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Aerial view of Stratford, East London and the Olympic Park area

2016 Geolog archive

16th December

A block on the landscape

Not much in London is sacrosanct these days, but views of St Paul’s Cathedral are supposed to be. The London Plan, published in 2012, identifies 27 cherished views, including 13 ‘protected vistas’ that cannot be obstructed. Some of the best-known views in London are among them, including panoramas of St Paul’s from Greenwich Park, Alexandra Palace, Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill. Infact, these days, the cathedral is ‘photobombed’ by the Shard, looming behind it like a giant bollard.

Now, another view has been blighted. The most distant view in London of St Paul’s is the ‘keyhole’ view from King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park. I saw it for myself only last year. If I were to go there now I would notice, overshadowing the cathedral is, one of London’s brash new skyscapers, the Manhattan Loft Gardens building in Stratford. It stands 42 storeys high and is currently offering one-bedroom apartments next to Stratford International Station (except no international trains stop there) for a price of £615,000 and upwards.

I’d estimate the distance from Richmond to St Paul’s at about 15km, with Stratford a further 8km to the east. That gives you some idea of the scale of Manhattan Loft Gardens, visible on the other side of London. Of course, the fact that it also looms over the end of our Victorian street from the opposite direction, does not make me biased in any way!

Historic England, the government’s heritage organisation, says the Manhattan Loft Gardens tower ‘demonstrates how the lack of a strategic plan for London means the profound impact of some developments is only being discovered too late’. In the rush to turn London into a 21st century city we are in danger of obliterating its historic character. But, I don’t suppose the developers of Manhattan Loft Gardens will mind – any publicity is good publicity when you are selling properties at such unaffordable prices.


10th November

Changing places

All the new A-Level geography specifications include modules about changing places, variously titled Changing Places, Shaping Places or Changing Spaces/Making Places, to name but three. Each spec places its own particular interpretation on the guidelines laid down in the government’s criteria for A-Level. Among the recurring themes are the ways in which people perceive and experience place, how places are represented and can be re-branded, the impact of globalisation on places and the processes of economic change that lead to social inequalities. Urban geography is moving on, and has left behind old-school ideas such as urban land use models and inner city deprivation. Not before time, some might say.

Nowhere is better placed to exemplify the idea of changing place than east London. Indeed, when doing fieldwork here, we are confronted by change each time we venture outdoors. Old buildings are demolished, new hoardings appear around construction sites, skyscapers get taller by the week, creating new landscapes and microclimates. If, as geographers, we get confused, imagine how local residents feel about it! There is even a new postcode – E20 – 150 years after the first postcodes were introduced in London.

One of our new fieldwork programmes sets out to explore the differences between E20 and E15, the original postcode for Stratford. Local teenagers even refer to the two areas as ‘old Stratford’ and ‘new Stratford’. When exploring the area students meet people in both postcodes to ask them about their perception and experience of change in Stratford. They carry out a population survey and compare it with 2011 Census data to see how population is changing, even within the past five years. They also do a survey to classify and count the types of shops and services, identify global connections and find out the prices people pay for similar services in the two areas.

The final outcome from the day is to identify suitable locations for a new episode of EastEnders that might more accurately represent east London today. Of course, Walford, the fictional place in which EastEnders is set, shares the postcode E20. It is a case of fact imitating fiction. The name, Walford, may even be a hybrid of WALthamstow and StratFORD. But, how representative EastEnders is of the real East End, students are left to judge for themselves.


13th September

Crowd trouble

Saturday’s Premiership game between West Ham and Watford at the London Stadium – previously the Olympic Stadium – was marred by crowd trouble. Groups of opposing fans started fighting each other and there was even fighting between West Ham fans, some of whom refused to sit down when asked. Sitting at Premier League games is now obligatory, with no standing allowed, although this rule was frequently ignored at Upton Park, West Ham’s former ground. It seems that the regime at the new London Stadium is going to be much tighter.

I didn’t go to Saturday’s game. Indeed, as a matter of principle, I don’t go to any Premiership matches these days, with their inflated ticket prices (even though West Ham’s prices are allegedly the cheapest in the league). However, out of curiosity, I did go to a Europa Cup match at the new stadium a few weeks ago (ticket price £10!). The first surprise was that it was almost sold out. Close to 60,000 people for a mid-week match against a little-known Romanian team is quite an achievement (though West Ham lost!). What was also impressive was the gender and ethnic composition of the crowd, which was noticeably more mixed than I remember not so long ago at Upton Park. Clearly, West Ham have made an effort to attract a larger, and more diverse crowd.

