Posted in London on Saturday 13th June 2015 at 10:06pm
The trip out east had been interesting, despite the dull skies and lightless quality to the morning. I'd rarely used the Underground east of Whitechapel - usually preferring to walk or take the bus - but it was expedient for my plans today. As we rose from the earth at Bromley-by-Bow and scudded over the now very familiar Lower Lea Valley, I picked out landmarks which were in some ways best seen from the train - the silver trickle of Abbey Creek, the green wilderness of Channelsea Island, and the distant curve of currently forbidden pathways. Rising from the Hammersmith and City Line at Barking, the air was damp with flecks of undelivered rain. I sheltered under an awning at the pleasant little coffee stall and watched the morning opening up. The street was busy trying to be unprepossessing: a drooling, Somali beggar hassled us for coffee money and cigarettes, another guy punched angrily at the ATM buttons before turning and vomiting mango-yellow in disgust on the pavement. Across the street the oddly named Kennedy Chicken was opening for business, inexplicably appropriating the unfortunate President's name and bookending it with Liberty raising her torch aloft. Barking was just like I'd always found it - a cartoon version of the 'east end' people think they know, a boiled-down and purified zone of cockney bluster. A melting pot of cultures and interests where you're never really sure it's safe to laugh along with the joke. Finding my bearings, I pressed on through the bedraggled remains of the market, into the older crossroads at the heart of the town. Above me, some fine buildings - and ahead of me the green space of the Abbey Grounds. The remains of the Abbey were deserted and windswept - a litter trap for the neighbouring Abbey Retail Park which spoiled any hope of imagining the Abbey's 13th century glory days or as the seat of power for Queens, Saints and Abbesses. I struck out for the safety of the river - always the best course of action.
My plan for today was hazy and hurried - but had a couple of focal purposes. Firstly, I wanted to open my account with the River Roding. With my attention almost entirely absorbed by the Lea and its related streams and canals for years now, looking further east has felt almost disloyal to the imaginary scope of my nebulous project. Recently, though as my perambulations have brought me further out of the city, I've looked to find new bounds to prevent my already unmanageable sphere of interest from exploding entirely. The Roding has presented a convenient edge now for a while. After the docks, after the ranks of terraced housing of East Ham there has to be an edge to the map. But of course, every edge demands exploration - a psychic continuation sheet into the unknown. I found the river easily enough - mostly by way of a remarkable smell. The hot weeks of early summer had cooked the Roding into a stinking brew, a mixture of saline, marine notes with raw sewage ported in directly from Beckton on the west bank. At the bridge a flood defence scheme had been constructed, the channels split - one flowing lazily, the other backed up and brackish. Looking north, the river continued straight and featureless, hugging the North Circular and providing a boundary for the retail park and a direct if apparently impassable route to Ilford. To the south it broadened into the town's ancient wharf before contorting into Barking Creek. Rotting barges ranked against the west bank, buffering the car breakers yards of the ironically named Fresh Wharf. The low, grey sky pressed heavily over the estuary, and I was acutely aware of being the only pedestrian for some distance. I also realised that my lack of planning had left me slightly lost and with only a theoretical idea of how to get where I was heading. This was, of course, exactly why I do this stuff....
After a wrong turn onto a high footbridge, which could have shredded minutes from my walk in fact, I headed south alongside the A406. A wrecked Mercedes sat strangely abandoned in a lay-by beside the road - apparently well within the gaze - but outwith the interest - of the permanently manned security booth at the entrance to an industrial park. I edged by the sentry box, expecting trouble but getting none, finding myself in a nature reserve of sorts. What nature would dare come here is unclear - Hand Trough Creek, a gummy inlet of the Roding, lapped at the edge of the path. There were fading information boards and carefully cleared paths - but my route led me in a different direction today. Passing under the North Circular, I squeezed into an alleyway cramped beside the entrance to Newham's 'Central Depot'. A parade of dustbin lorries and odd little golf-cart powered gully-suckers rattled by. The alleyway turned north and hugged the road, taking me to a junction which joined the bridge I'd rejected. Turning west here and edging the grounds of a mid-century prefabricated school, I realised I was walking parallel with a stream or drain. I couldn't find a name for it, but it was significant enough to earn a well-built stone culvert entrance when I final rejoined civilisation at Folkestone Road. The difference here was palpable - firstly, the silence. No traffic moved. The streets were peppered with off-duty taxis and white vans ticking over before their next foray into the suburbs. A light dust of moisture was in the air, and the pavement began to give off their characteristic smell of relief that the heatwave had broken. Near Gooseley's Playing Fields I found my way to a footbridge over Newham Way and into the Beckton Triangle Retail Park. As I zig-zagged up the ramps to the bridge, I noted a pair of joggers looping back and forth over the structure, up and down the stairs, over and back in seemingly endless repetition while the traffic on the A13 shuddered beneath them. After a brief stop at a vast Sainsbury's store for sustenance I set out to find the Greenway. Having walked the western ends of the North Outfall Sewer for some years, this mysterious eastern terminus had always seemed exotically distant - but in truth it all ends at a gateway on a dusty footpath between shopping complexes. Having checked there was no way beyond the fence, I climbed onto the long, straight ridge and began walking west, with the cloying waft of sewage occasionally drifting from below. Beside the path I noted Britvic/Pepsico's manufacturing base and wondered if the presence of the city's filth is why I really didn't like Pepsi so much?
Soon, my second objective came into plain sight. From this direction, little more that a green, wooded tump above the endless sea of off-the-peg white-roofed warehouse blocks. A junction in the path was still signposted for Beckton Alp - but the bridge which led from the Greenway had been removed, the footings still resolutely embedded beyond the fence. I'd expected this - there wasn't any clearly mapped way in from this direction - but it gave me an uneasy feeling about the Alp. It's perhaps not unreasonable to be sceptical about the place - this is the final remains of a toxic heap of spoil which at its ugly zenith stretched all the way from the Gas, Light and Coke Company's works. The heap largely covered the ground which was annexed by the London Docklands Development Corporation for the expansion of the formerly tiny hamlet of Beckton. Now just one, isolated peak of the heap stands, landscaped and neutralised, and for a while the home of an ill-fated attempt to run an urban dry ski-slope in an attempt to capitalise of the long held alpine nickname for the piles of toxic waste. The former enterprise is almost gone, save for a litter of concrete blocks and some wooden platforms. But a zig-zagging path remains, and I chanced upon an unmarked gate in the palisade fence which led to the foot of the climb. I wasn't entirely sure about this - there were few pedestrians around, and it was clear that this gate was locked at points. I slipped inside, and started climbing, doubling back and forth, soon enveloped by the overgrown vegetation. The path was fractured by roots, littered with junk and untamed brambles. It was clear that people didn't come here much - and when they did, almost certainly only to escape or to be unseen. I felt the rising range anxiety - the gate was long out of sight, and the summit wasn't yet evident. As if mocking the Alp's former glory, a rough, steep mudslide of a path took a direct route between the angles of the official route - and for a while I considered attempting the scramble back down. But then, unexpectedly, I came upon a further gate, which was firmly and impassably locked. Above me I could see the tall, iron monoliths which signified the summit. Each was adorned with a splash of ill-executed graffiti which spelled out some kind of coded message to the city: a Star of David, a phallus, the Microsoft Windows logo, a swastika - and finally the inexplicable legend 'Lord Cunt'. I pondered the meaning briefly before turning to catch an unexpected and hazy prospect across the city. Despite the gloom, the low, pregnant clouds and the middle-distance haze, I could make out the gleaming towers of Docklands, the indistinct bulge of St. Mary Axe, and between them the dark obelisk of The Shard. In the foreground, a slash of green and terracotta where Beckton sprawled between the mothballed Royal Docks and the Northern Outfall Sewer. It was time to make a descent, objective only partially achieved this time.
