diamond geezer

 Monday, October 04, 2010

Random borough (27): Newham (part 2)

Somewhere pretty beautiful: Itchycoo Park
You remember the song. "Over bridge of sighs, to rest my eyes in shades of green, under dreamin' spires, to Itchycoo Park, that's where I've been." Small Faces, 1967. "What did you do there? I got high." Steve and Ronnie were clearly on something when they wrote it. But where is this Itchycoo Park of which they sing? Dreaming spires and a bridge of sighs hint at Oxford, but apparently not. Nothing's proven, but it seems that Itchycoo Park was the name of a patch of grassland near where Steve Marriott grew up. That's Little Ilford Park, close to the suburb of Manor Park, in the top right corner of Newham. Back in the 1950s the park used to be full of stinging nettles, allegedly, making recreational life unpleasant and earning it the nickname of Itchycoo Park. Nice story, might be true. Others say the 'park' in question was Wanstead Flats, which would fit better with the line in the song about feeding ducks because there's a big pond there. But the weight of opinion appears to stack up behind Little Ilford Park, so that's where I went yesterday.

"It's all too beautiful." Er, not quite. There are formal landscaped gardens with rosebeds and a pergola, but I guess they're not at their finest in October, and they're not terribly extensive either. Alongside is a much larger area of mown mud, sometimes ideal for cricket, but currently only good for jogging round. Presumably this was the nettly bit back in the Small Faces time. And then there's the North Circular Road, whose elevated dual carriageway lopped off the edge of the park a while back, and now whizzes by beyond the trees. Beautiful it is not. But running north along the A406 is a newer addition to the park - a thin strip of meadow called Webster's Land - and that's rather pleasant [photo]. It's been left to run semi-wild, with a few paths threading between the long grass and a carpet of wild flowers still blooming throughout. It was also very squelchy underfoot on Saturday morning, so much so that within 30 seconds my trainers were soaked, and I considered renaming this SoggyDew Park instead. As for "getting high", the only substance abuse in evidence was an anoraked lad drinking beer from a can wrapped none too convincingly inside a brown paper bag. He'd be rolling home later not to write a world-famous song, but for a long lie down.
by bus: 147

Somewhere famous: The Royal Docks
To the best of my knowledge, Newham's the only council to offer a series of podcasted walks on its website. One's based around Green Street, and that's the walk I told you about yesterday. Another's around Stratford, which I was studiously trying to avoid on my Newham day out. And the third's round the Royal Docks - the largest artificially-enclosed area of water in Europe. Tacked onto London's Docklands in the late 19th century, they were soon superseded by Tilbury downstream and finally closed to commercial traffic in 1981. Redevelopment brought new homes, a new exhibition centre and even a new airport. Today the area's very different to the rest of Newham, and well worth a wander...

» ExCel Exhibition Centre: As exhibition centres go, this is a whopper. Essentially it's a long shed alongside the Royal Victoria Dock, recently extended so it stretches all the way from one DLR station to the next. From outside it looks fairly striking, but inside it's nothing but a series of vacuous halls linked by a broad central corridor. Seven 2012 Olympic events will be hosted here, and normally there's some big exhibition (or three) taking place within. But on Saturday the place was dead, absolutely dead, bar a single Costa Coffee outlet attempting to sell hot beans at the western end. I walked from one end of the building to the other without seeing a single ExCel employee or security guard, past mothballed bars and umpteen shuttered food outlets. Most eerie. Maybe there's a recession on or something. [photo]
» Royal Victoria Dock footbridge: The dock's over a mile long, so a footbridge was needed across the middle before any residential redevelopment could take place to the south. It's a massive footbridge - it has to be to permit tall yachts to pass underneath - so there's a slightly damp lift if you don't fancy hiking nigh 100 steps up and down. And the view from the top is great, especially up-dock towards Canary Wharf. If City Airport's open then miniature planes go whooshing right over your head, because the bridge is lined up with the runway.
» Millennium Mills: The tall chunky building on the southern banks of the docks is Millennium Mills, a granary formerly used by Spillers for industrial-scale flour processing. It's been sealed off for years, not that this stops urban adventurers from getting inside and taking photos. Yes Liam, that looks lots of fun, but also very naughty. One day it'll be flats, because everything is eventually, but hopefully that's still some way off. Indeed, there was scheduled be a world-class mega-aquarium called Biota! nextdoor by now, but funding fell through so there isn't. In the meantime, this forlorn corner of Newham lies fenced off and unintentionally preserved. [photo]
» The Silvertown Explosion: One January evening in 1917, Britain's biggest ever explosion levelled a munitions factory on the banks of the Thames. 73 people were killed, and the blast was heard over 100 miles away. I'll come back some other time and give the story the detail it deserves. But I will say that the monument outside Minoco Wharf, which is two thirds war memorial instead, is woefully insignificant. [photo]
» Thames Barrier Park: Now ten years old, this is one of London's newest parks, and a bit of a looker. Obviously it helps having the amazing Thames Barrier at the bottom, but the sunken garden that runs down to it is very impressive too. Waves of undulating hedgerow are interspersed with parallel beds of shrubs and flowers, and the effect is better with every passing year [photo]. But I'm a bit nervous about the Barratt Homes currently being built round the eastern perimeter, because they won't be quite so tasteful as the 30s-style flats to the west. [photo]
» Brick Lane Music Hall: It's not in Brick Lane, and it's not quite a Music Hall. But it is home to a musical theatre company, now based in a deconsecrated gothic church in Silvertown. They run cabaret-style entertainment served with a three course meal (or full afternoon tea, depending when the performance is). And it sounds like just the sort of middle-of-nowhere place that my older readers might love to go if only they'd ever heard of it.
» Royal Albert Dock: The terminating point for my walk, and another whopper. On one side lies London City Airport, which falls silent on Saturday lunchtimes to give local residents 24 hours respite from the noise. On the other is the London Regatta Centre, because the waters here are perfect for rowing, canoeing and other watery sports. Across the dock is the Connaught Bridge, which swings out of the way on giant cogs if necessary. And underneath the bridge is the Connaught Tunnel, formerly part of the railway line to North Woolwich and eventually to be reused as part of Crossrail [photo]. A world away from the bustling days of cranes, cargoes and dockers - London soon moves on.

The whole walk takes just over an hour, if you don't dawdle or stop for drinks anywhere. There being a lot of water about, the views are (mostly) great throughout. And if you've never been, other than to catch a plane or attend an exhibition, you've missed out on this unique riverside strip.
by DLR: Custom House → Royal Albert

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