Walking round London pt7: Bow Back River to Channelsea River
Including one piece of architectural art that has been lovingly preserved… and one that wasn’t
Now a quiet backwater, Bow Back River used to be quite the throughroute for some of London’s less pleasant industries, notably chemicals. But even a century ago all that was on the wane; the City Mill was demolished in the 1930s. The lock named after it was refurbished in 2010 and it’s here that we emerge from the aquatic silence into the juddering thunder of Stratford High Street, which we follow for 400m before crossing and entering the Abbey Lane Open Space, carefully signposted as not a public right of way but open as long as you obey the rules. Alright, we get it.
Here we’ve rejoined the Greenway, which will be our companion for the next 4km as we plough a relentlessly linear path in what frankly feels like the wrong direction. The southerly-flowing River Lea, which we’ve been following for the last 3.5 miles, empties into the Thames at Bow Creek — around 400m from our finishing line at the Royal Victoria Dock and barely two miles due south of us. But we’re about to arrow in a really rather dishearteningly easterly direction straight towards the Beckton Sewage Works below Barking. Now why might that be?
Inner carping apart, it’s good to see the redevelopment of formerly underused land into linear parks like the Greenway, even if this one lacks as much in panache as its primary-schoolchild name might suggest. It’s just that compared to north London’s Parkland Walk (see this earlier piece) or particularly New York City’s High Line (see this much earlier piece), there’s simply not a lot to see along the route, which only serves to heighten its ruthless rectitude.
There are exceptions. At a rare bend in the path, and protected by a frankly startling amount of razor wire, is the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. Now, it might strike you that your reporter has gone stir-crazy by appreciating a pumping station, but would a dully utilitarian building have been christened “the cathedral of sewage”?
Built between 1865 and 1868, Abbey Mills was designed in what might best be described as the Byzantine Plus style by the never knowingly under-engineered Joseph Bazalgette, chief of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works. Among the things designed under his aegis were Putney Bridge, Battersea Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge, Charing Cross Road, Northumberland Avenue and Shaftesbury Avenue, the Embankment and the Woolwich Ferry; he also made early plans for the Blackwall Tunnel and made a preliminary suggestion for what became Tower Bridge. Your Victorians tended to keep busy.
He’s best remembered, though, as godfather of the capital’s sewage system. Previously, your ordure was simply swished down the gutter and into the Thames. It didn’t work very well. An unusually lethal cholera epidemic in 1848/49 killed 14,000 Londoners; another, five years later, did for another 10,000. But when the hot summer of 1858 created a Great Stink which affected the Houses of Parliament so badly that they had to soak its curtains in lime chloride, suddenly a magic money tree appeared and the Board of Works was given a budget of approximately £3m (about £350m today).
Bazalgette busied himself making plans which, by the time he’d finished, would involve 318 million bricks and a final cost nearer £6.5m. Marvellously, it was all built on the wrong premise: that cholera was spread by a miasma — basically an unpleasant whiff carried on the wind — so it’d be better to trap the crap in a brick tunnel pointing slightly downhill, washed away by water. Remember that in Western European and particularly British cities, the poorer parts of most towns are on the eastern side because the winds come from the west, whipping the smoke downmarket; once the danger reached up West(minster), Something Had To Be Done.
(For the record, and while we’re hailing heroes, Dr. John Snow had already found the right answer, carefully documenting that the 1854 outbreaks had happened around contaminated water-spigots and effectively creating modern epidemiology in the process. However, he was largely ignored until an outbreak in Barking proved his point in 1866, after Bazalgette’s system was operational, but Snow was not — he’d died in 1858.)
It’s tempting to bang on about Bazalgette, hailed by no less an expert than Peter Ackroyd as among “the pantheon of London heroes”. For now, let’s zoom in on the Abbey Mills station. Its purpose was to pump poop, but the Victorians — while rigidly hierarchical in many senses — refused to regard their utilitarian structures as something shameful, to be housed in boring boxes of slapdash execution.
Indeed, Bazalgette and his co-designer Charles Henry Driver threw the creative works at it. There was no real need for the ornate dome above the engine room, but why be shy? Nikolaus Pevsner, in his (ahem) landmark work Buildings of England, enthused that this was “exciting architecture applied to the most foul purposes… an unorthodox mix, vaguely Italian Gothic in style but with tiers of Byzantine windows and a central octagonal lantern that adds a gracious Russian flavour.” Take that, banality.