After poking around the fringe of the Alp site for a while, looking for any other potential entrance which might allow a complete ascent, I admitted defeat and braved the complex puzzle of road crossings to resume the journey along the Greenway. I had walked the western end of this permissive footpath topping the great sewer many times, but I'd never quite managed to walk all of it. The Greenway has been partially closed at various points along its length since around 2009 by my reckoning. Firstly it was severed to allow the Olympic Park to be built largely behind blue wooden fences - with a later concession to public interest with The View Tube cafe. Then it was closed further east to allow temporary bridges and widened stairways to be installed in advance of the games, anticipating crowds flocking in from the somewhat distant station at West Ham. The need to dismantle these and remove the Olympic 'overlay' took up more time, and soon enough its most recent closure began - this time to replace the bridge at Channelsea as part of the larger project to dig a new sewage tunnel. This recent closure severs the route from West Ham to Stratford - a ludicrously long stretch given alternative access routes to the path which could have been considered. In any case, the section from Beckton to Balaam Street was new to me. I set out feeling a little apprehensive - I realised my new boots were doing a superb job at calming my feet, which would usually be protesting by now, but were letting me walk far faster and harder than usual. My knees complained bitterly at this treatment, and the long gravel ribbon stretched ahead endlessly. I felt like I'd walked forever, but stopping briefly and turning back I see the imposing tower's of the Barking Flood Barrier at the mouth of the Roding. By a trick of the flat ground and elevated position, they still seem immense and close by, like I've never really escaped from the River. Beside the path, beyond the iron railings and carefully selected hedgerow planting, ranks of suburban terraces stretched across the flat plains between the Lea and the Roding. In the middle distance, the solid diagonal of the Boleyn Ground's terraces - home of West Ham until the Olympic Stadium is ready, bitter years of legal dispute now it seems quieted. Between the pitch and my path, a vast Jewish burial ground edges the Greenway, whilst on the south side, the sprawling modern low-rise blocks of Newham Universtity Hospital parallels the walk. Flanked by death and decay, after being largely alone since leaving the market at Barking, a welcome hint of life starts to reappear unexpectedly - there are cyclists complaining about walkers, and walkers swearing quietly under their breath at cyclists. Bells ring passive aggressively. People join the path with their shopping, schlepping homewards along the convenient direct route. A hoodie-cowled youth dances from foot to foot, shadow boxing and wheeling at an invisible opponent. The Greenway is resolutely alive again as I cross Barking Road into territory I've already covered.
Despite knowing the way is blocked, I walk as far as the fences cutting the path. There is no activity beyond, at least as far as I can see. Below is the slash of waste ground beside Abbey Creek and the railway from which I looked over this territory at the start of this morning's excursion. I descend onto the broad, busy trough of Manor Road, flanked by high walls and dotted with 'Greenway Diversion' signs lifted straight from the London 2012 storeroom. Crossing the street I meet a group of walkers poring over maps, trying to navigate back onto the footpath. They consult the official 'Capital Ring' guidebook and argue about where to head next. There is a degree of hysteria in their voices, decanted into a busy, unknown East London street, off the edge of the sanctioned guidebook. Their walk stopped being pleasantly edgy and urban, and became strangely real as they wheeled out of Abbey Lane. I leave them bickering over directions, and head over the railway towards the head of Abbey Creek. I was here not too long ago, and little appears to have changed. The bridge carrying the sewer is still swathed in plastic, still an apparently work-less work site. I nose into Canning Road again, but find the oddly secretive Mosque has posted sentries. Young men, lazily hanging around at the crest of the street, eyeing strangers and yelling incomprehensibly at those who dare to pass the edge of the site. Channelsea Island is beyond, the huge open swathe of de-industrialised wasteland - one of the last truly empty lots between the city and the docks - subject to dispute. I move on, taking the Channelsea Path into Stratford. I have a minor objective here too - three years back I poked around the Carpenters Estate looking for remnants of the Channelsea north of the High Street, tempted by a tiny remaining slash of blue on a 1995 A-to-Z map. This time I was determined, and although one short open stretch appears to have disappeared under new apartments, by climbing onto the footbridge between Station Street and Jupp Road I could see the line of greenery edging out from under the new blocks and leading into a narrow, algae-filled concrete channel. The river was compromised and diminished, funnelled into this tiny, reeking gap between the Jubilee Line and the road - but it was there, holding out despite the relentless development of the area. Beyond the station it disappeared again, possibly underground - or possibly simply stopped up with concrete. Descending from the bridge, I returned to the High Street and cutting between new-build flats, walked along the edge of the Waterworks River. A new frontage - with sales brochure public art and planting - leads to Bridgewater Road and the concrete bridge still bearing dire warnings for passing under it into the "Olympic Park Work Site". The mouth of the bridge is stopped up for work, while a nearby building being demolished on the river-front teems with artists, tramps and addicts, all vying for a bit of the less-than-prime real estate before it's gone. Oddly enough, this has a little of the feel of how this area used to exist - on the margins of everyone's life, quietly democratic - it's almost nostalgic to clatter uncomfortably over broken down hoardings to return to the pavement.
