Monday 6 November 2023

Capital Ring 14/15: Hackney Wick - Beckton Park - Woolwich


Halls of residence at the University of East London campus on Royal Albert Dock.

The Capital Ring concludes with an easy stroll through low-lying former marshlands, around the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the River Lee Navigation towpath and the Greenway, a footpath and cycleway along the top of the Northern Outfall Sewer which continues to East Ham – a more pleasant experience than it sounds. A thread of green spaces among the 1980s developments of Beckton leads south to the Royal Docks, where the trail rejoins the river Thames at Gallions Reach for a final riverside section across the docks’ lock gates and through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel to complete the circuit, with the nearby alternative of the Woolwich Free Ferry.

This post covers two consecutive official Ring sections combined to create a day walk. One ends and the other begins at former railway line the Beckton Corridor in Beckton Park, near Royal Albert DLR station. Otherwise, this is one of the best-connected sections of the trail, passing three other DLR stations and numerous bus stops, with easy links to one of London’s busiest transport interchanges at Stratford, two other Tube and National Rail stations and three boat piers. It even passes within walking distance of an international airport. Note that at the time of writing, redevelopment works are disrupting parts of the riverside path at the end, as explained below.

Stratford Marsh and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

View south from Carpenters Bridge along the Hackney Cut with London Stadium and Orbit sculpture.

As we’ve seen in the previous section, large areas of marshland once stretched across the broad, flat valley carved by the river Lea. As we’ll discover in these last two sections of the Capital Ring, these marshes continued south to merge with the equally damp and even broader margins of the Lea’s parent, the Thames. The first former marshland area we pass is Stratford Marsh, which for millennia challenged travellers heading east out of London. In Roman times it already straddled a major route, later known as the Great Road, part of Inter V, which linked two of Britain’s most important cities at the time, London and Colchester (Camulodunum), formerly a major Celtic settlement and the first capital of the province before this function was transferred to London around 61 CE.

It’s long been assumed that the Great Road always forded the Lea on the line of a pre-Roman crossing at what we now know as Old Ford, which we’ll reach shortly, but excavations in 2003 unearthed Roman timber structures that suggested the crossing may at some point have been a wooden bridge or causeway to the north. It had clearly reverted to a ford by 1067 when the name Strætforda is first recorded, meaning ‘ford on the street’, with ‘street’ in its original sense of a surfaced highway, often applied to Roman roads.

In 1110, so the story goes, Matilda of Scotland (1080-1118), first wife of monarch Henry I, fell into the river while struggling across the ford on her way to Barking Abbey. The experience prompted her to command the construction of a more secure route with a bridge and causeway a little south of the existing one. It’s sometimes claimed the bridge, which included a chapel to St Katherine, was the first stone bridge built in Britain: certainly, stone was then a highly unusual building material for bridges, which were more typically wooden. The structure had a pronounced arched profile which prompted the name Bow Bridge, and the area immediately to the west of it became known as Stratford-at-Bow, Stratford-le-Bow or simply Stratford Bow, later shortened to Bow.

Back then, this area was part of the large parish and manor of Stepney, among the extensive holdings of the bishops of London in the Ossulstone hundred of Middlesex. As the East End grew, Stepney, which became part of the Tower Division of Ossulstone in the 17th century, was also subdivided. Stratford Bow became a separate parish in 1719, with a chapel of ease a little west of our route upgraded to the parish church of St Mary’s (not to be confused with St Mary-le-Bow church on Cheapside in the City, the one that reputedly defines true Cockneys as those born within earshot of its bells). Old Ford, the area immediately west of the ford and bridge in the northern part of Bow, was likely a separate manor by 1380, held by one William Badby: it subsequently passed through many different hands.

The name Stratford was also applied to the eastern, Essex side of the river, with which it’s exclusively associated today. In the 10th century this was also part of a much larger parish: Ham, or Hamme, meaning a dry area surrounded by marshes, in the hundred of Becontree. Exactly when this was divided into West Ham, including Stratford, and East Ham is uncertain but there’s evidence of the split from 1037. The Essex Stratford became known as Stratford Ham or Stratford Langthorne, the latter after a nearby abbey, of which much more shortly.

The river itself, and the marsh that occupied the land between it and the abbey and, later, the town, were long the subjects of human intervention. For centuries the marsh, like those along the previous section, was managed as ‘lammas land’, used for the private cultivation of hay and grain in the warmer months and for common grazing in the cooler seasons, with various ditches and other artificial features added to improve drainage.

The first major alteration to the Lea’s natural course was likely around 894, when the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great (c849-899), ordered the cutting of a new channel to lower the water level of the main stream, grounding several Danish longships which had sailed further upriver intent on expanding Danish rule in the region beyond its established western boundary at the Lea. Monks from the abbey then further remodelled the waterways, improving drainage and transport and creating races to power mills. The result was the complex skein of channels known today as the Bow Back Rivers, all of them splitting from and rejoining the Lea.

The presence of mills signalled a future industrial function for an area that, although always comparatively well-connected by both river and road, was too damp for extensive housebuilding. During the 19th century, much of the marshland was lost to industries attracted by plentiful water and easy connections to central London, the Thames and the docks. The Metropolitan Building Act of 1844 banned the most noxious and dangerous industries from operating in the metropolitan area, west of the Lea, after which ‘factory after factory was erected on the marshy wastes of Stratford and Plaistow’, as The Times put it in 1886. ‘The banks of the Bow Back Rivers were the site of dozens of factories, including gasworks, soapworks, chemical plants, an important drug manufacturer, paint and dye factories and a wide range of other industrial sites’, writes historian Jim Clifford.

Much of this industry went into decline in the 20th century, particularly following the closure of the docks in the late 1960s when decreased incomes reduced local demand and the area’s convenience for international trade was lost. At the dawn of the 21st century, Stratford was recognised as one of the most deprived areas of London and the UK, with a densely packed population on low incomes, many of them unemployed. So when in 2003 the UK government and Mayor of London put the capital forward as potential host of the 2012 summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, Stratford Marsh was top of the list as the site of the main Olympic park with the suggestion that this would spur a much-needed regeneration.

In 2005, London just pipped Paris to become the first city to host the Games three times: previous Olympiads were in 1908 and 1948 and we’ve already passed a couple of their venues. But while the 1948 event, staged in the challenging economic context of the immediate aftermath of World War II, was known as the ‘austerity games’, with no new buildings, its successor triggered one of Britain’s biggest ever regeneration and redevelopment projects. Not all the events took place here – some were elsewhere in London and in other parts of the UK – but the marshes became home to the flagship stadium, several other major venues and the athletes’ village. As always, games organisers the International Olympic Committee (IOC) required the hosts to foot the bill for meeting its extremely exacting requirements: the final cost to taxpayers was around £9.3 billion, well over twice the original estimate of £4 billion.

London 2012 was touted as the most sustainable Olympics yet, not just in terms of building design and construction practices but because the legacy was carefully planned in. The IOC was increasingly sensitive to criticism of demands for costly infrastructure which was then either removed or failed to find sufficient future use. Several previous host cities were littered with decaying white elephants marooned in desolate wastelands, like the Stade Olympique built in Montréal for the 1976 games which took 30 years to repay its cost and remains underused today while requiring expensive maintenance. London, we were promised, would be different, with the Olympic Park subsequently transforming into a vibrant new neighbourhood almost 3 square km in extent, packed with high-quality green space, affordable housing and business and employment opportunities.

The organisers and supporters of London 2012 regularly described the site rather misleadingly as ‘underdeveloped’ and derelict, a blank slate of little use. In truth, it had not long before been one of the most intensely developed parts of London, and though it was undoubtedly in decline, badly polluted, unattractive and with poor access, it was still home to around 135 businesses which were displaced. 450 housing association flats were lost, many of them home to very poor and vulnerable tenants. Wildlife in the remaining fragments of marsh also had to be moved, including 4,000 smooth newts and various other amphibians and fish.

The games were also justified as a way of promoting and encouraging physical activity, the low levels of which were increasingly seen by the early 2000s as a serious public health challenge generating significant cost to the NHS and the wider economy. The event would ‘inspire a generation’, with a target to get a million more people to play more sport. But there’s no hard evidence that major sporting events increase public participation: indeed, by focusing on the extraordinary achievements of elite athletes, they can even make active lifestyles seem less rather than more accessible, particularly to the most sedentary people who could most benefit from becoming a little more active. It’s no surprise that, over a decade on, there’s little to suggest this aspiration was met.

More promising was the commitment to active travel. I was working full-time for the Ramblers in the years before the event and sat on the Olympic Delivery Authority’s Active Travel Advisory Group. This was a mixed experience: the focus of the group was to encourage spectators to walk or cycle to events and provide infrastructure to facilitate this, as there was to be no public vehicle access, but the walking and cycling charities argued that there were also opportunities to further the public health ambitions through promoting the most accessible forms of everyday physical activity more generally.

We made some headway, though the promotional activities were limited and left to the last moment. And there was always the contradiction that, while for spectators this was to be a car-free games, Transport for London (TfL) had to meet the IOC’s demands for officials and athletes to be whisked around by car at high speeds, even if that meant temporarily removing pedestrian crossings and cycle lanes. All the same, some of the 2012 work remains useful today, including improvements to the paths the Ring follows alongside the Lee Navigation and the Greenway in this and the last section.

Then there was the disruption of the build and of the events themselves, and the security measures necessary. For several years, most of the paths the Ring follows round the edge of the park were closed for construction. Some of them were reopened but only with armed police patrols, then closed again during ‘games time’ as part of the security cordon. But bumping into a copper with a machine gun on the towpath is rather less distressing than the experience of residents who discovered surface-to-air missiles were being installed on the roofs of their flat blocks to defend against possible terrorist attack from the air.

As a sporting event, London 2012 was regarded as a great success, with over two million people attending and 38 new world records set. Mo Farah won his double golds in the 5,000 and 10,000 m and the only notable disaster, perhaps predictably, was then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson getting stuck 20 m in the air on a zipwire in Victoria Park, an enduring image of his frankly confounding political career. 70,000 volunteers were mobilised as ‘games makers’ who assisted during the event, and the ones I’ve spoken to found it a joyful and fulfilling experience. For a while, the capital seemed to become a friendlier place.

The aspiration to secure a sustainable legacy for the purpose-built venues seems to have been largely achieved, in the Olympic Park at least. The site passed to a quango, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), and the extensive green space and permanent venues were fully opened to the public by April 2014, renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to mark the queen’s diamond jubilee, also in 2012. The athletes’ village on the east side was, as planned, redeveloped as housing and several more mixed residential developments have followed.

Ultimately there will be homes for 8,000 people within the park boundaries, though the extent to which this housing is ‘affordable’ is debatable – most of it is well beyond the means of the deprived people the development was supposed to help, and the improved facilities have themselves driven up property prices locally. The LLDC has its own planning powers and has overseen redevelopment, though these powers are set to return to the local authorities during the 2020s and the parkland will eventually become part of the Lee Valley Park.

The Ring only scrapes the edge of the park, but it’s worth further exploration. There’s lots to see, from wild areas and wetlands to spectacular formal plantings, most recently joined by a ‘blossom garden’ to commemorate the victims of the 2020-21 Covid-19 pandemic. The cleaned-up Bow Back Rivers are to my mind one of the most fascinating attractions, providing pleasant walking routes and linking both the wildest and the most built-up parts of the space. But there are also places where the patchwork doesn’t quite hang together and several wide roads, regarded as essential during games time but now out of scale to their current levels of use and adding an unfinished, unwelcoming feel to their surrounds. Hopefully some of these will be reclaimed over time.

Old Ford

Old Ford Lock, Fish Island on right.

One of those overlarge roads is Carpenters Road, which crosses the River Lee Navigation on the Carpenters Road Bridge (no 11) on the Tower Hamlets side of Hackney Wick, heading east into the park. The towpath below the bridge here is the starting point of Ring 14, also part of the Lea Valley Walk, and I’ve already mentioned some of the surrounding features at the end of the last section: the Sweetwater development site to the left, on land once occupied by an East London Water Company reservoir; the Hertford Union canal heading off right towards Victoria Park and Mile End. The waterway here is still the Hackney Cut, a little west of the Lea’s natural course, so both sides fall under Tower Hamlets and former Middlesex.

The next bridge south, Monier Bridge (H14), lands on the far side of the canal in a triangular-shaped neighbourhood known as Fish Island. This is not actually an island as it’s surrounded on only two sides by water – the Hertford Union to the north and the Hackney Cut to the east – but its third, western, side is well-defined by Wick Lane and the Northern Outfall Sewer, of which more shortly. From the mid-1850s, products like oil, coal tar, ink and rubber were processed on waterside sites here.

In 1865 the Gas Light and Coke Company bought a plot of disused railway land as a potential gasworks, but this was never built: instead, the company developed a ’factory town’ where noxious industries crammed up against poor quality homes for their workers. The picturesque name is nothing to do with the aquatic inhabitants of the adjacent waterways but followed from the fanciful decision to name the newly built streets after freshwater fish while facilitating the poisoning of their habitats: Bream Street, Dace Road, Roach Road. Factories gave way to light industry and partial dereliction following World War II. Then, like the neighbouring northern part of Hackney Wick, the area became an artists’ hangout and, following the success of the Olympic bid, an increasingly trendy and expensive place to live. Part of it is now a conservation area.

Forner crane location on the towpath of the River Lee Navigation at Sweetwater.

Just past the bridge, a patch of cobbles striated with rails underfoot indicates a location once occupied by a canalside crane: there are several others further along. Both Monier Bridge and the next one, Stour Bridge, are new, designed to improve connectivity as the area is redeveloped. Monier Bridge was originally a more modest footbridge opened in 2014, but in 2020 it was closed and replaced by the current structure as the LLDC wanted a new route for buses to Sweetwater, though currently it’s still only open to walkers and cyclists. Stour Bridge was installed with a similar purpose a little earlier in 2020: it lands right beside the rather grand pink building Forman’s salmon smokery managed to wrest out of the Olympic agency when it became the most celebrated business forced to move from Stratford Marshes.

Next, on our side of the canal, you pass the Bobby Moore Academy, opened in 2017 as a primary school on the academy model, with an emphasis on sport: it’s named after the footballer Bobby Moore (1941-93), a West Ham United defender who captained the victorious England team at the 1966 World Cup. The link to West Ham is a rather closer one than geographical proximity to its home district, as we’ll soon see. The school is partly built over the former East London Waterworks reservoir, which once stretched a long way down this side of the Hackney Cut.

Just past the academy is a fence affording glimpses of a red brick house surrounded by trees, originally three terraced cottages built in 1947 and designated Old Ford Lock Cottages 1-3. Following decades of dereliction, in 1992 they were knocked into a single house and refurbished as the location for calculatedly irreverent Channel 4 breakfast TV show The Big Breakfast. Its isolation in an otherwise dense urban area was ideal for such purposes, its inaccessibility less so. After the show was axed in 2002 the house was sold to a private occupant, then sold again in 2022 at a hefty price of £6 million, but is still known locally as the Big Breakfast House.

