River Roding Walk – Ilford to the Thames
Part 3 - Beckton to the Barking Barrier
The third section of our walk began at the locked gate we had encountered – from the other side – at the end of our previous walk. It was still chained shut, however from this side it is quite an impressive structure – plenty of ironwork, probably representing something Thames Water-ish – but somewhat forbidding, even though the signage above proudly proclaims – below Thames Water’s familiar blue sign – ‘Beckton Creekside NATURE RESERVE’.
At least we knew, this time, that the actual nature reserve was some 10-15 minutes walk away, and not at all – at the moment, anyway – accessible from this gate, so we were able to walk along the service route at the back of the cinema to access the ‘Northern Lagoon Walkway’. Here there was more blossom – lots of Blackthorn now, and the yellow flowers of willow – along the walkway, although the day wasn’t quite as sunny as on the last two walks. We quickly reached the nature reserve and went through the open gates. Bird-feeders had been recently topped up (with bird feed), and particularly Great Tits were making use of them. Further into the reserve, Sweet Violet was in abundance, and a small path led of from the main one, towards the Roding. Within the nature reserve so far, the river itself hadn’t been visible. The path is set back on the landward side from the river, with trees and a stretch of reed between it and the path. Also between the small path and the river, the fairly dense vegetation almost hid a significant amount of what appeared to be the remains of a building. I wondered at the time if this was the remains of a large house that once existed here, Creekside House, but I believe that was situated further downstream.
The small path eventually led to a small rise in the ground, on which was a picnic bench, with somewhat austere views towards the sewage treatment works, the Barking Barrier, the Thames and beyond, to Shooters Hill over in what had once been Kent. Backtracking to regain the main nature reserve path, we enjoyed the results of the considerable work that has been put in to make this an interesting place for humans, and certainly a valuable variety of habitats for plants, birds and other animals. Towards the south end of the reserve, where there is a gateway to and from the main track we’d been following, Barking Creek edges closer, but with a substantial reed-bed still separating the low land from the muddy creek. Here there was a subsidiary creek, entering into a reed-surrounded pool. On the east bank there were excellent views of the industries that line River Road, Barking – one of the untidiest and industrial roads hereabouts and perhaps anywhere. At one time, presumably, material would have been loaded and unloaded from ships or barges on the river, now they are accessed from the road. A crane was busy moving what looked like metal-waste from one heap to another. In the background an old-looking factory building still remains; in the foreground, though, on the bank of the pool just above the Phragmites reed, a very out-of-place-seeming ‘palm’ tree – actually a Cordyline, often called a New Zealand Cabbage Palm. A review that I read of this area by one visitor disdained that this was called a nature reserve, saying there was ‘no nature’! I suspect that this would be a wonderful place for Reed Buntings and other reed-loving birds, and I suspect that – as the reserve’s notice board had suggested – raptors would find plenty to prey upon here.
We exited the reserve onto the main path, now with a swift flowing channel of water running parallel within the works’ security fence. This is the final outflow channel of treated water, now pure enough to be discharged safely into the Thames. Somewhat disconcertingly, though, stretching along its length by the works, foam was dancing in a regular rhythm from outlets in the wall. This is – apparently – stuff that the works just hasn’t been able to deal with.
Beckton Sewage Treatment Works – by the side of which we had been walking since the cinema – is the largest such works in Europe. It was built in the 1860s as part of Bazalgette’s plan to remove sewage from London. This site, on the north bank of the Thames was designed to take sewage collected via the Northern Outfall Sewer and discharge it into the Thames. A similar plant and outfall sewer was built for the south of London, just across the Thames at Crossness. The site has been enlarged over its lifetime, and the raw sewage collected there is now treated before much cleaner water is allowed to flow into the river.
