District Tube line walk 12: Stepney Green walk to Plaistow

Walk 12
STEPNEY GREEN walk to PLAISTOW
2 1/2 hours

This section of the District line opened in 1902 between Stepney Green and Bromley-by-Bow. The section between Bromley and Plaistow is much older and was operated by a suburban railway company starting in 1858. The train services were withdrawn in 1962 as the Underground services were more convenient and more popular.

Routing note: This walk can logically be combined with walk 11 in Stepney Green or with walk 13 in Plaistow. There are also several convenient combinations available in West Ham, in particular with my Fenchurch Street network walk 2.

I noticed street signs are missing on several occasions on this route. I try to be as clear as possible, but you might wish to load an area map on your phone in order to check whenever in doubt.

STEPNEY GREEN

Stepney Green Underground station

The station opened in 1902 together with the District line extension.

The building is a surprisingly sizeable structure looking much like a suburban train station. Although you are still quite close to central London, Stepney indeed feels very leafy and suburban so that the style of the station is fitting.

I don’t have details about its history but I was surprised that it looks much more Victorian than Edwardian. It is also devoid of fanciful architecture ornaments, the kind of which is to be expected on a building from 1902.

Ornate platform in Stepney Green station

At platform level, one is plain but the other one has been beautified in 1902 with a row of columns and a lattice painted light green, a very unusual effort that is worth a compliment. The private companies that operated the Underground lines until the 1930s actually seldom spent money on making platforms look nice because they were managed like suburban train companies where a conspicuous station building was important and absorbed most of the funds.

Exit the station and turn L (eastwards) on Mile End Road

Arts centre of Queen Mary University

The large set of buildings on your left-hand side belongs to Queen Mary University, named after the wife of George V. It is a medical college and therefore faces the usual challenge of how to select the few young people who will follow the demanding full course out of the crowd of applicants attracted partly by the prospect of earning a sizeable income without risk of losing clients over time. The answer in this case is to be the most demanding university in Britain in terms of school achievements and to also charge a sizeable fee (although less than in a private US institution).

Art Déco reliefs

The first interesting building you walk past is a classical Art Déco structure used for artistic shows. The simple materials and geometric shapes are typical for the 1930s. Instead of ornamentation, there are four bas-reliefs, a popular addition at that time. They are devoted to different artistic pursuits and it is easy to recognise theatre, music and dance although I am not sure what the fourth relief shows. Although artists liked to have nude figures in reliefs in the 1930s, I suppose this was seen as inappropriate here due to the many impressionable students who might get distracting thoughts.

Central wing of Queen Mary University

The next large building is the main headquarters, the so-called Queen’s Building dating back to the 1890s. In line with late Victorian custom, it is an imposing neo-classical structure with lots of columns and a few extraneous details taken from other periods of architectural history such as the baroque festoons under the cornice. The rather nice clocktower is one of many built in these years, usually on the occasion of some anniversary of Her Majesty. Clocks were obviously useful in an university at a time when pocket watches were fickle and too expensive for many students.

R Harford Street
L Solebay Street
Ahead across Mile End Park into Hamlets Way

Green Bridge in Mile End Park

Mile End Park is somewhat unusual in that it is a thin strip of land along Regent’s Canal, linking the more historical Victoria Park with the river Thames. It was not planned as a park originally, it was planned after World War II on industrial land destroyed by bombs but the plan was not actually implemented before the 1990s. On the present walk, you do not walk long through the park (I do this on a Central Line walk), but you can definitely take the time to see the footbridge over Mile End Road.

Water feature in Mile End Park

It was one of the first occasions when two sections of a park crossed by a major highway were linked by a wide “green bridge” rather than by a modest subway. The bridge is painted yellow – it is called “green” because there are plants grown on it. At the foot of the bridge, there is an intricate formal garden featuring a series of terraces over a stepped pond with fountains. This is an unusually complex garden for a park from the 1990s.

