A walk around the Royal Docks in East London from Prince Regent DLR station past the Excel Centre and around the Royal Victoria Dock with a look at Millennium Mills. Then down through the new Royal Wharf development and the Thames Barrier Park before returning to the Royal Albert Dock and finishing at Cyprus DLR.
Out to the sea. As the long Easter weekend fades behind us mentally today I’ll retread my steps of a month ago as I walked along the Thames Estuary from Benfleet, through Leigh-on-Sea (surely that should be ‘Leigh-on-Estuary’), Chalkwell, Westcliff, Southend and finishing at Thorpe Bay.
This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).
In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:
“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”
This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.
Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:
“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”
We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.
A Friday morning and the need to hit open space, to sniff the edge of the city. A hasty perusal of the maps pointed the way to Rainham Marshes and Purfleet with an easy route via the Overground changing at Barking.
A long ramp leads directly down from Rainham Station onto the edge of the marshland. Birds rattle around in the tall stems of grasses. It feels as if I’m encroaching on wildspace, an intruder. Phalanxes of dried out cowparsley (?) and teasles look resplendent in an unseasonal burst of sunshine. I rest on a bench and peel off layers all the way back to my t-shirt and soak up the last natural heat for months to come.
Arriving on the Thames shore at Rainham, the concrete barges lie marooned by the riverbank. Constructed from reinforced concrete they were towed out into the Thames as part of the Mulberry Harbour that played a vital role in the Normandy D-Day Landings of 1944. Then in 1953 they came to aid of the nation once again when they contributed to the Thames estuary flood defences. Now they’ve been claimed by flocks of birds which perch along the decks and strutt the prow. There’s something noble and proud about the concrete barges even as they slowly sink into the estuarine mud.
Past the shipping beacon at Coldharbour Point and a fleet of Routemaster buses I arrive at the old MOD firing range on the edge of the marshes near Purfleet, the broken chainlink fence a reminder of that this was a restricted area until around 2000. Now it has found new life as an RSPB Nature Reserve. The past briefly returned in 2013 when an unexploded bomb was discovered during maintenance work requiring a controlled demolition. Makes you wonder what else is lurking buried in the mud.
The visitor centre at RSPB Rainham Marshes is a stiking building poking above the marsh grasses designed by van Heyningen and Hayward architects. It strikes me as something you might find on Tatooine in a ‘galaxy far, far away’. Aside from a great view across the nature reserve the centre has a decent cafe where I process the walk sat amongst cappucino sipping Twitchers before getting the train home from Purfleet.
This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.
On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.
There’s yet another new London taking shape on the edge of Barking at Barking Riverside:
“A brand new neighbourhood is being created alongside two km of Thames river frontage at Barking Riverside, one of the most ambitious and important new developments in the UK. Outline planning permission was granted in 2007 for 10,800 homes on the former power station site.”Barking Riverside website
The excursion out to Barking Riverside began wandering through the footprint of the ruins of Barking Abbey, that great powerhouse of early medieval London. I then followed the banks of the River Roding down to Barking Creek and Creekmouth Open Space, before continuing along River Road to the huge Barking Riverside site, finishing at Dagenham Dock Station.
As someone who documents London I half feel I should have had more of an awareness of the burning thing they were doing on the Thames yesterday. You see, it’s the next day, I’m sat at a computer and I still don’t know what the event was called (if it had a name) but I’ll go to the trouble of looking up the artist’s name before I post this to my blog (David Best). It was only when we were lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre waiting for whatever it was to happen that a lady who pushed in next to us decided to explain how poignant it was that they would be marking the anniversary of the Great Fire of London with some actual fire – her Dad had been a fireman, it was very poignant she kept saying. I had to agree in the end although I wasn’t exactly sure why it was poignant, London had been burnt to the ground loads of times in the past, what made this one special. However, lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre we were waiting for something we weren’t quite sure what.
The real reason we went to the South Bank wasn’t for the burning thing at all – my youngest son was desperate to go on the Bumper Cars at NAMCO in County Hall the night before he went back to school – as an end of summer holiday blow-out. It was loads of fun. I actually won a race on the motorcycle game as well, which was a massive surprise to us both. My wife had chipped in that afternoon with a comment that were setting fire to something on the river at 8.30 outside Tate Modern and it looked good – so we tagged it on to the NAMCO jaunt.
Sometimes it’s interesting to be at a large event like this just to be part of a large crowd. Sometimes that makes it hell. Being there with your 10-year old son sometimes helps tell the difference. He looked at the dark river in the gap between the trees and wondered whether we’d see much and whether we’d be better off going to get something to eat instead. ‘Come on’, I said, ‘this is a special event’. ‘Yes’, he agree, ‘if we went to the cinema we’d just be watching a film, here we’ll be witnessing history’. Well a recreation of history I thought but I was too moved by his poetic sentiment I to be pedantic.
Nothing happened. 8.25pm. People started to leave.
‘Come on let’s get something to eat’, he said.
So much for witnessing history, I thought, trumped by hunger.
But then an orange glow lit the sky. ‘It’s started’, I announced to my son.
‘Really, I can’t see anything’, he replied unimpressed.
We moved through the crowds lining the South Bank as far as we could go and reached London Studios where my son was able to bag a spot beside a lamp-post on the railing – a prime position just 10 minutes earlier when the crowds were 6 deep, now oddly threadbare.
We waited for it to arrive. Was it a barge alight? We still couldn’t tell.
We waited some more. We saw more flames shooting up in the air from the Thames. It still didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Whatever it was seemed to grind to a halt off the shore of Bernie Spain Gardens. Craning our necks around the lamp-post we could now catch a proper glimpse of the burning thing we’d been waiting for.
‘There it is’, I said to my son.
‘Ah, yes’, he said, ‘what is it?’, he asked
‘It’s a, a bonfire I think’, I said, ‘a bonfire that has mostly burnt out by the looks of it’.
What had clearly been a raging inferno just 10 minutes previously was now a politely burning pile of wood. If only the real Great Fire of London had exhausted its flames so quickly we wouldn’t have had to wait on the river bank for an hour 350 years later.
‘Ah’, he said, ‘shall we go and get a Burger King at the station’, he said. So off we went to Burger King in Waterloo Station before the burning thing on the river ever reached us.