Posted in London on Saturday 6th May 2017 at 10:05pm
I set out to write a fairly ordinary report on a long, satisfying walk I recently completed - and as the introduction grew, I knew I was in fact writing something else. A justification, a manifesto, or just a project plan perhaps - in any case an explanation of what led me to decide to walk along an uncelebrated North London A-road from somewhere to somewhere else. I didn't feel the need to justify this to anyone except perhaps myself - but I felt the uneasy stirrings of a project forming - and that's always dangerous. So, the ramblings below are the formative musings on London's Other Orbitals. A likely highly irregular series of wanders along the onion-skin layers of byways which encircle the capital, connecting suburbs known only by their imprint on the tube map. Some will be familiar, important byways while others will be little known backwaters. All will likely be equally unlikely candidates for mythologising. That's often the character of outer London, it's sometimes so ordinary that it's surprising...:
On 29th October 1986 a formation of decidedly British motorcars cruised along a broad, empty carriageway near London Colney. The location was symbolic, but secret - an attempt to dodge the attentions of Republican terrorists who threatened public events like this one in that now almost unimaginably tense period. A little later in a nearby tent topped by flags whipped energetically in a fierce crosswind, the Prime Minister appeared to be struggling to stay awake through a long slew of speeches as she sat, alone on a folding chair clutching her trademark handbag. It's perhaps fair to say Margaret Thatcher was off her territory out here. Despite her reputation for creating the conditions which the modern commercial city needed to spiral out of regulatory control and her celebration of the 'car economy' she was never truly of London. The grocers' daughter from Grantham squinted into the late autumn sunshine and delivered her speech from the lectern to a crowd of experts - transport planners, civil engineers - all brown suits and whipped cones of white hair. Some of these people had waited an entire career to see the promise of an orbital road for the capital delivered despite one head-scratching compromise after another being conceded. Others, younger and keener, surveyed its already apparent inadequacy for the job and visibly salivated at the revenue to be gleaned from its inevitable widening and reworking. Thatcher was unusually rattled, self-evidently unsettled by these grand projects which drained public coffers - and while the M25 would go on to be a truly privatised road, this was the end point of a public sector struggle with finance, planning and grassroots activism. Roadbuilding and its detractors were opening up a new battlefront with the government which would stymie their ambitious plans well into the 1990s. But for now at least London had one of its ringways - and for a few more years at least the new-money generation, the retired Essex gangsters and the Eastern European truckers which the Prime Minister had enabled to move out of the silted-up streets of the city and into the pristine greenbelt would prowl slowly around its increasingly tortured carriageways, cursing their progress and addressing the road like it was a living, sentient thing.
Years later, with Thatcher's power dimmed, Iain Sinclair exorcised the M25 by walking its beat and superimposing other orbital projects on its path through the fringes of the urban sprawl - not least the ring of asylums which conveniently spirited the mad, bad and morally lapsed away from the core of the Victorian city. By then the M25 was a recognised margin - the relative weight of events judged by their occurrence within or without its orbit. This was a management of the London problem which would have impressed even the most radical Victorian patriarch. However, the rest of the grand plan hadn't materialised and slowly the urban motorways which had begun to snake towards Central London would themselves withdraw to the cordon of the M25. The road was by definition and nature a compromise - a tangle of repurposed sections of Patrick Abercrombie's four concentric Ringways which in turn had their origin in Lutyens' 1930s ideas for a city of cars. An orbital road wasn't a new idea at all - the North Circular and its poorly thought-out southern cousin had their origins in the 1920s, and the North Orbital Road had long existed in a piecemeal, ever-altering fashion, staggering lazily around Hertfordshire and Middlesex prior to the completion of the M25. But within the ring of grey tarmac lanes which (almost) encircles Greater London, the everyday journeys still need to be made. Not every excursion demands circumnavigation at the margins - and the spiderweb of routes which string between the great 1930s arterial routes and the M25 still exist. These other orbital routes are the capillaries of the city - they take workers home, ferry shoppers to retail parks, allow ambulances to swerve through traffic to London's huge regional hospitals. They are the roads that Londoners, trapped within the orbit of the city, use to move across it rather than around it. I encounter them endlessly on my walks - sometimes well signposted and good quality dual carriageways which scythe across green space, sometimes ungainly dog-legging old routes which convulse around urban centres. But always busy, always going somewhere while their bigger, bolder relative out at the margins goes - well, nowhere at all.
And so, a new project suggests itself. In fact it had already begun with a walk a little while ago along the A503. I'd realised that many of my walks were radial treks from the outskirts of the built up area, through ragged edgelands and into the urban core. In recent times though, as my routes had crossed old paths at unexpected junctions, I'd become curious about the links between these spurs. These are the connections between the villages and towns of London which pulse with life even when the commute has finished for the day. During my walks I'd found sudden bursts of countryside, miniature townscapes crushed into the angle of road junctions and endless parades of local shops, the range of which would provide a sometimes startlingly accurate judgement of the character of an area. In short, I was finding the everyday London which falls between the celebrated highlights and fails to trouble even the most adventurous tour bus itineraries. Like all my ill-advised projects, it started accidentally and the rules would of course be constructed as I progressed. Would I go south of the river? What constitutes a 'route' across the city? Is it imperative that I always end up in South Woodford? I expect all these questions to be answered, those answers revised and any rules broken long before they're made. I also suspect that I'll stray into other zones of interest as my curiosity takes me. Perhaps I'll pick up the walk along the A13 again, or decide it's high time I walked the rivers of the north west quadrant - who can say? But for now, I'll be slotting these treks into the itinerary and, as ever, writing posts here which virtually no-one will read.
See you somewhere between here and there...
Posted in London on Saturday 1st April 2017 at 11:04pm
It felt like a quite a while since I'd walked beside water...
My journey to London had been sleepy and distracted. Relaxing didn't come easy this morning after a long and trying week, but as I made progress towards the start of my walk, I began to feel a little more alert. The routine was familiar from my attempts to walk the fringes of London: over to Liverpool Street, out to the suburbs, then a bus to the start of my walk - which had seemed to grow increasingly further from civilisation over the months of walking rivers. As I careered around the roadworks outside Romford Station to reach the stop where I'd depart for Collier Row, I realised I'd be passing this very spot later if all went to plan. Even the name Collier Row sounded distinctly unlike London - a strangely northern sounding area, which was in fact a fairly modern nod to ancient charcoal workings near the site. In truth I was feeling a little range anxiety - heading to the very end of the bus routes, to the curious spots on far-flung estates where engines idle and the drivers pull out their newspapers to lay-over until the next service back to town. In the event, I hopped off a stop early - the bus was cresting a rather steep hill which promised a view across the surrounding area, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to survey the landscape. I was the last passenger off, standing on a dusty corner near a row of bungalows and struggling with my rucksack while the bus trundled away to its terminus. The penultimate passenger shuffled away with her shopping, casting a suspicious glance back at me. I was alone at the top of the hill. Away to the north the low hills of Essex were fringed with woodland. The suburban sprawl simply stopped at the end of the road. A row of off-duty buses lined the narrow street, giving it an air of far more importance than it deserved. To the east and west, the ground rose to envelop this northern extremity of the city. It was time to start walking...
