Sarah Gardner: Fools for the Olympics
Despite predictions for a return to winter, the sun was shining and the birds were singing as I took the train towards Stratford on Sunday 1 April. I was feeling slightly nervous of the pranksters waiting to assail me, with a thumb of their noses, for April Fools’ Day. Yet nothing was going to prevent me from joining the Blackheath Ramblers for a walk around Three Mills and the Olympic Park, a walk I had been anticipating all week. We would be exploring the industrial archaeology of the Bow Back rivers, and I was particularly excited about checking out how much further the Olympic Park had developed since I last visited (6 months ago, when I led a walk around it myself).
A large group of walkers were already gathered around the Walk Leader, Des de Moor, who was distributing programmes for the Blackheath Ramblers and London Stollers shorter walks. The Ramblers is renowned for its wondrously long hikes, but it also organises a whole host of short walks, under 5 miles, for people new to walking, or those who want to take things at a slower pace. This walk, in particular, was one of the ‘Get Walking for the Games‘ walks – a series of short, easy and accessible walks with a link to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, organised as part of the London 2012 Active Travel Programme.
Des started the walk off with a booming welcome and some facts about Stratford, including the derivation of the name from “street ford”, referring to the ford of the Lee on the Roman road to Camulodunum (Colchester). The medieval market town grew up away from Lee to avoid flooding and later still, in 1839, came the railway which rapidly industrialised the market town. Stratford is evolving again, with the huge redevelopment going on in connection with 2012 and the frankly terrifying Westfield, the third largest retail space in the UK. Leaving Westfield behind, and perversely walking in the opposite direction of the Olympic Park (away from the milling crowds and the stewards attempting to assert some control) we cut down along a quiet green path flanked by blackthorn – or possibly hawthorn, I struggle to tell the difference – and flowering currant. Two sentinels in the shape of a metal ladybird and dog guard the path which runs along the old waterway Channelsea river, the circles of gas works on the other side of the bank, which we use to connect up to the Greenway.
One of the things I love most about walking in London is all the little secret bits of green you find, interspersed with industry, roads, business and residential buildings. You might think London is a dirty, smelly, built-up city,where people can’t move for being on top of one another – and sometimes you might be right. But that’s why walking is so wonderful. Walk a few minutes down the road and take a turning and it’s likely you will suddenly find yourself in a park or recreation ground, by a canal or walking down a quiet street strewn with ivy and rhododendron, wild cherry blossom and forsythia, and somehow it’s all the more magical when you aren’t expecting it.
Despite all the spring beauty, we are actually walking on a sewer – which you can smell when the wind is right (or wrong). The Greenway is part of the Northern Outflow Sewer, which was constructed by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1800s. Waste had become unmanageable in London at this time with cesspits overflowing into the Thames and the heatwave of summer 1858 made the smell overwhelming to such a degree (“The Great Stink”) that a House of Commons select committee was set up to resolve the problem. The original Abbey Mills Pumping Station, aka the “Cathedral of Sewerage”, can be peeked at through the fence from the Greenway. It’s an incredibly lavish building considering its purpose, speaking of a time when functionality and aesthetics could go hand in hand. We pause to admire the view from Prescott Channel and then continue onto Three Mills Lock, trying not to get caught up in the many other walking groups who are also out enjoying the spring sunshine.
Astonishingly, 76 keen walkers have turned up for this walk, lured by the warm weather and the prospect of a glimpse of the Olympic stadium. I suspect a large amount have also turned out for Des, famed for his walk leading style. It’s a mixed group, including some Ramblers lifelong members and some new to the Blackheath group. One tells me that he likes walking with the Ramblers groups because it means he can walk in secluded places he might not feel safe walking along on his own; another tells me she likes walking for the company and the introduction to new places.
