If you've ever tried to follow the Lea Valley Walk, all the way from Hertford to Limehouse, you'll know there's only one bloody-dangerous bit. The entire 28-mile length boasts a traffic-free path decently segregated from main roads, or at least via a convenient pedestrian crossing, except at the Bow Flyover. At the Bow Flyover the footpath dumps you on the pavement beside a very busy roundabout, and then you're expected to cross four lanes of traffic including two contraflows without a green light to help. It's not fun, neither is it great for those of us who live around here and have no safe way to traverse the interchange. So rejoice, because yesterday the Bow Floating Towpath was opened, and now there's a safe route beneath the main road, along the River Lea [photo]. Hurrah, and about time too. [11 construction photos]
There's already a floatingtowpath a mile to the south, along the Limehouse Cut, and this new path follows a similar model. The walkway's positioned just above the waterline (don't worry, the river's not tidal this far up), and with minimal headroom beneath a broad concrete carriageway. It's dark and could be very oppressive, so a series of always-on lights have been installed along the railings to brighten things up. I'd still think twice about walking this way after dark, but daytimes or dusk make for an atmospheric stroll. [photo]
And there's more. The floating towpath is on the opposite side of the river to the existing towpath north of the flyover. So a new Bow Bridge has been built - a wooden footbridge connecting the two banks at a rather jaunty angle [photo]. That's where most of the £2.4m has gone, I'll bet. The main span is high enough to allow narrowboats (and Water Chariots) underneath, and has four disembarkation points, two at each end.
« southeast: This is the ramp down to the floating towpath. Ideal for cyclists and river-walkers. [photo] « south: A path leads off at top-of-embankment level. It ought to lead to the road alongside, except the road alongside is the A12 dual carriageway. So instead a zigzag path has been cut through a sliver of woodland, probably wiping out a couple of trees in the process, and the undergrowth still hasn't recovered from recent engineering works [photo]. The path ends, fairly swiftly, on the northern edge of the Bow roundabout.
» north: This is the ramp down to the existing Lea towpath. Ideal for cyclists and river-walkers.
» east: This is an utterly pointless set of stairs. It also leads down to the existing Lea towpath, which then ends fairly swiftly on the northern edge of the Bow roundabout. No through traveller need ever use these stairs, because they merely link the northern edge of the Bow roundabout to itself. Still, it's only money, eh?
The combination of floating towpath and footbridge makes for a damned impressive slice of local infrastructure. There are only two main problems - one temporary, one more serious.
1) Firstly, there are absolutely no signs on or around the towpath or bridge. With a plethora of routes leading off every which way, passers-by need to know what leads where or they'll never use the facilities to best effect. Which way under the road, which way up to the roundabout, no clues. The new bridge surprised one cyclist while I was there, and he seemed uncertain which way to go... until I mentioned the floating towpath was freshly opened today, and off he zipped in perfect safety to continue his journey. They've been building this thing for six months, which ought to have been plenty of time to knock up a few signposts, but alas nobody's quite got around to this yet.
2) Secondly, although this pedestrian underpass is a marvellous addition for those travelling beside the river, it's bugger all use for the local community. The flyunder crosses only one arm of the Bow Flyover roundabout, linking the two sides where the fewest people live. Even then it requires a three-minute detour to walk out to the bridge, under the road and back up past the Calor Gas yard, which won't encourage many residents to use it. And the new floating towpath is no help whatsoever for crossing the A12, nor crossing the A11, both of which continue to require pedestrians to nip across streaming traffic unaided. When the Olympics come to Stratford, there'll still be no safe way to walk there from Bow. The benefits of this £2.4m investment are intensely one-dimensional.
But rejoice, because the Lea Valley Walk is finally a joined-up whole. You can walk, jog or cycle the entire length, or just nip down from Fish Island to Bromley-by-Bow Tesco without being mown down by lorries. But do watch out for the mysterious markings on the towpath immediately to the south of the flyover, alongside an old wharf opposite Sugarhouse Lane. The path's particularly wide here, and yet some official signwriter has felt the need to daub inexplicable symbols on the ground in a needless attempt to squeeze everyone down a dogleg lane in the centre [photo]. The graphic shows a parent and child walking into an upside-down cyclist, or maybe a cyclist riding into an upside-down parent and child [photo]. Is this a shared pathway? And if so, why, when a separate segregated lane could so easily have fitted into the additional space alongside. This is jobsworth health and safety of the most frustrating kind, both pointless and ugly. Should you happen to know the person responsible for this eyesore I'd be delighted if you'd steal their paintbrush and snap it in two, so that nobody else's riverside gets tarnished in a similar way.