News (and stuff) from London E3

Tuesday 19 May 2009

The Euston Arch

Euston ArchOf all the acts of post-war architectural vandalism wreaked in the capital, few rankle quite so greatly as the wanton destruction of the Euston Arch. This towering Doric gateway stood in front of the original Euston station from 1837 until 1962, when it was unceremoniously demolished to make way for the characterless dingy shed from which trains to the northwest now depart. Many voices were raised in protest at the Arch's imminent demise, and snowballing public interest subsequently saved many a heritage building, but "progress" at Euston was alas unstoppable.
[Read more about the Arch and the campaign to restore it here. It's mighty detailed and interesting stuff, which I'm not going to repeat here]

But what do you do with 4420 tons of demolished arch? The chief contractor responsible for smashing the arch to bits was called Frank Valori, and he managed to find two particularly interesting hiding places for the dismembered stonework. One of these was his own back garden (at "Paradise Villa" in Kent) where a row of stones was used to create a fetching (and very cheap) terraced rockery. The other, rather more considerable, dumping ground was in Bromley-by-Bow in East London. British Waterways had problems with a scoured-out riverbed that needed infilling, so roughly 60% of the Euston Arch was dumped into the tidal waters of the Prescott Channel. And, hurrah, yesterday they started lifting the stones back out.
[Watch a 1993 programme about the dismantling of the Euston Arch, and Dan Cruickshank's hunt for the remains, here. Proper historical detective work it is, ending up in a rose garden]

footbridge across the Prescott ChannelYou'll know the southern end of the Prescott Channel well. It's one of the Bow Back Rivers, round the back of Three Mills Studios, and in the summers of 2000 and 2001 it appeared on your television every week. The first Big Brother house was built on the opposite bank to the TV studios, so every Friday the evicted housemate made their exit across the footbridge to reveal all to Davina. Yes, that river. Who'd have guessed there was a couple of thousand tons of dismembered railway arch in the waters directly underneath?
[Watch a 1994 programme where Dan Cruickshank (and Kevin the Diver) discover a chunk of Arch in the Prescott Channel, here. Blimey]

More recently the Prescott Channel has been the site of major Olympic development. In order to bring building materials into the Park by boat, a set of enormous lock gates is being constructed to stabilise water levels upstream. It's meant the temporary sealing off of three local footpaths, and the permanent demolition of Davina's Bridge, but the outcome might just be ecologically worthwhile.
[I wrote a long post about the new lock and the old Big Brother house here, so I won't repeat it all today]

lockside building site at Three Mills Green
Blimey it's taking a very long time to build the new Prescott Lock - considerably longer than originally planned. Construction began in March 2007 and was due to be completed "in summer 2008 in time for the main construction phase of the Olympic Park." Nope. The deadline later slipped to "autumn 2008", with landscaping of the surrounding riverbanks to be complete by "February 2009". Failed, on both counts. There's still a sprawling worksite on Three Mills Green, sealed off behind an unwelcoming wall, and there's no sign that anyone's even close to prettifying the scenery or re-laying turf. All three footpaths are still closed off, no longer with visible signs to indicate diversions nor anything to suggest when these riverbanks might reopen. At the moment they're still at the "dredging the river" stage, and this explains why the Euston Arch is finally being exhumed.
[You can flick through five year's worth of photos of the Prescott Channel here, courtesy of LoopZilla's Flickr account]

dredging on the Prescott ChannelI popped down after work to try to take a look at the site, but it wasn't easy. Riverside access to the Prescott Channel is still impossible, even if the tourist map outside the House Mill already shows a not-yet-complete configuration of new cross-lock footpaths. After a failed scout-round on all sides, perturbing more than one security guard in the process, I realised that the only decent view was to be had by train. And so it was, staring out of the window of a rattling Hammersmith & City line carriage, that I finally managed to catch sight of a lone dredger in the mud. All the workmen had gone home so no Doric chunks were being lifted out of the water while I sped by. But the lock gates looked sturdy and intact so, once the channel's finally been cleared of all underwater obstructions, there might eventually be some proper 2012 construction traffic heading this way. Better late than never.
[Read the British Waterways press release here]

Hurrah for the London Olympics, because without their sustainable transport policy the remains of the Euston Arch would have been doomed to a forgotten underwater life. As it is, this grand gateway may yet be reborn beside the Euston Road, where it ought to look bloody marvellous. One day.
[Just to check, you have clicked on the website of the Euston Arch Trust, haven't you? It's here, and it's excellent]