Monday, 11 July 2016

In the shadow of the Olympic Park.

It'd been a great suggestion of my friend Pam's to go on a walk arranged by the Inland Waterways Association around the Olympic Park and the various islands it spreads across together with the surrounding canals and rivers. We normally sort our own walks out but as this one was guided it cost us a tenner each.

£10 is worth it if you get a good guide and we got a great one in Charlie. His enthusiasm, knowledge, and friendliness made the walk an absolute pleasure.

We met at 2 outside Stratford station in the borough of Newham before passing through the enormous Westfield shopping centre and towards the Olympic Park itself. Charlie told us that Stratford station, post-Olympics, has become such a transport hub that it now serves up to 200 trains per hour. Overground, underground, DLR, mainline. They all pass through. Inside it feels more like an airport - if a slightly tatty one.

Charlie led us by the curving roof of the aquatic centre, designed by Zaha Hadid who passed away earlier this year, and past the Olympic stadium. Busy readying itself for West Ham's first game there next month. There were a couple of Hammers fans on the walk and they were there as much to source a decent pre-match pub in the vicinity as for the historial aspects. They mentioned AC/DC had played the stadium recently.

Looming in front of us was the ArcelorMittal Orbit. One of Boris Johnson's (many) vanity projects. Anish Kapoor's design is impressive but, for one reason or another, it never really caught on. Carsten Holler has installed one of his trademark slides there now and, quite frankly, it looks fucking terrifying as you can probably tell from the picture, below.

Before, and during, the Olympics there was a lot of talk of 'legacy' and I think a lot of us were a little bit in doubt about it. But, on the whole, the park is being used. Novelty swan boats glide the water, kids play in adventure playgrounds as their parents consume ice creams. Parts of it are still, necessarily, a building site but it's actually a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. Especially a sunny one.

We walked along the course of the Lee (or Lea, the name is one of the least confusing things about this particular river) for a while. Charlie told us it'd historically been an important demarcation for more than a thousand years. First between the Angles and those living under the Danelaw. After that it marked where London ended and Essex began. Now fully in London it marks the boundary between the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney (to the west) and Newham and Waltham Forest (to the east).

Due to some confusing law about pollution there was once a time when the eastern banks of the Lee were populated with factories spewing out noxious fumes. Part of the reason was the Londoners had bought dirty (and cheap) coal from Newcastle rather than the slightly less nasty anthracite from the South Wales pits.

Oddly enough some of the crap was returned to the North East recently. During preparations for the Olympics the poisoned land had to be made safe. It had to be washed basically. How they do that I've no idea but they did. The few bits of it that were still dirty were sent to Middlesbrough for some unexplained reason.

The Lee/Lea breaks into several rivers, rejoins itself, joins up with canals and flows into various dead ends along this stretch. A lot of it was down to local farmers, in the past, digging their own irrigation channels. Some of which, at various points, became the chief path of the easternmost major tributary of the Thames.

Amazingly, it's tidal. I was once surprised to find out the Thames was tidal but one of its tributaries! This, obviously, affects the height of the water and, because it connects with canals (including the Hertford Union which links with the Regent's canal before going on to join the Grand Union) this makes lock building trickier than normal. Sometimes you're going up. Sometimes you're going down. And when you're neither up nor down then you're neither up nor down.

We passed a few locks as a flotilla of narrowboats circled round and round. The boat lot had pints and cans of lager on the go. They seemed to be having a good afternoon.

Pam told me she fell in one of the locks when she was 13 which must've been even scarier than one of Carsten Holler's slides. Luckily it's not put her off wandering the towpaths and checking out the boats.

Charlie spoke knowledgeably about sewage. He said if he was on Mastermind it'd be his specialist subject and I'd fancy his chances of doing rather well. He told us about Joseph Bazalgette's sewage works and the great stink of 1858 when the smell reached parliament and, of course, something was finally done. In true Victorian civil engineering style the sewage works looked more like a religious building than anything else.

Just past Pudding Mill Lane station we passed through the flowers growing along the edgelands. So many disparate colours in such a nominally urban setting. Whether they'd received a little help or not I don't know but I liked it.

We walked by some stone pillars that Charlie told us were intended as a last line of defence in case of a Nazi land invasion. An old sugar yard stood proud amongst the rubble and new buildings. We learnt that IKEA had bought this land. Not with the aim of opening a shop but simply to make money on the property to put towards their pension scheme.

The walk ended up on Three Mills Island (where many years ago I attended a rave on New Year's Eve). There was a wedding going on and some oast houses that seemed quite out of place in such an industrial part of London. We bade our farewell to Charlie and went to meet our friend Gary, another West Ham fan and a relative local.

After a quick drink in The Beehive pub we popped on the tube and he took us to his favourite Indian restaurant. A stone's throw from the Boleyn Ground and down Green Street into Forest Gate. Chawalla was superb. Completely vegetarian. Gary treated us to spicy mogo chips and chili paneer. Booze free I had a mango lassi.

There was just time for a bus ride out to Leyton, Gary ably picking up the baton of tourist guide, and a couple of pints in the Leyton Technical, a converted town hall that seemed to work rather well as a pub. My journey back to south London was so simple, the Overground system has vastly improved links between SE & E London, that I thought to myself I should probably venture out to the East a bit more often. There's a lot to see.

Thanks to Pam for the idea, Charlie for the guiding, and Gary for the grub.

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