The continuation of the route down the hill became Clockhouse Lane, a mettled track leading to some decidedly unofficial looking dwellings. The yards were littered with vehicles in varying states of repair, and a vastly over-engineered set of ornate but clearly sturdy metal gates blocked the route into the back garden. What it secured, I dared not consider. Beside these houses, a row of industrial premises and breakers' yards filled in the edge of the woodland. In contrast, horses grazed on the other side of the track, lazily wandering around the grassland with only a vague interest in me, the solitary walker in this oddly unpeopled landscape. No-one moved inside the sheds and garages, despite a distant radio playing. I reached a junction where muddy tracks led off in several directions into Havering Country Park. This remnant of land once annexed to a royal palace and deer park isn't simply an urban oasis - it's the start of the countryside in earnest. The park stretched away east and north - but my route led a little west here to my first contact with the River Rom, already a strong and substantial stream having made its way south from the M25 as the Bourne Brook, to reach the edge of the suburbs here. The horseshoe-rutted path opened into a country lane which crossed the river at a low bridge with a parapet on its southern side. The other side of the lane fell away steeply into the water beneath, a curious eroded cliff at the edge of the road surface. Horses were being carefully walked towards me from a stable up ahead, heading for the paddock I'd passed beside. I turned south, heading down Carter's Drive which ran broadly alongside the Rom, and lead me back into the sprawling Havering Park estate, a low-rise interwar development which snaked south towards Romford. One of the reasons I'd put off this walk for quite some time was a concern that I'd largely be consigned to walking the urban byways which fringed its route. But at Firbank Road where buses crossed the river on a low metal-railed bridge, I was surprised to find a gate giving access directly onto the river bank. With a freshly mown stripe in the riparian foliage, I was amazed to be able to walk alongside the river in the unexpectedly bright morning sunshine. With a solitary dog walker well behind me, I was soon alone in this quiet green channel which ran unseen between the back gardens of Havering Park. The path followed the Rom's gentle curve towards the west, continuing for some distance and making for a pleasant and peaceful tramp. It was crossed by a small bridge at the oddly named Bacon Link before running into Collier Row Recreation Ground, a small triangle of green space crossed by well-kept paths and dotted with play equipment. A path led me out of the park, still beside the river to Collier Row Road, a busy thoroughfare which linked the wide sweep of housing with the surprisingly bustling centre of the district to the south which my bus had passed through earlier. At this end of the road however, on the very edge of the urban sprawl, there was little aside from an Esso service station. I stocked up on provisions, crossing the road near a concrete bridge over the river which finally gave formal acknowledgement to the River Rom on small nameplates.
I had to navigate around some obstacles here, heading along White Hart Lane to progress south. A little way along the road, which I'd assumed I'd be following for some distance, I spotted a signpost for 'Footpath 19'. Havering is well-served by a network of public paths and follows the generally excellent sign-posting practices of neighbouring Essex. I knew this path would cross the river so I decided to make a minor diversion to take a look. After a stroll along the edge of a grassy area of scrubland, I found the river bridged by a substantial structure topped by a stile. Beside the bridge though was a tantalisingly well-worn path reached by way of a concrete access ramp, usually reserved for the Environment Agency. In this case, it led down to a well-worn groove in the grassy bank which clung to the meandering course of the river. I couldn't resist a look, and there was at least a possibility it could lead me further on my route. I was soon enveloped by a canopy of trees, the river burbling beside me as I trudged a line no wider than my feet between clumps of fern and nettle. If I'd tried this even a few weeks hence, these nettles would have been impassably tall and overgrown - but for now I could trudge safely between them. The path, unsanctioned but clearly not policed, continued - and I reasoned that for a route to be this well-worn for such a long distance, it must lead somewhere. If not it would be a long walk back to Footpath 19.
After turning a little to the east, the path ended at a rough scramble up a bank. Out of the trees, this grassy berm was in fact the fringe of a field of waste ground given over to flood prevention. The river curved around the southern edge, heading back towards civilisation, while I took a shorter route across the northern fringe. The path appeared to deposit me back on White Hart Lane, but first I had to navigate a stile where a surly and disinterested local youth was perched. I walked until I was mere inches away, with him surveying me as if trying to asses my chance of making it over the gate with him still in situ. I breezily excused myself and he moved aside, barely breaking eye-contact with his 'phone while I swung over and let myself down in a clumsy sort of two-footed jump. It was a heavy landing, but I wouldn't dare give it away. Suppressing the grunt of effort and discomfort, I emitted a curt "Thanks, pal" before striding off between the buildings onto White Hart Lane. I was beside a row of quiet shops in now remarkably warm spring sunshine. I pressed on, detouring briefly into Cross Road to see the river passing under the street, and to confirm there was no easy way to shadow it here. Proved correct, I returned to Mawney Road which continued the route of White Hart Lane towards Romford. A little way along the dusty pavement, a few yards beyond the point where the Rom passed beneath, I spotted the entrance to King George's Playing Fields. The path soon rejoined the river in the busy park and, almost uniquely among these unloved tributaries, I saw people using the river. Children swung above the water on a ubiquitous blue rope, or tottered over makeshift stepping stones in the shallow brook while parents stood by and encouraged them to explore. It was a surprising and rather touching thing to find out here where I'd seen virtually no-one all morning. I lingered for a while, enjoying the sunshine and watching people come and go along the riverside path, often somewhat oblivious to the hardy little stream flowing so close by. Feeling some of the tense cramp which had followed the impact of my leap from the stile beginning to disappear, I set off out of the park passing a busy café doing good business, and directly onto the thunder and dust of the A12. This wide dual-carriageway, divided by a centre fence to deter crossing except at designated points, scythes across the north of Romford. I turned east to cross the road at a surprisingly well-kept subway with impeccably clean 1960s tiling still intact, displaying long-forgotten scenes of local history. Emerging south of the shrieking lines of traffic which powered through the busy urban crossroads, I was entering Romford. The old pattern of streets from before the coming of the A12 was evident in the names of roads which continued into town despite being severed by the canyon of traffic. A sign beside the rather fine modern Bus Garage welcomed me to the 'historic market town'. I was a little dubious about this welcome just now - and the river felt further away than ever as it gurgled between gardens and yards, inaccessible and about to delver under this modern Town Centre.
As it goes, the traversal of Romford wasn't quite as bad as I expected. Despite the rather forlorn aspect of the view along North Street into the bowels of a part-refurbished concrete office block, and the straggling edge-of-town feeling with the omnipresent low-rent restaurants, poundshops and cheque cashing establishments. There was in fact a surprising feeling of life to the town. The busy pedestrianised core of the town centred on a cluster of market stalls which felt like they had always been here, the new developments fringing the town in a ring slowly enveloping them but oddly not driving them away. As I passed under the railway I found myself back at the spot where I'd set out by bus. The dry, dusty pavement was interrupted roadworks while a constant queue of double-deckers crawled up to the footpath and then slunk off under the bridge. Coming full circle felt strange and a little unwelcome. Nevertheless, I pressed on - and Romford reverted to type, the shopping street petering out into a mess of housing and light industry as North Road became South Road. Somewhere beneath was the River Rom, appearing briefly in a graffiti-covered culvert before ducking under the impeccably sculpted grounds of the Queen's Hospital, the gleamingly modern and undeniable evidence of a PFI deal gone bad. The only way the premiums on this site could be paid would be by ceasing delivery of healthcare completely. It was a brick and concrete emblem of the impossible bind the NHS finds itself in worryingly often. I crossed the A125 via the complex web of lights and crossings at Roneo Corner, named for the former Roneo-Vickers office equipment factory which dominated the geography and employment prospects of people in Romford for generations. By the mid 1980s the workforce here had dwindled, with only postal franking machines still assembled on site and most of the reprographic equipment imported directly from Japan and distributed from the Romford site. Like so many of these areas of London's suburbs where a particular activity is burned into the soil through long association, the name lives on. Even now, around two decades after the factory closed its doors the Roneo Cafe and Roneo Prestige Motors trade in the tired range of local shops along the main road.
