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Wednesday23 July 2014

From Robin Hood to Occupy Limehouse

From: The newsdesk blog

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I don’t think ExCel expects people to arrive by bike.

The website does offer free cycle parking – as if cyclists would accept any other kind.

And there are a few rubble-strewn cycle paths in the area but they are let down by the lack of signs.

I rode 12 miles from west London on the opening day of Ecobuild only to get lost on the final mile in an intimidating tangle of dual carriageways and roundabouts.

That aside, it was my favourite ride of the year so far. I’ve never cycled further east than Whitechapel so I was like a tourist in an exotic land.

I gawped my way past post-war flats, historic chandlers’ warehouses, Hawksmoor crenellations and unexpected Victorian confections.

Among the latter was a handsome Venetian-inflected office building on Poplar High Street which has a startling octagonal turret capped with a spiked dome. 

 

Poplar Board of Works

Source: forum.casebook.org

Poplar Board of Works

The saga behind its construction could grace the front of BD any week, with claims the architectural competition for the Poplar Board of Works (43 entries, most of them “so horridly bad as to deserve no attention whatsoever”) was rigged, and an accusation that the client didn’t have a “brain capable of making the difference between Westminster Abbey and the Strand Musick Hall”.

The final 1870 edifice – now listed at grade II – is a melange of the first and second-prize designs and was dogged from the off by bad acoustics, smoke-filled rooms and flying zinc roofing.

Pedal on a few yards, fast-forward 150 years and we arrive at a very similar architectural slanging match revolving around my next highlight, Robin Hood Gardens.

 

Robin Hood Gardens from the central hill

Source: Elizabeth Hopkirk

Robin Hood Gardens from the central hill

People describe it as stranded behind thundering roads but I approached down Poplar High Street and was surprised by how well knitted it was into the streetscape.

As you’d expect of a condemned development, it was looking pretty run down – but far more dispiriting was the mixed-use tower on the other side of the road. Clad in mono-textured grey, it looked as though it were the creation of a lazy graphic designer cutting and pasting a single colour sample over the whole block. At least concrete has grain.

 

Tesco Express opposite Robin Hood Gardens

Source: Elizabeth Hopkirk

Tesco Express opposite Robin Hood Gardens

I wheeled my bike into the park between the Smithsons’ two curving slabs and up the hill built from the rubble of Victorian terraces.

Although by some measures Robin Hood Gardens is vast, it manages to have a human scale. I think this is something to do with proportion - the blocks are separated by just the right distance for their heights and length.

But it is also the horizontal articulation of the facades whose Royal Crescent-style beauty took me by surprise.

Beauty is a quality entirely lacking at East India Dock which, despite its romantic name and streets named after the spices once unloaded there, is as cheerless a development as you might hope to find in Basingstoke. It appears to have landed fully formed at the tail end of the Docklands revolution, obliterating every trace of what went before including the docks and the long-forgotten Brunswick Wharf Power Station.

 

East India Dock

Source: Elizabeth Hopkirk

East India Dock - from the DLR

The sole survivor is a brick curtain wall that struggles to draw a veil round this thuggish interloper. If you were asked to design hell in the style of a model village, East India Dock is what you’d get.

It was here that the signless cycle paths led me astray, up on to the A13. I tried to plot a cross-country route through Canning Town – once I’d found a way under the dual carriageway. This proved pleasant until my path was again blocked – ironically by Custom House, the station used by people arriving at ExCel.

The only way for a cyclist to cross the DLR seemed to involve a long detour over the Silvertown Way flyover and back. I picked up another lost cyclist en route which seemed to confirm my experience.

The journey home was much simpler, once I found the Lower Leamouth Crossing with its view of London’s only light house and Wilkinson Eyre’s elegant cable car towers.

 

 

View from Lower Lea Crossing

Source: Elizabeth Hopkirk

View from Lower Lea Crossing

I stumbled on day one of Occupy Limehouse where a dreadlocked protestor offered me cake in the shadow of a monumentally po-mo entrance to the Limehouse Link, Britain’s most expensive road scheme per mile.

By Cable Street I was back in familiar territory so I zig-zagged through the City looking for more new experiences and stumbled on the art deco 1 Prescot Street and its endearing razor-tooth brickwork.

Cycling to ExCel: it’s like an Ecobuild seminar in 3D.

Readers' comments (4)

  • even worse by DLR

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  • I had the same problems with cycling to the Bike Show at Excel earlier this year - but they did have bike parking inside. The confusion of the cycle super highway to the east of Grimshaw's printworks for the FT is dangerous - I also realised too late that the routing is via the A13.

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  • I agree East India Dock is not the most inspiring of office developments, but the area has a fascinating maritime history - as interesting as Greenwich, you just have to look a bit harder for the traces. Im exploring the area in a walk from East India DLR on 22nd April - details here http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/event/2975027387

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  • Piers Frowde

    Central London to Excel Centre is the worst cycle in London. Summat needs to be done before 'Lympics.

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