diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 20, 2019

A big blue sign has recently appeared outside Pudding Mill DLR station, tied to a fence. Got an hour to spare? Try the Three Mills History Walk.

This compact corner of the Lower Lea Valley has an astonishing history, and this looks like an excellent opportunity to explore. You could even follow along at threemillshistorywalk.com as you go for additional background information. But this particular heritage stroll isn't quite what it seems, and turns out to be (quite deliberately) a walk round the outside of a building site.

The first part of the walk leads us away from the Olympic Park towards Stratford High Street through the future suburb of Pudding Mill. It's pretty bleak at present, lost in transition between 20th century industrial and 2020s housing estate, and currently subdivided into empty plots. One hoarding supports a Three Mills History Walk plaque referencing the Pudding Mill windmill which once twirled here. Alas almost all the information on the plaque is incorrect - the river wasn't shaped like a pudding bowl, the windmill was, and it wasn't demolished in 1934 but in the mid 19th century. I fear this is what happens when your research is based on a single website (this one) and you entirely misinterpret what the author wrote.

A sign directs us left along the Bow Back River between two recently-demolished sites. When a Porsche showroom has been flattened to make way for housing, it's clear where the real new money is. Attached to City Mill Lock is plaque number 2 for Luke Howard, the industrialist and amateur meteorologist who was first to give clouds the names cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Luke owned a chemical works here and briefly lived in a house alongside, but that's long demolished and even the local waterways have been entirely remodelled since. Instead what you're looking at is a 1930s lockkeepers cottage squeezed inbetween two horrible blocks of opportunistic housing and perhaps you'd be better off staring at the sky instead.

To cross Stratford High Street the trail ignores the closest set of traffic lights in favour of the second, because its deviser wants you to walk past a set of buildings on the other side. One of these is attractively Victorian and was formerly used by the Dane Group, once "the largest producer of Day-Glo pigments in the world". Everything else is new, part of the business end of the Sugar House Island development, including a dormant restaurant, a rotated hyperboloid tower and several unlet office blocks. A massive triangular brownfield site is undergoing transformation, bounded on two sides by water and ultimately delivering 1200 new homes. And that's why we're really here, and why we're about to go for a mile long walk round the perimeter.

Sugar House Island is the latest name for the 26 acre site formerly called Strand East, which you might remember from 2012 as 'that site near Stratford bought up by IKEA'. The company now in charge is called Vastint, whose 'placemakers' have faced the challenge of making a canvas they've mostly demolished sound interesting. The Sugar House is one of the handful of buildings they've retained, hence its adoption for branding purposes, although it's not actually part of the Victorian sugar refinery that stood here for 20 years, and the site isn't truly an island, but hey.

It's time for a walk down the eastern edge of the triangle along the existing towpath of the Three Mills Wall River. Three of the twelve sights on the tour are only visible in the distance, if you're lucky, but it wouldn't do to deviate and see them properly. Instead your eyeballs will be likely be drawn to the building site on the opposite banks, featuring the skeletons of old workspaces and the first cluster of stacked flats (dubbed Botanical Mews). Somewhere behind the wall of cranes, scaffolding and kitchens-to-be, three brick chimneys have been disassembled and will be returned as the focus of a 'vibrant pedestrian experience'.

Here comes the prime heritage bit. First a monument to an explosion at a gin distillery, in the form of two interlocked hands, and then Three Mills itself. The House Mill is the world's largest surviving tidal mill, Grade I listed and opens for tours every Sunday during the summer. Alas the Three Mills History Walk citation mentions none of this and goes on about gin instead, which was distilled nextdoor from 1872 to 1941. Always recognise your target audience when placemaking, and a lot of fuss about gin is more likely to shift units than droning on about hoists and waterwheels.

We return to Stratford High Street along another riverbank undergoing total residential domination. Some of the flats on the Tower Hamlets side are already up, while this flank of Sugar House Island remains a barren waste dotted with portakabins and diggers. This was once the site of the Bow Bridge Soap Works, hardly the finest heritage brand, but needs must so this is number 10 on our 12-point trail. Number 11 is the absolute jackpot, however, the Bow China Works famed for 18th century porcelain. Alas that was never on Sugar House Island where the History Walk map says it was, but was located on the other side of the High Street underneath the One Stratford and Central House developments, so this feels a bit like cultural appropriation.

Our final stop is yet another something that no longer exists - Bow Bridge, replaced several times since the 12th century, most recently by the Bow Roundabout and Bow Flyover. These are not top sightseeing destinations. The walk then rounds off with a slow pass across the main entrance to the Sugar House Island building site, where you can read more glib slogans on the hoardings. My least favourite is nine centuries of makers & innovators, their old workplaces sensitively restored, by which they really mean 'we kept a handful of Victorian buildings and elsewhere wiped the slate clean'.

A bit of online digging confirms that the Three Mills Heritage Walk is part of Sugar House Island's placemaking strategy, has a £30000 budget and was commissioned by Vastint's UK Marketing Lead. It was also "designed to attract media attention", which I think I'm the first person to fall for, although I doubt the company'll be linking here any time soon. Visually it's quite well done. Factually it falls apart in places. Geographically it only goes to highlight that the outer perimeter of the development site may be historically fascinating but the site itself is somewhat bereft. But that's placemaking for you, doing what you can with what you've got in an attempt to boost those all important sales.

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