Walking round London pt6: Hackney Wick to Bow Back River
Like the Olympics, the regeneration game has its winners and losers
After the third lap of a 1500m race, the contestants hear a bell and know they’re reaching the end, if not yet on the literal home straight. Having reached our third and final checkpoint, we set off in search of the docklands, expecting something of a victory lap. It turns out to be the hardest section yet.
For a start, there’s still 10km of the 36km to cover, which anyone with elementary maths will tell you is more than a quarter. More worryingly, the legs are starting to feel the previous five or six hours’ effort. And it’s really rather hot.
Such bead-inducing weather on the Saturday afternoon of a bank holiday weekend has East London determined to party, and the options are plentiful. I’m all in favour of reinvigorating decaying industrial sites with the ever-swirling cashflow of the leisure economy, and it seems that most available structures on the west bank have been occupied by the hermit crabs of hospitality: bars, restaurants, pizzerias, trattorias, whatever the plural is of a bistro. The denizens of Hackney Wick — Wickans? Wickfolk? Wicketers? — are crowding into them, gleeful and basking in sunshine and youth, even if some of them are wondering whether it’s a touch too hot for such an extravagant beard.
Meanwhile on the east bank, down which we stride, a different aspect. This whole peninsula was redeveloped for into being part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and is now a carefully manicured, some would say sanitised, area of Exciting Opportunities.
I’m sure the Copper Box Arena is very good at what it does, but it’s even less interesting visually than nominatively. Next door, the East London Energy Centre — and for once the ‘energy’ refers not to bullshit-bingo buzzwordophilia but the actual generation of electricity and hot water — presents an interestingly angular profile and was well-regarded enough to win a 2013 RIBA Award. However, upon close inspection it’s clad in that awful ready-to-rust Corten metal mesh that always implicates the idle imitating the industrious. For those who had to work with it, the oxidation of metal was to be minimised, not lionised.
As we reach what was literally the business end of the Hackney Cut, the only things milling are the punters, some spilling over from Hackney Wick, others here for the leisure. Looming behind them, over the River Lea which makes a sudden dart south-west as if to avoid it and reconjoin with its artifically-navigable twin, is the Olympic Stadium.
Or at least that’s what it was called in 2012. The following year it contractually became The Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, then in 2016 — bouncing over the thin line between confidence and arrogance via the trampoline of commercialism — London Stadium, now occupied gleefully by West Ham United’s opportunistic owners and reluctantly, sometimes angrily, by the club’s disenfranchised fans, the overwhelming majority of whom never asked to be decanted from their ancestral acres at Upton Park.
An unhappy home for the Hammers, it’s shaping up to be the least successful football stadium move in recent memory. Logistically awful, sonically diffident and suffering the inescapable spatial problems of a bowl-shaped stadium around a rectilinear pitch, it has been howlingly unpopular as a football venue.
More widely, while few would knock the Olympic ideal, it has perhaps unluckily somehow symbolised the worst traits of the regeneration industry — an opaque public/private partnership described best by Jonathan Meades: “spin made stone. Rather, spin made glass, steel, Corten and titanium with maybe just a little wood for warm eco-chumminess. Gentrification through newbuild rather than restoration… publicly funded parochial vanity. Gestural engineering: follies for the masses. State-sanctioned style over substance: officially ordained populism.”
At Old Ford Locks, near the old Big Breakfast lock-keeper’s cottage, the Hackney Cut ends in the confluence of the River Lea and its Navigation; an unfortunate stroke of physics renders the waters’ meeting a floating dump, with rotting sliced bread no duck is daft enough to eat. As if sickened, the Capital Ring path turns away and we leave the Lea after three waterside miles that have taken us an impressive length south, towards our goal at the Royal Victoria Dock.
But we’ve still got a way to go. Latitudinally, we’re still north of the Angel, of the British Library, of London Zoo, of Abbey Road, of Lord’s, of the beating heart of central London, perhaps the most fascinating city our species has ever developed.
What’s worse, we’re turning away, not just from London’s centre, but from that southerly burrow towards the mythical finishing tape. Now we’re heading east, Gawd save us. It gives us a chance to look at the arse-end of the London Stadium, and the InsertSponsorName Orbit.
The Orbit is the UK’s tallest sculpture. It’s not one of its best. Commissioned by Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell and self-regarding custard-sack Boris Johnson to rival the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, it’s Britain’s biggest-ever piece of public art, a twisted mess of girderage largely funded by a steel magnate Johnson just happened to bump into at Davos, as you do.
Spying his legacy and trilling proprietorially, BoJo wibbled that “It would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel.” Indeed it might, but not, as Johnson implied, because they would be wondering how it was built; rather, why. Four years later, desperate for visitors, the operators had to bolt on a slide. Finally: the right metaphor.
We may be heading east but at least we’re up in the air. After the sometimes claustrophobic towpath on the Hackney Cut, we’ve been lifted up 20 feet or so onto the Greenway; suddenly it’s all wide sky, distant skyscrapers and hardly a soul to be seen. To the south of us and the east of the Lea, the triangular tip of the Olympic Park peninsula is nothing but piles of rubble in cleared areas that used to be the dying embers of Stratford’s industry.
As the Greenway abruptly ends just before something called the Doodle Laboratory, we’re thrown under Pudding Mill Lane DLR station and round the corner of a silent industrial unit — silent since yesterday? Yesteryear? After the bustle of the Hackney Cut all is now deathly still, heat bouncing off the sun-beaten tarmac. There’s nobody here, and I can’t blame them.
That wasn’t the plan: in the Olympic plans, Pudding Mill was set to be a “vibrant local centre that serves a diverse new community” by supplying the supplanters with “a range of housing typologies” — is that even a word? It’s easy to mock and there are large swathes of Amsterdam that show such regeneration is possible, but at the minute there’s nothing but levelled land boxed off behind hoardings.
We cross, and then follow, the Bow Back River; the first two words are not descriptive of shape, but of the locale — although the Cockney-defining bells are five miles west, Bow Road station is only a few hundred yards down the A11 — and the backstreet nature of this channel, part of a complicated semi-distributary system as the Lea drags its watery feet before hitting the Thames a mile or so south of here. One of the islands created by the convoluted fluvial system was the site of the original Big Brother house.
That was a Bazalgette production, but a better one awaits.
Coming up next:One classic that survived, one that didn’t
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the East quarter (Royal Albert Docks to Crystal Palace) will take place on Sat 26 May, the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.