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THE LOWER LEA VALLEY
The Lower Lea Valley is a part of London that is hidden and unknown to most Londoners. For well over a century it was an inaccessible zone of dense factories, attracted by the presence of the River Lea, which offered power, cheap transport to the London docks and a place to dump waste, and by its handy proximity to London markets, yet beyond the reach of London’s early environmental controls.
The suburban city, as it grew, passed it by. ‘The name of West Ham, if it was known at all,’ wrote the Economic Journal even back in 1908 ‘was vaguely known as that of a spot somewhere in east London to which people went with reluctance if they had business there, and from which they returned with joy as soon as the business was over. Though among the dozen largest towns in the United Kingdom, it lay silent and unnoticed bounded by the Rivers Thames and Lea’
Until 2012, when the Olympic Games was dropped in the middle of the area, this perhaps still rang true for many Londoners. Even today, beyond what is now the Queen Elizabeth Park, the Valley still presents a mysterious and intimidating collection of waterways, industrial relics, open spaces, dereliction and haphazard development.
Visionary planners, from Abercrombie on, have promised ambitious change. ‘Water Cities’ and‘Arcs of Opportunity’ have come and gone, but the area has resolutely refused to play along. But now things are happening. Perhaps as a result of Olympic ‘legacy’, more probably as a consequence of London’s frenzied and indiscriminate housing bubble, towers of microflats are starting to mushroom in the most unlikely places. Big plans and small plans now jostle side by side; the area is changing almost before our eyes but its future remains hard to predict
Where this leaves local communities is unclear. One of these – relatively new but increasingly significant – is the creative community attracted to the Valley over the last decade and more by its character, its low profile and its available space at low cost. The riverside is peppered with studios, workshops and galleries, some in large concentrations such as Hackney Wick and Fish Island, others nestled resolutely in amongst the industrial remnants that still serve to define the character of the area. Creativity and innovation underpinned much of the Lea’s industrial past, and now is potentially helping to stimulate a new 21st century ‘research and development’ future in this part of East London, with the arrival of the V & A, London College of Fashion, Sadlers Wells, UCL and the like. If it is not swamped in the process, that is, and survives the property boom on any scale
The walk will take you into this unusual and fascinating territory, beginning in the heart of Hackney Wick and ending at Trinity Buoy Wharf in Leamouth. We will be joined by leading expert on creative and cultural development in east London, David Powell. En route we pass a number of established Lea Valley galleries, workshops and studios, together with a several other historic Open House locations including the 18th century House Mill. We overlap part of the route of the sculpture trail The Line, including a work by Damien Hurst, and pass close by the site of the unrealised Cedric Price sixties Fun Palace, and the nineteenth century listed Abbey Mills Pumping Station, colloquially known as the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’.
Because of the distance and time it is not possible to schedule official stops into the walk or we would never reach the end, but enthusiasts are welcome to leave the group to dwell at locations of particular interest, and use the map to catch us up. Or register the location for a subsequent visit. Both easy access to the DLR, and stops offering relief and refreshment, are available along the route and at the end.
We begin in the heart of Hackney Wick, outside the Hackney Pearl cafe, and walk through the Wick past the White Building, crossing onto the Olympic Park just north of Stour Space and Formans Gallery and down to Old Ford Locks. We then follow the Greenway path as far as the View Tube, with excellent views of the Olympic Park, Stadium, Swimming Pool and Orbit before striking back beyond the Bow flyover to Bow Arts and the Nunnery Gallery. We follow past the studios of Turner Prize winners Assemble in Sugar House Lane , and down the river again Lea to the House Mill and Three Mills TV Studios, with views en route of Abbey Mills and the intended site of the Fun Palace
Beyond Three Mills we enter increasingly unknown territory. We cross over the river at Bow Locks, and onto the giant site of the former Bow Gasworks, via the charming Gasworks Memorial Park. We continue along the riverside, with extraordinary views towards Canary Wharf, foregrounded by some of the most acute dereliction in London, and onto Cody Dock. We will encounter a new sculpture (sic) by Damien Hurst which is part of the Line Sculpture Trail. We will then make our way through a fabulously inhospitable industrial zone, via Bidder St, named after George Bidder, who built the Royal Docks and deserves a better memorial, past the site of the Thames Ironworks (once a major national shipbuilders and now a worksite for Crossrail) to emerge under the A13 into the Bow Ecology Park .
We carry on to East India Dock basin, now a wildlife refuge with stupendous views of the river, but once the frantic hub of Britain’s imperial trade with India and China. Then onto Trinity Buoy Wharf, with important relics of Michael Faraday, the electricity pioneer, where the walk ends.
East India DLR is a few hundred meters away. The intrepid can continue to Royal Docks, where the really intrepid (which does not include me) can take the Emirates Cable Car to Greenwich peninsula and the O2
FURTHER READING/ VIEWING
The industrial history of the Lea is an extraordinary story. Dr Jim Lewis (www.libripublishing.co.uk › is its expert and written a number of very readable books on the subject. In the 19th century the Valley, extending northwards to Enfield and Waltham Cross became one of the major centres worldwide for industrial innovation and production, including the world’s first electric lightbulb factory at the Swan Edison works at Ponders End.
The first automobile in the UK, the Bremer, was constructed in Walthamstow and the first powered aeroplane was constructed and flown by AV Roe on Walthamstow Marshes. The Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum (www.walthamstowpumphousemuseum.org.uk/ – also open as part of Open House) contains a fascinating collection of artifacts from the Valley’s industrial history
Beyond the Tower, by John Marriott, provides the authoritative history of east London. For a detailed analysis of the hybrid urban rural and industrial environment of the Lea, consult Dr Jim Clifford at www.jimclifford.ca/
Over the Border the other east end by Neal Fraser is an entertaining history of Stratford from a personal standpoint
No list would be complete without something from Iain Sinclair, in this case Ghost Milk
Follow this link for a brief but expert history of Stratford and environs by Dr Juliet Davis
The film ‘What did you do today, Mervyn Day’ a collaboration between director Paul Kelly and band St Etienne, is an atmospheric evocation of the Bow Back Rivers in 2005 before the development of the Olympic Park
Follow this link for a captivating film, ‘Neighbourhood 15’ which chronicles the Lea and the redevelopment of Canning Town immediately after the Second World War