The cottages were originally built to house staff supervising Old Ford Lock (no 19), now in front of you, after earlier accommodation was badly damaged in World War II bombing. The lock itself was opened with the Hackney Cut in 1769 but has been rebuilt several times since, most recently in 1935. For most of its history, it was a tidal lock: the tidal limit of the Lea was Hackney Wick until 2000 when the Bow Locks further downstream were remodelled to prevent tides washing silt into the navigation.

The Hackney Cut ends just past the lock, where the Navigation rejoins the Old River Lee flowing in from the left, the first time we’ve seen it since Lea Bridge. The towpath crosses it on a footbridge which takes the Ring from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to the London Borough of Newham, its final borough. But we’ve not yet entered historic Essex: the old parish and county boundary followed a still-older course of the waterway a little further east.

Between here and the bridge ahead, on the opposite bank, are two notable sites. First is Swan Wharf, built by a haulage company in the early 20th century. A 2010s community campaign saved the imposing industrial building with its overhanging framework when it was slated to be demolished for housing, and it’s now used as artists’ studios and an events venue. Development did proceed next door at Crown Wharf, the original home of Crown wallpaper, but at least opened a window for the archaeological dig that revealed possible remnants of a Roman bridge and causeway.

The bridge ahead carries the Greenway, which parallels the Northern Outfall Sewer, thus the thick steel pipes that cross the river. We join the alignment of the sewer almost immediately after passing under it, up a ramp from a path junction known as the Greenway Turn. It’s an appropriate point to take our leave of the river Lea and the Lea Valley Path, as this is more-or-less the site where Matilda took an unintentional swim, though there’s no visible evidence of the ford today.

Signing at the Greenway Turn, more-or-less on the site of the Old Ford.

The Greenway

The Greenway, a more salubrious name than the Sewer Bank.

For most of London’s history, the city’s rivers were also its sewers. As their capacity to wash effluent cleanly away was stretched by the growing population, they began to turn into noxious health hazards. The simplest solution was to cover them over, the fate of nearly all the Thames tributaries in the central area: out of sight, out of mind, and most importantly out of range of human olfaction. Artificial sewers were constructed haphazardly from the mid-18th century, but these also drained into the river system and eventually into the Thames, and even this large river’s capacity to absorb sewage was eventually stretched following the adoption of flush toilets from the later 18th century, continued population growth and new sources of liquid waste from burgeoning industries. In his novel Little Dorrit, written in 1855 but set in the 1820s, Charles Dickens relates his character Arthur Clennam’s impressions of London thus:

Miles of close wells and pits of houses, where the inhabitants gasped for air, stretched far away towards every point of the compass. Through the heart of the town a deadly sewer ebbed and flowed, in the place of a fine fresh river.

The consequences for public health became increasingly clear: tens of thousands of Londoners died in a series of cholera outbreaks between the 1830s and 1850s, and during the second of these, in 1853, physician John Snow (1813-58), correlated cases with a particular water pump in Soho and proved that the disease was spread through contaminated water rather than polluted air as previously thought.

London had a long-term problem with major infrastructure, particularly sewers. There was still no unified local government outside the City, and any initiatives covering a wider geographical area had to navigate a complex patchwork of parish and county authorities, ad-hoc boards and powerful landowners, often requiring backing from central government. Transport projects like major roads, canals and railways could to some extent be left to the private sector with central government authorisation, as investment could be recouped, hopefully at a profit, by charging at the point of use. But nobody wanted to pay for poo.

In 1848, the government finally established a Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, the first time a single body took on London-wide responsibility for the system. The following year, the Commission appointed a talented former railway engineer, Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91), as assistant surveyor, later promoted to chief engineer when his boss died. Bazalgette completed the first integrated and comprehensive plan for the capital’s sewers in 1856. By then the need for a more general cross-London infrastructure body had become urgent, and the previous year the Commission had been superseded by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), which retained Bazelgette in his post though didn’t yet implement his recommendations. We’ve encountered the MBW numerous times in London underfoot: although a quango with limited powers, it’s usually seen as the beginning of modern governance in the capital, as explained in London Countryway 18.

During several weeks of extremely hot and dry weather in July and August 1858, the water level in the Thames became unusually low, and at low tide sewage piled up on the foreshore, with some of the semi-solid deposits two metres deep, putrescing in the hot sun. The Great Stink, as it was named, caused Queen Victoria to abandon a pleasure cruise. Parliament, right on the riverside, could no longer ignore the problem: the curtains in the Palace of Westminster were soaked in lime chloride to mask the smell, and there was serious talk of relocating outside London. As the Times recorded, ‘Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench’. The MBW was charged with cleaning up the river and granted the power to borrow money to finance this, recouped through a levy on the rates. Bazelgette’s plans were rapidly given the green light.

Bazelgette is an often-overlooked architect of modern London. Between 1860 and 1874 he oversaw the construction of almost 2,000 km of new sewers. The works included the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments along the Thames itself, collecting sewage at the drainage system’s lowest point, with the Victoria Embankment additionally incorporating an underground railway, today’s Circle and District Lines. Two other key components were the Northern and Southern Outfall Sewers to the east, transporting the combined sewage downriver to Beckton on the north and Crossness, between Erith and what’s now Thamesmead, in the south, where it was pumped into the Thames at high tide. Treatment plants were later built at both points to filter the effluent before discharge, following further health scares.

For over 5 km, the Ring runs atop the Northern Outfall Sewer, completed in 1868. This starts around 350 m northwest of where we join it, at Wick Lane, where it receives flows from the high-level sewer starting in Hampstead and the middle-level sewer from Kilburn. It then runs within a prominent embankment in a series of straight lines 7 km southeast to Beckton. In a reflection of the priorities of the time, it was built without connections to the areas it passes through, like Stratford, West Ham and East Ham. The inhabitants of these deprived industrial neighbourhoods had to put up with the dirty discharge of central London passing their backyards without being able to take advantage of the system themselves.

The top of the embankment was always walkable, primarily for maintenance purposes, but it was long used as an informal route by locals and became known as the Sewerbank. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) enjoyed exploring it when staying in Bromley-by-Bow in 1931 for talks on the future of India. In the early 1990s, the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), a joint organisation set up to plug some of the strategic gaps left by the abolition of the Greater London Council, produced a ‘green strategy’ for London which included recommendations on improving walking and cycling routes, including the Sewerbank. In response, Newham council, working with Thames Water, launched an improvement project, but wisely decided to change the name, adopting the much more salubrious Greenway, or Newham Greenway. The steel arches at access points, with their distinctive lettering, date from this mid-1990s makeover: you’ll pass one as you leave the towpath.

The northwestern section was reworked again in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, when it provided the most direct link between West Ham station and the Olympic Park. The surfaces are much improved in quality as a result, particularly for cyclists, but now detract somewhat from the informal green character. Another issue is that the path is not a public right of way but remains Thames Water’s private property, with only permissive access, so can easily be closed at short notice: the stretch we’ll soon walk between Pudding Mill Lane and Stratford High Street was off-limits for a full ten years between 2009 and 2019 to allow construction work. It’s also locked at night.

But it’s undoubtedly one of London’s walking gems, a piece of practical and historic infrastructure put to an unexpected second use, with something of that alternative geography of canals and disused railways. Much of it is elevated above its surrounds, providing views and a sense of space, and refreshingly, its origin is not effaced but deliberately foregrounded in the various pipes and other elements of fluid engineering scattered about. You may sometimes even notice the smell, but normally it's remarkably fragrant.

From the Greenway Turn onward, the Capital Ring shares its route with the Jubilee Greenway, another of Transport for London’s strategic walking trails, which has already joined the Greenway a little further northwest where it starts at Wick Lane. Created to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee in 2012, this is effectively another orbital route, though for the most part more central than the Ring and also open to cyclists. Most of it duplicates existing trails: the Greenway and then the Capital Ring from Wick Lane to Woolwich, the Thames Path to Westminster Bridge, its own route to Paddington and Little Venice via Buckingham Palace, Green Park and Hyde Park, the Regents Canal towpath to Victoria Park and its own route and the Hertford Union Canal towpath to Wick Lane. I’ll cover it in more detail in future posts, but its green marble pavement plaques will become a familiar sight for the rest of this section.

Greenway: Stratford Marsh

The Waterworks River and Halo Tower, on the site of Saynes Mill.

The original East London Waterworks was established around 1806 on a site immediately south of the Greenway (right) where the Ring joins it. Originally it abstracted water from the Lea here but in 1829 shifted its collection point to Lea Bridge, where the facility grew into the Middlesex and Essex Filter Beds visited in the last section. As already mentioned, the company built an aqueduct running from the filter beds alongside the Hackney Cut to convey water southwards. The Northern Outfall Sewer crossed the aqueduct more-or-less where we join it, the latter terminating in a set of reservoirs on the south side.

By the 1890s all this was filled in and the reservoir site, along with the rest of ‘Bow Island’, the triangle of land between the river Lea, the sewer and the Great Eastern main line, was annexed to the sprawling railway facilities centred on Stratford and renamed Bow Goods Yard East. Railway use declined over the 20th century and the site then became the main construction hub for the Olympic Park in the runup to 2012. During games time it housed a warm-up track, and currently part of it is an aggregates terminal, though it facilitates remarkably open views southwards towards Mile End and Poplar. This is not to last: in 2023, Network Rail launched its masterplan for a mixed-use neighbourhood, though still incorporating a rail freight terminal, on what will likely be the last parcel of Olympic land to undergo redevelopment.

Some of the better-known Olympic landmarks are now clearly visible to the left of the Greenway. The main stadium, now officially known as the London Stadium, held 80,000 spectators during the Games when it was covered by a 70 m-high roof. It was designed so capacity could be reduced after the Games, but, as this involved removing one of its circular tiers, it also necessitated losing the roof. In 2016 the building reopened following a controversial bidding process as the new home ground of West Ham United FC. It’s used for other sports as well, a requirement of the lease, and non-sporting events. The capacity is now normally 60,000 but for events like concerts, when part of the arena can be used for seating, this increases to 80,000.

The 114.5 m tangle of red gantries next to the stadium is Britain’s largest, and one of its more controversial, pieces of public art, the ArcelorMittal Orbit. When Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, he was keen to leave his own stamp on the park, a project he inherited from his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone. Johnson persuaded Olympics minister Tessa Jowell that ‘something extra’ was needed, and they launched a design competition for an ‘Olympic tower’. The winners were Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond, and the construction work was financed by a £16 million donation from Britain’s then-richest man, Lakshmi Mittal of the ArcelorMittal steel company, thus the name, topped up with £3.1 million from the public purse. The Orbit’s two observation platforms proved less successful than expected as a visitor attraction, even after it was enhanced with the opening of the world’s longest slide in 2016, an appropriate addition reflecting the common observation that it already looked like a mixed-up helter skelter.

Just past the stadium, the Greenway widens substantially to form the deck of a bridge and, a few steps onto this, the Ring crosses the former parish and county boundary, leaving historic Bow parish in the Tower division of Ossulstone Hundred, Middlesex and entering West Ham in the Becontree Hundred of Essex. The boundary was retained when the London County Council was created in 1889, so this is another point where the Ring leaves the ‘Metropolis’ as it was until 1965, and continued to divide Tower Hamlets and Newham boroughs until tweaks in the early 1990s realigned it with the current course of the Old River Lea. Essex is the Ring’s last historic county and I’ve said more about it under London Countryway 19.

The bridge next crosses the course of the Pudding Mill River, a minor stretch of the Bow Back Rivers which once provided an 800 m alternative channel for the river Lea from just before the latter joins the Hackney Cut at Old Ford to St Thomas’s Creek near what’s now the Bow Flyover. A watermill stood on the bank a little south of here as far back as 1200: it was originally known as St Thomas’s Mill but acquired the name Pudding Mill, not because of its output, which was mainly flour, but its shape, which reminded locals of a pudding. It was later rebuilt, then demolished in 1934 as part of a flood relief scheme.

The river south of the Greenway was infilled in the 1960s, but the northern part remained in water into the 21st century, when, following a period of neglect, it was cleaned up as an attractive and valuable nature area. This was the site that required the most relocation of wildlife when it was cleared in 2007 to make way for the Olympic development, and the marathon track and stadium car park now cover the river’s course.

The bridge finally crosses Marshgate Lane, an old road through the marshes: this and Pudding Mill Lane once paralleled the Pudding Mill River on east and west banks respectively. Just past this, the Greenway temporarily leaves the embankment to join Marshgate Lane as the way ahead is obstructed by the railway. But if you have the time, or need a break, it’s worth continuing ahead to the dead end where you’ll find the View Tube with its stumpy tower. Built in 2010 from recycled shipping containers, it was intended as a temporary facility offering views of the park during its construction, partly in recompense for the loss of access. It proved a popular local feature and is still open today, with a café, toilets, bike workshops and artists’ studios.

A distinctive circular building with a short tower topped by a blue glass lantern stands on the opposite side of the lane at the bottom of the ramp. This is another sewage management structure, a pumping station for the new sewers around the Olympic Park, completed in 2010 to a design by Lyall Bills and Young architects. Decorations on the concrete are inspired by Bazalgette’s plans, and the tower is essentially a stink pole, venting smelly gases above nose level (see Ring 2).

The lane ducks under the substantial railway bridges carrying the Great Eastern main line, the DLR and, since 2022, the Elizabeth Line: the eastern portal of the Stratford branch of the Crossrail tunnel emerges here to join the existing line to Shenfield.  The entrance to Pudding Mill Lane DLR is immediately opposite on the other side of the bridge. This stretch of the DLR opened as part of the initial network in 1987, connecting Stratford with Canary Wharf and Island Gardens, though at first there was only a passing loop here on what was originally a single-track line, with trains running through non-stop. The first station, a little north, opened in 1996, but was relocated to make way for Crossrail in 2014.

The DLR station was closed during the 2012 events as it was too small to cope, but since 2022 has enjoyed unexpectedly high footfall thanks to its proximity to the ABBA Arena, home to the curious Voyage show where the Swedish pop giants are represented by eternally young ‘Abbatars’. The hexagonal purpose-built venue sits like a landed UFO just down Pudding Mill Lane itself: it’s ‘demountable’ so can be moved to a new site when the show completes its London run in 2027.

The Pudding Mill River once ran through the strip of land immediately south of the station alongside Marshgate Lane, currently occupied by a container hotel: the mill itself was at the southern end of this stretch. In 1966, Queen Mary College installed a miniature nuclear reactor here for educational purposes, the first operated by a UK university. It was decommissioned in 1983 with no long-term threat to public health, but in 2005 there was a brief panic when this atomic history came to light in the early stages of preparation for the Games.

Another ramp immediately south of the railway bridge climbs past the Stratford Mill development site on the right to regain the embankment above a surviving Bow Back River, the City Mill River. This splits from the Old River Lee to the north, between the Olympic stadium and Carpenters Road, and flows past the east side of the stadium as one of the main water features in the Olympic Park. It originally joined the Waterworks River near Stratford High Street, which in turn rejoined the Lea south of Three Mills, but as part of the 1930s flood relief scheme it was cut off by locks at both ends and now joins the stump of the Pudding Mill River. The City Mill itself straddled the river to the south, growing into a massive chemical works which covered much of the triangle of land to the right.

