Whilst the Olympics brought fame, cash and change to much of the Lower Lea Valley, one section has consistently lost out. The last couple of miles down to the Thames remain much as they were - unsung, underdeveloped and part inaccessible. There were plans to open up a footpath all the way to East India Dock, plans branded under the ludicrous name of the Fatwalk, but they fell by the wayside due to lack of funding. Money's since been promised by the Mayor as part of the Lea River Park, but as yet no through connection is possible. So it's great this week to see the launch of a community project with plans to open up the Lower Lea waterside to a wider audience. It's called The Line.
This sounds like a clever way to make something out of nothing. A lot of existing infrastructure would be utilised, much of it riverside, with a series of large sculptures displayed along the way. No new works would being commissioned, people are simply being invited to offer any large sculptures they may have lying around. Submissions will be judged for suitability next month by a panel including Danny Boyle and Mark Wallinger, with the intention that up to thirty artworks stand along The Line until 2017. All that's then required is an accessible route, several CCTV cameras for security and plenty of publicity.
The intended route is interesting, not least for its stated intention to sort-of follow the Greenwich Meridian. By pure fluke this does pretty much follow the Lea throughout its lower course, unfortunately crossing the river just south of Cody Dock where there's currently no footpath. Indeed if I've understood this map correctly The Line will only cross the meridian once, and this at probably the grimmest point along its length. Let's go for a walk and see where The Line takes us...
Stratford: It's not yet clear where precisely The Line begins. 'Stratford', they say, and the map hints this'll be the main station which would be highly appropriate because the Greenwich Meridian passes through the bus station and Meridian Square. Its passage used to be marked by the Time Spiral sculpture, which would have made a brilliant start to The Line, except it's been uprooted and relocated to Maryland because it might have got in the way of shoppers flocking to Westfield. Shame.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park: The map shows The Line heading directly from Stratford station to the Lea, possibly along the railway, not that there's a path. At some point the walk enters the Olympic Park, they're an official sponsor, so we can expect some of the thirty sculptures to end up here. The whole area opens up in two months time, so The Line could follow riverside walkways that aren't yet open, before exiting somewhere in the vicinity of Pudding Mill Lane station.
Three Mills Wall River: The intended route's much clearer from this point on, exiting Stratford High Street near Abbey Lane along an existing riverside path. This passes Three Mills Green, whose new Wild Kingdom playspace deserves to be much more widely known, and which already has its own sculpture in the form of an upended handshake.
Three Mills: This ought to be a highlight. Just past the film studios is the largest tidal mill in the world, which pitifully few Londoners have ever heard of, let along visited. The Line might help change that, bringing in new visitors for a tour around, and welcome additional custom to the cafe. The Clock Mill opposite is even more scenic, but is now home to a free school so watch out for kids in grey and red blazers milling around outside.
Lee Navigation: This thin tongue of land between the tidal and non-tidal Lea ought to be ideal for the display of public artwork. A short distance down is the waterbus stop that Water Chariots were due to serve, but two years on there's no sign of a legacy leisure service ever materialising. The path heads beneath the District line, then over the gorgeous towpathbridge at Bow Locks. There were plans to build a new bridge here so the Fatwalk could continue downstream, but this expensive connection was ditched in favour of a staircase up to Twelvetrees Crescent. Then this too was ditched, because accessibility required a costly lift, so those following The Line will have to take a detour via the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Sorry, but that's legacy on the cheap for you.
Bow Creek: You wouldn't know there was a footpath along the side of this tidal river, because the entrance isn't signed. But head off the road by the gasholders outside Bywaters recycling plant and follow the river round. Though brief this is one of my favourite London walks, partly for the wildlife, partly for the views across to Docklands, and partly because almost nobody else ever walks here. Here's a report from summer 2012, with photos to show you what I mean. But it's also a dead end, stopping short at a metal fence because nobody's ever funded a connection through the next bit.
Cody Dock: This post-industrialinlet off the side of Bow Creek is being reborn as a communal facilityand artistic hub. Plans exist to introduce creative studios and social enterprises, plus a new bridge to continue the riverside path, but crowd-sourced funding failed to raise sufficient cash so the project's somewhat stalled. Now the organisers of The Line are trying for money again, but only to create a link to the nearest road and not to complete the Lea Valley Walk. I went to an Open Day at Cody Dock in 2012 and was very much impressed by the spirit of the place. Hopefully this new project will bring funding, connectivity and visitors, and help to bring this special corner of Newham back to life.
Star Lane → Royal Victoria: In the absence of a completed footpath The Line diverts (across the Meridian) to the nearest DLR station. Star Lane is one of the least used stations on the network, and has to be approached through a particularly unscenic trading estate blessed with bus depots, thundering lorries and an electricity substation. Posh sculpture lovers tempted to East London by this cultural project are going to be wholly underwhelmed by this stretch of the walk, I can guarantee. And then The Line starts costing you money, because you need to catch a train to the next designated sculptural location.
Royal Docks → The O2: There's not yet much to see at the west end of the Royal Docks, apart from lots of water and a sustainability exhibition, so The Line will provide a useful artistic distraction. Meanwhile the public piazzas around the Dome could also do with livening up, so a few additional large objects will genuinely help. And how to get between the two? Why, the Dangleway of course. East London's cablecar has suffered greatly up until now because it links two places few people want to travel between. The Line finally provides a reason to ride, because it will be the fastest way to get from the sculptures at one end to the sculptures at the other.
For The Line to appear, a not insignificant amount of money is required. The organisers estimate that £146,429 is needed to cover planning and installation, and have set a deadline of 5th March to receive donations. I'd suggest TfL bung some cash their way, as this is one project that might just give their cablecar some purpose. If you (or your organisation) are interested too, why not visit the website, watch the video, follow on Twitter and then give some money to help The Line to reach its target. And then as early as May you could be walking the Lower Lea, enjoying the scenery along a world-class sculpture trail, and helping to bring this corner of London to life.