ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
1) Bow Roundabout → Bow Creek(2½ miles) [20 photos]
For my August extravaganza this year I'm walking clockwise around the edge of Tower Hamlets. And for reasons of local convenience, not least so that I can collapse into an armchair when the twenty mile circumnavigation is over, I'm kicking off at the Bow Roundabout. [map]
The entire eastern edge of Tower Hamlets runs down the centre of the River Lea, so for the first few miles all I need to do is stick as close to the water's edge as possible. Thankfully at the Bow Roundabout that's easy, thanks to the floating towpath slung beneath the flyover. This was installed in 2011 to continue the Lea Valley Walk without the dangers of rising to cross the traffic, and has been an overwhelming success especially with cyclists. I usually have to dodge out of the way of a couple of them when passing through, and at the start of this journey there are pedestrians and a canoe paddling too.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Stratford High Street
A phenomenal amount of building work is underway around the roundabout, especially on the Newham side, with the 34-storey core of investo-luxe Capital Towers rising from the northern quadrant, and Strand East beginning to emerge to the east. But the Tower Hamlets shores aren't immune, the Calor Gas yard doomed to become a car dealership, apparently, and the Bow River Village scheme preparing to replace the remaining commercial premises with yet more not-especially affordable brick boxes. Apologies, I'm likely to bemoan the tedious nature of modern apartment architecture several more times before this circuit is complete.
For now the riverside footpath is a peaceful backwater, with industrial premises and building site screened behind an old brick wall. A few moorhens swim through this summer's algae, and even the occasional narrowboat chugs through. Give it a year or three and there'll be chair-sized balconies opening out above the river facing chair-sized balconies on the opposite bank, plus a narrow bridge solely for a bus service to cross the Lea.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Three Mills Lane
At Three Mills the first downside of my Round Tower walk becomes apparent. Here the towpath switches to the other side of the Lea where it passes the oast-like Clock Mill and the 18th century House Mill(report: 2010), reputedly the largest tidal mill in the UK. But that's across the boundary in Newham so I'm not allowed to go that way, the rules of my challenge forbid it, so instead I face a lengthy diversion away from the waterside via the closest available road. Regrettably it's a diversion that'll last the entire remainder of today's post, but bear with me.
While the Tower Hamlets boundary countinues through Tesco's (dead end) car-park, I'm forced to walk round the front and up to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. This GLC-planned dual carriageway was driven parallel to the Lea to minimise community division, which was fine in the 1970s but now rather more people live to the east of it and there are thousands more to come. I'm plying the pavement on the southbound side, past the crumbling office block opposite Bromley-by-Bow station and the freshly-relocated (and kaleidoscopic) Bow School on the corner with Twelvetrees Crescent. Breathing in the A12 air too deeply is not necessarily advised.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: District line, Twelvetrees Crescent
What I'd like to do next is cross down to scenic Bow Locks, because that's on the border, but the narrow towpath arrives through Newham, and anyway there's no way down. Meridian-based sculpture trail The Line has a similar problem, and has just tweaked its route to take in Bow Locks rather than the A12 pavement. Alas they've made another mess with their signage, just as they did when they launched in May, with several signs missing, one pointing in the opposite direction and those at the top of the Limehouse Cut affixed unreadably to a open gate. A great way to lose all your potential punters en route, I fear.
South of the canal a pre-1970 road called Gillender Street survives. And that's just as well because there are some gems along its eastern flank, including (somewhat unexpectedly) the oldest brick building in London. This is Bromley Hall, at the end of the 15th century the local manor house, and once home to Elizabeth Blount - one of Henry VIII's mistresses. Also now used as office space are the old Fire Station (circa 1910) and a rather grand public library (circa 1906), beside which are tucked the rather less gorgeous headquarters of Fridgehire.co.uk.
At Lochnagar Street my route at last departs the A12, but not before I've had a chance to admire the handiwork of City Wood Services. Here Danny and Suraya carve timber into whatever shape you fancy, generally furniture, but also a splendid collection of 'Chainsaw Art' (including bears, bees and fungi) arrayed on the pavement. The environment gets a bit glum on the roads beyond, all breakers yards and recycling dumps, where once were terraced streets and vibrant (if poor) communities. Leven Street beyond was once lined by a clothing works and trolleybus depot, the former now modern housing, the latter now Iron Mountain secure storage.
I've arrived on the Aberfeldy Estate, a lowrise 1950s community with a challenging reputation, now with plans for sequential redevelopment as a "mixed-income" neighbourhood. Parts don't look too bad, brightened by a Millennium Green, and the occasional leftover Victorian terraced street, ironically now seen as utterly desirable rather slum clearance. Other parts are drearier, hence the local housing association's desire to replace the whole lot with this decade's trademark brick apartment blocks, whose characterlessness will no doubt look just as dreary soon.
Leven Street lies in the shadow of the mighty No. 1 gasholder at Poplar Gasworks (the UK’s only surviving gasholder with curved and tapering box-lattice girders). Its large riverside expanse was once covered with gantries, conveyor belts and Retort Houses (the latter where the coal was burnt to produce gas), and is now chock-a-block with containers and old cars, and not yet flats. For a well connected site, close to the point where the A13 swoops across the Lea, there's considerable potential for this edge of the borough to be so much more.