The river is an equally persistent force here, finally free of the concrete channel which has contained its flow under the town centre, it curves broadly to form the edge of Grenfell Park. I enter via a neat new cast iron gateway and find the park is a wide, empty field of grass with a fenced play area occupied by a languid and bored group of young men who are distinctly too old for the equipment. There's little else to be seen - certainly nowhere else to sit or pass the time. I sense I'm being followed by the group's eyes, but that they're just too inert and passive to do more. I'm a curiosity - a moving thing in a still landscape. A roughly walked path hugs the river on the western side, passing under the shadow of the hulking YMCA Thames Gateway building. This facility occupies a purpose-built mid-60s tower block of the type which would have doubtless have fallen into disrepair or worse had it been left to the borough to run. Instead, the YMCA is doing fine work here. There are addiction recovery services, emergency housing, a gym, a diner and family support work alongside a 148 bed hostel. Most of the site's facilities are open to the public too, connecting the building with the town. When I passed by the site was busy with a children's party is in full swing, and the building - although an ominous landmark on an otherwise low-rise skyline - felt like a positive presence in the area. The character of the park however was harder to discern and unsettlingly it seemed to have no clear boundaries. For the first time today, I felt myself checking over my shoulder as I delved between trees and onto another rough track which lead me back to the river. Once again, I was alone - this time on a narrow path which tracked the surprisingly deep valley carved by the Rom's meandering below. It was comfortably cool and quiet, and I relaxed into my earlier thought that only a path which actually went somewhere could be so obviously well walked. The ever-present scattering of discarded clothing and lager cans in regularly spaced, burned-out middens meant this was a well-used way. I wondered at the thought of flying low over this area at night, spotting little flickers of fire in the dark areas between well-lit streets. The river here is the boundary between the Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham to the west and Havering to the east - and the character of these suburbs feels different to those to the north of Romford. Despite being built to relieve pressing housing need in the same interwar period as Collier Row and Harold Hill, there is a more downtrodden, working-class feel to these areas. Perhaps it's the greater proximity to the long-closed docks and the few remaining pockets of industry clinging to the Thames estuary, or just the slow shift of a traditionally-minded population east from the edges of the city - but there is a sense that this zone is trapped in the last days of Empire. It's perhaps no coincidence that secret BNP meetings were held in nearby Elm Park, or that the idiosyncratic Richard Barnbrook could be elected as a London Assembly member for Barking by way of invented tales of knife crime and jingoistic outpourings. Deep in the river valley, walking the boundary of the boroughs, I felt separated from this world of distrust and discontent as I crossed a minor and seemingly unnamed tributary of the Rom arriving from the east. To the west of the river a sizeable area of common land opened up, part of the chain of greenbelt which sweeps south from where my walk had begun, almost unbroken until it reaches the marshes near the Thames. I found this unsettling - perhaps I should have crossed the river sooner and this path would indeed lead to a dead-end? I decided to scramble up the bank when an opportunity presented itself - and was relieved to see a couple of motorcyclists in hi-vis paused on a narrow street. I was about to crash out of the bushes to survey the landscape further when I saw a similar group pottering along behind them - this was a driving school! The pattern of tiny roads and roundabouts was an elaborate fake for the purposes of teaching the rules of the road in comparative safety. A small hatchback with a terrified teenager at the wheel lurched and shuddered along the road behind the motorcyclists, while I scrambled back down the bank onto the riverside path.
A little further on I found another path leading up the bank to a narrow lane, which I had to take as the river passed under a low bridge here. The Chase felt like a typical country lane despite connecting two distinctly built-up suburbs, passing through a nature reserve in the process. The road was surprisingly busy, and I was forced to remember my Country Code to stay safe from the traffic - a surprising twist to an urban ramble near Hornchurch. I looked for a way onwards into the fields, but couldn't obviously see a route near the river. I was aware that any detour to the west would involve finding my way to a footbridge over the railway which didn't look easy to access from the map, so I hedged my bets and turned east to Upper Rainham Road. This meant a detour along a busy road at the edge of the nature reserve, but at least stayed close to the course of the river. I paused for lunch and rested for a while near the entrance to Harrow Lodge Park, aware that the Ravensbourne passed underneath here on its journey to meet the Rom a little way to the west. This also marked a point of transition - where the River Rom becomes the Beam River. I walked on under the railway, to a sharp bend in the road where a footpath turned west and ran along the perimeter of the Borough council's Works Department. I followed the path and was soon rewarded with a broad southern view across a plain of scrubland. Along the line of the railway I could see the battered footbridge with trains slowing for Elm Park as they passed under it, and rather incongruously the fine 18th century Bretons Manor House looking across the shallow valley towards the line. Now part of the borough-run Outdoor Centre, the manor traces its origins back to the Breton family occupying land in Hornchurch in the 12th century. Now it provides sports, archery, kite flying, nature walks and the like to young people locally. Turning towards the river, I found a recently opened bridge provided access to the other bank, allowing me to stay close to the Beam as it skirted a long, narrow lake at the bottom of its valley. The well-made paths on this bank were apparently well-used by dog walkers and cyclists, winding through the marshy bottom of the Beam Valley. As I approached the exit onto Rainham Road South, I foolishly stepped off the path to avoid a large puddle and found myself ankle deep in marshy, red Essex mud. No surprise that the local family who I'd seen entering the park on their bikes had taken a wide detour around this section. My boots now a shade of terracotta, I edged out of the gate and crossed the street to approach the last leg of my walk.