Just before Stratford High Street, you cross the Waterworks River, which also leaves the Lea to the north, just above the City Mill River, which it parallels to the east through the Olympic Park before flowing as the Three Mills Wall back to the main stream at Three Mills. Its current name recalls its more recent use as a water supply channel, but before this it was a tidal stream which since at least the 12th century powered a corn mill known as Saynes Mill, the site of which is now covered by the curved tower block, Halo Tower, visible to the left. Sometime after 1745, the West Ham Waterworks Company co-opted the stream and turned the mill into a pumping station with an adjacent reservoir. The infrastructure became part of the East London Waterworks but was retired by the 1890s, and the river was widened and diverted as part of the 1930s scheme, losing its tidal character.

A different type of industry once occupied the art deco building, Warton House, immediately to the left as you reach the High Street. It’s now flats but was originally a box factory for the perfume company, Yardley, thus the nostalgic mural at 2nd floor level depicting lavender sellers. When it opened in 1937, the surrounding industries were still in full flow, so I wonder if there was a hint of irony in invoking such pleasant fragrances next to a sewer amid the stench of Stratford Marsh.

Glance right for a glimpse of another tall 2012 landmark that’s arguably more to scale, more attractive and more relevant than the Orbit. A little down the High Street on the opposite side is a 40 m wooden lattice sculpture illuminated at night and intended to resemble the Olympic torch, designed by ARC-ML architects to provide a centrepiece for another housing development.

Stratford and West Ham

View from Channelsea Bridge over the site of the former Stratford Abbey, with Abbey Mills engine house.

As already mentioned, the medieval Essex parish on the east side of the river Lea was West Ham, likely divided from East Ham sometime in the 11th century. Anglo-Saxon Hamm is a reference to the topography, meaning an area of hemmed-in land, in this case by marsh and water. The historic centre was around the parish church of All Saints, which has stood since at least the 1180s, about 1 km east of where the Ring meets Stratford High Street and some way off our route. But two other developments nearby eclipsed it as a local centre in subsequent centuries: first the abbey, then the market town and industrial and railway centre of Stratford that grew up to the north.

The town had the additional advantage that it lay on the main highway through the area, originally the Roman Great Road, later Matilda’s causeway, which eventually rejoined the previous route on what’s now the other side of the town centre, along Romford Road. It’s this causeway we now cross, though much widened and enlarged: the Roman alignment was eventually lost to the shifting marshes and subsequent development, and when archaeologists looked for it during the building of the Olympic Park they found no definitive trace. The High Street remained part of a trunk route for centuries, linking London with Chelmsford, Colchester, Ipswich and the coast at Great Yarmouth, with branches to other coastal destinations like Harwich and Felixstowe. It was designated the A12 in 1922 but has since been renumbered A118: the A12 number is now applied to newer, wider roads to the west and north, and we passed under one of these on Ring 13.

Around 1140, Norman noble William de Montfichet, whose family seat was at Stansted Mountfitchet in northwest Essex, donated 4.5 ha of land southeast of the causeway for use as an abbey. The beneficiaries were monks of the Savignac order of Normandy, absorbed in 1147 by the Cistercians. The community was first known simply as West Ham Abbey, or St Mary’s after its patron saint, and eventually formed its own parish as an enclave within West Ham, with its own grand church. It later became known as Stratford Langthorne, allegedly after a distinctive tall thorn tree (‘long thorn’) nearby.

Originally a relatively small foundation, over the next couple of centuries the site, which we’ll shortly pass, almost doubled in size to 8 ha, housing one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country and ultimately the fifth largest. This was partly due to its control of numerous watermills which served the increasing demands of the London market, partly to the ingenuity and industriousness of the monks in reclaiming productive land for growing crops by draining the marshes, and partly because its accessibility from London encouraged royal patronage. Henry III (1207-72) was a frequent guest, conducting business from the abbey in the 1260s, and Edward IV (1442-83) agreed to donate two casks of wine a year in 1467 in exchange for masses said on his behalf. At its peak the abbey owned 600 ha of adjoining land and 20 manors across Essex and elsewhere. It was so popular with monks and clerics visiting London that its abbot felt compelled to break the tradition of hospitality by limiting stays to three days.

Such wealth made it a prime target when Henry VIII (1491-1547) moved to dissolve the monasteries. Stratford Langthorne was shut down in 1538 with most of its land given to Peter Meutas (d 1562), the king’s faithful courtier, soldier and spy. Eventually the buildings were dismantled, their masonry recycled in new construction. Astonishingly, no visible evidence of this once vast complex, the peer of Fountains in Yorkshire, remains beyond a stone window and carving transplanted to All Saints Church, and a few street and other location names. A celebrated pub, the Adam and Eve, established in the former precincts after dissolution, survived, albeit much rebuilt, until 1994 when it was flattened beneath the Jubilee Line depot.

The vital mills continued operating under secular management, perpetuating the district’s early industrial character, but large parts remained agricultural, noted for potatoes. Stratford was rustic enough by the end of the 17th century to attract wealthy Londoners seeking convenient country retreats: in 1722 the writer Daniel Defoe noted how such ‘handsome large houses’ had multiplied ‘to a strange degree’ in the last three decades. A fine porcelain factory opened in 1744, and large-scale industrialisation of the entire area followed in the second half of the 19th century, as already discussed.

By then Stratford had its own church, St John’s, opened as a chapel of ease to serve the growing population in 1834 but upgraded when the new Stratford ecclesiastical parish was created a decade later. This formed the nucleus of a new town centre around Stratford Broadway, about 1 km northeast (left) along the High Street. A street market began on the Broadway in 1858, while a wholesale fruit and vegetable market to rival Spitalfields opened nearby in 1879. Though the latter closed in 1991, both indoor and outdoor retail markets remain a popular local feature.

The railway was another powerful driver of 19th century growth. Stratford station first opened just a short distance from the Broadway in 1839, in the initial flush of London rail development. Initially it was an intermediate stop on the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) between its temporary terminus near Mile End and Romford: we ducked under this line, now much expanded and widened, on Marshgate Lane. The following year the ECR extended to a proper terminal at Shoreditch on the edge of the City, adjacent to today’s Shoreditch High Street Overground station, later renamed Bishopsgate and superseded by London Liverpool Street in 1874. In the opposite direction, the line reached Colchester in 1843 and eventually Ipswich and Norwich, with branches to the major East Anglian coastal ports. It was later absorbed into the larger Great Eastern Railway (GER) and is still known today as the Great Eastern Main Line.

Stratford remained a one-line station for only just over a year, beginning its development into a major interchange in 1840 with the opening of the Northern and Eastern Railway (N&ER) north along the Lea valley to Broxbourne. The N&ER originally planned to connect London and York this way, but only raised sufficient funds to reach Cambridge, achieved in 1845. It couldn’t even afford its own London terminal, so relied on using ECR tracks between Stratford and Shoreditch, and the latter soon took it over, with both later absorbed into the GER. I said a bit more about what’s now known as the Temple Mills branch at Lea Bridge on Ring 13.

Further spokes were added to the Stratford hub. In 1846, the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway (EC&TJR) reached south towards the Thames, as explained later. A connection to the London Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR), still in infrequent use, followed in 1854, with what’s now the North London Line opening the following year, along with a branch to Loughton, incorporated into the Underground Central Line in 1947.

But the passenger and goods facilities, impressive as they were, eventually accounted for only a small proportion of the railways’ impact on Stratford. The ECR began maintaining locomotives here in 1840 and building them from 1850. In the 1870s, Stratford became home to the GER’s main locomotive and carriage works, which ultimately covered a wedge of land between the North London and Great Eastern lines with a finger reaching to a wagon works at Temple Mills. 1,702 locomotives and 5,500 passenger coaches were constructed here between 1850 and 1963, and at its peak in 1912 the facility provided jobs for 6,500 people. After several decades as a repair facility, British Rail closed the works in 1993, another blow to the local economy, though some pockets remained in use as freight terminals. Much of the site is now the giant Westfield shopping mall, though some is housing and the Temple Mills works is the main Eurostar depot for London.

Boosted by the millennium celebrations and then the Olympics, Stratford became even better-connected in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The DLR from Canary Wharf opened in 1987; the Jubilee Line in 1999; the North London Line converted to a more frequent London Overground service in 2007. The international High Speed 1 (HS1) line from London St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel portal and onwards to Brussels and Paris followed in 2009, with a new so-called Stratford International station on part of the old railway works though only served by high-speed domestic trains to Kent. A second branch of the DLR connected the international and domestic stations with the Royal Docks and Woolwich in 2011, and most recently the Shenfield branch of the Elizabeth Line opened in 2022, linking local stations on the Great Eastern main line with central London, London Heathrow Airport and Reading via the Crossrail tunnel. As a result, Stratford is now the 5th busiest station in Britain, the only one in the top 10 that isn’t a city centre terminal.

Greenway: West Ham

From the Greenway southwest over Abbey Creek, Channelsea Island centre, Long Wall right.

The Greenway continues straight across Stratford High Street, between the site of the abbey and some of the mills that contributed to its wealth. The area of housing and light industry to the right was once fields known as Mill Meads, and today there’s some green space immediately adjacent to the embankment a little way along, where Victorian terraces bombed during the Blitz of 1940-41 have been replaced by a modest but popular local park, Abbey Lane open space. On the opposite side is the site of Stratford Gasworks, opened in the 1890s but largely decommissioned in the 1970s. Two large underground storage tanks in the southernmost part of the works, just before the Greenway bridges Abbey Lane, are visible as circles on aerial photographs: they remained in use for some decades afterwards but have since been filled in. This site is subject to yet another development application.

The forbiddingly spiky rooflines visible on the left from the bridge belong to the Grade II-listed cottages at 116-130 Abbey Lane, built in 1865 for sewage workers to designs by Joseph Bazalgette himself. They’re a footnote compared to the building now visible through the fence on the right side of the Greenway: Grade II*-listed Abbey Mills Pumping Station, completed in 1868, perhaps Bazalgette’s most impressive monument and one of the most extraordinary buildings on the whole trail. The northern low-level sewer, which begins way to the west, with branches from Hammersmith and Fulham, and runs through the Chelsea and Victoria embankments, converges here, where a pumping station was needed to transfer its contents into the main northern outfall sewer beneath our feet.

Cathedral of sewage: Abbey Mills pumping station.

But rather than a mundane shed, Bazelgette and his architectural collaborator Charles Driver came up with what soon became known as ‘the cathedral of sewage’, an astonishingly fanciful yellow brick creation inspired by a Byzantine church. It’s on a cruciform plan with Romanesque arched windows decorated with contrasting bricks, carved stone pediments, dormer windows and towers tipped with elaborate cast iron finials, surmounted by an octagonal lantern tower that looks like it dropped out of a fairytale. The interior is equally elaborate: it’s rarely open to the public as it remains in use as a backup to the more modern facility in the adjacent aluminium-clad building, commissioned in 1997, but you may be lucky to catch it on Open House Weekend. It completes the trio of water management structures on the Ring with an appearance that belies their utilitarian purpose: the others are Streatham Pumping Station (Ring 5) and the Castle (Ring 12).

Just past the pumping station is a path crossing and a much longer bridge, heralding our last encounter with a Bow Back River, the Channelsea River. This is likely the oldest of the group: it existed in Matilda’s time, requiring its own bridge along her causeway, and may be the channel dug by Alfred to foil the Danes. It split from the Lea at Temple Mills, some way to the north, and still rejoins it at Bow Locks, southwest of our current location. The section north of the Greenway (left) was diverted through an underground culvert in 1958, and a footpath, the Channelsea Path, now follows its course towards Stratford town centre, through an area known in the later 18th century as the Calico Grounds as it was noted for textile printing works.

The Channelsea once formed the western boundary of the abbey precincts, which were surrounded on the other three sides with a moat, the southern arm of which ran more-or-less parallel to what’s now the Greenway. A gatehouse once stood near today’s bridge. It’s hard to imagine a great Gothic complex to the left here, now all lost beneath housing, industry and the large Jubilee Line depot which is just visible. The closest you will get is by descending the ramp and turning right along Abbey Road to the DLR station of the same name. On the other side of this is Abbey Gardens on Bakers Row, a delightful community garden created over a former kitchen garden and the foundations of an abbey guesthouse, a Scheduled Ancient Monument which has been covered up to protect it, though extensive interpretation boards tell the story

Back on the Greenway, to the south (right), the Channelsea is still in water as a tidal creek, also known as Abbey Creek, which splits into two channels to create the long, thin Channelsea Island, currently only reachable by boat. Abbey Mill, from which the pumping station gets its name, once straddled the stream between the ‘mainland’ and the island. Around 1870, a large chemical works making sulphuric acid opened on the opposite, eastern bank, and in the 1920s this expanded onto the island itself. The plant was decommissioned in the 1980s and the island has since been reclaimed by nature, its buildings falling into dereliction.

Though there have been redevelopment proposals, they’d require extensive and expensive decontamination work to implement, so ironically it looks as though its noxious past will protect the island’s future as an informal, little-visited nature reserve. The health of the surrounding water improved further with the 1990s improvements at the pumping station: before this, sewage was regularly discharged into the Channelsea at times of high demand.

The path immediately right at the junction, between the pumping station fence and the creek’s west bank, is known as the Long Wall. Since 2021, its immediate surroundings have been managed by not-for-profit project the Surge Coop as the Long Wall Ecology Garden, with a community orchard, plus artificial floating habitats in the river itself. The garden has inherited another quirky Greenway landmark: just inside the gateway arch, what appears to be piece of public art turns out to be an old centrifugal pump from the pumping station, its spiral structure curiously reminiscent of a giant ammonite. It’s kept painted in strikingly bright colours to deter graffiti.

A 1 km diversion along the Long Wall will take you to Three Mills Island. This almost lives up to its name with two standing mills, one dated 1776 and the other around 1817, successors to former monastic mills, suspended over a tidal section of the Lea. With the well-preserved old brick buildings, one of which features a distinctive clock tower, attractively arranged around a cobbled yard against a watery backdrop, this is one of London’s most atmospheric locations. The Green London Way, which takes a particularly roundabout route through the area, passes the site, as does the Lea Valley Walk, so I’ll cover it in more detail when I finally get round to the latter.

Today’s route continues ahead across the bridge, itself Grade II-listed, built by the London County Council and completed in 1902: note the distinctive railings. A large partially cream-painted grey brick complex with multiple pitched roofs now rears up on the left: this is the engine house attached to the pumping station, built in 1897. To the the best of my knowledge it still contains two Lilleshall steam-powered beam engines installed in 1900, though is now used mainly as an engineering training centre.

The Greenway crosses Canning Road on the level before traversing two sets of railway lines on another bridge. The first is the London Underground Jubilee Line; the second is the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) Stratford International branch. Both serve Stratford station northbound (left) and West Ham station southbound. Both services launched relatively recently but the rail alignment is much older. It opened in 1846 as the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway (EC&TJR), heading south from Stratford towards  Canning Town and the area where the Royal Docks were planned. In the 1980s it became part of the North London Line and I’ll pick up on more of its history as we progress.

