Aida Goitom Aregai: a lasting legacy
I read the email from Paula Peaty, a former Healthy Living Coordinator in the Borough of Newham, with great excitement. A year before, I had become a certified Walk Leader with the Newham Healthy Living programme – and now Walk Leaders were being encouraged to sign up to volunteer their skills during the 2012 Olympic Games. So, I did! Months later, I was the main leader for a group walk from Mile End in Tower Hamlets to Olympic Park on the 27th of July 2012, the day of the magnificent opening ceremony.
These guided walks are an opportunity for people to walk to Olympic venues in London, Weymouth and Hadleigh. They are slow-paced but they acknowledge the different capacities and needs of the group, making sure to get ticket holders to their venues on time, while also serving people’s interest in visiting the hosting boroughs.
The programme has been developed by Ramblers together with LOCOG 2012, which has approved 75km and £10M of walking and cycling routes to and from the venues. The walks involve many elements of my work and play: intercultural and personal communication and integrity, insight into local history, regeneration of nature, green spaces and sports. I am very pleased I’ve had the opportunity to be part of London 2012.
But I digress! Nine people turn up for the walk from Mile End to Olympic Park on that buzzing afternoon: an American family (whose teenage daughter is still excited about the previous night’s free concert in Hyde Park), a Spanish gentleman, a group of Chinese women and a British gentleman. They are very keen to get to the venue in time, but also giddy about the walk. We have five guides – one at the front, two in the middle and two for the back of the group – so the visitors are well looked after!
Our walk passes through the Tower Hamlets Cemetery, where the last burial was in 1960s. Since then it has become a nature reserve, with wild flowers and woodland complete with a Children’s Centre for wildlife learning.
We follow the towpath along the Limehouse Cut toward Bow Lock, taking in residential areas with smaller Victorian workers’ houses and a smattering of housing estates. I live in Tower Hamlets, and I have to counter the bewildered reactions from walkers to estates along the way with some gutsy and steadfast re-assurance. “You have to have lived here for some time to really appreciate the beauty and everyday pace of the diverse community,” I say.
Of course this is true for any place. But East London has a long history of diversity from the farmers’ revolt against the Tower of London in the 14th Century to the times of merchant enterprises and the modern City. It has many communities living together: Chinese, African, Jewish and Bangladeshi to name a few. In fact, Tower Hamlets is home to the largest Bangladeshi community around London. Here you see murals on a towering wall, shy teenagers in love strolling along the path or groups of young people hanging out.
On the day of our walk, everything is quiet. I wonder if everyone has stayed indoors with their TVs in the lead up to the opening ceremony. A man sticks his head out of the window of his flat. He waves to us, and gets a “see you down the pub!” from one of our group.
We stop at Bow Lock and take in the stunning surroundings. Here, Limehouse Cut (which was the first navigable canal built in London) becomes Lea Navigation. The River Lea (or Lee), separated from Lea Navigation by the towpath in the middle, becomes the Bow Creek.
These waterways wind smoothly for 28 miles all the way to Hertford. Looking back from Bow Lock the group gets an amazing view of Canary Wharf, London’s financial district, which also contributes to Tower Hamlets’ £1.4 billion a year economy. A young Bangladeshi insurance professional with a literature degree from Oxford put it like this: “I am born in Tower Hamlets and saw the transformation of the docks into Canary Wharf. That got me into Financial Services”.
A bit further down the towpath, the next historic and gorgeous stop is waiting. Three Mills Island is just across Bow Road from the Olympic Village’s Green Way gate and is London’s oldest surviving industrial centre, dating back to the 11th Century. Stratford Langthorne Abbey acquired the Three Mills Island during the middle ages. The turrets of the Abbey are reminiscent of St Basil’s In Moscow, and are visible just behind the Three Mills Green. After Henry VIII had dissolved the Abbey, the Mills ground flour for bakers in Stratford. By the 17th Century, the Mills were using the grain to distil alcohol and they became major suppliers to the alcohol trade and the Gin Craze in London. During Second World War, the area was bombed (as were so many other iconic East London places). Since the 1980s, the area has been home to the film and television industry and accommodates London’s largest studio.
The Olympic Park is bustling, but just across the road the wildflower meadow at Three Mills Green offers a chance to relax and enjoy the regeneration of the area. Visitors can explore the historic sites and connect with a history of enterprise and innovation.
I connected with that history again the evening after our walk, as I watched the marvellous Olympics opening ceremony. Nothing could have prepared me for the storytelling that slowly unfolded. I thought there was a slightly apologetic note for the industrial revolution – or was it just me? My sister as always would say, “Yes! Aida, it is just you!” The ceremony invited us all to become part of history at an historic moment, and I hope that these guided walks do the same. I hope we create a wave of people young and old that will cherish these local areas: a lasting legacy of our history rather than Them vs. Us, West vs. East, London vs. The Rest of the Country, or even Poor vs. Rich. The Olympics is here – come and explore the history, culture and landscapes of East London and beyond!
Aida Goitom Aregai is a Ramblers volunteer. She led a diverse group of Games-goers to the Olympic Park as part of the Ramblers 2012 Led Walks programme. If you would like to join us for one of the free 2012 Led Walks, book your place online.