Docklands

Sunday 24 July 2022 – London.

Empty boulevards, blown desert dry by a Saharan-like wind, sand dusted cars and relentless heat from a clear blue sky. A young woman walking in the opposite direction scurries past on the far side of the weed-edged footpath. She’s wearing a mask and black sun glasses under her hijab and though I can’t see her eyes I can tell she looked at me like I was mad. “Mad dogs and Englishmen”, as the old saying goes. I suspect few people walk these streets at any time, let alone on a windy day under a strong mid-day sun. This is not really a walking place at the best of times.

I pass through a wind-tunnel created by poorly thought through blocks of flats, my hat is blown off twice in a hundred yards. Emerging onto one of the older streets, I catch, then pass a young couple taking photos of each other on a shared mobile phone; they laugh. I guess they are visitors too, the area seems devoid of residents. I see windows wide open, washing drying on balconies and bikes changed to fences, so there must be people here, somewhere. It feels lifeless, soulless and other words ending in ‘ess, it’s not the place for me.

Surprisingly I’m in Docklands, east London, not the back streets of Dubai, or some other desert state where the non-billionaire classes are moved out to the fringes. I’m walking from Canning Town Station to Trinity Buoy Wharf and man has it changed since I was last here.

There was an article in the Guardian by Ollie Wainwright (my new favourite feature writer) a few weeks ago exposing a (so far) failed Chinese funded office development in Docklands and it sounded just like the sort of thing I should see for myself. This is a bit of London I’ve visited on occasion, but never properly explored, so the article was a good prompt to get out for a photo walk. Sadly these days, I need reminders to get out and do the things I enjoy.

I’m going to say I was a bit shocked, maybe even a little upset by what I discovered while I was out as it’s all a bit of an urban planning disaster. I guess the area was never going to be beautiful, not without major surgery. Carved up by the River Lea, empty docks, crossed with A roads and with City Airport in the middle of it, this was designed to be a commercial and industrial zone; which it was until time ran out for the docks that supported London for decades. Now it is a bit of a wasteland, and with an urgent, if not desperate need for more housing in London then logic says build houses; which is what is happening, just not very well.

This was highlighted as I crossed the pedestrian bridge from Canning Town tube station on to the small isthmus formed by a tight loop in the River Lea/Bow Creek just before it flows into the Thames. I walked straight into a new housing estate that seems to be called City Island (City Isthmus doesn’t have the same ring to it). In some ways it is an island I guess, river on three of the four sides and a flyover crossing the fourth which makes it feel disconnected from the its neighbours.

It wasn’t an unpleasant looking area, The National Ballet is homed here and the apartments are not unattractive; but it was so empty of life and the buildings had created an artificial canyon which the wind howled through, I had to put my hat in my bag as there was no point in attempting to wear it on my head.

Once through the estate and under the Lea Crossing Flyover there were some familiar old Docklands buildings, though I’m not sure how long they will last as more flats are, or were being built.

I walked around Trinity Buoy Wharf, it was good knowing that this tiny bit of land was largely untouched, and the café is still open. There was a large group of artists sketching and drawing in notebooks, this place still attracts the art community at least. I wonder what they think of the changes?

To get to the rest of Docklands I had to leave this small area and use the Lea Crossing bridge, it was pretty unpleasant. It feels like these new micro-communities are being dropped into little bits of old London, then deliberately kept disconnected from neighbouring communities by the major roads that proliferate away form the centre. These roads are unpleasant to walk alongside and in some cases difficult to cross. You almost have to have a car to get any enjoyment from living in some of the places, and that joy is to be found in getting out. Though to be fair the Docklands Light Rail (DLR) system runs through here and it is a great piece of public transport investment.

I walked past the Excel Centre, I should have stopped for coffee and some lunch, but thought I would find something further along my walk. Though there was nothing on in the conference centre the place was fairly busy, the buzziest place I passed as I walked.

I crossed the Royal Victoria Dock using the quite fabulous footbridge (I regret not taking a photo), though the steps didn’t do my knee any favours. I took some photos from the top, the view is pretty immense from up here.

I’ve always wanted to visit the Millennium Mills building, but was never able to get tickets to the rare tours to the site, sadly those days are past and this huge, ugly/beautiful building will be converted into expensive flats to go along side all the other flats that no-one who lives now here can actually afford. I sense another residential desert coming. The building is magnificent, especially now as it slowly decays.

My next stop was Thames Barrier Park, for it’s view of the barrier built to save parts of London when the floods come. Like Millennium Mills I’ve long wanted to come here, but haven’t managed to in the past. Getting there was the tricky part, there was another road to cross and a long line of barrier fencing preventing crossing.

I made it over eventually, passing under the DLR and yet another place I should have stopped for coffee at but didn’t. I never did get that coffee.

