Sunday, 21 November 2010

Come on you Ironworks

This is where West Ham United began. It’s enough to give this Essex boy a frisson of excitement. We’re at the site of the old Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding company at the mouth of the River Lea on Trinity Buoy Wharf. Today it’s all trees, wasteland and warehouses by the choppy grey waters of the Thames.

Back in 1895 the Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding Co owner Arnold Hills and foreman Dave Taylor founded Thames Ironworks FC as a works side. Which is why West Ham are still referred to as “The Irons” and a pair of crossed riveting hammers is used in the WHUFC badge. Five years later, having won a cup and two championships, the Thames Ironworks changed the club’s name to West Ham United FC.

My companion for the day is Bob Gilbert, author of The Green London Way (published by Lawrence & Wishart and the book that inspired the Capital Ring). Best not mention the fact his dad was a Bermondsey docker and he comes from Millwall country. We’re planning to walk the Essex Way from Epping to Harwich, but Bob’s plan is to incorporate into the route old Essex and places that have an emotional attachment to me. Firstly we're walking from East India DLR station to Epping via West Ham FC past and present.

“That’s the South west corner of Old Essex on the peninsula over there,” says Bob pointing across the Lea to where the massive shipbuilding factory of Thames Ironworks once stood.

It’s silent and grey by the water, with hardly anyone around. But once 3000 men or so would have been working here and the place would have been alive with bustle and clanging hammers. So much of London is layers of history and it’s not hard to step back a century to the days when the fiercely mustached Ironworks side played the likes of Crouch End FC.


Standing in front of some rusting post-industrial sculptures there’s a notice board on the wharfside detailing the history of the Thames Ironworks, with pictures of huge warships being launched into the Thames.

It seems that poor old West Ham, bottom of the Premiership, have long been associated with disaster. Three years after the football club was formed, in 1898, the launch of the HMS Albion created a huge wave that caused a viewing stage to collapse, drowning 34 people.

Someone has left an old sofa by the wharf, presumably for all the West Ham fans that arrive here on a spiritual pilgrimage, so we use it for a seated photo opportunity. We’re where the Ironworks’ offices would once have been.

Trinity Buoy Wharf is an interesting place. There’s a “container city” made up of shipping containers stacked on top of each other. They serve as artists’ studios. Two of the lightships built by Thames Ironworks have been restored as recording studios and are moored on the wharf.


While, bizarrely, Fatboy’s Diner has been parked on the wharf. We step inside this piece of chrome-clad Americana and buy bacon and toasted cheese sandwiches and look at the royal engagement coverage in the papers.

Our journey started at East India DLR station. We’d seen the First Settlers Virginia Memorial, marking the spot where pilgrims sailed away to become the first English settlers in the 'New World' of Virginia, and re-erected by Barratt Homes. Indeed, the number of times the plaque mentions Barratt, you’d think they’d built the boat themselves. Then it was past the mudflat and nature reserve of the East India Basin (the dock was filed in) and on to Trinity Buoy Wharf.

After leaving Trinity Buoy Wharf, fortified by an American brunch, we traverse the bends of the River Lea, past a pleasingly Sweeney-esque vista of the A13, DLR flyover and the Ecology Centre on the headland between the river’s meanders. Observing what appear to be bullrushes, Bob describes how the name is actually a misnomer. I spot a heron, only it turns out to be a white plastic bag.

At Canning Town we enter a land of endless fried chicken shops and head down Hermit Lane to the East London Cemetery at Plaistow, just past the Bronzed Age tanning salon. Inside we pass the funeral procession for an old East ender called Stan. Amid the tombstones there’s a sad memorial of an anchor from the HMS Albion and the names and ages — mainly the elderly, women and children — of those swept to their deaths in the disaster at the Thames Ironworks.


From here we take the Greenway walk past Barking Road. We stop for a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer and admire the view of the estates.

“I think I can smell the sewer,” says Bob, ducking down to take a whiff at a manhole. The raised walkway is indeed built over the Northern Outfall Sewer.

Traditionally East London has always been given the crap industries. Bob reveals that much of this was due to the prevailing winds taking nasty niffs out to sea. The affluent could ship their effluent East to Essex without it returning to fill their nostrils.

From the Greenway we turn up Boundary Road to view the statue of World Cup winners Moore, Hurst and Peters (plus Ray Wilson) and the Boleyn Stadium of West Ham United FC.


But first we enter the Newham Bookshop, the best independent bookstore in London. Bob is fascinated by the local history section and astonished when Vivian offers us a mug of tea. It’s so friendly we leave laden with The Little Book of East London and The Little Book of Essex.

I show Bob the essential sights of the Who Shop, the crossed hammers on the castellated exterior of West Ham's Dr Martens Stand, the authentic 1960s greasy spoon ambiance of Ken’s Café and the world’s most sexist sign above the dry cleaners on Green Street that reads “Don’t kill your wife, let us do it”.

“So if you lived here, with West Ham, Ken’s Café, the Newham Bookshop and the Who Shop you’d have everything you could possibly need…” opines Bob. Clearly he’s tempted to relocate from Poplar.

We turn down Plashet Road and discover that Plashet is one of those districts in London that no-one knows exists, caught in the hinterland of East Ham and Manor Park.

We find a walled-off Jewish cemetery, cross over Plashet Park and end up at the Army and Navy crossroads at Manor Park. Here we search for a caff, but can only find yet more fried chicken shops, the self-proclaimed best Somalian restaurant in London, a Turkish fry-up breakfast and in a pleasing piece of Asian/Japanese/British/Norman cultural fusion, Asian karaoke at the William the Conqueror pub.

Like West Ham, we’ve come a long way from Leamouth and across Old Essex. Next stop is Wanstead Flats, where our grand march to Epping will continue in December.

1 comment:

  1. sounds like you have an impressive guide. n x