Unheralded and unsung, a long-awaited connection has finally opened on the River Lea in Bromley-by-Bow. It's the Twelvetrees Ramp, a direct link from bridge up top to towpath down below, whereas previously everyone had to go round in a half mile loop.
There have been plans for a connection at Bow Locks for years, because this is where the Lea Valley Walk goes wrong. It's long been possible to walk all the way down the river from Hertford to Bow, but past Three Mills the towpath enters a narrow strip between tidal and non-tidal channels, and the only way out has been on the unhelpful side. The Lea Valley Walk has therefore diverted off down the Limehouse Cut, reaching the Thames a couple of miles from the mouth of the river, and the last stretch down Bow Creek has been mostly inaccessible. Up until now the 'solution' has involved continuing across Bow Locks, taking a detour in the wrong direction up the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, then looping back across the Twelvetrees Bridge into a private business park.
Those responsible for stitching together the Lower Lea Valley knew a better connection was essential, otherwise cyclists and walkers would simply give up. The debate has therefore hinged around how this could best be achieved, with the early money on a brand new footbridge spanning the river below the lock gates. But even in a pre-Olympic hinterland awash with funding this proved too expensive, so was quietly dropped, and attention turned to cheaper options. An obvious low cost possibility was to open up the utility bridge by which electricity cables cross the Lea, but that was evidently too unsafe, or too private, or both. That left the only option as a new vertical link between lower towpath and existing bridge, which it turned out still had problems.
This being the 21st century, any new connection had to be step-free, so they proposed a lift. This was a vast over-reaction given the location, but nothing else seemed plausible, so the project stalled for lack of money. Eventually someone calculated that it might be possible to squeeze a ramp in, so long as nobody minded that ramp being a bit steep. So a compact zig-zag ascent duly plodded through the planning system, taking care not to cause too much damage to the listed Twelvetrees Bridge, and in February this year construction finally began. Six months, they said, somewhat optimistically, and missed. Definitely October 6th, they announced, and missed again. For the last couple of months workmen have been tweaking surfaces to solve some unspoken issue, then silently on Friday the barriers were finally removed. I can hardly believe it.
The ramp has a number of nice flourishes, which is just as well for a long-standing project. Most obvious is the metal artwork perched on top, designed to make the entrance obvious from the A12 and from the other side of the bridge. The structure "draws on the maritime vernacular of daymarks" - that's those metal navigation symbols you find by water - and the yellow makes it properly striking. Halfway down there's a bench, in resilient concrete, with a nicer wooden seat at the foot. Legible London signs have been installed at top and bottom, to aid you in your onward journey. And embedded in the towpath are directional arrows indicating LEAWAY north and LEAWAY south - which is a hugely better name than the 'Fatwalk' brand this route was originally going to be given.
But my word, it's steep, as you soon notice when you try walking up. It's so steep that steps would be a better option than a ramp, except in this project steps were specifically disallowed. I fired up the spirit level on my smartphone to check how steep the ramp was, and blimey it rises at an angle of 13°, or in other words a gradient of almost 1 in 4! This means there has to be a 'Cyclists Dismount' sign on the way in, otherwise there could be all sorts of bench-smashing accidents on the way down. More worryingly it's much too steep for anyone in a wheelchair to negotiate by themselves. After all that fuss over several years about ensuring step-free access, it turns out the final ramp isn't actually accessible unless you bring a pusher with you.
A sign at the top directs wheelchair users off via a completely different route. Unfortunately that's the only sign, so if you head off that way there's no telling where to go next, let alone how to find your way to Three Mills. Also there's no sign at the bottom, nor further upstream, meaning you could easily get this far heading south and then get stuck, unable to continue along the Leaway. And if you check out the sign in the photo above it looks like only cyclists are supposed to use the ramp - the pedestrian symbol has been unhelpfully attached to the diversion. As navigation goes, I've seen much better.
On the far side of the bridge a new set of steps has been installed, leading down to riverbank level and two more concrete benches. This is merely a shortcut - a longer ramp already existed here, and that's been slightly adapted to allow step-free access for all. Several white poplars have been planted to landscape the grassy approach, and watch out for flowers on the banks in spring.
And hurrah, we're now down on the path beside Bow Creek, now accessed in one minute rather than the previous ten. This new connection should really help deliver fresh footfall to two deserving projects previously cut off. One is meridian-hugging sculpture project The Line, who can finally promote a simple route to link their Leaside artworks together. And the other is Cody Dock, the community project making its mark with boats and workshops, whose hard work allowed them to unlock their gates and welcome visitors last year. The only problem is you can't yet get much further.
The Twelvetrees Ramp is only part of Phase 1 of the Leaway project. There's still a very long way to go to open up access downstream, continuing the walk/cycle route to Bow Ecology Park, East India Dock Basin, Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Royal Docks. Until that happens, which really won't be any time soon, the Lea Valley Walk fades out in a grim industrial estate north of Canning Town with no appealing continuation whatsoever. You won't be rushing through here soon. But the Twelvetrees Ramp is a crucial part of that forthcoming link to the Thames, which suddenly looks like it might actually happen. And in the meantime, hurrah for slow but simple connectivity, as a pipedream finally comes true. [8 photos]
» The gates at Cody Dock are unlocked between 8am and 9pm daily.
» The cafe is open from 9.30am-2.30pm on weekdays and 11am-5pm at weekends.
» The cafe will be closed from 24th December 2016 to 3rd January 2017.