On a wet day in March 2005, I took a walk up the Lower Lea Valley from Canning Town to Hackney Marshes with film director Paul Kelly. It was an area of severe pollution and urban decay – with Bow, Bromley and Homerton on its west bank, Canning Town, Stratford and Leyton on its east – yet it had a fascinating, largely forgotten history. Though there was no museum, nothing but a plaque on a warehouse wall to commemorate the fact, its significance was on a par with Ironbridge Gorge. Petrol was first refined in a building on Hepscott Road, E9. Plastic was invented round the corner on Wallis Road. This was the birthplace of the technological revolution though, looking at the desolation around us, it had hardly reaped the rewards.
We are so used to shots of the nascent Olympic park that it’s easy to forget just how obscure this stretch of London was in 2005. The best way to get an idea of how the area looked was driving east on the A11, between Bow and Stratford. Once you got past the Bow interchange you looked to your left and, as far as you could see, there were armies of electricity pylons, towering over grubby waterways and barely breathing industrial estates.
Although the area was set for redevelopment, with or without the Olympics, it didn’t look like anyone was going to document the site for posterity – we were fortunate enough to get a film commission from the Barbican and started to shoot What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? in the summer of 2005. To make sense of the Lower Lea Valley’s confusing geography, we made it a drama-documentary that followed a boy’s paper-round, weaving around the various canals, channels, and gunged-up creeks, getting lost several times along the way. There were voice-overs from Linda Robson as his mother, and David Essex played his grandad. We also interviewed local residents and people who worked in the area. Opinions on the Olympics were split down the middle. Almost no one knew about the area’s industrial history.
Most days started at the Cosy Cafe on Waterden Road. It felt like everybody in there wore an orange jacket, except for us and the two women who ran it. There was a sun-faded picture of the young Blur on the wall. Outside were plastic tables and chairs and strange giant wooden flowers. The cafe itself was made out of an old metal container and the food was unbelievably cheap. There were bootleg DVDs on a spindle, with no artwork, sitting on the counter. This presumably is why Iain Sinclair likened the area to the wild west; filming on a weekend, when the only other people around were in slow-moving cars, eyeing up our camera equipment, also made it feel pretty lawless.
We found families of swans nesting in the rusting hulks of dumped cars, the remains of the Euston Arch – the Doric beauty trashed when the station was rebuilt in the 60s – thrown into an empty dock, and half-finished flyovers leading nowhere. We found Dominion Tiles, a vast warehouse loaded with stock that dated back to the 60s, not because it was vintage and collectable but simply because it had been sitting there for 40 years and no one had bought it. The only housing estate in the Lower Lea Valley was the 70s-built, clammy redbrick Clays Lane estate, down a service road and completely isolated from the rest of the area – it had its own shuttle bus to take residents to Stratford, and the nearest shops and tube station. In the whole Olympic site there were only two privately owned houses. Everywhere, there were pylons.
All of this is now gone. We scripted Mervyn Day before the Olympic decision – we knew that, either way, the area would be changed by the bid, but we could never have perceived quite how much. Neither of us had ventured back to the area until this year – to be honest, going to Hackney Wick every day for a month had sapped our interest in industrial wastelands a little – but it had always been our intention to make a sequel, updating the story, which we would call Seven Summers. A trip around the site in May this year was our first chance to see what had become of the former site of the Cosy Cafe, the Eton Manor Boys’ Club, and the headquarters of a company called, alarmingly, Retriever Meats.
Could I recognise any of it? Only if I really concentrated and thought back to what had been on each riverbank or canal side. Even the road network has disappeared without trace – Marshgate Lane and Carpenters Road are now stumpy dead ends, while Waterden Road – where the bus garage and greyhound stadium used to be – has gone completely. Was I impressed? Yes. A messy network of rubbish-strewn creeks and canals grown green and stagnant is now a vast new park based around waterways, a liquid link from Hackney Marshes almost as far the Thames. Dominion Tiles, which has relocated to Edmonton, is sweetly remembered by a large mosaic wall of tiles (not, sadly, from the warehouse, but you have to admire the sentiment).
