I’m becoming slightly obsessed with East Village, the name given to the London 2012 Athlete’s Village. It’s fascinating to watch a new neighbourhood slowly creak into life. And it’s right on my doorstep – a small provincial settlement dropped onto the marshes. There are few things as mundane as waiting at a bus stop on a wet Wednesday evening – but these are the experiences that form the bedrock of the narrative of a place, a world away from the glitz and hype of the multi-billion pound Olympic Games when celebrated gold medalists strutted these same streets. They’ve moved on to become a face on the front of a box of cereals and now people with less accessible histories and mythologies and moving onto the same ground, stubbing their toes on a loose paving slab, munching on fried chicken, dropping their dummies out of a pram.
Passing through East Village in the Olympic Park today I was overjoyed to find two new roads (re) open – Honour Lea Avenue and Olympic Park Avenue, apparently opened to the public yesterday, 7th March.
I seem to be developing am ongoing relationship with East Village and the wider Olympic Park (to a slightly lesser degree) which started when I sent a frustrated tweet to the East Village admin people about the naming. This led to me being invited to a tour of the site last July by the charming PR team and somebody from the construction firm.
I think my blossoming obsession perhaps comes from my interest in researching and exploring London suburbs of the past, so to witness a new neighbourhood come into being in front of your eyes is a unique opportunity. The horror I feel at times might be what people felt when they saw the first streets laid out in the fields of Perivale and Sudbury Hill. I’m now trying (really) hard to dispassionately document but it’s a struggle at times.
I wonder where all this is heading.
Wandered through the empty void of East Village – starting to wonder whether at this stage it would be a brilliant place to live despite having the vibe of the set of a zombie movie.
I still don’t understand the Westfield-Olympic Park retail gulag – just can’t process what it is. This sign and the plans for the new ‘east village london E20′ is making my cognitive dissonance even worse – should I be excited by the emergence of a whole new area of London rising out of the marshes just down the road? But why do feel a combination of fear, horror and anger.
I got drawn along the inspiring and imaginatively named Westfield Avenue towards the expansion of this miniature Singapore.
The new mega-ghetto is this high-rise block of student apartments. Clearly the student rental market is a more lucrative investment than when I moved to a terraced house just off the Romford Road in Stratford at the end of the 80’s when landlords were actively discouraging student tenants.
The cynical suspicion that ‘east village E20′ is being set up as a privately-controlled outpost of transient, well-off, passive consumers with MBAs rather than ASBOs is offset by this glorious view north across the top of the Velodrome to a dark smudge of distant hills.
Although there is a steady trickle of traffic, the fact the footpath is fenced off starts to make me feel as if the way isn’t formally open to pedestrians. This makes me even more determined to push on towards Hackney Marshes.
Soon there are not even bollards to separate me from the 4x4s who seem to be enjoying the smoothness of the newly laid tarmac a bit too much for comfort. A voice with a strong African accent calls out, ‘Excuse you can’t walk here’. It is a female security guard in her hut. ‘You need to go back the other way – I am worried for your welfare’. I take her careful advice. Beyond the hut there was not even a kerb to tightrope walk along, and the light was all but gone.
The park looks far from finished, and I shared a joke with the security guard that the the summer opening may take place in November but that they’ll call it ‘late summer’ somehow, like calling the new suburb ‘east village’. Whatever they call it, and whatever they build – the once mighty River Lea couldn’t care less, it’s just waiting for a chance to reclaim the marshes.
I couldn’t let my pre-Olympic skepticism allow me to ignore the fact that it is taking place right on my doorstep. I’ve been moaning about it for the last 6 years but now it’s here felt an obligation to see what was going on.
I’ve watched the Stadium and Velodrome mushroom at the end of the Asda Car Park – and via the Asda Car Park is the best route into the Olympic Park if you want to avoid the crush at Stratford. Since I moved to the area I’ve walked along the Eastway noting the gradual change.
So I bought a ticket for the Women’s Basketball.
At the end of Ruckholt Road there’s a gate at Eton Manor with a new bridge leading over into the park. This bridge and cinder track to the basketball arena crushed what was left of the Eton Manor Boys Club – a 19th Century philanthropic enterprise for the boys of Hackney Wick.
|still from a video I shot in 2007 – watch the video here|
Where there were a series of rugby pitches is now a coach park. Tucked away in the corner was a small blue hut serving as a box office – there was not a soul around. It seems people don’t fancy entering the Olympics from Leyton.
|The wild flowers are the real stars of London 2012|
|This reminded me of a scene from I Am Cuba|
I’d rather the Lower Lea Valley had been left alone to be overgrown with budliea, Japanese Balsam and Giant Hogweed. However, the landscaped banks of wild flowers are beautiful, and paradoxically possibly more in tune with the ‘natural’ habitat.
I was telling my wife how I preferred it the way it was and she pointed out that hardly anybody came down here when it was a post-industrial wilderness. I tried to make the point that that was the beauty of it but I suppose psychogeographers are a fairly narrow demographic.
The River Lea running through the park though is haunted by the absence of Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting in their swan pedalo. The end of their odyssey from Hastings to Hackney was truncated by barriers prohibiting passage along the Olympic Waterways.
|I don’t get the giant crayons poking out of the Lea|
Two of Britain’s great topographers pedaling past the stadium in a giant swan would have been the perfect opening ceremony.
Have a look at this clip from the Culture Show in 2005 with Bob Stanley wandering around the Lower Lea Valley as it was then.
Been meaning to do this walk for a while – heading south in a straight line from Leytonstone across Stratford and Abbey Marshes bound for the Plaistow Levels beside the river Thames.
“Local history is the cradle of true patriotism, and local patriotism is the best stimulant to efficiency and progress”
Fifty Years A Borough 1886-1936 – The Story of West Ham by Donald McDougall, 1936
“There seems to be no doubt that the name comes from the Saxon, indicating the Street by the ford, or Stratford”.
“It is quite likely that the area was a centre of communal life of the (pre-Roman) period and that it saw Druid ceremonial at its best”
East Ham and West Ham were simply known as Hamme at the time of Edward the Confessor.
Alfred the Great is said to be responsible for the creation of some of the watercourses around Stratford such as the Channelsea River which he created to drain water from the Danish ships moored in the River Lea.
|Channelsea River 2|
“These streams had for many years been deteriorating, silting up, and at times giving off very offensive smells.”
|the marsh monster|
“But before there were small clustered villages, and before the unassailable fortress stood sentinel on the bank of the river, what people lived in the forests and marshy lands? What did they do in the struggle to live?
The first great work of these unrecorded hands was to build a wall of earth all along the north bank of the river so tha a great belt of swampy land was made fertile and flourished into meadows and pastures.”
The Story of Tower Hamlets, 1967
West Ham Abbey “stood on the banks of the Channelsea River, one of the waterways created by Alfred the Great, in a very low-lying area now almost entirely covered by factories, warehouse and gasometers.”
Fifty Years a Borough