Monday, July 02, 2007
Below are descriptions of five different walks around the 2012 Olympic Park. Five walks you could have made yesterday, but can't make today. Each walk's description will be accompanied by a set of geotagged photographs (linked throughout the text) so that those of you who've never been to the Lower Lea Valley can visualise what's about to be wiped away. Should you care. And maybe in 2012, if this blog is still here, we can all look back and see what's been built on the site of what. Five years and counting. Bring it on!
Walk the Olympic Park (1)
40 photographs here
If you're trying to locate the southern end of Marshgate Lane, look for the Porsche showroom on Stratford High Street. Nobody who buys one of their vehicles would ever dream of driving north up this grimy, dusty road, but that's where we're heading. Turn right at the temporary traffic lights, then sharp left at the arched entrance to the Marshgate Business Centre. What an unloved street lies ahead. Along its crooked length are several brick-fronted warehouses and workshops, almost as if the 21st century arrived and nobody here noticed. Fading signs on gates and doors boast 0181 telephone numbers. Times have been hard for Freetrade Beers & Minerals Limited and Kenton Steel, and for a score of other recently-moved-out very small businesses. Worshippers no longer flock to the outwardly underwhelming Celestial Church, not now that the shutters have come down for the last time. It's humbling to remember how many local Londoners have scraped their living down this backward backstreet.
The Olympic gate has been erected beside a pile of rusting car bumpers outside the Bodyworks Accident Repair Centre. Beyond the road vanishes beneath a dank dripping railway bridge, emerging on the other side alongside an open expanse of automotive scrapyard. Somebody around here must like tyres because they're piled up everywhere - until recently blocking pedestrian access to the Greenway above. The roadway beneath these old iron sewerpipes is even darker, and puddlier. Step through the mud, past a couple of rotting sofas and an unseen plaque to the Victorian engineers who created this essential effluent motorway. It's a minor miracle that nobody ever started a fire down here, mangling the ironwork above - North London's toilets would have backed up for miles.
Phew, that's the grim bit over. The four storey brick building to your right marks the entrance to the Marshgate Centre. Which is much less posh than it sounds. The upper windows are smashed, the hanging basket has seen better days, and a rather paranoid sign by the front door announces Be aware!! This area infested with thieves!. There are rather better security gates nextdoor at Prism Chemical Services, which is just as well given the stockpiled Hazchems stashed away in silos stretching back to the riverside. To the right is Knobbs Hill Road (quite frankly I'm amazed that nobody's stolen the street sign), the first of three bleak sidestreets lined by warehouses, steel fences and car spares outlets. Don't venture right down to the end or the insane dog that guards the Bedrock sheds will practice his 100 decibel bark, frustrated that he can't slip through the locked gate and tear you limb from limb.
Back on the main road, some of Marshgate Lane's bigger businesses now grace the roadside. The roses at PA Finlay & Son recently gave one last futile display, bursting red and pink through the security fence. Next it's the salmon-coloured chic of H Forman & Son, who had the misfortune to upgrade their fish-smoking factory just before the Olympic decision came through. Bosses here have been amongst the most vocal against forced relocation, but they're still having to move out all the same. The owners of the next office block vacated a while back, and the ODA's building contractors have moved in instead. A fleet of decontamination chambers stand waiting in the car park, ready for operatives in respirators to deal with all the asbestos and other fibrous nasties that will be displaced by the area's imminent demolition.
And so we come to the higher ground which, in five years' time, will be the location of the Olympic Stadium itself. It's almost impossible to visualise today. Maybe once the surrounding warehouses have been cleared and the ground levelled it'll become a bit easier, not that you'll be allowed in to see it. Our walk ends up the third and final sidestreet, turning right across the multi-storey grandstand, across the athletics track and into the central green bit of the stadium where all the javelins will land. Why not break into a run and sprint up the road, just so that you can say you've completed the 100m where the world's greatest will compete in 2012. On your way you'll pass a Belgian truck driver parked up for the night, a rotting mattress and a large warehouse where Bywaters used to hire out skips. The finishing line is marked by three fluttering flags, in this case representing a Mercedes Service Centre and not the medal winners' rostrum. And finally, at the very end of the road, there's a factory that makes lace curtains - I rather hope that the royal box ends up here. How absolutely insignificant this sidestreet looks today. But sixty months from now, for a single fortnight, it'll be the very centre of the world. And you were there first.
