Thursday, 6 January 2011

Sitting on the Dock of Dagenham's Bay

Inspired by Made in Dagenham, it’s time to visit the Ford Motor Works and Dagenham's industrial hinterland. Despite many a trip to Dagenham Heathway when my sister lived there, this was my first visit to the mysterious area of white by the Thames, as denoted in the London A-Z.

The Ford Works, once the biggest car works in Europe but much smaller these days, lie down Dagenham Heathway. Once you’ve recovered from the shock of classical music playing at Dagenham Heathway tube station, turn right past the nail salon and pie and mash shop and head towards the wind turbines that rotate steadily beneath the slate sky.

The Heathway’s full of identikit post-war current and former council homes striving for individuality through cottage cladding, mock Tudor cladding, porches, extensions, new doors and in several cases palm trees planted incongruously in the front garden.

It terminates at a crossroads where there’s three Bangladeshi Indian restaurants, Kevin’s Corner selling washing machines and RTV Satellite set in a mock-Tudor block of shops that’s unsurprisingly covered in a vast array of dishes.

The Heathway becomes a narrower industrial gulch called Chequers Lane. To the right is a new Homebase warehouse, plus Halfords and KFC. On my left is the Jobcentreplus, as if to emphasise that here lie your only options for work, and then the large red brick Ford works with a sign reading Ford Stamping Operations, which sounds a little violent to me.

This being Essex, there are two palm trees by the entrance. There’s little evidence of activity apart from two men in luminous jackets having a fag break outside.

Ahead lies the flyover of the A13 Thames Gateway section (the Thames Gateway housing development has been metaphorically bricked up, cut by the coalition) and a park of rust-coloured containers stacked five-high.

Chequers Lane leads the post-apocalyptic pedestrian to the unstaffed Dagenham Docks station. A concrete stairwell leads up to a barbed wire defended bridge that straddles the railway line. “Danger of death” warns a sign by the tracks. The vista here is huge pylons, rail tracks, motorway, the black pool of Dagenham Breach and a wind turbine on Barking Power Station.

It doesn’t feel like London. The wind picks up and you start to smell the river. There are no other pedestrians here at 3pm. It’s all very 28 Days Later merged with The Sweeney. This would be a great place to dispose of bodies, do dodgy deals or set up a ruck between the ICF and Millwall’s F Troop.

On the other side of the tracks the road widens, there’s a bus stop with no-one waiting and wide pavements leading past the square blocks of the Doctor Who-esque power station and Chequers Lane Sustainable Industrial Park.

Then the cement lorries and Hovis trucks start to rumble by. Here there are fenced off warehouses, a Hovis depot full of brown bread-carrying yellow lorries. A blue cyclists’ sign points down Choats Lane with the words “Thames View”. Opposite Kuehne + Nagel Drinks Logistics (is there anything logistical about drinking?) the brave cyclist turns down Hindmans Way.

This is narrower and is an unofficial dumping ground for every piece of detritus in Dagenham. Rusting temporary fences conceal tyres, bits of sofas, mattresses, beds, carpets in bin bags, cans, plastic bags and paper coffee cups.

It all feels very blue collar and Bruce Springsteen. Here men do geezerish things like drive trucks fast down empty roads and throw their lunch in the hedge. Would Bruce have taken his girl down to The River via the mud of Hindmans Way? Probably not if he ever wanted to see her again.

The pavement ends and becomes mud surrounded by concrete markers. As ever-more heavy lorries trundle past it starts to feel dangerous and seeking safety from death under large wheels I find my DMs trudging through soft, oozing grey mud. My phone battery runs out adding to the sense of doom as the road passes a set of gasometers. “Danger of flooding” reads a road sign. A black pool has mysterious broken pipes rising out of it. Reeds flank the road to marshland.

Then the lane terminates with a solid black fence at a T-junction and signs for TDG and Cemex. There’s a sentry post with a hut and a red and white pole barrier. The operative eyes me with bemusement.

And suddenly by some disused tram tracks there’s the riverbank and a curved pier stretching out into the choppy waters of the Thames. There’s a silo and a lorry at the end of it. I stand on the pier to escape the danger of demise by speeding cement lorry.

So here I am at last, sitting on the dock of Dagenham’s bay like Otis Redding, watching the ships go by, wasting my time. That song was about unemployment and poor Otis would have had to get himself down to the Jobcentreplus by the motor works had he lived in Dagenham.

The waters of the Thames meet a bank of reeds, mud, fishing trays, floats and blue plastic bags. Across the river lies Thamesmead (featured in A Clockwork Orange) and two strange funnel-like industrial structures. I’m standing on the evocatively named No 7 Jetty. A trendy Dockland Quarter it is not.

The January dusk draws in and there’s an urge to escape before falling off the edge of the known world. I pace past Prax Petroleum braving oozing cementy earth and along the wide pavements past more Hovis lorries, and in to Dagenham Docks station. Three young salesman in suits get off the train and head for the industrial park with a look of apprehension. I dash on to the train and discover people and digital signage and that Fenchurch Street is only 20 minutes away. All so different to the otherworldiness of the Essex industrial marshes.