East London has a proud history of using waterways to provide prosperity and leisure and London 2012 is making a contribution to reviving this tradition. I joined British Waterways’ board recently in a review of the potential for the rivers and canals around the Olympic Park to contribute to the Games and a sustainable legacy.
Various presentations took place during the day to start to illustrate the potential of this water city region. One of the most compelling was by Councillor Paul Brickell who neatly linked past and present by telling the audience that his great-grandfather had drowned in the Thames before setting out his perspective on the huge potential of the area for regeneration.
The best stories however were from the rivers themselves. We travelled very slowly from Old Ford to Limehouse and very quickly from Limehouse to Canary Wharf. The trip from Old Ford gave a unique perspective to the Olympic Park, taking in the Forman and Field salmon smokery, a 100 year old business that was on the Olympic Park site, relocated just over the canal and now boasting an art gallery and swanky restaurant. They have purchased a plot of land next door to provide canal side corporate hospitality a few metres from the boundary of the park with a stunning view over the stadium. Smart move! Another example entrepreneurial endeavour can be seen a few metres along the waterway; a rickety shed with a hand painted sign proclaiming “Olympic cycle hire”. It is clear that the IOC’s lawyers have never travelled this route. The navigation is very mixed, with some interesting developments but many parts of the journey were flanked with derelict buildings and graffiti strewn walls. The responsibility for removing graffiti lies with whoever owns the wall, making it very difficult to control alongside a waterway. We passed a barge with a collection of stuff dredged from the canal, a collection of supermarket trolleys, bikes, a refrigerator and even a motorbike. Maintaining our waterways is a never-ending job. The journey emerges into Limehouse Basin, with lots of expensive looking flats in an orgy of “waterfront living” but not very much infrastructure and not much evidence of mix of uses. The basin contains some very rare residential moorings, providing some character and animation to the waterway. During the Games, and hopefully afterwards, water taxis will ferry people on this route. A lot of work needs to be done to make the journey more pleasant but the potential for a charming and unhurried journey to and from the Park is there to be seen.
A white knuckle ride in a fast RIB around the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf took about 10 minutes (the Docklands Light Railway is probably just as quick but not as much fun). Entering Canary Wharf through a lock the same size as those on the Panama Canal gives a very different perspective to this place. Emerging from the tube it looks like a characterless collection of tall buildings. Enter by water and it is an inland port, capable of hosting super-yachts, naval and large commercial vessels, with the buildings providing a stunning backdrop to the water. These waterways need animating to enrich this area culturally in the same way as it has been enriched financially by the banks that seem to continue to thrive there despite the credit crunch.
Waterways are part of East London’s heritage and need to be part of its future as a sustainable place to live, work and play.