Walk the Olympic Park (2)
Pudding Mill Lane to Carpenters Lock
30 photographs here
Pudding Mill Lane DLR station has always been a windswept platform in the middle of nowhere serving a population of not many. Following the closure of the road beneath the rail bridge, severing contact with the industrial area to the north, expect it to get even quieter. Pudding Mill Lane itself is nasty, brutish and short. It weaves between metal fences, scrapyards and incinerators - a far cry from its pre-industrial past as a winding country lane. A steady succession of trucks rumble their dusty cargoes in and out of an extensive triangular compound beside Marshgate Siding. If you want Renault spares, if you need low cost plant hire or if you just have a skipload of rubbish that needs burning, you've come to the right place. In five years' time this metallurgical melting pot will be the site of the pre-race Warm-up Athletics Track. Let's hope it scrubs up clean.
After dipping sharply beneath the Greenway (warning, road liable to flooding), Pudding Mill Lane fades away and Marshgate Lane takes over. To the left of the road, in a broad man-made channel, lurks the Pudding Mill River. This is a wholly insignificant backwater, a severed stagnant sidearm running for little more than a quarter of a mile between wasteland and warehouses. The ODA cleared away the surrounding undergrowth earlier this year, revealing a naked river containing surprisingly little wildlife in need of rescue. Ducks and pondweed have since recolonised the water, and a huge pile of tyres has been dumped on the banks close to a concrete roadbridge. This artificial stream still has an unexpected charm, particularly along its final northward wiggle, but it won't stay this way for long. The Pudding Mill River is destined to vanish like the windmill after which it is named, and will disappear forever beneath the Olympic Stadium and its surrounding service areas.
A white-arched footbridge marks the shady corner where this doomed waterway enters the Old River Lea. This whole area is swarming with rivers, bifurcating and braiding across the Lea Valley floodplain. And the Old River Lea is probably the prettiest of the lot, shielded from the surrounding industrial gloom by a thin screen of verdant trees. At its mouth are the legendary lockkeepers cottages bought up by Channel 4 to host the Big Breakfast where Chris and Gaby once held court. The sunshine panorama in the backyard remains intact, but this is now a semi-private family home. Further upriver a winding towpath runs opposite an inaccessible reedy shore, where moorhens nest undisturbed amongst the rushes. Branches drip with flowers and foliage, brick towers mark the site of absent lock gates, and rats scuttle unseen through the undergrowth. Well it's nearly perfect, anyway.
And at the other end of this all-too-brief river, at the very heart of the Olympic Park site, stands Carpenters Lock. 'Crumbles' might be a better word than 'stands', to be honest. There have been no boats through this dilapidated structure for years, and the access footpath was fenced off a few years ago to deter all but the most determined photographer. No point in any last minute restoration. Olympic architects have other plans for this spot, with the central Olympic spine path due to plough across the river right here. Which is a shame, because there's a perfectly decent footbridge close by already. It's a gently humping blue-green bridge with latticed sides, used by long-dead horses to tow barges downstream towards the Thames. Shame that it's a little on the narrow side, and would almost certainly collapse under the weight of spectator footflow when the basketball arena is up and running. But don't worry. This iconic bridge appears to be marked as a thin stripe on legacy plans for the Olympic Park, so I have every hope that it'll survive the oncoming bulldozer onslaught intact. I look forward to standing here again.
Walk the Olympic Park (3)
30 photographs here
The western perimeter of the Olympic Park runs for over a mile alongside the natural barrier of the River Lea. If your small business is to the west of the river it survives, no matter how rundown or ramshackle. If your small business is to the east of the river it dies, no matter how wholesome or upmarket. A single narrow road bridge crosses the river between the two zones, at White Post Lane in the top right corner of Tower Hamlets. Let's head over onto the doomed side.