I pause in the park for a while to rest my knees - it's busy, strangely warm, but still weirdly inert. Families queue for the ascent of the Orbit, while others descend and enter the nearby restaurant. There's not too much else to do here just now, but still they come - a tide of pushchairs and toddlers, wide-eyed grins fixed on the slashes of colour of the generously planted meadows. I cut across a grassy area and find it strangely hard going - the grass is coarse, the turfs still separate grass tiles with rough edges. Like an ill-fitting Donald Trump hairpiece, the grass hardly disguises the remediated surface underneath. I linger longer in the park than usual - partly just pleased to find a place to sit and rest after a long unbroken walk from Barking. But also, because I find myself feeling more at peace with the place now. Perhaps it's because the public accesses are starting to open - walkways along the rivers beginning to feel complete, bus routes running through the park - or maybe because the original purpose of the event seems distant now that other mega-events are breaking free of the back pages and becoming predictably bad news? In any case, I miss what is lost, and I wish I'd known it better - but I can at least walk objectively through the park now. I hop gingerly aboard a single-decker heading for Shadwell - I had one last aim which I'd all but decided wouldn't be possible, but which might just work with the assistance of this route. The bus snaked through the park, onto Fish Island and then through Bethnal Green to Whitechapel Road. After a long wait and a perilous crossing of the Cycle Superhighway related roadworks, we plunged into the relative calm of Stepney. I disembarked at St. Dunstan's Church - a little earlier than perhaps I needed to - and after a few yards of crazy zig-zagging managed to get my feet back. I struck out along Stepney Way, using the Royal London Hospital's lofty helipad as my landmark. Despite cutting across the territory endlessly to get elsewhere, I didn't know this triangle of land between Whitechapel Road, the Highway and the City at all well. It had turned warm and humid in the late afternoon, with a relentless sun breaking through the clouds and bouncing back from the glass of the hospital's new buildings. As I entered the old heart of Stepney, there was a sudden and almost magical switch. The streets were lined with Victorian terraces, squares of decent red-brick houses, corner storefronts which were still shops and restaurants. It seemed like a world away from the dry, dusty sprawl of Whitechapel which at times feels like a low-aspiration theme park of urban horror compared to this strangely comforting vision of the Old East End. It was cleaned and primped into modern acceptability of course - the legendary squalor and hardship buffed vigorously away from the streets, bricks scrubbed clean of soot. Then, almost without warning after, executing a deft switch of direction to superstitiously skirt the grounds of the hospital, my objective appeared looming ahead: the great, mullioned frontage of Tower House - formerly Jack London's "monster doss house", now luxuriously appointed dwellings. The old, pointed archway entrance a blank face, its mouth sealed. A new glassy tunnel entered beside the western tower leading to a bored concierge and security gates. As I tried to get an angle for the shot in the cramped narrow street, the woman's entrance of the East London Mosque opened and a silent tide of black-swathed women erupted into the already busy street. I was bustled by the crowd and eyed with suspicion by men waiting in cars which looked not unlike that ill-fated Mercedes I saw wrecked in Barking hours back. I pressed on, camera hidden now from view, skirted the ancient brick wall of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and made a dash for a bus back to civilisation.
It's hard not to feel cheated in some ways by today's walk - Beckton Alp closed for business, the Greenway still impassible at Channelsea - a long and relentless slog along sometimes reeking byways. But I realise too that as I cross and recross this territory, as I become more familiar with its contours and topography, so it yields more of its secrets. And there are many, many more to be found here it seems.
You can find more pictures from the walk here.
Posted in London on Saturday 30th May 2015 at 7:05am
When David Plotz left Slate for a new venture, there was it's fair to say, a little head-scratching. This venture was Atlas Obscura - a guide to the strange, surprising and wonderful places of the world, with the content generated by the locals themselves. We all know these spots - these places we like to show people who visit us, basking in the vicarious delight of finding an interesting place that's just a little off the beaten track. We probably all secretly covet them too, wanting them to not become too well known or widely heard about. Admit it. We've all thought that about a special place. But amongst genuine enthusiasts there is another urge at work - the wish to share knowledge, especially those most obscure or geeky bits of it. That's where Atlas Obscura comes in. From strange monuments to hidden subways, and from secret gardens to lost nuclear bunkers - the world of Atlas Obscura is slightly nerdy but utterly loveable one. One in which you can easily lose many, many hours.
Today was International Obscura Day, and all over the world hundreds of the places documented on the website were opening up in a global celebration of all things hidden and curious. We'd spotted that among them was Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park - formerly one of London's 'magnificent seven' Victorian cemeteries, opened to accept the city's dead who were, in the most literal sense, spilling over from the ancient churchyards. We set out early, taking a relaxing trip to London for the second week in a stretch, and making our way eastwards. Our first call was at Stratford for a little shopping - I think I did pretty well to survive for a couple of hours in Westfield before getting frustrated and irritable with the public. It also became apparent during this part of the day, that recent events had taken their toll on my patience - I felt stretched and downcast as I surveyed the Olympic Park from the restaurant where we ate. But, our planned visit soon piqued my curiosity, and we headed to Mile End. There was time for a brief walk to look at the Regents Canal before we assembled at the Cemetery Park, and near the bridge we discovered a surprisingly well cared for rose garden nestling between the canal and a small modern housing development. The sun was beating down on the city - dry, dusty and busy passing not far from us. But this little oasis of a garden was quiet and pleasant. It was our very own bit of Obscura for a few minutes.
We approached the park via Hamlets Way, a busy confusion of stores and houses with numerous layers of the ever changing East End population tumbling over each other. Once inside the gates, next to the crumbling brick lodge and the more recent Soanes Centre, the peace and tranquillity was evident. We paused on a bench, watching people assemble and looking at some of the nearby grave markers. Despite housing encroaching on the park, it was shielded by tall, old trees which swayed in the breeze. A private and rather wonderful spot. There was no doubt this belonged in the Atlas at all. Soon, our guide Ken arrived and took us into the building where he and two other employees are based. Some quick admin later, and we snaked out into the park once again while Ken explained how the cemetery had come into being, and how after its closure it became threatened by re-development. Development so aggressive in fact, that only a few short years after the final burial, the borough had cleared a swathe of the stones by bulldozer. But the story of the park is a story of a community knowing it has something special on its hands - they organised, protested and persisted - and the site was eventually retained as a park with the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park providing management and custodianship. It stands as an early and enduring example of localism which is inspiring, especially when the scale of the undertaking is considered.
Because, this is a huge park! The cemetery, given its location in the East of the city, had to do two things which perhaps set it apart from the rest of the magnificent seven. Firstly, it had to accommodate people from a variety of faiths, sects and beliefs - and therefore unlike others it isn't segregated into sections, but devotes the whole space to the community it serves. It also had to accommodate far more poor folk in 'paupers graves' than other cemeteries. Now, the site is mostly given over to woodland, with venerable trees snaking between mossy, intriguing headstones. The monuments here are a little less ostentatious than Highgate or Kensal Green - columns and urns dominate, among stones of dark purple granite and occasionally welsh slate - but the sheer volume of graves is remarkable. There are, it's said, more people buried here than alive now in Tower Hamlets. Well over a quarter of a million souls found their last rest here before it became a park. As we walk and listen, Ken proudly points out the flora and fauna they have introduced in the managed areas. He is particularly taken with telling us which plants are edible, breaking off leaves and stems and encouraging us to taste and describe. Two young children in the group are far braver than most of the adults, and Ken finds a ready audience - particularly in the young girl who is a budding environmentalist and clearly holds him in high esteem, skipping along behind him beneath the tunnel of brooding old trees. Occasionally the sun bursts between branches and picks out a stone. It's a very special afternoon indeed.
