In search of Edgelands Urban PhotoFest walk by Peter Coles

20131006-_1050082     carolinefraser.02   IMG_8777 resized   As part Urban PhotoFest, a group of nine photographers and I walked south-eastwards along the Greenway – a raised footpath that covers the Northern Outfall sewer – from Stratford to the Thames. Well, that was the plan. In fact, to get anywhere near the Thames in the three hours we had (officially) it was necessary to turn off the Greenway about two-thirds of the way to its end and follow the Capital Ring path to Beckton Park, London City Airport and the Royal Albert Dock. Two of the group did exactly that, as, after a few hours, the end of the Greenway didn’t seem anywhere in sight, while time was passing and feet were getting tired. One of the group turned back at Plaistow, as she’d left her car at Stratford station in a cripplingly expensive car park, and also wanted to enjoy the pleasure of going back over the walk from the opposite direction, with new insights into what she’d already seen (or missed). Two others decided to catch a bus back to Stratford when their Achilles tendons started to complain. Meanwhile, four of us decided to trudge doggedly on the last couple of miles in search of the eastern end of the Greenway, and what the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts aptly named ‘Edgelands’.

I’ve walked along the Greenway from the Abbey Mills Pumping Station – not far from Stratford High Street (or indeed West Ham tube) – many times, usually past the Olympic site and as far as the Lee Navigation canal, before following the canal to Hackney Wick, or more recently, to enter the Olympic site itself. In that direction, it’s an interesting, surprising and varied walk, with views over east London’s skyline, before dipping into the almost rural tranquillity of the canal. But the walk east from Stratford High Street is different.

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The first couple of miles are fascinating, the jewel perhaps being the old Abbey Mills Pumping Station itself. Like several other buildings designed by an engineer – this one by Joseph Bazalgette – it seems to be the creation of a ‘nobody’ trying to rise above the crowd by leaving behind a wonder-of-the-Earth monument – like Simon Rodia’s 30-metre high Watts Towers in Los Angeles, made out of junk, glass, coke bottle tops and chipped pottery; or the Palais idéal of postman, Ferdinand Cheval (le Facteur Cheval) in the Drôme region of France. Bazalgette’s pumping station is more like a Byzantine church than a waterworks, with its bell tower, ornate brickwork and columns.

Before the Olympic development of 2012 it was possible to get quite close to the building and even walk around its perimeter along unofficial paths made by kids and dog walkers. But no longer. Spirals of razor wire cap 15-foot high mesh fences around the site, making it look like a nuclear power station, rather than a complex of Victorian hydraulic machinery to pump Londoners’ poo. Indeed, these fences and razor wire have become part of the signature of the Olympic site and its legacy. So much for inclusion.

This part of the Greenway is riddled with tributaries and creeks off the Lea river, like Abbey Creek, which was at low tide as we passed over the bridge. A few wading birds poked around in mud the colour of elephant hide, pocked with supermarket trolleys and rubber tyres. Walking southeast, the footpath offers fine far-off views of the glass and concrete of Canary Wharf and Bankertown. And in the foreground, unusual rooftop views over a disappearing part of east London. A Victorian school, workers’ houses from the time when there were still factories (and work) here. On the right, we looked down over the East London cemetery, and the Memorial Recreation Ground. A muscle-bound young man did pull-ups from the crossbar of a rugby goalpost to impress his equally fit-looking girlfriend, while the Voice of God bellowed through loudspeakers as an evangelical priest addressed an increasingly fervent congregation in what looked like the sports pavilion.

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Just after Newham Hospital the two fellow walkers who had decided to take the Capital Ring path peeled off. The Greenway by now had become rather boring, at least close up. It was straight, manicured and featureless, rather like a Dutch tramway. Or at least the features hadn’t changed much for an hour or so, even if the middle ground and foreground still looked interesting. But you needed a telephoto lens to capture anything interesting. Even so, four of us decided to carry on, spurred by an iPhone map that promised a sewage works, gasometers and the Thames, not far away.

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Indeed, a big change came as soon as we crossed under Newham Way and picked up the last leg of the Greenway on the other side of a vast traffic interchange. For the first time in three hours we had to wait for a green light to cross a road. The previously monotonous gravelled path took on the character of a narrow country lane, with high brambles on either side. To the right, the surreal Beckton Alps ski slopes. And then, coming towards us at a lick, was a pony and trap with two young men perched on a low-slung bench behind the horse. An instant change of pace. The skyline became more industrial, with new boxlike factories next to the defunct ironmongery of far-off gasworks. Giant hogweed mimicked the skeletal industrial towers.

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Finally, we reached the end of the Greenway. But it wasn’t the end I’d anticipated – a theme park of sewage works and gas storage tanks next to the Thames. Instead, the path just petered out, with two main filaments – one going left towards a superstore and the other, right, beside a soft drinks bottling plant. Straight ahead, a dingy litter-strewn track through the scrub under the motorway, that led nowhere.

We backtracked, past a bench festooned with hamburger cartons and coke cans, looking for a way above ground to cross the dual carriageway. As electricity pylons strode overhead we finally came out onto the road. There, in the distance, was the sewage works and a few bits of industrial architecture, but still too far for tired legs to reach now. And no sign of the river. We crossed back and into the undergrowth. A bit further on, a cycle path led off to Beckton housing estate and what promised to be the quick way home, while a disused spiral footpath suggested another way out. We decided to take the long, uncertain route, and not be cheated of the river view at least. But the path led only to an abandoned bridge, flanked with Soviet-style street lighting. It seemed to go nowhere, yet an occasional car careered around a hidden corner, as if we were on a Frankenheimer film set. From this one-sided bridge, we could see a scrap of salt marsh meadow, the Gallions Reach Docklands Light Railway station and glimpses of City Airport running beside the monotonous remnant of the once glorious Royal Albert Docks.

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This wasn’t the romantic, derelict industrial scene I’d imagined. But it was, nonetheless an Edgeland: “…where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare, and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard, if we could only put aside our nostalgia for places we’ve never really known and see them afresh.” 1

Images by Peter Coles, Catherine Dupuy, Caroline Fraser, Sabine Thoele.

Peter Coles is a Visiting Fellow at CUCR, Goldsmiths College. pcoles@me.com

‘In Search of Edgelands’ is published in the CUCR magazine Streetsigns. You can find other articles here : http://www.gold.ac.uk/media/Streetsigns_online_spreads1.pdf

This year’s Urban Photo Fest includes the Urban Encounters Conference at Tate Britain on Friday 24th October. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/conference/urban-encounters-2014-movementsmobilitiesmigrations

1 Farley, P. and Symmons Roberts, M. (2011). Edgelands. Journeys into England’s true wilderness. London: Jonathan Cape.

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