diamond geezer

 Friday, May 28, 2004

North Greenwich: what a waste-land

Watch the opening seconds of EastEnders very very closely and you'll see that the camera pans out from an epicentre in the middle of the River Thames, just off the North Greenwich peninsula. When the programme started in 1985 the opening credits depicted a densely-packed industrial wasteland here, with a dark grey cloud positioned carefully over the tip of the peninsula. In 1999 the credits were updated to show a very different picture, with much of the surrounding industry erased and a vast new Dome shining out from the centre of that camera shot. For one millennial year the people came, in their not-quite-enough millions, and the peninsula buzzed with life. Well, some life. And then the nation went away disillusioned and left North Greenwich alone, a major transport hub surrounded by nobody. The station was designed to cope with up to twenty-two thousand passengers an hour but now serves less than half that a day. A great future is promised, but it hasn't arrived yet.

Walk out of North Greenwich station today and what will you see? There's the big Dome standing folorn and empty, its twelve yellow spikes thrusting defiantly into the sky. Through the long blue perimeter fence you might spot Group 4 security workers patrolling the vast arena like ghosts. It's still possible to walk right up to the rows of over-optimistic admission booths, all 48 of them, lined up waiting for the crowds that never came. A trickling stream of lost buses passes through the curved bus station, detouring to ferry the grateful of south-east London back to their distant homes. To the south of the Dome lies a vast open space where, one day, something more than car parks and fountains will be built. And further away still is the Millennium Village - yuppie heaven so they'd have you believe, but still absolutely nowhere near critical mass. The whole redevelopment is as bleak and deserted as the industrial landscape it replaced.

Should you have half an hour to spare you can take a lovely lonely walk around the Dome. Turn right out of the station, skulk past a wall of blue portakabins and breathe in the stunning view of Canary Wharf from across the river. Further round you cross the meridian line, etched in stone, beside a disused pavilion still home to the model remains of a multimedia exhibition. A carpet of replanted wild flowers lies cut off inside the Dome perimeter, whilst nearby riverside reedbeds sway freely in the breeze. Tiny planes fly low overhead on their way to land at tiny City Airport, and an enormous yellow sign warns shipping that the Thames Barrier lies just round the corner. You pass a legacy of underappreciated artwork spaced along the riverbank, from a vertically-sliced boat (now covered in seagulls) to Anthony Gormley's towering Quantum Cloud. Nobody lands at the Queen Elizabeth Pier any more, if indeed they ever did, and gardeners have long abandoned the shrubberies alongside the deserted car parks. The odd cyclist may speed past on some long ride to nowhere, but otherwise this walk is a solitary pilgrimage to misplaced ambition. I loved it.

Looking back from the smug safety of the future it's clear that the Dome should never have been built. The British public were never going to be enthralled by a worthy exhibition of social issues, hurriedly assembled to meet an immovable deadline. But I'm glad we tried. We may have wasted millions on the millennium, but one day this area will be reborn and it'll all be because one year ended in three zeroes. Until then the Dome will continue to stand alone and abandoned in the middle of nothing. Nothing but the EastEnders map, that is.

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