 We crossed the other end of the Jubilee Line at Uxendon on Ring 10 and passed closed to its terminus on Loop 15, but that section began in 1932 as a branch of the Metropolitan Line and later the Bakerloo. It became the Jubilee in 1979, extended at the south end in a new tunnel from Baker Street through the West End to Charing Cross. Originally named the Fleet Line, it was intended to continue across that river to Cannon Street and Lewisham but progress was stymied by lack of funds and dwindling central government interest. When the Jubilee Line Extension finally opened in 1999, it took a very different route, crossing the Thames several times in tunnel to connect Waterloo, London Bridge, the growing business centre at Canary Wharf and the soon-to-open Millennium Dome at North Greenwich (now the O2) before emerging at Canning Town and running alongside the former EC&TJR to West Ham and Stratford.

The North London Line service was withdrawn south of Stratford at the end of 2006 so the line could be put to other uses. Since 2011, the section between Stratford and Canning Town has been part of the DLR’s Stratford International branch: we’ll discover the fate of some of the rest of it later.

Abbey Road, mentioned earlier, is one of the new intermediate stations provided on the DLR branch: the Jubilee Line passes by non-stop. Its name is historically and geographically appropriate but a little misleading. It’s not unknown for Beatles fans who don’t know the city to end up here looking for the famous zebra crossing depicted on the cover of the Abbey Road album (1969). But this is on another Abbey Road in another part of London entirely, in St Johns Wood, though coincidentally also near a Jubilee Line station.

The patch on the left between the railway and Manor Road, which the Greenway now also crosses, formed the southeast corner of the abbey precincts. It was once occupied by a moated house known as the Lodge which may have begun as a manor house predating the abbey and was still standing as late as 1747. The housing estate on the right just after the road occupies the former Abbey Marsh.

A ramp on the right descends to Manor Road, and a little way south along it is West Ham station, on the London Tilbury & Southend, District and Hammersmith & City lines, of which more shortly, as well as the Jubilee Line and DLR. The station, some way south of the old parish centre, opened in 1901, sometime after the lines themselves, and has since helped retain the currency of the place name while shaping perceptions of where it applies, though even locals are vague about what’s West Ham and what’s Stratford. The station was completely rebuilt for the Jubilee Line in 1999 and it’s this iteration you’ll see today.

The term West Ham is now even more familiar as the name of a premier league football club, West Ham United FC. Its nickname ‘the Hammers’ is partly a reference to its origin in 1895 as a works team for the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, indeed partly in the ancient parish as it straddled the Lea at Blackwall, right by its confluence with the Thames. The team was initially named Thames Ironworks FC then reconstituted and renamed in 1900, and played for some years at a site we’ll shortly pass. In 1904 it moved east to the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park, its home for over a century and technically just in East Ham. In 2016, as already mentioned, it returned to ancient West Ham to take over the former Olympic stadium. Inevitably, the Upton Park site has since become yet another mixed-use development.

Despite being intensively developed, as already mentioned West Ham was excluded from London when the LCC was created in 1889. This was partly a result of local resistance. In 1878, in response to moves by the LCC’s predecessor the MBW to extend its influence beyond the Lea, local politicians began lobbying for the parish to be converted instead into a largely autonomous local authority known as a municipal borough. This was achieved in 1886, a few years before the LCC’s creation, and the population was sufficient that in 1889 West Ham became fully independent of Essex, though still formally part of it, as a County Borough. By 1901, it was the ninth most populous district in England. It finally joined London with the creation of the Greater London Council in 1965, which also marked its reunion after many centuries with East Ham to form the London Borough of Newham. In a pleasing nod to history, the new borough name was deliberately chosen to mean ‘New Hamm’.

Greenway: Plaistow

The Greenway Orchard, Plaistow.
The area southeast of the old centre of West Ham has been known since at least the 13th century as Plaistow. It was centred on a separate village, a little east of our route, which by the 17th century, before the development of Stratford, was the biggest settlement in the area. ‘Stow’ simply means a fenced place, but the rest of the etymology is disputed. Some sources attribute it to the Plaiz family, who owned estates here after the Norman conquest which they donated to the abbey in 1353. But these lands were scattered and there were other independent holdings centred on the village, so other sources prefer to read the name as ‘place of play’, indicating a village green where miracle plays were staged. The name is relatively common: there’s another Plaistow in Bromley borough, and both are pronounced ‘plah-stow’. Like its neighbour, it was rapidly built up in the 19th century, though the trail passes some interesting green oases among the housing.

Another railway soon cuts diagonally across the Greenway, between West Ham station to the west (right) and Plaistow east. This was opened in 1856 by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) between Bromley-by-Bow and Barking, where it joined the company’s existing line to Tilbury and Southend. The LT&SR had been operating since 1854 but originally had to use the ECR’s line west from Manor Park to reach central London; the new line gave it a more direct route from London Fenchurch Street, avoiding Stratford. Plaistow station opened with the line, but West Ham, as mentioned above, was only added in 1901 as an interchange with the Stratford – North Woolwich line.

In 1902, the District Railway extended from Whitechapel to connect with the LT&SR at Bromley-by-Bow and began running through trains from west and central London to East Ham, Barking and Upminster. In the following years the District built new electric lines alongside the LT&SR steam services, and soon most local stopping services were provided by the Underground.

When British Rail electrified the LT&SR tracks using overhead cables in 1962, rather than Underground-style fourth rail, most of the stations on the shared stretch lost their main line platforms, and all apart from Barking and Upminster, including West Ham and Plaistow, transferred to London Transport ownership in 1969. Today, TfL’s District and Hammersmith & City lines serve all stations; London, Tilbury and Southend trains, now provided by commercial operator c2c, no longer have platforms at Plaistow but have been calling at West Ham again since the Jubilee line opened in 1999. A ramp on the left just after the lines links to Plaistow station, which retains an attractive red brick booking hall from 1905, its rounded arches perhaps deliberately reminiscent of Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

The right-hand ramp leads to Memorial Recreation Ground, adjacent to the embankment, which is linked to the history of both West Ham station and football club. Known simply as Memorial Grounds when it was opened in 1997, it was financed by Thames Ironworks managing director Arnold Hills as a staff sports ground. As well as hosting the team that became West Ham United, it boasted cycle and running tracks, tennis courts and one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in England. Hills was instrumental in pushing the LT&SR to open West Ham station, partly to serve the grounds.

Following the company’s closure in 1912, the site became a council recreation ground, and most of its original structures are long gone, but it’s still well-used for sports, home to several rugby clubs among others. Near the modern community centre in the southwest corner, a detour from the Ring, is an intriguing sculpture created in 2007 by the Mooch public art agency, consisting of 11 steel posts with hammers. It commemorates not only the football team and the ironworks but a tragic incident connected with the latter.

One of the vessels built at the company’s yard was HMS Albion, a 128.5 m-long Canopus class battleship for the Royal Navy. At the launch on 21 June 1898, the ship’s entry into the water raised an unexpectedly high wave which swept away a viewing platform on which 200 people were standing, 34 of whom drowned. Coincidentally, this was also the first disaster captured on film. The posts of the sculpture are laid out in the shape of the Albion’s main deck, and many of the victims are buried in the adjacent East London Cemetery, also clearly visible as you continue on the Greenway.

Opened in 1872, the cemetery remains managed privately rather than by the local authority. The Albion victims are marked by an anchor monument at the northern end of the main avenue. There are also monuments to victims of the two other disasters, including the worst one yet on a British inland waterway. In 1878, crowded paddle steamer the Princess Alice collided with a coal boat on the Thames at Gallions Reach while on a pleasure trip, splitting in two and sinking within minutes. Between 600 and 700 passengers died in waters befouled with raw sewage from Beckton, with only two survivors. The Silvertown Explosion occurred at a chemical works in 1917, killing 73.

There are war graves, including one official German war grave near the Albion memorial commemorating 16 men executed by the British for spying during World War I. Numerous actors are buried here, including Leslie Dwyer, Jack Warner and Queenie Watts, as well as Blair Peach, the anti-racist activist killed by police during a demonstration in Southall in 1979 (HillingdonTrail 1).

You can't miss the Greenway where it crosses Upper Road, Plaistow.

There’s a particularly impressive gateway treatment where the Greenway crosses Upper Road, with a forest of poles marking the path on both sides. A little left along the road is Lister Gardens, a small park with attractive gates, opened in 1929 to commemorate pioneer of antiseptic surgery Joseph Lister (1827-1912), who was born at since-demolished Upton House, about 1.5 km to the north by West Ham Park. Back on the Greenway, just by the collection of inspection hatches in the footway, the area of housing on the right was once a pond.

The strip of woodland to the left, immediately below the embankment, was maintained between 2013 and 2023 by a community group as the First Avenue Urban Wilderness community garden, which then lost its lease. It’s not clear if this little treasure of a site, which was intermittently open to the public, will be retained for a similar use, but if it’s revived, note it’s only accessible by leaving the Greenway left at the next road junction and turning immediately left along First Avenue.

That next junction is Balaam Street, one of the oldest streets in the area, first recorded in the 1360s. Its unusual name is from local landowners the Balum family, who lived in West Ham as far back as 1183. Not much further away but also off-route is Plaistow Park, a bigger green space occupying the grounds of a long-demolished Tudor mansion that’s been a public park since 1894. The next Greenway crossing is with a newer and busier road, Barking Road, built in 1812 by the Commercial Road Turnpike Trust to connect East India Docks directly with Barking via Plaistow, and once part of the A13.

Visible to the right after the junction is the stony bulk of Grade II-listed St Andrew’s Church, opened to serve the ever-swelling population in 1870 on the site of the manor house of Bretts, one of the late medieval West Ham manors which controlled scattered properties in Plaistow. It gained its own parish the following year. It’s unapologetically Victorian, an English Gothic pastiche in Kentish ragstone, and was heavily damaged in the Blitz but later repaired. The adjacent vicarage is also Grade II-listed. The building hasn’t been used as an Anglican church since 1970 and is now offices. The area on the left side of the Greenway, around the crossing of Barking Road and the street we encounter next, Prince Regent Lane, was once a hamlet known as Hook End, although the name has completely disappeared from modern maps.

Past Prince Regent Lane, the former Plaistow Marsh is to the right. A substantial portion of this, nearest the Greenway, is now occupied by Newham University Hospital, opened as Newham General Hospital in 1983 when several smaller local hospitals were closed. Since 2012, it’s been part of the Barts Health Trust. The strip of woodland, scrub and grass separating path and hospital is wider than usual and has pleasingly been turned by volunteers into the Greenway Community Orchard. As well as fruit trees, there are vegetable and flower gardens, beehives and wild areas, and you might spot a Green Gym session in progress if you take the option of diverting from the hard surface here and following the winding paths through the orchard instead. It makes for a pleasant farewell to West Ham.

East Ham and Beckton

View from the A13 footbridge at Noel Road looking east: Beckton Alps just visible in the distance.
The next crossing is with Boundary Lane, so named as it does indeed mark the ancient boundary between West and East Ham. Following their division in the 11th century, the east remained the most remote and rural of the two Hams, though part of it also ended up among the possessions of Stratford Langthorne abbey, marking the limit of its reach against the territory of another large and powerful abbey, Barking, further east. Back then, the northern part of East Ham was thickly wooded, a continuation of the Forest of Essex reaching south from Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats, while the southern part was marsh. A road, part of which we’ll later cross, ran north-south between the two, with scattered settlements alongside it, though there was a parish centre with a manor house and church where St Mary Magdalene church still stands today, a little further along the Greenway from where we leave it.

Over the following centuries, much of the woodland was cleared and the marshland drained and put to agricultural use. By the 17th century the marshes were used to graze livestock for the London meat markets, and by the following century were noted for potatoes, onions and cabbages. The Victoria County History quotes verses from 1850 which unflatteringly refer to the area’s ‘dead flats…marshes full of water rats, onions and greens, black ditches and foul drains’. Industrial development took longer than in West Ham: by 1801 East Ham had 1,165 inhabitants and only about 1,000 more by 1861. But in the last decade of the 19th century it became one of the fastest growing places in England, with the population rising to 96,018 in 1901.

While the northern part of the parish housed some light industry and small factories, three much larger developments changed the face of the southern part that we’re about to cross: the Victoria Dock in 1855, the Northern Outfall Sewer in 1864 and the Gas Light and Coke Company (GL&CC) works on the riverside at Gallions Reach in 1870. The dock was actually in West Ham, but the associated infrastructure, including the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway (EC&TJR), opened up the adjoining marshes for development, and the subsequent expansion of the dock into London’s biggest such complex, the Royal Docks, sprawled across both parishes. Most of the gasworks site, as we’ll see, was also in another parish, Woolwich, but the supporting development, including workers’ homes, was in East Ham, and other, smaller developments followed in its wake. The Northern Outfall Sewer outlet was also in Woolwich, north of the gasworks beside the confluence of the rivers Roding and Thames at Barking Creek: originally this was just a system of reservoirs to manage the flow, but a treatment plant was added in 1887 and developed into the largest sewage works in Britain, still in use today.

With characteristic Victorian hubris, GL&CC governor Simon Adams Beck named the newly developed area Beckton after himself. The name stuck, perhaps because it trips off the tongue well and sounds like it might be a genuine Anglo-Saxon place name. But not everyone who worked here lived here: many more travelled from outside the parish.  So paradoxically, the pattern of development reinforced the separation of the marsh from the older medieval settlement in the north, because the main routes by road and rail were via Canning Town in the west, or via ferry or, later, foot tunnel from the south, connecting Beckton and the docks more closely to West Ham and Woolwich than the rest of the parish.

Like its neighbours the area was badly damaged during the Blitz, then made a rapid recovery after the war only to suffer from worsening economic circumstances as the 20th century progressed. The gasworks closed in 1969; the docks lingered longer with decreasing trade, but finally closed in 1981. This left Beckton a patchwork of derelict industrial sites, clusters of neglected Victorian housing and large areas of undeveloped marsh and waste ground. In the years leading up to the dock closure, Newham council undertook some modest regeneration, draining the remaining marshes, laying out streets and beginning to build new council homes.

Its efforts were soon to be overtaken, as 1981 was also the year Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government set up the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). This is not to be confused with the current LLDC covering the Olympic site but was the original model of this controversial approach to planning. It was an unelected, government-appointed quango with sweeping powers over much of the former Port of London and its hinterland that overrode those of local authorities, handed publicly owned land and property to dispose of as it saw fit.

In a reflection of the new, privatised, market-driven approach of the era, the LDDC announced it had no grand plan but instead would be pragmatic, facilitating private developers to come up with their own proposals for Docklands. It argued that adhering to the consultative traditions of planning would simply take too long in a situation where large areas of the city were rapidly falling into dereliction. At its worst, it rode roughshod over the wishes of local communities and facilitated developments intended purely to line the pockets of shareholders in property companies, who were handed land at knockdown prices with the additional incentive of tax breaks.