 

Planting in Mile End Park

The planting is very 1990s, with an interesting variety of plants and grasses but very few flowers. This makes maintenance easier but it was probably also more appropriate considering the negative impact of the exhaust fumes from the highway on the plants. From an ecological point of view we take now, such planting is also more attractive to creepy crawlies and butterflies and needs less chemicals like fertilisers and weedkillers.

 

Church of the Guardian Angels in Mile End

The large church directly near the “green bridge” is the Roman Catholic church of the Guardian Angels, built in 1903. The nave is classically neo-gothic while the crenellated tower is a bit strange. The church has a very interesting history: the location was used before by a congregationalist chapel but the land owner died and the heirs wanted to sell out. The worshippers were distracted by a conflict with their preacher and the chapel was bought instead by a Catholic gentleman who found enthusiastic support with the Bishop for his idea of opening a school and other social facilities in this particularly deprived part of London. I guess the Bishop was also quite pleased with having expelled competitors from this conspicuous location. There was a significant number of prospective Catholic churchgoers because this was a heavily industrial neighbourhood that gave jobs to many Irish immigrants forced by famine to leave their farms.

Looking towards Canary Wharf from the green bridge

By the way, there is an interesting view from the top of the footbridge towards Canary Wharf. It is one of few locations where you get a large number of trees in the foreground and the towers in the background.

L Eric Street
R Mile End Road past the station

 

Weird style on Mile End Road

Nearly opposite the station, I noticed a somewhat peculiar office building. It combines a very plain brick structure, a steel-and-glass structure with a strange lattice of metal bars and a very unexpected neo-Georgian portico. The building combines a half-circle, a triangular and a cubic shape in a completely uncoordinated manner. If the aim was to attract attention from passers-by, it is probably fair enough. It the aim was to make a tasteful statement and to improve the landscape, I think the objective was missed by a large margin. Eclecticism cannot ever replace thoughtful design.

MILE END

Mile End Underground station

The station opened in 1902 together with the District line extension. Additional platforms for the Central line opened in 1946.

The station building is a simple but well proportioned building covered in white tiles with a blue band. It reminds a little of stations from the 1930s on the Northern line but it was renovated several times and I cannot tell how old it really is. The colour scheme is actually unusual and people familiar with London Underground branding schemes can probably pinpoint the construction date easily.

Continue on Mile End Road
R Southern Grove
L Hamlets Way. The road turns L at the end but you should continue ahead in the footpath along the cemetery fence
I also suggest you detour R into Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, there are several exits leading you back into Hamlets Way

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

The cemetery was opened in 1841 as one of the seven large cemeteries landscaped by private companies when investors decided that burials could be an attractive business now that Parliament had decided to close the parish cemeteries for hygienic reasons. Part of the cemetery was used for individual monuments but the location in a deprived part of London means the large majority of burials were in unmarked common graves. Like with other cemeteries, the company was more interested in dividends than in tidiness and maintenance. In the end, the cemetery was closed in 1966 and the ground sold to the local authorities.

The benign neglect practiced for many years enabled nature to take over large parts of the cemetery and it is now a pleasant nature reserve with burial monuments scattered among the grass under mature trees and linked by romantic paths through the greenery. There are not many celebrities buried here as they would usually live in more wholesome parts of London and therefore closer to other cemeteries.

L Wellington Way

Houses in Wellington Way

There are some nice brick houses in this road, probably built for owners of shops in the area. They do not remind you of typical East End tenements.

R for

 

 

BOW ROAD

Bow Road Underground station

The station opened in 1902 together with the District line extension.

The station building is very similar to the one in Stepney Green, but it was changed even less and is listed. The listing refers apparently to a large extent also to the elaborate platform awnings.

 

 

Court for the borough of Tower Hamlets

The building next to the station is the local court for the borough of Tower Hamlets. It is a good example of the image of justice the government decided is appropriate as similar court buildings were built elsewhere in London around the year 2000. It seems courts are not supposed to be welcoming places (like in “helping people come to their rights”), rather to frighten criminals. This fits with the policy of the government to keep people away from the courts as far as possible if some kind of mediation or ombudsman is possible in any manner. To be honest, offputting, fortress-like court buildings are also necessary because courts are typical targets for violent activists and even terrorists.

