(Apologies to Iain Sinclair for my shameless misappropriation of his style and subject matter, and indeed to the entire population of London for continuing to slum it so inelegantly)
China’s perpetually ballooning coastal cities aside, there can’t be many urban axes undergoing as radical a metamorphosis as East London’s Lea Navigation. This ambiguous sliver of neutral territory, once the no-man’s land between the pre-1965 County of London and Essex, is a seam of myth down the right hand-side of the map, a tissue connecting the 2011 riots to what was once the World’s largest commercial port via the Olympic site and all the industrialised gentrification it stands for. It’s a non-place in more ways than one: not even its orthography is fixed. “Lea” is my choice of spelling, but as many a signpost attests, “Lee” is just as acceptable. There’s no significance behind my choice other than my dislike of repeating vowels unnecessarily. As regular readers will know, I’m anal like that.
In short, it’s a pseud’s Mecca, and even I’m amazed that it took me ’til yesterday to make my hajj.
I needed a guide, somebody with at least a vague claim to the territory. My friend Ferdy, an East Londoner expatriated to Brixton, was similarly enthusiastic. A veteran of many a Hackney Wick squat party (who claims to have become acquainted with the delights of Red Bull on Three Mills Island), he was as keen to get some kind of continuity onto his mental map as I was.
Armed with cameras, Agnès B T-shirts (pre-2006 vintage, naturally) and a family pack of Jacob’s Orange Club bars, we followed the Navigation from the great reservoirs of the North-East to the Thames at Leamouth. We’d been planning the trip for months, and quite honestly I don’t think either of us really knew what to expect. How could we? Even if we’d made the journey a month before, the landmarks would have been metamorphosed beyond recognition.
The calm of the first stretch, from Stonebridge Lock on the Tottenham/Edmonton border to Springfield Park in Upper Clapton is bafflingly uncharacteristic. A fat guy on a bike riding aimlessly up and down the towpath, acid house blaring out of his headphones, was the only indication of the utter cacophony to come.
Pretty soon we were at the edge of the grotesquely overblown sci-fi homage that is the Olympic complex. A hype of American Apparel-clad hipsters heralded our arrival in the cultural battleground of Hackney Wick. Here the canal presented its strangest clash of worlds yet; on the Eastern side, the monolith of the Stratford Westfield towered over its smaller, British cousin, John Lewis; to the West were the decaying warehouses of the Wick.
The place is like the set of a Spaghetti Western; teams of workmen buzz around the clock to erase the embarrassment of Post-industrial Britain, embodied by this most redundant of postcodes∗. Exotic hoardings belie a near-total absence of regular activity; any semblance of normality has been swallowed up by the Olympic thrust. Since I was last here in 2009, the place has undergone not so much a facelift (it’s still a shithole, whatever they say) as a comprehensive lobotomy. At the pedestrian bridge over the canal stood a signpost devoid of any destination. I couldn’t tell whether this was strangely apt or just my bullshit reflex going into overdrive. Clearly, we needed to eat something.
We stopped for lunch at an almost comically yuppie café (not, and I repeat, NOT a caff). Say what you like about these Hacknee hipsters, but they make a mean Kale focaccia. Tellingly, they had chosen to set up on Prince Edward Road, right next to a security firm that promised ROUND THE CLOCK SURVEILLANCE- MOBILE DOG PATROLS- ÉLITE SECURITY TEAMS PATROL THESE PREMISES. Strategic thinking, I’d guess.
Heading back out to the canal, we passed the former Lord Napier pub, an old haunt of Ferdy’s. He didn’t get nostalgic. That said, chancing on the Big Breakfast cottage several minutes later was an oddly moving collision with childhood- O Chris Evans, we hardly knew ye…
We cleared Hackney and passed into Tower Hamlets, under the East Cross Route and onto the home stretch. At Three Mills Island, we stopped for a cigarette and realised we were just metres from the end of the public footpath. After the District Line bridge, we had to make a decision: would we accept the orders of the signposts to take the Limehouse Cut down to the Thames, or press on with our original plan and somehow follow Bow Creek down to Canning Town?
Stubbornly, we stuck to our route. Cutting into the Industrial Zone at Twelvetrees Crescent, we followed the course of the Creek down to a dead end. A very serious-looking fence barred us from crossing a scrapyard further into Newham. After much negotiation with one of the Polish guys who worked there, Ferdy managed to work out a compromise; they wouldn’t open the gates for us to pass through, but if we managed to jump the fence, they’d turn a blind eye.
It took a lot of groaning, but eventually we got through to the extraordinary futurescape of Canning Town.
We really were within smelling-distance of the Thames- but how the hell were we to get there? Canning Town doesn’t really seem to be a place designed with humans in mind. Motorways and fences proscribe all movement to paths between the DLR station and the ExCel exhibition hall. Our dash across Newham Way to the elegant hump of Silvertown Way was little short of suicidal, but it did at least allow us a view of the final, sanity-defying landmark of our route:
I’d been hearing rumours about the Canning Town Cable Car for years, but hadn’t realised that anyone was rich or misguided enough to actually build it. But here it was, just months away from becoming operational. It’s rather beautiful in the blazing sunshine, but I can’t help feeling that I’m not the only one who suspects this might be Newham’s answer to the Springfield Monorail.
Finally, we made it to the promised land of the old East India Dock, the erstwhile repository for British Imperial plunder and the de facto mouth of the Lea. This, as Ferdy said, was the Livingstone moment. Through the heat haze, Tony’s dome occupied the horizon like a Heston Blumenthal take on a wedding cake. It felt like the right time to break out those Orange Club bars, which had very obligingly refused to melt.
∗The Olympic site has been awarded the most prestigious zip in British popular culture, namely E20, the once-fictional denominator of Walford. How will Eastenders cope with this infringement on its meta-universe? I don’t care. I hate soaps- except for Neighbours, obviously.