ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
9) Cambridge Heath → Hackney Wick(2½ miles) [25 photos]
Here's a long section across the northern edge of the borough, the majority of which is park. Anywhere other than Tower Hamlets this could be a bit dull, but the park in question is Victoria Park, one of the borough's outdoor treasures, so all's good. Then on to Hackney Wick, the part which isn't actually in Hackney, before returning to the Lea and knocking on the door of the Olympic Park. By the time I reached this part of my circumnavigation I'd been walking for seven hours and had only stopped for a rest once. If you're struggling too, rest assured there's only one more section to go. [map]
Cambridge Heath Road (Tower Hamlets) becomes Mare Street (Hackney) at the bridge over the Regent's Canal. It's a busy spot, more so on the road than the water, although the towpath can be chock full with bikes and feet at times. I'd like to take the riverside route from here but am again thwarted by the towpath being on the left hand side and therefore in the wrong borough. Shame, because the canal would be the direct route to Victoria Park, but I now need to take a backstreet diversion instead. Vyner Street looks a bit grim, a cobbled thoroughfare lined with warehouses and the wrong kind of offices, and a string of taxis parked up so that they can be maintained. The only sign of life is The Victory pub, outside which one lone drinker eyes me suspiciously as I pass by with my camera. Only later do I discover that Vyner Street is a celebrated art hotspot with a cluster of cutting edge galleries... or at least was. A handful remain, but most moved out a couple of years ago due to excessive rent increases, and would anybody like to buy a luxury duplex apartment?
Housing kicks back in at the end of the street, initially in a nondescript way. Along Lark Row there's even a big enough gap to see through the fence across the canal, most notably the western entrance to Victoria Park, tauntingly unreachable on the opposite bank. It looks pretty, and pretty busy, and I'll be there in about ten minutes. Oh but Sewardstone Road is lovely too, the kind of desirable Victorian terrace that makes homeowners smile and estate agents leap. Tower Hamlets still boasts residential gems like this in unbombed, unredeveloped clusters, and this area around the London Chest Hospital is a good example. Or rather that's the former London Chest Hospital, whose services transferred to Barts in April and so is now up for grabs as a 'Residential development opportunity'. Potential purchasers are advised that "the site is subject to a number of Tree Preservation Orders", but that none of the buildings are listed, so imagine the profits four acres of shiny towers could bring.
A broad bridge finally leads across the canal into the splendours of Victoria Park. An ice cream van often awaits those arriving here, as do two howling hounds perched on plinths at the Bonner Gate. These are the Dogs of Alcibiades, sculptures from classical Rome copied from the British Museum and posted here in 1912 (or rather they're recent copies, the originals having been heavily vandalised a few years back). Next there follows a walk of over a mile and a half around the edge of Vicky Park, that's almost 10% of the perimeter of Tower Hamlets. Everywhere within the park is within the borough, whereas all the houses, roads (and two pubs) immediately across the fence belong to Hackney. For once I'm walking the right side of the line.
Initially my route demands that I walk back along the canal to the entrance I spotted earlier, past narrowboats tied up along the bank. But then I leave the water and curve round through the park proper to head back in the opposite direction. It's a hot and sunny day (remember those?) so the grass is liberally dotted with peeled and peeling bodies taking full advantage. On the floral lawns a Staffie rolls over and waves her legs in the air, while her owner picnics behind a palm tree and pretends not to notice. Meanwhile on the internal roadway the occasional scarlet-painted TfL-funded hirebike wobbles past, and a fleet of kid-powered mini-scooters pushes by. It's nice here, and tens of thousands of local residents know it.
Grove Road divides Vicky Park into two very unequal halves, the smaller western bit more ornamental and the much larger eastern bit more recreational. At the interface is The Royal Inn On The Park, a Lauriston local, after which it's grass and trees pretty much all the way. One particularly splendid feature is the Burdett-Coutts Fountain, a Gothic granite creation provided for the people of the East End by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a banking heiress who devoted most of her life to philanthropic largesse. Her gift no longer dispenses drinking water, but was recently renovated to celebrate its 150th anniversary and looks loftily magnificent. Alas most of the park's other fine features lie away from the perimeter, so I plod on along the avenue with a cricket match the most notable attraction.
The furthest north that Tower Hamlets goes is the park's Molesworth Gate, by chimneyed Molesworth Lodge, leading down and out onto busy Wick Road. I'm pretty much knackered now, having been on my feet for a good seventeen miles, so in need of a decent place to rest. Thankfully a much better option than a bogstandard bench exists, one of the fourteen stone alcoves from Old London Bridge, of which four still survive. Two are here, a decent distance apart, donated to the pioneering park in 1860 and now with convenient seating inside. Once rested I exit the park along the boundary through a gap in Cadogan Terrace, where a hooped footbridge crosses the chasm of the A12 dual carriageway. There's a pretty good view across Hackney Wick from up here, and also of occasional military flypasts - any plane heading for The Mall generally flies over here first.
The border here follows Wallis Road to the Overground station, then tracks directly along the railway line. The area hereabouts somehow remains packed with backstreet businesses and a creative vibe, as yet unwrecked by the 2012 tornado immediately across the river. Long-dead pubs are covered with better-than-averagegraffiti, artists' studios remain affordable, and the smell of baking bagels wafts out across White Post Lane. The Wick retains its cool, and draws in copious numbers of the young and hip to craft beer pizzerias, concealed skateparks, pop-up cider gardens and the occasional flea market. Wandering through without a beard, I feel almost out of place. And while I love that the neighbourhood survives, I can't help wondering how long landlords will be able to resist piecemeal replacement of commercial yards and buildings with more profitable residential boxes, until nobody'll think it worth bothering to come at all.