Three Mills is just off the A12 (aka the East Cross Route or the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach) an unforgiving stretch of urban motorway that flies over east London with little regard for what lies below. We’ve driven past countless times, most often en route to Brighton, but never noticed. The focus was always straight ahead or checking the mirrors or watching for speed cameras or perhaps just occasionally, Look there’s the Fire Station. There was never any reason to stop, in fact it’s quite difficult to do so and it took a few attempts, but eventually we arrived at the Tesco car park.
We turned our back on the supermarket, ignoring its many charms and risking the penalty of parking without purchasing we left the car and set off on foot along the Lea Navigation Towpath towards Bow Flyover. A new extension allowed us to walk beneath the road. The next section of the path had only recently been re-opened. For the duration of the Olympics it was closed for security reasons, despite the protests of local cyclists, because it skirts the western perimeter of the Olympic Park.
Cyclists have however now returned to the towpath. We encountered many as we walked. Some were noisy, carrying on-board sound systems, ghetto blasters strapped to their luggage racks; some were quiet and timid and crept up behind us without warning; some were much too fast and arrogant and expected us to leap out of their way; some were clumsy and unbalanced and usually riding Boris bikes; and some were considerate and gracious and thanked us as we stepped aside.
At Old Ford Lock we found Forman’s salmon pink Fish Island factory (note the Olympic Stadium reflected in its windows) and then The Counter Café with tables floating on the river at Stour Space studios in Hackney Wick. Just beyond here we crossed the bridge at the northern limit of the Olympic Park to follow the path alongside the Hertford Union Canal beside a barge serving tea & cakes.
We walked by Bottom Lock, Middle Lock and Top Lock then continued along the southern edge of Victoria Park. Canada geese applauded us with their clapping bills as they feasted on duckweed. We passed Chisenhale Studios to reach the junction with Regent’s Canal and an echo of Joseph Conrad.
From above we heard a high pitched call and looked up to see a magpie chasing away a sparrowhawk. There were swans on the water and a coot and a cormorant beside us on dry land. It felt a long way from the A12. The eastern bank of the Regent’s Canal is bordered by Mile End Park, a green belt of reclaimed wartime bombsites. We followed the canal by Queen Mary’s, University of London to Mile End Lock where we saw this bargeman and his boathook grappling elegantly with the the lock-gates.
We passed under the A11 and down to Jonson Lock where we were teased by the delicious smells of spiced food cooking in a canal-side kitchen. It was getting beyond lunchtime. We passed the vestigal red-brick chimney of a bygone pumping station, then the Ragged School Museum and Salmon Lock and under the A13 into Limehouse Basin.
Here we found the ill fated Water Chariots, the waterbus service from Tottenham Hale to Limehouse intended to ferry passengers to the Olympic Park but at a cost that proved to be unaffordable. We made a detour from here around the basin and through Ropemakers Field to Narrow Street and to The Grapes for a late lunch.
The pub overlooks the Thames, serves good food and real ales and is owned by Sir Ian McKellen. Pictures of Charles Dickens hang on its walls to celebrate his reference to it in his novel Our Mutual Friend, ‘A tavern of dropsical appearance…long settled down into a state of hale infirmity’. A public house has stood on this site since 1583. The frequent sound of waves washing against the shore can be heard whenever a Thames cruise boat passes by.
We returned to Ropemakers Field and then followed the towpath along Limehouse Cut. We passed two coots guarding a sluice and a cormorant hanging out its wings to dry from a warehouse roof. Another cormorant on the water dived and resurfaced with its beak full of fish. The long, straight towpath was overshadowed by the high brick walls of old warehouses. This stretch was previously dominated by factories where such things as tar, varnish, manure, ammonia, potash, rubber and bones were all processed. It felt claustrophobic and was formerly known as Stinkinghouse. A concrete mixer was displayed on a factory roof with the unfortunate slogan, Jim’ll Mix It. We escaped under the A12 and out into the more open surroundings of Bow Locks where the Limehouse Cut joins the River Lea.
From Bow Locks we returned by Bow Creek to Three Mills. The building on the left is the original medieval tidal mill. The outgoing tide would drive its four paddle wheels which in turn drove twelve pairs of mill stones for grinding flour. This continued until 1941 when it was bombed during WW2. It is thought to be the largest tidal mill in the world. 3 Mills Studios are the buildings on the right.
Back at Tesco’s car park there is another fine view of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit.
Walk the walk – Three Mills and the Canals.