Not every path near the Olympic Park area is being closed off. In an unexpected reversal of fortune, one path that's been closed off for the last five years has recently been reopened. That's the footpath along the edge of Abbey Creek, a minor backwater between the Greenway and Three Mills. It's less than half a mile long, but by golly it's packed with interest. If you're in the area this summer, and they haven't closed it off again, this might make an interesting ten minute diversion.
WALK EAST LONDON Greenway to Three Mills(600m)[map]
Look for the snail. That graffitied metal spiral nestling in the undergrowth off the Greenway is actually a chunk of redundant pumping machinery from Abbey Mills nextdoor [photo]. This is where the path turns off, two paths in fact, one high and one low. Ignore the upper past the perimeter of the Pumping Station and fork left down to an unlikely seating area. I say unlikely because there's hardly a glorious view. Sit on the benches and you can look out over a concrete office block, or if the tide's out a tyre-strewn expanse of mud. On a good day there might be birds that aren't seagulls flapping in the reeds, on a bad day, well, that could be very bad indeed. A row of fourteen outfall pipes emerge immediately beneath your feet, used in emergencies to disgorge raw sewage into the river system of the Lower Lea valley [photo]. In an average year 16 million tonnes of the stuff escape here, which is why Thames Water are currently digging London's deepest ever tunnel to divert the discharge to Beckton. More of this later.
It's not been possible to walk any further since 2007. A makeshift fence around the first bend has blocked the way, and I've lost count of the number of times I've wandered down just in case it had been removed. Finally, and without fanfare, it has, reopening the favourite footpath beyond. It's a narrow meandering track, nothing wheelchair accessible, and all the more characterful for it. The foreshore of Abbey Creek is a mass of marshy green, all verdant low-level leaves, leading down to a distant muddy channel [photo]. As the path swings round the channel deepens, now a concrete chasm filled by the tide twice daily. Again, try not to imagine it full of sewage, and concentrate instead on the railway line beyond. The District line runs along the southern edge of the creek, so maybe you've looked back the other way between West Ham and Bromley-by-Bow and wondered what that overgrown wilderness was. Now visitable. [photo]
But suddenly the way is blocked, the path overgrown. There's been subsidence, crumbling or something, which is technically the reason this route's been sealed off these last five years. But rejoice because a detour's been driven through the hedge into the neighbouring field, and this is a very special field indeed. It might look like a building site, and most of it now is, but a dozen years ago this was the site of the very first Big Brother house. Craig, Nasty Nick and Brian, they all lived in a makeshift Channel 4 prefab on the site, with cameras and excitable Davinas all around. A fence blocks off the majority of the space, behind which are diggers and machinery and obscuring piles of earth [photo]. The eviction walkway used to run along here, not quite the part accessible today, but still closer to the action than by rights ought to be the case. Live broadcasting was often interrupted, back in 2000 and 2001, by loudmouth viewers yelling secrets from the public right of way along the water's edge. It's one of the reasons the show moved to Borehamwood, this inescapable lack of East End privacy. But that path's subsidence means public access now encroaches for a hundred metres or so into a patch of overgrown wasteland where television history was made. No plaque is evident, nor ever will be.
Emerging from the trees, the path ends beside the Prescott Channel. There are so many bits of waterway around here, all part of the artificial Bow Back Rivers, and this one hides a secret. When the Euston Arch was demolished in the 1960s, chunks of broken stone were chucked into the water here. About 30 have since been recovered, courtesy of pre-Olympic dredging, but not sufficient to recreate the monument should anyone ever have the urge. Rather more money has been spent building Three Mills Lock, a ship-sized affair through which virtually nothing ever passes [photo]. British Waterways pledged it'd be used for delivering construction materials to the Olympic Park, but completed it too late, so one refuse barge a week is now more the tally. This would be a scandalous white elephant were it not for the huge increase in real estate values the lock delivers upstream, cancelling out tidal flow and removing large areas of E20 from the threat of flooding. Meanwhile across the water, across the railway, stand the Bromley-by-Bow gasholders [photo]. There are seven of these Victorian beauties, each a ring of cast iron classical columns, and Grade II listed to ensure that this heritage cluster survives. [photo]
There used to be a low footbridge here, nothing special, that is until Davina McCall arrived. This was the bridge early Big Brother evictees crossed, a staple of Friday night TV, where the media waited with cameras poised to grab a flashlit snap of disappointment. You'd know it if you saw it... but now you'll never get the chance. The footbridge was removed to provide headroom for lock-bound traffic, and has now been replaced by a much taller footbridge in approximately the same position [photo]. It's utterly charmless, with cheap-feeling bouncy staircases, but it does provide a much better vantage point from which to gawp down on the surrounding area. Look at that, the Big Brother field is now almost entirely wiped away, razed and ready for the construction of the Lee Tunnel[photo]. If the even more expensive Tideway Tunnel is ever built (beneath the Thames from Acton), that'll most likely end right here in Marjorie the chicken's henhouse.
On the far bank, that's Three Mills Studios. As well as BB's studio interviews, many's the TV show or movie that's been filmed within its security perimeter. They sometimes store props round the back, which can be seen fairly clearly from up on the bridge. On my most recent trip I was intrigued to see a headstone-style chunk of fibreglass set in the middle of a grassy platform supported by scaffolding. The inscription remained a mystery until a judicious zoom revealed unexpected wording: "This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames". But that's nearly 200 miles away! It seems someone's built a perfect replica of a famous monument from a Gloucestershire field, in portable form, complete with rocky space in front (from which a water feature might gush) [close-up]. Completely coincidentally, I'm sure, hundreds of LOCOG staff are busy preparing for the Olympic Opening Ceremony at Three Mills at the moment. I wonder where this very British prop might pop up next.
You can't turn left to walk the next bit, around the waterside edge of Three Mills Studios. That's also been sealed off for five years, quoting instability as the reason, and nobody seems to have any impetus whatsoever to open the route back up. But you can turn right past the backlot, past the lock gates, up to Three Mills Green. And that's the end of this "couldn't do it since 2007, can do it now" walk. Ten minutes tops, but so much of interest packed in along the way. I've missed it.