The Lower Lea Valley

This post follows on from Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, and was originally written as one piece, however I have split it as I feel that while both posts have a linking thread, they deserve to be treated as there own entity. I do however suggest you read it first.

After a recent supervision meeting I found myself with time to kill at Stratford tube station. Normally I stop off there to split my long tube journey to Epping and enjoy a burrito at Wahaca. However this time I had already eaten earlier in the day. Instead I decided to go explore the newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to see what had actually changed in the 18 months since it had closed its gates. As I wandered round the newly landscaped site, I found myself needing to take photos.

With Jem’s conversation still ringing in my head I pulled out the only camera I had on me, my iPad mini. I was honestly surprised by what I could achieve with the iPad, it has no extra photography apps and the original (until ios8) camera software is almost as basic as point and shoot can be.

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Since I shot those original images I have continued to use the iPad, either when I am already in London for meetings and it is all I can carry in my bag, or as a tool to aid the development of a shoot while I’m out either with the Large format or RB67.

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HS1 Undercroft, West Thurrock

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West Ham Underground Station

What I’m going to say next is probably cause for me to have to hand over my left of centre/liberal card, but as you might have  guessed I don’t confirm to a left wing stereo type all the time.

‘I like the Olympic site’, there we go I’ve said it now. I know that this opinion is very unfashionable amongst my peers. I have read the numerous critiques of it by the likes of Hatherly and Sinclair, and agree that the money could have helped in other areas.

However I disagree with the opinion that this is wholesale gentrification.

The suggestion that working class areas don’t need facilities for the elitist Olympic sports, such as Hockey, Cycling, Tennis is ludicrous. If all the children that devoted their life to playing football with only the slightest chance that they will make the premier league, were encouraged and had access to good sports facilities, and we removed the connotations linked to other sports then we might actually stand a chance of seriously dominating on the world stage.

I need to point out that I have played hockey since I was ten years old, and I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had a very good hockey team and junior system. Half of my school team went on to play National Premier League Hockey, would this have been the case if we had all been pushed into football due to society pressure? I should also point out that during the period that I played top flight hockey, that I was far from fit, so if I can do it!

Before anyone suggest that this was down to our backgrounds, we went to a bog standard state school. So I for one don’t see the destruction of some of the football pitches at Hackney Marshes as a huge loss. Certainly not as bigger loss of the Wilderness sports ground run by the Eton Manor Boys club in 1967.

'The Wilderness' Eton Manor Boys Club (1955)
‘The Wilderness’ Eton Manor Boys Club (1955)

The Eton Manor Boys club (EMBC) was established in 1909 by four ‘old Etonians’, Arthur Villiers, Gerald Wellesley, Alfred Wagg and Sir Edward Cadogan as a philanthropic endeavour to improve the lives of those living in the East End. No doubt it is the kind of endeavour that we would pour derision  on now as a grand social experiment.

Eton Manor before Olympic redevelopment (2006)
Eton Manor before Olympic redevelopment (2006)
Eton Manor (2014)
Eton Manor (2014)

On the fringes of London’s notoriously deprived East End, EMBC members were able to try out all kinds of sports and leisure activities. In comfortable surroundings, they enjoyed boxing, amateur dramatics, debating, drawing, first-aid, squash, tennis, football, cricket, rugby, billiards, table-tennis, photography, badminton, athletics and rifle-shooting.

Membership of EMBC gave boys from working class backgrounds the chance to enjoy a wide variety of sports and games in a safe, spacious and congenial environment. Because of the first rate facilities and the excellent instructors, Eton Manor had gained a reputation as an elite boys’ sporting club by the mid-20th century. However, the club was not primarily about sporting excellence – teamwork, character, helping others and making the most of yourself were most important. Some members were helped out with advice to assist them in their careers or encouraged to apply to university. A few members were offered interest-free loans to start businesses or supplied with low-rent accommodation to enable them to save money to buy their own homes. But most important of all, members were provided with an Eton Manor ‘family’: the friendships they struck up as boys during happy evenings at the clubhouse, or over sunny weekend afternoons on the Wilderness often lasted for a lifetime.

