The destination is the Thames Barrier.
As the crow flies, not far from Hackney, but the relentless non-logic of the city's layout presents constant problems, diversions, trips down one-way streets, dead ends, elliptical urban geography. Through East London, angering pedestrians by Victoria Park, across an ugly, heaving Mile End, hot spring sunshine causing us to sweat out last night's alcohol. Reaching The River is relatively easy. We see the reptilian cormorants fanning out their regal wings, sucking up the sun's rays, black headed gulls now crowned with their summer plumage, the dirty salt smells, wandering groups of tourists, other cyclists. Push on and on, to where we can cross the widening expanse of water, the Greenwich footbridge. The lifts are closed, workmen drilling in nightmare cacophonies, bikes have been physically carried down the endless flights of stairs, then through the tunnel, damp air, rusted pools to step over, the strange knowledge of being beneath such a weight of legendary water. The upstairs haul is worse, sweat pouring off us now, navigating heavy bikes past bemused baby brained buggy-pushers who refuse to accept that people will not, cannot, move out of the way for their children. Finding it hard to accept their lack of importance in the world.
Greenwich is insane, boiling crowds of people, kids on school trips, a Vespa convention amassing near the Maritime Museum, old mods on scooters, tourists, tourists, tourists, gawping at the work being done to a refurbished, post-flame Cutty Sark. Facing the Maritime Museum, bikes and bodies are flung to the immaculate green grass, water chugged from plastic, ill-advised cigarettes smoked. Sweat cools and dries.
There are various routes from here to reach the Barrier. We take the most direct, knowing the real journey exploring the senile Thames will be the return leg. A brief stop to stock on cheap cheese and onion sandwiches, too-hot cheese and onion pasties from Greggs, more cigarettes, water, chocolate.
Those brown signs of cultural interest lead us, finally, though a rundown industrial estate and then we are there. The Thames Barrier.
Built after the North Sea floods of the fifties that claimed so many lives. None of us knew this, it took a faded information board smeared with bird shit to tell us. The Barrier itself is stunning, glistening science fiction metal rising high out of the dirty grey water, Ballardian to the point of absurdity. How could we not, we think, have ever seen this before? Something so important, so impressive, half-forgotten on the edges of the city that it protects, slumbering until it is required in watery hours of need.
We refill our water bottles in the sad little café that is attached to the Information Centre. A sign informs it is three pounds fifty to enter, and a unanimous decision of ‘fuck that’ is reached. A few families and other tourists sit at the bright blue benches, all quiet, staring out at the chaotic riverscape where we have the Barrier itself, an implausible set of new high rise flats looking woefully out of place, a building that is half rubble and either being destroyed or renewed – who can tell these days? – and a Tate & Lyle sugar factory.
A person looks at such jumbled topography and can be mistaken that they are imagining things. Tripping. Whatever you want to call it.
A small patch of land by the Information Centre, the strangely dubbed ‘Field of Hope’ is awash with bright yellow daffodils, a small beacon of respect to the Marie Curie Cancer foundation.
‘It’s not really a field, is it’ someone says. It isn’t.
OK. The journey back. We decide to follow The River the entire way, looping round the Dome, following the Thames Path all the way back, ten miles or so, to Tower Bridge, which we will then have to traverse and find out way back to Hackney.
It takes longer, hours longer, than we anticipate. The path itself stops and starts with infuriating regularity, but what really holds us up, grabs our attentions, is the riverscape itself.
‘London’ says my friend who wears a T-shirt of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis ‘is a schizophrenic’.
I think perhaps bi-polar or split personality, but I take his point, because the journey back is information overload, literally too much stuff occupying the stretch of River, to the point where it resists adequate description, not just one liminal space but many, where all of London’s ugliness and beauty competes for your affections, where the mind twitches with the effort of trying to process everything you are seeing.
We cycle through giant piles of rubble and sand, dubbed ‘the rolling hills of England’ by American members of our party, past noisy building work that seems to be serving no purpose. We reach the Dome, and become hopelessly lost in a bad dream of car parks, Tesco Express, shops and restaurants peopled by visitors whose motive for being there we can never understand. It’s a bad place, feels in some ways similar to much of what we see in the riverscape, half-forgotten, a reminder of the development follies of governments gone by, a reminder of current follies, the future ruins being erected in East London. We spin in circles for a while, finally navigate our way out of there, only to find that part of the Thames Path has been closed for maintenance, redevelopment, whatever.
Back on the roads that no one seems to use, there’s talk of taking the Blackwall Tunnel to cross the River, but fuck that I say, we finally find our way back onto the path, leaving the Dome and its bizarre environs behind us.
‘That was horrible.’
Rotting jetties stick out into the water, some clearly unfit for use, clearly dangerous, others locked almost as an afterthought prompting a number of us to clamber out on the redundant structures, causing passing families to look, disapproving, maybe envious.
What else to say? A person could spend their whole life describing this environment, and when they had finished they’d be back at square one, the riverscape would have shifted, morphed, you can’t keep up with it, is it even worth trying?
I can’t describe it in any linear way. It’s a jumble of imagery, snapshots that linger. There’s everything to describe and words fail, they can’t do their proper job.
A sixteenth century hospital, inscription still in Latin. Rusting barges, abandoned rolls of rubber, huge metal containers leaning ominously over the path, the noise the clanking, groaning boats make, like something out of a zombie film. Empty, unsettling buildings that everyone agrees would make great squats, always questions of ‘what are these buildings’ and ‘who owns them?’. A positively rural scene, of sand with weeping willows reaching down serenely toward the water, next to dereliction and graffiti. Detours through residential blocks. Past pubs that dimly remember England’s maritime past. Every urban scene imaginable, witnessed, until we reach Tower Bridge.
We cross it, reassuringly aggressive cabbies and angry bus drivers, and we’re back in London, with a sense of relief, away from the imaginary riverscapes.
Photos by Sarah Cowan, Ian Shelverton, Tess Cee and Deborah Johnson
Photos by Sarah Cowan, Ian Shelverton, Tess Cee and Deborah Johnson