South of Rainham Road, the green area around the Beam has recently been designated a new park. The site was, until the 1990s occupied by the derelict remains of Dagenham Sanatorium. Built on the site of Rookery Farm following a 1894 smallpox epidemic, the somewhat makeshift facility became a TB hospital, before eventually specialising as a geriatric care unit. Closed in 1989, the site slowly returned to nature and is now barely discernible on the ground. Beside the park, east of the Beam River was Mardyke Farm. No sign of a farm now - it having long been replaced by a chain of sand and gravel pits, latterly used as a landfill site, which is now being remediated to accommodate new housing. There is an inkling of the Thames on the horizon as I walk south - the huge wind turbines and water towers of Ford's works are evident on the horizon, along with the flicker of traffic passing along the elevated A13. The river is a deep, straight canal here, receiving flood water and protecting the low-lying land around it. As I cross the incoming Wantz Stream and clambered up the bank beside the sluice which protects the river, I had an unobstructed view south to the industrial wastelands between here and the Thames. I realised with some surprise, that this was one of the riverine walks where I'd stayed truest to the course of my subject - and that I'd rarely strayed from the Rom or the Beam along the whole route so far. But I'd suspected the gate onto the A1306 would be closed and locked just like when I'd passed once before - and despite the official notices stating this was an access to the Beam Parklands, it was unsurprisingly impassable. I thought about climbing the gate, but reconsidered after recalling my incident with the stile earlier. Instead I returned to the sluice and headed a little way along the Wantz Stream atop a high flood-protection bank which fringed the parkland and curved around the oval of a busy housing estate. I trudged through the estate, tired and footsore to find a bus stop on New Road - which is of course now the older route of the A13. As I waited for the infrequent service back to Barking Station I thought with some regret about the section of river I couldn't access: the arrow-straight course it took under this very road, between the remaining parts of the Ford plant, under the A13 and beside the mysterious Dagenham Breach - famous for its parliamentary whitebait suppers of old. My attempted walks in this zone - along the Thames foreshore, or the A13 - had never quite reached the end of the Beam River. Only taking a train or the recent passage by car had even come close. There was an inconclusive, agitated feeling of not quite getting the job done once again, which somewhat typifies my feeling in this part of the world as I cross and recross it. That said, my aching feet and slightly sun-pink forehead were evidence that I'd walked as far as I could. Some mysterious rivers are destined to stay that way it seems. I started my bus journey back west, unravelling the route of another old walk as I went, and realising I knew the way surprisingly well now.
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 11th March 2017 at 10:03pm
I've written before about my early interest in roads - one that has never really gone away, and has often reawakened at times I've felt challenged or frustrated. That I now have a willing partner in crime who is happy to take sometimes quite lengthy excursions has meant that I've finally had the experience of driving on some of the roads I've mythologised over the decades. However, some roads are meant to be walked - roads which have existed in some form for hundreds if not thousands of years, which despite the layers of surface dressing, hide the oldest of byways beneath. Occasionally my explorations coincide with these roads and I find myself needing to walk out the obsession all over again. Today was a bonus - we were in London on route elsewhere, and I had an entirely free day in hand. While I'd immensely enjoyed the guided walk I'd taken last weekend, I wanted freedom to cover ground at my own pace. I was also disinclined to head back into the wilds for this - an excursion without mud felt like a good idea. I wanted feet tired from walking, not aching from slurping through the liquid surface of the Essex edgelands for a change. This all coalesced via a chance reading about the A503. I'd crossed Forest Road near Waterworks Corner back in February and had been mildly curious about its route. While useful and strategically important, this east-west cross route in the north of London is fairly insignificant in the scheme of things. In the west Seven Sisters Road is a product of the eighteenth century expansion of London and a former turnpike. To the east, Ferry Lane and Forest Road describe the route of the more ancient Clay Lane from Walthamstow to Epping Forest. Along this route, the humble A503 crosses the routes of many of my previous walks - the Regents Canal, Green Lanes, the festival of gentrification at Woodberry Down near the New River, the Lea Valley. It ends just shy of the North Circular - the ever present connection that writhes through this terrain. In short, the A503 was the perfect long slog for an unexpected walk - a chance to make new connections and revisit old ones.
The bus deposited me on Camden High Street, a little north of Mornington Crescent. This isn't my favourite part of the world for a host of reasons, but mostly because in its slightly battered drag of chain outlets and copycat markets, Camden feels like what happens after gentrification. When I was a youngster, Camden was aspirational. The stars of British indie-pop propped up its bars, the record stores and vintage clothing outlets were legendary, the market was a wonder of new and old things which seemed exotic and impossible to us. It had developed this reputation slowly and surely through the 1970s, as the railway retreated and left large areas of land and old buildings free for exploitation. The real estate felt shaky and ill-kept, but that didn't matter to a post-squatter generation who liked their urban landscape to be edging into decrepitude. By the late 1990s, Camden was a different place. The huge footfall around the market and the High Street made the area attractive for the larger chains - and even though some of them were careful to invest their usually identikit outlets with a little uncharacteristic local personality, they were pricing out the smaller traders. Aside from the official market, every bit of clear land was taken up with semi-permanent stalls selling mobile phone cases, Bob Marley decorated stash tins, the usual stuff which could be found on the fringes of any shopping area. Each Saturday saw an influx of tourists eager to walk the High Street in order to pick up some of the perceived kudos of being seen around here, and the streets were full of expectant young faces from the provinces who - despite being in Camden - wanted the reassuring taste of McDonalds or KFC. First of all my route took a wide loop around this zone to find what might be the beginning of the A503 - heading counterintuitively west along Delancey Street and turning east again when I reached the bridge over the lines leading out of Euston Station. I'd strayed along this way in search of the bridge over a deleted arm of the canal, and knew the area a little. At Britannia Junction, the complex meeting of ways at the heart of Camden, I paused for coffee. I'd started earlier than usual today and needed the sustenance if I was going to make the distance. Looking out on what may or may not already be the road I was going to walk, I noted a gradual change. As the locals had headed for work or dissipated back into their homes, the steady stream of passers by appeared to gradually be shifting towards tourism. It was time to leave Camden.
I was briefly disorientated on crossing the street - Britannia Junction was a complex and many-armed beast. But the route I was taking almost immediately passed a familiar location - the same Sainsbury's I'd ended up detouring to find on my canal walk. I'd taken such a long circuit to get there last time that I'd lost the sense of just how close to the Canal I was for much of my Camden tribulations. This time I passed by, beginning to fit the area into shape in my mind - at least I'd have an escape route should I find myself here in future. As I slowly slipped out of the gravity of Camden the route began to change. Passing under the railway bridge at Camden Road station, beside its rusting and disused twin, I found myself climbing steadily on a broad suburban route. The stores thinned out into local hardware shops, convenience stores and petrol stations. The morning had started out grey but was clearing, and I was suddenly aware that the novelty of wearing a coat - something I've always studiously avoided until this winter when I finally found a comfortable and sensible garment for walking - was wearing off. I was far too warm. Getting an earlier than usual start on the walk and knowing I had accommodation in London overnight meant I could take a slightly slower pace than usual. No bad thing - this was quite a long route on pavement, with none of the diversion into the wilds I'd encountered recently on these walks. Despite having the time to divert and investigate things off route, I decided that wherever possible I'd stay true to the mission and indeed I largely stuck to the route I'd hastily planned. Above me the road was clearly marked: A503 Holloway, striking out north and east. Looking south when gaps in the row of tidy houses and small businesses permitted there were glimpses of the distant city as the road rose gently. Crossing the railway from St. Pancras on its broad westward curve towards Kentish Town, I sensed the change. I'd left the orbit of Camden, broken free and entered the uncertain northern hinterland which I'd spent so much time exploring in recent months. This part of North London doesn't quite cohere for me - districts blur and shift, and aside from the definite points marked by road junctions, the estate agents are drawing the maps here. The road stretched long and straight, reaching a peak from where I could see ahead to a fork. Where the road divided around a former garage with a gloriously modernist swooping roof, I took the left-hand path heading along Seven Sisters Road. Here, the A503 is a long one-way system enveloping Holloway completely in its two arms. Blank red-brick walls defined the perimeter of the former Holloway Prison. Empty and slowly returning to nature, the entrance was beginning to show signs of decay. It's just a matter of time before the sizeable site is snapped up and renamed to disguise its heritage. The area has a pedigree for residential land-grabs too - beyond the prison was a pleasant run of public housing owned by the City of London Corporation, one of the ten estates situated outside the square mile which it runs. Clean and tidy, the homes appear apparently well cared for and popular. I was prepared to find this part of the walk dull and mildly threatening but nothing could have been further from the truth. It is fair to say that Holloway is somewhere in the middle of a gentrification journey. Significant parts of the fringes of the area seem to be doing well, housing locals and providing decent services, while others seem to be undergoing that last, sorry stage of deliberate decay while their owners wait on the market and the right kind of investment into the area. At Nag's Head - where Seven Sisters Road meets Holloway Road - the scene is more disputed. As I lingered waiting for the confusing temporary lights on the crossing of the A1, I surveyed the area - it could be the centre of any London suburb, maybe even any small town perhaps. But among the well-known names and high street staples were a good number of tiny, local traders soldiering on behind long outmoded shopfronts. Beyond the stores to the north of the street was the muscular back elevation of the Beaux Arts Building on Manor Gardens. The front is a swirl of detail in brick, a grand Edwardian entrance to newly refurbished apartments - but the rear is stark, white and impressive. A single red brick chimney rises among the wings, which from above describe a trident pointing directly at the heart of London.
