ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
10) Hackney Wick → Bow(2 miles) [26 photos]
And finally, on my circumnavigation of the borough of Tower Hamlets, the Olympic fringe. The boundary cuts into a small slice of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, including some bits you'll recognise. And then it follows the Lea, which proves problematic because the only path is on the Newham side, so an awkwardly meandering detour is required. If you're ever planning to walk this twenty mile circuit for yourself, the sudden descent from world famous to backstreet irrelevance probably isn't the best finale. [map]
White Post Lane continues across the Lea Navigation, with fresh slipways down to the waterside as part of the as-yet underwhelming Canal Park. Acres of empty land mark the site of the former Carpenters Business Park trading estate, which one year soon will arise as Sweetwater, one of the post-Olympic residential neighbourhoods. Its twee name came from the Clarnico sweet factory based across the road, of which today only Kings Yard survives. The last vestiges of the remainder were laid low to build QEOP's massive bio-friendly Energy Centre, almost with a look of the multi-storey about it, were it not for the modern chimney releasing steam into the sky. Ahead is Carpenters Road, as yet wilfully undeveloped, with the Park's administrative headquarters housed in blue portakabins to one side. Most visitors passing between the northern and southern halves of QEOP cross high above the road, passing through windswept Mandeville Place, its elevation required to cross the Overground.
It's no coincidence that three of London's poorest boroughs meet at the centre of the largest development site in the capital. The precise intersection is the centre of the railway bridge across the River Lea, which is also the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary turns south and follows the centre of the waterway all the way to the Thames. There's also a footpath, and what's more it's actually open, curving past the mooring crayons to what used to be Carpenters Lock. All of the tumbledown mechanical structure was removed before the Games, leaving a couple of gates and a depth marker, but the mirrored bridge that zigzags across the top is a crowd-pleaser, and the secluded waterside is the highlight of many an Olympic stroll. I still don't understand why there's no longer a footbridge at ground level, but the Tower Hamlets side definitely has the best views (and usually the best flowers).
Laid into the path where three rivers meet is a Pindaric Ode, commissioned (but not written) by Boris Johnson to commemorate London 2012. The path then follows the Old River Lea to the Great British Garden, a triple-centred RHS project based on 'gold, silver and bronze' that too few spectators stumbled upon three years ago. Though still very pleasant its lush planting shines less with every passing summer, and even the swing bench at its heart has recently been broken, taped off and (very) recently removed. My route passes through a tunnel of intertwined branches (avoiding a snogging couple), round the back of the lily pond and past a cleared area with a couple of cheap DIY bee hives.
And then the feel of building site returns, with two helmeted gents guarding Bridge 3 across to Stadium Island, and another barring traffic from the Loop Road. This month pedestrians have been allowed to walk through to the Greenway for the first time, even to duck beneath sewage pipes along the Old River Lea, but they're in the wrong borough again, so my next destination has to be Old Ford Lock. Yes, the Big Breakfast Cottages still stand, the latest owners increasingly concealed and fortified, but not averse to a nice game of croquet on the lawn. And the locks are still busy with narrowboats passing through, watched over by the clientèle of the tiny E20 Lockside Cafe, an angling-friendly hideaway, and about as far from a trendy caffeinated pop-up as it's possible to get.
As the crow flies I'm only 1km from the end of my walk, directly ahead along the River Lea towpath. But at the next footbridge this passes into Newham, so I face a 2km walk through some less lovely parts of Fish Island and Bow instead. Given that I've been walking now for almost eight hours, and my legs feel it, it's not the route I'd choose to take.
Fish Island, named after constituent roads that include Roach, Bream and Dace, ought to be a lowly commercial quarter. Instead the rise of the Olympic fringe has brought increased developmental pressure, held at bay at present thanks to a conservation zone which keeps the warehouses full of artists rather than hipster incomers. I pass a few of the former on bikes, for example at the former Percy Dalton peanut factory, and a few of the latter standing around in the street trying to locate the nearest Eggs Benedict via their smartphone. An uneven staircase leads up to the Greenway, this the point where Bazalgette's main northern sewer emerges above ground level and heads for Beckton. 150 years on it's topped by an important cycleway and footpath, alas again heading into the wrong borough, and the final accessible crossing before the Bow Roundabout.
Wick Lane must once have been a rural backwater, rather than a built-up rat run between decaying echoes of the past. A well-known storage company now occupy the premises of Dudley Stationery Ltd, while other businesses have sequentially been taken over by whopping apartment behemoths for those who'd like to pay over the odds to live out of the way. One one side of the road a derelict brick shell remains, on the other canalside flats butt up against automotive overhaul units, and stumpy streets named Iceland and Autumn. Increasingly tired now, I reach the A12 for the penultimate time in my journey. If only it hadn't once been a motorway it might have a pavement and then my journey south would be easier, neither can I continue along the neighbouring lane. Crossrail sealed off the direct route years ago for the construction of the Pudding Mill Portal, and I can't wait for them to finish so that I can walk around my local neighbourhood unimpeded again.
Instead I have to walk round three sides of Bow Quarter, one of the original gated communities (circa 1990) housed in a repurposed match factory (circa 1910). Once the largest factory in London, and a touchstone in the history of industrial relations, its residents now have their own shop, swimming pool, and restaurant/bar to save them ever having to leave. Beyond the low bridge is Bow bus garage, its location awkwardly forcing every departing double decker to turn left, behind which a small enclave of elegant Victorian terraces survives. And following this dead end avenue leads finally back to the fumes of the A12, and a bleak pavement past substations and a door handle factory to the Bow Roundabout. After eight hours and twenty miles I'm finally back where I started, where the Bow Flyover crosses the Lea, my circumnavigation complete. I've learned a heck of a lot about the borough where I live by walking its perimeter... and my kettle and sofa are thankfully only a couple of minutes away.