Sunday, September 01, 2019

Miles east from central London

The centre of London is generally taken to be Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I in the middle of the roundabout. I've visited the points one mile due east, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further east you go.

ONE MILE EAST: Blackfriars Road
(just south of Blackfriars Bridge)

Queues of cars and vans and trucks and taxis line up in four directions, awaiting permission for onward passage. Cyclists have their own separate highway, busy enough that when a recovery truck driver jumps the lights and attempts to drive across it, a display of raised fists holds him back. The wind whips one man's spectacles into the path of a stalled taxi, which thankfully sticks at red long enough for the myopic stooge to locate his prey. A woman walks past clutching six kitchen rolls, a Kinder Bueno and two pints of milk. A cloud of unseen raspberry vapour lingers. Whoever commissioned the streetsigns which spell out 'Blackfriars Road' did so in a jarringly over-emboldened typeface.

Utterly dominant hereabouts is the 52-storey boomerang of One Blackfriars, whose marketing team's desire that Londoners would come to call it The Vase has understandably not come to pass. Those with business or an apartment within disappear through its revolving doors into a luxurious lobby. Mere hoi polloi can perch outside on the rim of what passes as a garden - three raised beds filled with immaculate plants and a wet riser inlet disguised as a silver globe. The white flowers in that tasteful tub at the rear turn out to be artificial. Sealed off behind temporary barriers is the low-rise chunk of the development, Sales And Marketing Suite Now Open.

Not to be outdone, the opposite side of the road awaits transformation into Bankside Quarter, a significant destination gateway (insert your own buzzword here). The previous office blocks were deemed wasted potential so have been demolished, and will soon arise as a cluster of rigidly orthogonal towers with no aesthetic sympathy for the giant banana across the way. 40% of future residents will get a parking space, because transport policies are for flouting, and Southwark council are more than happy with the windfall. A tiny suggestion box is attached to the hoardings, although it's too late to complain now.

TWO MILES EAST: Pool of London
(River Thames, off the starboard side of HMS Belfast)

You can't stand here, in the Pool of London, but you can float. I suspect more tourists have been here than long-term Londoners. The river is initially clear but choppy, with the twin obstacles of HMS Belfast and Tower Pier slimming the channel. A flock of seagulls has settled on the water in the shadow of the gunship. A couple of visitors can be seen nosing around the gun emplacements at the bow before clambering back below deck.

A Thames Clipper motors off from Tower Pier and spins upstream, leaving a curve of churning froth in its wake. Just for a second it crosses the point precisely two miles east from Charing Cross and becomes a useful photographic marker. A logjam of further boats arrives, jostling for position beside the pontoon or waiting patiently for the hubbub to subside. One of the vessels is a tourist launch named Mercedes, the oldest Westminster Party Boat, its upper deck crammed with revellers who had hoped the weather was going to be warmer. Those wishing to board a City Cruise should manoeuvre to the tip of the pier, but only once they've shown their inkjet printout to the ticket gods on the gangway. Don't waste time snapping Tower Bridge from here, you'll be underneath it in a few minutes.

The section of the Thames Path closest to the 'two mile' marker has been sealed off for the construction of luxurious Barratt homes. On the approach is a cluster of fake igloos, a winter promo inside which toasty families can be seen ordering drinks from the dedicated gin menu. Far cheaper fun is to be had on the narrow beach uncovered by the low tide. Here mudlarkers pick across pebbles and sand, and a line of wooden posts reveals the damp stunted remains of former wharves. I attempt to join them, treading carefully down the slippery stairs, until the antepenultimate step proves to be entirely covered with an inch of gloopy mud, and my trainers think better of it.

THREE MILES EAST: Park Vista Tower, Wapping
(Cobblestone Square, opposite Tobacco Dock, E1W)

Go back forty years and this spot was off-limits within the London Docks, midway between the Western and Eastern Docks, bookended by two swing bridges. Then the basins were filled in for extensive housing, none of it especially highrise because this was the 1980s, leaving a single ornamental canal to snake through the development. But what I've managed to hit here, quite by chance, is Wapping's sole multi-storey tower, squeezed in where Ballymore spotted a slim gap. It's long and thin and stacked and silver, with an Italian restaurant at the bow, rising increasingly steeply to a penthouse pair. It's very 2014, so glass not brick, which is probably in its favour.

