I walked the Line: London’s first modern art walk

I keep my eyes wide open all the time
Because you’re mine, I walk the Line

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three

The Line

Billed as “London’s first dedicated modern and contemporary art walk” the Line links a series of al fresco art pieces through a route running from the O2 in north Greenwich to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London.  Its’s called The Line after the Greenwich Meridian which it crosses and recrosses on its meandering path.

A cold blustery Sunday morning is probably not the optimum time to walk the route, but we were lucky to avoid most of the rain and hail squalls throughout the day. 

The path is supposed to be way-marked, but it can be a little tricky to follow as sometimes the signs are non-existent.  It does though, travel through some interesting parts of London, including North Greenwich and a walk along the River Lee.

Because the art on the Line is always changing, its best to check their website to see the latest news: www.the-line.org

The map on the Line’s website is, frustratingly, more about style than function so we have produced a more helpful version.

The number of works on the route has increased since its opening back in May 2015.  Apparently, there are currently some dozen works of art to engage with (although we seemed to have missed a couple on our trip) and there are plans to add more.   On the way you will discover work by some of the biggest names in the art world, such as Damien Hirst and Anthony Gormley.  Others will probably be as fresh to you as they were to us. 

Some pieces on the tour are newly installed, some are old favourites. Although nearly all the work would come under the broad category of sculpture, it does offer a wide range of styles and subjects.  If one work fails to float your boat, do not worry, another will be along soon.

The route is divided into three distinct segments which can be walked in one day or tackled separately.  The three sections are linked by the DLR and the Emirates cable car.  All told, the walking part is a little over 4 and a half miles long (that’s around 7 km) and is predominantly flat.   You can walk it from either end – we chose to start at the O2 in North Greenwich,

Around the O2

This part of the route is quite easy, once you get on the Thames path around the O2. Coming out of North Greenwich underground station you need to head right and you should soon be able to spot the first installation, Alex Chinneck’s A Bullet From a Shooting Star.  I have to say, this was one of our favourite pieces from the walk, an upside-down electricity pylon, seemingly stuck in the ground after plunging to earth. 

Carry on walking clockwise around the O2, keeping the river to your left.  The art comes thick and fast over the following kilometre or so.  The next work is a witty reminder of the way the route follows the line of 0 degrees longitude – the Greenwich Meridian.  It’s easy to miss amongst the plethora of signs along the route.  It is designed by Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead and called Here, 24,859.  If you travel in a straight line in the direction the sign is pointing, after 24,859 miles you will end up back here.

Next up is Richard Wilson’s A Slice of Reality, which is literally a slice of an old sand-dredging boat, the Arco Trent.  This has become an old favourite since its installation some 20 years ago.

A few meters further along, we came across Liberty Grip by Gary Hume.  The use of the pink reminded us enjoyably of liquorice allsorts, although I’m not sure that was the artist’s intention.

The last work on this section is another old favourite, Quantum Cloud by Anthony Gormley. 

The Royal Docks

The recommended route would have taken across the River on the Emirates cable car, but on the day we walked it was closed for ‘planned maintenance’.  Typical: the one time it might have proved useful, it was shut.  Instead we got the Jubilee line to Canning Town and then the DLR to Royal Victoria.

This section of the route was, I have to admit, disappointing.  The only work of art we actually found was Consolidator #654321, a coffin-shaped object outside the Crystal building.  It’s the sort of monumental sculpture you see in the atriums of banks in the City; large, vacuous and presumably attempting to show the bank as a generous benefactor of the arts.

One work which we had been told was on this section was Work No. 700 by Martin Creed.  This was seemingly a pile of rusty girders which we could not locate at all.  I am a little concerned that builders may have repurposed them in nearby works!

Cody Dock

We traced our way back to Royal Victoria DLR and travelled three stops to Star Lane station.  Again, the way is not marked clearly, so it is important that you leave the station by the Stephenson Street exit and then walk down Cody Road opposite.  Take a left down South Crescent and you will soon be at Cody Dock. 

One of the advantages of a walk like this is that you can discover bits of London you never would have seen. Cody Dock is a small community hub where several independent creative companies are based.  It is helping to transform the dock with community gardens and footpaths, opening up the lower Lea River for everyone. One suggestion for the origin of its name is that it commemorates the camp which Buffalo Bill Cody set up whilst touring with his world-famous wild-west shows in London.   Whatever the truth of this, it is delightful place to stop for a sandwich and coffee and certainly somewhere I look forward to visiting again in the summer.