There is also plenty of evidence that the park is still a valued community asset. As we clog the pathways with our straggling group, Ken occasionally reins us in to let a park user pass by. He knows them all it seems, many by name, and has a surprising recall for their lives and routines. Not distracted by this though, he demonstrates how to cure a nettle sting and in the process bursts a lifelong balloon of certainty - dock leaves don't work. Nettles have their own antidote stored in the sticky sap of their stems. He also demonstrates how to eat a nettle successfully - I don't join in, I have an entire boyhood of stored memories of the aching stings they produce and I'm just too clumsy and uncertain to 'grasp the nettle' how Ken does. At the centre of the park is a wide grassy space where the non-denominational chapel once stood, before the Luftwaffe claimed it during the blitz. A fenced off area beside this marks the part of the park which the borough intended to leave as a cemetery when they brought in the bulldozer. It's a tiny, crowded park of the site against the south-western corner of the site. It's amazing to think how this could all have been so different.
As we navigated the park, coming up against the low brick viaduct carrying the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway out of the city, notable burials were mentioned - not least "White Hat Willis", the owner of the Cutty Sark and Will Crooks, a much-loved local poverty activist and Mayor of Poplar. But more affecting perhaps were the mass of public graves, organised as long trenches and most often unmarked save the odd, tiny stone. A contrast indeed to the line of tall, pointed and distinctive Charterhouse graves, the resting place of Monks from the city who's own burial site had also filled to overflowing. There is one surprisingly new monument too - that for John Buckley VC, hero of the Indian Mutiny, long lost in a mass burial site here but found after diligent work by volunteers. The stone is discreet and secluded, being left to nature in a mark of respect to the local population who probably take a rather different view of Buckley's 'heroism' in strapping mutineers to cannons before firing them.
All too soon, we realise that the planned tour has over-run by over forty minutes, and we make a swift loop back around the circular track used for turning horse-drawn hearses and head for the gates. It feels like there is much more to see here, and a great deal more to know about the place. Ken urges us to stay in touch, to join the Friends if we can. As our group disperses into the warm, summery evening of Mile End, we head for the station and the start of our journey home. While a cemetery in Tower Hamlets might not feel like the most hidden or exciting spot, the tour has met the brief strangely well. I'm not sure how many times I've passed by here, hurrying to some other more exotic spot, scudding by on a train out of Fenchurch Street, or passing mere feet away on a bus. But right here, under our very noses is a place of deep-rooted history, local activism and dedicated conservation. Aware of the burden they carry for managing the past, the Friends of the Cemetery make careful judgements about balancing respect and recreation. They're definitely getting it right so far.
Posted in London on Saturday 2nd May 2015 at 11:05pm
I should disclose in advance that I'm writing this late. Very late indeed, perhaps as it's almost eleven months since this walk took place. In many ways, these months have been some of the most transformative of my entire adult life - and it's perhaps no surprise that events unfolding over the months were easier to write about than the strange days of May 2015. On 14th May, a few busy, confusing days after this walk my father died just over a year after my mother's sudden passing. It's not been my custom to write much about life at home - in fact, even huge events have only been alluded to indirectly. But this closed a chapter, and finally led to another opening. This walk, taken as a respite during a complicated time of running between home, work and hospital, was incredibly important. A fascinating route which took me into territory I'd only imagined walking - and possibly the last time I ever sent my father a message from the road, a tradition we'd followed for many years. These walks have become terribly important since May 2015, and remain so - but rarely would they represent such a strange calm time before a tumult of change. My recollections of the route are below, for completeness if nothing else.
It's rare to find myself at Tower Hill these days. Indeed, it's only ever been an occasionally convenient spot for me. But today I'm going to start my walk from here, and I'm heading east - out of the city and into the dark areas of the map which used to seem so impossibly distant, so other. Of course, nowadays much of the stretch of territory along the A11 is far from alien, and slowly my knowledge of the rest of the east fills the map with light and colour - but there are areas I've never walked - maybe never dared. Areas which I've crossed and re-crossed by rail or bus, occasionally stepping off for the briefest moment to change trains or reorient myself. Today I'm walking into the unknown east, and it feels like a welcome challenge after the claustrophobic worry of the past weeks. My path leads me away from Tower Bridge, dropping beside it towards the river front and stumbling across a coffee shop stationed in the foot of the huge concrete hotel. There's something of a food festival gearing up here - street food vans are opening, fake grass is laid across the promenade like an oversize billiard table. I don't linger long, there's a walk to be done and I've only really guessed at how long it might take me to complete what feels like an ambitious route. I snap a shot back towards the bridge as I turn and head into the east, briefly along the waterfront before I'm forced inland by the discontinuous path. I pick my way around St. Katherine's Dock, dodging joggers and cyclists setting out in full lycra from the luxury apartments, and find my way onto Wapping High Street. This isn't new territory - this dark chasm of converted warehouses and river glimpses is somewhere I've touched on before - but today I walk the length of it, stopping at St. John's Churchyard and also heading to Wapping Old Stairs - the ancient hanging dock. Today it's a narrow alley which smells mildly of stale beer and disinfectant. The Thames laps ponderously against the slick steps below. It's hard to imagine this as an especially dark place. Back on the High Street, I pass the station and head between buildings to New Crane Steps. I took a picture here of a quiet, almost idyllic Thames beach years back, and I try to get the same view today. The beach is quiet and cool, and it's tempting to stay here, but I've an urge to walk on.
Crossing the bascule bridge at the end of Shadwell Basin presents me with a choice - head for The Highway, or stay with the river? The day is about water - so I take a footpath leading into the King Edward VII Memorial Park and skirt the huge rotunda which ventilates the Rotherhithe Tunnel below. Back on the river, I see signs of protest - the gardens will be used as a building area for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which will steal a section of rare green space in this part of the city, and will disrupt the river path. I edge around the barriers and obstructions already in place, and find myself in the shadow of Free Trade Wharf. This huge claw of a building climbs like a ziggurat and refuses to be photographed from close by. It is perpetually in its own shadow, and only those viewing from across the river can see it's full extent. The path is preserved at least, curving gently along the shore until I'm again forced to head inland and onto Narrow Street. I duck into Spert Street to gain a view of the Limehouse Link tunnel portal, the road delving under the basin to provide an unimpeded route onto the Isle of Dogs. I have a choice here: I could strike out along the surface describing roughly the same course to cross the top of the island, repeating a section of walk I'd completed recently, or to bend my own arbitrary rules and take to the DLR to reposition myself. Today is really two walks - neither quite long enough but together almost too ambitious? I'll take the train this time.
