diamond geezer

 Monday, March 29, 2004

Beckten

The Docklands Light Railway first opened in 1987, linking the Isle of Dogs and Stratford to the City. It was a revolutionary concept - guided rails, driverless trains, automatic signalling, the lot. The DLR was unexpectedly successful, not least in its ability to revitalise the communities it passed through, so a further extension to Beckton was soon planned. This extension opened on Monday 28th March 1994, exactly ten years ago yesterday. I never can resist an anniversary, so I spent Sunday afternoon taking the train to one of London's least loved locations, right down at the end of the line. (I know I know, it's a sad excuse for a life)

The Beckton extension was an attempt to breathe new life into the old Royal Docks, an industrial belt of decay clinging to the northern banks of the Thames. The new railway stretched eastwards from Poplar station, a five mile switchback ride on concrete stilts. The photograph to the left shows a typical two-carriage DLR train entering East India station, two stops along the line, with Canary Wharf rising tall in the background. The Greenwich meridian crosses the tracks a few metres outside the station, its position once marked by a line across the tracks, but sadly this is no longer visible. The railway then curves sharply around the mouth of Bow Creek, providing grandstand views of the Millennium Dome across the river, meeting up with the Jubilee and North London lines at Canning Town. Then it's on past the ExCel exhibition centre and out to far-flung Gallions Reach before curling back deep into the heart of darkest Beckton.

These giant white and blue pepperpots form part of the student accommodation at the University of East London, an extremely short walk from Cyprus station. There are nine coloured roundhouses altogether, strung out beside the Royal Albert Dock, far better architecture than the usual student-packed shoeboxes. They form an impressive backdrop to any flight into London City Airport, located just across the water, where a new DLR extension is due to arrive next year. I strolled into the UEL campus yesterday just as a fire alarm went off inside the green cylinder. A crowd of bleary students massed by the dockside, many still lounging in pink dressing gowns, waiting for a couple of trucks of firemen to give them the all clear. Bet the incident was toast-related.

25 years ago Beckton was an under-populated expanse of marshland and heavy industry. Not any more. Thanks to the London Docklands Development Corporation the area is now a thriving family-filled community, nestling around two characterless pubs and a supermarket. Asda is the true heart of the Beckton estate, like some vast retail magnet, but a superstore that can in no way be described as upmarket. White-trainered lads swagger round the aisles with stilettoed girls on their arms. Parents waddle by, trailing fat Beckton-born offspring. Pensioners hobble home pushing cheap tartan baskets on wheels. A selection of tracksuits sit vacantly on the benches by the store entrance. Most of the tiny shops in the small parade outside have closed down, but the betting shop and £7.99 shoe shop continue to trade. Sorry to any residents reading, but it's not a pleasant place to be, even on a Sunday afternoon.

The original village of Beckton was named after Simon Adams Beck, the man responsible for building the local gasworks in 1870. This was no ordinary gasworks, it was Europe's largest, covering an area bigger than the City of London. The gasworks sprawled across 540 acres of flat, low lying marshland, powered by coal brought up the Thames by barge. The chimneys used to belch corrosive yellow smoke into the sky, at least until North Sea natural gas killed off the plant for good. Stanley Kubrick assisted demolition of the site during the filming of Full Metal Jacket, the tumbledown buildings doubling for wartorn Vietnam. A brand new retail park has very recently been opened on part of the site in the shadow of the few remaining gasholders, surrounded by bleak fenced-off wasteland. It beats Asda for shopping, that's for sure, but that's the nicest thing I can say about the place.

Beckton is also the final destination of all the sewage in North London. Joseph Bazalgette, of whom I have written before, terminated his great Northern Outfall Sewer here at the largest sewage treatment plant in Victorian Europe. You're getting the true flavour of the place now, aren't you? Downwind from central London, Beckton was the perfect location for the capital's smelliest, most unpleasant industries and services. East London got heavy industry, while West London got upmarket suburbia. That sewer still slices through Beckton, now heavily disguised as a cycle path called the Greenway. Walking along the top of this ancient highway I could hear the sewage bubbling along through the pipes beneath, and I could smell it too. Brownway more like.

One of the by-products of all this heavy industry was a huge pile of industrial waste. The London Docklands Development Corporation had the waste compacted and re-contoured to form a large mound, the highest artificial hill in London. A dry ski slope was built, and so the Beckton Alps were born. This ski slope survived until 2001, at which point the centre was closed with proposals to build a giant Snowdome on the site instead. Alas, no money was ever forthcoming, so the hill now lies bleak and empty, like a concrete-flecked industrial pyramid. A zig-zag path leads up the side of the slope, now fenced off at the top, but scramble round beneath the deserted viewing platform and you can still find a route to the summit. I did, and the 360º view from the peak was quite fantastic. To the west the distant towers of Docklands, to the north Upton Park and the A13, and far to the east the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on the M25. I bet the view looks even better in the sunshine. And to the south the estate houses of new Beckton, lapping at the foot of the hill like a sea of brown. It's always been brown round here. First mud, then gasholders, then sewage and now bricks. Some places, it seems, never quite escape their history.




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