Tag Archives: canals

From the Lowry to Manchester — A February Canal Walk

We started at the Lowry on Saturday — arriving in Media City. My partner argues it should be pronounced Mediacity, which does better reflect how shiny it is, how empty and windswept yet expensive, how soulless though it has gone a half-hearted length trying for soul. A few families gave it some life, some heart. But it feels alien from the vantage point of the estates that lie near it:

Salford to Manchester Canal Walk

And honestly, how dared they name the outlet mall after one of my favourite painters known for his incredible street scenes full of workers, children, dogs and cats, sympathetic views of all of us with all of our deformities and sadnesses and tired loneliness showing. Against a great backdrop of factories. One of the great painters of the working classes, the misfits, the outcasts. What I found most poignant was that he painted what would soon be lost. Preserved memories of a city being demolished around him. Like St Simon’s church here:

Street Scene (St Simon’s Church)

And now here he is in the ruins of the lively docks. I wish I had seen his pictures in the old Salford Art Gallery. First public library in the whole of the UK. I could see why some were upset when they moved them, though inside the new gallery the space is lovely. But honestly, the mall.

But this post isn’t about Lowry, not this one. (For more on Lowry you should read Mark Bould’s amazing post here.) It’s about some of the landscapes and the factories as they appear now.  Nothing at Mediacity called for a photograph somehow, not even by its ugliness. It’s just bland despite its bling, built for consumption and status. Uncomfortable. Cold.

I love water, and yet the water along these old Salford Quays was nowhere inviting or picturesque until we left the regenerated area behind us. I loved the canal, however, the vibrance of the graffiti down alongside it. The exuberance of colour and character. Educational too, as I learned all about David Icke and his belief that we were being invaded by lizard people from outer space. Then there was the kid who walked past us with a backpack disguised as Captain America’s shield.

Happiness.

But regeneration was everywhere — in the great banks of painfully plain boxy buildings that could be either offices or ‘luxury’ apartments, in the old factories still beautiful and tastefully renovated, but swallowed up by the cheap new build. In the still empty lots strewn with rubbish and the poverty looking even dingier. This regeneration sat strange and isolated alongside the asphalted motorway, the wreckage of earlier decades that tore down neighbourhoods to build roads of great size funneling speeding cars past with a roaring and a coughing of fumes. Much of this walk was experienced as the city planners’ great fuck you to the pedestrian. I wondered who had thought a sign welcoming the driver to Manchester in a desolate traffic circle might be a good idea, especially alongside the changing neon sign that carried advertisements for Sky News followed by a notice in small font that the city was working to end homelessness.

Seems like there are more people sleeping rough every evening I walk through the streets.

Still we found pockets of awesomeness, a sense of the past. A reminder that more existed in life, in our humanity.

Everywhere these contrasts. Click any photo below and it will take you to a slide show…

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Hamburg in the Lovely Month of January

Hamburg was beautiful, even in January. Cold, though. Cold, and raining. So a lot like London, really. But London doesn’t have this:

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The Speicherstadt, or City of Warehouses. For an urbanist that is pretty damn exciting. Started in 1883, they kept on building for decades. But we should back up. Hamburg existed for ages as a city state, formed a part of the Hanseatic league and looked like this once upon a time. Just look how it has transformed itself over time:

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HamburgI am so sad those amazing ramparts are gone long gone, wonder what it must have felt like to always live within walls. In a fraction of the area of the modern city.

But to return to the present.

Jesus was it damp and cold. The wind whipped down that scenic canal of warehouses, and also this one.

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It also whipped down these canals:

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Hamburg is built around water, as you can see. Good for shipping and the movement of goods and quite beautiful. Cold though.

It was possibly even colder when we stood along the mighty Elbe, and stared at the massive port — now the leading port in continental Europe despite its distance inland. Those were some pretty farseeing rich merchants several hundred years back who engineered that trick. There was also that time they managed to get Frederick the Great to give them the right to trade freely…or did they? Suspiciously he signed it right before heading off to the crusades, and he never did come back. There’s a document, but that was forged a few hundred years later.

But did I say it was cold? So we got into a boat quick as we could and tried to see things through the rain. We though we would be alone in this wet January tourist jaunt, but there were about ten of us. We were not the only tourist boat.

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The port was cool. Might have been better if we had realised we could have gone out the back door to stand on deck and actually see everything we were passing. Of course, that would have meant being outside.

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I wanted a sense, some sense of how it once felt to approach Hamburg, almost everyone arrived this way…

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This is a quote from the one book I found on the culture and history of Hamburg, titled quite appropriately Hamburg: A Cultural and Literary History.

With beating heart we caught our first sight of Hamburg. At last she lay before us, this stony world of palaces and towers. The location of the harbour was indicated by a forest of soaring masts, thousands upon thousand…
–Joseph von Eichendorff

A lot has changed, but there are still a few masts and one or two beating hearts.

