Much time had passed since I’d done any new exploring in London. Things had kept my fleeting lunchtime excursions to well-known routes, and the problem with the familiar is that it can become harder and harder to pay the proper attention to. In my work’s numbing environment my senses were being withdrawn from the world, becoming a bundle of lazy impressions. I had to get out of the dead air of the office and look again at the city in which I spent so much time. But there is something to be said for gazing dully at the Google satellite view of Tower Hamlets and Newham during the dead time after new year.
I realised that a riverside path ran all the way from near Pudding Mill Lane to – whatever DLR station I could get to in the time available. I sidled away from my desk when the opportunity arose and rattled up to the cavernous void of Pudding Mill Lane DLR station.
It always takes me a few minutes to find my direction in those parts of London where buildings are being thrown up from what on imperial maps would be considered “virgin territory”. But soon I was crossing the Bow Back River, which was a grey mirror to the sheer concrete of its banks, the sky, and the windows of the new apartment blocks. If you looked hard into the smooth surface of the river, or into the glass, you might be able to spot a flicker of a reflection of a buddleia or a coot.
The Bow Back (as marked on my elderly A to Z) is just one of a confusing tangle of rivers in these parts. I’ve never walked far along it but have done so enough to get a sense of morbidity from its right-angled sides, the untended faces or warehouses and the echo of my footsteps in the hard channel made for it. Nor did my route take me that way on that occasion either, though I must find the chance soon.
This time I was heading for the Three Mills River, which, perpendicular to this part of the Bow Back, headed south. I stepped down onto the towpath, leaving the fumes of Stratford High Street spiralling up onto the cloud. A slick of water running from the verge on my left passed under my feet, and on the right I could look out across the water to the vast construction site of East London. A few older buildings persist, the Victorian flourishes around their windows giving them a vulnerable air, as though peering through a fence at the spoil heaps and sky-scraping cranes that have occupied the land right up to the river’s edge.
The river itself was a narrow band between two shelves of silt. The concrete revetments were showing their stains and accumulated debris, and the waterfowl, seeing that the tide was out all along the Thames system, had gathered on the exposed riverbed. Most of the geese were in a reverie, necks doubled back on themselves. A few mallards drifted idly, and gulls paced backwards and forwards as if carrying the souls of the foremen who oversaw the work gangs last time this place was being transformed.
On a map, it looks as though the River Lea has become bewildered on its way down to the Thames, throwing out limbs among the roads and buildings to feel its way through. These meanders had been worked since mediaeval times, with mills and transport up and down their lengths. But in the 1930s a combination of neglect of the channels and high unemployment in the area prompted a major refurbishment, with thousands of men shoring up the banks and lining them with concrete. It’s a measure of the change since then that now in summer these waterways can be soup-thick with duckweed, a sign of still, stagnating water.
The long fence running – with splits and gaps, hawthorn trees and bramble knots – along the backs of the gardens to the left abruptly gave way to a park where a bearded jogger lurched heavily through the fittings of a playground. Industry (construction) ground on to my right, money being hammered into the silty topsoil. The birds continued to wait.
I followed the line of the river until, swinging right, I was among the Mills. The buildings string across the river either side of a broad stone-laid way. The facades are all lived-in, as they should be, being sixteenth to eighteenth century and built for work.
A TV studio owns part of the complex, and the rest has been converted into offices. Some have modern backs holding up the front – a very London version of the proverbial Wild West film set. This impression was reinforced when I looked back from the towpath heading south again, and saw the concrete and steel propping up the whole construction over the river channel. Heritage as an engineering project.
The tunnels under the buildings were open channels whose tongues – the low water – lolled sluggishly below me. There again the birds had gathered. Most faced the water, and most of these seemed to be asleep on the glistening mud. I watched them from the narrow strip of ground between the Three Mills River and the narrowboat-lined main stream of the River Lea.
As I watched, a kingfisher streaked out from somewhere in the tunnel. Its blue was spark-bright against the wintry backdrop. I turned to follow it, but it swerved along another channel, banking to show the orange breast.
I went my walking way, eyes settling again for the grey-green: grass underfoot, water on either side, buildings, sky. The island I was on narrowed and narrowed. Where it ended, water rolled by, its brown dullness scattered over by light that seemed carried by the wind.
There would have been an end to my walk, except for a bridge that looked exactly its age. It was a long, thin animal as interpreted by an Art Deco-influenced imagination. Born 1930s. Its hooves were deep in the water. I hurried over it, and down onto a series of duckboards at water level, where I could smell the river’s metallic tang, and look the moorhens in the eye. I like to be in proximity to the water, feel the unsteadiness of the boards. It’s close to being able to skim the smooth surface myself, kingfisher quick, with no fixed destination.
I like it less when I see the ramp ahead that will raise me from water level and lead me back among houses, on the route to Langdon Park, the DLR and the office afternoon.