ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
2) Bow Creek → Blackwall(1½ miles) [25 photos]
Having kicked off my circumnavigation of Tower Hamlets by following the Lea south, today I'm manoeuvring around the contorted peninsulas at the mouth of Bow Creek. [map]
The final meander on the RiverLea is a natural wonder, twisting and turning back on itself (twice) before exiting into the Thames immediately opposite the Millennium Dome. The bends create two thin tongues of land, interlocking like thumbs and forefingers, with land access from completely opposite ends. The westernmost peninsula is in Newham, and is home to the Bow Creek Ecology Park. There's just room for the DLR to pass through the middle of the reserve on a lofty viaduct, with reedy watery pools to either side, and a series of benches that once had views before the surrounding vegetation grew too high. And the eastern peninsula, somewhat counter-intuitively, is in Tower Hamlets.
It's always been a dead end, this strip of creekbound land, and human activity took some time to move in. The northern tip was once called Goodluck Hope, a marshy and rural spot, while a little further south (presumably by some fruit trees) lay the single dwelling of Orchard House. The estate was sold to the East India Dock Company precisely 200 years ago, after which time timber merchants, cooperages, shipbuilders, shipbreakers and a whale blubber factory were establishedon the peninsula. The largest plate glass factory in southern England was established at the far end, and a small inward-looking community built up, propped up by a pub called The Crown. Their slums are long gone, but even ten years ago Pura Foods were still piping vegetable oil from a refinery on the shore.
How places change. Next year the London City Islanddevelopment opens up, described as a "Mini-Manhattan" by its developers, and "a bunch of primary coloured investment towers" by me. 1700 flats will be crammed in for the benefit of foreign investors, and the English National Ballet are taking up residence to give the place artistic credibility. For those of us who'll never be able to live there, the estate offers one great bonus which is a new way into Tower Hamlets. A red (raisable) bridge has been installed across the last bend in the creek, and a bespoke mothballed exit from Canning Town station awaits the official opening. (Report: 2013)
My walk around Tower Hamlets is half a mile shorter while Leamouth's inland isthmus remains sealed off for building works. Instead I get to walk past the council's main transport depot (all gritters and minibuses), follow a slip road underneath a giant red advertising hoarding and head beneath the concrete pillars of the Lower Lea Crossing. Orchard House used to be around here, where the hastily imported planters bloom, and a taxi repurposed as art sits on a cobbled traffic island with a sparkly tree emerging from its roof. And what I should do here is pass through the gates into the East India Dock Basin, but instead I'm going to break the rules of my walk for the first time and head down the cul-de-sac of Orchard Place.
This backwater street has been here for some time, lined by the decaying leftovers of wharves and shipbuilding yards. Thankfully historians and artists have been out to liven it up, with a large painted buoy at one end, a flimsy-looking bream hanging part-way down, and numerous heritage panels all the way down. The latter are truly excellent, and you can read much of the information contained within on this mini-website. This post-industrial remnant is the East End's most remote corner, and as far from trendy Shoreditch as Tower Hamlets gets. And at the far end is Trinity Buoy Wharf, which you must visit.
Established at the start of the 19th century as a storage space for navigational buoys, Trinity House built London's one and only lighthouse here, used for lighting trials rather than for the avoidance of rocks. It's still here, and at weekends you can step inside and climb an especially narrow staircase to the lantern to stare out across the Thames. The tower is also the auditorium for a 1000-year-long musical composition called Longplayer, designed never to repeat, and playing out from a turn-of-the-century iMac in a case at the back. Alongside is a large display of singing bowls used to play the piece, which runs until New Year's Eve 2999, and can also be heard in perpetuity here.
Oh, and lots of people work here. The management company pioneered the concept of a Container City, with workspaces inside brightly-coloured stacked metal boxes. If you ever get the chance to look inside, say for Open House, then do. The latest arrivals are the temporary broadcasting containers from London 2012, now combined to create the Riverside Building (you can rent a studio here for £1150 a month). And all these people need somewhere to eat, so there are two, one the Bow Creek Café, the other Fatboy's Diner, and both open seven days a week. I dropped into Fatboy's for a superthick American milkshake, just as I did at the end of my walk down the Lea in August 2009, and slurped it in the shadow of a lightship. Did I mention that you really ought to visit?
Enough diversion, let's nip back to the East India Docks and continue around the borough. This is a treat in itself, the former entrance basin now filled with shallow water and a seasonal home to migrating birds. As for the remainder ofthe system they were the first of London's docks to be filled in, and various homes, offices and council headquarters now reside where spice ships once moored. One such site is slightly upriver at Victoria Quay, where a monument commemorates the departure point of the first American settlers in 1606 - one of their captains would later bring back Princess Pocohontas (report: 2006). And here too is one of my favourite Greenwich meridian markers - an avenue of trees between apartment blocks, leading from a mosaic circle by the river.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Blackwall Tunnel
The next stretch of waterside is private and blocked, forcing a diversion inland along Blackwall Way. This area is becoming increasingly dominated by residential skyscrapers, once only the thin slanty Ontario Tower, but more recently the bulbous Providence Tower, unashamedly targeted at rich bankers seeking a luxury lifestyle. I felt completely out of place walking through artificial streets beneath premium balconies, dodging suited property consultants and smug clusters of outdoor yoga. I take comfort from the fact that Tower Hamlets' main Waste Transfer Station is located nextdoor. And with the return to more ordinary housing, at the entrance to Blackwall Basin, the long trek around the Isle of Dogs finally begins.