When The Lea Valley Closed

Photographs & Text by Toby Smith

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I moved to East London in 2007, and the Lea Valley offered a secret but welcoming garden of photographic exploration. This landscape was explored poetically in the musings of Iian Sinclair, who painted with words an overlooked and secret “hinterland”. That summer international media and fresh green plywood hoardings announced it to be on the cusp of permanent change and global limelight. Earmarked for ‘total redevelopment’ for the 2012 Olympic Games, its unkempt garages, foundries, fish-smokers and brownfield corners were being evacuated towards a deadline of ODA (Olympic Delivery Authority) possession, demolition and repurposing.

The natural perimeter was defined by nettle-lined footpaths, busy trunk roads and rail links, yet was impossibly crisscrossed by a network of rivers and canals that quietly ferried algae, shopping trolleys and traffic cones towards the Thames. The Lea Valley’s unique identity and atmosphere was heightened by the diversity of its residents and workers. Initially forbidding, a rich palette of hues, textures, scrawled political messages and inhabitants became irresistible, and I was seduced further by cheap wine and conversation in the warehouses of trapeze artists, or sweet tea and rough jokes with grubby mechanics.

The deadline for evacuation came and went quietly whilst the few remaining business owners waited in desperation for the sale of their machinery. Thriving communities of artists became squatters by default and were left wandering darkened hallways, confused, orphaned and angry at a faceless landlord. As bakeries, incinerators and printing houses lay silent, the green corners asserted themselves to dampen further the sounds of the city. The smoking white transit vans were replaced immediately by the summer growth of brambles, trees, weeds and the noise of birdsong. Like the calm before the development storm, this expansive area of London felt abandoned, as if a nuclear holocaust had descended. For the quick-witted and fleet-footed, its now silent corners lay ever more accessible and every door left wide open.

Early security efforts had only a futile grasp of the 11-mile blue fence, and the perimeter had blind spots of responsibility. Simply donning a high visibility jacket afforded unchallenged vehicle access to complete ‘personal topographic’ surveys. Once frenetic businesses were left unsecured for the ‘scrappies’ (scrap merchants) and opportunist scavengers to attack the architecture with crowbars and wire strippers. Gutting and recycling the now abandoned properties, they scoured every cavity and switchboard for valuable copper and iron, their entrance points marked by the piles of discarded cable insulation. Unregulated and on the cusp of poverty, these magpies do surely dismember buildings more precisely than the rush of JCBs and concrete crushers that followed. Once valuable, now unclaimed and abandoned car parts filled acres of contaminated land freshly hemmed in by thousands of fly tipped vehicle tires.

Lakes of vile-coloured liquid separated expanses of dark brown earth too contaminated with decades of heavy oil and chemicals for even the hardiest weed. The security fence eventually secured the wasteland with an 8-foot blue band, exchanging sweeping vistas with pixilated stock sports photography. The nation’s access was restricted to rose-tinted press releases, or an elevated sewer called The Greenway. By September 2007, the scrum of competing contractors began to nibble with earnest at buildings, and scrape the ground back to its ancient contaminated foundations. My favourite and indeed final vantage point was a derelict cement silo that afforded a view across the entire landscape until a pack of trained Dobermans became residents.

Over the last 5 years, I gave only a cursory glance to my archive of unscanned negatives. My interest in the rot and decay of the area became second best to the lure and shiny opportunity of the ”Official Imaging Tenders” or “Artistic Opportunities” of 2012. Like so many small businesses in the Olympic Boroughs, I threw myself at the possibilities to engage and catch the wave. Many years later, reduced to a mere punter, I bet thousands of pounds on tickets, but empty-handed I am now reduced to the endless torch procession and TV coverage. Today, 30 days before the opening ceremony, I have learnt to trade my researched cynicism of the Olympics for the excitement and pride that London will become such a world stage. 5 years later, I have trawled the negatives of this extinct landscape and it has now clearly, irreversibly and impossibly become the Olympic Park. Despite not setting foot in the area since 2007, Google Earth proved an invaluable resource to accurately place the original images and imagine what vision would occupy a 2012 viewfinder.

A warehouse for galvanising steel has become the Olympic Stadium, piles of scrap metal metamorphosed into the Aquatic Stadium, my cement silo no doubt shadowed by a twisted red roller coaster. The River Lea itself has been scoured, scrubbed, and populated with new wildlife that can no longer perch on the dozens of electricity pylons now buried in huge underground tunnels. I can only imagine when I can legally return with camera and GPS in hand to repeat these same photographs. Unsuccessful in my bid for tickets we must all painfully wait until much later this year to evaluate this new landscape. I am in no doubt that the 2-week spectacle of sport and culture will impress audiences globally however, I sincerely hope that the legacy justifies the cost local residents and our economy has born.

For an external link to see a locations map of this imagery, click here.

Full edit of 49 images available on request.

This feature was shot in the summer of 2007.