geezer goes out... to ThreeMills for a British Waterways Open Day Prescott Lock - a new green gateway to the Lower Lea valley
With Olympic construction due to begin next year, a heck of a lot of building materials need to be delivered to the Lower Lea Valley in the run up to 2012. They could be driven in by road, but a far more environmentally-friendly solution would be to ship them in by boat. And so British Waterways are to build a brand new lock on the Bow Back Rivers, just south of the Olympic Park, with the aim of removing 1000 lorry journeys a week from the streets. The exact location of the lock is the Prescott Channel [photo], a quarter-mile navigation around the back of the Three Mills film studios. Don't worry, it's not named after our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister, just in honour of one of the men who had this cut-through constructed in the 1930s. The Prescott Channel is a quiet waterway - off the beaten track and rarely visited - and yet it's still somewhere you probably know very well. Because it's across this river, during the summers of 2000 and 2001, that Big Brother contestants were led to the studio following their eviction from the House. Because this is Davina's Bridge [photo].
Channel 4 built the first Big Brother house in a field on the eastern side of the Prescott Channel [photo]. But producers weren't convinced that the show would be a hit and only had planning permission for two years, after which Newham Council insisted that the house be pulled down and the site returned to a natural habitat. Five years later not a trace remains, just a locked-off patch of green wasteland [photo]. Peering through the gate it's hard to imagine that this is where Nasty Nick was unmasked, where Vanessa Feltz went slowly mad and where Marjorie the chicken pecked her way to fame. But the bridge [photo] is still there. The same bridge across which evictees ran the gauntlet of the press, and behind which fireworks erupted as Craig and Brian crossed to victory. But the bridge won't be there for much longer.
To ensure that Prescott Lock is in place before Olympic construction begins, the old bridge has to go. It'll be replaced, fractionally further upriver by a state-of-the-art tidal barrier, complete with sluice gates, fish ladder and pedestrian walkway. The new lock gates will be big enough to accommodate two 350 tonne barges, enabling building materials to sail up the Lea from the Thames into the heart of the Olympic redevelopment zone. There's also every expectation that a green transport network can be established as the regeneration of the valley continues. It'll then be possible to move waste and recyclables up and down the river by barge, rather than them continuing to be dumped into the water by couldn't-care-less local industries. As those responsible for the development delighted in telling me yesterday, the lock should have a sustainable future well beyond the closing ceremony of the 2012 Games.
One of the biggest problems seeping out into the Bow Back Rivers at the moment is biodegradable human pollution. Most of North London's sewage passes through the Abbey Millspumping station, just to the north, and the Victorian pipes are no match for modern levels of effluent. Fifty times a year, on average, sewage from Abbey Mills overflows out into Abbey Creek, down the Channelsea River [photo] and into the River Lea. I bet they didn't warn Big Brother contestants of this regular current of sludge sweeping right past their living quarters. And it's not one-way traffic. The Lea is a tidal river and so, less than 12 hours after every discharge, most of the sewage is washed back upriver to contaminate a much larger area of waterway. One extremely useful side-effect of constructing the Prescott Lock will be to block off this brown backwash and prevent it from reaching the Olympic Zone a short distance upstream. Longer term, however, only an upgrade of London's 150-year-old sewer infrastructure can solve the underlying issues with outfall pollution, and the cost of such a major project would dwarf even the Olympics.
Construction on the new lock begins in a few weeks time, which means the closure of even more local waterside pathways (this time for an 18 month period). Three different footpaths meet at the bridge and each will shortly be sealed off for security reasons. One heads north to Three Mills Green, and another west along a puddle-strewn track round to Three Mills itself [photo]. But the most charming of the three is the eastern footpath along the Channelsea River towards the Greenway. The water below may be a nasty shade of brown, the view across the river may be of a forest of gas cylinders and the land opposite may be the site of an old cyanide factory, but it's a lovely walk [photo]. Nesting moorhens waddle across the tidal mudflats, and catkins hang low from trees above the riverbank. You can walk along this path and not see a soul, save for scores of passengers peering from the windows of passing District line trains wondering what the hell you're up to [photo]. Before long, however, watching from the train is going to be the only way to keep track of how the construction of Prescott Lock is going. But British Waterways are certain that, once complete, it will kickstart the renaissance of this sub-Olympic corner of the Lower Lea Valley. Let's hope the future round here is green, and not brown.
How "vaguely sociable" was it? Sort of. A blazered gent and I had a nice chat with the British Waterways representatives who'd given up their Sunday to stand in a tearoom at Three Mills and talk in some detail about this new project. But I didn't stay for a cup of tea and a chat, sorry.