London’s Lost Rivers – the Black Ditch with Tom Bolton

A Walker’s Guide to London’s Lost Rivers – Volume Two

Tom Bolton’s second volume of walks along London’s Lost Rivers traces the paths of eleven subterranean watercourses. Whereas Volume One mapped out the better known lost rivers of London such as the Fleet and the Tyburn – Volume Two is a guide to the more obscure buried streams and brooks that shape the city – the Bollo Brook, Cock and Pye Ditch, Counter’s Creek, Falcon Brook, Hackney Brook, Moselle, and Stamford Brook. Tom took me for a walk along the first river in Volume Two – The Black Ditch, rising somewhere in Stepney Green then wending its way through the East London streets of Stepney, Poplar and Limehouse before making its confluence with the Thames at Limekiln Wharf.

Black Ditch

“In it’s very name The Black Ditch reveals its status an unappreciated river. Despite its route, which runs through the heart of the East End, the Ditch is generally dismissed as no more than a sewer.” – Tom Bolton

Black Ditch

London’s Lost Rivers – A Walker’s Guide by Tom Bolton is published by Strange Attractor Press

Robin Hood Gardens and along Poplar High Street

I’d been meaning to go for a proper look around Robin Hood Gardens for a while (a journal entry from July 2008 notes the idea of making a documentary about the estate’s proposed demolition), the eventual visit made more urgent by news that its demolition had begun. An iconic council estate designed by lauded architects Alison + Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was being demolished to make way for a new development called Blackwall Reach consisting of 1575 new homes of which 550 are said to be available for social rent. The Evening Standard, a paper not noted for its support of social housing campaigns in the past, reported in 2017 that flats in the new development were already being marketed to investors in the Far East.

Robin Hood Gardens Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Climbing the central mound in the open space designed by the Smithson’s as a ‘stress free zone, a calm pool’, you could see into the shattered shell of the western block, some of which is being preserved by the V&A. It’s odd to think of people visiting a museum to look at how people used to live in a brutalist council estate of the 1970’s in the way that we visit a reconstructed Iron Age Village. Is that where social housing is heading – a curiosity in a museum? I sincerely hope not.

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Blackwall Reach development Poplar January 2018

Blackwall Reach development Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens

A kit of pigeons fly synchronised circuits of the interior space returning to their roosts on the upper ledges of the eastern block that still houses the last of the remaining inhabitants, although fewer in number than their feathered neighbours. What will the pigeons make of Blackwall Reach, I wonder?

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Moving along Poplar High Street we see how the old Poplar Town Hall has been converted into a boutique hotel named after Poplar’s Labour MP George Lansbury, although ironic, at least the conversion saved the town hall from a mooted demolition and joining Robin Hood Gardens in the annals of the disappeared.

St. Matthias Church Poplar

St. Matthias Church

Beside the East India Company’s Meridian House, built in 1806, lies a semi-hidden East End gem. St Matthias Old Church was built in 1642 by the East India Company, both as a company chapel and to serve the riverside parish of Poplar and Blackwall. Apparently churches built in the civil war period are a real rarity, a booklet published by the LDDC and English Heritage lists two others (in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Leicestershire). There appears to be a children’s playgroup inside, so I decide not to intrude with my camera and instead make a loop of the quiet churchyard.

The wind blowing down Poplar High Street is starting to bite, my circuit has returned to Poplar DLR station and a glide along the rails back to Stratford.