To your left, behind locked gates, stand the empty brick shells of Kings Yard. Several small businesses once made their home inside a trio of long three-storey buildings surrounding a central courtyard, including such esteemed names as Stratford Catering Equipment Manufacturing Ltd and the Bilmerton Wig Supply Centre. They've all left now, so sadly there's no longer any need for Tony's Cafe to serve up daily kebabs and cuppas between 7am and 3pm. Come 2012 Kings Yard will be transformed into the Olympic Park's Energy Centre, pumping out gas-fuelled zero-carbon goodness from a cutting-edge Combined Cooling, Heating and Power Plant. On the opposite side of the road a number of more modern industrial estates are waiting to be wiped away to make room for the Basketball Arena. The Royal Opera House's scenery and costume workshop is moving out, as are major distribution depots for Boots the chemist and FedEx international couriers.
On eastward into Carpenter's Road. This is a favourite East End boy racer backstreet, so it's appropriate that the majority of the businesses down the rest of the road are automobile related. Crash your car here and someone will be on the spot in seconds to nab your bumper, remove your windscreen or cart off your chassis, for cash. Pause a while on the next roadbridge and look out across the River Lea's eastern channel. You might spot a bobbing moorhen, you might spot a soaring seagull, or you might be really lucky and spot a purple Silverlink train rattling by across the water. Three lonely traffic lights guard the road junction into Marshgate Lane, where the occasional lorry queues to let absolutely nothing pass. Passengers crammed in aboard every route 276 bus soak up the unsightly view as they pass between twin building sites. 2012 contractors have been busy here since the start of the year on the site of the new Aquatic Centre, levelling the ground ready for the global Speedo invasion. It'll be a long time coming.
Carpenter's Road narrows alongside a long hangar-like structure divided up into a series of trading units. You can bring your broken-down taxi here for repair, or pick up some Japanese auto spares, or even snap up a cut-price car battery. Bits of windscreen litter the roadside - yours for a very reasonable price. Behind one set of locked gates they brew tarmac, behind another it's readymix concrete. And so it continues down the road - a whole string of businesses which wouldn't be acceptable (or have sufficient cash to pay the rent) anywhere else. Olympic regeneration will replace them all with a brand new residential neighbourhood, no doubt packed with incoming couples who've never fiddled under a bonnet in their lives. And the displaced employees of Carpenter's Road will have to make a fresh start elsewhere, if elsewhere will have them.
Pass beneath the low railway bridge and you reach the existing housing estates in the suburban no-mans-land south of Stratford station. Residents here are doomed to look out of their windows and watch a steady stream of construction traffic spluttering through their community over the next few years, with barely an extra penny spent on where they live. The bounteous OlympicLand is so very close to home, and yet still so very far away.
There used to be a second road north from here, but the top half of Warton Road was closed off earlier this year to allow construction of the Aquatic Centre to commence. A miserable stubby dead end remains beyond the railway, hemmed in between crumbling brick walls and green-painted security barriers. Behind a corrugated iron fence lies what used to be AV Autos, purveyors of the finest Fiat spares, and at the far end a locked gate provides unnecessary vehicle access to Thornton Fields railway sidings. I don't think I've stood anywhere quite so irrelevant and forgotten anywhere else in the Olympic Park. And I'm pleased I slipped in just before another brand new gate slams shut and snuffs out this tiny island of desolation forever.
Walk the Olympic Park (4)
the Bow Back Rivers
40 photographs here
Most valleys have one river, maybe two. The Lower Lea Valley has at least ten. There are waterways of all different lengths and sizes - some narrow, some broad, some natural, some artificial, some sweeping, some stunted, but all characterful. The smaller rivers are threaded tributaries of the River Lea, linked to one another at both ends, which makes for a fascinating intertwined network of watery goodness. And perfect for a signposted "circular" riverside ramble - the Bow Back Rivers Walk - conceived 1999, half-closed 2005, eradicated 2007.
Let's begin this two-kilometre stroll at the City Mill Lock on Blaker Road, an unexpected watery vista beside the ugly reality of Stratford High Street. At Otter Close a triangular estate of apartment blocks bites deep into the Olympic Park like a sharpened fang. All the surrounding land is earmarked for essential security screening facilities, but these apartments have somehow survived compulsory purchase destruction. A path leads north along the City Mill River to the Greenway, where a secret staircase leads down to dragonfly level at the water's edge. Take the tunnel to your right, beneath the sewer, emerging into a shielded green enclave around a reedy stagnant inlet. Standing here you could be lost to the world, at least until a DLR train rumbles over the next bridge and all the passengers look down wondering what the hell you're doing here.
