diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 06, 2007

London Journeys: Around the Dome

the old Dome, with new spikeSix years ago, after 366 not-quite Amazing Days, the Millennium Dome closed its turnstiles to an underwhelmed public. The twelve themed zones were stripped out, the talented trapeze artists sought employment elsewhere, and the site was turned over to a handful of lonely security guards. Since then southeast London's biggest tent has been silently mothballed, awaiting imminent rebirth as a sponsored "entertainment hub". But it's still possible to walk or cycle around the fenced perimeter to view what remains of all that misplaced 21st century optimism.

It takes at least half an hour to circumnavigate the Dome on foot, around the tip of the North Greenwich peninsula. But the start of the route isn't easy to find. Emerge from the purple-tiled bowels of the vast Jubilee line station and stride ahead across the bus station. Beyond the coffee kiosk is Millennium Way, a woefully untrafficked dual carriageway, and beyond that a small opening in the fence signposted to the "Thames Path". This way please.

Access Drawdock Road by strolling brazenly through a long-abandoned security barrier. Once this was the tradesmen's entrance into the Millennium Experience - now it's just a deserted lane descending into the Thames down a litter-strewn cobbled ramp. The surrounding ex-industrial landscape is bleak and barren, although compulsory purchase orders pinned to surrounding lampposts hint at the imminent arrival of unaffordable highrise housing. A large concrete mushroom reveals itself as "Ventilation Shaft 4" for the Blackwall Tunnel immediately below. Through the blue fence to your right are hard-hatted workers preparing for another busy day inside the old Dome constructing new cinemas and coffee shops. And all the time twelve spiky yellow masts dominate the skyline.

At the river's edge pause and peruse the broad sweep of the meandering Thames. Directly opposite loom the tall glass towers of Docklands, intermingled with cranes where one day will rise further financial foothills. Boats and waterfowl glide through the grey-brown waters. Mini-jets departing from City Airport interrupt the silence, visible overhead through a web of guy ropes. Occasionally a keen cyclist might speed by, or a puffing jogger stagger past, but otherwise expect to have the whole glorious waterfront to yourself.

zero degrees

Soon, through the buddleia, comes a first glimpse inside the grounds of the old Dome proper. Here, across a forlorn fenced-off piazza, the Greenwich Meridian slices through the farthest edge of the Millennium site. The zero degree line was marked in 2000 by a red laser emerging beneath a giant mirror set in a green "Living Wall". But the red light has long been turned off, the mirror reflects little but grime and the dead wall is slowly becoming a weatherbeaten pile of concrete slabs. No longer can visitors stand beside "Kodak Photo Point 18" to take cherished souvenir snapshots (nor, I suspect, did they ever bother). Four metal meridian lines remain, for the time being at least, edged by inspirational international poems etched in granite. Had the government awarded its super-casino licence to the Dome's new owners, the whole of this derelict area would have been wiped away by an ugly multi-storey hotel complex. For now, however, this ground level millennial folly survives.

Slice of RealityThe meridian enters the Thames at Ordnance Jetty, a ramshackle pier transformed into a haven for estuarine wildlife. Saplings and grasses have established themselves on this windswept platform, along with two more sinister stalks atop which security cameras monitor passing miscreants. Downstream is moored the central cross-section of a cargo ship - a dramatic millennial sculpture entitled Slice of Reality. Along the next stretch of waterfront an extensive wetland environment has been created, complete with beautifully-crafted information panels detailing wildlife to watch out for. The Dome's developers succeeded in making this outdoor area both attractive and ecologically sustainable, only to see their efforts condemned by the failure of the interior attractions.

But now these forgotten riverside gardens have become part of an enormous building site. As the deadline of July's re-opening approaches, so lorries and JCBs have encroached upon this reedy grassland. Piles of palletts and pipes and poles lie stacked up around the perimeter of Richard Rogers' scalloped roof, each programmed to become part of some restaurant, club or boutique. A whole streetful of buildings in the new "Entertainment District" must be fitted out before Justin Timberlake sings, lest hordes of adoring fans have nowhere to buy handbags and knock back vodkas after his first show. How much of this wetland environment will survive the grand opening it's hard to tell, but one would hope not all will be swept away beneath some outdoor terraced café-bar.

Quantum CloudThe Thames Path continues south past Millennium Pier, a striking blue jetty with pasta-shell canopy. At the pier's tip, directly across the river from the scrap mountains of Silvertown, stands a beguiling metal sculpture. Anthony Gormley's Quantum Cloud conceals an illusory character deep within its steel-barred heart (perhaps a ferryman still waiting for the flood of passenger traffic that never materialised). In the distance, beyond bobbing yachts and acres of prime undeveloped real estate, the river opens out towards Woolwich Reach and the Thames Barrier.

Eventually a sideroad leads back to the tube station, past the temporary hangars of the David Beckham Academy. Pause in the disused coach park to absorb one last close-up view of the Dome's exterior, across the repaved plaza that will shortly become "Peninsula Square". Here the new owners have chosen to erect a 45 foot stainless steel spike, as if somehow the Dome's original dozen rooftop spikes weren't quite sufficient on their own.

They have strange ideas, the new owners, not least of which is that Londoners will choose to rename this revamped white elephant after a tiny oxygen molecule. I'm sure fun-seekers will arrive in their droves when the security fences come down in two months time, and I look forward to the successful reopening of this iconic site. But, no matter what revenue-raising sideshows they lay on for me within, I suspect I shall always prefer the walk around the edge.

Originally featured in Time Out Magazine London [17 January 2007], slightly revised

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