At Finsbury Park Station, the two arms of the road swing back together where the dome of the North London Central Mosque gleams over the three bridges carrying the railway north from Kings Cross. This mosque is something of a symbol of the triumph of peaceful Islam over extremism, with the Muslim Council of Great Britain seizing and reopening the site after a raid in 2003 which finally ousted the remains of the regime of Abu Hamza al-Masri. This splinter sect had been operating a programme of radicalisation from the building, some straggling tentacles of which reach forward into present-day terrorist activity. Emerging from the bridges, the transport interchange is a confusion of activity, with buses lurching around the tight curves outside the station. An unbroken stream of people are leaving the station with some Arsenal shirts already in evidence in advance of their FA Cup tie later in the afternoon. The sun had climbed above the buildings and I was starting to feel much too hot, but the road was curiously mesmerising - taking an almost straight course from district to district, through changing scenes which are both unfamiliar but entirely expected in their nature. North London is slowly starting to fit together in my mind, and the passing junctions connect me back to earlier excursons: the end of Stroud Green Road links me back to walking the Northern Heights. Everything finds its place here. Soon after passing the station the road quietened, and for a while it was just me and a constant stream of buses edging along the green fringe of the park. I'd walked this stretch before - between the treelined slopes and the long range of stucco-fronted hotels and large Victorian villas. It was pleasant to be out of the urban area for a while and to reorient myself by way of local landmarks: the towers of the Castle Climbing Centre and the forest of cranes at Woodberry Down. At Manor Park, I crossed Green Lanes and entered Hackney, completing my navigation of all arms of this important crossroads where the ancient road to the north crossed the relatively new turnpike. The organic cafe on the corner was busy - a signifier of how this area is changing, and indeed how quickly. The buses which have been shadowing me peel away north towards Wood Green and my route, now a broad dual-carriageway arterial, slips between the tall municipal blocks of Woodberry Down. On my left, some of the original blocks remain with their curved red-brick balconies - but as residents leave for the last time their doors and windows are securely plated over, the buildings slowly giving way to their regeneration. There's no rush to move them out - all the activity is to the south where the range of residential towers extends further eastward along the banks of the New River and the pair of broad, glassy reservoirs every time I visit. The desirable waterfront properties are for sale, not for rent, and definitely outprice the locals who are being slowly decanted from the ageing low-rise brick blocks. I popped into the local store and improvised lunch on the banks of the reservoir watching young couples leading curious children along the river path while ducks and gulls pecked around for crumbs. It was good to sit and cool off near the water and interesting to see how this area had changed since my earlier visits. The older population who had pottered the previous sandy incarnation of this pathway wasn't in evidence at all now, and there was a surprisingly homogenous feel. While the new buildings are undeniably a better environment in many ways, they don't appear to be fostering the sense of community which originally drove the aspirations of this early attempt at changing conditions for working people on a massive scale. Aware I still had some way to go, I set off to regain my route as it began a turn to the north at a crossing of the broad loop of the New River. Looking back along the inviting but still rather muddy river path, I had a view across the serrated rooftops of the somewhat directly named Harringey Warehouse District which sits at a distinctly lower elevation than the bank carrying the waterway. The A503 provides a boundary to Stamford Hill here, climbing respectably away from the factories and warehouses to the east with pleasant avenues leading away into Hackney. The walking was pleasant - perhaps a little cooler here, thankfully - and I relaxed into the rhythm of the traffic which was less intense along this stretch. The calm ended abruptly at the junction with St. Ann's Road which sat directly under the Gospel Oak to Barking railway line, the overbridge hemming the traffic into a complex junction and bottlenecking pedestrians into crossings which took an age to activate. Under the bridge it feels gloomy, damp and a little unsettling - perhaps reflecting the next part of the route? Looking ahead the road stretched onward between dilapidated and tired low rise housing and ranks of surprisingly attractive but mainly abandoned brick warehouses. Seven Sisters Road ghosts the missing edge of an incomplete diamond of railways here, the broad green areas of wasteland at its centre tantalisingly crossed by unofficial paths - but they're for a day when the ground is drier perhaps. A further railway bridge completes the diamond, and I'm in Tottenham - the change is imperceptible at first, but as I approach the A10 at Seven Sisters, the switch is suddenly closed. The tide of people waiting to cross the High Road couldn't be more multiculturally representative if an over-eager HR Officer had lined it up for a photograph. The junction throbs with life, a fog of traffic fumes undercut by the smell of barbecued meat and strong aftershave. Cars stopped at the light shudder with low-end from their speakers. Once, a ring of seven elm trees graced Pages Green - the original Seven Sisters - now a small linear park leads away east between the superstore and the terraced streets. The High Road is a stream of buses stretching north towards White Hart Lane and the tower blocks of Edmonton Green in the middle distance. For a little stretch I need to walk this route which absorbs the A503 briefly, marking a boundary between its distinct sections: the venerable turnpike and the ancient road across the Lea Valley.
