For orientation purposes, today's journey begins approximately here.
This is Jenkins Lane in Beckton, viewed from a viaduct on the A13 dual carriageway. It's the location of London's only Showcase Cinema, Newham's council tip and the entrance to Beckton Sewage Works. I cannot overestimate how uncompromising a landscape this is. Nevertheless I was passing through on a stroll from the backside of Barking when I spotted this unlikely gateway... to Beckton Creekside Nature Reserve.
A nature reserve owned by Thames Water in these parts was likely to be sewage-related, so I was intrigued. Barking Creek isn't generally something you can walk alongside, so I was keen to explore. The gateway looked unloved, a giant puddle guarded the entrance and the path ahead seemed very much hemmed in by railings and barbed wire. But there was also a colourful information board welcoming me to the Northern Lagoon Walkway, and a map suggesting access to the riverside and beyond, so I gave it a go. [start point]
I'm not usually reticent to follow footpaths in London but this one soon perturbed me. As far as I knew it was a lengthy dead end with no means of alternative escape if I encountered trouble. The metal railings were relentless and decorated with windblown plastic. No view of this so-called lagoon was forthcoming, only a rubbish-strewn ridge enhanced with the smell of sewage. When the path doglegged round the back of its second warehouse, I wondered if I should turn back.
But I stuck it out. Four long minutes later I found myself in sight of the river wall at an unexpected access point to the service road at the rear of the Showcase Cinema. It was a relief to find an alternative way out, although this was still nowhere anyone would routinely visit so my nerves hadn't completely faded away. A fingerpost pointed to the right towards a pair of gates, along with a location code if you had to ring Thames Water to seek emergency assistance. What the hell, I thought, and continued.
The River Roding was now visible, or Barking Creek as it's called for its final two miles before entering the Thames. A muddy ribbon zigzagged across a flat estuarine landscape, mostly obscured by a wall of waving reeds, with the low tide exposing a narrow shallow-banked channel. Lest all this sound too attractive, the opposite side of the river was essentially a chain of warehouses. As for the promised Northern Lagoon this remained out of sight inland behind industrial strength railings, intermittently decorated with Danger signs.
I walked on and was suddenly faced by a rear view of Beckton Sewage Treatment Works. I've been inside before on a memorable Open House tour, but never believed it was possible to get this close without being granted special access. A giant circular settlement tank was visible through the mesh, the northernmost of a grid of 48 which process north London's effluent, and beyond that what looked like a row of eight massive concrete bunkers.
It was at this point that another human being suddenly emerged around the corner. I'd been hoping to meet absolutely nobody, given how far I now was from anything resembling a main road, and had they been accompanied by a dog I'd probably have frozen. Thankfully it turned out to be an elderly gentleman with a pair of binoculars, fresh from a spell of ornithology somewhere ahead, and as I bade him good day my jitters dissolved away.
Here at last was the entrance to Barking Creekside Nature Reserve, a triangular enclave of marshy foreshore (no horse-riding permitted). The notice board invited me to look out for reed buntings and red hawthorn berries, it being winter, without mentioning the hawthorn blossom I thought I'd already walked past. The path ahead was broad and lightly barriered to prevent the unwary stepping off into undisturbed undergrowth.
The reserve's centrepiece is a massive pylon, its feet embedded in a reedy pool, hence the provision of a wooden screen allowing bird watchers to scrutinise activity unseen. I considered waiting and watching, but February isn't the best time to be here. Then, because I'd checked the map at the entrance, I knew to follow the unsigned narrow path off to the left which wound muddily to the foot of a set of gravel steps, then up to a low mound with a view.
This may be London's least alluring picnic table. It offers sight of a reedy waste, a chain of pylons, the Barking flood barrier and Europe's largest sewage treatment works. The river itself, annoyingly, is still mostly shielded by scrubby waste, although you can make out the scrapyards on the far side lining Creekmouth's notorious River Road. With binoculars, a thermos flask and appropriate seasonal conditions this might be a great spot for birdwatching, but I was neither prepared nor willing.
According to the information board the 'Creekside Trail' continues for almost another mile along a sewage works access road. It extends past several more settlement tanks, a sludge generator and a desalination plant, all the way down to the Barking flood barrier at the mouth of the river. Apparently it's due to continue along the Thames to Gallions Reach, one distant day, completing the 'Beckton Loop' (which'll be a true footpath and a half). But for now, even to be able to reach the flood barrier is astonishing enough. [aerial photo]
I didn't make it that far, I didn't have the nerve. The main road was already too uncomfortably distant, and the idea of doubling that distance along a remote dead end didn't appeal. But I'm here to tell you that this unlikely creekside trail exists - it's that red line - should you have a penchant for bleak estuarine isolation and be braver than I.