diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 11, 2020

Yesterday I walked the full length of the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks. Two and a half waterside miles, pretty much due east, with choppy water to my right and the wind behind me. The problem is I've written about this walk before, last summer, and having read back through I think I did a pretty decent job. I'm therefore going to assume that the rest of you have already read it and focus instead on what's changed one year later. This is an entirely flawed assumption but these are the perils of retreading old ground.

The building facing the full length of the Royal Docks is The Crystal, which may or may not become London's new City Hall as part of a £55m cost-cutting measure. Expect a decision by the end of the month, then either a hurried transformation (and much increased security) or further tumbleweed. An apologetic sign on the door confirms that the cafe has been closed since 19th March, and I doubt the stools have been down off the tables since.

This is the busy end of the dock, where 'busy' is a relative term for 2020, with plenty of people wandering around, walking dogs and watching the watersports. Punters were relatively plentiful on the Dangleway too, mostly families keen to keep the kids busy in a covid-secure manner, although only plentiful compared to the chain of empty cabins I watched float by earlier in the summer.

The bus map opposite the terminal somehow hasn't been updated since the Dangleway opened in 2012, and still includes pink boxes to identify the location of Olympic venues. The May 2016 tube map on the back of the board is in a much sorrier state, all its coloured inks having faded apart from black and blue, which means the Central line, Overground and Dangleway have essentially vanished.

A few streetfood tents are lined up by the dockside, trying to keep their businesses above water but catering to virtually nobody. One or two hardy souls are braving a coffee outside the cafe opposite. Three bottle-blonde ladies emerge from the floating hotel trailing suitcases and two helium balloons whose digits I suspect signify 35 rather than 53. Even in severely restricted times, no milestone birthday must go uncelebrated. A planning notice wired to a lamppost confirms that Sunborn's owners want to replace the existing boat with a "newly-built and improved vessel" because that's the only way to add 85 more rooms.

The ExCel exhibition centre is still in lockdown, October's intended shows and conferences having all gone virtual. Somewhere within is the mothballed Nightingale Hospital awaiting resuscitation should it be required in a second wave (but only if sufficient staff can be found this time round). Locked out I follow the waterside past the premises of Locked In A Room, the escape room company, whose business model relies on cramming up to 78 competitors inside a dozen confined spaces and which therefore shows no signs of being open either.

Victoria metamorphoses into Albert at the Connaught Bridge. Beyond this dozens of young rowers are out on the water, and several adult dragonboaters too, using the London Regatta Centre as their base for some Saturday exercise. Even the normally dormant cafe has a queue and all its outside tables are taken. Along the waterfront I spy drying oars, mingling mothers, lads with upturned boats on their shoulders and one particularly loud organiser bellowing instructions while his dog runs rampant. Things might almost be normal, were it not for the cox directing her charges from behind a plastic visor.

The riverside beyond Newham's council offices has only been open for about a year, initially as a narrow path and now a full-on promenade. Rowing coaches on bikes are taking full advantage, as are grateful weekend joggers. Less animated is Royal Albert Dock, the Chinese-funded 'dynamic commercial district', whose waterfront units launched last year but still resemble some kind of pristine ghost town. Only half a dozen buildings have been completed so far, thus far entirely unnecessarily, and it's hard to imagine the other thirty originally proposed ever being needed.

Further commercial inactivity is evident across the water at beleaguered City Airport. Its sole two Saturday departures took off before 9am, one to Florence, the other to Amsterdam, and local residents must be enjoying the silence. It's also unnervingly quiet at the UEL campus where, even though term started three weeks ago, not a student is to be seen. Only a few telltale post-its in the windows of one of the accommodation blocks hint that anyone is here, although the message being spelt out suggests they're not entirely happy with their restricted situation.

More prevalent are the fisherfolk, rods poised, although they seemed more interested in chatting to one another than actually catching fish. We're almost at the end of the water now, at the outpost estate of Royal Albert Wharf. Its architects claim the brickwork has an "authentic, handcrafted feel", but the flats always remind me of an artist's impression which doesn't make for the most characterful of environments. RAW's residents have a Co-Op and a meagre convenience store for sustenance, plus the throwback Galyons Bar ("last drink's at 9:15pm"), but the coffee shop under Aird Point has already succumbed to closure, a row of silver machines abandoned on its otherwise empty counter.

The Royal Docks would have you believe that this is a global gateway, a world-leading waterfront and a flourishing and diverse commercial district. 2020's changed priorities would suggest otherwise, and may have knocked any long-term investment plans way off course.

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