Posted in London on Saturday 15th September 2012 at 11:09pm


The difference today was that I had at least planned to be here. My year planner is peppered with these trips to London in the safe knowledge that they will find me exploring some new geographical obsession or other, and that I'll have a reasonably relaxing journey on the rails. Sometimes, they become little excursions beyond the city - but even then there is always the luxury of an early arrival and perhaps a bus ride. With the world of railtouring changing considerably there have been more trips than I ever quite planned, but this has lead to walks across the eastern side of the city I'd probably not have countenanced before too. In this sense at least, the fractured and haunted summer has been a success in retrospect and I look back fondly on those walks which sometimes didn't seem significant on the day, but which have clicked into place later. I could only hope today would do the same for me. Because, today I had half a plan.

Today was, essentially, a completion. I'd read online that the towpath along the Hackney Cut was open - if still patrolled by G4S around the Olympic Park perimeter. But it was open nonetheless, so after a lazy breakfast in welcome late summer sunshine I set off east on my usual bus route. It was quiet, a cool but shining morning as we headed around the arc of the bus route. I saw it through almost to its end, hopping off near Bow Garage for the walk to the Church. I stocked up on water too, it looked like later when the sun was high it was going to be hot. I dodged traffic at Bow Interchange and found the footbridge down to the towpath just how I'd seen it on that excursion months back. I pondered what that had started: campaigns, obsessions, imaginary love affairs, endless wanders. I descended slowly, savouring this progression onto what had become hallowed ground. A battle fought over a strip of scraggy land beside a turgid canal, walkers and cyclists uneasily united. It was good to be back. Quickly, The Fence is alongside. Beyond it? Nothing. No movement. The occasional distant crash or scrape as unseen contractors strip back "the overlay" from the park. Empty staff buses circuit, the contract outliving their usefulness. Occasional security cars emerge. Overhead, a helicopter constantly drones. Crossing and recrossing the park. Even now it's a focus for paranoia and concern. I walk on, past the Northern Outfall Sewer carrying the still off-limits Greenway, past Hertford Union Junction, White Post Lane. I'm on the stretch which was guarded when a small orange boat called "Vigilance" passes by. They're not interested anymore. I stop, take a picture, watch the sun bounce of the gilt lettering of Formans, speculators on the Olympic dream. I could oppose Lance Forman's take on the Games, but he's still here in the Wick, his modern but organic new headquarters swooping gracefully and cheekily nodding at the Orbit across the water. Finally I reach the closure point - further than I ever managed on this side. The little brick circle still allows cyclists to pause and read maps. The boat ties off here, the lime green shirted guards head into the park. I make a decision - I'll press on out of its gravity - I'll get free of this place at last...

Open at last... Towpath on the Hackney Cut
Open at last... Towpath on the Hackney Cut

Under the Eastway bridge and into the unknown - except it's far from that, I've studied and reviewed this part of the world endlessly over the last few years. There is a gate here where the river can be closed, and on it scrawled in pen strokes which my camera can't pick up some graffiti about the Games - ending in "No Locals". The path broadens, a flat screed of yellow stones leading onwards. Almost immediately to the east the terrain is wooded and scrubby. Flats and boathouses hug the western bank, with occasional glimpses and shouts of dismay or protest from footballers on Mabley Green beyond. Boats are lazily moored once again, and I find a curling notice from British Waterways advising what should be done if birds nest on boats which need to move for the Olympics. Both British Waterways and the Games have passed into memory over the summer of course. The world has changed immeasurably down here on the river. Marshgate Bridge looms, jutting half the width of the cut and carrying Homerton Road. Buses fly back and forth and I think that this could be the place to return to civilisation. I always do this - worry about the return trip, experiencing pointless range anxiety. I don't of course. I press on by the colourful block which has replaced the defunct Lesney factory. I rather want the factory back - and while the building itself isn't entirely bad, it feels insultingly out of place in the greenery of the Lea Valley. It also looks rather empty, a woman almost nervously picking her way onto the riverside terrace with her book. Uncertain of her rights on private terrain despite living within it. I've decided now - I'll walk to Tottenham. I've no idea how far it is, but I know the escape routes there, so I'm safe to head on. To my right, the land opens out into the flat, endless football pitches of Hackney Marsh. I divert briefly to look at the expanse of grassland. Games are underway in the distance. I consider an improvised urinal in the bushes, but dog walkers emerging unexpectedly convince me otherwise. It's back to the path again, regarding what appears to be an abandoned youth facility or community centre at the end of the footbridge at Mandeville Street - the Paralympic mascot's moniker not even ironic here. Looming on the west bank is the opened carcass of Millfields Power Station. A huge, forlorn brick shank with the ribs of a great roof still extant. It broods oddly in the shimmering heat. Midges flit and the trickle of cyclists and joggers seems to die out. I feel very alone despite civilisation being mere metres away. This place has a strange, empty pulse - perhaps emanating from the overhead high voltage lines?

