diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Random borough (33): Barking and Dagenham (part 4)

Somewhere famous: Ford Dagenham
There's only one famous place in Barking and Dagenham, to be frank, and that's the Ford Motor Works, opened in 1931. It's located here thanks to a major flood two centuries earlier when the Thames broke through river defences to create a large lake - the Dagenham Breach. Upgraded later to a deep water dock, the ease of shipping in coal and steel made this an ideal spot for the largest car factory in Europe. One of the early vehicles off the production line was the Model Y, a saloon in competition with the Austin 7 - both vehicles with "an almost unbelievable lack of brakes" (and careful drivers). After the war came the Anglia and the Cortina, as well as worsening industrial relations, until the Fiesta proved to be Dagenham's final four-wheeled output in 2002. More than ten million cars were built here, and you can still see several on local streets where a strong brand loyalty remains. The vast site still churns out engines, apparently one in four Ford engines worldwide, but the days of high production and high employment are long gone. You won't get close to the main plant on foot, but you can catch the 175 bus into the heart of the works on any weekday or before 7am on Saturdays. Damn, missed. The wind turbines on site are visible across much of East London, forming London's first wind farm, and they're 120m from ground to top of rotor [photo]. Visible closer by are two elevated water tanks painted with the Ford logo, which rise up beside the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (which bisects the site) [photo]. And somewhere in Ford's 475 acres, as a throwback to the storm event that gave this place life, the lake-like remains of Dagenham Breach ripple on.
by train: Dagenham Dock   by bus: 175

Somewhere random: Barking Riverside
If you were to walk every mile of London's seven strategic walks, the only borough you'd never set foot in is Barking and Dagenham. There are very few footpaths in the borough, but there is one I've been meaning to take for ages, through the industrial wasteland along the northern banks of the Thames. Join me now on one of the capital's least glamorous outings, the three mile walk from Dagenham Dock to Creekmouth. Once you've read my description, some of you will be straight down for a look, and some of you will vow never to come anywhere near. [here's a map]

Dagenham Dock is an amazing place, probably for all the wrong reasons, as I've described in some detail on a previous visit. A railway station serving industry rather than housing, plus a bus station serving almost nobody, beneath a thundering arterial viaduct, close to wind turbines and a power station [photo]. There are plans for considerably more commercial activity here - it's ideally located - but thus far (apart from Ford) there are only a few strips and scraps down to the river. Chequers Lane is the preserve of lorries, not somewhere you'd ideally want to go on foot. Along one side is the new Barking Power Station (a mega-magnet for pylons) and on the other a Hovis distribution centre (plied by yellow articulateds). Don't walk all the way down to the desolate end, turn right past the drinks deployment warehouses and the integrated logistics hubs. And don't worry, it gets better.

Once the warehouses stop, the grass begins. Ahead is the Ripple Nature Reserve, a huge expanse of green hummockiness, accessible through a gate to the south of Choats Road [photo]. It's all been reclaimed from dried-out lagoons of Pulverised Fuel Ash (mmm, lovely), and the unusually alkaline soil supports rare plants such as marsh orchids. Along one edge runs the Gores Brook, one of the borough's non-event streams, wiggling through the reeds on its way to an estuarine outfall. I thought I'd be alone here on the grassy mounds, but a single birdwatcher had also taken advantage of the sunny morning to come and peer at atypical wildlife through his binoculars. Down by the Thames came an uninterrupted view across the mud to Thamesmead [photo], then past a black jetty to the incinerators of Bexley [photo]. But it was the acres of landward prairie that drew my eye, mostly in surprise that so large an area of brownfield London lay undisturbed and undeveloped [photo]. Give it time. One single new building has crept in, a stack of silver containers creating Barking Riverside [photo]. This is an education centre, firmly shuttered at the weekend, but open to wide-eyed kids of all ages for ecological awareness during the week. In their grounds, dug into a long mound of earth, they boast the Guinness-approved "World's Largest Bee Hotel" [photo]. Residents can choose from two classes of accommodation - bamboo, or drilled logs - and every bedroom is guaranteed a river view [photo]. I genuinely wasn't expecting this.

It's all change as the path turns inland to follow one of the ugliest roads in London - River Road [photo]. This is proper industrial, mostly of the waste and tipping variety, at least in those spots where anything commercial has survived. A guard in a turban sat at one entrance to ensure I didn't wander inside his tip and get accidentally dumped on, not that I would have. On one side of the road the site of Dagenham's Sunday Market, on Saturday an echoing void. On the other the rusted coils of the old Barking Power Station, whose dismantled acres are slowly being covered by a vast new housing development. You might have been tempted to live here had the planned Dagenham Dock DLR extension ever left the drawing board, but that was binned. Instead the East London Transit is due here next year, more a glorified bus, which'll increase services on River Road from two buses a day to several an hour. Until that promised housing spreads, the former frequency is by far the more justified.

And finally into Creekmouth, a remote former village which is now essentially a pub surrounded by venues for manual work. Recycling's big here, and electrics, and engine-fiddling, and wholesale, and chucking mess in skips, and things that smell. There's only one nod to visitors, and that's a path between the warehouses to the mouth of the River Roding. Here stands the mighty Roding Flood barrier, poised above Barking Creek like a giant blue guillotine in case one day its protection is required [photo]. You can get right up close thanks to a nature reserve squeezed along the river, courtesy of the Environment Agency and the Creekmouth Preservation Society. The barrier dominates, but that's Beckton Sewage Works opposite and the warning light at Tripcock Ness on the far side of the Thames. I arrived at low tide, most fortuitously, so followed the steps through a gate at the far corner of the reserve. Suddenly I was down below the protective wall, walking along an artificial foreshore colonised by spiky plants. The concrete staircase dog-legged down into the river, increasingly green and increasingly slippery. But it was oh so worth it for the reverse view of the barrier, rising tall and proud above defiant vegetation [photo]. Three miles of estuarine and industrial contrast, with a secret triumph at the end.
by train: Dagenham Dock   by bus: EL2, 387

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