You can walk almost all the way down the River Lea, fifty miles in total, from Bedfordshire right down to London. But when you reach Bromley-by-Bow, it all goes wrong. The last mile and a half is a dead end, followed by no path at all, followed by a contorted meander. The official Lea Valley Walk gives up on the area altogether and diverts instead down the Limehouse Cut to reach the Thames. Meanwhile the lower Lower Lea valley remains the haunt of light industry and abandoned dockyards, inaccessible to the public, hidden from view. It's a terrible lost opportunity, as the river keeps communities apart, and almost nobody ever visits.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Major plans were devised five years ago to complete the Lea's last link with a fresh footpath. This was to be called the Fatwalk - a laughably ridiculous name, but if it came with money, what the hell. Detailed designs for a 6km linear park were put together. It took some doing, but by 2010 full planning permission had been agreed and £28m of funding was confirmed. Expectations were that phase 1, joining Three Mills to the East India Dock, would be complete before the Olympics. But here we are with a fortnight to go, and sadly nothing's happened.
The first fracture is to the south of the District line, where the River Lea joins up with the Lee Navigation. The Lea Valley Walk squeezes down a thin strip between the two to reach Bow Locks, which it crosses over a gorgeous snakelikewhite bridge. But that leads only to the A12 and thence to Limehouse, whereas the direct route to the Thames ought to be on the opposite bank. And there is a footpath on the other side, it's just really hard to get to, with no direct connection. Fatwalk planners considered several possible linkages, and decided the simplest would be a staircase connecting the lower path with Twelvetrees Crescent Bridge above. Easy, except that in these days of disabled access there had to also be a lift, and that made things much more complicated (and expensive), and the proposed staircase never materialised.
If you do make it across to the east bank (and it is possible, just well hidden), you'll find a very different riverside. A trading estate has recently been established here, the closest building being a waste management centre relocated from the site of the Olympic Stadium. As part of Newham's terms and conditions a broad embankment was created, complete with lighting, lawn and the occasional bench. It's a dead end at the moment, a good ten minute walk down to nowhere and back, but the ideal spot for workers hereabouts to pop out for a fag or lunchtime sandwich. If the Fatwalk is ever completed this'll be an integral part - a quick win - but until then it's a fantastically remote deserted secret.
Pick the right weather conditions and this short stretch of river along Poplar Reach is a photographer's dream. I took my camera down the last time we had perfect blue skies, which I think was back in May, and snapped some golden hour treats. The reeds around the adjacent meander are teeming with birdlife, but the true attraction is the astonishing contrast of buildings on the opposite bank. In the distance are the many and several wealthy towers of Canary Wharf. In front of them is Ernö Goldfinger's brutalist BalfronTower - viewed from here apparently of an equivalent height. Closer by is a pile of stacked-up red containers, acting as offices and studios on Gillender Street. And all along the Tower Hamlets riverbank are warehouses, caravans, gasholders, trucks and tyres - everything you could possible need for a touch of contrasting brownfield angst. I can't decide which of the photos I took is my favourite, probably this one, maybe this. Perhaps a flick through my slideshow will help you make up your mind.
The Fatwalk stumbles at the entrance to Cody Dock, where a metal barrier and watery inlet block the way. It shouldn't be this way. Cody Dock has been derelict for years, too disconnected ever have been regenerated, but there are plans afoot to change that. A group of hard-working volunteers have grand plans to transform this backwater into a public space with live/work studios, community gardens and a brand new footbridge. Alas time and money are not on their side. They've raised about half of the £140K they need to make a proper start on transformation, but their funding deadline's only 11 days away and there's a real danger all their aspirations will be lost. A few public donations aren't really going to cut it - this needs some business or philanthropist to step in, and fast.
It's easy to see the A13 a short distance down the river, but there's no way to get there without retracing your steps back to Twelvetrees and walking another mile down grim roads. This is the grand disconnect the Fatwalk was supposed to heal, with plans to build a footbridge here across the Lea to link Tower Hamlets and Newham together. Folk on the Aberfeldy Estate in particular have no access to the river at the moment, and this would make a huge difference in opening the area up.
The big problem is the need for compulsory purchase agreements to be completed hereabouts before a continuous link can be completed. For legal reasons this has to be done by the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, except that's being wound up in October, and the replacement organisation doesn't have the power or the motivation to make a difference. If the Greater London Authority acts now it could rescue the Fatwalk project, if anyone there can be bothered, else the whole scheme is likely to collapse and a once-in-a-generation opportunity will be squandered. It may have a bloody stupid name, the Fatwalk, but it's in serious danger of being the Olympic legacy project that got away.
» Fatwalk overview: here, here, here; map » Detailed Fatwalk documentation: here, here, here » Here's a plea from 5th Studio, the design practice behind the Fatwalk project. » "The Fatwalk is so named because it aspires to be more than just a narrow footpath or cycleway. It will be a generous sized parkland route which provides opportunities for new activities and uses within the valley, uniting existing open spaces, and playing an important role in linking new park spaces in the future."