Walk 13: CANONBURY walk to STRATFORD
The train line was built as part of a line bypassing central London and linking the Midlands main line with the docks. The line was built in 1852 as far as the River Lea, where it turned south towards Bow and the docks. Passenger services ended on this line in 1944 because of war damage. A junction for freight traffic had been built between this train line and Stratford, using a new bridge over the River Lea built in 1854, but there were no passenger services. Between 1944 and 1980, the whole length of the line was therefore a pure freight line. The existing freight line was then upgraded in 1980 and opened for passengers.
Trains stopped at two additional stations for a certain period. A station called Mildmay Park, located between Canonbury and Dalston Kingsland, was in service from 1880 until 1934. It was closed because of cost savings during the Great Depression, the station being quite close to the two neighbouring ones. The other additional station was Victoria Park (originally called “Victoria Park & Hackney Wick”). It was in service from 1856 until war damage led to closure in 1943 and was located close to the present Hackney Wick station.
Routing note: This walk connects in Canonbury with Overground walks 4 and 5. It connects in Stratford to Liverpool Street network walks 9, 13 and 14. Il also connects there to DLR walks 4 and 7 and it will also connect there to Underground Jubilee line walk 10.
The time indication does not include visiting Hackney Museum or Sutton House. This may add 1 to 2 hours to your walking time. If the walk becomes too long, I suggest you make two shorter walks out of it with the interruption at Hackney Central station.
The station opened originally in 1856 under the cumbersome name “Newington Road & Balls Pond” on the recent train line linking Camden with the Docklands. A junction was added in 1865 linking Canonbury with Shoreditch and using to a large extent the present Overground line. The 1865 junction was closed in 1986 and reopened in 2010. The station was renamed Canonbury in 1870 and moved by a few yards to the present location.
The station has minimal amenities and is little more than a small brick shed with control gates and vending machines.
The bridge is unusually wide and gives access on the north side to a crossroads with a small roundabout. This enabled the borough to set up banks among raised beds planted with grasses and shrubs. It is definitely one of the nicest station environments on the London Overground network.
Exit the station and turn L (north) on Wallace Road
This enables you to cross the nice landscaping around the crossroads. My picture shows a suspiciously Victorian building (the yellow brick building with triple window arches). It is now a private residence but it looks similar to the old Hackney Central Station building. It might therefore have been the original station building, but I was unable to find confirmation of this.
There is a rather popular pub on the main street corner. The building is worth a short look because the pub obviously only owns part of the original property. When the publican decided to pain his façade in a somewhat weird mint green colour, the neighbours kept white painting on their sections of the building and the result is peculiar.
Ahead Petherton Road
The terraced houses along this road are expensive but not remarkable. What is unusual is the width of the road with a central reservation bearing two rows of trees and an unpaved path in the middle. This strip of greenery hides a water supply canal that was diverted to pipes in 1861 and the seepage into the ground before that date explains why trees grow well and why the ground was not built upon.
The canal is called the New River and runs for nearly 30 miles from Hertfordshire to a reservoir in Islington. It was a commercial scheme opened in 1613 to supply London with clean water from the river Lea and is now part of Thames Water and therefore owned by institutional investors.
R Ferntower Road
Ahead along Newington Green
Newington was a village that grew in the middle ages on the border between two manors, explaining why there is a place called “Stoke Newington”. There was also “Newington Barrow”, later called Highbury because it is on a hill. The green space was upgraded in the 1990s to a real neighbourhood park when local citizens convinced the borough to reorganise traffic in the area.
The most impressive building on the green is the massive complex now called Alliance House but still bearing the stone lintel with “China Inland Mission”. The organisation was founded in 1865 as a collaboration effort by several Protestant churches. Converting heathens was a very popular concern in imperial countries like Britain and the mission society therefore soon had the means to build huge headquarters here. The building looks Edwardian with a strange balustrade on top borne by columns. It has been converted to housing for students.
A neighbouring building is also worth a look. The Unitarian church was built in 1708 as a place of worship for the many dissenters who lived in the area where they felt less threatened by government-sponsored Anglican ministers. It became very well known in the 1760s when the minister was Dr Richard Price, who was to become notorious for supporting the cause of Americans fighting for independence (they were non-Anglicans like himself) and for encouraging the French revolution leaders at the start in 1789-1791.
