From the deepest ends of the EastEnd we bring you the best bits and bites from the Royal Victoria neighbourhood and around the ExCel conference centre in today’s blog. As you move East past Canary Wharf on Aspen Way you will notice the landscape around you taking on a slightly rougher look.
As you whizz past Billingsgate fish market (the biggest inland fish market in the UK) you might begin to pick up some Estuarial dialect and Cockney rhyming slang from the locals. But you have to get up early if you want to see the trade here, as the core operating hours of the notorious market are 5am to 8am. If you wish to visit this amazing historic part of London’s history that is steeped in tradition, you may want to call Billingsgate in advance to make arrangements.
Not too far from the market you will find the striking ventilation towers as well as the entrances to the Blackwall tunnel. A seasoned Londoner might associate nothing with Blackwall but the early morning queues of frustrated commuters hoping to get to work on time but the twin tunnels contain plenty of compelling London history even predating their own existence, from the Black Death to the TV reality show “Big Brother”. If only these tunnel walls could talk…
But there is no need to cross the tunnels, as we’re staying on the north side of the river only, at least for today. A little further east you will get past the East India Dock Basin, which still reflects a lot of industrial charm as well as some roughneck landscaping, but is gradually being gentrified into a continuum of a residential area starting at Blackwall and stretching far into the East End. To your left you will discover the bends and turns of the River Lea, which joins the River Thames just as we approach Royal Victoria Docks. If you follow the River Lea upstream you will get to the Olympic village in Stratford eventually, which is why security is being currently introduced to the this little stream that really resembles a creek rather than a river.
But this neighbourhood features some awkward gems in their own right. Redeveloped as a residential hub for East London, there are plenty of water sports activities and international cuisine available around the beautiful tidal basin, which also serves as the approach for the landing strip of nearby London City Airport. There’s always a buzz in this area, sometimes quite literally.
As you enter the basin, you will be greeted by the boarding station for the Emirates Air Line, the most expensive cable car system in the world. This recent addition to the London transport network links Royal Victoria to the O2 arena in North Greenwich via cable cars across the River Thames. It is the first urban cable car in the United Kingdom, offering some of the most spectacular views of the city, especially of Canary Wharf. It is also the first feature on the London Transport network that is sponsored by a private company, Emirates Airlines; voila: a bit of Dubai in East London.
But the Emirates Air Line cable car is not the only Middle Eastern feature in this area: as you walk further east along the northern side of the dock, you will not be able to miss the ExCel Centre, owned by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company; any more Arabian influences and you will be belly-dancing.
ExCel is East London’s first and foremost exhibition and conference centre, and has attracted notable events in its ten-year-history, from the London Boat Show to the 2012 Olympics, from auditions to well-known TV talent shows to the G20 summit. In fact, the ExCel Centre might even be the reason why you might be coming to this part of London on your next trip. If you stand in front of the main entrance to ExCel, you can either turn left to explore a number of culinary options and countless hotels or turn right to cross the Tidal Basin using a crafty bridge that connects pedestrians from either side of the waterfront. Be careful though with opening times, as the bridge is closed after evening hours, forcing pedestrians to walk 25 minutes around the basin after dark. It’s a waste of time unless you have a hyperactive doggie in tow.
As you approach the south side of the basin you will notice a derelict factory building to your left, Millennium Mills. This derelict, ten storey flour mill construction has served as a film set to numerous productions over the years but is currently facing an uncertain future, caught in a battle between asbestos poisoning and its grade-II listing status as a historic landmark. Graffiti artists can get permits to use the exterior of the building as a canvas for their projects, which might make this location more interesting to you if you happen to be interested in street art. Just looking at this strange edifice conjures up images of a dystopian future mixed with dreams of a utopian past rooted in the industrial revolution.
But the smoking chimneys behind Millennium Mills propel visitors to the area back to the present as a sweet smell begins to fill the air. Even the engines of the planes landing and taking off at the adjacent City Airport seem to carry a distinct nectar on their wings that is difficult to describe and yet so typical of the neighbourhood. This is the scent of the nearby Tate and Lyle sugar plant, where nearly all of Britain gets its household name sugar from. The fully functional factory is met by its sister company, Tate and Lyle syrup, about one mile further east, which is even more expansive in terrain and sweeter in nostril-numbing scent. But neither of these plants, nor the neighbouring airport, nor the recently opened cable car system provide a match for the engineering feat that is the nearby Thames Barrier.
A short walk south to the riverbed and you will be staring right at it: the floodgates of London. Surrounded by beautiful gardens as you approach the River Thames, the Thames Barrier is London’s ultimate safeguard for “the worst case scenario”: it is the second largest movable flood barrier in the world. With the waters of the River Thames being extremely tidal and subject to flooding due to several man-made embankments further upriver, it is a necessity for London to have a protection system in place if nature should conspire against 8 million Londoners.
Rather remarkably, the Thames Barrier is also a beauty to just observe quietly as the majestic gates are pulled up in order to close London’s flow of water off from the rest of the world. The barriers were just recently employed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant to enable small river vessels to cruise more smoothly through the ebbs and flows of the Thames water. The structure is designed to at least last until 2030 but plans to overhaul London’s susceptibility to flooding is already a hot topic among politicians now, with plans to build a bigger and better barrier system further east (where the River Thames meets the North Sea) slowly turning into the next hot topic in parliament.
But this is as far “east” as you need to go on our exploration of East London; this boundary is set just before the rest of industry starts caving in around Dagenham and Dartford. A little further east the plains of Essex and the gardens of Kent will begin to hug the shores of the estuary of the River Thames on either side, without any sign of danger signalled by this body of water that has become so synonymous with London itself. No one knows what the river will bring on any given day but as seasoned Brits, we sit and wait (possibly in an orderly queue) and drink tea until a dawn appears.