Speaking of beating hearts, Marx’s publisher Otto Meissner (published Capital and all) was based here. That building is long gone of course.

I digress. We thought the old Elbe tunnel would be nice to see, warm you know, and dry. Samuel Beckett liked it. It was in fact quite stunning, finished in 1911 to allow 2000 dock workers to more easily get to work (those jobs are long gone of course, as much of the docks are automated now. There is a tour of that but not running in January for some reason):

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It’s lined with art deco tiles showing various creatures of the river. Unaccountably there is nothing with tentacles, but there is an old boot and some kind of rodent life.

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I do love tunnels, but there is only so long you can spend walking to one end and then back to the beginning so you aren’t on the wrong side of the river. We returned to our outdoor wander.

We thought the streets would be warmer. They were not warmer. The wind whipped down them. We found Deichstrasse, one of the oldest streets whose homes escaped the great fire of 1842, and show a little of what Hamburg was once like. The dedicated tourist will take pictures of how beautiful it all is from the water, but we weren’t that dedicated.

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The city is full of contrasts — burning down through an accidental fire in 1842 and then being burnt down in a firestorm by the Allies in 1943 during Operation Gomorrah, killing over 42,000 people in the last week of July. So now it is a whole lot of modern alongside the various styles of the old.

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Above all it is a city of brick, and most proud of that. I do love these buildings, the warehouses in particular. Above all I loved the Chile Haus (commissioned for a dude from Hull who made his money in Chile as an exporter of Saltpetre). I think Mark was all right about being dragged here.

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Hamburg is not, of course, free from absurd Baroque and the smell of more ostentatious wealth. The Rathaus for example, had to be rebuilt after the fire, and it took 44 years for agreement on its rebuilding. Seven architects were involved in its designing, and you get the feeling they were all working independently.

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Then there are the Colonnades — I do love colonnades I confess, and walking through them they are lovely:

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By god, though. You look at the other side of them and realise someone somehow thought it a good idea to stick four heads on each arch, and in addition to put a lion at each arch’s peak and trough.

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Saving grace? If you need a pipe, this is definitely where to come.

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I don’t know what the fuck the queen is doing there really.

There was a couple of arcades as well, I do love them too. Just not shopping.

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It is a beautiful view across the Alster. But damn cold. You just can’t get away from it.

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High culture, yeah we did that. Saw Emile Nolde, which made us uncomfortable having really loved many of his ink drawings, woodcuts, etchings of the harbour only to find he voluntarily joined the National Socialists in 1933 and was devastated when his works were put on the degenerate art list. He wrote to Goebbels and everything. We went down to St Pauli too, and the Reeperbahn. Didn’t take many pictures, because, you know, we’re wild and crazy like that. But Hamburg’s all right at night.

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Some of the most poignant things were the Stolpersteine, literally stumbling blocks, though sadly they were plaques that you would never stumble over. Still, they mark the homes of those killed by the Nazis.

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They are very unobtrusive, I am glad I knew to look for them and can’t quite believe they caused a furor. I have been thinking a lot about how you mark what is no longer there in a city, people who have been erased, buildings erased, lives erased. These do that to some extent, and the website is wonderful.

I still wish you stumbled over them.

It was nice to see Heine though, I loved the statue. His uncle Saloman lived here in Hamburg and Heine spent time here. Schopenhauer grew up here — that’s not quite as exciting. Depressing really. But Brahms was born and raised here as well. Inspired me to read a biography, but that’s for blogging later I think, I quite loved it.

And it was a pleasure to be in Hamburg.

But damn it was cold.

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Poplar: From East India Dock Road to St Paul’s Way

Another walk through Poplar, away from the more historic High Street, beginning with East India Docks Rd and heading to St Paul’s Way. I love this village, suburb, piece of London though it is new to me. Turning right on Kerbey Street I passed the Salvation Army Hall (and the Salvation Army has been a fixture of East End life since it’s beginnings 150 years ago) and this pretty awesome ‘selfie post’:

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The view to the south:

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It saddens me, that everywhere Canary Wharf looms over you.

Makes me happy that there is still so much council housing, though how much is ‘genuinely affordable’ social housing I do not know. I still feel we know more now, can design better housing and community now, but I will defend this to the last until that commitment is made, is built.

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Still, it is a relief to come to the open piece of green that is Bartlett Park after so much concrete — even though it is railed in — to find boys playing cricket and football fields and one last building left from earlier days covered over with vines (and seriously un-photogenic due to the street works taking place, so in possible violation of the dérive principle, it does not feature here).

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But I wondered at the multi-storey towers, they appeared to be that cheap brand of luxury housing mushrooming along the rivers and canals so I couldn’t understand what they were doing there in all of their massive garishness and glass:

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I shortly arrived here, and all of my wonderings were answered — I hadn’t realised I was approaching the Limehouse Cut. I get a little fucking angry, though, that these buildings should cut through and haughtily rise above our neighbourhoods, transforming the feel of the canals I love without providing the housing we so desperately need.