Whoever called this Cobblestone Square was having a laugh, or a liar hoping the name'd put prices up. A long slabbed walkway leads to a locked gate which keeps the riffraff of Wapping Woods out, but also the joggers of Park Vista Tower in. A fake canal runs along one side, pumped to ensure movement. An empty chamber of muscle-flexing machines props up the ground floor, because residents have paid extra for gym and concierge. Somebody's moving out today, their worldly goods being trolleyed in taped-up boxes into the back of a van. At the end of the road London's hippest musical youth are milling by, making their way into BBC Introducing Live at Tobacco Dock. Early arrivals are taking advantage of a break between masterclasses by smoking alongside the pirate ships. I feel hideously off-trend.

FOUR MILES EAST: Limehouse Reach
(River Thames, between Limehouse and Rotherhithe)

For the second time my 'Miles From' journey has led us to the middle of the River Thames (and will do so again at nine). We're right on the sharp bend where the Thames first curves to loop the Isle of Dogs, with the newest towers in Docklands climbing rapidly just to the east. To reach the actual spot would require a boat ride, and even that would likely miss, so instead I choose to visit the banks on either side (with an almost hour-long journey inbetween).

On the northern side is the most famous part of Limehouse, Narrow Street, and the early Georgian terrace where Sir Ian McKellan owns a pub. Because these buildings date back to wharfier days only the residents have riverfront access, enjoying a covetable panorama downstream to Deptford and upstream to the City. The Thames Path is forced to follow the street instead, and even the entrance through Duke Shore Wharf has been sealed off while some very slow repair works take place. Only from the windowboxed promenade round the back of Dunbar Wharf is a view of the river regained, or from the wiggly footbridge which carries several of Canary Wharf's lunchtime joggers. Cyclists are specifically not welcome. The Thames is very grey, very broad and very quiet, until a cruise boat floats by with only the hardiest sightseers on the upper deck.

Over on the southern bank the inside of the bend forms the remotest end of Rotherhithe. This used to be Pageant's Wharf, now Pageant Crescent, which was built so early in the redevelopment of the London Docks that the builders thought two-storey three-bedroom terraced houses were the best use of the land. These days the properties merit a million pound premium, with at least one Range Rover, Porsche, Merc and BMW out front, and who knows what parked in the garages underneath. The unmarked obelisk at one end of the terrace was positioned here in 1992 and aligns precisely with the axis of the Docklands estate - a kind of Canary Wharf Meridian marker, if you like. Being near enough low tide a decent-sized beach has been revealed below the river wall, dotted with silent seagulls resting on the sand, which gets a soaking half a minute after a Thames Clipper speeds by.

(marginally north of Docklands)

This could have been really interesting - the towers at Canary Wharf are ever so close and Billingsgate Fish Market closer still. But no, the vagaries of compass direction have sent us instead to the middle of the dual carriageway that sweeps across the neck of the Isle of Dogs, a strip of bleak infrastructure which exists so that the nearby financial district can thrive. Traffic thundering out of the Limehouse Link follows Aspen Way towards the Lower Lea Crossing, or veers off here for the Blackwall roundabout. The DLR rises onto a split concrete viaduct immediately behind. Adverts for Easyjet and Santander blaze in both directions on the overpass. A speed camera waits to trap drivers over-enjoying their downhill run. What looks like a pavement on the northern side of the road leads only to a road junction you'd need a deathwish to cross, then peters out at crash barriers below Poplar station. Basically you breathe in at your peril.

Immediately to the north is the Poplar Trading Estate, or at least as much of it as hasn't been demolished for the building of luxury flats. Manhattan Plaza has been slotted in beside one of the DLR's squealiest curves, overlooking the depot, and is currently advertised as 95% sold. Book now for your exclusive appointment and the nice lady will show you the gymnasium, 21st floor showhome and roof garden. To the south we find Billingsgate's car park, also fated to be residentialised one day, and Tower Hamlets' magnificent traffic light sculpture. This used to be located more prominently but was demoted mid-roundabout a few years ago, and sadly isn't flashing red amber and/or green at present. As for the McDonalds alongside, that's been flattened and surrounded by black hoardings, and may eventually become a pair of Infinity Towers (with a replacement drive-thru on the ground floor). There are more pleasant, better-connected places to be.