Roy “Chopper” Reeve, who joined in 1950, says of the club: “Virtually everybody was penniless. It was to give people half a chance in life, and East End people, given half a chance, would take it.”

Peter “Wiggy” Wilson can close his eyes and recall every piece of the Eton Manor club, every positioning of the seven football pitches, the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, rugby and cricket grounds. The son of one of the managers of the boys’ club, he joined the club in 1959.

“You could only join when you were 13 years 11 months and you faced an interview at the club by boys your own age,” he remembers. “You entered into a probationary period to achieve a certain amount of points by attending some of the classes – it was all about desiring to attain membership and everyone wanted to be a member of this truly magnificent club.”

Peter says the club’s supportive atmosphere was critical during the war years. “Eton Manor boys, captive in prisoner of war camps, often said that in the back of their mind they thought of the club and the Wilderness sustained them because they knew they had something to come back to.”

The impact of the club on the area cannot be underestimated. Even now, 43 years since its closure, the old boys still meet several times a year, particularly on Remembrance Sunday to recall the Eton Manor boys who died in both world wars.

Aged 91, Fred Millard is still a regular at the gatherings. He laughingly recalls how someone once knocked at the door of his Hackney Wick house and asked his father if Fred lived there, only to be told: “No son, he sleeps here, he lives over at the Manor.”
London 2012 Olympics: renewal stirs the memories, The Telegraph, 25th July 2010

To celebrate the rebirth of Eton Manor for the 2012 Olympics, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy paid tribute to the history of the location, displayed on three steel and brass engraved sheets installed at the site.

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The past is all around us, in the air,
the acres here were once ‘the Wilderness’-
“Blimey, it’s fit for a millionaire”-
where Eton Manor Boys Club came to train;
or, in the Clubhouse, (built 1913)
translated poverty to self-esteem,
camaraderie, and optimism
similed in smiles.

Hackney Wick-
fleas, flies, bin-lids, Clarnico’s Jam; the poor
enclosed by railway, marshland, factories, canal-
where Wellesley, Villiers, Wagg, Cadogan came,
philanthropists, to clear a glorious space;
connect the power of place to human hope,
through World War One, the Blitz, till 1967…
on this spot, functional, free, real- heaven.

This is legacy-
young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped
to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong;
believe community is self in multitude-
the way the past still dedicates to us
its distant, present light. The same high sky,
same East End moon, above this reclaimed wilderness,
where relay boys are raced by running ghosts.
Eton Manor, Carol Ann Duffey

The London Olympic organising committee (LOCOG) understood the importance of art within the site, and much of it tapped into the psychogeography of the area.

Ackroyd and Harvey: History Trees
If you’re looking for a way in to the Olympics then look out for a large tree with a metal ring around it’s branches. There will be 10 such History Trees planted to mark the new 500-acre Olympic Park – each a semi-mature specimen with a 500kg, 6-metre diameter bronze or stainless steel ring suspended within its canopy – although only three have been planted to take root in time for the Games. Over time, branches and ring will fuse together, while those who look more closely will also see that nine of the rings are engraved on the interior face with text capturing the history of its location. The tenth tree, an English Oak, holding one of the bronze rings, is inscribed with local resident’s recollections of the area. The ring’s shadow, captured at the time of the Olympics, will be commemorated by an inlay on the ground adding a further magical element (the Stratford solstice perhaps), whereby ring and shadow will momentarily align each year.

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Lucy Harrison: Mapping your manor
In response to Ackroyd and Harvey’s History Trees, local artist Lucy Harrison worked with people who live or work near to the Olympic Park, and with a mobile recording unit, to make an audio soundtrack to be listened to in the vicinity of each marker tree. Guided walks have been planned with a local walking group and over 30 audio tracks are available to listen to including poems, songs, memories, ambient sounds and cookery sessions.

 Jo Shapcott: Wild Swimmer
‘Wild Swimmer’ comes from poet Jo Shapcott is written in four sections, to be read together of separately. It takes its readers through the rich social, industrial and natural history of the area including 8km of waterways in and around the Park (primarily north to south through the Park and finally connecting with the Thames), eventually emerging at Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre.