The LDDC’s best-known legacy is Canary Wharf, a US-style downtown with its office towers and underground mall shoehorned between the West India Docks, with upmarket housing nearby. But at Beckton, where the Corporation presided over a large tranche of hinterland as well as the docks and their immediate estate, it took a different approach. Partly following the council’s template, it invited more traditional housing developers like Barrett and Wimpey to build modest low-density housing, of the sort Newham was now prevented from providing thanks to Thatcherite housing policy, punctuated by bland business and retail ‘parks’, with more ambitious developments around the docks themselves, some of which we’ll encounter later. Nearly all the historic housing was demolished in the process, creating a miniature ‘new town’ in the hope of attracting upwardly mobile lower-middle-income families from more densely populated areas of east London.

Like many such planned communities, this one has only been partially successful. The rather bland developments lack coherence, an impression of neglect persists, and residents complain of absence of community spirit. And it remains cut off from its surroundings by the A13, the river and the docks: the Docklands Light Railway Beckton branch was intended to address this but is yet another east-west connection which blindsides East Ham to the north. The LDDC withdrew from Beckton in 1995 and from the Royal Docks in 1998, the year it was dissolved, with planning control handed back to Newham council. But the redevelopment of the area was far from complete, and still isn’t today, adding to the incoherence. Recently, building work has accelerated again, with the surroundings in a state of semi-permanent disruption.

One virtue of the 1980s development was the creation of a chain of parks right through the middle of Beckton, already well-advanced under the council’s original scheme. While these now provide a convenient and reasonably attractive off-road route for the Ring, their current condition adds to the air of the neglect. They were originally generously equipped with toilets, pavilions, community centres and café facilities in the indifferent style of the day: broad, low brick buildings with geometric roofs. Nearly all of these are currently out of use, boarded up and heavily graffitied, though the odd one has been rented to a private pre-school nursery.

Thanks in part to the energy of local community groups, there have been some recent improvements, including extensive voluntary tree planting, and the council is working on a parks masterplan with a promised high level of community involvement, so let’s hope for a better future for this stretch of the Ring.

Greenway: East Ham

It’s illustrative of how isolated this part of London remained that in the early 20th century the patch of land immediately east of Boundary Lane and south (right) of the Greenway was considered suitable for an isolation hospital treating diphtheria, smallpox and typhoid patients. The East Ham Isolation Hospital occupied an iron hut by the sewage works from 1894 but transferred here in 1902. Badly bombed in 1941, it never reopened, and the site was eventually redeveloped as schools. Today it’s largely occupied by Brampton Manor Academy secondary school, sometimes known as the East End Eton as it sends so many of its students to Oxbridge.

There never was a Brampton manor in East Ham, but the name seems to have stuck to the locality thanks also to Brampton Road and another early 20th century municipal park, just off the Greenway to the left at the next path junction. Immediately east of this is another extensive, cemetery, East Ham Jewish Cemetery, opened in 1919 and now administrated by the United Synagogue.

It’s at this junction that the Ring finally leaves the Greenway in the opposite direction. The sewer is of course heading for the sewage works on the riverside, but if you kept ahead you’d find the path ends short on Royal Docks Road, by a sprawl of retail parks and warehouses. The Ring, meanwhile, cuts through residential streets for the first time in a while, a stretched triangle between the sewer, the school and the A13 developed in 1920s by the Burges family, who began acquiring land in East Ham in the mid-18th century and ended up as one of the parish’s biggest landowners. Stokes Road is named after Alfred Stokes, the mayor of East Ham at the time, and Roman Road after Roman remains found locally, rather than the road’s own history.

A footbridge crosses the A13, the Ring’s last encounter with a radial trunk route. Unlike most of the previous such highways we’ve encountered, this one has a relatively short history, originating with the construction in 1802 of a new turnpike, Commercial Road, linking the City of London at Aldgate with West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs. The road was extended to East India Docks at Blackwall by 1812, continuing across the river Lea to Canning Town, as Barking Road to Barking, crossed earlier, and on into estuarine Essex. The present road was opened to the south as the East Ham and Barking Bypass, a congestion-busting measure, in 1928. It was originally designated A118 but was renumbered by the 1940s and eventually superseded the Southend Arterial Road (crossed on Loop 22) as the main road from London to Southend. It’s been widened since.

Pause and look east (right) while crossing the bridge and you’ll see a rather incongruous green hill in the middle distance. This is Beckton Alps, the plural name recalling that it was once one of several heaps of toxic slag discharged by the gasworks. Most were removed in the early 1980s but this one remained, capped by clay, to become a much-trumpeted LDDC initiative. Cued by the name, an entrepreneur leased it for conversion to a dry ski slope complete with chairlift, opened by Princess Diana in 1989. Significantly, this failed and closed in 2001, and an even more ambitious plan to create an indoor ‘Snow World’ with real snow on the site fell through too. It’s now a nature reserve, noted for its birds and locally rare plants.

The Alps should help orientate you as it clearly marks the location of the gasworks and sewage works, beyond which is the river. To most locals, today’s Beckton begins south of the A13, and after passing one of the newer developments, Beckton Parkside, completed in the 2010s in the currently fashionable geometric style, you’re ready for your first Beckton park.

Beckton District Park

Entering Beckton District Park North with its tree trail.

Beckton District Park was one of the chain of green spaces landscaped by the council and the LDDC in the early 1980s, though it adjoins a 1950s King George V recreation ground and a 1970s city farm, off our route to the west. Remarkably for a relatively new London park, it was largely created on previously undeveloped land, part of the swathe of former marsh that survived into the postwar period as rough grazing, allotments and waste ground divided by ditches.

Despite the evidence of decline mentioned above, the park has its attractive features, including a tree trail featuring numerous specimen trees, exotic and otherwise. Most of the boards indicating these are still in place and legible, but this valuable resource otherwise seems forgotten about as I’ve found no online documentation of it. Just off the Ring but easily reached by forking right soon after entering the park is one of its most substantial features, a boating lake, its spoil used for the landscaping that otherwise blocks it from view. The boats, café and toilets initially provided are now sadly missed but there’s the peaceful water and bird population to enjoy.

Tollgate Road divides the park into north and south sections. Originally known as Beckton Road, it was constructed in the 1860s to serve the gasworks, branching off Barking Road near Canning Town. The southern part of the park is more heavily wooded, with 1980s plantings which have since matured nicely. You cross Mitchell Walk, one of several lengthy footpaths through the estate: the Green London Way uses it, but the Ring stays in the park.

During the Blitz, Beckton fought back from a site beyond the trees to the west (right), just off Stansfeld Road. Four heavy anti-aircraft gun emplacements surrounding a command post were installed here in 1939 and were used regularly throughout the war. There were once around 1,000 such structures in Britain: this is one of only 60 still surviving, the only one in London, and is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, though it’s been buried to protect it and nothing is visible above ground.

The Ring continues past a wildflower garden, a welcome recent addition, and through a thin sliver of park past the dilapidated Will Thorne sports pavilion, to a fingerpost at a path junction beside Stansfeld Road, adjacent to open grass and sports fields ometimes simply referred to as Beckton Park. This is the unassuming end of section 14 of the Capital Ring, with a short signed link continuing along the road to Royal Albert DLR station. We’re also back at the historic boundary between West and East Ham, and while the Ring continues in the latter, walking to the station takes you back into the former.

The unassuming end of Loop 14 at Beckton Park.

The station surroundings are another area in transition. Most of the footfall is generated by Building 1000, a glass shed surrounded by landscaped green space on three sides and the Royal Albert Dock on the fourth which, amid some controversy, became Newham council’s main headquarters in 2010. There are two hotels a short walk away, but of more interest is the Compressor House close to the station, a distinctive red brick industrial building dating from 1914 which was once a cold storage warehouse for the docks. Inevitably, this ‘destination building’ in an ‘area of opportunity’ was unoccupied at the time of writing.

New Beckton Park and Cyprus

Beckton Corridor: the former Beckton Branch railway.

Ring 15 sets off on a dead-straight avenue across the park, with a parallel bridleway, an unexpected feature round here but apparently well used. It’s part of another lengthy green path incorporated into the 1980s design, only in this case its alignment has a much longer history. In 1872 the Gas Light and Coke Company opened its own private line connecting its works with the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway (EC&TJR) just east of Custom House. Initially the line was used for freight but from 1874 the EC&TJR began operating passenger services from Stratford, serving a lone station at Beckton just before the line entered the gasworks. The branch later became part of the Great Eastern Railway and, eventually, British Rail, though passenger services were withdrawn following bombing in 1940. Freight continued using it until 1970, and the track was lifted soon afterwards.

The Beckton Corridor traces the branch for most of its length, from near Prince Regent station to today’s Beckton station. Beyond this, the DLR reuses a short section past the site of the original Beckton station, of which nothing now remains, just before it crosses Royal Docks Road and turns south towards Gallions Reach. The Ring only briefly samples the old line before turning along the eastern perimeter of the park, past more sports grounds, towards Parry Avenue. A turn right just before leaving the green space will take you to Beckton Park station, another stop on the DLR Beckton branch, more-or-less on the site of a long-vanished station called Central, of which more shortly.

Next is New Beckton Park, which despite its name is rather older than the previous parks. It recalls the nearby development originally known as New Beckton, built from 1881 to provide further housing primarily for gasworks workers. In 1901, East Ham Borough Council supplemented this by laying out Savage Gardens, named after a councillor of the day, which the Ring now follows. To the north (left) it built social housing; to the south, it provided a small municipal park. Nearly all the Edwardian features, including a bandstand and lake, have long since vanished and the space was reworked in the 1980s, when all the houses it was built to serve were demolished and replaced. If you continue just a few metres further along Savage Gardens after the Ring turns off, you’ll find two gateposts looking rather more elegant than the surrounding modern fencing. These and others elsewhere around the perimeter are the only surviving original structures.

The Ring angles its way around an open grass sports field, but to the left, through the hedge and behind further neglected public buildings, is a leafier area with tennis courts and playground. There’s a more recent treat just beside the trail where it turns to leave the park: a community orchard planted by residents and schoolchildren with the help of Trees for Cities in 2018. Among its 20 fruit and nut trees are apple, crab apple, hazel, medlar, mulberry, pear, plum and quince, while the surrounding grass is managed to create a more meadow-like environment than the mowed pitches.

You emerge on East Ham Manor Way, at the southern extremity of the ancient north-south road through the parish which, further north, forms East Ham High Street. This stretch has something of the feel of a coherent local centre, with shops, a GP surgery and a community centre, though at the time of writing, the last was also ‘temporarily closed’. This is the original hub of the New Beckton development from 1881, though all the buildings now date from at least a century later.

One of the streets laid out in 1881 was named Cyprus Place and the new neighbourhood became known as Cyprus. While the original workers’ village closer to the gasworks was noted for its high-quality housing, this later addition was ‘a squalid development’, as the Victoria County History puts it, ‘a long-standing nuisance to the local board because of its lack of main drainage’, despite its proximity to one of the world’s biggest sewage works. Sharing a name with a sunny eastern Mediterranean island wasn’t intentionally ironic: the UK had gained control of Cyprus (Greek Kypros, Turkish Kıbrıs) from Turkey in 1878 so it was in the news as one of the glories of Empire. Following redevelopment, the only original building still standing is the Ferndale pub, a little off our route (though on the Green London Way) at the junction of Cyprus Place and Ferndale Street, and that’s inevitably no longer a pub but converted into flats.

Cyprus station with elevated roadway, along line of Victoria Cut and Gallions Branch railway.

Following Manor Way to what’s now its end on Cyprus Place, you reach one of five locations where the Ring runs right through a railway station, in this case Cyprus DLR station where it flies rather spectacularly across the tracks on an elegantly curved footbridge (the others are Penge East on Ring 3, Wandsworth Common on Ring 5, South Kenton on Ring 9 and East Finchley on Ring 11). But before you tackle this, have a look at the linear features which once again follow the lines of older infrastructure.

The Gallions Branch railway line was opened between 1880 and 1881 by the London and St Katharine Dock company to serve the new Royal Albert Dock, though later operated by the Great Eastern Railway with through trains from Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street. Like the Beckton branch, it split from the EC&TJR at Custom House, continuing to a station called Central, where Beckton Park DLR is today, provided for ‘the convenience of artisans, mechanics and daily labourers’, and terminated at Gallions station near the ocean liner berths, of which more later. A canal known as the Victoria Cut, long since infilled, originally paralleled the railway. Like the Beckton branch, the Gallions line was badly damaged in the Blitz, in this case ending both passenger and freight service, though the tracks remained in place until the late 1960s, used for storing rolling stock.

The decline of these branches left the main EC&TJR route to North Woolwich (later part of the North London Line) as the only railway through the area, and as redevelopment loomed in the 1970s, the lack of transport was identified as a major barrier. As mentioned above, when the first phase of London Underground’s Jubilee Line was under construction in the 1970s, it was planned to extend to Lewisham. But just before the first phase of the line opened in 1979, this was revised to a more northerly route serving the ailing Docklands, via Surrey Docks and the Isle of Dogs, taking over part of the EC&TJR to North Woolwich, then under the river to Woolwich and on to the new town of Thamesmead, with a branch to Beckton.

That year, everything changed with the election of the new Conservative government, whose monetarist sympathies made it reluctant to authorise major investment in an expensive new Tube line for the London Transport Executive, a large public body then controlled by its political rivals. Instead, when the LDDC was created in 1981, it was tasked with finding a cheaper, nimbler transport solution for its domain, one more suited to Thatcherite market-led ideology.

The outcome was the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which was part-funded, built and initially operated by private companies, boosted by government subsidy. It emphasised its difference from the Tube, with a different electrical supply system and initially with distinctive, and very corporate, branding, though sensibly it was always integrated with the zonal ticketing system. Technically, it’s a ‘light metro’ with lightweight vehicles, essentially trams operating on segregated track, though street running sections were considered in the early stages.

This idea was rejected for safety reasons, also enabling the implementation of one of the system’s most remarkable features, full automation. A ‘passenger service agent’ on each train can drive it manually if necessary, but in normal operation concentrates on passenger safety, information and revenue protection, leaving the driving to a remote computer. This was highly ambitious and advanced at the time, and even today such systems are relatively rare outside of simple self-contained people movers at airports and the like. Doubtless it was prompted by the desire to eliminate traditional unionised drivers and guards, but it was unarguably forward thinking and, following some initial glitches, has worked well, with few dangerous incidents.

The first phase of the system, opened in 1987, formed a skewed Y-shape, with branches from Tower Gateway, on the edge of the City, and Stratford converging at Canary Wharf and continuing to Island Gardens at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs, with substantial lengths alongside existing railways or reviving disused ones. A short western extension in tunnel to Bank opened in 1991. The Beckton branch was the next to open, in 1994, and once again made use of older alignments. It was effectively a continuation of the DLR’s City line east from Poplar, paralleling the North London Line (former EC&TJR) from Canning Town to Custom House then taking over the Gallions branch towards the river, with all the current stations opening at the same time.

