London’s docklands present an ever changing picture, a physical manifestation of an evolving socio-economic landscape that in the last 80 years has seen the annihilation of the docks by the Luftwaffe, post-war modernisation and then the drawn-out demise of the the industry they thrived on. Political gesturing, enterprise zones and a few false starts followed before the prosperity and insatiable development you see today. I’ve watched it for the last 10 years or so, photographed it changing, but as ever my eyes are drawn more to the last remnants of the industrial past than to the shiny futuristic towers reaching for the sky.
I was staying with my oldest friends in their new riverside apartment, framing and hanging some giant prints of my work in their cavernous living room: They had chosen an array of night shots of the capital including a portrait version of one of the Stothert & Pitt cranes, seen below both in detail and in its wider context on the West India Quay. True to form, a glass tower block has appeared adjacent to them since I last looked…
Adding to my collection of London scenics with each visit, on this occasion I planned to photograph the Thames Barrier… at twilight. Which is all well and good when you’re poring over Google Maps but less so when you’re on a lively number 177 bus and you don’t really know where you’re going. Boarding at Greenwich and heading in the direction of the experimental sixties housing estate Thamesmead I could only guess where the barrier might be, but the journey planner had suggested 12 minutes on the bus so I jumped off at that point and wandered cautiously in the direction of the river.
Picking my way round the edge of a dimly lit industrial estate with a bag of camera gear did little to ease my uncertainty and added a good dose of nervousness in to the unsettling mix. Despite the proliferation of signs proclaiming 24-hour CCTV surveillance I didn’t even spot a camera until I got to the barrage itself, at which point I felt able to relax a little and set about my task, the sky darkening around me all the while and the occasional other visitors taking in their surroundings or attempting a photograph themselves.
The Thames Barrier was planned in response to the devastating North Sea floods of 1953, and became operational 31 years later when the Isle of Dogs had become little more than a giant derelict wasteland. Surprisingly though for something planned in the sixties and built in the seventies it carries on its giant steel finns a futuristic look that holds to this day, sitting comfortably with the ever expanding array of towers in the distance. Though built as a defence against an unpredictable and surging sea, it can also be used to protect London from downstream flooding when a high river flow is expected to coincide with a high tide: by closing the gates at low tide it creates a basin for floodwater to fill when the outer tide is high, which can then be released at the next low tide. It’s generally closed a handful of times in any given year though there are anomalies, the most recent being in 2012-13 when there were 50, and it’s anticipated that it will be used more going forward.
London needs it: Towers may be the order of the day and advantageous in the event of of a major flood, but everything below the surface could be completely destroyed in one major incident. Furthermore, the sheer weight on the increasingly developed land is also taking its toll: the capital is sinking in to the clay it’s built on. I pondered this thought as I captured the vista, before turning round and realising I now had to retrace my steps in the dark and find a return bus stop…
In the cold light of day it’s hard to appreciate just how important the docks were to an area now dominated by big business and high society, but you can get a glimpse at the Museum of London Docklands – free to view and worth an hour of your time if you’re curious, and situated in one of the few buildings on the West India Quay that the Luftwaffe didn’t destroy.
Head out to Silvertown and you’ll reach the northern side of the barrier, not to mention another key relic in the shape of the monolithic Millennium Mills, a giant industrial icon fashioned from concrete in the Art Deco style now stranded in its own 62 acre wasteland on Pontoon Dock, redevelopment encroaching on all sides.
London’s foremost adventure playground for Urban Explorers it may be but I wasn’t in a position to take a closer look on this occasion – not that it stopped me from wandering the perimeter and figuring out the relatively easy ways of getting to it. Alas, I was on my own and leaving town later that day, but in spite of being on the right side of the palisade the unexpected take off of a plane from City Airport properly scared the shit out of me…
The fact that this building is even still here at all is something of a miracle, being only locally listed rather than recognised by Historic England, but it’s an important statement piece with a chequered history that deserves to be retained in an area that’s lost the vast majority of its history in the rush to fill up the skyline with glass and steel.
Originally built in 1905, it was badly damaged in 1917 when an explosion at a nearby munitions factory caused widespread devastation to the area as well as dozens of fatalities. Rebuilt in 1933 it was then virtually destroyed again in the Blitz, before being rebuilt for a third time in 1953. What you see today is a combination of later phases of the Spillers mill, plus the adjacent Rank Hovis mill, in various states of decay and partial demolition.
A building on the edge, but one which remains the most interesting and captivating in the area – and it finally looks like it will be regenerated and linked to a wider development and an enhanced Thames Barrier Park. Will it ever happen, or will it descend further in to a kind of Battersea Power Station limbo? Who knows, but with land at such a premium development is coming, and plans suggest that the Millennium Mills will rightly take centre stage, standing tall like an architectural oasis in a desert of post-modern blandness.
Once it is, I’ll surely be up in the new rooftop bar enjoying a G&T as the sun sets.
Until next time, thanks for reading.