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It is the shoddy arrogance of today’s wealth staring down in comfort, a sneer at inequality written across the horizon.

Despite this, the canal still has some of its old magic, in the form of old warehouses in brick and personal expression spray-painted across its walls:

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Remnants of the past still linger on, making you positively nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to look forward to our future and a better world, rather than back.

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In spite of everything, a vibrant diversity still clings on to life here.

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I got nostalgic again leaving this old brick for this shiny new school:

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Researching its shininess further I found this from their website:

A major new programme to help children learn enterprise and employability skills will be launched at St Paul’s Way Trust School in January 2015.

A very generous grant from J P Morgan to the school, in association with St Paul’s Way Community Interest Company, will support students to develop their own business ideas, and turn their plans into real community enterprises. The grant will also support the school to develop a more comprehensive work experience programme, meaning that every student will have opportunities to learn about work which is tailored to their hopes for the future.

It chills me that they are offering a life geared towards work to our children, rather than inspiration and creativity to encourage a curiosity about our world and the knowledge of how to explore it in ways unlimited by the need to profit.

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Obviously Canary Wharf looms over people’s lives in more ways than one.

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Their estates that are being decanted.

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Their churches and community centres:

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I had begun this walk with the intention of finding Paper & Cup‘s St Paul’s Way Centre cafe, but realised I didn’t have time to stop, so I completed the loop back down to the Westferry DLR. It was nice to see Mile End Park, but it lies on the other side of the massive Burdett Road full of traffic and fumes, scary to cross.

I walked back down it, but didn’t have much heart for pictures. Only this little park full of crocuses and snowdrops and a lost section of row housing that reminds you that you are human:

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Soon there will be daffodils.

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Cleaning Regent’s Canal

We were all hoping for treasure I think. Things lost in the thick black muck; its smell still permeates my room from the pile of clothes in the corner. A bad day to run out of laundry detergent. Worth it, though, canals are a national treasure. The year I lived in Bow I could always escape down to the Regent’s Canal. It felt like, no it was, a bit of the wild running through the city. I still cross the river from South London to walk there sometimes.

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Not as wild as the Thames, I love the river for being the only London place you can feel the world open out the way the desert does. Space. Power. Nature being bigger than we are, which I miss so much in a city where you can’t see the stars. Of course this requires standing on a bridge. I do love bridges, but cold. You can escape down to the bits of beach you can find, but my heart hurts at the kinds of development running along the banks these days.

We built canals, these beautiful threads of water that open up the city but also tie it together in ways so different from streets, that provide homes for so many creatures other than ourselves, that represent such enormous collective effort and advances in engineering. I love all of that. Especially this bit of the Regents Canal not yet ruined by developers. The Canal River and Trust had funds to drain a section of it, fix up the walls. Not to clean it though. Unemployment as it is, people should have been paid well to do this hard work that improves the canals for all of us who love them as well as their wildlife.

With our society’s priorities all wrong, the massive effort to clean the canal while it sat drained depended on volunteers under the direction of the brilliant Lower Regents Coalition (with a shout out to Katie and Alfie from Moo Canoes who were there til the end, and run days when you can canoe for free if you do some litter picking). They provided the kit. The Canal & River Trust are filling in the canal today, so it was the last chance to get the rubbish out, we fanned out:

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We pulled out materials dumped by builders, numerous prams and assorted metal ‘things’ and horrible sections of shag carpet and cans upon cans and bottles and plastic bags. We wrestled them all from the mud that clung to them fiercely, and with tired muscles piled them high on the canal banks.

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I wanted to have been the one who found the old second world war ordinance or the rotting rifle or the goblets or the animal skull. But I didn’t mind so terribly that I wasn’t. I got to enjoy other people’s discoveries:

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The end of the day was loading up what seemed like endless truck runs from bank to barge:

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Because it was the last day, the push was intense to get as much as we could, and I was a bit ashamed of myself that I had to leave before we were quite done because it’s those last few loads that really counted. The last cold fighting with rubbish in the darkness, all that collecting of boots and gloves and washing them down and the things that keep you from the mulled wine and hot mince pies that were our reward.

I was exhausted even without deserving the honour of that last push, but I recognised the justice of the friendly laughing from the canal workers repairing the banks as a few of us left off before they stopped working. They had started before us, did this every day.

Still, it left me with a bit of a high as I made my way back to Brixton. I thought buying a special little something for supper from Marks & Spencers with a dirty face (all over filthy really) and smelling like the canal might be another highlight of the day, but honestly, the hot shower was one of the best I have ever enjoyed.

Days like this, spent with people like this, make me feel so good.

Postscript: Walking on my way to do some work it’s clear they’re still working on the canal. Also, walking? Oof. I won’t say it’s age but shit, I think it might be age.

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