diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 15, 2022

(sorry, that's an appalling title)
(these places can't be unvisited because I have now visited them)
(in my defence they were unvisited before I visited them)
(but technically that's true of everywhere I've ever been)
(sorry, it's an appalling title)

I'm starting my tour with two neighbouring grid squares on the banks of the Thames in East London. There'd have to be an extremely good reason for me not to have visited them before... and it turns out there are several. The riverside here is inaccessible to the public for a full two miles, all the way from the legendary Footpath 47 at Barking Riverside to the climactic section 24 of the London Loop. The Thames is at estuarine width so these grid squares don't additionally overlap the southern bank - an accessibility trick which works elsewhere. Both squares are south of the A13 viaduct and Eurostar tracks, otherwise I'd already have passed through several times. And both have been appropriated for messy commercial uses, especially waste management, being sufficiently out of the way that nobody lives close enough to complain. Finally getting inside wasn't necessarily going to be straightforward.

TQ5081: Hornchurch Marshes

Grid square TQ5081 lurks on a bend in the Thames between the outfalls of the Beam River and Rainham Creek. The only way in is from the A13, or under it, swooshing down Marsh Way beneath a chain of fizzing pylons. You could even get the bus because route 174 was extended here in 2003 to serve a millennial technocampus called CEME (the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence). Inside are workshops and plug-and-play serviced offices for laptop nomads, and outside a spluttering fountain, plenty of car parking spaces and mind where you step because the ducks have been everywhere. But we're not quite in grid square TQ5081 yet, this starts just the other side of Marsh Way's spiky fence.

The only way in is to stride past the security post at the entrance to Fairview Industrial Park. I ignored the unfriendly signs, most of which were aimed at drivers, and assumed the unassailable confidence of a man who had business at one of the yards or warehouses within. I might have been going for a cuppa and a Challenger Burger at the Munch Up Cafe for all the uniformed bloke in the black van knew, or indeed cared. Obviously I grabbed this photo on the way out, not on the way in, because the best way to engage in industrial psychogeography is only to make yourself obvious afterwards.

By passing security I had already 'visited' my intended grid square but chose to continue my exploration along the full half mile down Marsh Way. This runs almost due south towards the Thames and is lined by a motley collection of sheds, commercial units, micro-offices and storage facilities. Some of the bigger warehouses are for logistics, the road connections for heavy freight being impressively optimal, so it pays to watch out for reversing lorries. Others are smaller two-bit operations dealing with tool rental, roofing supplies or property solutions, and one makes those little metal connector things that help doors to close automatically. If you've ever bought some furniture from Roomes in Upminster, they probably loaded it onto the van in TQ5081.

It was almost lunchtime so the bottle blonde in the burger shack was readying the grill and awaiting local custom. Meanwhile two rival sandwich vans made their advance up the street, repeatedly pulling in and playing their chimes to a hundred rumbling stomachs. In the background two of the Dagenham wind turbines did their twirly thing, somewhere within the entirely inaccessible half of the grid square where thousands of cars are sometimes stored. And no it turns out you can't walk all the way to the Thames, and the landing stage originally known as Old Man's Head, because the road runs out at the barriered entrance to a gas bottle stockist. This didn't seem the place to linger, but it turned out to be a heck of a lot more pleasant than my next unvisited square upriver.

TQ4981: Ford Dagenham Works
(Barking & Dagenham)

Yes, the reason I'd never been to TQ4981 is that it'd been given over entirely to the manufacture of motor vehicles. Ford's massive Dagenham factory opened here in the early 1930s, attracted by the prospect of an estuarine location with a deepwater dock, and was pitch-perfectly positioned to keep this grid square entirely off limits. The last Fiesta rolled off the production line 20 years ago and the Stamping Plant is now in the very early stages of being turned into 3500 homes, but Ford retains an engine-building plant by the riverside that mere mortals cannot hope to access. A set of very makeshift turnstiles now blocks Kent Avenue for anyone not in possession of a security card, so I deduced that my only chance of creeping into TQ4981 was to attempt a very oblique incursion.

Chequers Lane crossed the Dagenham Marshes long before the automobile was invented, and somehow still does. Today it starts at a Brewers Fayre rather than a proper pub and it's been impossible to drive all the way down since Eurostar abruptly severed the level crossing. But the southern section remains connected, indeed you can even ride a bus down it these days past the giant empty space where Barking Power Station used to be. Previously I'd always turned off by the Hovis factory rather than continuing to the river, or whatever industrial hellhole lay at the far end, because it never looked terribly inviting. Alas with an unvisited grid square to visit I had no choice.

The first factory smelled of wood chippings and was immediately followed by an Ocado distribution depot, but that was as pleasant as the rest of Chequers Lane got. A bit further down I got the unmistakeable whiff of waste, and the road was unexpectedly busy with trucks, white vans and lorries rumbling by at lively speeds. I was initially impressed that this peripheral dead end boasted pavements and a separate cycle path thereby minimising levels of peril, but only until I reached the section where several trucks had been parked and blocked everything. The heavy traffic was stirring up such a mist of dust that one breakers yard had tied a hosepipe to its gate which was merrily firing a stream of water at chest height across the road.

The local refreshment option is called the Enjoy Cafe. It doesn't need a menu outside because it has a captive audience, but I can confirm it serves tea and Walkers crisps, plus probably a hearty plateful of something fried. Only here did I finally cross into the grid square next to the one I was trying to get to, at the very tip of Chequers Lane, where a lofty tarmac plant blocked access to the river. Here too was the edge of a huge cluster of silos, 113 in total, which could only be the Stolthaven Dagenham top-tier bulk liquid storage terminal. When Ford's factory was in its prime this was where a network of cranes and railways fed coal into the plant from ships berthed in Dagenham Dock, which was (and is) an actual facility, not just the name of the local station.

I was now less than 100m from the edge of TQ4981 and praying that the final dogleg didn't peter out before I got there. The road rapidly became less convincingly public, forking either side of four vast sheds for the mass recycling of paper and cardboard. The driver of a big orange articulated lorry looked down from his cab bemused as to why I might be edging across this concrete wasteland, the chief reason being that I'd worked out the rear of his vehicle was in TQ4881 but the front was in TQ4981. I spent barely ten seconds in my unvisited grid square before retreating but that was sufficient, achievement unlocked. I hope that's as bad as the remainder of my quest gets.

🟨=1388, 🟩=53, 🟦=6, 🟥=16

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