Picking up from where we left off, back in November, my friend Nigel Roberts and I travelled to London on Wednesday* to walk Section 14 of the Capital Ring. We arrive at our starting point at Hackney Wick by way of the 26 bus from Liverpool Street Station, whose upper deck gives excellent views of upwardly and downwardly mobile Shoreditch and Hackney along the way.
Hackney Wick, an East London zone heavily revamped by the 2012 Olympics, is already starting to develop a distinct patina – a place that is part bohemia and part industrial estate, with pleasing, professionally executed murals amid rag-tag graffiti. We require sustenance before we set off, so bacon and egg rolls are purchased from a snack van near the station. The rolls, amply filled and luxuriously lubricated with brown sauce, are excellent value and of sufficient deliciousness that I am tempted to adopt them as an alternative monetary unit – a BER (Bacon and Egg Roll), a benchmark by which to compare prices. As I sit on a bench gnawing away, Nigel – always one to document every detail en route – Milibands me with his phone camera, capturing my awkward mastication for the benefit, no doubt, of his thousands of Facebook followers and leaving my political career in tatters even before it is begun.
From the station we cross a bridge over the Lea Navigation (Hackney Cut) and follow the towpath south for a short distance before veering off left to join the route of The Greenway. The Greenway, well signposted and walker-friendly, is a six-mile-long pedestrian and cycle route that sits on top of the Northern Outfall Sewage embankment (N.O.S.E), directly above the 1860s Joseph Bazalgette-built sewer that shifts vast quantities of London sewage to a treatment plant in Beckton where, once purified, it is released into the Thames. Had Situationists ever trodden its well-maintained path they might have declared, ‘Sous les pavés, la merde!’ While Tony Blair once recommended a centrist Third Way, here, we are following something akin to a turd way, although the official name, The Greenway, undoubtedly has a more fragrant ring to it.
Queening it over Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to our left is the London Stadium, now the claret and blue home of West Ham FC, along with the fantasy fairground ride that is Anish Kapoor’s ArcellorMittal Orbit sculpture. Further on, just before reaching the railway line, we come to the View Tube Café & Bar, where we stop for a coffee (1.2 BER for a polystyrene cupful) but pass on the cocktails on offer (1 mojito = 4 BER).
Suitably caffeinated, we follow the ramps that take us beneath the multiple tracks of the former Great Eastern Railway before returning to The Greenway again. We cross Waterworks River and then Stratford High Street, which is busy with traffic and lined with gleaming new office blocks. One of these bears a mural of a Victorian woman with baskets of lavender – a memorial to the onetime Yardley soap factory that stood nearby. Equally intriguing is a strange tower that stands a little way down the street by the river. It is something I have seen from the train many times before and had always wondered about. The Stratford East Tower, on close inspection, is built of timber and mimics an elongated (and leaky) ice cream cone. What it really represents, of course, is an Olympic torch – another architectural heirloom of the glory days of 2012. These days, more prosaically, it also houses a mobile phone mast hidden within.
Back on The Greenway, a Thames Water crew is carrying out some sort of maintenance of the sewer below. Aluminium ladders lead underground through open manholes that offer our noses a mild hint of that which flows beneath. Just beyond here, down a slope to the right, stands the quite magnificent edifice of the Abbey Mills pumping station behind high razor wire fencing. Constructed by Bazalgette in the 1860s, it originally housed the beam engines required to pump city sewage 40 feet up to the height of the Northern Outfall Sewer. Byzantine-style, and yellow brick with cupolas, it resembles nothing less than a cathedral, Bulgarian Orthodox perhaps? St Bazalgette’s? Or maybe even Catholic? – Spain already has its own Our Lady of the Sewers**, so it is not such a far-fetched notion.
A little way beyond the pumping station is Abbey Creek The tide is out, leaving a grey expanse of mud stippled with fragments of wire netting, dead shopping trolleys and other Anthropocene detritus. Overlooking the creek is another relic of the pumping station: a curious piece of ironwork that resembles a giant nautilus fossil… or maybe a super-sized tuba, a fiendish instrument that can only be blown by the foul breath of the sewer beneath.
Back on The Greenway itself, a little further on, large white letters on the wall spell out:
L O N G L I V E C O M M U N I S M
Nigel, channelling revolutionary БРСМ*** spirit, poses for a photograph with a raised fist. It feels anachronistic. Perhaps, by way of balance, or simply to bring it up to date, there should also be another that says:
D E A T H T O N E O L I B E R A L I S M and/or
O B S E R V E T H E D E A T H T H R O W S O F
L A T E C A P I T A L I S M
Such slogans are absent, although they are easily brought to mind by a head swivel across to the silhouetted high-rises that mark the distant City of London – the sky-piercing monoliths of Canary Wharf Tower and The Shard being the most familiar of the cluster. Here, encapsulated in glass, steel and concrete, are the architectural marker stones of the London Launderette, the machinery of which is currently rinsing roubles on fast cycle. Londongrad: an established playground for oligarchs, kleptocrats, KGB cathedral fanciers and Premiership billionaires – bullion for bricks, gas for glass, irony for iron, gold for goalkeepers; cash for condos, cash for honours, cash for tennis. Another hidden sewer: the secret culvert of dirty money that seeps unseen into The City.
We cross another railway line and then have views through trees to the stones and avenues of the East London Cemetery. Next we pass Newham University Hospital and some giant concrete balls at the junction with Boundary Lane. At a primary school playground a little further on we leave The Greenway behind, heading south to reach the ramps that take us across the dual-carriageway of the A13. Looking east beyond the red brake lights of queued traffic is the modest rise of Becton Alp, a fake hill made by piling the toxic spoil of a former gas works. It is no Silbury but at 36 metres is still the highest artificial mound in London.
Our walk ends with a meander through Beckton District Park. This area feels more Ballardian suburb than gritty city edge. Nigel observes, ‘This could be Worcester, you know.’ And he is right, it could be almost anywhere. The trees planted in the park come from far and wide, each bearing a sign to identify species and provenance. Tired and footsore by now, we forget to look until the last one – Algerian Ash.
The DLR from Royal Albert Station speeds us back into central London – a driverless train through the heart of The City providing all the metaphors you might possibly need. Later, over beers in a Soho pub (1 pint = 2BER), we discuss prog bands we saw back in the glory days of the last century. A man at the next table joins in the conversation. He tells us he likes visiting pubs that come with a bit of history. Currently he is on a tour of George Orwell haunts in the city. After a quick chat about The Road to Wigan Pier, a book we both admire, I ask: ‘So did Orwell used to frequent this place.’ His reply was unexpected, ‘No, but Dennis Nilsen used to come here to look for victims, I think.’
* Wednesday, February 23 – the day after ‘Palindrome Day’ 22.02.2022; the day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 24.02.2022
** see Paul Richardson’s Our Lady of the Sewers and other Adventures in Deep Spain 1998
*** БРСМ = Belarusian Republican Youth Union (…only kidding, although Nigel is undoubtedly a Belarus pioneer of sorts)