R Mornington Grove
L along the railway line (Eleanor Street, but there is no street sign here)
L across the train line using the footbridge
R across a second train line, you are now in Arnold Road
At the next larger road, when Arnold Road turns into Trevithick Way, leave both
L Campbell Road (the street sign is missing)

Orange pub

R Bow Road
Cross the bridge over the DLR
Just before house number 116 (a pub) R in a footpath

The pub was painted in a particular lively colour when I walked past it. For some reason, I have not seen many shops or businesses painted bright orange. There might be some limitations imposed by boroughs, but it is possibly just the fact that orange is a more expensive colour and is prone to get dirty quickly.

Cross Rainhill Way towards a historical building

 

Former Drapers’ Almshouses

The building is a former set of almshouses built by the Drapers’ guild. They were built in 1702 as a retirement home for guild members themselves and this may explain the late date of construction. Most guilds built almshouses in the 16th and 17th century on the basis of bequests of land or funds and it had become less usual to earmark money for this purpose in the 1700s. In line with fashion for early Georgian properties, the building is a streamlined, strictly symmetrical structure with just a modest cornice under the roof eaves. The almshouses were converted later into luxury flats when the guild transferred the retirement home away from London in order to sell the ground.

Ahead on the footpath along school grounds
At the end L into a footpath along the back wall of the school
At the end R Stroudley Walk

Arcades in Stroudley Walk

This unusual pedestrianised street is a testimony to a very specific urban planning fashion. Back in the 1960s, the usual planning for a new neighbourhood including council estate towers in walking distance of a quadratic shopping centre with easy vehicle access to the back of the shops. Nowadays, fashion is for either huge self-contained shopping centres with equally huge parking facilities near a motorway exit – or for pedestrianised city centre streets with identikit chain stores.

In the 1980s, there was a fashion for rows of shops on both sides of a walking mall. Upper levels were to be used for housing and deliveries were a bit awkward. In the end, many shops closed because clients insisted on only shopping in places they could reach by car and the flats above the shops were not popular because of late night noise from bars under the arcades.

At the end of the arcades L into Bruce Road

Formal garden in Bob’s Park

There is a nice little park further down in Bruce Road. It had some innocuous official name but local residents nicknamed it “Bob’s Park” after the warden and the name continues to be used nowadays. Being directly near the local community centre, it is well looked after by a club of park friends and there is a lovely formal garden with an interesting variety of flowers and an interesting inlay of ceramic roundels in the central section. This may be inspired by medieval tradition, when large churches often had a labyrinth inlaid in the nave floor. The playground also has a particularly nice dragon, possibly again inspired by medieval decoration.

Playground dragon

Friendly dragon park bench

Community centre in Bob’s Park

The community centre itself opened in 1994 and was the brainchild of Baron Andrew Mawson, a trained theologian who launched here the first “Healthy Living Centre” and trialed many important ideas used to structure social life in deprived areas of Britain such as encouraging grassroots arts and handicrafts. It was one of the ancestors of what we call nowadays “community work” or “social entrepreneurship”. The building is a somewhat peculiar structure in terms of colours and shapes but the courtyard concept reminds a little of cloisters and this is not surprising considering the background of the founder. It was also logical because it used a former church, destroyed in a fire later on.

Remnant of Northumberland House

The main access to the community centre is a somewhat unexpected stone gate. It was salvaged from the garden of a local mansion but it is actually much older and much more historical. It was one of the garden decorations designed by leading architect William Kent in the early 1600s for a palace in central London, Northumberland House. There is an other item of decoration from this garden in the original location near Embankment Underground station.

Close nearby, you can also have a look at Kingsley Hall, built as a community centre in the 1930s. I did not take a picture because it is not a spectacular building but it is a very special place because Mahatma Gandhi stayed in the building in 1931.