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I
Open this box
breathe
dive in

II
you are mostly water
glide
in your element

III
Surface in the Bow Back Rivers, quite at home
because you are small and tidal like them.
Here, the River Lea became a man-made mesh
of streams and channels to drain the marsh,
a maze for lightermen, of channels through
old waste, today’s liquid green corridors.
Count off rivers as you swim: Bow Creek, the Waterworks,
the Channelsea, the City Mill, Hennikers Ditch.
Swimming through time is rough: all swamp
and sewage until the Northern Outfall drain
where you don’t swim but give a grateful nod
as you plunge with kingfishers, otters, voles.

IV
Backstroke through the past
and remember how Alfred the Great
dug the Channelsea to keep out Danes
and how the mill streams powered on
through centuries. Waterworks were King.
Swoop underwater through the Prescott Channel,
touching pieces of the lost Euston Arch as you go
and break surface among reeds, oak, willow, ash.
Shoot under the stadium itself,
where the little Pudding Mill River runs:
at last dive up into a building shaped like a wave
and swim your heart out, for you are all gold.
Wild Swimmer, Jo Shapcott

Linked to Shapcotts Wild Swimmer is Lynne Ramsey’s Swimmer, also commissioned for the 2012 games. Swimmer is a poetic journey through the waterways and coastline of the British Isles, following a lone swimmer through lakes, rivers and coves. The journey is framed by a soundtrack of seminal British music, combined with a sound tapestry of hydrophonic recordings and snippets of bankside conversations. The film aims to give a real feel for the diversity of landscape and people of Britain.

The Klassnik Corporation, Riitta Ikonen and We Made That: Fantasticology: Wildflower Meadows
Working in collaboration with the Park’s landscape architects and public realm team, the artists came up with a series of planting designs in the southeast corner of Stadium ‘Island’. The result is a floral celebration of the industrial heritage of the site, where the planting designs mirror the footprint of the industrial buildings that used to be there.

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Sited between the Olympic Stadium and Aquatics Centre the Meadows can be enjoyed at ground level as a vivid floral display and focus for discussion relating to the history of the site and the flora and fauna of the biodiversity that inhabit the Park now. When viewed from above, such as from the viewing platform of the adjacent ArcellorMittal Orbit, the distinctive graphic geometries of the planting will be revealed.

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The development of the site itself has been documented by many photographers and artists, Photo Fusion’s show “Residual Traces” at Photofusion Gallery, Brixton is a group exhibition of 6 photographic projects concerned with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games and the subsequent marginalisation of a community in one of London’s least known and contentious areas, the Lea Valley. A formerly overlooked and undeveloped enclave of urban neglect – pylons and graffiti, Tower blocks and abandoned sheds, compulsory land purchase orders and hipster regeneration – this polemical exhibition explores the hastily engaged transformation of one of London’s most loved hinterlands.

This secret pocket, loved by the locals but little known to the rest of London, was an untamed part of the East End where golfers and quad bikes played next to gasometers and scrap yards and where giant weeds dominated the river bank.

The hinterland of sprawling post-industrial wilderness, an enclave with an eclectic social mix of young artists, street gangs and run down council estates was characterised in 2007 as a “ragged hole in the city’s fabric” (Andy Beckett, The Guardian).

Five years on the area has been transformed and the hole has been partially filled. New housing developments, restored tow paths, cycle tracks and organic cafes are evidence of a new era in the valley, but the older traditional society is still in residence, perhaps more marginalised than ever.

LCC alumni Toby Smith produced a body of work that mapped the landscape of the area.

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Writing on his blog Shoot Unit, Toby said;

I moved to East London in 2007 and the Lea Valley offered a secret but welcoming garden of photographic exploration.  This landscape was explored poetically in the musings of Iian Sinclair who painted with words an overlooked and secret  “hinterland”.  That summer international media and fresh green plywood hoardings announced it to be on the cusp of  permanent change and global limelight. Earmarked for ‘total redevelopment’ for the 2012 Olympic Games its unkempt,  garages, foundries, fish-smokers and brownfield corners were being evacuated towards a  deadline of ODA possession,  demolition and repurposing.