What we couldn’t get across in the original film was the smell of the place. Centuries of industry based on the grim end-products of animal husbandry permeated the soil and the air: bone china, glue, soap, cooking fat, recycled cooking fat. It may have been the start point for 20th-century technology, a cauldron of ingenuity, but by 2005 its ignominious claim to fame is that the area had Europe’s highest incidence of TB. The Olympics will be over in a matter of days – the transformation of this wasteland into a park with a beautiful swimming pool, a new cycling complex, and (possibly) a new home for West Ham United is for decades to come. This is the legacy everyone has been talking about, and it delivers. The legacy no one has been talking about is the problem.
At he edge of the sithttp://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jun/13/london-2012-legacy-battle-newhame, south of the A11, Sugarhouse Lane – a long and winding dead-end of abandoned industrial buildings – has hardly changed at all. One old 60s building, which in 2005 looked more like wartime Sarajevo than peacetime London, has gone but little else has been done. According to Newham council, it’s set to become a new “urban quarter” in the style of Borough Market and Camden Market’s recent overhauls, with the now-familiar mix of high-end and affordable housing thrown in. At least it means there won’t be wholesale demolition of the chimneys and factories, but the notion of Camden Market’s recent soulless, chain-heavy gentrification as a blueprint for redevelopment gives me palpitations.
North of the A11, hemmed in by the Olympic park and Westfield, is the 1968-built Carpenters estate, a sizeable site of tower blocks, low-level flats, houses and neat green spaces, which in the last 10 years has gone from being an area of land worth next to nothing to a piece of prime property. There may have only been two privately owned homes in the entire Olympic park, one of which was condemned, but here we have a large functioning community and there’s nothing wrong with the housing stock. Looking up at Lund Point alone, and its full score of floors, you wonder how many people are about to lose their homes. Newham council’s mayor, Robin Wales, as previously reported in the Guardian by Dave Hill, fancies the idea of a University College London campus on this land. The people who live on the Carpenters estate have just suffered seven years of construction work on their doorstep; they deserve gold medals, but their reward is likely to be eviction with no guarantee they can stay in the area.
The biggest question mark for the Lower Lea Valley is the fate of the rest of the area stretching from the south of the Olympic site to the Thames. Much of it is now in public ownership. The now-defunct London Development Agency bought it with the intention of building 40,000 new homes between Custom House and Stratford stations, both of which will be connected to Crossrail in 2018. It was, and remains, the most attractive brownfield site in Europe; the housing will still be built and businesses will surely move to an area less than 30 minutes from Heathrow, but the key issue for people already living in the area is the amount of new housing that will be available for renting. The land has now passed from the LDA to the mayor’s office – Ken Livingstone, mayor of London at the time of the Olympic bid, claims “it would have been the start of municipal housing on a scale not seen since the 70s, but sadly that won’t be happening now.” Boris Johnson favours part-buy part-rent, something that will automatically exclude many poorer local residents.
Looking at the plans for Sugarhouse Lane, I wonder how much more of the area will be physically transformed, and also whether it will retain any of its history. The 2012 architects recently gave a talk at the LSE; all of them were at pains to point out how much the legacy of the Olympics had been an issue, and how the buildings in the park would all either be open to the community or recycled elsewhere. What no one even once referred to was the area’s history. It seems extraordinarily sad that this stretch of east London had been brutalised for hundreds of years in order to provide us with petrol and plastic – the tools of modern Britain – and there was nothing at all to remember this. The site on Hepscott Road, where petrol was first refined, still sits derelict, a shell of a building now used as a lorry depot on the edge of the Olympic park. You hope some enterprising soul will at least ensure that what remains of the building will be preserved rather than make way for another anonymous tower block.
This is the long tail of the Olympic bid, and though areas like Sugarhouse Lane may look attractively derelict right now, it won’t last. If the Carpenters estate does make way for UCL, which has no prior connection to Stratford, then you wonder how many other residents are going to be moved on, replaced by dream schemes designed to bring wealth to the area. This isn’t how it was meant to be – in 2005 the Olympics were set to be the core of regeneration for a blighted area, bringing new transport links to an isolated part of the capital, with new housing and new opportunities to follow. Listening to the excitable voices of local residents we interviewed for Mervyn Day, proud that the Olympics would be on their doorstep in seven years’ time, I feel a little uncomfortable.
What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? is available on DVD, price £17.99.
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