The short DLR ride from Limehouse to Canning Town is interesting, as I'm beginning to know this territory better and can understand its complex geography from the elevation of the viaduct. Arriving at the multi-level metal and concrete confusion of Canning Town station I purchase supplies and seek out the fairly basic facilities before starting the second part of my walk. Beside the station Bow Creek slinks towards the Thames, and I'm able to confirm the rotunda offering exit from the station onto the Creek is definitely closed at present. Soon after leaving the station, I discover that Silvertown Way is a divided place - the eastern edge is being redeveloped with flats and hotels spilling north from the Royal Docks, while the western side is blighted by railways, a narrow tongue of industrial land broadening into the triangular Crossrail worksite nestled under the Lower Lea Crossing. I'd walked this way in reverse before - descending from the viaduct to head for the station. But now, instead I took the broken and cluttered road which runs alongside the bridge: Peto Street. Largely giving access only to the businesses which use the arches as their home, this dusty route is rarely walked it seems. Consulting my older map, I realise that this was once a more important road - but the coming of the graceful Silvertown Way viaduct before the Second World War bridged the chasm which the railway still represents today. Following the curve of the street under a dirty bridge I find myself hemmed in by the walls of Victoria Dock Road. Flanked by railways and the back of a housing development, I miss a chance to cross a footbridge to Tidal Basin Road and I'm forced to walk this way until Royal Victoria DLR station offers a means of crossing the rails. I descend into a surprisingly busy scene. This part of the docks has seen much development: the Emirates Airline Cable Car station touches down near The Crystal - a self-referencing permanent exhibition to sustainable development. Along the dock edge a run of apartments with associated restaurants have appeared. There are people enjoying the warm but brooding afternoon, wandering between cable car and ice cream vans, uncertain of what this is all really for. Across the silver sheet of the dock a low-rise development is flanked by a line of black cranes, preserved for posterity. It's hard to imagine the dock during its working life - or even afterwards when it was an empty wasteland, a focus for the Thatcherite project. Now it's part dormitory, part tourist attraction. A theme park of city living. I pause for a while and eat lunch on a bench, watching a grandma and her charges enjoying ice cream near the docks. It's a strange spot, that's for sure.
Setting off again, I edge along the dockside, the vast ExCeL centre providing an ominous white boundary. The area is deserted once I'm away from the restaurants and attractions, the exhibition centre is silent and the glass-fronted hotels which dot the area seem inert and reflect my image back at me. Across the dock, Millennium Mills glowers at the redevelopment. Crumbling but stately, this remnant of the old life of the area isn't yet a memorial to the old docks, but it is at least preserved. Beside it, a grain silo is also listed, and the water reflects their curious industrial appearance at me as I walked far enough to get a picture of the Mill. It's hard to ignore this rather beautiful and imposing edifice as I walk back towards the Royal Albert Bridge which allows me to cross the docks here, and I stop and check over my shoulder several times. Once I've climbed the numerous flights of metal stairs to the bridge - complete with graffiti urging the LDDC to fix the lifts - the view is even more majestic. A wheel of prosperity - the City, the Island, the new dockside developments - and then the Mill, and beyond it the shimmering stacks of Tate and Lyle at Silvertown. A small jet pushes down towards London City Airport, the dock water rippling sympathetically. This place is curiously compelling. South of the dock, residential buildings have filled the void left by industry in West Silvertown, with various strata of redevelopment surrounding a few streets of older housing stock. I pick my way eventually onto Mill Road, just such an older street which emerges onto North Woolwich Road near the Fire Station. Ahead of me, beyond the viaduct carrying the DLR, is the tell-tale blue fence of a developer - this is Royal Wharf: "A new riverside village for London". I turn east again, passing the gates of the doomed London Pleasure Gardens, a failed Olympic cash-in which was bound never to work. The public weren't ready to accept the edgeland charms of Pontoon Dock, and the vast canvas of open space was just a dusty, derelict carpark to revellers leaving events at ExCeL. No amount of commissioned art, projected images or expensive bar concessions could change that. Some areas just can't be dusted off - the asbestos is always buried just beneath the surface. Walking across the street and through Thames Barrier Park, it's clear how this area has developed in geometrically-arranged zones as industries have fallen. Hemmed in by residential blocks which have replaced industry, this sliver of green has hardly taken. Despite being well-tended, carefully planted and scrupulously tidy, it feels out of synchronisation with the crumbling and reforming world of dust around it. At the end of the park, the line of the garden is taken up by the barrier - the gleaming silvery hoods extending out into the grey waves. Seen this close it feels like a mysterious craft has landed. The urge is to cross, but that is forbidden. I turn back to the street and notice the forlorn Graving Dock Tavern and George's Diner - shuttered, no longer needed. Not the right kind of café for the aspirations of the area. Around them, the industry which supplied them with trade is gone, concrete footprints are impromptu car parks for vehicles which have fallen off all official registers. The ghost of West Silvertown - or the aspirational footprint of Pontoon Dock depending on your viewpoint - ends at a roundabout. The DLR flies overhead in search of the airport, and the road ahead appears to go where I'm heading - but only if the Crossrail works have preserved the old footbridge over the North London Railway alignment which they now occupy. I'm too footsore to chance a retreat, so I turn north and skirt the edge of a Travelodge car park to get to Connaught Road.