The remains of Millfields Power Station, from the Middlesex Filter Beds
The remains of Millfields Power Station, from the Middlesex Filter Beds

Just before Pond Lane bridge, where the towpath crosses the former structure of the tidal stop gates, I duck into a gap in the high municipal looking wall and find myself in the Middlesex Filter Beds. I'd read only a little about this site, so it was truly a voyage of discovery as I marvelled at how nature had been allowed to reclaim these vast lagoons. Picking my way along the central conduit carefully, stepping over cracked concrete and abandoned sluice winding gear, I made for a distant bench and rested. Above me, wires crackled - heading for the ghost power station which still towered over the river. Few people passed. I was alone, silent in the middle of the vast urban sprawl. A text message arrived, and I found myself composing a reply standing right at the centre of the huge concrete hub. Perhaps it was some sort of locus of microwave leylines? I headed back to the canal, crossed the bridge and pressed on to Lea Bridge where the natural river rejoined the route at a substantial weir. For all its communications importance, the bridge seemed tiny and insignificant. It wasn't right to stop here so I pushed on once again. I was tiring, and needed to keep moving. The river curves here, around the derlict emptiness of Essex Wharf and the rather pleasant new developments surrounding Millfields Recreation Ground. When the river straightens it enters a long, slow moving straight section. East of the water is Walthamstow Marsh - deceptively rural, land for grazing. It seems a world away from the buzz and clatter of the Olympic Park. I rest a while, wishing I'd deviated into the park to find a toilet. Swilling cool water and thinking about the headswimming heat. There's plenty to wonder about though - railways cross and recross the marshes here. I've seen this terrain from above so many times, and sure enough I soon pass the Anchor and Hope pub. I'd often thought I'd like to visit here one day - and almost head inside the cool, dark building. But common sense and my ability to complete the walk check me from doing so. Another time, maybe in company I mutter - though I've no idea who or when I'm thinking about. The path here deviates from the water, edging around Springfield Park. The official route of the walk is on the other bank, skirting the marsh, but I want to stay on this side for reasons I can't put a finger on. The park rises steeply away, and I think heading for the other, higher edge for facilities might just use the energy I've reserved to press on. So I do, and suddenly after a tangle of adventure play schemes and allotments, the river curves back in at my right and I'm back on course.