Sadly, the large double chimneys were removed during the Second World War to prevent their use as Luftwaffe landmarks, but the building was grade II*-listed in 1974. It’s mainly used these days for filming, from The Bill to Batman Begins, but it still does its job when required — roughly 30 days per year. True, the huge steam engines have been updated to electric motors, but the shell of the building hasn’t been upgraded. How could it be?
Shortly after Abbey Mills, we cross a quiet waterway which bears the evidence of previous works. Upon later investigation, this turns out to be Channelsea Island, upon which stood Abbey Mill, whencefrom the name of the pumping station. Something about the small strip of decaying structure — now adorned with shopping trolleys, which seem somehow to have swum out to it — intrigues me, as it so often does, sparking questions: not so much what was it, as why did humans build it? On a good day I might ask myself that several times; on a great day I’ll find an answer or two.
Channelsea is a name that raises its own questions in architectural history. For it was just downstream in this tidal inlet that, in 1994, Dan Cruickshank discovered just over half of the Euston Arch, tipped into the river like the dismembered limbs of a gangland victim. The arch — actually a propylaeum — had welcomed visitors to the mainline railway station for 120 years until it was demolished in the winter of 1961/62.
The public outcry did much to kickstart various movements for the preservation of old architecture. It also enabled the sort of reactionary fogeyism that culminates in blanket hatred of the new, a standpoint which can lead to the creation of ugly anachronisms if the fogeys happen to be architects, mass builders or heirs to the throne.
Not all of what is old should be saved, and not all of what should be saved is old. Euston Arch wasn’t popular with all the people all the time — one 1850s writer described it as “gigantic and very absurd” — but had become loved by the public, as had the (also grade II-listed) Great Hall. However, the impending electrification of the West Coast Main Line had prompted the British Transport Commission to request the complete rebuilding of the Victorian station.
Questions were asked in Parliament but the reconstruction was waved through by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples. During seven busy years in the cabinets of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, first as Postmaster General then as Transport Minister, Marples was responsible for the introduction of postcodes, trunk calls, Premium Bonds, traffic wardens, the MOT, double yellow lines, traffic wardens, British Rail and the appointment of Dr Richard Beeching to make recommendations on which railway lines to cut.
In what even then was acknowledged as something of a conlflict of interests, he also held 80% of the shares of Marples Ridgway, a civil engineering company that built a lot of roads including the Hammersmith Flyover and the bottom end of the M1. In 1975 he fled to Monte Carlo, avoiding legal action from (according to a contemporary splash in the Daily Mirror) a chartered surveyor, the tenants of his crumbling flats in Putney, the Bankers Trust merchant bank and the taxman, who wanted 30 years’ back pay.
The demolition of the Euston Arch rendered the Architectural Review apopleptic: “wanton and unnecessary — connived at by the British Transport Commission, its guardians, and by the London County Council and the Government… the united efforts of many organisations and individuals failed to save it in the face of official apathy and philistinism.”
Even the man in charge of demolition did it “without pleasure” and offered to store the removed portions at his own expense for future reconstruction; the Government told him not to bother. He apologetically presented a silver model of the arch to the head of the Victorian Society, who compared it to being given a bust of your murdered wife. By the murderer.
And so the Arch was sliced up and tipped into the bottom of Channelsea, to shore up the junction with the Prescott Channel. Working on a tip-off, Dan Cruickshank pulled some of it up in 1994 and found the hard Yorkshire stone had barely weathered at all; not atypically, Cruickshank got very excited at this and suggested the arch could be rescued and restored.
That’s probably not possible with entirely original pieces — some ended up in the gardens of builders who could scarcely be blamed for reusing unwanted rubble — but the Arch looms large in the public consciousness… and the political conscience. There’s talk of reusing it for the remodelled post-HS2 Euston; if so, let’s hope it’s done with more sensitivity than has frequently been displayed when the present tries to fit the past into the future.
Coming up next:Walk a straight line
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.
Pt1: Wembley to East Finchley • Pt2: East Finchley to Finsbury Park • Pt3:Finsbury Park to Clissold Park • Pt4: Clissold Park to Springfield Park• Pt5: Springfield Park to Hackney Wick • Pt6: Hackney Wick to Bow Back River • Pt7: Bow Back River to Channelsea River • Pt8: Channelsea River to Royal Victoria Dock