For the first time here, the smell of Tate and Lyle's sugar works fully hits me. A thick, sickly coating of the throat which it seems impossible to shift. Somehow more of the farmyard than the sugarbowl. Overhead, the ominous factory implores me to "Save British Sugar" - but it's unclear whether I should be conserving stocks or bailing-out the industry. Down here on the dusty road through North Woolwich I'm caught up against the signature blue hoardings of the Crossrail works. I recall my first visit here, travelling the railway between Albert Road and Factory Road for one last time, marvelling at how broken and otherworldly Silvertown felt. Now I'm here, walking the road which I described as a 'frontier town' on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Nothing appears to be open for business, and noting that I'm starting to flag, I take a seat on a curiously sited bench near the back wall of one of the housing schemes which line the thin isthmus of land between dock and factory. I realise I'm a bit of a curiosity to the locals - the old weatherbitten men off to one of the few pubs still open, or the pram-pushing Bengali women who hurry past me suspiciously. The taint of the factory hangs heavy, and has the same effect as a sugar-induced coma. The area sleeps, insensible to its gradual decline. Resisting the syrupy air, I'm reluctantly on my feet again. I push on seemingly passing an endless stream of closed pubs - the conical tower of the Tate Institute, the footprint and exposed cellars of a once proud but now unidentified pub gone since my last visit, the Henley Arms hanging on by a thread. Beside the road warnings appear for ferry contraband - and I realise that I'm coming to the junction I briefly scouted on foot nearly a decade ago. A new development of apartments and stores runs along the south of the road, few signs of anything open of course. North of the road, the Royal Standard Hotel looks menacingly half-open. Cans and stripshows - no draught beer. Stocked by illicit cross-channel beer runs and staffed by no-one with license. The fenced-off rear doors form a strange little litter-trap, but were once a sort of terrace it seems. I can imagine sitting out here in busier times watching ferry traffic. But now it's quiet. I eye the passing buses with interest, wondering if this is a good place to quit, but decide it probably isn't. So with a last effort of will I cross the street and enter Royal Victoria Gardens. It's calm and cool, and I can get to the river briefly here, the towers of Thamesmead West stepping across the view. The path doesn't hold out long, and despite apparently being available through the Galleons Point development, is gated and locked. Instead I head along the fine brick terrace of Barge House Road and onto the graceful rise of the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. Stopping as I cross, a chance to look back across the territory - the hills of Kent are green and dark behind the silver strip of river, Tate and Lyle dominates the skyline like an alien presence, meanwhile the airport runway sweeps along the dockside with the wind howling in from the sea. The docks are a strange place, contested and unquiet despite their disuse.
As I picked my way carefully to Cyprus Station, avoiding the knots of students wandering around the University campus I reflected on my walk. It had been long and tough on the feet, but I'd made so much sense of this area by walking it at last. Endless crossings by DLR and excursions by rail had hinted at its nature, but couldn't reveal how strangely compelling it is. The history of this place, the strangely isolated nature of its community and the sorry tale of development which excludes those here longest haunted my journey home. It's fair to say I'll be walking more in this zone - in the parts of the East I used to think of as beyond the pale.
For David John Newman 03/07/1945 - 14/05/2015 and Antoinette Jean Newman 09/11/1949 - 18/04/2014. Never forgotten.
Posted in London on Saturday 28th March 2015 at 11:03pm
I left the bus at Limehouse Station - maybe it was the urge to get walking, or the curiosity which had managed to get the better of me? It's hard to say, but as I edged my way around the road crossings and under the brick arches which carry the railway and DLR overhead, I felt very glad to be back. I had half a mind to head for St.Anne's Church, with the lantern of Hawksmoor's tower glowering at me, stark white on the leaden sky - but I'd walked that way before and I knew that wasn't for today. Instead I wanted to skirt the river, striking a course across the top of the Isle of Dogs. My targets lay east of here, and the walk to get there wasn't planned or arranged at all - so I did what I always do, and headed for water. I've visited Limehouse Basin before - a fleeting circumnavigation during the summer of 2012 - but I'm curious to work around the perimeter again. Passing the lock which gives entry to the Regents Canal, I spot a curious statue on the skyline - Christ the Steersman looking out to the river and granting safe passage to sailors, or perhaps just regarding the tall crane which is building something to obscure his view? As I cross the entrance to Limehouse Cut I recall being harangued by a group of Spanish students here before. Today it's quiet, a solitary homeless man parked under the footbridge.
Here I decide to take a route slightly inland, along Narrow Street and Limehouse Causeway. I'm curious to follow the straightest path here, to cut a swathe directly eastwards as far as I can. This is largely uncharted territory for me, and while I've flitted around the river fronts, this stretch of remarkably well preserved warehouses and wharves is a mixture of the charming and depressing - which so often sums up gentrification east of the city. Every authentically painted wooden door gives entry to either a range of utterly unaffordable loft apartments or a faceless media company - some buildings hosting both. Do people live 'above the shop' here like they did in the 18th century, I wondered as I passed Ropemaker's Field by way of a larger-than-life statue of a Herring Gull. Looking north, a development of low-rise public housing was dominated by two stark, grey concrete clad blocks - Malting House and Brewster House. I marvelled that, although I'd passed on the Docklands Light Railway many times, these blocks hadn't ever troubled my view south - no doubt dwarfed by the massive blocks of Canary Wharf in the near distance, the eye drawn involuntarily upwards. At this point, my route headed inland while the Thames turned sharply south. I followed the railway arches towards Westferry Station where the tangle of roads roared in the near distance. Again on instinct, I stayed south of the arches, edging along the railway which I knew took broadly the path I wanted to follow. For a while at least I was separated from West India Dock Road by a large fitness centre which dwarfed the grand Dockmaster's House and a quaint row of brick cottages, marooned in the glass and steel landscape which was now surrounding me. At the end of my path I noted the huge triangular DLR junction looming on narrow concrete viaducts. The various extensions and additions to the basic three-way pattern soared and dipped over the triangle giving a crazy sense of distorted geometry. The path ended at the cul-de-sac loop of Hertsmere Road. A black Mercedes was parked across the pedestrian access onwards, rear windows tinted, driver wearing sunglasses. I passed the car and edged around the rear to access the path. Clearly but inexplicably irritated he glanced in his mirror, started the engine and sped west with much noise and tyre-screeching.
I emerged from the tangle of railway viaducts onto a path beside Aspen Way, the busy six-lane arterial which scythes across the top of the Isle of Dogs, taking traffic from the Limehouse Link tunnel to the Lower Lea Crossing. It was moderately busy, providing a shrill metallic soundtrack to this part of the walk. I crossed the entrance to the Canary Wharf development - a permanent security checkpoint, manned by uniformed guards in Police-grade stab-vests. The guard was busy instructing a wayward wanderer in how to get back to civilisation when I passed, and I couldn't help suspecting I'd have got the same treatment had he not been busy. Shortly after crossing the entrance, a marine aroma announced Billingsgate Fish Market. This 'new' site, no doubt chosen back in 1982 for its relative distance from polite city life was now nestled at the foot of banking towers and expensive apartment blocks. It presented a strangely swift transition to the ragged margin of the Isle of Dogs, the development suddenly petering out into wasteland carparks and recession-paused building projects. Over it all, One Canada Square and its sister blocks glint and reflect the view back at the pavement. There was no-one around on a grey, windy Saturday morning - neither banker nor fishmonger - which just made it all feel even stranger.
