London E14 0JW
Thursday June 21 2018
Rather like last week’s suggestion, we had been tipped off about the gallery down at Leamouth by Victoria who reads our blog. We had arranged to meet at Canning Town Station, which the website indicated was the nearest transport link. Once we found each other – no mean feat at Canning Town – we exited in what we hoped was the right direction (Google maps indicated that there might be a problem: “Use caution–walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions”) looking for a footbridge.
We then found ourselves in Canning Town Bus station and on the third version of asking ‘How do we get to the island?’ were bailed out by a really helpful and knowledgeable cleaner. Not only did he unlock the Canning Town Bus station loos for us but showed us very clearly how to get onto the island. The loos have been renovated totally which might be why they keep them locked, but then the information point is not staffed either.
Back to the Canning Town Jubilee Exit and sure enough there is a long flight of stairs and a lift up to where a new metal footbridge joins the ‘island’ formed by a huge curve of the River Lea as it empties into the Thames. Google Earth still showed a building site but I would say the work is 60% completed. Whether the completed works include social housing is not clear. The developers Ballymore had provided a boardwalk round the edge of the island but in fact the central access route was already open and landscaped with waving grasses and birch trees. Some of the homes are occupied but as yet few shops – we passed a very modern commercial gallery clearly providing art work for the new blank walls of people’s flats. As yet no sign of any major roads…
Where the City Island development ends you pass under the Lower Lea Crossing and then onto the tip of the peninsula (for that is what the ‘island’ really is). Here are the buildings which were once part of a bustling maritime past – many large warehouses and shipyards with adjacent services mostly now re-purposed for uses such as a brewery or storage for the ENO. Several of the eponymous buoys remain steadfast amongst the older buildings and right down by the riverside tied up was an excellent lightship next to London’s only lighthouse – quite a small one as it happens. The plan, which we only found as we were leaving, indicates that you can visit the lighthouse at the weekend.
What was open was a small hut, described as London’s smallest museum, namely a re-creation of Michael Faraday’s working office. Now we had been underwhelmed by the Museum in his name at the Royal Institution, which we had visited over a year ago. What was the great man doing down here you might ask? Well, as we understand it, given his well-known work with electricity and magnetos, those early things which kept light and eventually machinery going, the Trinity House invited him to come down here to do research on their behalf. Cue an explanation of the role of Trinity House: first given a charter by Henry VIII, they were and are responsible for the lighthouses, buoys and other aids for ‘the better navigation of the coasts of England’. We were impressed that there was an Electricians’ Workshop here from as early as 1835 . Faraday himself was employed to do research for them from 1831-65. Whether his post here was full time or not is unclear but we enjoyed his little office cum research station complete with a sea pebbled floor and fishing floats. The desk has some experiments and notebooks set out and looks both atmospheric and interesting so imagine our dismay when we noted that some previous visitors had abandoned a pizza box and two McDonalds cups on ‘his desk’. We did not consider these suitable historical artefacts, and some ‘vapers’ from a nearby office removed them for us.
The area had also been used for building ships, the last ones in 1900, and the Blackwall Railway came here from Fenchurch Street. With the expansion of heavy industry, and thus employment in the area, eventually the working population had both a little time and money for leisure and trips to the seaside, by ship. We wondered if there might be plans to have small boats encircle the peninsula.
Where there are hoardings these are generously adorned with Information and education boards and one of the older buildings has been taken over as a private school, named for Michael Faraday as it happens. Others are working artists’ studios – we poked our noses into one and were welcomed by the artist but we did not like to interrupt creativity… The site is also dotted with other art works. The metal steps up to one building had been designed to reflect the area’s history. Another appealing artwork was the outline of the River - always a joy – done in the names of boats the artist had collected..
The current main road is called Orchard Place , which felt a little anomalous in such a built up area but Jo spotted a board which I had obviously missed which explained that due to the rich nature of the muddy deposits there had indeed been orchards here!
Apart from the creatives in their studio spaces and many contractors we seemed to be the only visitors. Our original aim had been to visit ‘The Gallery’ which we failed to find down among the cobbles and bollards but serendipitously we really enjoyed exploring an area so keen to show its heritage.
As it happened we realised the gallery was in fact the modern commercial one we had passed on our way down, but a glance through its glass plate windows was enough to speed us on our return walk .
The cafes looked appetising and people were enjoying the sunshine (and food) and we could see that given time this forgotten bit of riverside London could become what Camden Lock and Stables had once been before being taken over by the assorted youth of Europe after cheap thrills. But with luck they may be able to retain the essence and spirit of the original area.