Thames Barrier Park is really nice, a lovely green and shaded oasis in the sea of apartments, it was quiet and cooler than the heat attracting/reflecting streets. There were quite a few people here enjoying the peace, you can see that the council look after the park well. Other than Trinity Buoy wharf it was the only place I visited today that seemed to be loved by the community that lived nearby.

After almost ten years of construction the Thames Barrier was completed in 1982, it’s a retractable barrier designed to close, blocking the river to protect the centre of London from flooding due to tidal surges on the river. I am assuming the water that doesn’t go up river is then forced into the streets of working class outer London, but at least the banks in the city centre will be safe. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering and looks amazing. I will try and come back one day when it is closed as I’ve no idea what it would look like then.

Athena by Nasser Azam is on a roundabout at the entrance to City Airport, at 12 metres it is the tallest bronze sculpture in the UK, I’m ambivalent about it, but it is huge!

After saying farewell to Athena I approached Connaught Bridge and was horrified to see there was no footpath on the side of the road. I quickly discovered, to my relief, that I could walk underneath, but this was not immediately obvious as a newly visiting pedestrian, for a brief moment I saw myself backtracking all the way back to the Excel centre to get to the other side of the dock.

Given my antipathy to cars and roads I actually quite like being underneath these vast concrete constructions. There is something simple and practical and almost beautiful in the design and build of a flyover; clean lines, gentle curves and huge amounts of pale and austere concrete. From beneath they are cathedral-like, some have tables and chairs, almost like an altar, created by the homeless, street drinkers, graffiti artists and other street dwellers who congregate in these drone filled shelters.

Arriving in Royal Albert Dock I was surprised at how big it was, the runway of City Airport runs down one side with a long concreted promenade down the other. Like Royal Victoria Dock, there are small scale leisure activities on or in the water at one end. I’m not convinced that an airport runway provides the cleanest air for boating activities, but a least there are some activities for the young from the surrounding suburbs.

This area, between the railway and the dock was I guess an empty, fenced off wasteland for a number of years. Under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty there was a drive to open up a new commercial zone in Docklands and there was some logic to this, the airport is here, the huge Excel Convention centre next door, there are hotels and bars and restaurants nearby. The supporting infrastructure was largely in place and business would generate loads of new jobs, though possibly not for those pesky working class folk who lived in the 50s and 60s housing estates that surround the area and whose work ended when the docks were closed.

Sensing opportunity Newham Council joined the bandwagon and they now part occupy the first building I come to in this new utopian, ‘third business centre’ of London. It’s pretty bleak, what grass has been left in the sea of concrete is a sun scorched yellow brown, weeds grow through the pavers and for some reason this section of walkway is taped off. There is no-one around so I cross the tape and walk along the side of the building, looking in the windows as I go, some of the offices look occupied, most appear to be fitted out with workstations that no human has yet worked at.

Finally I arrive at Advanced Business Parks’ (ABP) failed venture to build something of lasting value, and the reason I left home this morning with my camera in my bag. Touted in 2013 as a new start for this bit of Docklands, the massive investment (tax break?) by ABP was to lead the way for Chinese and pan-Asian business investment in London, a new 24 hour business precinct giving opportunities to overseas companies to use the best British workers to service their needs in local time.

200 yards multiplied by two of empty low rise office space. The boulevard of dreams, not turned into the boulevard of reality when it all came crashing down; starting in 2018 and ending when Covid struck in 2020. At least the road leading to the locked road gates sees some use.

The site is open to pedestrians so there was no fence hopping to get in. I saw a couple of people walking along the side of the dock, but there was no one walking between the buildings other than my refection in the clean office windows. The site is obviously being secured and looked after, there were no smashed windows, no graffiti and no sign of anyone squatting.

The only life being a few forlorn trees; though most of the trees were dead.

Mandarin Street is the single main thoroughfare between the four buildings; in two rows of two blocks. One of the buildings seems to house a small local gallery; though it was closed when I was there. Most were just empty. It was weird walking around where there was even less signs of life than in City Island.

I wonder what will happen to this place and it’s big wide promenade, looking over an empty expanse of dock to an airport. Plenty of real-estate companies though.

Hungry, hot and a bit dehydrated I caught the DLR and then the Overground ending the afternoon in a bar in Shoreditch drinking a couple of beers and eating a burger with Aiden. Three hours of walking in the sun pretty much did for me so a seat, some food, cold beer and relaxing chat with my son was a pleasing way to end an interesting and not entirely uplifting day. it was nice to see there is still some street art to be found in Shoreditch.

I read the other day that London is a city containing a million smaller cities. Today I visited more than one of those smaller cities and next time I’m here they will be changed, or gone completely.