Here I had to brave a complicated road crossing, feeling thankful for the sudden eerie quiet which descended on the street once I'd passed the Market. Diving under the flyover I emerged not far from where my previous walk had begun on Poplar High Street. Once again skirting the bulk of Robin Hood Gardens, I found myself disappearing between the undistinguished buildings of the East India Dock Development - an enclosed loop of buildings, turned inward for protection from the flailing economy of the early 1990s. The Borough of Tower Hamlets has leased part of this complex at tremendous public cost almost since it was built, and no-doubt still will unless their ever-wayward Mayor gets to realise his ambitions for the former Royal London Hospital buildings. The streets hereabouts all bore the names of spices - the stock-in-trade of the East India Company - and the area still had the feel of being held in bond. Lifting gates and security kiosks bookended a bus stand, the vehicles allowed through under sufferance. I tried to look as innocuous as possible as I stalked purposefully along Saffron Avenue, a rank of gently ticking 277 buses resting, their drivers relaxing in the deserted calm of this spot at a weekend. Emerging onto the public highway at a large roundabout, I spied a service station up ahead. I was hungry and thirsty - ever aware that my decision to start my walk further west meant I'd yet to even begin to achieve my goals. I ducked across Silvocea Way, passing the mighty red brick dock walls which marked the site of the former Pepper Warehouses, and entered. It was a strange amalgam of convenience store, urban coffee outlet and filling station which appeared to expect customers to pay for different commodities at a series of different checkouts. I made the simplest circuit that I could to obtain coffee and food, and retraced my steps to the Dock Walls, disappearing through the portal flanked with the emblems of Mercury, protector of merchants and tradesmen. At last, a broad, open view across Bow Creek greeted me. It was time to rest and take stock of my walk so far.
After a brief detour to view the dramatic curve in the river here, I pressed on. My first objective was just across the water, but was still a short walk away along the river path. The west bank of the Lea has been improved here - a wide expanse of footway, benches and lamps edge north towards a tangle of bridges - but the scheme is unfinished. This abandoned attempt to make the river walkable to its mouth would return to confound me again and again today. Not even the mighty juggernaut of the Olympics or the seemingly omnipotent reach of the LLDC seems able to push this project forward. What has been built though is the 'blue bridge', or more formally the Jubilee Footbridge. This stocky, imposing crossing is a little lost between the ghosts of other crossings and the massive road scheme which takes the A13 over to Canning Town, and as a result it has a curiously abandonded feel too. Litter drifted across the path, and the ominous sign told me that there was a "Pollution Control Valve" nearby if required. South of the bridge, the old iron railway swingbridge remains intact but decaying. I wondered why it wasn't pressed back into service to get walkers onto the peninsula rather than building a new bridge? North of the blue bridge, the road bridges swung away to the north east a little - an impressive iron structure from 1935 sandwiched between two concrete slip-roads and bus lanes commissioned by the London Docklands Development Corporation. Descending towards the park I noticed an elegant sweep of red brick with a steep slope down to the bank - one of the abutments of the 1896 replacement to the original 'Iron Bridge' which carried Barking Road over the creek remains here, sandwiched between new crossings, filling with litter and looking forlorn and forgotten. I marvelled about this tiny reminder of the past importance of this spot, left to obscurity here. Turning south, the gates of Bow Creek Ecology Park were before me. This tongue of land, pinched by the bulging turn in the river, had been given over to nature once the DLR viaduct had been completed, and was now open as a public park. It was, predictably, deserted. A DLR train descended from the viaduct, touching ground just feet from where I stood - the disinterested faces of the passengers on board looking blankly back at me. I walked the well-kept path around the loop, seeing places I'd already walked from new perspectives across the water. The overcast skies broke a little and afforded me some sunshine too. On the eastern side of the park, a view across to the City Island development showed progress - with the new, red, high-level footbridge in place but not commissioned up ahead. I reached the end of the path. A footbridge carries a path over the DLR here from the entrance of the Ecology Park to the eastern side of the tracks, but the way forward was barred by railings. I surveyed the footbridge, wondering if doubling-back and taking that route would get me further, but in the distance I could see more barriers near the new high-level bridge. Once again I cursed the lack of a continuous walkway along the bank.
Forced to retrace my steps, I pressed on past the blue bridge and walked along the road access to the park. The DLR swoops upwards here to reach a former railway alignment, and Wharfside Road passes under it in a spot I think I can declare the worst place in London bar none. As the underpass is too low for vehicles, the road travels in a hollow channel dug deep between two raised footpaths. This gives the pedestrian a dark, claustrophobic experience, hemmed in by railings and roof, with the echoing chasm of the road beneath. The whole area is a swirling trap of litter and dust. Dumped chemical barrels and the ragged remains of rough-sleeper's bedding are strewn across the path. The opposite pathway is perhaps worse, stopped off at one end by railings, it is an even more popular haunt it seems with syringes and special brew cans littered across the concrete plinth. But worst of all, it is oddly, eerily silent here between passing trains. The remoteness and deserted nature of this spot is no doubt its attraction for many of its regulars, but right now it was perhaps fortuitously empty of any obvious signs of life. I moved on hurriedly, out into the dusty mess of Stephenson Street, running alongside the Jubilee Line. I'd seen this long, straight stretch of road from the train many times and wondered about it - particularly the Durham Arms. An apparently closed, crumbling traditional pub which sat among factories and makeshift corrugated iron yard fences. Clearly older than most of its surroundings it must once have been busy with dockers and local workers, but now it was marooned between river and railway. Amazingly though, it was still open. Through the grimy, stippled glass windows a dull light glowed. A notice threatened dire consequences for incorrect parking, and another suggested - as I skirted an inflated and bursting steel drum of some sort of foaming chemical dumped on the path - that I try the beer garden at the rear! I didn't, but looking into the history of this place later, I almost wish I had. Linked to the shady past of the area, once owned and operated by the Sabini Gang, and later operated by the Metropolitan Police to front a secret corruption investigation, this was far from an ordinary boozer. The only traffic here was a constant stream of "out of service" buses thundering in and out of the nearby depot. As I paused to look along the long, dusty line of the street, a bus halted beside me and the door opened "Are you lost mate? I can take you back to the main road if you want". I was almost tempted, this wasn't somewhere to linger. But I had further to go yet.