The last stretch is hard going - but is oddly rewarding. Busy boat houses provide a home for the canoes and rowing vessels which have passed me all morning, receiving commands from bicycling captains with loud-hailers. There has been a post-Olympic surge here, the junior section in particular is busy. Whatever the skepticism I might hold about the Games and this swathe of London, it's genuinely heartening to see this. On the east bank Springfield Marina is full of a different kind of vessel - a life on narrowboats always seemed a corny cop-out, but now I see it's attractions more clearly. Is this another mid-life crisis looming? I pause to finally empty my aching bladder at Markfield Park Cafe, in the shadow of the great Beam Engine. This one dealt in the pumping of sewage - part of the scheme which cleansed London of its filth, now regenerated into a rather fine little corner of the parkland with a museum, a cafe and places to relax and play. It felt positive and well-used. I considered lunch here, but again thought that stopping might be final. I returned to the path for the last push. Under the railway again, the curve to South Tottenham breaking off just feet from the river and the Cambridge line passing directly overhead. The river turns north and the Gospel Oak to Barking line crosses on a low bridge. Some young black guys explode from a side gate swaggering and yelling. I glance at one and with little interest he utters "Yeah. Come on then? What you gonna do then?". It's momentarily startling, but empty. He rails against everyone I guess, but fat white middle-class guys tramping river banks must be appalling to him. I press on, waiting for another walker to pass me before checking they headed in the opposite direction. Its the one time I've been even mildly concerned for my safety on the riverbank I realise. Finally, Tottenham Lock hoves into view - but just before it does, the path rises over a side-stream. Curving away in a concrete culvert is Pymmes Brook. It's an inauspicious little rivulet. Dirty and slow-moving in it's stony gully. But this leads onwards towards Tottenham where the tiny trickle of the Moselle River joins it. I have linked up with an earlier walk and it's strangely triumphant to think how there is coherence to my ramblings. I ascend to civilisation with some regret...there is more river to walk ahead, but not today.

Pymmes Brook leaves the Lea at Tottenham Lock
Pymmes Brook leaves the Lea at Tottenham Lock

I realise I'm hungry and thirsty, and raid the newly opened Tesco near the station. Its a strange corner of public-private land here with fine new flats, a gym and a supermarket all protected by an ugly 1980s security kiosk - unmanned of course. No alcohol allowed. I munch pastries and glug fruit juice, wondering if this is allowed. Finally, dusted off and replete, I head for a train back to Liverpool Street and welcome coffee. I also realise that I booked a much later train than usual home - so there's no hurry, and I decide to use the buses to cross and recross the territory I've walked. To get a different slant on the land I've carved through by river. Thus I find myself crossing Lea Bridge and looking down on the spot I regarded it from earlier before arriving at Walthamstow Bus Station. A drunk has stumbled into a slow moving bus, an ambulance in attendance. Ill-governed crowds crush and flock to buses. I make the back seat of a 69 to Canning Town, wedged up against a tiny but pretty Polish mother. This bus takes me via Leyton, the eastern edge of the Olympic Park pushed up against the homes and shops of the borough. It's another circle complete - and another set of possibilities and gateways opened. What started with uncertain rail journeys before the bid, turned into a curious regard for this strange strip of land, and now manifests itself as an urge to walk, has come full-circle. This is now a voyage into post-Olympic London. Legacy delivered or reneged on? I find myself already wanting to be back here.

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.


View Lower Lea Valley Reconnected in a larger map

Movebook Link
 


Posted in London on Saturday 8th September 2012 at 8:09pm


Once again I found myself in London today, again without a firm plan, though not quite as unexpectedly as last week's jaunt. This habit of dashing to the capital runs counter to my original plan - that I'd not even try to visit the city during the Olympics or Paralympics. Having allowed myself a brief wander between the two, I was pretty surprised by just how little effect the games had on me last week, despite an unplanned lurch towards the park before heading off on my canal walk. And it was that walk which provided the kernel of the idea for today. Many years ago, for some lost reason, I found myself walking the towpath of the Regents Canal between Regent's Park and Camden Town. I don't remember quite why or how - but the odd serenity of the walk, and the strange noises emanating from London Zoo's aviary stick in my mind. Then again, years later I found myself stumbling around Colebrooke Row chasing the ghosts of the Lambs and wanting to get to City Road basin, just because it was a curious feature on the map which intruded into my then current territorial obsessions.

Skipping forward to today, I alighted from a bus at Angel Station. The sun was already high in the sky and beating torturously upon London. I got water and sustenance and headed for Colebrooke Row once again, taking the steep curving path which skirts the mouth of Islington Tunnel. On my way down I noted a gent idly pissing against the tunnel end wall while a couple of Japanese tourists sat nearby. It was going to be an odd walk. The plan was to link my travels - to go beyond City Road and to reach Victoria Park where I'd left the canal previously. From there? Who knows... These canal walks have become a little more than just explorations - they have become ways to re-evaluate territory I already know, and quick and easy ways of edging through the choked city above too. I set off eastwards, through the relatively affluent edge of Islington.