Tottenham High Cross is an ancient marker on the route of Roman Ermine Street, often confused for an Eleanor Cross but somewhat plainer despite some added ornamentation in the early 19th century. Here I turn aside and head down into the valley, taking the appropriately named Monument Way. After a brief detour into a retail park at Tottenham Hale which feels oddly makeshift and provisional, I cross the vertical obstacles which separate North and East London - the Eastern Counties Railway, Pymmes Brook, Lea Navigation and the River Lea pass under the road in rapid succession. The valley bottoms out into a broad plain which has been flooded to form the chain of vast reservoirs which shadow the river here. After the Ferry Boat Inn, marooned on a spit of land between the Lea and the Coppermill Stream, the road joins a narrow causeway between these manmade lakes, with the railway curving in alongside. The gates of High Maynard Reservoir are locked to all except licensed fishermen - a regiment of heavy padlocks securing the gates, while wading birds strut the banks like guardsmen. Along the causeway unfinished electrification gantries from the recent railway works become a row of ominous monuments. In the distance I can see the land rising away from the valley floor, and I realise just how far I've got to go to reach my self-imposed destination. I'm distracted by designs etched into the pavement showing the transition: from industry and water to entertainment and nightlife. The progress from borough to borough is marked carefully - Waltham Forest wants us to forget the lines of pylons marching behind us and the broad swathe of churning green water. Ahead is art, culture, food and wellbeing. This once downtrodden borough is getting a very public makeover, its various urban centres being remodelled to promote promenading and restrict the motor car. Walthamstow is changing. I've seen the 'Awesomestow' banners - that clumsy appropriation fails on so many disturbing levels. I've also seen the row of achingly retro stores on the corner of Blackhorse Lane - the 'home of people who make and create' and I've seen the rebranding attempts as I've skirted the district, but today I'll be facing it squarely as I make a transit across Waltham Forest towards the east. I don't object to this area - in fact I rather like it - but I don't need to have this unsubtle exercise explained to me. Let us all discover - or rediscover - the borough. Don't force it, Walthamstow.
This is now Forest Road, and as it makes eastern progress away from the Lea Valley the stores return to type: small newsagents sponsored by Lebara and occasional hair salons. The pedestrian schemes are still incomplete out here, and the traffic remains dominant. Long ranks of tidy suburban avenues lead north and south and the road is fairly unremarkable aside from a fine modern Fire Station building. Rather suddenly, the carriageway kinks to the south to skirt the grounds of Lloyd Park House - now the William Morris Gallery. This sizeable but modest building sits at the corner of a broad green space beyond a walled garden, which is apparently well-used on decent afternoons like this. Formerly Water House this was the Morris family home from 1848 to 1856, while the adjoining Lloyd Park includes a moat which long predates the Georgian building. The space in front of the gallery offers a moment to rest and reconsider the walk - not least how I'll escape from the end of the road when I reach Waterworks Corner. I hadn't really planned for this - the road had seemed impossibly long, and the chance to walk without worrying too much about time had lulled me into not considering how I'd mark the completion of the walk. There was a way to go yet though, and as the road climbed towards The Bell and a house-sized mural of Morris glared across at me, I had a view of the distant green horizon where I was heading. My route skirted north of the central area of Walthamstow which clusters around busy Hoe Street, and remained resolutely suburban until I crested the rise and looked down on the pale verdigris of the clock tower topping Walthamstow Town Hall. As I approached, the full extent of this impressive civic complex unveiled itself: first a broad, low magistrates court building now closed and sold to the Borough Council as part of the Ministry of Justice estates rationalisation. This patently 1970s creation of the GLC Special Works Department can't truly be considered a brutalist structure, as it relies on Portland Stone to offer its simple but muscular face to the world. Beside it sits the more classical but no less imposing Town Hall by Philip Dalton Hepworth - a broad, mausoleum-like sweep of stone completed against all the odds in 1941. Its geometry aligned with a central fountain and a processional route to the doors, and I found myself precariously perched between the gates while trying to snap a picture. A citizenship ceremony was being completed as I approached, with impeccably dressed celebrants leaving the campus to the disgust of a couple of locals who leaned on railings, spitting and moaning about them "not being really British". As they'd inadvertently roped me into their conversation I pointed out that that was now exactly what they were. More spitting, more moaning about this 'fuckin' lefty'. Finally, the broad colonnade of the Assembly Hall completed the site and Forest Road began to climb again, passing the extensive Waltham Forest College buildings. This area is rigorously zoned, these public buildings dominating the east-west road as it cuts across the ridge between the Lea and the Roding. Nearby, a grandmother passed me, stooping to encourage a young girl and reassuring her in a surprisingly breaking voice that they'll do something "when mummy gets out". Initially I'm confused by the significance - but I soon spot Thorpe Coombe Hospital, a Georgian house turned into a Health Trust building with a residential psychiatric unit on site. I find myself sharing the young girl's pain and confusion, the sense of separation and the power of places to divide and distance. I'm surprised how this part of Walthamstow has passed me by before - the odd gravity of this administrative complex which powers the district like a civic engine room, dealing with its difficulties and tidying away the awkward and ill-fitting. I felt strangely ill at ease as the road turned uphill again, the horizon lost behind the ridge and the rising streets of Walthamstow behind me, if I'd dared to look back.
As I climbed, somewhat unexpectedly the deck of a footbridge appeared above the road - and as I slogged further up the rising path, the steep grassy banks supporting it emerge and I realised with some surprise that I was almost at my goal. The flat grassy deck above the sunken reservoirs opens out, and I can see the spot where I scrambled thankfully down from the forest path on my last walk here. Ahead of me the A503 ends at an unusual urban cattle grid and a junction with Woodford New Road, just shy of Waterworks Corner roundabout. I have mixed feelings at the end of my walk - firstly, that I could press on further east, following the North Circular. Also, the transition I've made from the fading glamour of distant Camden to the leafy suburban spaces of Woodford is jarring and odd - and feels unresolved. As I circuit the roundabout to find a path across to the northern side of the shuddering and screaming A406, I note the forest paths are still awash with thick mud and deep ruts. The subways under the roundabout are little more than continuations of the forest trail with strict instructions for horseriders to dismount. Beneath me, huge eastern European juggernauts pause in the lay-bys, the soles of their drivers' feet propped at the windows as they sleep until they're able to drive on. The traffic noises reverberate through the tunnels as I negotiate a route out onto Grove Road which edges along the deep concrete gouge which channels the road. The sun is beating down now, and there is a remarkably long view into the eastern distance. As the land falls away into the Roding Valley I have a clear vista of rooftops and distant woodland, and rather shockingly protruding from within the woods I see the tower of Claybury Hospital winking into the spring sunshine. For a while I sat in the strange little makeshift seating area on the edge of Woodford where the North Circular cannons underneath the urban centre. A steady procession of happy young faces trotted into town, buses shuttled back and forth. It felt strangely peaceful - like the road echoing below my seat wasn't really there. I shuffled into South Woodford to find a bus stop, it could be any town centre in the home counties. Over my shoulder the tower signalled from my previous walks, shimmering over the ranks of heavily mortgaged Essex real estate. I was back in comfortable territory on the edge of things, but not everyone here was comfortable or secure. I thought of the girl and her grandma shuffling west from the civic centre of Walthamstow and of the sorrowful history of Claybury and its sister asylums, and I felt very grateful I was heading back to my own tiny family.
A gallery of pictures from the walk can be found here.
Posted in London on Saturday 4th March 2017 at 11:03pm
I've always been a little nervous about guided walks. From the awkward, rather typically British issue of trying to identify your fellow walkers at the outset - ideally without actually asking anyone - to the tricky etiquette of dispersing at the walk's end, they're a minefield. I once thought I'd like to lead walks - the idea of ambling around places I love with a respectful and engaged bunch of people both asking questions and adding their knowledge was attractive, if unlikely. Of course the reality is often different: bored tourists "doing" the sights, loudmouthed know-alls trying to upstage the guide, people with no spatial awareness causing minor traffic incidents. Guiding walks wasn't for me. In my attempts I also realised a simple truth: firstly most people just aren't as interested in the minutiae as I am. I've often thought I was boring or lacked the capacity to engage people - but as I've grown older I realise I'm just engaged differently. I've learned to live with this, and find myself surrounded by people who are at best encouraging, but at the very least tolerant of this. So today I approached a group of unlikely looking people assembling near Tower Hill station with some trepidation. We were going on a walk together - which for someone who jealously guards his excursion time, was a remarkably intimate association with strangers.