SIX MILES EAST: Thames Wharf DLR station
(Scarab Close, E16)

With almost pinpoint accuracy, welcome to a DLR station that doesn't yet exist. We're on the site of the former Thames Iron Works shipbuilding yard, close to the mouth of the River Lea, where a sheaf of railway sidings once ran down to the dockside. After the Royal Docks closed the area was given over to scrappy industrial uses, notably metal recycling and waste management, because the land was polluted and cheap and nobody else wanted it. The DLR extension to Woolwich sped through it on a viaduct without stopping, and Dangleway passengers get to inspect it in unnecessary detail as they rumble all-too-slowly above. The road into the heart of the site is called Scarab Close, perhaps deliberately named after dung-rolling beetles, and is not somewhere any urban explorer should be venturing. Access is off Dock Road, home to five tall readymix concrete silos, a lockup for the storage of JCB diggers and a Brutalist office block abandoned long ago by Carlsberg-Tetley.

This is the very last corner of the Royal Docks to be redeveloped, but plans for 7000 homes are now on the table and even the Chancellor has thrown in some money. The project's called Thameside West, because that sounds nicer than Brownfield Dump, and its residential towers are expected to be particularly densely packed. But they'll only sell if the DLR stops, hence the intention to build Thames Wharf station between Canning Town and West Silvertown. The name's been programmed into the onboard display system for years, you may remember. A major catch is that the Silvertown Tunnel is due to emerge alongside, indeed Dock Road is due to be transformed into its northern portal, gushing forth traffic towards a reconfigured Tidal Basin roundabout. Two major building projects side by side is a recipe for pollution, disruption and delay, so don't rush to buy a flat, and don't expect to be disembarking from a train here anytime soon.

(in the car park, eastern side)

The interior of the ExCel exhibition centre can be pretty desolate during non-conferences, but that's nothing compared to the car park out the back. Its sprawling rectangular grid lies empty behind a lowered barrier, occupied solely by birdlife and the occasional wandering pedestrian. It seems ridiculous that so large a chunk of prime development land lies fallow, but vehicles must be catered for, and at £20 a time (when operational) it's a nice little earner. Mothballed in one corner is a squat black prefab marked with the Avengers logo, this a Marvel "multi-room experience" for die-hard fans packed with suits, screens and props in cases. It closed months back, godawful TripAdvisor reviews perhaps to blame, and awaits transfer to fleece the population of Cardiff.

Look carefully to see a rail embedded in the concrete a few yards back from the water, this a remnant of the tracks once used by dockside cranes. A shorter parallel rail has been preserved slightly further along. In the water are a quartet of paddleboarders, the most athletic of whom has just slipped and soaked himself, to the amusement of his gawkier companions. Three rowers walk past from the direction of the London Regatta Centre, bantering about that time they caught crabs. A bottle of Ribena floats by. A car alarm blares. Every few minutes a DLR train weaves along a viaduct between the Aloft, Premier Inn and Doubletree hotels. Meanwhile across the dock the entire Silvertown Quays lot remains vacant, long pencilled in for intensive mixed use development, but to date home only to a few abandoned 2012 entertainment pavilions.

EIGHT MILES EAST: Royal Albert Dock, E16
(alongside London Design & Technology UTC)

I couldn't have got here before summer 2019 because the disused northern edge of the Royal Albert Dock was firmly sealed off. As far as Newham's council offices yes, and as far as UEL's library block yes, but the half mile of waterfront inbetween absolutely not. The catalyst is the opening up of the first phase of a 35 acre Chinese-funded commercial neighbourhood alongside Beckton Park DLR. Architecturally it's stunningly bland - four long cuboids divided by a dark canyon called Mandarin Street, and watched over by circulating security. Office units are numbered 14-27, and as yet generally unfilled. Raised beds fill a pristine square beside empty recycling bins. If you want to see what London's turning into, come visit soon.

One day the eight mile spot will be covered with something symmetrically similar, but for now it's a patch of cleared dockside where a row of enormous warehouses once stood. A freshly opened path follows the water's edge, constrained between a wire fence and already-graffitied hoardings. The rail once followed by dockside cranes is still intact, whereas back at ABP it's been replaced by a strip of darker tiles. I had to dodge out of the way of a man with a megaphone on a bike, occasionally yelling encouragement at an eight rowing through the choppy waters. An Alitalia plane taxied up the runway opposite, reversed and revved its engines, sped past the windsock and roared into the sky.

