|Landed, SS Robin and the final view of Tate & Lyle from the Docklands Light Railway.|
Perhaps this title is misleading? At the weekend we stumbled on the ExCeL as a result of joining a madcap musical improvising jam set up by the team at SS Robin. SS Robin is a wonderful, old steam ship built in this area at the old Thames Ironworks (at the top of the River Lea) - and the birthplace of West Ham football club. Robin is now on a vast pontoon in Royal Victoria Dock awaiting some interesting changes to make her into an exhibition space before she is relocated a little way upstream.
Royal Victoria Dock is opposite the ExCeL Centre (a company with direct links to Abu Dhabi as in ExCeL: ADNEC). We thought we were going to hear the Grand Union Orchestra - but it turned out we were to be part of the orchestra which is famous for it's rhythms and diaspora players. At the SS Robin workshop there was Claude from South Africa who used a violent whistle to keep all the percussion players in time. He was phenomenal and managed to help both Pete and I (absolute tuneless wonders) find some kind of musical mojo through beating out a rhythm of "co-ca, co-la" and for 3:2 "we are the cham-pions". Seeing Pete perform a triangle solo was quite something! Although I was unable to laugh seeing as I'd tried to hide myself - and my bell and stick - behind a pillar in a bid to avoid such scarey attention... Other music trainers included Yusuf from Bangladesh and the very talented, friendly Lily from Bulgaria.
After the music jamboree we clambered up the stairs that take you over the Victoria Dock footbridge to the Western Gateway Dock (with the ExCeL, Ibis hotel etc). It has a remarkable view across to the Thames/Emirates cable car one way - and the good ship SS Robin the other way. Everything is on such a scale in this area - the old warehouses, the much-reduced Tate & Lyle factory with it's iconic Golden Syrup can on one side of the building, the new builds, the old cranes along the dock, even the water - that it's hard not to make a big thing look small. Or to feel like a dwarf.
Opposite - or over the footbridge - is the Excel centre where some of the Olympic Games will take place including tae kwondo (to which my family has tickets!). Beside ExCeL are restaurants that aim to cater for huge crowds - although there were only a few people around during our visit. There are two Indians, one Italian and a pub called Fox@excel. We ended up at the Fox which is strewn with TV screens and has a sports ambience to it. It's a vast brick space which is clearly going to fill up during the Olympics - the Ladies had a row of 10 loos which felt profligate given the smallish collection of Saturday night pub goers.
Obviously this part of London, a dock sandwiched between Canning Town and west Silvertown - is all the old East End. But it feels so strange compared to the crampedness of up town living.
There are surprising clues to the extraordinary story of how this area has gone from marsh to dockland to bombsite, to sport and leisure venue over the centuries thanks to a life-size sculpture. In Brisbane we were much impressed by the street sculptures that brought history right into the shopping centres. The same's been done by the ExCeL at this once crazily-busy dockside. There's a bronze sculpture by Les Johnson, unveiled in 2009, called Landed with three portraits of workers - one young man, one fatter manger reading a docket slip beside a large package just unloaded from the spice (and slavery) island of Zanzibar, and the other older with a flat cap and a sack hook over his shoulder. Above them is a large hook, who knows how it stays up, but clearly representing the cranes used to unload all the cargo in what was then known as the Royal Docks. I believe there's a crate labelled Hong Kong too, but I managed to miss this... The problem with round the world travel is it's not long before your brain is over-loaded with information, and that's even when you are pacing a 500m route across a dock!
See the Grand Union Orchestra perform on 18 July 2012 at the Hackney Empire.
Over to you
Just two questions: what do you know about the Olympic venues? Do you think music or food is a better route into new cultures?