At the end R St Leonard’s Street (look for the blue sign for Bromley station)
Ahead along the foot of the motorway embankment to

BROMLEY-BY-BOW

Bromley-by-Bow Underground station

The station opened originally as a train station on the suburban railway between London Fenchurch Street and Barking in 1858. It was called plain “Bromley” and remained so when it was relocated by a few yards following a fire in 1892. The junction with the District line opened in 1902 and the train services were withdrawn in 1962, leaving a pure Underground station.

 

 

The name of the station changed in 1967 from Bromley to Bromley-by-Bow for rather incidental reasons: the London boroughs had been reorganised in 1965 and the borough of Bromley was now a major subdivision of London. In order to avoid any confusion that the District line station might be located in this newly created borough, the name of the station was changed. There are indeed stations in the borough of Bromley called Bromley North and Bromley South.

The station building is a rather plain brick box. This is due to the fact that the previous building burnt down in 1970 and that public means of transportation were seen at that time as a necessary inconvenience not warranting too much investment.

Cross under the motorway near the Underground station
L along the motorway following the blue pedestrian sign for Three Mills
Follow the slip road parallel to the motorway towards a bus stop (Hancock Road)
R Three Mill Lane

Tidal mill on the Bow river

The Three Mills area includes an important film studio, a small park and the mills themselves. There are actually only two mills since the 16th century. They are not in use any more since World War II but maintenance took place because they were used as warehouses. One of them (the “house mill” built in 1776) is the largest tidal mill in England although the tidal effect has been partly eliminated by works in the upstream basin. The machinery can still be visited occasionally as it is owned by a charity.

High tide in Three Mills

The technical aspect is difficult to guess from outside, but you do feel that it is a historical place due to the unequal stones and to the interesting shapes of the many individual buildings.

Continue ahead into the mill courtyard
At the end L along Three Mills Wall River

 

Development on Sugar House Island

The park is not very interesting, it is just a quiet open space between two arms of the Bow River. But you have views from the park to interesting modern buildings on the other side of the river. On the left-hand side, a former industrial area called “Sugar House Island” is being developed into a new neighbourhood. My picture dates back to the very beginnings of the development but promised interestingly contemporary architecture.

Three Mills pumping station

On the right-hand side, the large shiny industrial hall is a pumping station. It is needed to pump sewage from the lower lying parts of the East End into the main sewer as this one crosses the Bow River as a covered aqueduct on a higher level. The new pumping station also has a much higher throughput and made it possible to evacuate much more foul water through the sewer than into the river Lea as had to be done before in some circumstances. The building is a plain industrial structure but it was given an intriguing shape that makes it interesting rather than ugly. Well done.

After the park and a bridge R on Bisson Road (no street sign at this corner)
The road turns soon L as Riverside Road

House in Riverside Road

This small neighbourhood squeezed between the river and a high embankment away from convenient amenities is bound to attract a different kind of people than a typical terraced road. I was pleased to discover the lovely decoration of the house on the picture, it sorts of defines well the kind of people I imagine living here, people with their personal view on life but who take pride in their surroundings. To fit with this theme, look at the next road. When you think about it, giving Gay Road as your address may not be very cool in a typical high school environment.

R Gay Road
L Abbey Lane

 

Abbey Lane Recreation Ground

R into the recreation ground, climb the stairs at the rear of the playground up the embankment.

The recreation ground is nothing special, but it is actually quite large for such a small neighbourhood and must be pleasantly quiet.

R on the top of the embankment, you are on the Greenway

 

Former Abbey Mills pumping station

The Greenway leads you soon past a rather peculiar industrial building, the old Abbey Mills pumping station. It was designed in 1865 as part of the sewage network I mentioned before. Scientists were increasingly worried that effluent dumped into any available canal or river was spreading diseases and Parliament had been forced to evacuate the Westminster Houses when a hot summer had caused the polluted river Thames to smell disgustingly. Sewage from households (not yet from industry at that time) was to be evacuated through large sewers and the North bank sewer crosses the Lea river as an aqueduct. The Greenway was landscaped on top of the aqueduct and you might get an inkling of bad smells on very hot days although the sewer is indeed well sealed.