The Barking Barrier – which when first viewed from Barking as just an odd part of an odd landscape – was now a prominent, and probably the dominant feature. Through its supports we could see the Thames. The closer we got to the Roding’s confluence with the Thames. The more birds were to be seen in the creek and on the muddy banks: Sheld Duck were plentiful, some Teal, Redshank, and of course gulls. Across the Roding (or perhaps more properly now Barking Creek) a small area of open land indicated where there is a small park – just about the only respite from the chain of industrial sites that line that side of the river. This is Thames Barrier Park, just 7-hectares of open space with a single gated entrance, and back out the same way.
The Barking Barrier is an immense structure – the barrier is 38 metres wide and the concrete towers 40 metres high. It was designed as part of the Thames Flood Protection programme – developed after the disastrous floods of 1953 – and, together with a similar structure at the mouth of the River Darent, is designed to be lowered at times of particularly high tides to protect the low-lying land, just before the Thames Barrier is put into operation. The barrier is managed by The Environment Agency, and their peculiarly child-like logo adorns the side of the tower.
We had reached the Thames. A continuous metre-or-so high concrete wall helps protect against high tides, and provides a convenient leaning-table to take in the views and to observe the birds. The tide was out when we arrived – a large area of mud was exposed below the wall, with the stream of the Roding and the noisy and fast rush of cleansed water from the treatment works causing white-water waves. Hundreds of birds – ducks, cormorants, gulls – were making use of the feeding possibilities in all of this disturbance, and on the expanse of mud, too – with waders patrolling and probing up and down, on and into the mud.
The track continued westwards along the river wall, between it and the Beckton Desalination Plant. This plant turns brackish Thames water into drinking water, and transfers it by means of an 8Km long pipe to the Waterworks Corner roundabout, and part of its route is across Wanstead Flats. Shortly, an enormous pair of security gates could easily have barred our way, but these were wide open. There were certainly ‘Private Property’-style notices around, and security cameras – but none of the notices indicated directly that pedestrians were allowed no further. So further we went. Two long gated piers – the Northern Outfall Jetty – jutted out across the mud, but beyond the second were two relatively new wooden benches, facing towards the river. It was between these piers that the original raw outflow of sewage would have entered the Thames, the reason perhaps of the extensive mud banks. By now it had begun to rain, with a cold rain, blowing from the north, behind us, but we made use of a bench to have a quick snack. So, here is a small warning about this walk – from the Alfreds Way bridge carrying the A13 over the Roding, apart from maybe at the cinema complex, there is absolutely no shelter from the elements.
Our return journey, into the rain, would shortly have to begin, but before that the pathway was still open. The views along this stretch are limited to the side of the high sea wall, or of the water treatment works. And the view is somewhat dominated by four huge concrete cylinders – shown on the map (1) as ‘Activated Sludge Plant’, which themselves are enlivened at the human level by colourful and remarkably fine graffiti. Some of this was so three-dimensional in its effect that it was hard to realise that you were looking at just the curving face of a huge tank.
A final inclined slope which again provided a view over the self-defence wall also led to the expected locked gate. Beyond this was a tangle of vegetation – not necessarily hiding some highly secure property to which access would never be granted – but just, it seemed, an unnecessary obstacle to allow the 500m or so access to a public road and bus stops at Armada Way.
That was it then. We turned around and walked back the way we had come, only this time shortening the return hike a slightly by missing out the nature reserve paths.
Just before we reached the A13 pedestrian underpass, we noticed a small circular brick building, topped with a cupola, on the Barking bank and tucked in just below the flyover. A map search later marked this as ‘Tunnel’, with a line drawn across the river to more-or-less the spot we had observed it from. That would seem to indicate a pedestrian tunnel of some sort, rather than a service tunnel, but apart from that, I have no idea what this is or was.