The DLR subsequently expanded further: the Woolwich extension, which we encountered on Ring 1 and will cross over later, opened in 2009, while the Stratford International branch, crossed earlier in this section, is the most recent addition, from 2011. The Island Gardens branch was extended under the river to Greenwich and Lewisham in 1999. As a riposte to the original intention, the whole lot is now fully integrated with TfL’s other rail services, though with operations contracted to a private company, and since the early 2000s has been branded with a variant of the familiar roundel. The system now extends over 38 km with 45 stations, and although notably slower than a real Tube, nonetheless provides a useful way of getting around many previously poorly served areas. And plenty of children, not to mention a few adults, still scramble to get the front seat so they can imagine they’re driving the train.

Meanwhile, much of the proposed Jubilee Line Docklands extension was realised several decades later in 1999, though diverted at the eastern end to serve Stratford. Other parts of the planned route are covered by the DLR and, most recently, the Elizabeth Line, though poor old Thamesmead still lacks a rail connection, 55 years after its first houses were occupied. Recently there’s been revived talk of extending the DLR Beckton branch across the river to the town, though this is unlikely to happen until at least the early 2030s.

The DLR doesn’t run straightforwardly on the former trackbed here but in a shallow cutting slightly north of it and south of the former canal. It forms the central reservation of a new spine road built in 1990, the A1020 Royal Albert Way, elevated on viaducts which the Ring passes under: the northern viaduct roughly follows the line of the canal, the southern the old railway. The carriageways bend out here to create an incomplete circle with the station in the centre: this was originally intended as a roundabout connecting with local roads but the links to it were never built. Beckton Park station a little west has a similar design.

On the other side of the station, the surroundings change dramatically as you enter the expansive and aggressively contemporary Docklands campus of the University of East London (UEL), one of the flagship redevelopments in the area, opened in 1999 as the first new university campus in London for over 50 years. The institution dates back to 1892 when the newly formed West Ham county borough founded the West Ham Technical Institute in Stratford as a self-proclaimed ‘people’s university’. This merged in 1970 with similar colleges in Dagenham and Walthamstow to form North East London Polytechnic, upgraded to formal university status in 1992. It currently teaches more than 17,000 students, split between here and Stratford. A rather good café, keenly priced for staff and students but also open to the public, may provide a useful pitstop before the Ring leads you directly to the expansive waters of the Royal Albert Dock.

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Docks pumphouse at Albert Basin: filling swimming pools by the minute.

Among London’s many distinctions, it was for many centuries the biggest and busiest port in the world, an emblem of Britain’s status as a maritime nation. People have undoubtedly used the Thames for transport since prehistoric times, and the first major improvements to what was originally a relatively broad, shallow and marshy river appeared in the Roman period in the form of wharves, piers and embankments, with cumulative encroachments eventually creating the deeper, well-defined channel through the city centre that we know today. For centuries, the port was essentially the river and its banks, focused on the Pool of London, the straight, deep reach of the Thames from Rotherhithe upstream to London Bridge, which blocked tall ships from further progress. Ships would either moor at the wharves that lined the Pool or drop anchor in the river itself, with people and goods transferred in smaller boats.

By the 18th century the Pool was becoming impossibly congested. There are tales of people crossing the river on foot by jumping from deck to deck, while still more ships queued for days further downstream. The tides didn’t help, disrupting loading and unloading and creating a risk of grounding. Off-river docks were the obvious solution, providing not only additional moorings but a constant water level insulated from the tides by locks.

The first such commercial dock was Howland Great Wet Dock in Rotherhithe, opened in 1699 on a piece of land given by the Howland family to the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford, as part of a dowry: I told a bit more of the story on Ring 4 when it passed the site of the Howlands’ ancestral seat in Streatham. Later renamed Greenland Dock and much extended, it’s still in water today. But it took another century of ever-mounting congestion before dock expansion began in earnest: West India Dock on the Isle of Dogs in 1802, the London Docks at Wapping and the East India Docks at Blackwall in 1805, Surrey Commercial Docks expanded from the original Howland Dock from 1807, St Katharine’s Dock opened in 1828. Like the original railways and canals, these were private initiatives in competition with each other, and they were driven not only by rising demand but by the increasing size of ships, which grew further as iron steamships began to replace wooden sailing vessels from the 1820s.

The Victoria Dock was opened by the London and St Katharine Dock Company in 1855 as London’s biggest yet, 13 m deep and with 3.6 km of quays, designed to accommodate the largest steamships of the day. It was dug from part of Plaistow Marshes in West Ham parish, just southwest of Canning Town and in the northwest corner of a long, blunt peninsula formed by the Thames between Bugsby’s and Gallions reaches. A lock (since filled in) linked to the river at Bugsby’s reach to the west, and railway sidings provided direct connections between the EC&TJR and the quayside.

The Victoria was a great commercial success and plans were soon being drawn up for a second dock to the east, crossing the boundary into East Ham and continuing right across the peninsula to a second, eastern, lock onto Gallions reach. This was finally opened in 1880, linked to the Victoria by a channel known as the Connaught Passage, after the Duke of Connaught who performed the opening ceremony. Equipped with hydraulically powered cranes and scoring a technological first with electric light to enable round-the-clock working, it was a modern marvel of its day. Its builders got the Queen’s permission to name it the Royal Albert Dock after her late husband, with the regal adjective retrospectively applied to its older neighbour, so the pair together became known as the Royal Docks.

As with so many utilities pioneered through private enterprise, competition was initially stimulating but ultimately self-defeating. In 1886, the rival East and West India Dock Company, whose original docks were now too small for the largest vessels, opened Tilbury Docks, further downstream, today still outside Greater London though passed on London Countryway 22, in a deliberate attempt to poach the Royal Docks’ trade. But by now there simply wasn’t enough business to go round, and the cutthroat rivalry yielded perilously low returns for both companies. In 1908, following the advice of a Royal Commission, the government stepped in, effectively nationalising all of London’s docks, including Tilbury, under a newly created public body, the Port of London Authority (PLA).

The PLA launched a modernisation programme which included building a third Royal Dock to accommodate ever-swelling ships. King George V Dock, known to its workers and users as KGV, south of and connected to the Albert and slightly smaller than its neighbours but with an even bigger lock, opened in 1921. It boosted the Royal Docks into the largest area of enclosed docks in the world, covering over one square km of water with 19.3 km of quaysides, surrounded by a wider estate which reached almost 4.5 sq km in extent, about 1½ times the size of the City of London. And still more expansion was planned, with a large area to the north earmarked for a further dock, one of the reasons why some of the land we’ve just walked through remained undeveloped for so long.

As things turned out, the King George V marked high water for the Port of London. Around 25,000 tons of bombs fell on the London docks during the Blitz: they were easily identifiable from the air and an obvious target for inflicting logistical and economic damage. But the Royals remained open nonetheless and were used to construct the portable Mulberry harbours deployed for the Normandy landings in 1944. Trade revived after the war, but after peaking in the 1950s, a few years into the 1960s Docklands’ fortunes began a rapid and inexorable decline.

People of a certain political colour like to point to the role of the trade unions in this. Certainly, the docks had a strong tradition of organised labour emerging from the General Strike in 1926, when 750,000 imported meat carcasses threatened to rot in warehouses with the refrigeration turned off. As the PLA increasingly struggled to make ends meet in the 1970s, it and the government regularly scapegoated the unions for their alleged inflexibility, conveniently forgetting that their militancy was prompted by longstanding poor conditions, tough and insecure work and low pay.

Meanwhile, other forces were at work, including changing patterns of trade. The UK was still a major economy, but no longer the hub of an empire, and following its entry into what became the European Union in 1973 its trade increasingly shifted towards mainland Europe, just across the Channel, and away from the more distant Commonwealth outposts that had previously generated much of the seaborne freight. Even more significantly, from the 1960s international shipping practices progressively favoured putting everything into standard 20 and 40-foot (6.1 and 12.19 m) intermodal containers which could be stacked up to make the most efficient use of space and easily transferred between sea, rail and road vehicles by computer-controlled cranes with no need for packing and unpacking except at each end of the distribution chain. Even the Royal Docks couldn’t accommodate the new generation of even more gargantuan ships designed to transport such containers, and there simply wasn’t room left in London to build docks big enough for them. So ships began calling further down the estuary, including at Tilbury Docks, and other points closer to the coast.

The East India, London, Surrey and St Katharine docks and all the wharves on the Pool of London closed between 1967 and 1971. After a mid-1970s plan to save the Royal and West India Docks resulted in still further losses, facilities on the Isle of Dogs were closed completely in 1981. The Royals were closed to general shipping the same year, with the last vessels loaded and unloaded in KGV towards the end of the year, though they were used for ‘laying up’ ships not in use until late 1983.

The closures were a social and economic catastrophe for the East End, triggering unemployment and hardship on an unprecedented scale. It’s estimated that just the closure of the upper docks resulted not only in the direct loss of 25,000 jobs at the sites themselves but 150,000 further job losses in the wider local economy. The rest of the story, from the LDDC to today’s ongoing development, has largely been told above, but we’ll pick up on some aspects of it as the walk continues.

One LDDC legacy is immediately visible, and likely audible, across the Royal Albert Dock and slightly right. London City Airport (LCY) was first proposed by the LDDC and engineering firm Mowlem in the early 1980s and opened in 1987 on the tongue of wharves separating Albert and KGV docks. Mowlem built and initially operated what is still the closest airport to central London, though it’s now owned by a consortium of Canadian pension funds and Kuwaiti investors.

Only specific smaller aircraft can use the airport due to its short 1.5 km runway and steep approaches, so it mainly serves short haul mainland European and domestic destinations. The original intention was to provide executives from Canary Wharf and the City with flights to financial centres like Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Luxembourg, but it’s since branched into serving leisure resorts too. From 2009 there was even a luxury overnight flight to New York City, requiring a refuelling stop at Shannon where passengers pre-cleared US customs and immigration, but this was suspended during the Covid lockdowns in 2020 and has not been reinstated. To reduce noise nuisance in this heavily populated area, flying is banned at night and on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

The Ring turns east along the dockside for a relatively short distance, passing the distinctive UEL halls of residence with their ellipse-shaped footprints and sloping roofs. Today there’s quiet water where substantial ships once berthed, but you might spot smaller vessels like kayaks, sailing boats and pleasure yachts using Gallions Point Marina, though this was temporarily closed for development when I last passed by. The path angles slightly right past a squarer timber-clad block housing the university’s sports medicine centre, where it crosses another long-forgotten parish and, anomalously, county boundary. Prior to 1889, you’d be entering the Kent parish of Woolwich here. Between 1889 and 1965, while East Ham was still part of Essex, Woolwich was within the county of London, so the Ring is once again returning you to an earlier iteration of the ‘metropolis’. I’ll explain later.

Immediately after the sports medicine centre you pass five more conventionally shaped residential blocks, and the expanse of water narrows towards the eastern extremity of the dock, known as the Royal Albert Basin. Manor Way once ran between where the third and fourth of these (Redbridge House and Shepherd House) now stand to cross the neck of the basin on a bascule lifting bridge installed in 1879.  The quayside was built out to accommodate it, but this promontory, along with the bridge, has been removed. Aerial photographs reveal the imprint of its southern approach road on the northwest tip of Albert Island opposite.

The bridge was replaced in 1999 by the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge just ahead of you, spanning the water on a series of paired concrete piers. Unusually it’s named in honour of a living person, the Olympic medallist rower who has a connection to the marina and sports centre here. It’s something of a symbol of the docks’ loss of their original function, as ships of any reasonable size could not pass between its piers or under its 5.2 m clearance.

To Armada Green

River Thames at Gallions Reach, from Armada Green looking downstream, Shooters Hll in distance.

The Capital Ring’s obvious objective from here is the river Thames, just a short distance away, so it can finish as it started, in a close encounter with London’s foremost unifying feature, but at the time of writing and likely for the next few years, you may find progress frustrated by ongoing developments. I’ll start by describing the way the Ring should go. The original route, devised in the early 2000s and signed on the ground, turns away from the dockside just before the bridge to the Gallions roundabout then heads straight to the river along Atlantis Avenue.

On the opposite corner is Gallions Reach DLR station, not to be confused with the original Gallions station, which was further south and will be discussed shortly. The present station is on a new stretch of the DLR, curving north from the former Gallions branch railway on an elevated viaduct to reach the old Beckton branch, which it then follows a short distance west to today’s Beckton station. The Thamesmead extension, if it’s built, will split from the existing railway a short distance north of Gallions Reach, leaving Beckton on a stub of line.

When I first walked this way in the early 1990s, following the Green London Way, the DLR hadn’t yet been built, but the roundabout was already in place, a puzzlingly large, neat and lonely circle amid derelict land: as often with major redevelopments, they built the skeleton of the road system first, creating the impression of ghost roads through nowhere. Atlantis Avenue, originally the course of the long-infilled Victoria Cut, was a rough track, a public right of way which once led to a now-abandoned oil wharf. Where it left the roundabout, a security guard in one of those plastic sentry boxes kept watch on an access gate to the vast gasworks site, stretching northward from the path to the Beckton Alps.

In its pomp, the gasworks was one of Europe’s biggest, covering over two square km, with storage space for 250,000 tonnes of coal, employing 10,000 people and operating its own fleet of 17 collier ships. As well as producing around five million cubic metres of gas per day, it did considerable trade in other coal derivatives, like coal tar, dyes, ammonia and sulphuric acid. The shift to natural gas extracted from underground deposits in the 1960s sealed its fate, but its closure in 1969 was a significant blow to the local economy at a time when the docks were also starting to feel the pinch.

Though sections of the site in the north were redeveloped in the 1980s as retail and industrial parks, and a central chunk became a DLR depot in 1994, most of the rest was simply left to fall into dereliction. That’s the way I found it in the early 1990s, strewn with rubble and toothed by the skeletal remains of industrial buildings, an ideal location for film makers seeking post-apocalyptic surroundings. Its most famous role is as the wreckage of Huế in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam war drama Full Metal Jacket (1987), the filming of which reputedly added further ruination. But it has numerous other screen credits, including the opening sequence of For Your Eyes Only (John Glen 1981), when James Bond drops Blofeld down one of its chimneys from a helicopter, and Nineteen Eighty-Four (Michael Radford 1984). I remember it most fondly for its distinctive retort house with three square towers filmed in blurry over-saturated Super-8 in Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987).

Remains of Beckton Gasworks retort houses in 1996.
Photo: Ben Brooksbank, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

The site is considerably neater today, though still something of a patchwork. Atlantis Avenue is a proper road, and the first flats have appeared on the north (left) side of it, on the southwest corner of the gasworks, in the last couple of years. The rest is now an ‘opportunity area’ designated by the Mayor of London, with a vision for a major new neighbourhood dubbed Beckton Riverside, crossed by the DLR Thamesmead extension. Once you’re past the new flats, a large undeveloped area remains on the left as fenced rough grassland: some of this is likely to be reserved for a park when development begins in earnest. The other side of the avenue, part of the former dock estate, is already built up, though the large industrial shed currently rented by Swiss industrial engineering company Bühler may also be redeveloped eventually.

