The shipping container is blue and has ‘Cleanaway’ marked on both ends, just legible under scrawls of graffiti. It’s resting skew-whiff on the piles of abandoned boat paraphernalia that litter this part of the river in south east London – battered ropes coiled sluggishly in sodden heaps; a set of white, rusting steps leading aboard a long-gone ferry to nowhere; yellow and blue metal pipes; old buoys forever beach-bound.
The East Greenwich riverfront, which begins just upriver from the Cutty Sark, has a rich industrial past and what remains shares the space in higgledy-piggledy fashion with wading birds, wildflowers, weeds and weeping willows. The eye roves continually from mossy industrial debris to the river’s muddy flow and – across the water – to the shiny banking centre of Canary Wharf. Marshland and wildlife, human endeavour and neglect, are all found here in ever decreasing circles.
Here and there along the riverside, a few plaques reveal the various stages of the area’s change from agriculture and marsh, to heavy industry and shipbuilding, before its decline in the late 1900s. The plaques give interesting tidbits of information, but the character of the area is laid bare anyhow and doesn’t really need much help. Flowering weeds sprout atop discarded ship beams and alongside aged warehouses; straggling bushes erupt in spaces between pathway, beach and wasteland. Even dumping grounds intrigue, like vast junk shops open to the sky.
In a couple of places, a concerted effort has been made to encourage new growth. The Alcatel Jetty has been planted with mosses and sedum to entice wagtails, black redstarts and cormorants, in the hope that birds will adopt other similar structures as their home. Further along, near the O2 Arena, a larger jetty sports similar grassy headwear. Both are gated and locked. We can stand close, but to one side, watching wildlife claim the territory.
Diggers have been at work on one section of the river here for months and months. Progress seems slow, with huge piles of earth just being shoved back and forth, back and forth, or so it appears – as if the sole objective were to keep a handful of men in yellow helmets occupied. But aside from this dusty stretch, each visit I make yields something new and, with it, a different range of sensations. I’m enthralled by this area of relics from other eras, new innovations and edifices, wildlife and people. I revel in its assorted layers.
Once, while crouching on the beach scrutinising some mossy stones lying under a huge propeller, I was distracted by a young couple. They jumped out of a low row of disused flats, with all the windows smashed through, and darted speedily away. Soon afterwards, three middle-aged women strolled past, carrying daypacks and wearing walking trainers. Later one of the helmeted workmen told me all the digging is to create a ‘leisure area’ here. “It will be nicer for you,” he said, “for everyone.” I’m not convinced, and quietly hope that progress doesn’t leave its latest mark just yet.
© Clare Coyne 2012