A Walk To View The Gasometers
When we get such bright winter days it becomes an imperative to take a walk and enjoy the benefit of the sunlight, especially now we have arrived at the season of the year when a clear sky becomes a precious commodity. So I decided to walk up to Bethnal Green and admire the majestic pair of gasometers, planted regally side by side like a king and queen surveying the Regent’s Canal from aloft.
Ever since I learnt that these nineteenth century gasometers had been granted a ‘certificate of immunity against listing’ by Historic England, which guarantees they will never receive any legal protection from destruction, it has been in my mind to undertake a walk to view them properly in advance of the day when they may be gone.
My path took me up the Queensbridge Rd, past the thick old brick walls bordering Haggerston Park that were once part of the Shoreditch Gas Works which formerly occupied this site, built by the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company in 1823. The Bethnal Green gasometers were constructed to contain the gas that was produced here, fired by coal delivered by canal.
In the Queensbridge Rd, I came upon The Acorn which has recently closed and is now scheduled for redevelopment unless the current bid for ‘asset of community value’ status can save it. This traditional East End pub which opened before 1869 must once have served the workers from the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company across the road.
Approaching along the canal towpath, George Trewby’s gasometer of 1888-9 dominates the skyline, more than twice the height of its more intricate senior companion designed by Joseph Clarke in 1866. Crossing Cat & Mutton Bridge, which is named after the nearby pub founded in 1732, I walked down Wharf Place and into Darwen Place determining to make as close a circuit of the gasometers as the streets would permit me.
Flanked by new housing on either side of Darwen Place, the gasometers make a spectacularly theatrical backdrop to a street that would otherwise lack drama. Dignified like standing stones yet soaring like cathedrals, these intricate structures insist you raise your eyes heavenward, framing the sky as if it were an epic painting contrived for our edification.
Each storey of Joseph Clarke’s structure has columns ascending from Doric to Corinthian, indicating the influence of classical antiquity and revealing the architect’s chosen precedent as the Coliseum, which – if you think about it – bears a striking resemblance to a gasometer.
As I walked through the surrounding streets, circumnavigating the gasometers, I realised that the unapproachable nature of these citadels contributes to their magic. You keep walking and they always remain in the distance, always just out of reach yet looming overhead and dwarfing their surroundings.
At the south-easterly corner of my circular ramble I arrived at Grove Passage, an old field track cutting through the grid of the streets and by-passing a crumbling brick tower worthy of Piranesi. This is London’s last undeveloped bomb site, thanks to its location islanded on all sides by other properties.
From here I walked through The Oval, which is a light industrial state these days but takes its name from the ancient duckpond at its centre – now filled in and crowded with tightly-packed irregularly-parked vehicles. In spite of the utilitarian nature of this landscape, the relationship between the past is clear in this place and this imparts a strange charisma to the location, an atmosphere enhanced by the other-wordly gasometers.
Now that I have walked their entire perimeter, I can confirm that the gasometers are most advantageously regarded from mid-way along the tow path between Mare St and Broadway Market. From here, the silhouette of George Trewby’s soaring structure may be be viewed against the sun and also as a reflection into the canal, thus doubling the dramatic effect of these intriguing sky cages that capture space and inspire exhilaration in the beholder.
We can only hope that whoever develops this site recognises the virtue in retaining these magnificent towers and integrating them into their scheme, adding value and distinction to their architecture, and drama and delight to the landscape.
Opened before 1869, The Acorn in the Queensbridge Rd has recently closed although applicants for Asset of Community ValueStatus hope to save it.
The view from Darwen Place
Decorative ironwork and classical columns ascending from Doric to Corinthian like the Coliseum
The view from Marian Place
The view from Emma St
Grove Passage leading from Emma St to Mare St, with London’s last bombsite on the right
The view from the Oval
Offices of Empress Coaches in Corbridge Crescent
The view from Corbridge St
The view from Regent’s Canal towpath
George Trewby’s gasometer of 1888 viewed from Cat of Mutton bridge over Regent’s Canal
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