However, I did notice a lack of segregation between rival supporters in the crowd though, with a very a small contingent of Romanian fans, this was not much of an issue. There were no police inside the stadium, but West Ham employ their own stewards who were thick on the ground. Indeed, they were thick out of the ground as well. The route to and from the stadium from Stratford Station was very tightly controlled, keeping fans well clear of Westfield Shopping Centre. The centre was totally sealed off from fans going to the match, with no exit in the direction of the stadium. There were also manually controlled pedestrian traffic lights to stop fans when the station entrance and the road ahead became too crowded. There seemed to be even more stewards employed outside the ground than in it. That must surely be a huge expense for the club (though, presumably, one they can afford with vastly increased attendances).

Whether the new, more diverse, West Ham supporters will continue to be attracted to matches on a regular basis, if they turn into mass brawls, remains to be seen. The club were very quick to condemn the actions of a minority of mindless supporters and threaten lifetime bans from the ground if they are identified and caught. But, there seems to be a clash of cultures between the new, inclusive, modern football supporters and the traditional, tribal fans, with a prepondance of aggresive white males. Who will be the winners of this battle, I wonder? As I said in an ealier blog (15th May), you can take West Ham fans out of the East End, but you can’t take the East End out of West Ham fans.


18th August

Rio 2016

I can’t believe it is four years since east London hosted the Olympics. Now, with the Games happening in Rio, it is a good time to reflect on what has been achieved, and what has not. So far in Rio, much has been the same – the promises before the Games of what legacy they will bring, panic that the venues will not be ready in time, Team GB overachieving in the medals table and Usain Bolt running off with three golds (maybe – he’s only got two so far). Perhaps, the most important similarity between the two Olympics has been the fear that both east London and Rio de Janeiro, whose reputations for deprivation and crime went before them, were the wrong locations to choose for such a prestigious event. Well, east London proved the doubters wrong – let’s hope Rio can do the same.

There have also been differences. Of course, east London could not boast Rio’s spectacular views, including Copacabana Beach, Sugar Loaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer (the Arcellor Mittal Orbit came nowhere near!). However, preparation for the Games in Rio has not been as meticulous as London’s. So, for example, London made safety a priority, setting a target of zero fatalities during construction – a target which it achieved. Rio did not set such a target and there were sixteen fatalities during construction. This does not augur well for the legacy in Rio, which may not have been so carefully planned and, in any case, would have to go a long way to better the London legacy.

Legacy planning is mainly down to the city itself and while the International Olympic Committee may pay lip service to the importance of ‘legacy’, in reality their focus is on the Games themselves and moving on to the next city as soon as the last one is over. So, Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham in east London claims, “The IOC may organise the Games, but in my experience they don’t care about the legacy. They may say they do, but they don’t. When the Games in London were finished, off they went. There has been no coming back to see what can be done.”

Fortunately, the legacy of the London Olympics was left in the hands of the London Legacy Development Corporation. They inherited a well-devised plan for the Olympic Park after the Games and, so far, they have done a good job in ensuring that the legacy has been delivered for east London. There is still a long way to go and the LLDC may be around for many years yet, before they hand over to the neighbouring boroughs. It remains to be seen how well the Rio legacy has been planned and how it will be executed. That may yet be the main difference between London and Rio.


25th June

It’s all downhill after Brexit

24th June 2016 will be memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was the day we voted to leave the European Union and it was also the day the new slide opened at the Orbit in the Olympic Park. In case you’ve forgotten, the Orbit is the large, red squiggly thing in the middle of the park. There are some images of it in the slide show on the homepage of our website.

There is a connection between these two events that happened on the same day – one tumultuous and potentially life-changing for all of us, the other hardly significant in the grand scheme of things. The connection, in case you can’t guess, is Boris Johnson, once mayor of London and, if the bookmakers are to be believed, to be our next prime minister.

The slide that opened yesterday plunges 178 metres from the top of the Orbit, through a series of twists and turns, thumps and jumps, down to ground level. It will cost you £15 for 30 seconds of terror and I’m sure it will be popular. The Orbit has not been a great success up to now. It was conceived by Boris as an additional tourist attraction in the Olympic Park that would continue to draw visitors long after the Games were over. It was not one of his vanity projects, you understand! Since 2012 the Orbit has stood rather sad and neglected, unlike its neighbours, the Aquatic Centre and Velodrome that have attracted hundred of thousands of visitors. However, popular opinion has always been that the Orbit looks like a giant helter-skelter and that is what it has finally become. It was left to someone, other than Boris, to work out how it could be made successful.

Popular opinion has also just taken us out of Europe and even Boris looked rather taken aback by this turn of events. The Brexit campaign was always going to be his launchpad for the leadership of the Conservative Party, but whether he imagined that would result in us actually leaving Europe I rather doubt. Like the Orbit, Brexit was a big idea that was rather hazy on the details. Sadly, it will be the younger generation that will be left to pick up the pieces, long after the architects of this disaster have left the scene. Rather like the Orbit.