At this point, things began to get frustrating. My feet had entered the strange zone which all urban walkers will know - where stopping was advisable, but starting again would be unlikely. I'd noted a range of possible footpaths to the river, linking Cody Dock with Twelvetrees Crescent, but the map was unclear on whether there was a way through. This whole stretch of the Lea was to be linked to Stratford by "The Fatwalk" - a shared pedestrian and cycle facility - in a plan dating back to before the Olympics. The games briefly re-energised the plan, and bits of the route have appeared, but crucial chunks are missing. The project is now once again shelved, and as a result I found myself picking my way around an industrial park, deserted save for a young eastern European couple who clearly had hoped to find privacy and were mildly annoyed to find me lurking. The businesses here were a little more salubrious than those I'd passed on Stephenson Street, mostly large national or multinational outfits. After what seemed like an interminable walk between these vast prefabriacted warehouses, I found the gates to Cody Dock resolutely locked. This is an interesting spot - a social enterprise has secured ownership of a small dock which branches off the Lea nearby, and runs projects and events on the premises. They hope to raise money to replace a bridge over the dock to link with the very path I wanted to access. But today, no chance of getting through to even see the progress. I retraced my steps and turned north into the Prologis Distribution Park, passing a deserted security check to enter. This was another odd space - apparently public, with bus stops and pathways through, but assuredly private as the Security Office and uniformed guards made sure passers by were aware. I walked through the park to reach its north eastern extremity, where there was the suggestion on the map of a path running beside Abbey Creek and the Channelsea River. Once again, I found my way barred by a semi-permanent fence. This was becoming all too predictable. Again retracing my steps, I caught sight of the statue of Sir Corbet Woodall surveying the towering gasholders which his company had built from a pleasant little woodland nook in the midst of all this industry. Thwarted again, I headed west, crossing the Lea at Twelvetrees Crescent where on a previous walk turned back because of the security presence, assuming there was no public right of way over the river. From the middle of the bridge, while looking over at Bow Locks, I spotted the pleasant, riverside walkway along the eastern bank which had been constructed as part of the planning gain for the nearby new industrial units and which would, if the plan ever came to fruition, link Cody Dock with Twelvetrees. I didn't have the heart to walk that dead-end today - there had been one too many frustrations to my progress already.
On more familiar territory now, I figured it was time to use my local knowledge a little. After a visit to the supermarket, I returned to the river at Three Mills, pausing for refreshment and a rest. As I sat, unkempt and fatigued, poring over my 1972 A-Z for clues, a group of senior walkers turned up and sat nearby. All greying, but bursting with almost indecent fitness and well-being, they carried all the appropriate gear - modern maps, good boots, spiked walking sticks and a sensible packed lunch. As I furtively fished in my Tesco bag and tried to make sense of the map which was the same age as me, I felt them looking at me with curiosity, maybe a little distaste and perhaps some pity. It was time to move on. I turned east again, onto Three Mills Island, in the hope of either finding a path around the back of the House Mill and turning towards Abbey Creek, or crossing the Prescott Channel at Three Mills Lock and picking up the Long Wall path. Both seemed unlikely - the path around the mill was stopped-up at its entrance, so I crossed into the pleasant but quiet park and walked to the lock instead. The bridge here had been closed when I first visited in 2012, and remained so. Across the water, work continued on the Lee Tunnel which seemed to be taking forever to complete. Getting somewhat used to finding the way blocked now, I recalled the route I'd taken along the Three Mills Wall River through the little residential estate to the Greenway, and decided to follow that. Today though I headed under the sewer and into Abbey Lane, passing a row of attractive workers' cottages, now relatively cut-off and sleepy since the road was severed. Here the continuation of Abbey Lane swings right, heading back towards Abbey Creek. With the impressive towers of the Victorian pumping station on my right I headed along the strangely busy road to a tight curve with a bridge parapet on one side. Crossing the fast-flowing stream of traffic and perching on the tiny sliver of pavement behind the crash-barrier, I looked over into the remains of the Channelsea River. In fact, long before I saw it, I could smell it. The combined odours of a long-since stopped up river and a major sewer flowing overhead just feet away were pretty overpowering. The Lee Tunnel works haven't only affected the Long Wall path it seems, with the Greenway also closed between the two points. The sewer, scaffolded and plastic-sheathed, shadowed the mud, silt and filth below. The Channelsea is gone. A ghost of a river, filled in in the 1970s, and now I wanted to walk the path which had been laid on top. I'd finally found my second goal.
The Channelsea Path, although I'd walked a long way and taken a ludicrously convoluted route to find it, was a pretty unremarkable walkway. From its terminus on Abbey Lane, in less complicated times it should be possible to ascend to the Greenway, or even join the path to Three Mills via the Long Wall. But for now it comes to an abrupt halt here at the busy curve in the road, Disappearing between trees, it follows the line of the street initially, with the Jubilee Line's Stratford Market Depot fanning out in the space between the former river and Bridge Street. Soon, with the road giving way to the back of large industrial units, all is quiet. The former river walls, green with moss and dotted with occasional ironwork appear on what would have been the western bank. A tiny brown rat scampers out into the path and eyes me suspiciously, before scampering into the undergrowth and shadowing my walk - presumably hoping I'll drop some scraps or litter, as it seems many have before me. Otherwise I'm alone, walking slowly but purposefully, occasionally stopping to investigate the fading public art or the information boards which are still just about readable, giving context to this path and its history. Sooner than expected, I find myself deposited into a new development of homes, just off Stratford High Street. I've survived another excursion off the map, and I'm back in civilisation almost sooner than I'd hoped.
After a brief coffee stop in the colourful, dizzying whirl of the Stratford Centre, I hopped on a bus back west for a final quest. Someone had tipped me off about the location of some graffiti related to saving bees, and I was keen to see if it had survived over-painting. I disembarked at the East London Mosque and crossed the street onto a narrow strip of pavement created by the Cycle Superhighway improvement work. Fighting my way along the contested path, I finally turned into Osborn Street and made my way along an equally difficult-to-navigate Brick Lane. I somehow always feel like I'm walking against the crowds here, so I wasn't sorry to duck into the alley leading to the old Shoreditch Tube Station where I knew there was a fair amount of street art. No bees this time, but a chance to watch some artists working on a memorial to Sir Terry Pratchett which was taking the entire wall of the former station. Back on Brick Lane, I dipped into a bookshop to buy a card before again leaving the fray for the backstreets around the newer Shoreditch High Street station. Here I found where the bees had been, but alas new work had overwritten the landscape. The vacant plots of the former Goods Yard were fenced off and parcelled up for development now, and it clearly wouldn't be long before this sort of thing became more public nuisance than public art. Finally, after a day of idle threats, it began to rain at last. It was time to duck into Liverpool Street station and begin the journey westwards, and towards home.
Today had presented a strange mixture of curious finds, objectives achieved and frustration at the disconnectedness and fragmentary nature of the river path. While it felt like a privilege to share in the secret history of this sometimes overlooked part of London, it felt equally sad that an attempt to open this to everyone had once again foundered. Even more worryingly, where private space encroached on the riverbank, the path looked likely to remain severed with access controlled by bored, uniformed guardians who would pick a fight for sport. But just like always, this walk had suggested new turnings to take and different approaches to this part of the world. It's time to plan for the next trip east....
You can find a gallery of images from the walk here.
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.