On my picture, you can see a banner referring to the “birthplace of feminism”. This refers to the fact that there was a school for girls here in the late 1780s. It was led by Mary Wollstonescraft, who wrote a book in 1792 proposing the very unusual and upsetting idea that women were equal to men and that their limited involvement in public affairs was only due to their not being given the education they deserved.
The church building is rather austere with a very simple neo-classical front. Most protestant churches eschewed pompous displays of riches at the time, preferring to spend money on worthy causes.
A third interesting building nearly on the green is the “Mildmay Club”. It was established in 1888 as one of many clubs founded during that period to provide working class men with sensible activities in their leisure time rather than leaving them to get drunk at the next booze outlet as was too often the case in the East End. The club was founded by a cleric, as was often the case, and developed a particular interest in shooting, possibly with a thought to preparing men to fight in colonial and European wars. It is one of the very few such clubs that survived the television era. The building is unusual for a structure from 1900 in being modestly decorated with just a few baroque details.
Ahead Mildmay Road
Just after passing sports grounds R Boleyn Road
The connection with Henry VIII is due to the fact that one of his courtiers, the Earl of Northumberland, lived here in 1523 when he fell in love with Ann Boleyn and got engaged to her without asking first his father or his boss for permission. They refused and the Earl went on to sit later on the jury declaring Ann guilty of adultery.
L Gillett Street (the street sign points to “P31”)
Ahead through the plaza (this is Gillett Square)
The plaza has a very interesting history. It was developed in the 1990s by a cooperative of local residents with the help of the borough to provide a sort of “village square” to one of the most deprived areas of London and is actually the conversion of a derelict industrial site. The cooperative was extremely successful in attracting innovative architects and the Dalston Culture House on a side of the plaza is now recognised as an influential venue. My picture shows the plaza as being quite empty, which you can interpret as an oasis of quiet in a hectic and crowded part of London. Several of the buildings won awards for architecture or urban planning around the year 2000.
R Kingsland Road
There was a station here as early as 1850, but it was connected to a railway linking Canonbury with a terminal in the City of London (Broad Street) and was relocated in 1865 to what is presently Dalston Junction station. The present Dalston Kingsland station opened in 1983.
The station building is a typical structure from the 1980s with a large glass front. The roof looks like corrugated iron with just a hint of a curve. The station is located on a busy main road with an increasing number of tall office towers, so that I would not be surprised if it were integrated one day as the street level of a building.
L on pedestrianised Ridley Road away from the station
Ahead to L Colvestone Crescent
There is a school building at the beginning of the road on the left side. It is one of several schools founded at the end of the 19th century by concerned businessmen who wanted schools to teach more “useful” subjects like science rather than religion, latin and history. The debate does echo contemporary discussions about whether schools should prepare pupils for available jobs or should rather give them the keys to be a valuable part of civilised society. The school is now a normal borough school in a somewhat strange building that looks more like some kind of church hall.
There is a real church hall further on in Colvestone Crescent. It belongs to St Mark’s Dalston, the local Anglican parish church. The church was built in 1866 and extended in 1880 in the typical neo-gothic style of that period.
Ahead Montague Road
Like Colvestone Crescent, Montague Road is a surprisingly leafy road in what I expected to be some boring post-industrial terraced suburb. At number 62, a solemn house with a baroque balustrade on the roof and large arches at ground level is a former synagogue. It was built in 1902 and the synagogue closed in 1966 when the number of worshippers became too small.
There was a large Jewish community in the area from the 1880s until the 1950s. This was linked to Jews settling in the East End as the core of the garment trade when they arrived in Britain, fleeing pogroms in Russia. When their financial situation improved, they moved to the less industrial suburbs of Mildmay and Stoke Newington. After World War II, there was strong interest in migrating to Israel and some synagogues became impossible to maintain.
R Sandringham Road
R Wayland Avenue
Ahead Navarino Road passing over a railway line
L Wilton Way passing under a railway line
The road ends on a square in front of Hackney Town Hall
The square in front of the town hall boasts two magnificent and rather unexpected palm trees. The main attraction is nonetheless the town hall itself, built in 1936. From outside, it is influenced by Art Déco with horizontal lines being dominant, but the windows and the balcony details are more eclectic. If you ask politely, you might be allowed to have a look inside at the main staircase and central lobby. This is definitely worth it as there are magnificent Art Déco light fixtures. You will not be able to enter the council meeting room except on Open Monument Day, so that I give you a picture of this as well. The ceiling light is stunning.