Since the Ring was first devised, developers have opened an interesting new way of getting to Atlantis Avenue which I’d be happy to see adopted as the official route. This continues under the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge, venturing further into the Royal Albert Basin. The Royal Wharf development here, completed in 2018, displays a little more architectural imagination than some of its neighbours, particularly in the three towers on piers that stick out into the water, with an elliptical cross-section that echoes the student halls we’ve just passed. But the real gem is a quirkily distinctive and obviously rather older building surrounded by a stone and glass circle just opposite the towers, currently branded Galyons Bar and Kitchen but better known as the Gallions Hotel.

Opened in 1884, the hotel was built by the dock company as part of the Gallions branch railway: indeed at first it formed part of Gallions station, the branch’s terminus, with the canopy now facing the dock opening onto the station platform. Its purpose was to accommodate passengers and ships’ officers making early morning departures on Pacific and Oriental (P&O) liners from the docks, earning it the unkind nickname ‘the captain’s brothel’. An underground passage connected it with the liner berths.

Two years after the hotel opened, the railway was diverted north of it to make way for dock alterations and the line extended slightly east to a new Gallions station. This has completely vanished under flat blocks, but for many decades afterwards a stub of its predecessor's platform remained visible outside the hotel, beneath the protruding turret. The once-familiar interchange is mentioned in Rudyard Kipling’s first novel The Light that Failed (1891), when a character asks a P&O clerk for more information about a steamer departure with the words ‘Is it Tilbury and a tender, or Galleons [sic] and the docks?’

Later run by Truman’s brewery, the Gallions clung on as a pub after rail services were withdrawn during World War II, finally closing in 1972 as the docks plunged into decline. It remained shuttered and derelict for over 40 years, until 2013 when, with redevelopment of the surroundings beginning in earnest, a construction firm restored and reopened it, installing their offices on the upper floors and a pub-restaurant beneath. As the firm was Irish-owned, the official ceremony was performed by the then-Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

Gallions and the docks: The Gallions Hotel, Royal Albert Basin.

Designed by George Vigers and Thomas Wagstaffe, the Grade II*-listed red brick and white plaster building is in a whimsical, mock-antique, quasi-Arts and Crafts style, anticipating the ‘brewer’s Tudor’ that became the favoured expression of pub architects in the interwar years. It’s packed with modestly extravagant details that cohere into a pleasing whole: the gables, the tall Elizabethan chimneys, the transomed bay windows and little turrets, the canopy and the frieze by artist Edward Roscoe Millins that wraps the top of the first floor with naked buxom nymphs and putti. It’s one of my favourite buildings on the Ring and I’m delighted that it’s back in use and looking as good as when it was built.

This alternative route leaves the quayside immediately on the other side of the hotel, but before you turn off, it’s worth following the water around the next couple of bends, perhaps as far as the footbridge. The new buildings that now surround it aren’t particularly distinguished, but overlooking the far corner of the dock is another older red brick building, a single storey with seven bays. This is the Royal Docks Pumping Station, built in 1912 and still essential to maintaining the level in the docks today with water extracted from the Thames. It contains four pumps which between them could fill an Olympic swimming pool in 1½ minutes. A short stroll through the new streets to the north of the basin takes you onto to Atlantis Avenue to rejoin the official route.

At the end of the avenue, you finally reach the river at Armada Green, a curious public space that’s intended only to be temporary until the Beckton Riverside project kicks in.  Somehow, I hope they keep it as it has an unusual atmosphere. Despite its name, it’s mainly a concrete piazza, scattered with low wooden benches and with timbers embedded in the surface, intended to resemble floating logs. The concrete was made with aggregates dredged from the river, while the timbers are sleepers salvaged from the gasworks rail network.

The river wall is high here, so the surface has been built up to provide a view over it, across the Thames to Gallions Reach urban village and the still undeveloped stretch of waste ground once used by the Royal Arsenal to its left. Shooters Hill, which we crossed back on Ring 1, rises in the distance. The antenna on the adjacent radar mast, one of several used by the PLA to monitor shipping on the river, rotates steadily overhead. It’s peaceful and slightly sombre, particularly when you remember that it was on this stretch of river that the Princess Alice went down with the loss of so many lives in 1878.

Incidentally, people often assume that the name Gallions or Galleons Reach is a reference to the 16th century warships known as galleons known from tales of the Spanish Armada. More likely it’s a reference to the Galyon family, who owned riverside property in the 14th century.

Gallions Reach and the lock gates

King George V Lock, from the Bascule Bridge looking towards the river Thames.

A path alongside or close to the river, signed as part of the Thames Path Extension, runs upstream from Armada Green across the Albert and King George V (KGV) entrance locks and all the way to the Woolwich ferry and foot tunnel, also providing the official Capital Ring route. I’m not alone in having long considered this path, particularly the section over the locks, one of the most intriguing walks in London, a secret passage discoverable only on foot, although not everyone appreciates the sense of isolation on some parts of it. The Beckton Riverside plans should provide a substantial extension of this path downstream, perhaps even to Barking Riverside. But that’s still many years away, and in the meantime one of the Ring’s most characterful paths has become one of its most problematic.

Parts of the section between Armada Green and Gallions Point have been closed for varying periods in recent years for work of various kinds, including strengthening the river wall and repairing the locks. In April 2022, the Royal Docks and the Mayor of London announced a more prolonged closure of the whole stretch of path, both for redevelopment and to allow the replacement of the life-expired lock gates. Following the completion in October 2023 of yet another new estate at Great Eastern Quays, between Albert Dock and the river, the path between Armada Green and Albert Lock reopened, and there are recent reports that the sections across the locks are at least reopened informally, though could be closed at short notice. I’ll describe the official route below, as well as alternatives if you find some sections closed. As often with walking infrastructure, reliable sources of offsite information are hard to find, so you should check Inner London Ramblers’ website for updates and otherwise tackle this section of the route in the spirit of adventure, prepared to backtrack if necessary.

Even as the path reopens, its character will inevitably change. The first stretch from Armada Way was an unsurfaced path with an obscured entrance, a high flood defence wall blocking off much of the river view on one side and a scraggly strip of secondary woodland on the other. The Royal Docks team describes the reopened stretch as ‘much enhanced by improved landscaping, tree planting and recreational areas’, indicating a very different environment. There will be benefits such as enhanced accessibility and an improved perception of personal safety, but there will be losses too. I haven’t walked this stretch since it reopened, but I wonder if it’s improved the view of a feature beneath your feet opposite the end of Wallis Walk, a little before the path starts to bend inland towards the first lock: the intake where the pumping station abstracts all those cubic metres.

The path used to cross Albert Lock over the inner lock gate but there’s now a footbridge as the gate has been replaced (perhaps temporarily) with a fixed barrier. The narrowness of the lock, only around 8 m, is a striking indication of how ships have swelled in size since 1880: today’s Ultra Large Container Vessels regularly reach 50 m or more.

On the other side is Albert Island, an irregularly shaped 10 ha patch of land enclosed by the locks, the docks and the river. Accessible by road only from Manor Way, it was long another largely empty and semi-derelict area. The marina, dirt bike track, builder’s yard, boat repairer and branch of the National Construction College have all been evicted in the last couple of years to clear the way for another huge redevelopment, creating an ‘industrial park and innovation campus’ which will include the first new shipyard to be built in London in over a century and a new pedestrian bridge. The riverside footpath here was as untidy and secluded as the Great Eastern Quays stretch, but project director Richard Gibb promises ‘fantastic landscaping…with terraces down to the water that will allow people to go down to the shore’.

King George V Lock at the other end of the path is still operational. Although small by today’s standards, it’s much bigger than Albert Lock: 30.48 m wide and 235 m long. Just beyond the inner gates, to your right, Manor Way leaves the island on a bascule bridge which is also still functional: while its brick approaches date from the 1920s construction, the bridge itself was renewed in 1990.

The public path crosses the inner gates, and you might try to imagine the scene in August 1939 when the brand-new Cunard-White Star transatlantic liner RMS Mauretania, the biggest ship ever to use the Royals, squeezed through on a return voyage from New York City, witnessed by 10,000 spectators. The ship was almost exactly the same length as the lock, and just a couple of metres narrower, but it got through with barely a scrape thanks to the skilled crews of several tugs at both bow and stern. This was also the point where the last vessel to load commercially at the docks left them behind in 1981.

The Ring leaves Albert Island to enter the Gallions Point estate, completed in 2003: the riverside path here is well-established so there should be no more major closure issues. From 1924, this was the main London yard of celebrated Belfast shipbuilders Harland & Wolff, founded in 1861. It never built anything as spectacular as the firm’s most famous work, RMS Titanic, but was an important supplier of smaller vessels, from canal boats to lighters and small steamships, as well as buoys, piers, spare parts and car and railway bodywork, and offered a full repair service. It even had a sailmakers’ shop, as traditional Thames sailing barges were still in widespread use for local freight. In 1972, as London shipping declined and international competition increased, H&W began concentrating operations in Belfast and closed the North Woolwich facility. It was subsequently demolished except for the main gates, which are now in Lyle Park in Silvertown, some distance off our route.

The Ring follows the promenade, but there’s a parallel greener and less formal alternative accessed through a wooden gate visible ahead as you turn towards the river. The narrow sandy bank between river wall and river is managed as the Gallions Point Riverside Wildlife Area, a pleasant strip of long grass, wildflowers, shrubs and bird life. At low tide, you can even scramble down to the foreshore in a couple of places. The angle where the riverside turns slightly right is Gallions Point itself.

Gallions  Point Wildlife Area, where Harland & Wolff shipyard once met the Thames.

Either way, you’ll reach a pleasant little plaza at the end of Fishguard Way, the spine road through the estate, named after the Welsh port where H&W-built vessels regularly operate. Shipbuilding was briefly revived here in 2016 when artist and sometime Elvis impersonator Dmitri Galitzine, with the participation of local residents, spent the summer constructing a small wooden sailing ship, the Nyuk Ken, from recycled wood. It was then hauled away down the river, but there’s now a smaller hull in its place, converted into a planter.

If you encounter path closures, or want to avoid steps, or vary your surroundings if you’ve walked this way before, there are several other ways of reaching this point, though none quite so satisfying as following the river. The simplest, most direct and reliable option, signed as a Ring step-free alternative, is to cross the docks alongside Manor Way on the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge, easily reached from the dockside by the UEL buildings.

The views from the bridge are worth sampling, with Albert Lock on the left and Woolwich in the distance, and a panorama of the docks and the airport to the right, with the London Cable Car at the other end and Canary Wharf beyond. The bridge descends to Albert Island and the road continues across the bascule bridge, with the KGV lock beneath. A left turn down Fishguard Way takes you straight through the estate to the plaza.

Another shorter alternative, cutting out the riverside path at Great Eastern Quays, is to venture further into the Royal Albert Basin from the Gallions Hotel, with a closer view of the pumping station. Following the quayside, you’ll arrive at Albert Lock to pick up the route described above.

If the path across KGV Lock is closed, there’s another straight ahead that circumnavigates three sides of a crane compound and continues beside the lock, reaching a short drive onto Gallions Road which leads to Manor Way and across the bascule bridge as described above. In the past, parts of this path were often overgrown but it usually remained passable: again its qualities are highly likely to change as Albert Island is redeveloped. You can also cut out the riverside path on the island by staying on Gallions Road once you’ve crossed Albert Lock.

North Woolwich

The long-disused North Woolwich station building, dating from 1854.

Rivers are obvious lines for boundaries to follow, dividing everything from individual properties to whole countries. For the best part of a millennium, the Thames has definitively separated counties over much of its length: Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Essex on the north bank, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent on the south. But for most of that period, there was a curious anomaly here, with two salients of Woolwich parish, in the lathe of Sutton at Hone and the Blackheath hundred of Kent, reaching across the river to encroach into East Ham parish, in the Becontree hundred of Essex. In the past, boundaries were often more ragged than we expect them to be today, with various enclaves, exclaves and ‘detached parts’ often derived from medieval manorial holdings. But it was unusual to find such untidiness on the banks of such a wide river.

The responsibility likely lies with Hamon Dapifer (died c1100; the last name refers to his office rather than his family), steward to both William the Conqueror and his son William II and, from 1077, Sherriff of Kent. Hamon held extensive estates in both Kent and Essex, including the manor of Woolwich and additional lands just across the river, surrounded by East Ham. He seems to have used his power and influence as Sherriff to ensure these holdings were consolidated into Kent. This made it easier for him to earn tax revenues from the ferry which already operated here, of which more later.

It’s not unknown for the land immediately adjacent for ferry terminals and bridge landings to be included in the same administrative division on both sides of the water but the areas affected are usually small. Here they were much bigger: not only a substantial patch behind the ferry pier but an even bigger one further downstream, a wide strip alongside Gallions Reach to Barking Creek. At over 1.6 square km in total, they accounted for around a third of Woolwich parish, later including the Albert Basin, nearly all the gasworks and sewage works and all but the tip of Albert Island. We’ve been walking entirely within ancient Woolwich since just before leaving Albert Dock.

The anomaly persisted for a remarkably long time. As mentioned above, when Woolwich became part of the London County Council area in 1885, its detached parts went with it, subsequently included in the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich created in 1900. East Ham remained in Essex, so the two patches became the only official part of the metropolis on the north bank of the Thames east of the river Lea. Finally, when Greater London was created in 1965, they were sensibly included along with East and West Ham in the new London Borough of Newham, while Woolwich was merged into the London Borough of Greenwich, now entirely on the south bank.

Originally the anomaly was known by terms like Detached Woolwich or Woolwich in Essex. The name North Woolwich didn’t become current until a railway station of that name, a little further along, opened in 1847. Today the name is usually restricted to the patch between the docks, the riverside and the old West Ham parish boundary, which, as we’ll see, includes territory that was never Woolwich! There was an established hamlet here in Hamon’s time, likely a little further downstream than today’s North Woolwich, though by the early 15th century it had been lost to flooding. The fields were drained again in the 16th century but the area remained as largely uninhabited grazing land until the railway arrived in 1847.

There’s a slightly annoying reminder as we leave the estate that the riverside access here isn’t by right but permissive, granted as a condition of planning consent: a gate out onto the street with an electronic lock operated by a button, only operational during daylight hours. Though normally not an issue, it’s been known to fail, forcing a detour back through the estate. Beyond this is a slipway, the Old Bargehouse Drawdock, an ancient river access point which was once used for ferries. The Old Barge House itself was a pub at the top of the slipway, opened around 1815 as possibly the first in the area and claiming to incorporate a grounded barge in its structure. It was destroyed by a bomb in 1940. There’s a second slipway a little further along at Waldair Wharf.

Entering Royal Victoria Gardens, you almost immediately cross the western boundary of the larger patch of Detached Woolwich, temporarily leaving former Kent and the old County of London and re-entering former East Ham parish and Essex. The gardens are almost entirely in the tongue of East Ham that separated the two detached parts, though no-one today would dispute this is still North Woolwich. The Ring follows a raised riverside terrace with splendid views, but it’s worth taking a few paces right just inside the park to inspect a preserved steam hammer made in Glasgow in 1888, salvaged from Green and Silley-Weir shipyard on Albert Dock during the construction of London City Airport and installed here in 1994.

