Olympic Neighbourhoods: London 2012 and West Ham

With the Vancouver Olympics behind us, the countdown to the next games in London, England begins.  While the Olympic stadium is taking shape, I’m not too sure how much the people of London are paying attention to the games at this point.    The willingness of some British newspapers to attack Vancouver suggests that some have forgotten they are coming under the limelight next.  London is a city with many great neighbourhoods and as you can imagine, they are not planing to bulldoze buildings in historic Westminster to build an aquatic centre.  Instead, they are using the games to “revitalize” the Lower Lea Valley, a post-industrial landscape, situated between four inner-suburban boroughs in the East of London.  For this reason, the games are out of sight and out of mind for many Londoners.

A century ago R. A. Bray described West Ham “as that of a spot somewhere near London to which people went with reluctance if they had business there, and from which they returned with joy as soon as the business was over.”[1] Sadly, I don’t imagine the average Londoner would describe it any differently today and most probably only know it as the home of a football club.  Half a century of rapid industrial and population growth in the second half of the nineteenth century transformed the once green wetlands of the Lower Lea River and Thames Estuary into a dirty manufacturing suburb with a range of social problems that matched the extensive environmental degradation (for more on the history check out my research blog).  Despite this troubled history and the scarred landscape it left, I would still suggest travelers to London should venture eastward and see a different side of London from the regal and imperial parks and buildings in Westminster.  The Docklands Light Rail lines make it easy to travel around East London and they are above ground, so you can see where you are going.  Most of the sites listed below are within walking distance of a DLR station.

Here are a few highlights:

  • The Olympic Park:  While the stadium is visible from a lot of places in the Lower Lea Valley, the park is blocked by high blue walls.  The best views are from the elevated Dockland Light Rail trains traveling from Stratford to Bow.  You can get off at the Pudding Mill Station for a longer view.  The building is starting to accelerate and each time I visit more of the buildings are taking shape.  You can also see the two Back Rivers that flow through the Olympic park and the massive piles of contaminated soil that the organizers promised to clean on site.
  • Abbey Mills Pumping Station (Cathedral of Sewage): This amazing building located alongside a polluted stream and old factories looks really out of place.  It is even more bazaar when you realize its function: to pump sewage through the massive main drain underneath the green-way path you’ve just walked on to find this Victorian relic.  The architecture provides a reminder of the civic pride  created by an integrated sewage system in the 1860s.
  • Three Mills Island: This is the oldest remaining tidal water mill in England.  There have been tidal mills on the Lower Lea since before the Normand Invasion in the 11th century and the House Mill building dates back to the early 18th century.  You can also admire the massive gasometers just south of Three Mills and contemplate the changing scale of industry between the 18th and 19th centuries (or you can wonder why Jim spends his time contemplating such things).
  • The Royal Docks and the Excel Centre: The former docks provide an excellent opportunity to see the process of revitalization already underway, as the warehouse have been replaced with a university, an airport and a large conference facility.  The Excel Conference centre will host some of the Olympic events and this is one of the better places in town to find a cluster of nice restaurants.
  • The Thames Barrier: Taking the train out to the amazing flood barrier bring your past the handful of remaining industrial sites in West Ham, including the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery.
  • The Lea Towpath:  If you are lucky enough to be in London during nice weather the many tow paths along the old canals are great locations for walks.  You can walk north along the River Lea miles, all the way to Waltham Abbey if you are feeling really ambitious.

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[1] R. A. Bray, “Review: West Ham A Study,” The Economic Journal 18, no. 69 (March 1908): 60-64.