Islington Tunnel
Islington Tunnel

My first observation was how busy the towpath was here in leafy and largely well-off Islington - the canals of the east are deserted on the whole because of the inconvenient and illogical Olympic blockades and the message propagated by LOCOG and TfL that implies everywhere will be impossibly busy. Here though there was a constant traffic of joggers, families and cyclists. Notably they were less considerate than their eastern counterparts too - no bicycle bells rung in warning here, but should you not detect their presence they'd be rung in anger. Some of the overbridges create very tight walking spaces, but the cyclists push on through with little regard for pedestrians. Its a short walk to City Road and Wenlock Basins, where new territory starts in earnest. The banks here are edged with visiting boats which add colour and life to these sometimes eerily quiet zones too. The confused summer of damp weeks and days of intense heat has encouraged algae and there is a green carpet on the sluggish waters as I press on beyond Sturt's Lock and the canal begins a curve towards the south east. It's reckoned by official guides that this section of the route is the least pretty and interesting, but in truth aside from some notable developments which squeaked in before the downturn, its probably the least gentrified section of the canal. This makes for some splendid industrial vistas - tumbledown works, sometimes with their ground floors re-occupied by restaurants or art spaces. As the route turns around the north eastern edge of the city into De Beauvoir Town I'm struck by how many major routes cross it - the New North Road, the East London Line, the A10. The canal was the precursor of any future Ring Road.

East London Line crossing, near Kingsland Road
East London Line crossing, near Kingsland Road

I rest awhile near Kingsland Basin, primarily a building site for a new development which against the odds is still underway. Families pass by shading babies against the intense heat. Joggers are reduced to walking pace, heads hung low, sweat drenched backs. They're an attractive bunch out here - and some of them have applied make up for their midday jogs. Perhaps this is how you meet people in the modern city? Pressing on into the backlands of Kingsland Road. The buildings crumble visibly, the canal is littered with junk. There are pop-up businesses here - vintage clothes, coffee, cakes - sold from boats which double as home. An alternative waters edge economy. Threading through South Hackney, the towpath again begins to get congested. The sweep around Andrews Road and the huge gasholders I'd snapped on an earlier walk is a particularly busy stretch - a film-crew idles in an abandoned and decrepit canalside house while Mare Street rages overhead. This is the last stretch now, as the canal draws alongside Victoria Park. It's leafier, cooler and the park draws away the bulk of the walkers here. The last stretch is home to some longer-term residents of the waterway. They sit at the back of their boats, discussing and reiterating, occasionally looking up to see who is passing. Finally, a little before Old Ford I turn into the park myself. I've found my way back to the spot which I reached on my Hertford Union trek a few weeks back. I reward myself with a rest. In the blazing sun of the park, London is doing the same. After negotiating an unwarranted and pointless police check I find a bench, make some calls, receive surprising a somewhat gloomy news. Instinctively, and perhaps ill-advisedly I strike out east across the park. Passing the unnerving Dogs of Alcibiades and cutting through the Night Walk to reach the quiet curve of houses, skirting Mabley Green and not really having any sense of where I mean to go next. A couple of students mess with expensive camera equipment in the long grass fringing the park - everywhere I go people are filming, trying to preserve this strange atmosphere. I come to my senses at the Eastway junction. I can see the route ahead which almost floored me a couple of weeks back. Any further, and I'd be straying too close to the source of my concerns. The last days of the Games are no place for me. I turn disconsolately back and head for the bus stop.

Film set, near Mare Street
Film set, near Mare Street

Whilst I hadn't meant to be here today, I was able to use the opportunity and the remarkable weather to cover ground I knew I would need to at some point. These last, heady days of the Olympic Summer have suddenly become significant, the country doesn't want to get back to normal - and the city has been lulled into a strangely calm sense of separateness. Tomorrow there will be speeches, fireworks, music - no doubt tears. On Monday, all being well some hi-vis wearing contractors will remove the barriers from the towpath on the Hackney Cut. That, after years of crossing and re-crossing the site, after failing to understand the nature of the site, was what brought me here. The summer of walking inland waterways - partly by design and partly by necessity is almost over too. There will be no ceremony - just new endeavours to understand the post-Olympic city.