1888 shipyard steam hammer in Royal Victoria Gardens, North Woolwich.

The Gardens are part of the story of the area’s development. The land here, along with some of the rest of East Ham, once belonged to Westminster Abbey. It was described in 1556 as ‘a cottage and a marsh’, and so it stayed until 1847 with the opening of the railway and the steam ferry. The Courage brewery added a pub and hotel, the Royal Pavilion, to serve the increased footfall, and in 1851 the pub’s tenant turned the adjacent riverside into the Royal Pavilion Pleasure Gardens, with attractions including circus acts, fireworks, hot air balloons, dancing, landscaped gardens, a bowling green and a maze. The facility prospered for three decades thanks partly to canny agreements with pleasure boat operators, outlasting all the other London pleasure gardens, though by 1882 it was operating at a loss.

Following a proposal to sell it for building land, a group of worthies including the bishops of Rochester and St Albans petitioned to use it instead as a public park, a badly needed green space in an increasingly congested area. Their funding appeal successfully raised the asking price of £19,000, including a £50 donation from Queen Victoria. The site was handed over to the London County Council which reopened it in 1890 after much reworking, including a swimming pool and a new bowling green: only the riverside terrace and the central walk survived from the original design.

Most of the 1890 features have in turn been lost: one exception is the bowling green, which you’ll see if you continue past the steam hammer to find the toilets. Adjacent is a splash pool, the only current water feature. Renovated in the early 21st century, it’s a pleasantly leafy space that retains something of an appropriately Victorian atmosphere, though the riverside promenade is arguably still its most distinguished feature.

The new flats in the far corner occupy the site of the original Royal Pavilion pub, demolished in 2002. This was in Woolwich while most of its gardens were in East Ham, so as you reach the flats you cross back into ancient Kent. Immediately north of them, though a few steps off our route, is a small garden enclosed by trees, another rare surviving late 19th century feature.

The Woolwich Crossing

Troublesome vessel Dame Vera Lynn on the Woolwich Free Ferry service, North Woolwich Pier.

As we’ve heard, Woolwich and North Woolwich were already connected by ferry in early Norman times. The service may have been intermittent in times of flooding, but there’s written evidence of it from 1308 when the business was sold for £10, then sold on again in 1320. Cross-river traffic increased following the establishment of the Royal Arsenal in 1671, and in 1810 the Army, frustrated by the sometimes-unreliable existing service, began operating its own ferry. Back then, both military and civilian ferries sailed from the Old Bargehouse drawdock.

In 1847, the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway (EC&TJR), which already had a line primarily for coal from Stratford to Thames Wharf south of Canning Town, extended to a new station at North Woolwich where it provided its own steam ferry service from a new iron pier opposite. Woolwich itself, which didn’t yet have a rail connection, was the main objective: there was nothing at North Woolwich except the Bargehouse pub and slipway and ‘one small house occupied by a local shepherd’. But the railway itself stimulated developments like the pleasure gardens, and in 1854 the original station building was replaced by a much grander edifice.

As demand grew, even this service became stretched, and in the 1880s Woolwich residents began lobbying for an improved publicly funded ferry, pointing to the fact that the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) had already taken over several toll bridges in west London and abolished the tolls. The MBW eventually agreed, appointing Joseph Bazelgette, whom we met on the Greenway, to oversee the project. The free paddle steamer service launched in 1889, two days after the MBW was replaced by the London County Council, departing from a new terminal upstream of the station. It's remained a free service ever since.

In the 1930s the North Woolwich ferry terminal became the effective eastern end point of the North Circular Road, connecting with the South Circular which begins on the Woolwich side, though the northern approaches have never been numbered A406 like the North Circular itself (they’re currently A1020 and A117). Modern roll on-roll off boats were introduced in 1963, with the current pontoons installed in 1966. Responsibility for the service transferred to the Greater London Council in 1965, the Secretary of State for Transport and the London Borough of Greenwich when the GLC was abolished in 1988, and to Transport for London (TfL) in 2008. Two new Polish-built diesel-electric hybrid vessels began public service in 2019, but have proved unreliable, and TfL is currently operating a reduced service on a semi-permanent basis, with no ferries at weekends, so this has become even more of a notorious traffic bottleneck than before.

As to the service’s future, various proposals for replacing it with new road crossings have foundered on local opposition, cost and environmental concerns. A scheme proposed by Boris Johnson when he was London mayor to displace it to Beckton and Thamesmead characteristically came to nothing. So with no further vehicle crossings of the Thames downstream from here to the Dartford Crossing (Loop 23/24 alternative) and no foot passenger crossings until Tilbury (London Countryway 22), the Woolwich Ferry looks like it will remain as one of London’s best free rides for some time to come.

The LCC’s free service inevitably torpedoed demand for the existing railway ferry. Then-owners the Great Eastern Railway finally withdrew it in 1908, though the pier remained in use until World War II by railway steamers to Margate and Southend. The structure still stands, though badly deteriorated, partly burnt out and unsafe for use. The connecting rail service continued into British Rail days, though the facilities were reduced to a single platform by the 1970s, and in 1979 the large 1854 building was closed and replaced by a much smaller modern one next door. That same year, the line enjoyed a new lease of life when it was appended to the improved North London Line service from Richmond.

In 1984, the old building was reopened as the North Woolwich Old Station Museum, but this closed due to funding difficulties in 2008, and proposals to turn it into an arts centre foundered. An evangelical church bought it in 2020 but it remains unused, its windows firmly boarded. In 2023, yet another new development was announced for the site, which includes an extensive former goods yard. As the building is Grade II listed it will have to be retained, so may yet be restored to its former glory.

The rail service, meanwhile, ended in 2006: the new station building was demolished, though most of the line has been reused. As we’ve seen, the northern section between Stratford and Canning Town is now the DLR. From just south of Canning Town to Prince Regent, both the DLR and the new Elizabeth Line trace the old alignment, and the Elizabeth Line then curves between Victoria and Albert Docks through the EC&TJR’s Connaught Tunnels. It enters a new cross-river tunnel just northwest of the former North Woolwich station, but without stopping. The nearest station is now King George V, on the DLR Woolwich branch, which runs south of the docks, partly on another former EC&TJR line, before turning into its own cross-river tunnel north of Royal Victoria Gardens. We walked over it shortly after entering the park.

The official Ring route just misses the old station, continuing from the gardens onto the riverside path past the boarded-off railway ferry pier. But it’s worth taking a few paces right past the flats to the bend in Pier Road, with the Elizabeth Line pretty much exactly beneath your feet. You can see how closely integrated everything was in the 1850s: the station with its pillars and rusticated arches immediately opposite, the pier just to the left, behind the dot matrix sign, and the site of the Royal Pavilion pub and hotel with its attached pleasure garden immediately right.

From here you can divert to King George V station or head straight for the foot tunnel entrance, now visible to your left, but the Ring wants to show you just a bit more of the river. The riverside path ends just before the ferry pontoon, where a ramp leads up to the pavement. The ferry provides one option for completing the Ring, but the official route assumes you’ll want to rely on your own muscle power by walking across the river here via the foot tunnel, entered via its distinctive red brick rotunda.

It's a sign of how quickly North Woolwich changed that by the dawn of the 20th century demand for cross river transport was once again exceeding supply, particularly for dockers living in Woolwich and working at the Royals. Campaigning socialist politician and trade unionist Will Crooks (1852-1921) was once a dock worker himself and was involved in a major dock strike in 1889. He was elected the same year as one of the first labour movement members of the LCC, became the first Labour Mayor of Poplar in 1900 and the MP for Woolwich in 1902, winning a massive swing from the Conservatives. He campaigned for various improvements in Docklands and its surroundings, including the Greenwich Foot Tunnel in 1902.

The LCC opened this companion tunnel in 1912, thanks again to Crooks’s advocacy, finally providing a physical connection between the component parts of Woolwich. Designed by Maurice Fitzmaurice, whose portfolio includes Vauxhall Bridge and the Aswan Dam, the tile-lined tunnel runs for 504 m, reaching a depth of 3 m below the riverbed, and is still used by around 1,000 people a day. There are lifts as well as stairs, though they’re unreliable, and at the time of writing the north lift is out of service for the medium term.

Longer and quieter than the Greenwich tunnel, it’s quite an experience: with its unavoidably damp air and echoey acoustics, it’s just as you might expect walking half a kilometre under a major river should feel like. But it’s brightly lit and the frequent CCTV cameras give reassurance on personal safety. A bigger problem is the speeding bikes: cycling is banned but the rule is frequently ignored, and Greenwich and Newham councils have struggled to manage the issue.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel.

And so you complete the Capital Ring by emerging on the south side of the river behind the Waterfront Leisure Centre in Woolwich in the London Borough of Greenwich, likely gasping for fresh air after a brisk climb up the stairs. That quirky little rotunda we passed on the first section 126 km ago now takes on a new significance. After perhaps spending a little time gazing back across the river, you can either follow the official station link downstream and through the Royal Arsenal, handy for the Elizabeth Line (which has opened since I started writing about the Ring) or take the short way via Hare Street and Powis Street. I covered Woolwich in detail at the start so I won’t say any more now but leave you to enjoy your own sense of achievement.


I can confidently claim to be familiar with the Capital Ring. In the early 1990s, when the route was still an unnamed pencil line on the London Walking Forum’s maps, I walked the Green London Way, an unofficial green walking trail around inner London using existing access, devised by Bob Gilbert who back then worked for the Lea Valley Park. While Bob took numerous different decisions from the people who eventually finalised the Ring, both routes shared the same overall intentions and inevitably ended up visiting many of the same places and using many of the same stretches of path.

It was Bob’s brilliantly written guidebook that did the most to encourage my love of urban walking and what it can teach you about history and social and economic change as well as the natural and built environment. The book spent many paragraphs reminding readers that London’s extensive collection of fine green spaces and built heritage, one of the things that makes this very large and busy city liveable, survives thanks to phenomenal courage and determination and sometimes even bloodshed, as ordinary Londoners fought against rich and powerful landowners to secure sites which would otherwise have been swept away in the interests of private profit. Knowing this made me even more appreciative of the places I already knew, and anxious to discover more of them.

When the first Capital Ring sections began to open later in the decade, each promoted with its own free leaflet, I made a priority of completing them. I walked the whole route when the first edition of Colin Saunders’s official guide appeared in 2003, rediscovering some places familiar from the Green London Way as well as the leaflets. I walked it again between 2017 and 2021 to research these blogs, and the Green London Way again between 2016 and 2023 for a series of led walks, twice over in fact as I had to both recce and lead them. In between times I’ve rewalked numerous individual sections both for my own pleasure and in my capacity as a walk leader.

But I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the Ring which is probably my favourite London trail. Though the Thames Path is tough competition, it’s all (or very nearly all) river, which is fabulous, but the Ring has two exceptional and contrasting stretches of the river and so much else too. The London Loop has more expansive and wilder greenery but can also be a bit suburban. The Ring is closer to the centre, more urban and even denser with layers of history and significance, unfolding as a succession of unexpected pleasures in seemingly unpromising surrounds. And the Loop is also frustrating in turning out not to be a loop at all, while the Ring satisfactorily completes its circuit, eventually taking you back to where you started, no matter where that was.

Time and again, when I’ve taken others on walks along these paths, they’ve commented that they never knew that this was here, or that they’re astonished to see something like that in inner London. For me, and I suspect for many others, walking in London has always been about discovery, as well as assembling your own sense of place and enriching your mental map. The Ring excels at both.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up this adventure than repeating the exercise I carried out when I concluded the Loop, picking out a dozen personal favourite places which I may never have discovered without walking the trail and which still delight me. The section numbers are included in brackets. I’ve avoided Thamesside spots as we’ll also find these on the Thames Path when I get round to it. You may agree with me, you may not. There’s only one way to find out.

1.      Oxleas Woods (1). I guess many other Ring walkers would pick this one too, particularly as it was almost destroyed to make way for a motorway. It’s the variety I particularly love, the mixture of wildwood and genteel civilisation, and that matchless succession of Severndroog Castle, the Castle Wood terraces with their distant views, dense Jack Wood, a surprise outcrop of formal gardens and the lovely café overlooking the sweeping grass.

2.      Downham Woodland Walk (3). What an inspiration of the 1920s LCC developers to fold their new estate around a strip of woodland, and how delightful that it’s still there as a secret geography.

3.      Crystal Palace Park (3). Another perhaps obvious choice, but I always welcome the chance to wander among the anatomically inaccurate dinosaurs and to invoke the ghost of the palace itself on the giant empty stage at the top of Sydenham Hill.

4.      Streatham Common (4). Where you can enter Lambeth, an inner London borough, from Croydon on your way to a Zone 3 station, along a rough country lane between woods and fields, and dip into one of London’s loveliest gardens on the way.

5.      Richmond Park (6). My third crowd-pleasing pick, but as this is London’s biggest green space I should probably narrow things down a bit. So how about walking between the frozen Pen Ponds in the frost of a February morning while deer graze in the distance, or strolling from Ian Dury’s bench on Poet’s Corner to descend the spectacular slopes of Petersham Meadows on one of those crystal-clear spring days when you can just about see Windsor Castle?

6.      Brent Park (8). This was one of my epiphanies when I first walked the Green London Way: the leafy paths along the Brent are already attractive, the Wharncliffe Viaduct is impressive, and suddenly there’s this perfect cluster of buildings around Brent Lodge stables, beside a little animal park overlooked by a hilltop church.

7.      Horsenden Hill (9). A unique island of hay meadows and woodland marooned in suburbia. I prefer the alternative route past the farmhouse with its rich kitchen garden, a prelude to the flat hilltop, where you surely pick up the resonant atmosphere even if you’re unaware of its prehistoric past.

8.      Parkland Walk (12). There’s something special about trails along old railway lines: the privilege of enjoying somewhere once firmly off-limits, and the geeky delight in spotting remnants of the past. You’ll enjoy these in full between the platforms of Crouch Hill station, but don’t let the Spriggan pounce.

9.      Abney Park Cemetery (12). The nonconformist and radical connections make this a particularly fascinating member of the Magnificent Seven, as well as the higgledy-piggledy, semi-overgrown environment and the incongruity of the main entrance with its monumental ancient Egyptian pastiche.

10.    Walthamstow Marshes from Springfield Park (13). I have a soft spot for flat and lonely places, and this best-preserved of the lower Lea marshes hits it firmly. Even if you find the landscape monotonous, you’ll enjoy the wildlife, and the descent from a gem among London parks.

11.    Middlesex Filter Beds (13). Again it’s the juxtaposition that’s fascinating: what would once have been a rather unattractive site so thoroughly reclaimed by nature, but with plenty of mysterious industrial remains, some of which now seem almost as organic as the trees and reed beds. A very short dodge off the official trail but unmissable.

12.    The Royal Docks (15). Much as I’m cynical about some of the redevelopment, it’s so far failed to rob the docks themselves of their glory. These breathtakingly vast geometric expanses of water are a giant monument to perhaps the most important aspect of the city’s past. And the Gallions Hotel is surely one of the most charming buildings of its age in London.

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