Also on the town hall square, the glass building on Reading Lane houses the borough museum. It is not big but is worth a look if it is opened as it gives you interesting glimpses into the former industrial past of Hackney (eel pie making, hats…). It also explains in a very interesting manner why Hackney was so popular with non-conformists, dissenters and assorted reformers.
Opposite the town hall on the other side of Mare Street, the building with the copper domes and the pretentious colonnaded corner entrance was just the borough library. It was built in 1905 by the borough and this explains the pompous Edwardian style public authorities were very fond of at the time. The library was converted later to a music venue but the location is suboptimal with no tube station nearby, so that a new tenant is apparently being sought.
L Mare Street (the busy main road)
You will soon reach the striking front of the Hackney Empire, built in 1901 on plans by Frank Matcham. He was the best known architect for music hall venues at the time and had delightful decorative ideas, so that each of his many designs is both amusing and distinctive. The Hackney one has towers with crowns but is otherwise mainly reminiscent of Renaissance details.
Like most music halls, the theatre closed after World War II as audiences turned to cinemas and soon to television. It was long used as a rather undignified bingo hall and risked demolition but it was bought by a local initiative and restored by an efficient actor and manager. It is particularly well known for hugely successful pantomime productions. By the way, pantos are a typically British tradition that most Europeans find endearing but rather difficult to fathom. Europeans often associate men playing female roles with effeminate transvestite shows.
A station opened in 1850 nearby as “Hackney” and was relocated to the present place in 1870. It closed in 1944 when passenger services stopped on the line. The station reopened in 1980 under the present name together with the train line. It is linked by a long footpath with Hackney Downs station, providing an interchange with trains from Liverpool Street terminal, but the two stations are clearly separate and the footpath actually had been closed off for decades before being reopened in 2015.
The station building chosen for the new station in 1980 is a plain, rather small brick cube with a heavy cornice made of corrugated iron. This was practical, cheap and ugly.
The former station building remains visible just after passing under the bridge. It has the typical Victorian design, being built in yellow bricks with triple window arches, and this building is the reason why I think that the building near present Canonbury station may well be the original station building. The old Hackney Central building looks very substantial because of its height but also because of the boxy cornice. The balustrade at roof level is less typical.
Continue on Mare Street passing the former train station and the former town hall.
The old town hall was built in 1802 as the vestry and became surplus to requirements when the new town hall opened in 1937. It is interesting for not looking Georgian at all. It is inspired primarily by Italian town halls and palaces from the 16th century with just the portal being baroque. Both styles were hopelessly out of fashion by 1800. The present use of the nice little building borders on embarrassing as it is a betting shop.
R into the green space past the old church tower
It is logical to expect the parish church near the former vestry. The church itself was demolished in 1798 because it was proving too small, but the tower was already the symbol of the village and continued to be used as the mortuary for the adjacent cemetery. It is now used by the borough for occasional exhibitions and opens once a month to enable you to climb to the top and enjoy the views. The tower is not spectacular in terms of architecture. The church was consecrated to St Augustine, an unusual saint in England, because the property belonged to the order of the Knights Templar whose patron saint was St Augustine. The parish switched to St John the Baptist by the mid-17th century.
Ahead to the parish church, walking around the church front for the cemetery
The new parish church, St John-at-Hackney, opened in 1797. Unfortunately, most of the building burnt down in 1955 and the present structure is therefore only a reconstruction. I have been unable to look inside and the impression from outside is rather plain and massive. Surprisingly, it reminds a little of the Dulwich Museum except for the rounded entrances in the neo-Greek style. The architect was unhappy with being asked to design a building for 3,000 parishioners, believing that it was nearly impossible to design it so that everyone could hear the priest properly.
The churchyard had become overgrown after new burials were forbidden by law in the 1860s but this enabled the trees planted around 1800 to grow to magnificent height. The churchyard was then converted into public St John Gardens in 1894 with formal flower beds being planted in line with popular practice at the time. The flower beds disappeared later on but new ones were created in 1989 in the smaller part of the churchyard behind the church.
The more impressive monuments from the old churchyard were salvaged and set up in rows along the walls around the green space. This looks a bit formal and sad but you can learn interesting details by reading the information panels.
Leave the church park near the playground into Sutton Place
R Homerton High Street
At the start of the road, the forbidding brick building you see on my picture is actually worth a closer look. It hides the entrance to Sutton House, a National Trust property. As usual, you will need to check in advance in order to be sure that the property is open on the day you pass it. There is no ancient furniture inside but the house is well worth a visit because of the beautiful wood paneling.