15th May

West Ham v Leicester – a tale of two clubs

The trashing of the Manchester United coach on its way to the match by West Ham fans last week was a reminder of days gone by. There was a time in the 1980s when such events were commonplace. Green Street (on which the Upton Park stadium is located) was the scene of regular battles between rival supporters on a Saturday afternoon. So, it appears, hooliganism has not been banished – simply buried. You can take West Ham fans out of the East End, but you can’t take the East End out of West Ham fans.

Photos of the supsects police are searching for in relation to the attack on the coach, show four white men, probably in their thirties. I will stick my neck out and say they don’t live in east London. They represent the typical West Ham fan – white, male and living a long way from West Ham. The exodus of the largely white population from east London to Essex over the past fifty years, means that West Ham fans are more likely to live in Brentwood or Billericay, than Barking or Bow. They have been replaced by the largely Pakistani Muslim population who now live around Green Street. Green Street’s other claim to fame is as an Asian shopping centre, specialising in saris and jewellery. They go together with football like chapatis and chips.

West Ham, despite their attempts to engage with ‘the community’, have never really scratched the surface of the Muslim community. None of the team’s players are Asian (and, so far as I can remember, never have been). Nor, looking around the crowd, do you see an Asian face. Thankfully, I hear none of the racist chanting that echoed from the terraces in the 70s and 80s, and there are now a few black supporters, as well as much of the team this season. But there is still a huge chasm between the club and the local community. Few tears will be shed in Upton Park when West Ham move to their new home at the Olympic Stadium next season.

Compare that with Leicester. I can’t pretend to be an expert on Leicester – I’ve only been there once. However, what it shares in common with Newham, the borough in which West Ham is located (and will still be located next season), is a minority white population, with a large part of the majority being Asian. But, there, the similarity seems to end. From what I’ve seen recently, Leicester’s astonishing success in winning the Premier League, is celebrated by all sections of the community – white, black and Asian. I’d be interested to know how the club have managed to engage with all parts of their community and why West Ham haven’t. It could form the basis of an interesting geographical investigation!


5th May

Good-bye Boris

By tomorrow, London will have a new mayor. Boris will be moving on to focus on more pressing matters, like leaving Europe and putting himself in pole position to challenge for the Tory leadership.

Has it all been worthwhile? From Boris’s viewpoint, almost certainly. He has become the most high profile politician we have, to the point that even most 14-year olds I meet know who Boris is. I doubt if David Cameron could boast that, let alone George Osborne. Both of them need to watch their backs.

What about London’s viewpoint? Boris has left his mark on our city. We now have Boris bikes – less well known as the Santander (formerly Barclay’s) Bicycle Hire scheme. Then there is the new generation of Routemaster buses, which, I have to say, are a great improvement on the bendy buses bequeathed to London by previous mayor, Ken Livingstone. There’s also the London skyline to consider. It has transformed over the past ten years, with skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes. Sadly, true architectural masterpieces, like St Paul’s Cathedral, now hide in the shadows, dwarfed by their brash new neighbours.

But these are cosmetic judgements on Boris’s tenure as mayor. What about the things that really matter? The really big changes in London are not ones that Boris can either take the credit or the blame for. Truth be told, the mayor doesn’t have a greater deal of power, nor even money to spend. I’m thinking of the growing gap between rich and poor, our burgeoning population including an ever growing proportion of immigrants and, above all, the escalation of house prices in London, leaving young Londoners unable to afford to live here.

Boris has not instigated any of these changes, yet nor has he done much to tackle them. I am left with the distinct impression that he is comfortable, if not actually proud, of the legacy he is leaving behind. I for one won’t cry when Boris says good-bye.


5th April

No place like home

I went to my last home game at Upton Park on Saturday to watch West Ham play Crystal Palace. The score was 2-2, just for the record. It is the end of an era for me and other lifelong West Ham fans. Next season we are off to the new stadium in the Olympic Park. At least many of us will be. I will be one of those who will probably hang up my West Ham scarf and watch from the comfort of the armchair at home. However, I think I might be in a minority. Most fans seem to have been won over to the idea of the new stadium, if only by cheaper tickets and the prospect of greater success on the pitch, as West Ham join the elite clubs in the Premier League.

I am old enough to remember watching the team of ’66, including Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. It was West Ham (and a few other English players) who won the World Cup that year, don’t forget! Upton Park has other special memories for me, none more so than when as boys we used to climb the gantries at the back of the North Bank stand in order to get a glimpse of the action on the pitch, over the heads of the crowd. It was standing room only in those days, with no allowance made for those of us of shorter stature. The days of all-seater stadia was still a long way in the future.

