If you've ever fancied watching part of London being created, come to Barking. Specifically come to Barking Riverside, the brand new neighbourhood being carved out of hundreds of acres of desolate Thames foreshore. Where Barking Power Station once stood, or rather on the landfill site and pulverised fuel ash dump nextdoor, preparations for an enormous housing estate are taking place. Eventually 10% of the population of Barking and Dagenham will live here, in mews and flats and apartment blocks, across a landscape that's currently mostly blank. But a phenomenal act of placemaking is underway, and to see it all you have to do is take the bus.
The EL1 heads south from Barking, crosses the A13 and nudges the Creekmouth industrial area. It turns off through the postwar Thames View estate, which was as much as anyone was allowed to build round here before transport links were improved. In 2013 the bus was extended to the first chunk of Barking Riverside, several hundred homes of much more modern provenance. But only in September was the EL1 extended - evenings and weekends excepted - up the hill, past the top flats, along a bus lane and out the other side. It's not exactly pastures new, but it is an astonishing alteration.
River Road used to be the main access to a belching power station, before decaying to a potholed track. It's where the amazing Dagenham Sunday Market hangs out, and should do until Phase 4 wipes it away. The market used to be highly inaccessible unless you had a car, or liked a long hike, but now a new road's been knocked through from the estate suddenly getting here's a doddle. Until 2013 a bus ran along River Road twice a day to ferry mostly non-existent workers to their recycling yards, pausing at some of the remotest bus stops in London. In a remarkable turn of fate the replacement bus stops now see ten buses an hour, rather than two a day, not that there are yet any passengers for the EL1 to pick up.
Immediately ahead will be the district centre for the new Barking Riverside neighbourhood, as yet entirely unbuilt other than one road. The EL1 turns off into a landscape of flattened earth, skips and cables, which will eventually be a buzzing hub of offices, restaurants, bars and retail. It feels really odd entering a zone previously entirely inaccessible, now crisscrossed with caterpillar tracks and trenches, where tens of thousands of people will one day grab a coffee. And just off to the left, perched on a viaduct, will be Barking Riverside Overground station, the key transport link which unlocks the entire development. Completion isn't due until 2021, and construction doesn't begin until early next year, so don't expect to see anything yet.
The penultimate bus stop on the route exists physically but not digitally, close to the stack of silver containers on the waterfront that Barking & Dagenham council built as an environmental study centre. Today the Barking Riverside development team have taken it over, because their need is greater, as they keep an eye on the brick-and concrete wave that's about to sweep inland. The existing jetty will be upgraded and gain a Thames Clipper service into town, and long before that a floating hotel, if the planning notice pinned up at the top of the footpath is to be believed.
The reason for the EL1's extension lies ahead, namely Riverside Campus, England's largest free school cluster. This opened in September, in the middle of pretty much nowhere, because Barking and Dagenham urgently needs more school places, as will the 29000 residents who move in later. Part secondary, part primary and part special needs, pupils are already enjoying a sports hall, four multi-use games areas, an all-weather pitch and two dance studios. The bus provides a lifeline for pupils from existing communities, and will one day whisk actual residents away from neighbouring streets, but until those exist 'every six minutes' does feel like a ridiculously wasteful service.
What's unnerving is alighting at the terminus on a perfectly formed road which leads nowhere. It has segregated cycle lanes, double yellow lines and speed limit signs, as well as zebra crossings with zig-zag markings that absolutely nobody yet needs. Ahead the road terminates at a set of temporary barriers, behind which is a forest of cranes and a workforce doing stuff with diggers. It's promised that buses will terminate up here from the summer, but in the meantime drivers turn off up a one-way access road and park their vehicles at the top of the slope, before heading back and picking up any school staff or pupils on the way. One day this'll be be a throbbing metropolis, but for now the EL1 is parking up in an amazingly remote location.
I can't begin to tell you how incongruous this transformation looks to someone who remembers how the area used to be. The footpath along the foreshore from Dagenham Dock has long been one of my favourites for its sheer isolation, and the joy of walking half a mile beside the Thames along entirely undeveloped riverbank. Originally the area inland was an expanse of hummocky brownfield, and free-to-roam, but a few years ago it was fenced off, and prolonged dirt-shuffling has finally created a level plateau upon which homes can be built. Footpath 47 still somehow survives around the perimeter of the site, flanking the river with dazzling estuarine views, but is losing its edge somewhat as the excavators encroach.
One day Footpath 47 will be reimagined as a sanitised wetland strip with timber boardwalks and a 'coastal garden'. One day a wall of flats will replace the temporary metal fence, facing out across the river towards lowly lowrise Thamesmead. One day the road beneath the pylons will be diverted and turned into a park, because nobody wants to buy a flat under a string of fizzing cables. One day this empty wasteland will be alive with a brand new community, and one day you might even move out here to raise a family. But to witness the art of placemaking in action, and the genesis of something from absolutely nothing, a double decker bus ride is all it takes.