It was used by a large variety of owners over the decades and the explanation panels are very well made. I was surprised to learn that house staff did live under the roof as you would expect, but that the cook was an exception, living next door to the kitchen (in order to limit pilfering ? or to be available for hungry guests in the middle of the night ?).
Where the street turns slowly left, you pass the extensive grounds of the City Academy. It was financed by the City of London, explaining why it is so impressive, and cost 30 million £ in 2009. As you can expect with such a patron, the school is selective and has a very good reputation. The building is typical for the period with large swathes of contrasting primary colours.
At 109 Homerton High Street, you pass a completely different school building, finished in 1884 for the parish of St Barnabas Homerton. The central building is quite reminiscent of scottish mock medieval castles, a style that was terribly in fashion by 1884 although neo-medieval fancies had already started with “Ivanhoe” by Walter Scott, published in 1820. The side building is neo-gothic in a more restrained manner.
R Barnabas Road
The station opened in 1868 on the existing train line and closed in 1944 together with it. It was reopened in 1985 a few years after the line itself.
The present building is a brick shed set up along the train embankment. Like in the neighbouring stations, the roof is an ugly corrugated iron structure.
Continue on Barnabas Road
You are soon passing a church building with a rather unusual tower. It is a Baptist church built in the early 1960s after their original building had to be sold to the borough for the City Academy you saw before. The tower has a peculiarly steep roof that you would rather expect in the Swiss Alps where it would be needed to prevent snow from accumulating.
R Wick Road
soon L Bradstock Road
The road passes part of Gascoyne Estate, a very large council estate with a variety of buildings from different periods. Two of them are of particular interest from an architecture point of view. The long bar on the first picture is an unusual design for a London estate as the normal concept in the 1960s included cubic towers linked by elevated footpaths.
The bar reminds much more of designs by Le Corbusier, one of the most influential urban planners of the mid-20th century. He advocated bars rather than towers as this gives better opportunities for all flats to face south or west. He also advocated that such bars should be set on pillars, the area between the pillars being used for urban amenities like shops, kindergartens and youth clubs. Council planners found the ground level more useful for storage of council-owned equipment, also because shops proved reluctant to open in the middle of council estates. The housing bar on my picture even converted the ground level into private garages, which Le Corbusier would have found a perversion of his concept as preventing common amenities from being located near the flats where they are needed most.
A good deal further along the road, the other picture shows the typical design of English council estates in the 1930s. Apart from the lower building forced by the use of bricks rather than concrete, the obvious difference is that the access to the flats is along an outside walkway. This made more sense at a time when people were used to being seen constantly by their neighbours. The other difference is that the building is designed around an inner courtyard, a tradition going back to the time when there was only one communal access to water.
R Cassland Road
The building to your right all the way to the next crossroads is South Hackney School. It is an Edwardian construction from 1904 with the typical combination of reddish bricks and grey stone. It is also typical for the strange mix of decorative elements from all sorts of unconnected periods of architecture history, in particular Renaissance and baroque.
L into Well Street Common on the paved path.
The common is already mentioned in 1442 but most of it was actually farmland that was sold to developers in the 19th century. The area attracted mainly affluent residents and industrial development was limited to leather factories using the River Lea water. This population structure was to change after World War II. Many houses had been destroyed by bombs and owners decided to move to more rural suburbs while the borough was very interested in extending Gascoyne Estate to house the quickly growing working class population. Like with all commons, the amenities are very limited.
Near the playground L and again L, keeping to paved paths towards the eastern corner of the open space
Cross the road into Victoria Park
There is a six-paths crossing after the tennis courts. Turn half L towards Cadogan Gate, the football fields remaining to your left-hand side
Victoria Park is a large park with an interesting history and several important attractions, but I will deal with it in detail on a District line walk. The present route crosses only a small corner and does not pass major amenities. You might notice on the picture that you can see the Canary Wharf towers from the park. It is one of the few places where you see them over a large green space.
Exit the park ahead on a footpath across the motorway
This is a rather funny bridge, the design of which reminds me of a fish or whale skeleton. It is also very convenient.
Ahead Wallis Road
The station opened in 1985 a few years after the train line had reopened passenger services. There was no station here on the old train line between 1852 and 1944 because Hackney Wick is located in the vicinity of the then Victoria Park station.
There is no real station building, just a small brick shelter on the platform and a particular large selection of advertising billboards lining the access ramp.