The rest of the City Mill River towpath provides a walk of contrasts. To your right a bush-covered fence screens off what appears to be an area of open wilderness. It used to be, until recently, but then the bulldozers moved in to clear the site leaving acres of sterile wasteland. This long strip of former woodland will form the main pedestrian route through the Olympic Park, but for now it remains inaccessible brownfield. Meanwhile, on the opposite bank of the river, there's an alternative view of the Marshgate Lane industrial estate from the rear. The path passes brick warehouses and gleaming silver silos. It continues past a scrapyard with its own rowing boat and a quarter mile long tumbledown shed. An angry unshutuppable alsatian patrols the riverbank, incensed that you've dared encroach on his private domain. Expect considerably better security in 2012 when the Olympic Stadium touches down precisely here. For now the view remains distinctly lowrise, and unexpectedly photogenic.
A ramp leads up from the City Mill River to the top of Marshgate Lane, and then it's just a few steps along the road to start the return journey down a parallel waterway. This is the Waterworks River, which boasts one of the most temporary footpaths in East London. Riverside access was opened up in 1999 when British Waterways stepped in to clear vegetation from the river's western bank. The path was made fully wheelchair accessible... apart from a single step over a drainage pipe which meant that disabled visitors could only get 90% of the way down before having to turn round and retrace their steps. The route was never popular, never busy, and maybe that's why the gates at both ends were firmly locked a couple of years ago. The footpath has since gone to rack and ruin, with two summers' vegetation allowed to run rampant, and anyone attempting the signposted circular walk has been sorely disappointed. What a waste of money, and what a sad loss of such a glorious backwater secret.
Until a couple of months ago. All it took was a couple of bent-apart bars in the locked gate and suddenly the Waterworks river was accessible again. Not for wheelchairs, admittedly - they'd have been stymied by the fallen trees, discarded kitchen sinks and shoulder high brambles. But any able-bodied explorer with a sense of adventure and sufficient protective clothing could have fought their way through this impromptu urban jungle. And what a treat for those who made the effort. Dog roses and convolvulus aplenty, magpies and moorhens on the wing, ladybirds clustered on untrampled nettles, and the feeling that this was your own private nature reserve unseen by human eyes. Apart from those truck drivers on the other side of the river, obviously, busy building up the foundations of a massive Olympic roadbridge.
Halfway along the footpath (don't worry, that's the worst of the impenetrable stuff over), a ramp leads up to the pedestrian entrance to Thornton Fields railway sidings. It's here, beneath gantries and criss-crossed power cables, that unwanted mainline trains are stored between the morning and evening peaks. But they'll be moving out too next year, to replacement sidings in Leyton, because the 2012 hamburger stalls have got to go somewhere. Back on the riverbank the skyline is dominated by a brand new apartment block - 18 storeys of pure white curviness. This is the Icona building, granted planning permission before the Olympic bid was won, and whose trademark red, yellow and green balconies will no doubt become a familiar feature of 2012 TV coverage. But it's still the glorious combination of overgrown footpath, tidal waterway and forbidding warehouses that makes this last stretch down to the Greenway a hidden treat. It's just a shame there was so little time to experience it.
Maps of the Bow Back Rivers
Restoration of the Bow Back Rivers
Access to the Bow Back Rivers (after 2nd July 2007)
Walk the Olympic Park (5)
28 photographs here
In contrast to the myriad routeways through the bottom half of the Olympic Park, there's only one up top. Waterden Road runs due north between the two main channels of the River Lea, with a swathe of mostly brownfield land to either side. It ought to be a major cut-through for cars and lorries but instead it's used almost exclusively by local traffic. At its southern tip the road curves and humps over the North London railway line, before stuttering to a pause at a set of totally unnecessary traffic lights. These have been erected in preparation for the opening of Stratford International station, connected via a brand new link road which glides on concrete stilts across the river valley. Except that the station hasn't opened yet (and won't for years), so this virgin carriageway runs slap bang into a metal barrier, wasted and abandoned amidst a future Olympic construction site. Highway chiefs have at least now switched off the utterly pointless pelican crossing, but it was fun stopping the non-existent traffic while it lasted.