Today's trip focused on locations from The Long Good Friday - the 1980 movie which launched Bob Hoskins on his path towards being the nation's 'loveable villain' figure in Harold Shand, and which almost didn't see the light of day due to the inclusion of the then horribly ever-present IRA as the bad guys. Or perhaps more accurately as the worst of the bad guys - there are no good guys in the film. In some ways, despite the brash edge-of-the-eighties optimism, the glamorous yachts and the presence of some weirdly prescient tropes which would haunt London for decades to come, the movie has no redemptive ending. My first viewing of the movie years back left a couple of impressions - that London was unrecognisable for the most part, and that it kickstarted a good number of British acting careers. John Mackenzie's clear vision that this should not be the London of red buses and black cabs had wrong-footed me. But as I've walked the hinterlands of the city over the years, I've come to recognise Harold Shand's London - sometimes it is buried, sometimes it lurks in the most unedifying areas, often it requires a mixture of research and imagination to conjure it from the anodyne glass and steel of the modern city. But it lurks not far from the surface, buried under the very Thatcherite dream which Hoskins invokes as his yacht passes under Tower Bridge at the beginning of the movie. The regeneration of the docks, the opportunities for investment, London positioned as a European capital - calling the shots, not taking the bullets. Those predictions which must have seemed so outlandish to anyone who knew the dereliction of the Isle of Dogs and Royal Docks in the 1970s, now elicit a gasp of recognition followed by an ironic guffaw: the European dream is close to being over, the '1988 Olympics' which Shand proposes happened - if a little later than scheduled.
Our guide was the placid, knowledgeable and powerfully-voiced Rob, who called the group to order and set out the plan. We'd walk for a couple of hours, visit a number of locations used in the film and chart the progress of Harold's dream towards the Docklands of today. He'd play us contextual clips of the movie on his iPad - so we could gauge just how much had changed and how much remained of Harold's manor. I surveyed my companions - there were of course stereotypes: the older guy who sticks to the guide like a minder and engages all of his time between stops in discussion, the gent with the expensive camera who wanders all over the place taking endless shots of everything but the subject at hand, the middle-class intellectual couple who roll their watery eyes at each other when the discussion has to be simplified or edited for the sake of time or sustaining group interest. We shuffled off, over the messy tangle of crossings outside the Tower of London, over the neck of Tower Bridge where Police were zooming to some sort of incident involving a group of yelling tourists, and towards the Thames near the huge concrete hotel. This was the first point at which imagination would be challenged: we were asked to picture warehouses - full of spice and indigo, a river teeming with ships waiting to unload. Some had waited weeks, some even longer. The Pool of London was jammed and dangerous - haunted by river pirates who took advantage of the vessels stuck here waiting to be unloaded - some in the most violent of ways. London needed new docks and new suburbs to support them - and so St. Katharine's Dock was constructed. By the time Harold Shand was mooring his luxury yacht here, the dock was deserted and in disrepair. Several of the large, impressive warehouses had already fallen to new development and only the Ivory House remained fully intact. Today the view was surprisingly similar if the skyline beyond the warehouses was discounted, along with the modern housing which had sprung into being on three sides of the basin. In the corner the Dickens Inn tumbled towards the docks, its provenance not entirely honest - being some form of reconstruction from recovered materials on a new site. The marina was busy with boats which would have rivalled Harold's for style and opulence. It was clear from the outset that this walk was going to deal in contrasts.
We progressed towards Wapping via the river front, recalling the shot where Hoskins was framed by Tower Bridge as he gave his rousing, patriotic call to 'the right people'. It quickly became apparent that this walk was unwinding two narratives - the fictional world in which the movie played out, and the uncannily similar events which followed just a few years later via the London Docklands Development Corporation. Shand's own 'corporation' fell prey to retaliatory attacks by the IRA and we saw the corner opposite Scandrett Street where, by virtue of a limited budget, a plywood East End boozer had been constructed to be blown up. We stood below, picturing the sight from the ground, where Shand's car had been seen arriving from the narrow street beside the then abandoned school buildings. Just a short walk around the corner we found the squat, yellow brick St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Apologetic and a little featureless outside, the interior was elegant and lofty, with brightly decorated iconography and dramatic columns climbing to a surprisingly lofty ceiling. Outside we strained to see St. George in the East over the rooftops, as the scene where Shand's mother narrowly escapes a car bomb was a composite with Hawksmoor's striking edifice playing the exterior while St. Patrick provides a fittingly non-Anglican interior. We didn't head for St. George this time - but I'd spent enough time stalking the environs to be able to picture the switch perfectly. Around the next corner we found Dundee Street, with warehouses now converted into flats and offices. Above the street, bridges crossed between windows completing the image of gentrified dockland living. It was here however that a young Gillian Taylforth played the young women who discovers a dying security guard nailed to the beams of the floor in a perverse play on the film's title. The religious imagery is deftly done - temptation, betrayal and sacrifice played out in the slightly distended timeline of a single day.
Approaching the Limehouse Link Tunnel, the story shifted from the plans which Harold Shand had for a new city, to the events which took place here in the 1970s - Michael Heseltine's helicopter flying low over the abandoned wasteland on a return from an abortive excursion to Maplin Sands. His development of the LDDC with the plan to free the area from the shackles of council inertia and the too-and-fro of the same old guard in Parliament. He gives them comprehensive planning powers and just enough money to buy land and sell it cheap. At the same time, London Transport scoff at serving the area with any sort of serious service, and instead the Docklands Light Railway springs up - a budget train-set to fit the low-rise developments which are springing up. Heseltine wants to see people living and working here again, but it's slow - painfully so - and far too glacial for Nicholas Ridley who follows him into the Environment brief. He has a new vision: leveraging private capital to spark life into the Isle of Dogs. The Canadians arrive but want the infrastructure before they commit. Soon the DLR is expanded, the Limehouse Link digging begins - possibly the most expensive road project ever in the UK at that point. Slowly the towers climb from the water. But - abruptly - the market crashes and everything stops. The abundance of empty office space across the major cities of the UK and Europe makes a folly out of One Canada Square, the tower which glowers over the island with a baleful pyramid and an ever present smear of smoke at its apex. It may as well have been burning money.
