness of the wilderness that used to be here - but the sweeps of green, the views that opened, the sense of being in a valley between swathes of the city was new and intriguing. I allowed myself to dry off as I headed homewards, unsure when I'd be heading back this way. The storm had broken, and my old ideas about this part of the city had been washed away. But there were new layers of exposed earth to sift...



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.

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