At the end of the path is the big black box on yellow stilts which houses the London Design & Technology UTC. This opened three academic years ago, adjoined to the UEL campus, and isn't somewhere a non-student would have dallied before this new path opened. I was thankful I'd turned up before the start of term, while the ground floor canteen was empty, nobody was playing outdoor table football and the only human presence was a group of cleaners come to wash the windows. A dozen humanoid robots stared out from one ground floor laboratory alongside a glut of mechanical arms, because D&T's moved on a lot since you were at school.

NINE MILES EAST: Gallions Reach, River Thames
(between Royal Albert Wharf and Thamesmead)

This is the third time a Miles East waypoint has landed in the middle of the Thames. This time it feels properly estuarine, the landscape flat, the banks only partially developed. One bank is on the underconnected edge of Newham, at the mouth of the Royal Docks, and the other's in that corner of Thamesmead nobody's ever got round to doing anything with. One day a Gallions Reach bridge may span the Thames here, and I'd have a way to reach the midpoint, but for now all that crosses the water are low-flying planes seconds out from City Airport. Because I'm a glutton for punishment I visited both sides of the river, and wasted a lot of time travelling inbetween.

To see the Nine Mile point from the western side, take the DLR to Gallions Reach and keep walking past the newly-erupted flats towards the river. If you've ever followed the last section of the Capital Ring you will have done this, and perhaps wondered what godforsaken wasteland you were entering. A few benches overlook the flood barrier by the former gas works, while the riverside follows an increasingly overgrown path behind a towering radar mast. Intermittent laddered steps lead up and over the concrete wall. It is not a spot to linger. But behind the grey railings a sequenced transformation is taking place as a wall of flats erupts to form phase 2 of so-called Royal Albert Wharf. One block is externally complete, its neighbour is getting its balconies added, its neighbour is getting its windows fitted and its neighbour is still a scaffolded brick shell. Once residents are fully on board this riverfront zone will be opened up with textbook boardwalks, mini-playgrounds and prim rows of trees - you know the score - but for now an edge of character remains.

Over on the eastern bank any intention of building flats is many many years away. The last vestiges of West Thamesmead splutter out after a cul-de-sac named Defence Close, beyond which the developers have bequeathed a strip of park hardly anyone uses, beyond which the Thames Path continues alone. Inland are high fences shielding a vast brownfield site despoiled in the days when the Plumstead Marshes were for explosive use. The riverbank by contrast is wooded and occasionally open, should you fancy picking your way through long grass and thick brambles. At one point Greenwich council have provided the most vandalproof bench they could think of, a solid concrete slab, and here the foreshore has been littered with dozens of discarded bottles and cans. Just offshore is the very spot where in 1878 the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice collided with a coal ship and sank, flinging over 600 passengers into sewage-churned waters. It remains Britain's deadliest inshore shipwreck, an unimaginable end to a jolly day out, commemorated by a now-illegible information panel beside the navigation light at Tripcock Ness. Should you choose to proceed further, the next escape point is almost one mile distant.

TEN MILES EAST: Morrisons, Thamesmead SE28
(in the car park, front right)

I love the fact that travelling ten miles east from Trafalgar Square brings you to the beating heart of Thamesmead, specifically its shopping centre, specifically the car park outside Morrisons. This isn't the original shopping centre, the peculiar huddle round the clocktower with its waterside piazza and umpteen ducks, but the larger retail park that's evolved out back. The first supermarket to move in was Safeway, in the giant store now occupied by Morrisons, but Thamesmead's shoppers now also have the option of an Iceland and, once they've finished completely rebuilding it, an Aldi. At the weekend this is a place of pilgrimage for thousands, streaming in with their reusable bags, plus partners, children, flatsharers or mates in tow. You can even get your hair cut in a modified shipping container plonked outside.

The precise spot in the car park is a couple of lanes to the right of the main entrance, immediately before the trolley store. Here I watched one couple return semi-laden, already eating one of their snackier purchases, before climbing into their Lexus and driving away. A replacement family arrived shortly afterwards, looking very much like they'd be filling a cheaper trolley, and faffed a bit before heading shopwards. A lifesize cutout of a policeman welcomes shoppers venturing inside Morrisons' hallowed portal, and beyond that at this time of year is a Christmas tree with baubles saying Let It Snow. A rack of newspapers and flavoured Tic Tacs still has prominence, along with a wall of chocolate selection boxes on special offer. And when you're done, perhaps throw in a trip to Poundland, a browse in Peacocks and lunch from KFC to make a day of it.


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