Stand around here at 5pm on a weekday and you can watch a steady stream of workers heading home from one of Waterden Road's many non-premium businesses. They file off towards the railway station at Hackney Wick, or walk the long way home to Homerton. They'll be back for their next shift soon enough, or maybe sooner if they plan to frequent any of the local evangelical churches, dodgy nightclubs or cheap dining establishments. The biggest employers down Waterden Road are the bus companies. There are three large bus garages here altogether, currently home to hundreds of double deckers, scores of bendy buses and a handful of heritage Routemasters. All are utterly crucial to East London's transport infrastructure. The ODA won't be able to lock off this road for good until all three garages have been relocated elsewhere, and for the time being various alternative sites in West Ham and Bow are still at the planning stage.
For a peek somewhere special, follow the side alley round the back of First's bus garage. If the gate's unlocked, and nobody's looking, you might be able to cross the footbridge into the green oasis of the Manor Garden allotments. Here generations of Hackneyfolk have cultivated treasured plots of land, bringing forth vegetables and flowers (and even more vegetables). The 80 allotments run for more than quarter of a mile altogether, sandwiched in a thin strip of land between two rivers, and perched high enough up to afford a fine view over the surrounding valley. Most of the sheds and gardening equipment have seen better days, and none of the plots would ever grace the Chelsea Flower Show, but that's part of the charm of the place. Even when there's nobody around you can feel a very real sense of community in the air - this is somewhere to relax as well as to grow. But the Olympics are cutting short the final summer season, and the few remaining tenants are being allowed to hang around just long enough to gather in their last harvest. As dusk falls across this unique eco-friendly environment, I fear the temporary replacement allotments over in Leyton will be a wholly inadequate substitute.
Last Sunday lunchtime, back on Waterden Road, I watched a slow-moving procession bringing pre-Olympic closure one step further forward. A bright yellow JCB pulled up beside a lorry parked at the southern traffic lights and raised a single metal gate into the air. Workmen in fluorescent jackets used Stop/Go signs to halt the infrequent traffic and the JCB started to make its way gradually, cautiously, up to the northern end of the road. The gate dangled precariously in mid air, the driver taking particular care beneath low slung wires and cables, until the convoy reached a pair of sturdy steel posts recently bashed in beside the East London bus garage. Here the workmen proceeded to lower the hinges carefully into position, half blocking the road, before returning to fetch a matching gate for the opposite post.
These Olympic Park gates have been carefully sited to block off almost all of Waterden Road, but still to leave access to the Travellers site at Waterden Crescent and also the car park at the Kingsway International Christian Centre. The KICC has one of the largest weekly congregations in the UK, and several thousand Afro-Caribbean worshippers were packed inside their vast warehouse church while the gate-laying ceremony took place outside. This site is earmarked for the Olympic Hockey Stadium, and the church is hoping to relocate to a new riverside estate in Havering (if Havering will have them). But, however fervent their Sunday prayers, there'll be no Second Coming here. A five year lock-in is on its way.
See the route of all five of my walks on Google Maps
Walk the Olympic Park (6)
the Eastway Cycle Circuit
7 new photographs here and 4 old ones here
I should have brought you a sixth walk around the Olympic Park. I should have taken you for a stroll from Hackney Marsh down Quartermile Lane, around the Eastway Cycle Circuit, down to Bully Point Nature Reserve and then out into the Clays Lane Estate. But I can't.
Quartermile Lane was sealed off in January. "You can't come down here," said the security bloke emerging from his portakabin and striding up to the gate. "It's been closed off for ages, you know." The look in his eye suggested a muted excitement to finally have a potential intruder to talk to. Across the A12 Eastway, another none-too-sturdy security fence now prevents anybody from crossing into Bully Fen. A sign by the entrance proudly boasts the creation of acres of community woodland just seven years ago, with 4000 trees planted across a patch of barren wasteland. Olympic bulldozers are now busy recreating the former landscape. The last race at the Lea Valley Cycle Circuit took place last November, and the off-road race track is already being erased so that, ironically, the Olympic Velodrome and BMX Track can be erected in its place. You can't wander along the Channelsea River any more - the nearest East London ever got to a babbling rural stream. And the hidden green oasis inside the Bully Point Nature Reserve, that's gone too. All of the above, fenced off and inaccessible already.