Lower Lea ~Valley, before Olympic redevelopment (2006)
Lower Lea ~Valley, before Olympic redevelopment (2006)

The natural  perimeter was defined by nettle-lined footpaths, busy trunk roads and rail-links yet was impossibly criss-crossed by  a network of rivers and canals that quietly ferried algae, shopping trolleys and traffic cones towards the Thames.  The Lea Valley’s unique identity and atmosphere was heightened by  the diversity of  its residents and workers.  Initially forbidding, a rich palette of hues, textures, scrawled political messages and inhabitants became irresistible and I was seduced further by cheap wine and conversation in the warehouse’s of trapeze artists or sweet tea and rough jokes with grubby mechanics.

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The deadline for evacuation came and went quietly whilst the few remaining  business owners waited in desperation for sale of their machinery.   Thriving artist’s communities by default became squatters and  were left wandering darkened hallways, confused, orphaned and angry at a faceless landlord.  As bakeries, incinerators and printing houses lay silent the green corners  asserted themselves to damp further the sounds of the city. The smoking white transit vans  were replaced immediately by the summer growth of brambles, trees,  weeds and the noise of birdsong.  Like the calm before the development storm this expansive area of London felt abandoned as if a nuclear holocaust had descended. For the quick-witted and fleet-footed its now silent corners lay ever more accessible and every door left wide open.

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Early security efforts had only a futile grasp of the 11 mile blue fence and the perimeter had blind spots of responsibility.  Simply donning a hi-vis jacket afforded unchallenged vehicle access to complete ‘personal  topographic’ surveys.   Once frenetic businesses were left unsecured for the scrappies and opportunist scavengers to attack the architecture with crowbars and wire strippers. Gutting and recycling the now abandoned properties they scoured every cavity and switchboard for  valuable copper and iron.  Their entrance points marked by the piles of discarded cable insulation. Unregulated and on the cusp of poverty these magpies do surely dismember buildings more precisely than the rush of JCBs and concrete crushers that followed.  Once valuable, now unclaimed and abandoned car parts filled acres of contaminated land freshly hemmed in by 1000′s of fly tipped vehicle tyres.

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Lakes of vile coloured liquid separated expanses of dark brown earth too contaminated with decades of heavy oil and chemicals for even the hardiest weed.  The security fence eventually secured the wasteland with an 8 foot  blue band exchanging sweeping vistas with pixelated stock sports photography.  The nation’s access was restricted to rose-tinted  press releases or  an elevated sewer called The Greenway. By September 2007 the scrum of competing contractors began to nibble with earnest at buildings and scrape the ground back to its ancient contaminated foundations. My favourite and indeed final vantage point was a derelict cement silo that  afforded a view across the entire landscape until a pack of trained dobermans became residents .

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Over the last 5 years I gave only a cursory glance to my archive of unscanned negatives.  My interest in the rot and decay of the area became second best to the lure and shiny opportunity of the  ” Official Imaging Tenders” or “Artistic Opportunities” of 2012.  Like so many small businesses in the Olympic Boroughs I threw myself at the possibilities to engage and catch the wave.  Many years later reduced to a mere punter I bet 1000′s of pounds on tickets but empty handed I am now reduced to the endless torch procession and TV coverage.Today, 30 days before the opening ceremony, I have learnt to trade my researched cynicism of the Olympics to the excitement and pride that London will become such a world stage. 5 years later I have trawled the negatives of this extinct  landscape and it has now clearly, irreversibly and impossibly become the Olympic Park. Despite not setting foot in the area since 2007, Google Earth proved an invaluable resource to accurately place the original images and imagine what vision would occupy a 2012 viewfinder.