It wasn’t clear to me how as pedestrians we would be able to get up to Alfreds Way, to cross the bridge. It seems often the case that signposts for pedestrians are somewhat misleading or lacking. The indicator nearby that pointed to ‘Riverside Walkway’ and ‘Northern Lagoon Walkway’ are cases in point. The riverside walkway seems to be away from the river and towards a locked gate, and I still don’t know what the Northern Lagoon is, although I believe it may refer to an area of water - which is not very visible from the walkway - inside the treatment works. Maybe 'Barking Barrier Walkway' or 'Lower Roding Walkway' might be more indicative. There aren’t yet Roding Valley Way signposts, or the blue ones indicating destinations on combined pedestrian/cycle routes. The latter usually show a time as well as a destination – e.g. ‘Ilford 10 mins’ - but when I have followed that one, it takes me about 30 mins. I suspect that they are primarily intended for cyclists benefit rather than pedestrians.
So – how to get onto the bridge? I guessed that there just might be stairs leading up to it from Jenkins Lane, so going back into the Cuckolds Haven Nature Reserve we took the first well-used path on our left, which indeed did give egress to Jenkins Lane. That is to say, there was a gate. As the path cut a bank from the higher land, we saw that the bank had a host of wildflowers, some just beginning flower. The highlight here was Oxlip. We crossed Jenkins Lane at the entrance to a Travelodge, and nearby was the hoped-for flight of steps. Alfreds Way, heading eastwards on the pavement across the bridge, was awful. There was rain from the sky, spray from the incessant vehicles within feet of us, and just the fleeting observation that – amongst all the carbon-monoxide, diesel fumes, dust, litter, grime and oil, some plants were flowering between the pavement and the bridge railings. One of these – Danish Scurvygrass – seems to like this habitat. Really, it should be happier by the coast, but lorries from the coastal ports have transported it along the roadside, and perhaps the road-salt distribution in winter makes it feel at home.
It was with a great sense of relief that we took the pedestrian/cycle slip-path from the end of the bridge, leading us back to the river. It looks as though a riverside pathway is possible back under Alfreds Way on this east bank, and is probably used by dog-walkers as well as unmentionables. But it isn’t paved, and wasn’t the way we wished to go this time. Heading upstream, though – and towards Barking town centre – a paved route was distinctly in our favour. It runs directly parallel to the river, with views across to the waterside vegetation, and the water birds, such as Teal, that we had walked near to on our second leg. Passing Hand Trough Creek, with the Barking Barrage in sight and sound, the track opens up into a promenade beneath brightly-painted apartments. Shortly, we were back at the Barking Barrage, with its control-building which allows boats to pass up and downstream when the tide permits.
Down past the apartment building of Abbey Road, across Abbey Green and past St Margaret’s Church, through the Curfew Tower and across Broadway/North Street to the pedestrian area. One final aspect of Barking’s maritime history caught our attention. This was prompted by a metal boat jutting from a building at the corner of the oddly-named Short Blue Place, with a metal fish hanging on a line beneath. Conveniently, underneath the Short Blue Place road-name, were two information boards explaining what this was about. The model was that of a fishing smack of the type used by Barking’s fishing fleet. The Short Blue Fleet was a fleet of eventually 50 smacks, owned by the Hewett family, originally operating from Barking. The ‘Short Blue’ was from the name given to the fleet on account of the flag that flew on its vessels.
Standing back from the buildings, and looking above the somewhat boring modern shop front, the house could be seen to have been once a quite substantial dwelling for – presumably – the owner of one of the largest fishing fleets in the country at the time. As the Thames had grown more polluted – a reference back to the sewage treatment works that had accompanied almost all of the day’s walk – the fleet had moved out to Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth, and Barking as a maritime port went rapidly into decline.
We had completed our originally unintentional walk from home (by Wanstead Flats) to the Thames. We did this in three sections, as we were stopping and looking at things – and finding a route – and we did have to get back, too. It would be quite feasible for a good walker to do the whole lot that I have described in one go, particularly if using public transport to get back. It is a shame that the final locked gate exists, because a bus from there to the DLR or Barking Station, for example, would make things a lot easier. But the important thing is that the route now exists, and at last the slightly incomplete Roding Valley Way is just about fully functional.
Paul Ferris 27th March 2021
This walk was done on 17th March 2021
(There was a final stretch – we never actually walked the bit from our starting place near the mushroom farm, to Ilford. So we completed that stretch HERE.)