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Bridging Bow

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A key interchange for almost a thousand years, Adams & Sutherland’s new walkways at Bow Riverside have opened up the waterway to the public once more

One day in 1110, Queen Matilda was on her way to worship at Barking Abbey in Essex. On crossing the River Lea near Stratford, she and her entourage fell foul of floodwater and the queen, as the story goes, almost drowned. Deciding that no queen should ever have to suffer such an indignity again, she paid for a bridge to be built, the arched shape of which gave the name to the area to its west, ‘Bow’.

Remarkably, the west-east path that Stratford High street and the bridge crossing the River Lea follows has remained more or less unchanged since Matilda got her hair wet.

Visit the Bow Roundabout now, though, and the din of four-lane traffic, the dual carriageway that thunders beneath, and the overpass above leaves any romantic whiff of kings and queens of yore lost in the fumes.

The water is still there. The Lee Navigation Channel, a canalised portion of the river Lea, runs parallel with the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. Though significantly quieter than in its industrial heyday, the canal remains a freight route and is the western border to much of the Olympic Park.

New ‘between’ spaces offer a richer experience than a straightforward crossing

Two miles downstream, the canal meets the Thames at Limehouse basin. North of Bow Bridge, the route opens up as it passes Hackney Wick to the marshland of the Lea Valley where big skies, waterworks, cows, horses and pylons start to appear.

You wouldn’t necessarily call it pretty. The canal’s surroundings are classic ‘Edgelands’, what environmentalist Marion Shoard defines as ‘the interfacial interzone between urban and rural’.

Or, notes the writer Robert Macfarlane while reviewing Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book of the same name, Edgelands go under other unflattering names: Victor Hugo’s ‘bastard countryside’ or landscape theorist Alan Berger’s ‘drosscape’. Still, as a place for city-dwellers to let off steam, the canal and its towpath is a fine asset.

Adams & Sutherland’s Bow Riverside scheme has made the route from marsh to Thames much more enjoyable. The towpath was cut short when the Bow interchange was built. Before the scheme was finished in 2011, pedestrians or cyclists had to ‘surface’ and cross a four-lane carriageway at the notoriously dangerous Bow Roundabout, last year the site of two of the 16 cycling fatalities in London.

The bridge was deemed to be among the most achievable among a number of proposals made in its 2003 Bow Church Masterplan, which also included laying a cycleway on the flyover to bypass the roundabout. Leaside Regeneration and British Waterways commissioned a concept study in 2005 and the project won funding in 2007. Adams & Sutherland tendered for and won the project, which was championed by Design for London throughout.

In plans, the bridges and walkways form an elongated ‘Z’. A cantilevered towpath goes under the road bridge that replaced Queen Matilda’s; this steps up to a walkway to meet the bank. A landscaped path through a glade of young trees doubles back toward the roundabout. The bridge crosses to the east bank of the canal at an acute angle, where to the south there are steps, to the north a ramp suitable for cyclists.

Graeme Sutherland of Adams & Sutherland recalls the design process that led to the cranked geometry visible today. ‘We were very clear that we weren’t designing an iconic bridge. In fact, what was really important was to suppress the bridge and make a series of narratives between places. There’s the approach ramp, walkways, the bridge itself, walkways at either end and a piece of woodland. Each place has its own character and they add up to a place called Bow Riverside.

Adams & Sutherland kept the space under the bridge fairly simple. The towpath is cantilevered off the wall, fixed with gallows brackets. Light fittings shine onto the water’s surface and help warm the space, giving attractive dappled reflections on the concrete walls and roof. The lighting is kept deliberately low, to signify its primary use as a daytime route. Sutherland contrasts this with the difficulties faced when temporary lighting was put on the Greenway (a foot and cycle path running from Bow to Beckton), leading people to use it at night and discovering – too late – that some of the lighting had been removed at the middle of the route.

The rather muscular fenders are to protect the piles from possible collision and are placed to aid the wider biodiversity strategy. The canal is a bat route and the new spaces between fender and canal wall will provide homes and feeding for all sorts of bugs and beasties, gilled or otherwise, in among the reeds and gabions. These fenders were reduced in size in a value engineering process (‘I couldn’t have designed them better myself,’ says Sutherland), characteristic of what Sutherland says is an example of Design and Build working well. The steel sections, prefabricated and prefinished in Huddersfield by CTS Bridges, sit on a trolley, which in turn sits on a pile cap. The piles were put in to a tolerance of +/- 30mm, a tough margin to achieve in underwater piling. Installation was ‘fiddly’, but went very smoothly thanks to close teamwork, says Sutherland.

Sutherland sees Bow Riverside as part of a trio of works by the practice. ‘This project is one of three we’ve done in this area, which all have a relationship to the in-between spaces around the Olympic sites, and also say something about how you do fragmentary Urbanism and regeneration. The thing that connects the three projects (the Greenway, Chandos Community Building and Bow Riverside) is about making quite small-scale projects that have quite a big impact. This one is about connections to the waterway.’

This site is certainly rich in transition points, hidden and otherwise. Sutherland points out that the residual topographic distinction between marsh and the London escarpment, now marked not by the ford but by the A12 tunnel, can still be read in the incline to Bow Church from the interchange. On a micro-level, the new connections that the walkways and bridge provide are certainly welcome, as the cyclists and walkers meandering by prove. The change in levels along the walkway and the new ‘between spaces’ it sets up with its relationship to the canalside and towpath make a richer experience than a straightforward crossing would afford.

The vertical hardwood timber battens tie the whole project together. Screwed into the main structure via 5,000 individually welded details, they give it a welcome verticality in a scheme otherwise characterised by horizontals. The extensive use of timber is an important symbolic reminder, says Sutherland. ‘It’s about wood. And it reminds us of the value of the canal as a green corridor. And in a sense, to help insulate the space against the horrors of what’s to come,’ says Sutherland, referring to some of the planning proposals he’s seen for canalside development nearby.

Sutherland used to live on a canal boat and is a big fan of what he calls these ‘secret corridors within the city’ which ‘retain some of the qualities of wild space you don’t get in a cleaned up, homogenised city. I like backwaters, I like corners of cities that are not looked after properly, they are important breathing spaces and it’s important these places aren’t developed wholesale.’

‘There’s a formulaic canalside development that undermines everything that is special [about canals]. This project is saying, “This is what is important about the canal”, and about holding it together, amplifying it, so it gets noticed. So hopefully, we won’t end up with commercial crassness.’

As Sutherland is quick to point out, one of the unchanging characteristics of the Lea Valley is its consistent reinvention. What will come next to neighbour his scheme is anyone’s guess. Even if it’s the dross that Sutherland fears, Bow Riverside, with its own quiet integrity, should be sufficiently robust to handle whatever comes to surround it.

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