Sewage from the East End ran first to the pumping station from whence it had to be pumped up by about 40 ft into the main sewer. The facility was a showpiece of engineering and was designed in a very elaborate style occasionally compared to a Byzantine cathedral. The red-and-white pattern and the romanic arches were actually quite commonplace in mid-Victorian architecture while the roofs reminiscent of French châteaux and the quirky tower are indeed less usual. I suggest you compare my picture from 2009 with the present state of affairs to state whether nature has started reclaiming at least the paved area around the building.

Crossing the Channelsea River

Just after the pumping station, the Greenway crosses over the Channelsea River, now a dead arm of the lower Lea river. My picture is taken very carefully to give you a more natural feeling that what you will probably feel between new residential estates, railroads and legacy industrial plots.

Keep on the Greenway crossing train lines
Just after the bridge over the railway R down the stairs to Manor Road
L (southwards) Manor Road
Cross under the next train line for

WEST HAM

West Ham Underground station

The station was opened in 1901 by the railway company on a line that already existed since 1858 because it was necessary to provide access to a new football stadium nearby. When the London Underground District Line opened in 1902, the station became an interchange, but trains stopped calling here from 1908 onwards (with a few exceptions). Trains call again since 1999.

In 1979, platforms were built on an other train line that ran through West Ham on its way between Stratford and Canning Town. This interchange was available until 2006; the train line was replaced by a DLR line on the same route that opened in 2011.

West Ham station

In addition, West Ham is served by London Underground: District Line since 1902 on tracks parallel to the Fenchurch Street train line, Jubilee Line since 1999 on tracks parallel to the Stratford-Canning Town train line.

The station building is a rather impressive construction from 1999 with the walkway between the two Underground lines set on spidery brick pillars. There is a very tall and wide concourse serving both the train station and the Underground lines. It has no decoration to speak of and this gives it a rather imposing appearance reminding a little of Art Déco. Unfortunately, I could not take pictures inside for obvious security reasons.

L past the Underground station in Memorial Avenue
Ahead across the recreation ground to the Greenway embankment

Memorial Recreation Ground

The original user of this place was the Thames Ironwork Football Club founded in 1897. The club is better known as the West Ham United Football Club, their later name. They moved away in 1904 to Upton Park and the grounds have mainly been used for football and rugby pitches since.

Climb up the Greenway using the stairs close to the train line

 

From the top of the Greenway, you have a good view towards the two council estate towers of Plaistow. This suburb did not have the best of reputations in the 1970s when many tenants of the estate towers lost their jobs due to the closure of many factories in the East End. After years of handwringing, police raids and neglect, the government decided in the 1990s to start giving the local authorities subsidies to rebuild the most run-down suburbs. The process has been ongoing for 30 years but has indeed brought more stability into the community and the estate towers in Plaistow do not look frightening.

Go down the stairs on the other side of the Greenway into Whitelegg Road (still along the train line)
The road turns R under the same name
Ahead Rudolph Road
L Salmen Road
L London Road (there is no street sign, it is the direction of the council estate tower)
Cross the station car park for

PLAISTOW

Plaistow Underground station

The station opened originally as a train station on the suburban railway between London Fenchurch Street and Barking in 1858. The District line started serving it in 1902 and the train services dwindled quickly until they were completely withdrawn in 1962, leaving a pure Underground station.

The station building is not listed but it has some limited local protection. It is one of the most spectacular District line stations, built in 1905 in a very idiosyncratic style. The roof is quite simple and similar to that in Bromley-by-Bow and it is the massive quadrangular structure that is really special. The window pattern reminds a little of medieval Sicily or even Islamic medieval architecture. The cornice is supported by very unusual stone corbels and only the overall colour scheme (red bricks with cream stone highlights) is typically Edwardian.

 

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