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A warehouse for galvanising steel has become the Olympic Stadium,  piles of scrap metal metamorphosed into the Aquatic Stadium, my cement silo no doubt shadowed by a twisted red roller coaster. The River Lea itself has been scoured, scrubbed, and populated with new wildlife that can no longer perch on the dozens of electricity pylons now buried in huge underground tunnels.I can only imagine when I  can legally return with camera and GPS in hand to repeat these same photographs. Unsuccessful in my bid for tickets we must all painfully wait until much later this year to evaluate this new landscape. I am in no doubt that the 2 week spectacle of sport and culture will impress audiences globally however, I sincerely hope  that the legacy  justifies the cost local residents and our economy has born.
The Lea alley Becomes the Olympic Park, Toby Smith (2012)

After the boys club closed in 1967, the running track and its surrounds decayed alongside the surrounding industrial wasteland. The images of the Wilderness captured in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) by Saint Étienne are both haunting and moving. The film explores the no mans land of the Lower Lea Valley, the area that is now covered by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, Saint Etienne (2006)
What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, Saint Etienne (2006)

This stylised visual journey presents a nostalgic look at London’s Lower Lea Valley in the days before it was transformation from stagnant industrial wasteland into the now iconic Olympic Park. Set on Tuesday 7th July 2005, a day that saw a jubilant Britain, fresh from the capital’s victorious Olympic bid, quickly deflated and forever changed by the London Bombings, the film presents an uneasy paradox of celebration and devastation and its themes are mirrored in the film’s setting as local residents fondly recall the area’s industrial glory days. These thoughts are juxtaposed against a backdrop of images presenting a romanticised view of urban decay.

Revisiting the Lower Lea Valley in the wake of the Olympic splendour lends the film added poignancy. An area once populated by the pioneers of industry is presented here as an almost post-apocalyptic terrain, captured in the eerily unpopulated frames of a seemingly deserted community. Saint Etienne’s haunting soundtrack and disembodied vocals effectively anchor this depiction of an atmospheric ghost town. Kelly contradicts the widely reported notion of the area as an unloved stretch of wasteland in a series of tenderly framed images that serve to transform the dejected Valley into a striking work of art.

This cinematic flip-book brings mundane to life and sees abstraction in the ordinary. Seemingly inspired by cultural voyeur Martin Parr, Kelly’s discerning spectacle resembles a series of nostalgic picture postcards, offering a sentimental farewell to this endangered landscape. A fictional narrative meanders without urgency alongside this stylish visual feast in which curious young paperboy Mervyn acts as our tour-guide, cycling through the ravaged landscape with wistful, wide-eyed bewilderment.

Voiceovers from real-life residents recalling inadvertently humorous anecdotes about local mythology and a seemingly forgotten industrial legacy provide an informative accompaniment. Additional and somewhat needless narration comes in the form of local luminaries David Essex and Linda Robson who provide hammy colloquial soundbites and abstract, nonsensical cockney-isms. Attempts to add further depth to Mervyn’s story feel unnecessary and, perhaps intentionally, lead nowhere. Their inclusion distracts from the rich and until now, untold history of the Valley clearly in evidence.

One of the film’s closing frames sees Mervyn pondering the 02 Arena in the distance – its scale and design resembling a freshly landed spaceship, a world away from Lea Valley’s land that time forgot and a taste of things to come. Ultimately, the film presents a thought provoking and visually sumptuous critique that questions the concept of ‘regeneration’. Its presentation of a place forever remembered for ‘Two weeks of unprecedented sporting spectacle’ but now detached from its diverse history, seems an unjust and melancholy prospect.
Little White Lies (2012)

I feel that this is unjust as a notion and the site does have a strong connection with it’s history, however to get stuck in the sites past often over romanticises an area that while love by some, was for the most part, well in need of regeneration. Yes I am aware that this runs counter to my entire PhD argument, but I am a realist, many of the sites I love need to be reclaimed, but some need to be treasured. Not all regeneration is bad, and not all interstitial sites are worthy of protection. Enjoy them while we can, and then enjoy what comes next, don’t always live in the past.

I know I’m not the only sceptical (at first) pyschogeographer to become interested in the Olympic site, I recommend looking at John Roger’s blog The Lost Byway.

 

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One thought on “The Lower Lea Valley”

  1. this is my old patch… we lived on the lea in lower clapton…. literally. i taught for a year iin hackney n the mid 60s as a callow unqualified youth. i remember taking a mob on a coach to play football in the middle of this lot. all was well until one of the few who could read saw the sign wot said ‘bow locks’…

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