The Greenway to the Olympics

The Olympic Park

The Olympic Park

London is known for its parks and rightly so. You can travel across the city from west to east, through the wild expanses of Richmond Park with its roaming deer, the thick woodlands of Wimbledon Common and its famous Wombles from the TV series of that name, moving onwards and westwards to the riverside elegance of Battersea Park, the opulence of Kensington Gardens and the majesty of Green and St. James’s Parks. Savouring the Victorian delights of Victoria Park and absorbing the historical importance of Greenwich Park you will finally arrive at London’s most recent green space, the Olympic Park, home to the 2012 London Olympics, created from 2.5sq km of industrial and contaminated land in East London, and destined to be yet another breathtaking addition to London’s “green lungs”.

East London is where everything in London started. Visiting East London offers a fascinating insight into the city’s evolution from a boggy trading post to an established trading port with thousands of seafaring vessels winding their way up the Thames to discharge their goods into the numerous docks upriver whose names bear witness to the area’s imperial connections – Tobacco Dock, Canada Water, Limehouse Dock, Greenland Dock and East India Docks. From these docks goods from the British Empire were transported via an elaborate system of canals, and later railways, through London and onto other English towns.

Cathedral of Sewage

The “Cathedral of Sewage”

However, returning to our topic of the Greenway, the Great Stink in the uncommonly hot summer of 1856 was the turning point in the history of London’s sewer systems when the stench from the city’s overflowing cesspits (the recent introduction of flush toilets exacerbated the volume of sewage) reached the House of Commons and Members of Parliament drenched the curtains of the debating chamber in lime chloride to alleviate the odious smell. One idea was to relocate upriver to Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, but fortunately some forward-thinking citizens set their minds to resolving the problem once and for all, catapulting Joseph Bazalgette and his ‘Cathedral of Sewage’ to national fame.

More commonly known as Abbey Mills Pumping Station this sewage pumping plant built in an elaborate Byzantine style stands metres from the Olympic Park. It was constructed to receive the effluence from the innocuously named Northern Outfall Sewer, Southern Outfall sewer and three other interceptor sewers which bought the huge volume of London’s sewage, via gravity, to the pumping station. From here the sewage was pumped to Beckton further downriver where it was treated and released into the mouth of the River Thames to wash into the English Channel.

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The main Olympic stadium

Today, the Greenway is a footpath and cycleway constructed on the raised embankment containing the Northern Outfall Sewer. It runs from west of the Olympic Park all the way to Beckton, east of London, and offers outstanding views over this oft-forgotten area of East London. The web of canals and railways which wind around the marshlands of East London attest to the importance of this area as a logistical support structure for the metropolis. The Greenway in 2012 will be one of the main access points to the Olympic site and once the final gold medal has been awarded will become part of London’s newest and largest urban park.

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