diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Thames Barrier Park, Silvertown

The London Dockland Development Corporation had a tough job on its hands trying to get people to move to the Royal Docks. Why would anyone want to live on a forgotten industrial site beside a murky grey estuary? So they carved out a big square park down by the river, on the site of a contaminated tar works, and tried to make it as lovely as possible in an attempt to boost property prices. And it appears that they were successful. Thames Barrier Park was opened in Silvertown as long ago as 2000, and the surrounding area is only just starting to catch up.

The Green Dock, Thames Barrier ParkThis is not so much a park as a big lawn scattered with landscape features. The most striking of these is a deep broad chasm, filled with undulating yew hedgerows, which cuts diagonally across the park. It's best seen in the summer, but the greens and browns are photogenic enough in winter sunlight. At the northern end is a fountain plaza, once home to 32 dancing waterspouts, now alas fenced-off around 32 bare holes in the stone floor. The southern end is rather lovelier. The grass rises gently to a wooden Pavilion of Remembrance, sort-of modern Chinese in style, with a flat roof supported on 26-foot-high poles. From the embankment there's an excellent very-close-up view of the Thames Barrier, with nine piers glinting above the low tide mud. Another long gravel path criss-crosses the park from corner to corner. And, to either side, great white housing blocks look down onto a much enjoyed local amenity.

Thames Barrier Park is a fine place for a stroll with the pushchair, or a game of cricket on the lawn, or a romp in the play area, or a good long stare out across the Thames. The 1km periphery is just right for a jog, or for taking a hound or two for a circular walk. Wrap up warm and enjoy the views, or maybe wait until spring and sprawl out in one of the wildflower meadows with a good book. Or maybe you'll end up hiding from the elements in the much-frequented coffee shop in the Visitor Pavilion by the DLR station, open at weekends especially for those who can't go anywhere without caffeine and muffins.

Oh yes, this is a very civilised park, very millennial, very 'new Silvertown'. I rather like it.
    Lyle Park, Silvertown

But there was already a park in Silvertown, just a couple of hundred yards up the road, built three quarters of a century earlier. You wouldn't guess it was here - Newham Council don't signpost it from the main North Woolwich Road. But take a few steps up a sidestreet, past a row of council houses, and you can enter a proper old municipal mudpatch. At the entrance is a threadbare patch of lawn, close to the tennis courts where you might spot a runty Staffs terrier padding about between the lobs. Mind where you step.

This is Lyle Park, a thin strip of land donated to the local populace by sugar magnate Sir Leonard Lyle in 1924. The big Tate and Lyle factory isn't far away, and the employees needed somewhere for their infrequent recreation. I bet they were extremely grateful at the time. Follow the narrow path down to the right, beneath the piled-up chemical canisters, and you'll reach the main body of the park. It's not huge - it's just a single unkempt football pitch with a dusty path around the perimeter. The changing rooms and toilets are firmly padlocked, and look like they've been closed for years. In the northwest corner is a WWI memorial drinking fountain, relocated behind some drooping shrubbery in the hope that passing yobs won't notice it.

Harland & Wolff gates, Lyle ParkThe whole place is hemmed in on three sides by up-close industrial units, quite at odds with the open expansive feel of the newer park to the east. And considerably emptier. There's nigh nobody here, just a single mum from the local estate and her quietly-rampaging kids. Up the steps to the broad riverside terrace, where the bandstand used to be, stand two grand iron gates erected across a flower bed. They used to grace the entrance to the Harland and Wolff shipyard downriver, but now live out their retirement unseen and unnoticed. A pair of empty benches overlook the water's edge, looking out across nothing much of immediate interest. And yet the council's gardeners have obviously gone to a lot of effort to plant out each border with due care and attention. Heather, crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops - all bloom here for the benefit of the handful that come to enjoy.

Oh yes, this is a very ordinary park, very municipal, very 'old Silvertown'. I rather love it.

[and I bet most of you Londoners have never been to either]


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