There is one aspect of exploration and photography that I don’t write about often and that is my interest in derelict and abandoned places. I follow a lot of urban explorers on Instagram and I love seeing their photos of abandoned factories, hospitals and schools. If you know anything about urban exploration, you’ll know that it isn’t for everyone. It can be dangerous and often involves illegal entrance into places that can be littered with debris, rubble and the occasional syringe. Not that I’d actually know first hand, because I tend to be a cowardly, law-abiding explorer but I can dream, right?
One of the accounts that I follow on Instagram is Paul Talling from Derelict London. Paul is the author of Derelict London and London’s Lost Rivers and he conducts tours of the types of places that you don’t normally see in London. Paul’s tours are extremely popular and you have to book months in advance but one day in May, I decided to take the plunge and book a tour in August.
I decided to go on a tour of Silvertown, the area in the immediate vicinity of London City Airport. Silvertown was named after Samuel Winkworth Silver who opened a rubber factory in the area in 1852. This area was once a booming industrial town dominated by sugar refiners, rubber producers and animal rendering plants. Devastated first by the Silvertown explosion, then by the Blitz and later by the decline of industry in Britain, large parts of Silvertown lie in dereliction and decay. With the area marked for redevelopment, you’ll need to hurry to catch a glimpse of the history and culture of this once booming town.
Our tour began at London City Airport and within moments, we realised that we were in a whole new world. Our first stop was Tate & Lyle, an institution that was to feature heavily in our tour. We learned that Henry Tate never met Abram Lyle and that the two were bitter rivals. It was only after their deaths that Tate & Lyle merged at the turn of the 20th century to become the sugar giant we know today.
In case you’ve already made the connection, I can confirm that Henry Tate was the same person who founded the Tate Gallery but that wasn’t his only legacy. Across from Tate & Lyle stands the now abandoned and derelict Tate Institute which was founded as a social club for Tate employees. In more modern times, this Gothic building served as the Silvertown Public Library until 1961.
There are plenty of barbed wires and ghost signs in the area which reminded me a lot of downtown Johannesburg, much of which is boarded up and derelict too.
I am always impressed by the quality of London’s tour guides and Paul was a wealth of fascinating information about this area. He has done years of research and in addition to the tour, I’d recommend you spend an afternoon getting lost in his website.
We moved over the new Crossrail tracks to arrive at the Thameside Industrial Estate.
This is all that remains of Tay Wharf. Keiller & Sons jam factory occupied Tay Wharf from 1880 to 1997. They received their fruit by ship and sugar was supplied by Tate & Lyle down the road.
Just outside of Tay Wharf, we saw this picket line graffiti dating back to the 1970s. The “Snake Pit” refers to the strikers who broke the picket line and went back to work. I’m a fan of street art, as you know, but this was the most authentic piece of street art history that I have seen so far.
Across from Tay Wharf lies Brick Lane Music Hall which was once St Mark’s Church, Silvertown. The church has a fascinating history! Despite working in factories, many of the inhabitants lived in abject poverty. In 1859, a Christmas appeal was run in The Times and money was raised to deliver food parcels to local families. A year later, money was raised again and a church was built with the proceeds. The locals were incensed, protesting that they wanted bread not bricks! Despite their protests, the church was well attended for over a century before being deconsecrated and abandoned in the 1980s. There is a rather grim story of a fire taking place at the church which was extinguished under the weight of pigeon droppings in the roof.
In 1992, the Brick Lane Music Hall moved from Truman’s Brewery to St Mark’s Church and they are responsible for the restoration of the church to its former Gothic glory.
Next on our tour, we walked down North Woolwich Road towards Millennium Mill. We passed by several abandoned lots, some marked for redevelopment when London still used 0181 numbers!Paul warned that despite the slow start, we will soon see rapid development in this area.
We passed the derelict Georges Diner, run by Brian and once home of the best fry up in town.
Next to Georges Diner (they never did get an apostrophe), we could see a beautiful Victorian building peeking out above the weeds. This is all that remains of the Graving Dock Tavern.
Our next stop and one of the highlights of the tour for me, was a peek at the iconic Millennium Mills. I’ve actually written about Millennium Mills before in my post Millennium Mills: Past, Present and Future but it was great to see it for myself. The Mills will soon be redeveloped into swanky apartments as part of the greater Silvertown redevelopment programme.
We took a look at the site of the ill-fated London Pleasure Gardens, originally intended to run for 3 years from 2012 but which ran only for a disastrous five weeks. As you can see from the photo above, there was no pleasure to be found here.
Before long, we arrived at Pontoon Dock DLR station and the site of the Thames Barrier. I last took a day out at the Thames Barrier in 2009 and it was interesting to see the Barrier from the other side of the river.
The hedges in Thames Barrier Park are shaping to look like waves. Here they are, rolling back towards Millennium Mills on the horizon.
If Tate gave us his famous galleries, Lyle left us Lyle Park in Silvertown. Nestled on the bank of the Thames behind a document storage facility, you might miss it if you didn’t know it is there. There are some fantastic views of North Greenwich from the park and it is also home to the ornamental gates of Harland and Wolff Ltd, shipbuilders for the White Star Line, including the ill-fated Titanic. These gates stood at the entrance to the ship builders’ premises in Woolwich Manor Way from 1924 to 1972.
From Lyle park, we continued down Bradfield Road to a particularly grimy part of Silvertown. This area wasn’t completely abandoned but was certainly derelict.
We spotted an abandoned yard next to the old Petro Lube premises. A number of my party giggled at the sign on the door.
We continued toward the Lyle Golden Syrup factory. There is an abandoned tract of land next to the factory and the promise of delicious syrup does little to lift the spirits of the area.
Across the road from the factory is the abandoned premises of the Timesco Surgical and Medical who moved to their new premises in Essex years ago. Just before we reached the Silvertown station, we glimpsed a fantastic view of the Lyle Golden Syrup factory. The factory is neither derelict or abandoned, with a million tins of syrup being produced each month, but together with the weeds, graffiti and grey clouds, it painted a perfect end to our tour.
Derelict London and London’s Lost Rivers tours run every weekend and some Fridays too. They sell out months in advance so the best idea to catch a tour is to sign up to Paul’s mailing list. I paid £12 for this tour but tours range from £11 to an all-day tour for £16.50. That reminds me – Paul’s tours are long and require a lot of walking on sometimes uneven ground so this tour may not be suitable for those with mobility problems.
I would highly recommend this tour and am hoping to catch another tour in January. If you’d like to join me, please get in touch and we can coordinate when the January dates are released.
Do you like abandoned or derelict sites or was this post definitely not your cup of tea?