The Clays Lane Estate is still semi-open, although more of a ghost town than the thriving student community it used to be. Two brown tower blocks stand condemned awaiting demolition, downhill from scores of emptied utilitarian apartments now locked away behind another Olympic gate. The cafe's closed, the Community Centre's closed, and only the Travellers site shows signs of vibrant life. For now. Survival is not an option. This is where the Olympic Village will be built, where the world's athletes will stay for a fortnight in 2012, and where a property boom will explode shortly afterwards.
So apologies, but this walk is cancelled. Not only has the route been closed off for the last six months, but many of the sights along the way no longer exist. Except in words and photographs. And that's why I've devoted the last week to preserving the memory of the other five walks as best I can. Nothing lasts forever, but at least a few megapixels of the old Lower Lea Valley will live on.
Walk 1: Marshgate Lane 40 photos
Walk 2: Pudding Mill Lane 30 photos
Walk 3: Carpenter's Road 30 photos
Walk 4: Bow Back Rivers 40 photos
Walk 5: Waterden Road 35 photos
See the route of all five of my walks on Google Maps
Sunday, July 01, 2007
Walk the Olympic Park
The last day
It's the last day of normality in the Lower Lea Valley. Filthy lorries still belch down Carpenter's Road. Cyclists still whizz unhindered along the Old River Lea towpath. Buses still stream out of three large depots up Waterden Road. Barges still chug silently along the City Mill River. Boy racers still speed their souped-up cars round the bends of Marshgate Lane. Lonely walkers still stride along the overgrown footpath beside the Waterworks River. But not tomorrow. From Monday the area enters five years of Olympic quarantine, sealed off from the outside world to be made ready for the arrival of ten thousand global athletes. Lucky them.
It's surprisingly easy to lock away 227 acres of Inner London. Much of the site is already hemmed in by railways, rivers and trunk roads, as well as an existing building site at Stratford City. Only a handful of gates are needed - seven across roads and four across towpaths. The concrete posts are already in place, and a series of "Road Closed" signs are ready and waiting beneath opaque plastic sheeting. It won't take long for workmen to secure the perimeter, probably sometime early tomorrow, and then that'll be it for public access until 2012.
Well, almost. Some businesses and organisations have permission to remain behind for a little longer while they make their final arrangements to sell up and move on. The Olympic Delivery Authority don't officially take charge until 27th July, exactly five years before the Opening Ceremony, which gives the last stragglers nearly four more weeks. Two replacement bus garages needed to rehouse hundreds of double deckers, bendy buses and heritage Routemasters are still only at the planning stage. And some of the the allotment holders at Manor Gardens have a reprieve until the autumn, allowing them to bring one final harvest home.
But for the rest of us it's no go, not after today. Which is a shame, because an amble around the Bow Back Rivers is easily my very favourite local walk. Nothing quite compares to the mixture of industrial squalor, overgrown foliage and resilient wildlife to be found here where London's three poorest boroughs meet. Thankfully there'll still be alternative routes that are almost-as-good, because the Olympic Delivery Authority aren't quite closing everything. The towpath along the main River Lea navigation will remain open throughout the construction phase, as will the waterway itself. And the Greenway, which cuts right across the middle of the 2012 building site, will continue to be accessible throughout to pedestrians and cyclists alike. This footpath runs along the top of a giant Victorian sewer, which I guess 21st century planners daren't even possibly tamper with. I'm delighted, because this raised walkway will allow an almost perfect view of Olympic Stadium development over the next half-decade.
Today I'm taking my camera out for one final ground level sortie around the Olympic Park-to-be. I'm hoping there'll be some breaks in the rain and cloud of recent days, allowing one last chance to experience this very special environment in full summer splendour. Because, however wonderful the planned post-2012 legacy for this long-neglected site, the future can only be a scrubbed-up sanitised version of the ramshackle natural environment that vanishes tomorrow.
Map showing full details of tomorrow's closures (includes road closures, gate locations and bus diversions)
Last chance to ride a vintage bus down Carpenters Road following the last LT lowbridge route (runs between 9am and 12noon)