One of the most striking things about living in London is that it is always changing, often before our eyes. Tourists may come to visit ye olde London town, but the city we know is always in a permanent state of flux. New buildings go up, old ones are torn down. People settle down, people move on. Not all change is good, and some change is bewildering. But one of the few things that stays the same in London is its constant reinvention. The end of my penultimate Capital Ring walk certainly showed that off – but it began with corners which have barely been touched for decades.
Social change was on display as the walk kicked off in the back streets of Stoke Newington. Together with nearby Stamford Hill, this area has one of the capital’s biggest Jewish communities, and certainly the most visible one. But there’s also a large Muslim community here, too. Any bother? No sign of it in these leafy streets. In 2002, one of the founders of the local Muslim Jewish Forum told N16 magazine: “When they’re house-hunting, Muslims often choose a Jewish road, they see Jewish neighbourhoods as safe and peaceful.”
The neat, snug streets didn’t last for long, though, as N16 became E5 and I entered Clapton. If you’re not local to that area, it’s unlikely you’ll have heard of Springfield Park. But it’s a beautiful green oasis, with well-kept lawns and views out across north-east London. At the foot of the park is the River Lee, and Walthamstow Marshes, and a marina for boats to moor up in. The path crosses the river, and for a while you’re on the Walthamstow side of the river – or, once upon a time, the Essex side.
There’s very little marshland left in London – the last remnants of Greenwich Marshes vanished 20 years ago, Plumstead and Erith marshes are now Thamesmead. So Walthamstow Marsh is special, almost unique – and almost eerily quiet and still; well, until a rush of sirens from distant Lea Bridge Road. The wetlands now form a nature reserve, and with some of the land also used for grazing, there’s even a cattle grid on the route. Railway arches cut across the land, and it was here that aviation pioneer AV Roe tested his early aeroplane designs. A century on, this side of the Lee probably looks much the same as it did then. Across the river, back on the Clapton side, the Anchor and Hope pub looks tempting… but the High Hill Ferry which used to cross the Lee here, and gives its name to the street along the water, ceased many ago.
Eventually, it’s back across to Clapton, through Millfields Park, across the Lea Bridge Road and down to where the River Lee Navigation splits off – it’s this route the Capital Ring will follow. Outside another pub, the Princess of Wales, an old lady was having a bizarre row with a mum and kids. From someone’s back garden, a greyhound stuck its nose through the gate to see what I was doing. Back across the water again, and now on the edge of Hackney Marshes as the Lee Navigation continues ahead. Alongside are the Middlesex Filter Beds, once a part of London’s water supply; now a nature reserve.
Narrowboats are moored along the water, their owners stopping to chat – it dawned on me that it’d probably be very easy to live up here and completely disappear from the rest of civilisation… all wistful thoughts ended, though, with the discovery that the tow-path was flooded. A sign had warned of some flooding that was due to be fixed “by September 2009″. It was the end of October, and the contents of a Thames Water main were still streaming into the canal. There was no other option than to take a deep breath – and go for it, though the water…
Squelching on down the pathway, I reached the old Lesney toys factory at Homerton. Formed after World War II by schoolfriends Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith, Lesney began life as a die-casting factory, diversifying into toys in the 1950s. The Matchbox line was a roaring success, with the Lee Conservancy Road complex opening for business in the 1960s. The original Lesney firm folded in 1982, the Matchbox name was sold and production eventually moved overseas. With so much change in east London over recent decades, the Matchbox factory looms over the Lee like a relic – but not for much longer, as demolition teams have already bulldozed part of the site and are currently stripping out the rest.
Recently-built housing mixed with light industry on the other side of the Lee Navigation, but the greenery on my side came to an abrupt halt at a sign pointing out that there may be some diversions to the Capital Ring. This was the start of the Olympic Park. It was a hive of activity, but the 2012 media centre is shaping up to be a squat, ugly building. In fact, I didn’t quite twig it was part of the Olympic Park at first, thinking it might just be some kind of warehouse. No wonder the residents of Leabank Square, opposite, aren’t impressed. (“If we were across the canal from Hampstead Heath or Wimbledon Common – they would have been to scared to design something like this! But it’s only Hackney Wick – so let’s lay a tower block on its side and the scum locals will absolutely love it!”) The huge Olympic Stadium suddenly appears behind the media centre, and starts to dominate the view.
Further down, a familiar tune came into my head – I’d reached Lock Keepers’ Cottages, the home of Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast for nearly a decade. Now a private home, it’s dwarfed by the Olympic Stadium just behind. The cottages, by Old Ford Lock, only date back to the late 1940s, but in 60 years have already seen dramatic changes to their surroundings. The next few years will see even more change as a whole new district emerges behind the cottages. I’d last walked up here in June 2007, shortly before the bulldozers moved in. Blue hoardings block off the old Lee riverside path, which now leads up to the stadium. There’s enough in place now for the imagination to fill in the gaps on how this will look in 2012.
The path finally leaves the Lee at the Greenway – the walkway on top of the Northern Outfall Sewer. It’s shared with Olympic workers and construction traffic, and offers an uninterrupted view of the stadium and the complex work going on around it. There’s a diversion off the Greenway further down, onto Pudding Mill Lane, passing its eponymous DLR station, and across Bow Back River. Suddenly very familiar territory came into view – Stratford High Street. After waiting an eternity to cross the A11, something even more familiar appeared. I put my still damp-feet into motion and ran for a 108 bus home.
So now, the end’s in sight. If all goes to plan, there’s one more leg to go – Stratford to Charlton. It’s strange to think I’ve covered nearly 70 miles already. At least I know what to expect at the end of the final 10 – but there’s still plenty of exploring left to do in east London.