Nestled amongst the Bow Back Rivers, Pudding Mill Lane provides a nostalgic view of East London’s past and a worrying look at its future.
Clearly enjoying the Borough’s delights too much, I decided to head back to Newham for the second consecutive week to discover the wonders of Pudding Mill Lane. First impressions were not great: the station is surrounded by construction work; a vast complex of building sites. I know East London is going through a transformation, but this did seem to take the piss. Luckily, we know not to be dissuaded by first impressions.
With Pudding Mill Lane sitting directly south of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in between Stratford and Bow, one of the first non-construction buildings I saw was the ArcelorMittal Orbit. 114-metres tall and resembling a strand of DNA, I’m surprised its owners didn’t follow the almost mandatory trend of naming a new tower after its shape – something like the Helter Skelter or the Genome. Then again, ArcelorMittal Orbit is pretty catchy, so fair enough.
Despite its prominence, I didn’t feel like heading to the Olympic Park straightaway. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think, given its newness, I felt it shouldn’t be my first taste of Pudding Mill Lane. Instead I walked south and after seeing a sign to Three Mills Island, I knew I had my first destination.
My route to the Island was indicative of what was to come: I passed the Print House – a trendy-looking, riverside gastropub – and a 40-metre-high Olympic Torch as I strolled down the Three Mills Wall River – one of the Bow Back Rivers that carve through this area of East London.
Walking onto the Island, you are first graced with Three Mills Green, a compact oasis of grass that is home to one of the more bizarre statues I’ve seen. We British like a commemorative statue. Usually we erect these sculptures in homage to some prodigious statesman or indomitable general. Occasionally we give a nod to a composer or writer. Always, though, a person of historical significance. This statue did not fit that mould. It featured a smartphone – in fact, a man wearing a Puffa gilet, with one hand in his pocket and the other holding a smartphone. Why? I’ve no idea. Nor did the person I asked nearby, who merely allowed his dog to bark at my questions, while he himself stayed mute.
Walking round the Green, I came to the Three Mills Lock, which gave me a clear view of the Bromley-by-Bow Gasholder station – a set of seven Grade II listed Victorian gas holders. Despite my love of these cavernous examples of 19th century industrialisation, I decided to head round to an older, even greater-listed example: the House Mill.
Part of the Three Mills that give the island its name, the House Mill is the largest surviving Tidal Mill in the world. Although this version was built in 1776, there has been a mill on this site since before the publication of the Domesday Book, some 700 years previous. The Mill may not currently be harnessing the power of the surrounding rivers, but it does operate tours on Saturdays and “hosts a rolling programme of artists and designers throughout the year”. It also has a café, which was closed. Well, for me anyway. Jay Rayner – the Guardian Restaurant critic – was standing outside the Mill with film crew in tow and I suspect they might have made an exception for him. Bloody journalists eh.
Three Mills Island is the epicentre of the Bow Back Rivers – a set of interconnected waterways that would have been the Spaghetti Junction for barges in its heyday. The amount of traffic might have reduced over the years, but the rivers are still home to several barges and narrowboats, as well as fishing clubs, bars and galleries. Their role may have changed, but the canals’ contribution to the local economy remains plain to see. Meanwhile, these strips of water, guarded by buildings on either side, have become a mecca for graffiti artists. Every building and pathway is a canvass. Even the barges are fair game.
Heading north, you can instantly tell when you are getting closer to Hackney Wick due to the gradual proliferation of canal front bars and street food stalls. One of them – Number 90 – advertised a £5 weekday lunch offer and so I decided to pop in. I’m very glad I did. Decked out with a large open-kitchen, an expansive riverside terrace, an art gallery and a DJ booth, Number 90 was clearly more than just your average drinking hole. As I order the lunch offer – a homemade, hearty chicken and bacon carbonara – and a pint of Shedhead American Pale Ale (£5), I’m told that the spacious venue has an events programme that covers the whole culture spectrum: music to film, theatre to art, debates to comedy. Definitely worth a visit.
However, leaving Number 90 and crossing over the river toward the Olympic Park was a critical juncture in my day. Passing in between the Copper Box Arena (London’s ‘newest and most exciting’ multi-sport venue) and Here East (the ‘biggest Tech Innovation Centre in Europe’), the character of the area changes from quirky and local to vast and corporate; the Olympic Park is shamelessly purpose-built. I appreciate the Park was actually built for a purpose – and the legacy of that purpose is impossible to mask – but the area has as much charisma as concrete. All the benches are exactly the same. The walkways are wide, empty and lined with branded flags. The velodrome, the aquatics centre and the London Stadium are ghostly. I’m sure they were vibrant in 2012, but now they appear lifeless.
I tried to make light of it by walking through the Park’s Wetlands, but the only ‘nature’ I encountered was two swans and a gaggle of Canada geese; animals that are omnipresent in London parks. It is fair to say that my mood was a little dampened, not least because a worrying conversation I’d had in Number 90 – about new developments gradually ruining the atmosphere of the place – was becoming more accurate by the minute.
Stratford is emblematic of this phenomenon. The place is going through a metamorphic transformation – hence the explosion of building sites – but this rejuvenation is clearly coming at a cost. It seems telling that the Pudding Mill River, which gave my station its name, was infilled in 2007 so that the Olympic Stadium could be built on top of it.
My mood clearly translated into my (lack of) friendliness, as I then asked a fellow park-goer a particularly loaded question: ‘Are there any parts of Stratford that aren’t either related to the Olympics, a building site or a block of new flats?’
“Westfield”, she replied.
Ah yes, Westfield. Synonymous with soulless; culture’s kryptonite. This gigantic tribute to commercialisation taints the whole area with its lack of originality; its aversion to charm. I’ll admit, I’ve never been to a Westfield before and my views on them may be a little skewed as I loathe both shopping and people, but I’m struggling to think of a better metaphor for a place having no soul than having a Westfield as its heart. Functionality is not the be all and end all.
I normally finish off the day in some sort of pub or café, but as I was getting a train to Essex from Stratford I decided to pick up a tin of M&S Belgian Lager instead (£1.60). Contemplating the day, I came to a similar conclusion to my other Newham trip: the area is a game of two halves. On the one hand, Pudding Mill Lane is an advert for East London – a way to explore its industrial past and its cultural present – while on the other, it is a worrying insight into its future.
Time: 4 hours