Now, West Ham have announced that the former Olympic Stadium will boast a capacity of 60,000 seats for matchdays, compared to 55,000 that was originally proposed and far more than the current Upton Park capacity of 35,000. This has happened with the surge of interest in season tickets for next year. The list for those who have applied exceeds the number of seats available by a ratio of 5:1. I don’t think this interest has come about because of West Ham’s unusually successful season this year, nor even the attraction of the new stadium. It has more to do with the lure of record low prices for season tickets, at less than £300 for a season, lower than any other Premier League club. For once, West Ham have managed to get ahead of the curve, anticipating the pressure from fans around the country for more affordable ticket prices.

So, what will happen to the old, Upton Park stadium? Almost inevitably, with the chronic shortage of housing in London, the land will be sold to build new homes. Unlike, the old Highbury Stadium where Arsenal once played and which was a listed historic structure, none of the old stadium will remain and the pitch will disappear under concrete. West Ham, who have already got a good deal, paying rent of £2.5 million a season for the new stadium, will be cashing in on the old one too. Watch out for new signings in the team next season! And, the last relic of the team of ’66, a bronze statue of Bobby Moore holding aloft the World Cup, sitting on his team-mates shoulders, is to be moved from Upton Park to be near the new stadium. All that history will be erased. What a shame.


24th February

Class war around the corner

A new cafe has opened around the corner from where I live in Forest Gate, about a mile from Stratford. Not much news there, you are thinking. But this is the fourth new cafe in Forest Gate over the past couple of years, in an area where, up to now, the height of culinary achievement was fried chicken. The latest addition to the array of cafes is Corner Kitchen, so named because it sits on the corner of Woodgrange Road, the main shopping street, opposite the station. For the past fifteen years, the premises has lain empty, a symbol of the lack of wealth and enterprise that was Forest Gate.

Now, all that has changed. The interior of the new cafe is in the ‘shabby chic’ mould of such enterprises, walls taken back to the brickwork, counters knocked together from rough, sawn timber and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And, for those Forest Gate residents who can’t afford the inflated price of a home-made pizza, there is a massive plate glass window to gaup through, to see the sort of people who can. In short, a new divide is opening up in the neighbourhood between those who have recently made a choice to pay a fortune to come and live in one of east London’s many ‘up and coming’ areas and those who have always lived here.

The rift was exposed by anarchists who, under the cover of darkness, took advantage of the plate glass to daub their graffiti on the window. It read, “you poor take courage, you rich take care”, a lyric from a Leon Rosselon song, ‘World turned upside down’, covered in the charts by Billy Bragg in 1985. The message was quickly removed, but the cat was out of the bag. There was some local sympathy for the new owners, who live in Forest Gate and had opened the cafe just two days earlier. If this was the alternative to the eyesore of an empty premises on the main street, who could be against that? Someone, or some people, apparently.

It was reminiscent of the attack that took place in Brick Lane last August, when anti-gentrification protestors threw paint at the Cereal Killer Cafe, scaring customers inside. Their crime? Selling bowls of cereal at £5 a time. It seems to me, the anarchists might be missing the point. Don’t take aim at the people trying to make a livelihood on the back of London’s new wealth. Instead, direct the protest at the finance companies, the property speculators and foreign oligarchs driving the growing inequality. Of course, most of them don’t actually live here, so they are much harder to find.


14th January

3 into 2 will go

Last week came the announcement we have been waiting for. Stratford has now become part of Zone 2 on the London Underground map, having previously been in Zone 3. For those of you unfamiliar with subtleties of travel zones in London, this is the urban equivalent of the English Channel being redesignated part of the Atlantic Ocean, or Berwick moving back into Scotland. It is big.

It is especially big for commuters into London, for who the change of zone could mean a saving of 40p a day. Not only that, people in Stratford will still get the benefit of being in Zone 3 for outward journeys towards the edge of London. They will still be at the cheaper, Zone 3 price. Of course, there will be payback when the cost of their rent goes up by £100 a week, or they now have to pay £300,000 rather than £250,000 for a one-bed apartment in this part of London.

The redisgnation as Zone 2 is the final stage in recognition that east London has forever changed. It is not just Stratford. West Ham and Canning Town, the next two stops on the Jubilee Line have also been redesignated. Those places, formerly mentioned in geography textbooks as being ‘among the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK’, will now have a different claim to fame. Transfer from 3 to 2 is the ultimate in ‘rebranding’, another phrase much used in the modern geography textbook.

The Underground zone in which you find yourself is even more important to a person’s, or a company’s, prestige than a post code. Westfield, Stratford City, alongside the newest postcode in the country – E20 – can now boast being in Zone 2. How good does that sound?


Footer image of the velodrome in Stratford, east London
Footer image
Footer image of the velodrome in Stratford, east London