Last week TfL applied for planning permission to build a station in the middle of an industrial wasteland. Nobody lives nearby, a vast disused power station looms across the road, and the only bus service to the area was scrapped three years ago. Few locations in London are more desolate and more unwelcoming. The station in question is Barking Riverside, a proposed extension of the London Overground, pencilled in for completion in 2021. And if anybody's ever going to want to live around here, on the brownfield banks of the Thames estuary, it's of crucial importance that the station gets built.
The grimmest corner of Barking & Dagenham lies to the south of the A13, between the railway and the river. The former marshes have been colonised by the kinds of businesses nobody else wants, from waste management and scrapyards round Creekmouth to distribution depots and oil storage nearer Dagenham Dock. Also here is the Thames View Estate, built in the 1950s by Barking Borough Council, and badly named because its residents live much too far back to have any chance of seeing the river. It's not quite a linear slum but certainly a challenging place to live, partly in terms of architectural quality but also in terms of accessibility. And to the south of that, currently even harder to get to, sits Barking Riverside.
The Barking Riverside project has a long and lacklustre history dating back decades. The opportunity arose when Barking Power Station closed in 1981, and was sequentially demolished, its footprint deemed ripe for development. Bellway Homes bought up a vast tract of land in 1994, obtaining planning permission for 10800 homes, with just one catch. No more than 1200 homes could be built until public transport was improved, and public transport still hasn't been improved sufficiently to unlock the remaining potential. The first 900 homes (then called Barking Reach) were laid out by the turn of the century, creating a kind of mini-Beckton laid out in brick cul-de-sacs named with a maritime theme. But nobody got round to building any services for the local population, not even a shop, hence most of those who live around here rely on the one or two cars parked up outside.
It's only recently that the first phase of Barking Riverside proper has been brought to fruition. And you only have to stand by the bus turning circle at the edge of the previous development to see that it's of a very different kind. Gone are the lowrise small-scale flats and Essex-style semis, and instead a series of taller blockier designs predominate. That's not always good news, with the buildings along Minter Road typical of the bland brown cuboidal design that today's architects churn out with depressing regularity. But the dark-timbered terraces to the north are more appealing, tall and narrow with steep solar-panelled roofs, and of a good size that a large family might enjoy.
Just don't mention the pylons. These stalk through the heart of the development, courtesy of the former power station at the end of the road, creating a broad strip along which no houses can be built. In an attempt to distract the eye, the developers have dug a balancing pond, surrounded by a wooden boardwalk and lined by bullrushes. From the right angle it looks gorgeous, which no doubt helps the online sales brochures, and up one backwater creek I disturbed a heron, so all's not as sanitised as it seems. What's more the residents now have a primary school, a community centre and a church, plus (at last) a Morrisons, not that the feeling of disconnect has entirely gone away.
Only a handful more blocks will be built here over the next few years, while developers wait for the London Overground extension to arrive. This'll veer off from the c2c line just before High Speed 1 rears up from underneath, following the pylon corridor down to a spot a couple of hundred metres from the estuary's edge. And sheesh it's bleak. I know I hinted at this earlier, but the bend where potholed River Road meets fenced-in Renwick Road is a godforsaken post-industrial backwater... unless it's Sunday in which case the Dagenham Sunday Market pulls in hundreds of punters who park all down the street. Beyond the coils and cables of the defunct power station is the Ripple Nature Reserve, laid out by the National Grid on a dump of reclaimed fuel ash, rich with rabbits and (allegedly) orchids, which I explored more in trepidation than joy. Elsewhere the only temporary residents were some Lithuanian lorry drivers parked up and pissing through the fence, and a lone security guard sitting at the entrance to what will one day be B&D's largest building site.
To explore Phase 2 of Barking Riverside, walk brazenly past the security guard to follow public footpath number 47. This fortuitous right of way leads down to the waterfront, then follows the edge of the Thames for almost a mile, and is one of my favourite outer London escapes. The developers attempted to close off access last year but local people complained, and now a long metal fence divides the grassy path from the reclaimed expanse inland. I normally enter from the Dagenham Dock end, climbing the landfill ridge alongside a littered creek to enjoy views of theBexley incinerator across the river. What I really love is the lack of a defensive wall, there being nothing to defend, the mighty Thames lapping at the edge of the bank in a way that looks natural but is merely post-artificial. I shared my walk yesterday with a lone fox, several bumble bees and the tinkle of an ice cream van echoing across the estuary from Thamesmead on the opposite shore. Alas it won't be staying this remote for long.
The Overground station will be built within a few metres of the start of footpath 47, before it bends down towards the environmental centre. Trains will arrive on a viaduct, leaving space underneath for retail offerings, at the heart of what will one day be a public square. TfL'splans show a long vertically-slatted building with stainless steel panels, the aim to create a sense of place and a feeling of visual permeability. Cars will drop off passengers on one side, while buses will pull up on the other, with a new neighbourhood shopping centre and huge secondary school thrown in nearby for good measure. A swirl of residential roads will be laid out on the barren land between Choats Road and footpath 47, densely packed for maximum property value, but thankfully not quite spreading right down to the waterfront, which will remain open.
It's only in the final phase of development, nearer 2031, that the Thames-side tower blocks go in. These will be erected to the west, on the current site of Dagenham Sunday Market, and will presumably be marketed as luxury penthouses and the like. By this point it's expected that Barking Riverside's population will be 26000, and the developers will be very rich, as that 1994 land gamble finally pays off. But if you're ever tempted to move in, what with the Overground connection and all, I recommend you visit soon to see your future home as it once was - desolate, derelict and immutably remote.