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.


View Regents Canal Revisted Walk in a larger map

Movebook Link
 


Posted in London on Sunday 2nd September 2012 at 10:09pm


Right now, a very low-key bit of industrial action on the part of a train operator means it's very hard to run charter trains. It has already been a tough summer with rolling stock commandeered for Olympic additionals but in effect sitting idle - bought and paid for of course. This, along with a general ban for steam in London and some stringent restrictions on using the area for other tours, has made the summer a quiet one. However, there was a bit of a renaissance on the cards - three tours in three weeks heading for extremities of the network, visiting the unvisited. In the end? All three cancelled due to the work-to-rule. Already pinched tour promoters pushed closer to the edge. The effect on me? A series of stays in cities far and wide. First Glasgow - never a problem - but this week, Doncaster. This was tougher. With a troubled heart and a lack of enthusiasm I found myself looking for something - indeed anything to escape. Thus I found myself on an early train to Kings Cross today. It was busy. Full of Paralympic spectators. All union flags and enthusiasm. Some had their Team GB attired already, others talked excitedly of how they'd buy into the games. I plugged in and switched off. This was a means to an end.

On getting to London, I persuaded myself that heading east was insane. Dug out my notebook, got a very big bucket of coffee and let the atmosphere of bustle wash over me. After Doncaster it was a relief, but it was turning into a beautiful day and I felt a drag to the water. There could be no harm in checking surely? Onto a 205 - empty, almost weirdly so. I hopped off at Bow Station - the road was quiet. An empty train to Bromley-by-Bow, and aside from shoppers and locals, still nothing. As I surfaced beside the familiar strip of road I could see the floodlights of the park shining beyond the Orbit, but aside from the roar of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach it remained quiet. Encouraged - and oddly excited now to be here - I headed along the road searching for a way down to Bow Locks, convinced that I couldn't gain access through Three Mills. After scuffling along the carriageway I found an entrance through a yard, arriving alongside the mouth of the Limehouse Cut which had nominally become my target for the day. However, I wanted to explore the area first and struck out towards Three Mills on the narrow strip of land between the Lee Navigation and Bow Creek. It was now a bright, hot midday and joggers and cyclists were out in considerable force. Huffing past me, mildly scornful of my shamble, managing to look sleek and healthy despite their discomfort. Passing under the railway, I noted that the path wasn't blocked at Three Mills so headed up to the cafe. It was silent and empty. I chatted briefly and found more dismay at the Olympic. It had ruined the summer. The mill struggled on, just, and they wouldn't be too critical. There was a sense that you just don't talk about it. You swallow the effects of the games, because so many people will tell you to "lighten up" or "be patriotic". I voiced my support and left - the guide lazily explaining the history of the House Mill to a group of tourists as I passed.

Railway bridges near Three Mills
Railway bridges near Three Mills

Back to Bow Locks, I struck out along the floating towpath at the opening of the Limehouse Cut. This innovative way of making the canal accessible won awards and was highly regarded, but I still foolishly felt mildly concerned about walking it. It took the tow path around the initial curve of the canal where there had apparently not being a route - at least not for some time. This initial turn to the west led into the long, straight section of the canal. Despite being a fairly featureless section of waterway, the walk was interesting for it's variation. At the Bow end it is derelict industry. Vast premises given over to community use. In one, a gospel group practised loudly, with a drummer banging out a rock rhythm to guide them. Affordable housing surrounded a park to the south - the mingling smells of Asian cooking and Sunday lunch providing a weird olfactory impression of multiculturalism. Beside the path, a rucksack carrying man stood. Looking into the water, a can of Special Brew in hand. He didn't react to my passing at all. I pushed on, under the DLR bridge. From the next access a bunch of Spanish tourists skipped down onto the path and began to shout and jump around. I must have given them a scornful look because they turned their attention to me. Following close behind, aping my ungainly walk and capering like court jesters in front of me. It was harmless but irritating. Eventually a group of fishermen they passed took issue in broad, Anglo Saxon terms. It was unclear if the fishermen should be here either, but they assert this uncertain right in definite terms.