If you carry on across the dock, you will discover a work by one of the giants of contemporary art.   Damien Hirst’s Sensation is a brightly-coloured model of the uppermost 3mm of a human’s skin.  It most resembles some sort of monstrous children’s birthday cake.  Hirst’s works will always divide opinion, but this piece is fun. Its location, and the way you almost stumble across it, adds to its impact.

The River Lea

This section is really the heart of the walk, taking you along the bank of the Lea upstream towards Stratford.  This is a fascinating part of London and one that we were not familiar with. It’s an amazing juxtaposition of the very old and the very modern. It takes you past massive buildings like the Amazon London storage units to a 17th century tidal mill.

Further along the route is another of our favourites, Abigail Fallis’s DNA DL 90.  This is a giant double helix made from shopping trolleys.  The accompanying blurb claims that the work “is a symbol of modern society’s consumer culture, which she believes has become entwined in an individual’s genetic make-up” but to be honest it had us at “a giant helix made from shopping trolleys.”

The walk continues to follow the Lea upstream until you come to Twelvetrees Bridge.  Again, the route is poorly marked.  You need to go up onto the road and then left onto the bridge.  Halfway along you take the yellow-topped ramp down on to Three Mill Island.  At the bottom of the ramp you double back and go under the bridge and then along the tow path past the brightly coloured barges moored at the river’s side. 

The Three Mills

The magnificent Georgian Three Mill complex, the largest surviving tidal mill in the world, soon becomes visible.  This is a wonderful grade-one listed structure which is being renovated and it is hoped will be generating hydroelectricity soon.  This is certainly another place to revisit in the summer.

The Helping Hands Memorial

The Line carries on through the Mills into Three Mill Green where the final artwork is located. But before you reach that it is worth pausing at the Helping Hands memorial. Although not officially on the Line, the route does take you past it.

Designed by Alec Peever and unveiled in 2001, it marks the centenary of a remarkable act of self sacrifice which took place when workers inspected an old well at a gin distillery at Three Mills. A distillery worker, Thomas Pickett, was the the first to descend the ladder into the well. Halfway down he seemed to collapse and fall into the dark waters below.

The distillery’s managing director Godfrey Nicholson, immediately clambered down to try and assist the stricken Pickett. Tragically he too collapsed and fell into the water. It must have now become apparent to all there that their colleagues had been overwhelmed by noxious fumes that had gathered in the dark confines of the well. This did not stop Frederick Elliot, one of the distillery’s tunmen, from climbing down to try and assist his fellow workers. Inevitably, he too fell unconscious into the well.

By this time, more workers had gathered and had found some rope to tie to the next would-be rescuer. But before they could execute their plan, another worker, Robert Underhill – who was to be married in a month’s time – entered the well and once again, shocked onlookers heard a loud splash as Underhill was overcome by the gas.

Eventually Job Vanning had a rope tied around him and was lowered into the well. When he passed out, he was able to be hoisted back up into the fresh air where he recovered. When the fire brigade finally arrived they were able to recover the bodies of the four fallen workers. The memorial is a fitting tribute to these acts of extraordinary courage and the workers’ selfless devotion to their colleagues.

Journey’s End

The last piece on our walk is the only one which represents a human figure. Thomas Price’s Network is a larger-than-life statue of a man looking intently at his mobile phone, ignoring the pleasant parkland surrounding him.  A lesson to us all.

I keep my eyes wide open all the time
Because you’re mine, I walk the Line

We really enjoyed walking the Line despite the poor weather. Art is always subjective and some of the pieces we passed did make us stop and consider our surroundings in a new light. Others we found were more difficult to engage with. Above all, we got to see parts of the city which were new to us and the lower Lea is strangely beautiful.

Getting There and Back

At the end of the walk (or the beginning, depending on your direction of travel), there are several public transport options.  Bromley By Bow underground station on the Jubilee line is close to the Mills, or it’s a short walk to Pudding Mill on the DLR. Alternatively or you can make your way to and from Stratford High Street.

If you decide to walk in the other direction then North Greenwich station on the Jubilee Line is the best option.

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