Then the IRA make their own leap from fiction to fact - this time in a genuine and devastating way. On 9th February 1996 the two-year long ceasefire ended with a huge explosion under the DLR on Marsh Wall. Two men, local newsagents, were killed in the blast which left a huge crater in the ground and destroyed one building, and damaged two others seriously. I remember a DLR trip through the area some weeks after the bombing - the shell of the Midland Bank building with its empty windows and flapping blinds standing eerily beside the track as we swerved and dodged around the tight curves between docks and offices. This and a range of other IRA actions in the City of London and Manchester achieved what no amount of government money had managed - it created a market for decent office space. The development of Docklands was perversely rejuvenated and soon Canary Wharf was at the very heart of the plan. Soaring from the mirror-like surface of the former docks, new office towers grew swiftly with the emblems of international banks blinking into life above them. As we arrived at Canary Wharf it was nearly impossible to imagine this was the site of Harold's betrayal in the movie. His blood-soaked stagger from the yacht with a Lear-like howl towards a focused, cool Helen Mirren took place at a point before any of this could be imagined. The deserted dockside with its rank of low sheds along their edge didn't promise this kind of future, and at this point in the movie with his betrayal complete his scheme to bring prosperity seems unlikely to succeed. Now, the impressive brick sheds are the only surviving reference point - housing the Museum of London in Docklands, they are busy with visitors. Across the dock, the glassy torpedo of the new Crossrail Place appears to be moored alongside the office towers, the uncommissioned platforms sitting far beneath the water. The walk ends here, the story complete and Harold Shand's dream delivered despite his almost certain fate at the hands of a young Pierce Brosnan. Using the movie as a lens through which to view the change wrought on this part of the Isle of Dogs was a surprisingly clever ruse, and I can't help but feel that our rather oddly matched group of walkers would never have been assembled for a straightforward 'Docklands history walk'. They might have sniggered and sighed at the names of Conservative politicians of the 90s, but in doing so they missed a point - the plan in its original form was to remake part of London very much in its own, older image. What happened here, what has grown as a strange, disembodied and distinctly transatlantic city beside the city, is as much the result of subsequent governments of both parties' losing grip on the financial sector.
Suddenly, I was alone in the midst of the new city. The group dispersed, even the guide's most ardent hangers on finally leaving him to head for the station. The small square, tucked in beside the replica of the West India Dock Gateway with its elaborate model ship, was windswept and empty. Construction on both sides of the square meant no-one much was heading this way. I tried to decide what to do for the best. The guided walk had taken a little longer than I expected and I'd not thought through my options for the afternoon. I decided to grab a bite to eat before trying to complete a stretch of walking I'd meant to cover for some time - the perimeter of the Isle of Dogs. First I had to negotiate the mall which sits under One Canada Square. I'd been here before, many years ago, and I knew there was a small supermarket near the DLR station. Getting there was a challenge - I'd never arrived at ground level before, and even the concept of 'ground' was less than fixed here. I found a lift and ascended from the sub-zero floors towards the surface, which was in fact the level of the bridge carrying people across to the soon-to-be Crossrail station, finally finding myself at the store near the DLR which was, today at least, closed for engineering works. Purchases made, I retraced my steps out into the broad square and perched beside a cool fountain to eat and plan a little. It didn't take long for a uniformed 'Canary Wharf Estates' employee to take an interest. After wandering around the general area for a little while he plucked up the courage to come nearer. "Going to be long?" he enquired? I took a silent slug of water and said "Not much longer, just having a breather before I walk a bit more". He looked like he wanted to ask more questions - but he was young, inexperienced and a little unsure. I suspect he'd have found it easier if I was a rolling drunk or an itinerant begger - someone he could legitimately move on using the powers he had on the private estate. Instead I was a reasonably polite, reasonably tidy chap who had happily answered his question. "Well, take care then - and no hanging about" he managed before he scuttled back towards the building. I dusted myself down a little, took some defiant shots of the building towering above me, and headed along the edge of Crossrail Place. At the end of the walkway where the building petered out and the dock resumed, things were a little ragged. There are still rough edges to the Canary Wharf estate, and if one walks to the perimeter they soon become apparent. Turning alongside Bellmouth Passage I climbed stairs and crossed a street near empty offices, finally escaping the estate via Trafalgar Way. The staffed sentry post was active, the private police force beckoning cars forward to have credentials checked while flagging buses into the site. I looked across the broad empty area surrounding Billingsgate Fish Market, and across to Balfron Tower and the towers of Stratford beyond. It was a surprisingly sunny afternoon, though you'd never know it inside the estate, where the buildings reflect only each other.
I found myself not far from an area I'd walked some while ago, near Poplar Dock Marina. Ahead was the route to Blackwall and Leamouth, but I turned south cutting through a carpark to regain the A1206 as it started a long curve around the island. It soon became apparent that trying to use the river path was going to be a fruitless and time-consuming endeavour. The path was frequently broken by developments, sending me scurrying back and forth to find a route south. Instead, once over the impressive Blue Bridge I stuck largely to the main roads, with a brief excursion into the Samuda Estate. This rather forlorn range of London County Council blocks from 1965 looked tired and careworn, and at their centre stood the stark and impressive Kelson House. This twenty-five storey tower, made up of neatly interlocking three-level maisonettes, was modelled on Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, with access via a separate slender tower on its western side. It wasn't as graceful or bold as Goldfinger's similar efforts, and was altogether more workmanlike and British in appearance - a building which could grace any city centre perhaps? That it survives is testament to a tenacious island population who have, on the whole accepted incomers and immigrants rather like any dockside community. However, in the 1990s the area had a period of more chequered history, electing the first ever British National Party councillor in Derek Beackon. Beackon appeared to be as surprised as anyone to find himself on Tower Hamlets Council, and struggled to manage the complexity or scale of work expected of him. Perhaps not surprising as his prior role in the party had been as 'Chief Steward' - effectively the organiser of the team of Skinhead bodyguards who circled the leadership in public. Beackon's 'rights for whites' agenda was perhaps surprisingly aided by the local Liberal Democrats who published their own literature complaining that the predominantly Bangladeshi group rehoused from Limehouse when the Link Tunnel was built were given priority in 'luxury' accommodation. With Labour and the Lib Dems locked in an idealogical struggle during the 1993 election, Beackon crept in by a margin of only seven votes and immediately failed to comprehend what was possible at the local level. His colleague councillors walked out in protest at sharing the chamber with an immoderate and loud-mouthed fascist. When the seat was again contested in 1994, Beackon was ousted by a concerted campaign by Labour, and while the white working class roots of the island persist, there is at least a sense of a shared community in this oddly isolated zone again.
Pressed for time, I began to consider my options. The plan to circuit the island back to Limehouse was possible, but I found myself rushing ahead and not taking in my surroudings. A steady procession of buses beside me on Manchester Road had been reassuring at first - a potential quick way out if time got tight - but now they felt like a nagging pressure. At Island Gardens I decided to rethink my plan. With the DLR out of action the square outside the realigned route was busy with people teeming from the Rail Replacement Services. Beside the shiny, winged modern station the brick viaduct which had originally carried the rails here was still standing. I recalled previous visits, long before the railway burrowed under the river, bailing out here at the end of the line and regarding Greenwich across the river from a bench in the small park. Seized by a sudden desire to relive this experience, I headed into the gardens and found my way to the river wall. The Thames buzzed with life - river buses and motor launches scudding over the brown waters. The Greenwich foot tunnel's domed entrances flanked the park, emerging beside the impressive bulk of the Royal Naval College across the river. Beyond, green space stretched away up towards the observatory. I lingered for a moment, before heading back to complete my loop around the island by bus. There was unfinished business on the island - and much to be explored within the deep loop of river - but for now at least, it was time to head back to the mainland.
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.