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Monday, 19 September 2016

Walking the Lea Valley (1): An everlasting flame, London’s only lighthouse and the embarkation point for the New World

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.
In its centre is a gas flame that never goes out. Two remaining gas holders loom over the garden and there’s an imposing statue of Sir Corbet Woodhall (1841 – 1916), engineer and Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company.
Along the road is a handsome building that once housed the London Gas Museum. Sadly, this closed some 15 years ago. Its contents are now dispersed - some are stored in Leicester.
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.
Wildflowers abound in the park's meadows. Apparently part of these are flooded in September to mimic the flooding of the river floodplain, which no longer happens naturally because of the canalisation of the river.
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.
  Orchard Place now has a sculpture - a taxi with a tree growing out of it.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, where all the buoys and markers for the Thames were once made and repaired, still has a buoy, but is now the centre of a growing creative community.
A village of recycled shipping containers (above) that serve as artists’ studios, offices and homes. now surrounds the Grade II-listed warehouses (below).
Quirky sculptures abound.
The Royal Drawing School has its Foundation Year Art School there, and a tiny wooden hut beside the lighthouse houses what must be London’s smallest museum, the Faraday Project.

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.
Finally we reached the point where the River Lea - Bow Creek - meets the Thames.

We stopped for a very welcome lunch at the Bow Creek cafe right by the lightship, then headed around the old East India docks entrance basin. Built between 1803 and 1806, this is all that remains of the once-vast complex. It's now a wildlife refuge, but you can still see the entrances to the import and export docks, overshadowed by new developments.
Our last stop before we reached the East India DLR was outside another new development, Virginia Quay.
Here, a memorial, topped by an astrolabe, marks the site where on December 19, 1606, three small ships laden with supplies and adventurers set sail for Virginia. Against all odds, and suffering great hardship, they established a new colony and laid the foundation for the present United States of America.

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.