Floating towpath, Limehouse Cut
Floating towpath, Limehouse Cut

Here I saw the first of the Olympic Water Taxis. Black and silver boats, fitted out with luxurious seats. These must be pre-booked it seems and they putter up the canal towards the Park to order - extortionate fee paid. The Cut curved again at this end, above me Commercial Road roared and the tower of St.Anne's Limehouse was visible. I resisted the urge to surface and pressed on towards the Basin. The scenery changed - redevelopment has been kind to this zone. Luxury waterfront dwellings line the canal, extending out into the basin to form a ring of high-spec flats around the basin - now a marina. I walked over the swing bridge and found the Thames just as it swung south around the Isle of Dogs. The day had turned gloomy and heavy, and a mist hung low over Canada Tower. Across the entrance to the Basin, a pub did a fine trade. I pressed on, circling the basin and taking the Regents Canal entrance under a very narrow bridge. I had half a thought to walk back to Kings Cross, but fatigue and time made me re-evaluate this plan. Instead I decided to follow the canal to where my last walk began at Mile End Road. The sun had returned and the path was busy with cyclists again as I passed through the wilder, southern section of the linear park. A lone brick chimney stood beside the path while on the other bank the scene shifted from housing to derelict industrial scenes and back with surprising regularity. Finally I found the access steps I'd used before and made my way back up to street level. This emergence always seems vaguely surprising and loud, and it took a while to adjust to the roar of traffic. I hopped on a bus back to the city - to expensive coffee and bookshop visits, to a pleasantly quiet train ride back to my northern bolthole.

Chimney near the Regents Canal
Chimney near the Regents Canal

I'd not intended to be here today - to walk this route whilst the Games continued felt impossibly silly. But I've encountered peace and quiet, perhaps eerily so. People are staying or escaping elsewhere. The Olympic effect in London isn't energising or uplifting, it is pushing down on life, squeezing it back into the suburbs. I'm glad in that sense I experienced this. Its not what I expected - and not what we're being sold officially. I hope the House Mill struggles on, that trade picks up. I hope that the illegal fishermen of the Cut are left unhindered by tourists. This world within a city is precious and strange, and I feel rather privileged to have walked it today.

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.


View Limehouse Cut Walk in a larger map

Movebook Link
 


Posted in London on Saturday 18th August 2012 at 11:08pm


After the widely acclaimed and nominally successful staging of the Olympic Games, London has returned to a sort of strangely pensive calm. Everyone senses the Paralympics will bring a little of the magic back, but no-one really expects them to cause quite the upheaval in terms of the capital's life. Nevertheless, they want to cling to the moment - maintain a bit of the atmosphere of timelessness that the ancient tradition made modern can create. Perhaps that's wrong, and the Paralympics should cause an equivalent stir of pride and celebration? Or maybe there is in fact an honesty and purity in the feats of humanity unbound and in the sporting focus of the Paralympics - at least in comparison to the media circus of the Olympiad? In any case, I'd decided to waste no time in revisiting London, and in trying to connect with the post-Games mood. I didn't really know what to expect - and in many ways, today was a string of strangely unsatisfactory events somehow tumbling together. Such is London life, and so too is the story of this strange invasion into the Eastern fringes.