Continue on Wallis Road passing under the railway line
The road turns R (beware of not going ahead on Berkshire Road)
The area continues to feel rather industrial with the odd abandoned warehouse. It is changing though with creative industries showing increasing interest due to good connections and cheaper rental prices than in overhyped Shoreditch.
Ahead on the footbridge over the River Lea
Go down the steps to the riverside footpath and follow the river south towards the bridge under the train line
Follow the riverside for an extended section until you reach a motorway flyover and a bridge over a side canal
Walking along the river, shortly after passing the first railway bridge, you reach a confluence of canals. You are walking along the Lea River towards the Thames whereas the canal branching off is the Hertfordshire Union Canal, a commercial venture trying to offer a shortcut between the Lea River and the Docklands, bypassing the unreliable and tidal lower Bow River. It did not turn profitable as traffic was too low and was included later in the Regent’s Canal network.
The view from the bridge just upstream of the canal confluence is interesting for the Olympic Stadium, now called the London Stadium. The building was no stranger to controversies, like with any large public building in Britain: the contract was awarded in 2006 not to the best bidder but to the only bidder who promised to fulfill the requirements. I guess any businessman would hear alarm bells if there is only one bidder… The building was often lauded for being ecologically sounder than many others (it uses much less steel and lighter concrete), but it was criticised for being unimpressive and in no way a landmark. After the olympic games, it was converted at great expense to a football stadium for Tottenham Hotspurs FC with some other sports events being staged on occasion.
The large development opposite the stadium faces both canals. It is a complex of luxury flats very comparable to many buildings in the former Docklands. When industrial companies left derelict wasteland, it was first used by artists and creative professionals between 2000 and 2010. Now that is has been cleaned up and has gained a more glamorous reputation (under the name Fish Island), it is quickly being converted to a soulless accumulation of small, luxurious flats for bonus-toting Canary Wharf executives.
A bit downstream, you walk opposite a very modern industrial building housing the salmon smoking company Forman & Co. The small balcony with seats is part of an elegant restaurant catering to investment bankers.
You then cross a minor water (called the Old River Lea). The area is called Old Ford because this is more or less where the roman road from London to Colchester crossed the river Lea. The Thames was higher at that time and the lower Lea River was a marshy estuary, so that Old Ford was the first place one could cross the river. A bridge was supposedly built for the first time around the year 1100 in order to make access to the abbey at Barking easier, this being an important destination for Royals.
After Old Ford, the river Lea becomes more industrial, running between railway sidings on the left bank and light industrial premises on the right bank. The path continues all the way to a bridge over the next side canal, St Thomas Creek. The view from the bridge up the creek is interesting for combining the historical view -derelict warehouses- with the future -soulless, tall glass buildings.
Cross the side canal, then L along Stratford High Street (looking more like a motorway)
There are occasional opportunities to walk along the side canal you just crossed, but the footpath is not continuous and you will have to come back to the main highway.
This section of High Street is unusual for London, particularly for an inner suburb, and reminds me more of a strip in America or of the outskirts of European mid-sized cities. It is a strange row of buildings that are not really ugly by themselves, but that are completely oblivious of their neighbours. The clash of shapes and colours can even be painful. In the middle, you have a very wide road that is almost impossible to cross except at rare traffic lights. It is a landscape that is not made for human beings, rather for car drivers.
L Carpenters Road
Soon R Jupp Road West
Ahead Jupp Road
Cross the underground line using the footbridge at the end of the road
L Station Street
This very important interchange is one of the oldest train stations in London as it was opened as early as 1839. The first line to pass through the station ran from London Devonshire Street (a temporary terminal in Mile End) to Romford. The station has a very complex layout on two levels. The low level includes the terminal of London Underground Jubilee line and two platforms used by the DLR line from Canning Town to Stratford International.
The high level includes the terminal of the DLR line to Canary Wharf, two platforms used by the London Underground Central line, two platforms used by London Overground trains from Canonbury and four platforms used by trains from London Liverpool Street towards East Anglia. There is an isolated platform at the rear of the station used as the terminal for train services towards Tottenham Hale. Interestingly, there are even two platforms that are unused as plans to run trains from London Fenchurch Street to Barking via Stratford in the 1940s were abandoned despite finishing construction.
The station was rebuilt several times due to the considerable extension of interchange possibilities. The current building is an imposing contemporary construction meant as a gateway for the 2012 Olympics visitors.