It shouldn’t be this hard.
It should be easy, picking up exactly where we left off at the Timber Lodge Café by East Village, Stratford. Joining the Lea where we left it. Moving through East London, following the water down to where it meets its mother – the Thames – at Trinity Buoy Wharf. But as I stand in front of another padlocked barrier by Cody Dock in the winter light, the sky clouded and moody, I wonder if there is a some kind of conspiracy to stop people from travelling along the water. In the distance, cable cars zip over the Thames from East India Dock to North Greenwich. I look at Balfron Tower and recall a decadent night I spent in its high rises, watching the blinking towers of commerce at Canary Wharf. We’re heading in the direction of the Dome. We can’t get onto the path, but we are in London, in its very vein.
I’m meeting my friend, Adam Scovell, for the second leg of a walk along London’s waterways. My aim has always been to show Adam an area of significance in my own life, as well as being significant to the city. We are setting off again, with a plan to see where the Lea hits the Thames, travelling through a part of East London with which we are both unfamiliar.
Neither of us are novices. Adam is an accomplished filmmaker and writer, whose work explores the intersections of landscape, literature, folk horror and more. We’re au fait with our Sinclair and Solnit. A “towpath closed” sign does not fill us with dread.
Just keep the water in sight – easy, right? But we haven’t bargained on the Olympic Park. On Crossrail, on the high rises, on the paths to nowhere, the cafes and sculptures that lurk, waiting for crowds to materialise.
Immediately we’re thwarted. There are closed walkways and bridges at every turn. We’re forced through the jumbled up and half-dreamt architecture of the Queen Elizabeth Park, with the giant West Ham logo to our right. This is a place that doesn’t know what it is. Something for everyone, perhaps, and therefore for no one at all. What more can be said? So many competing ideas, developers, architectural preferences, the clashing desires of consumers, football fans, the drinkers in hipster bars… I have already mentioned the comforting conspiracy I’ve always imagined must be at play. The truth – that perhaps the ship is rudderless, that there’s no driver at the wheel – is much more frightening.
We know exactly where we are, yet somehow we are lost, and we’ve spent forty-five minutes attempting to get onto the Lea. Google Maps is being consulted. Down a short slope, onto the City Mill River and past an inexplicable climbing wall (I pose for a photo halfway up a ladder), across a small bridge and finally onto the Lea itself. Nearly an hour after we left the Timber Lodge, we have got nowhere.
We reach the Big Breakfast House, and I sigh. We should have just met at Hackney Wick station. At the Greenway, we’re thwarted again. A fence with a gate that foolishly opens, and yet another sign saying “towpath close”. Crossrail. When I think of Crossrail, all I can think of, perhaps unfairly, is destruction. Inconvenience. Agendas other than those of my own.
“Shall we just keep going?” I say to Adam.
He agrees. Bugger it. If we get kicked off the path for trespassing, it makes the whole thing more interesting.
“We’ll just say we’re visiting a friend on a houseboat,” says Adam.
Five minutes later, two orange-jacket men escort us off the towpath and onto the diversion. Our feigned ignorance has clearly failed to convince.
The Crossrail site is a future postcard from the ruined London: grey mounds of building materials, asphalt, rubble and earth. Fluorescent men picking through the scene, dwarfed by the thing they’re building. I imagine that one day this will all be finished, but as we head East, the skyline is full of cranes and buildings half-built, or maybe half-demolished. No, London is never finished. London never was like it was. Build and destroy.
We find our way back to the river finally at a roundabout on the A12. New flats, a mouldy and decaying doll, the photogenic detritus of the city.
Surprises keep coming. Next to Amazon and Sainsburys offices sits a sculpture welded of supermarket trolleys. We try and decipher its meaning – a celebration of the weekly shop? A symbol of the redundancy of the high street? We reach Cody Dock. This is a kind of proto Hackney Wick, with a coffee shop, a Damien Hirst sculpture (an epidermis), and a small arts space. Signs explaining the things to come. Make a note: this will be the place you’re complaining about but still drinking in five years from now.
It is here where the towpath dies, again. No access. Why? No one knows. We trudge off through the warehouses and industrial units of Canning Town, through a concrete badland of abandoned pubs that look straight out of a cockney gangster movie. Approaching Canning Town tube the air is thick with pollutants, rough smog that sits on the tongue. Here the developments have gone into overdrive. We keep exploring, including a sad and disheveled ‘ecological park’ that exists despite the choking fumes, and past the high rises that seem half-complete and only partially inhabited.
Again, what can I say? ‘Ballardian’ – a term so overused, but the only apt word for this. Through wire mesh we peer at a new building with deck chairs and a small swimming pool within spitting distance of the dirty Lea. Behind shining glass, rows of unused exercise bikes.
“This is High Rise,” we both agree, not particularly happy.
Finally we reach Trinity Buoy Wharf, and see the river we have tried and failed to follow gush into the Thames. Threatening clouds gather over the Dome. Here you find galleries and a small boutique café with moderately priced coffee. Monuments to London’s maritime history all around. The skyline is cranes and endless flats rising high into the sky.
The future of the city is here. Come have a look.