Friday, November 30, 2012

The view from the East

I have more time on my hands than I used, I have spent many years writing about the London Underground system and I have a Freedom Pass. So what better way to combine the three and go off on a jaunt on some unfamiliar parts?

Yesterday I took myself off for a few hours to ride the Docklands Light Railway. OK, it is not really part of the Underground, and hardly any of it actually is below the surface, indeed substantial sections are elevated at first floor level and you have the wonderful experience of looking down on people and vehicles, but it is part of the London Transport network so it counts.

The engineering and the design of this railway are superb. It twists itself around tight corners and leaps over gulfs that would defy the conventional tube. The driverless trains run with precision. The information systems are clear and helpful. I love it. But this is not the place to go into such details - I just want to share a few impressions - remember that, to a son of beautiful Ruislip, East London is a strange and alien world.

My journey began with a Met to Aldgate and a stroll down the quaintly named Minories to the DLR terminus at Tower Gateway. This always was the boundary of the City of London and it still is - on the right, steel and glass buildings rise to the sky (including the Gherkin seemingly near enough to touch) and on the left, the stone and brick low rise properties of what used to be the poorest part of the city and the home of my grandparents. Capital city and financial centre faces dense residential and light industrial. The contrast is even marked the moment the DLR, elevated for it first few stations, leaves the Tower. The glittering blue office blocks are nowhere in sight - all around are flats, many long terraces, some still recognisably Victorian or earlier but mostly dull post-modern council projects. Shadwell and Limehouse stations - names that recall the docklands - hover amongst the sea of roofs, with the occasional church making a welcome break, in particular Hawksmoor's St Anne's with its square, tapering tower topped with little effigies of itself. And in the middle distance, dominating the view, are the half dozen tall buildings that are collectively known as Canary Wharf, sticking out of the flat surroundings like Dallas on the TV show.

Canary Wharf occupies a wonderful site, facing the river with docks and canals around it so that there is the gleam of open water wherever you look. The DLR contorts itself as you leave Poplar, tracks writhing around you, one branch leading north to Stratford, one going due east and the line to Canary Wharf threading itself through and over the others to reach the station high above the main mall that lies beneath the skyscrapers. Actually there is one other station, West India Quay, so close to Canary Wharf one wonders they bothered building it.

Around this glittering temple to money stretches a wilderness. Acres of desolate ground, brown and waterlogged, some fenced in and being worked by machines and men in hard yellow hats. The housing estates, though all at a safe distance. And, incongruously, perched at the feet of a very tall building is Billingsgate Fish Market, looking as though it has been plucked from its original site in Lower Thames Street near the Tower and plonked into the mud.

I found the shopping mall at Canary Wharf oppressively busy, and was bemused by the queues at some of the fast food outlets, with everyone glued to their mobiles. So I picked up a DLR going north to Stratford, past the wonderfully named Pudding Mill Lane and then the Olympic park on one side and the River Lea on the other. I had never really been aware of the Lea before, and how it forms such an obvious boundary. A quick sandwich at Westfield and back on the other branch, opened in August 2011, that leads to Canning Town and on to Beckton. One of my assistants, many years ago, was looking to buy a house in Beckton as it was the only part of London he felt he could afford. So I was curious to see why the DLR should extend that way.  But really the railway is there to open up the huge expanse of land around the Victoria and Albert docks, and Beckton just happens to be a convenient bit at the end where there was room to build the main DLR depot. There is nothing at the station at all bar a few windswept main roads, an Asda, a Travellodge and housing. I was glad I had lunch at Stratford and not waited.

I returned to Canning Town, wondering whether to take the Woolwich branch and as my train arrived so did a Woolwich-bound one on the adjacent platform. So that was that decision made. 

The tube map is wholly misleading. It shows the DLR going south east with the two dock branches as quite distinct. But the two lines run due east, and parallel for some way, only changing direction at the end when the Beckton branch curves back on itself (so that Beckton is actually north of Gallions Reach, not south east as shown on the map) and the other goes south-east under the Thames to Woolwich (and not south) as shown. And for nearly the whole way these two lines are within sight of each other, one passing north and the other south of the docks. From the Beckton branch there is a great view of the new Emirates Air-line cable crossing linking the Dome with ExCel (not sure why anyone would wish to go from one to the other but the ride over the Thames must be worth it). From the Woolwich branch you pass underneath the swaying cable cars as they descend to the northern station - and for the people up there that bit must be singularly disappointing for the riverside is nothing but waste disposal sites, lorry parks, machinery dumps, derelict warehouses, fenced-off compounds and mud. Charles Dickens would have felt at home here.

I enjoyed a brief visit to Woolwich where a few steps from the station bring you to the Arsenal, once one of the biggest manufacturing sites in Britain and where 80,000 people worked during WW1. Now this huge river-fronting site is being developed for housing and offices but it also has many historic buildings and is home to the Royal Artillery museum.

And so back, past London City Airport, to the main terminus at Bank, the most irritating station to visit because the DLR platforms are deep underground and no less than three escalators as well as stairs are needed to gain the surface.  I walked up to Moorgate, along a street I used to visit daily when I was a trainee accountant all those years ago. There is a huge curved office block and I can't remember what it replaced. Near the station another massive hole in the ground where more old buildings are gone and no doubt another glass tower will arise.

A very pleasant outing, enhanced by clear skies and the sun setting low over the City on the return so that we seemed to be riding into a golden haze. It is strange to see one's own hometown through the eyes of a tourist and humbling to think of just how much of London remains to be visited.

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