Yesterday was the first anniversary of The Line, "London's first dedicated modern and contemporary art walk".
The route runs "between the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and The O2", although by the former they mean Stratford High Street because nobody's got round to reopening the footpaths out of the Park yet. It "follows the waterways and the line of the Meridian", although for a lot of the time it doesn't follow any waterway at all, and it only crosses the Meridian twice and at one point is over a mile away. They call it a "Line", but in reality it's two clusters of sculpture at either end of the cablecar, plus a disjoint section reached by DLR. Such are the perils of an attempted recreational route down the Lower Lea Valley, where there isn't yet a footpath all the way, although they're working on it. [map]
To encourage you to visit, the organisers have written this.
Please don't let that put you off. All they really mean is that they've installed a dozen artworks along a five mile walk, adding a little extra to make the environment even more interesting than it already is. Allow me to show you.
The middle of Stratford High Street isn't a great place to begin a walk, but it's better than ending here, so I always do The Line from north to south. This means following the blue signs, not the red ones - a waymarking system that's been improved of late, so you're less likely to get lost along the way. The route kicks off alongside the River Lea, or the Three Mills Wall River as it's called round here. To your left is a tongue of prewar housing, while across the water an entire industrial estate is being knocked down - listed buildings excepted - to create the Sugar House Lane development. This monster project has been on the drawing board for years, but only now is the ground being levelled and the last warehouses removed, as dense housing once again trumps sparse job opportunities.
Network - Thomas J Price (2013, Silicone bronze, 274×100×92cm): A larger than life youth in a puffa jacket is checking his phone. If you stop to take a photo, who then is the art and who the model? [photo]
A deep breath now, because it'll be another half an hour before you reach the next artwork on The Line. There was a video installation at Three Mills when the route opened last year, and a good one too, but it appears this was a one-off so instead there's nothing to view. Instead admire thehistoric mill as you go by, or perhaps go in for a cuppa and a tour if it's open, to enjoy one of East London's most unsung historic attractions. And get the right mill too - the pointy-topped Clock Mill opposite is now a free school, and they won't take kindly to you interrupting. The route continues along an increasingly thin grassy strip between the tidal and non-tidal Lea, past moored-up narrowboats and their characterful crews. All this you'll know if you've heard me mumbling on before, but the next bit is something excitingly new.
There's currently a serious problem with the Lea Valley Walk in that it can't reach the end of the River Lea so diverts off, here, down the Limehouse Cut. Neither is there a connection between the two banks at BowLocks, forcing The Line to overshoot past the canal, double back up the busy Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, cross via the Twelvetrees bridge and then double back to the waterside. It kind of wrecks the ambience. So the great news is that, after years of undelivered action, the long-promised link from below to above IS NOW BEING BUILT! The Twelvetrees Ramp Project will connect the central towpath to the bridge above via a fairly precipitous slope, if the artist's impression on the hoarding is anything to go by. I don't think it's steps, although the illustration is ambiguous in that respect, and it's definitely not a lift - which was the over-expensive first solution to creating step-free access here.
Come the autumn you should be able to nip up the ramp and down a set of steps on the other side, bypassing ten whole minutes of unnecessary detour. For now you need to spot the temporary pedestrian walkway alongside the worksite by the recycling depot, and amble down to the far side of the river. I love this stretch of the walk, as I've mentioned too many times, for its pristine isolation. Newham council forced the local private industrial estate to create a walkway along the river, with lamps and lifebuoys and regularly mown verges, even though at the time it didn't lead anywhere. And now it almost does, and soon it very much will, and eventually the crowds will come. For now it's ridiculously peaceful, just you and the ducks and some fagbreak workmen from the Amazon warehouse, and all the better for it.
DNA DL90 - Abigail Fallis (2003, Trolleys and steel, 939×300×300cm): A double helix of supermarket trolleys rises into the sky, in sharp contrast to the way they're usually to be found half buried in mud along the river's edge. This stack is built for Instagram, if that's where your digital kudos lies. [photo]
The backwater path continues between the back of a new Sainsbury's grocery depot and the (much more interesting) industrial bank of the Lea. Here scrap merchants stack bits of used car, and empty skips line up beside undriven vans, while a yellow digger squats on top of a pile of something it has dumped. In the background are the gleaming spires of Docklands, and the brutalist wedge of the Balfron Tower, creating a surreal backdrop to the scene. At low tide birds potter and peck in the mud, or swoop above the gasholder, and almost nobody notices. But in the last year or so a single ten storey block of flats has arisen on the bend in Bow Creek, and this surely is the ultimate destiny of this entire forsakenstretch.
Sensation - Damien Hirst (2003, Painted bronze, 198×318×165cm): Yes, there's actually a Damien Hirst out here, watched over by a CCTV sentinel. It could be a slab of fruit-packed blancmange, except it has hairs, and is in fact an anatomical model of a thin section of human skin. As art, it strangely works. [photo]
We've reached Cody Dock, five years ago a derelict inlet (and dead end), now a thriving communal hub (and gateway). It's a triumph for social entrepreneur Simon Myers, who's coerced funding and people power to create a somewhere out of nowhere. In 2016 you'll find houseboats and a sensorygarden, studios and workshop space, a boat masquerading as a community centre, rows of volunteer-tilled planters, and probably Simon himself wandering around. There's also a cafe, now open daily, from early, and surprisingly busy when I wandered by. What there isn't is a decent exit.
The plan is for the footpath to continue to the south, towards Canning Town, but there are working wharves in the way, and no sign yet of public access. The plan is also for a footbridge to span Bow Creek at this point, linking to a newly created Poplar River Park, but you can imagine the expense so that's for the long term. The plan is called the Leaway, the new name for what was once the Fatwalk, an aspiration to complete the Lea Valley Regional Park all the way to the Thames. Phase 1 includes the ramp at Twelvetrees, and much improved signage and facilities, and some interim routeing through via the Silvertown viaduct. Phase 2 is a direct connection, and also includes turning the site of the first Big Brother house into a park, once Thames Water have finished their mega-sewer. It may just happen, one day. [actual thought-out detailed project plans][huge pdf]
Until then, The Line departs via the vehicle exit into the local trading estate, imperilled by reversing lorries and waste-dump smells. Car depots, electricity substations and meat wholesalers probably aren't what those tempted here by project's marketing collateral were expecting, but this is very much what they get. They also get the Greenwich Meridian, which is crossed without fanfare a few yards out of the gate, past the entrance to Orion Support Services. Unwilling to subject its patrons to more than five minutes of this kind of thing, The Line coerces its travellers onto the DLR at Star Lane station, and invites them to ride all the way to Custom House. And that's a disjoint leap, so we'll recommence there in the next part of this travelogue.