One thing about living on the cusp of the Olympic Park is that cranes and redevelopment are never very far away.
As an example of the transforming pressures hereabouts, I'd like to take you on a trip to City Mill Lock Island on the Bow Back Rivers, just off Stratford High Street. In 2012 it looked like this.
That's Lockkeeper's Cottage, once an important guardian of the waterways, later downgraded to a family home. Its residents had the run of the tiny triangular island, barely a quarter of an acre in size, which by Games-time was either overgrown or empty lockside plagued with weeds. The only other buildings on the island were a small shed and a container used for storage. The cottage was locally listed by Newham council for its ‘historic interest’ and ‘townscape quality’, although had obviously seen better days.
Today it looks like this.
The house is still there, renovated and renamed as Lock Cottage. But it's since been hemmed in by a pair of houses on one side and a block of flats on the other, all touching, in a total mishmash of architectural styles. The architects, obviously, are very proud.
"The proposed buildings are historically contextual and the intention is that they will ‘delight’ those who live there as well as those who live within the neighbourhood and visitors exploring the local waterways. The massing has been developed from the perspective of enhancing the setting and the historic value of the existing lock keepers cottage."
Sometimes I think architects live in another world, or at least live elsewhere in buildings they haven't designed themselves.
The block of flats has four storeys, so can't help but dominate the old cottage, and contains two 2-bedroom apartments and three 1-beds. That's a very profitable change of use for a scrap of land that used to be mostly mess and shed. The rear of the block faces what's supposed to be a tiny public garden with raised allotment beds, but is instead fenced off and overshadowed by the adjacent car park. But I think I dislike the new pair of semi-detached 3-bedroom houses most, which is odd because they're supposed to be the jewel of the development.
If you like local history, the Design & Access Statement of any new development is always a great place to look. This one's no exception, with a full rundown of the evolution of the site from Queen Matilda's visit in the 11th century to the realignment of the Bow Back Rivers in the 20th. City Mill Lock is relatively recent, its island carved out alongside a more navigable waterway in 1948. But back in 1806 the original site was purchased by Howards & Sons, renowned manufacturers of quinine, and later of citric acid, ether, borax, aspirin and cocaine. Now there's a heritage to celebrate.
In startlingly brilliant news, the company's founder Luke Howard was also an amateur meteorologist and first developed the classification system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and cirrus). If you've been to Bruce Grove in Tottenham, you may have seen the blue plaque on his house there. The developers here in Stratford were extremely keen to remember Luke Howard in their development, so have named the smaller addition Howards House. What's more they attempted to base its design on a house Luke used to stay in on this very point of land, immediately alongside the factory complex, with the aid of photographs taken in 1914.
You can see the inspiration - all the right elements are present from the sash windows to the pillared porch. And yet whereas the original has stature, the newbuild has all the charm of a brick box, and not especially characterful bricks either. The extra floor dumped on the roof is the killer, and the two front doors rather than one don't help. It looked a bit more subtle in the planning documents, but historical accuracy has been significantly downplayed in the quest for increased profit. Both of these two semis are already sold, but the lockkeeper's cottage is still on the market for £765,000, should any modern cocaine dealer have the dosh to be able to move in.
"Our objective for the scheme is to reveal the memory of past, in a way that is relevant to the future context of the site, whilst developing a vision for a zero carbon future. This will be achieved by putting the heritage of the site and the long term management of the scheme at the heart of the proposals. Lifecycle thinking and community engagement will help to achieve these objectives."
You may live somewhere established and stable, but here in Stratford they're still squeezing in whatever they can wherever they can whenever possible. All the usual caveats about London needing housing apply, but this is no affordable nirvana, this is opportunistic compression. If a lockkeeper's cottage garden on a tiny island can be turned into eight squashed residences, nowhere is immune.