Who would have thought a walk that began surrounded by the roar of traffic on the A102 and took us past an industrial estate and derelict gas works could contain such gems?
Walking the Lea Valley is the new project for our local walking group. We're doing it bit by bit, and started by heading south from Bromley-By-Bow to find the river's junction with the Thames.
Our first glimpse of the Lea was by the Twelvetrees industrial park, where the Limehouse Cut runs alongside the Lea before branching west to the Limehouse Basin. Not very picturesque - though the grey weather probably didn't help. But a few minutes away was our first surprise – a tranquil memorial garden commemorating those who worked at the adjacent Bromley by Bow gas works and died in the two world wars.
The trail took us through another industrial estate to Star Lane DLR station and thence to Canning Town, where we reconnected with the Lea - now Bow Creek. A complete contrast here: wasteland transformed into the new Bow Creek Ecology Park. The tide was out, but as we looped around it, information boards explained how the mud is important, supporting a wide range of creatures.
Back on the road, we walked through Orchard Place, green and rural until the Industrial Revolution, then home to the great shipyards of Perry, Wigram and Green, the Samuda Brothers and the Thames Ironworks. Boys from Orchard Place were employed to crawl into ships’ boilers to scrape them clean, ready for survey. They were called ‘scurfers’. The surrounding area, isolated, poor and prone to flooding, became a slum. Father Lawless, a local priest, wrote of the inhabitants in the 1890s: “Hardly human...incarnate mushrooms. God must have made a mistake in creating them.” By the 1930s all the inhabitants were moved into Poplar, and the village demolished.
Now, however, the area is being transformed, thanks in part to the spillover from Olympic Park development, Crossrail and across the river, the O2 and Emirates Air Line. Hoardings trumpet the new London City Island (above), which will have luxury apartments in glass and steel complexes (dubbed a 'mini-Manhattan') and provide a new home for the Royal Ballet.
This is devoted to the Victorian scientist, Michael Faraday, who conducted experiments into electric lighting in the lighthouse in 1863. The lighthouse itself has become an arts venue, and looks out on to a restored 1938 lightship, now a recording studio. At the water’s edge, by the Thames Clipper pier, are two installations, Alunatime, London’s first public moon and tide clock, and Floodtide, which makes music determined by the river’s tide.
It was a fitting end to what turned out to be a fascinating walk through centuries of history. In Chaucer’s time, Bromley-By-Bow, where we started, was known as Stratford-atte-Bowe, the site of a Benedictine nunnery. (In his Canterbury Tales, the author gently mocks the Prioress as speaking French “after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe, for French of Paris was to her unknown.”) The 'Bow' was from the shape of a local bridge.
The Limehouse Cut dates back to 1770, and the Gas, Light and Coke Company was formed in 1812. The lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf (above) was built in 1864, and though East India Docks are now mostly filled in, during World War II they played a key role as a location for constructing the floating Mulberry harbours used by the Allies to support the D-Day landings in France. Looking at all the cranes and development going on, I was left wondering what the future will bring to the area.