My journey up to London was fractured and feverish. The day was already shaping up to be very hot, and my mind was full of other, foolish and absurd things. It was one of those trips where I looked up and suddenly found myself in the suburbs of the city. After a fairly leisurely breakfast at Paddington I headed for the bus to take the familiar journey east. The city seemed quiet, maybe even a little subdued. The football season was starting again today, and later it would surely be the usual mad whirl? For now though it was incredibly easy to get across town, pausing only to let an eccentric old woman unload endless bags of recycled plastics at Euston, the driver patiently waiting for her multiple trips, scurrying back and forth from the bus. Another intriguing woman joined the bus, a larger-than-life African matriarch in her finery, heading for a wedding. She asked everyone where it was and how far, pointing out the destination in the invitation, and in the new spirit of London which has arisen she was never ignored. I'm not sure anyone other than the driver was much help however. I left the bus at Mile End with a half-formed plan to walk through Mile End Park to reach Roman Road. As I ascended onto the Green Bridge I was hit by a wall of intense heat. I was still struggling with the nagging issues which had dogged my journey up here, but water - specifically the Regents Canal - always soothed things it seemed. I hugged the towpath instead of straying into the landscaped and sustainable areas of parkland. I wanted continuity and industry today, over people and events. Regretfully leaving the park to head onto the street, I made for one of the exhibition spaces I planned to visit. It was closed and locked despite being due to open an hour or more before. Someone was inside, but they were obviously far too cool to let me in, perhaps regarding the exclusion of this absurd sweating, red-faced man as an act of artistic defiance. I left quickly, feeling embarrassed and wondering how to deal with the spare time I'd created? Things have a habit of resolving themselves out here, and as I build an increasingly reliable mental model of the terrain, so I find a new confidence in walking it. So I headed north alongside the canal again, diverting briefly into Victoria Park. It was busy with joggers, boaters, sunbathers and walkers. The park was feeding off the sunlight, and it's glistening, virtuous inhabitants looked with scorn on the fat, sweaty old man peering mawkishly at his 'phone. I moved on swiftly - uncomfortable with civilisation I headed back to the Canal and doubled back to the almost inconsequential junction with the Hertford Union Canal. I'd walked a brief section of this before, but was keen to follow it's path throughout. As it widened into a broad, slow cut so I noticed something bobbing in the water. Once I'd decided it probably wasn't a plastic bag my mouth dried and I wondered with some horror what I'd seen floating at a jagged, unnatural angle to the surface of the water. I edged closer and noted rhythmic pulses of ripples streaming from each corner. My curiosity soon overcame my unease and I was able to make out a moss-covered, green shelled turtle surfacing in the khaki stained waters. It was just about the only life on display, as the park was hidden behind a screen of trees and the roads above seemed quiet, except for the occasional drunken yelp from people lounging outside pubs in baking beer gardens. I tramped the long stretch of water contentedly, pausing to let occasional cyclists pass and to inspect the fascinating flight of locks.

Graffiti reflected in the surface of the Hertford Union Canal
Graffiti reflected in the surface of the Hertford Union Canal

Eventually I reached familiar territory, and decided to press on. The Olympic Park now loomed large beyond the entrance to the canal where it joins the Hackney Cut. Along this stretch a series of miniature, human figurines cast in iron line the water's edge. People were walking towards me so there must be some way through, surely? Over the Cut, the closed Towpath which had first dragged me into this mess of waterways months ago basked mockingly in the sun, unused except by prowling patrols. Forced to ascend from the canal at White Post Lane, I found the fence manned half-heartedly beside an impressively security hardened gateway. An empty police landrover stood by, it's inhabitants unseen. I lingered a while, tried for some pictures, but realised I was attracting the interest of the guards. A lazy sort of interest which was soon distracted by a crowd of lost cyclists and a proper photographer. Backup was called for. It felt like this was the busiest things had been for a while. I sloped off around the corner and found "The Walls Have Ears", a street long mural celebrating the industrial success stories of Hackney Wick, alongside some of the notable local events and snippets of history. I lingered here in the incredible heat, the sunlight reflecting off the dry dusty ground. Eventually distracted by a passing freight train, my trainspotter's eye never quite closed, I headed under the station and into Wick Village. It was fruitless trying to reach the Cut again until the pleasant stretch which edges along the Tenant Managed community. I wasn't sure I was supposed to be here - it was almost deserted. Windows were open and snippets of sound drifted out of the pleasant little homes, many of them decorated colourfully or decked out in flower baskets. Utterly out of character with the shining silvery hulk of the utilitarian end of the Olympic Park just over the water. I stopped to take a picture and a voice was raised from the opposite bank: "Are you OK?". Of course I was. "What are you doing? Why are you taking pictures of me?". I assured the lime-shirted LOCOG guard I wasn't doing any such thing, and turned the tables by asking a few questions about the towpath on which he was standing. He was factual but evasive and said "You can't take pictures here, and you have to leave". I assured him I didn't and despite being initially perplexed, he eventually started to gruffly snuffle into his radio. As I sat on a conveniently shady bench near the Eastway overbridge, within moments the little orange boat left its mooring and started slowly paddling north, and a couple more bodies peeled away from the fence in the distance, and began slowly walking up the towpath...