Our large group stretches like a caterpillar around Three Mills Lock to Three Mills Island, which includes the largest tidal mill left standing in Britain. As Des explains, the House Mill, Grade I listed, finally ground to a halt during the Blitz, yet has been wonderfully restored by the River Lea Tidal Mill Trust. The Mills have been recorded here since the Domesday Book, but the current House Mill was built in 1776 by a Huguenot family and believed to be the largest tidal mill in the world. Much of the internal machinery, including vast waterwheels and six pairs of millstones, still survives and offers an insight into the history of this fascinating building, and local historical industries.
Walking past brightly coloured houseboats we snake our way towards the Olympic Park via the Greenway Diversion. At the Viewtube, which will be closing in May in preparation for the Olympics, we take in the awesome sight of the Olympic Stadium, with its 80,000 seats, 55,000 of which are removable. It is the third largest stadium in Britain after Wembley and Twickenham. The Olympic and Paralympic Games are coming to Britain in 2012 (for the third time, previously 1908 and 1948) on condition that they deliver regeneration of a massive 2.5 square kilometre expanse of formerly derelict and partly contaminated post-industrial land in one of the most deprived parts of east London, in the lower Lee valley between Stratford, Hackney and Leyton.
As Walk Leader Des informs us, this site – now renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – will be at the centre of the world’s gaze in August 2012. Several landmark venues such as the main Olympic Stadium and architecturally innovative Aquatics Centre and Velodrome are located here as well as the athletes’ village and media centre. Afterwards it will be transformed into a whole new district on a scale which, as Mayor Boris Johnson (‘BoJo’) has pointed out, hasn’t been seen in London since Georgian times, including 11,000 new homes, a university and a major new landscaped urban park. The river Lee splits into various natural and artificial channels through the site, known as the Bow Back Rivers, and the landscaping will make full use of these, turning dirty drains into attractive water features.
There are test events at the park this weekend and as we have a comfort break we can hear the tannoy commentary drift over to us. Next to the stadium stands Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, or as some like to call it, the ‘Helter Skelter’. It reminds me of DNA the way it spirals and loops upwards. Kapoor said he was influenced by the Tower of Babel, that “there is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible”. Many have derided it, and BoJo for commissioning it (especially at £22.7million) but I think it’s quite nice to have something a bit ludicrous in the midst of all this careful planning.
As we move on, back onto the Greenway, we catch a glimpse of the athletics track through the fence. Much excitement between me and a walking companion, who has luckily scored tickets to the athletics. I can’t help but feel a bit envious – I didn’t get any tickets and as a Londoner, I feel a bit aggrieved by this. Still whatever I think about the Olympic Games, it’s pretty incredible seeing the rejuvenation that’s gone on in East London, and it’s been a real treat being able to watch the site grow over the last few years. I am hoping the legacy will be just as interesting.
We finish the day at Hackney Wick around lunchtime. We have done about 4 miles and everyone is full of praise for Des and the walk he has led. Good day’s work for the Ramblers – and not an April fool among us.
The Top 5 Walk Leader facts, courtesy of Des de Moor:
- Abbey Mills Pumping Station was used as location for Arkham Asylum in film ‘Batman Begins’.
- During the construction of the Three Mills lock an unexploded World War II bomb was found, which was disposed of with a controlled explosion.
- The House Mill at Three Mills Island ground grain for gin distilling
- ‘Ashes to Ashes’ & ‘Made in Dagenham’ were shot at Three Mills lock
- The ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, stands at 114.5 metres – the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom and 22m taller than Statue of Liberty
Walk with the Ramblers!
Join us and/or go on a led walk with Des and the Blackheath Ramblers – or any groups across the UK. The next Blackheath Ramblers walk, led by Des, will be held on 22 April with the opportunity to enjoy the spectacular displays of bluebells and other bulbs in Bostall and Lesnes Abbey woods, including abbey ruins and a stretch along the Thames – 6.5km/4 miles, 2½ hour. Meet at Abbey Wood station National Rail (SE2 9RH) at 1030hrs, ending at Erith National Rail.