By the time they reached the guard, I was up on the Eastway bridge. They pointed and shouted, but I was out of range. Initially feeling the triumph of defiance, I realised that it was now midday and I was flagging. I turned east and struck out along the northern fringe of the park, along the edge of the carpark beside the IBC/MPC building. The various accesses were open and active, but well-guarded with a distinct British Army presence. The soldiers were bored and seemed tired of the whole setup. One stopped me to ask if I was lost, and I assured him not. I suggested that sitting out in the sunshine was probably a popular posting today but he grimaced and said "No, it's boring to be honest pal". I asked if he'd managed to get asked in to fill empty seats during the games and he did that thing I've heard so much about from others - that subtle but ultimately firm and direct change of subject designed to dodge all potential PR pitfalls: "How about you? Did you get any tickets?". I left him sprawled in the sun and tried to negotiate the road junction. Here, the A12 is effectively a motorway and Eastway takes a strange mixture of routes onto it, with a branch swinging sharply underneath to emerge as Ruckholt Road. On the map it looked impossible, on the ground it was utter folly. Crossings were closed, paths blocked. Signs removed. I guessed and finally made it across but not without terrifying myself that I couldn't move fast enough. Turning a corner to find the finery and pomp cranked up for the Eton Manor entrance, the painted lanes on the road were a tangled mess of currently inactive Games Lanes where once there had been filter lanes for the various complex left and right turns. It's easy to see how tragic accidents occurred near here - no-one seemed to fully understand even their own path through the complex.

Security staff on the towpath stirred into life by my presence
Security staff on the towpath stirred into life by my presence

For my own part, I was now in some physical distress. Feeling every year of my age and cursing my weight and sluggishness, the sun was blinding me. I felt woozy and sick. I drank water endlessly, tried to slow my pounding heart and wipe the sweat away but couldn't seem to. A LOCOG car prowled not far from me, keeping pace with my erratic wanderings. Things were quiet enough to deploy individual security now? I wondered if I was sick, was going to collapse here out of the way of humans without cars? I felt like I was trapped in a JG Ballard world as traffic beat a strangely hypnotic rhythm over joints in bridge sections. I pushed on into Waltham Forest, as if crossing the county line would provide the mysterious sanctuary it seemed to offer in all the best films. I'll never know quite how I struggled over the bridge which spans Temple Mills Eurostar depot, which seemed endless and silent. I told myself there would be shade around the next corner, but it never came. Not until I finally careered down the stairs and collapsed into a seat on Leyton Station, the official car at last deserting me and speeding off towards Stratford. No doubt there were sufficient cameras to track my every move from here, I thought - paranoia finally being allowed some room in my racing mind. The train back to Stratford, then Liverpool Street was a blur of people and confusion. It had been a strange morning, but intentionally or otherwise I had covered the ground on this side of the Park which I feared I'd never get to walk and in this respect at least, I'd completed my circumnavigation of the park. Was I any the wiser? Probably not. The scale and complexity of the project still bewildered me, and it's effects on the surrounding communities seemed starker than ever.

I will of course be back. There is a story yet to tell here. One of legacy, of potential futures - maybe even a return to the wilderness for Stratford Marsh if developers cannot be found. For now though I tried to travel backwards in time via a visit to the Clays Lane Archive. That too was closed. I felt shut out and abandoned, and decided to find refreshment and contemplation in a city churchyard. The powerful sun still glaring at six in the evening, and questions still largely unresolved. On my journey home, the weather would get the better of a fractious group of young men on the train too, causing a disturbance and threatening passengers. The uneasy consensus that "everything is fine, we're all happy" which dominated the last few glorious Olympic weeks, is clearly over.

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.


View An Intra-Games Walk in a larger map

Movebook Link
 


Lost::MikeGTN

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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