A long walk to a brewing conference and a brewing competition
A ‘BOWL OF CHALK’ THROUGH LONDON’S EAST END
It was a cold November morning when I started my journey to the BrewCon UK home brewing Convention, held on the 5 and 6 November at the adjacent brewery sites of Wild Card Brewery and Hackney Brewery on the Lockwood Way Industrial Estate, Walthamstow. As well as the Convention, there was an associated “World Series” brewing competition and four of my finest beers were entered – more on this later.
With the great beer choices available at the event, I knew I was going to have quite a bevy over the two days, so I decided to purge my body and earn my beer intake by walking as much as possible to the Conference. Looking at the Google maps, I determined that I could walk a straight line of almost 15 miles from North Woolwich to the conference door and the nearby Travelodge where I was staying overnight. The 15 mile hike would just about satisfy what I knew would be my usual “pint per mile” intake over the two days, but what route should I take? I got out my Ordnance Survey maps.
I worked out that I could get a 54 bus to South Woolwich and start my hike by walking under the Thames using the foot tunnel through to North Woolwich. At North Woolwich I could follow the Thames shoreline east, go through the Royal Docks, and then follow an old sewer for a great part of the way until I reached Hackney Marshes. A short diversion would then take me to Lea Bridge Road and then on to Walthamstow by quiet back streets. Now a nine mile section along an old sewer doesn’t sound attractive, but this is no ordinary sewer.
In the days when I was an East-end lad it was called the ‘Northern Outfall Sewer’ (NOS), but today goes by the posher name of the ‘The Greenway’ and indeed is now part of a much larger walk called the ‘Jubilee Greenway’. The NOS is a major gravity sewer which runs from Wick Lane in Hackney to Beckton sewage treatment works in east London; most of it was designed by Joseph Bazalgette after an outbreak of cholera in 1853 and the “Great Stink” of 1858. The NOS is a part of the 1,300 mile long network of sewers he constructed, on 3 levels across the city. The Greenway was built on the NOS embankment laying above the sewer in the 1990’s, all part of the governments green strategy to introduce wildlife to the city, and establish networks for walking and cycling.
What lies beneath the Greenway has never been much of a secret, especially if you look for the hints that are all around the area, such as the signs made from old sewer pipes. If you walk west along to Beckton and the Beckton Alps end of the Greenway, you’ll also be treated to smells of a former industrial waste dump. The grass covered mound of waste was once home to a dry ski slope, which ran on the site from the late 80’s to 2001. Now the derelict mound is just testament to past industry in the area. Points of interest along the Greenway route include the River Lea and Lea Navigation, Abbey Mills Pumping Station, and the Olympic Park. The Greenway benefitted from the London 2012 effect as an architectural firm worked to incorporate it with the Olympic Park – this included landscaping touches using salvaged timber and concrete perches
Anyhow, enough history and on with my actual walk. I got the 54 bus at just after 6.00am at Beckenham and arrived at South Woolwich just as the sun was rising at 7.00am. I walked towards the Thames and the Woolwich Ferry, where the southern foot tunnel entrance is.
In spite of the urban nature of Woolwich itself, the view of the sky above the Thames and the ‘Dame Vera Lyn’ ferry was quite attractive and filled me with enthusiasm for my walk.
As I walked up the northern shaft of the foot tunnel I was painfully reminded it has 126 steps and is 19.5m deep. The Woolwich foot tunnel was built in 1912 to provide easy access to the docks north of the river, mainly for dockworkers who lived south of the river. Read more about the tunnel here. Before starting the next section of my walk east along the Thames, I turned round to take a picture of the solitary looking northern exit dome.
I was now walking along the Thames and through the old Royal Docks. The area is named after three docks – the Royal Albert Dock, the Royal Victoria Dock and the King George V Dock. The three docks collectively formed the largest enclosed docks in the world, with a water area of nearly 250 acres (1.0 km2) and an overall estate of 1,100 acres (4.5 km2). This is equivalent to the whole of central London from Hyde Park to Tower Bridge. I am proud to say that my Grandfather used to be a docker in this group for many years before and after WW2.
Now no longer active docks, the area was designated a special enterprise zone in 2012. A series of major developments have seen the construction of a new university campus (for the University of East London) and the ExCeL Exhibition Centre, among much else. The Royal Docks have also seen the development of London City Airport, opened in 1988 on the quay between the Royal Albert Dock and the King George V dock. While the docks themselves have been preserved largely intact, little remains of the old infrastructure, although some historic warehouses and cranes have been preserved. One thing that does remain are the massive lock gates that allowed the giant cargo ships and passenger liners to pass through. My walk rather scarily took me across the very top of one of the gates.
The walk alongside the Royal Docks took me past a very old pub, now extensively refurbished into a Bistro pub and called the ‘Galyons Bar & Kitchen’. It wasn’t always thus and was originally called The ‘Gallions Hotel’. I used to drink in there occasionally myself as a young lad, but it was abandoned in 1972 and left derelict, until restored in the early 2000s when posh flats and houses were built on the old dockland sites.
The Gallions Hotel is an extraordinary survivor from a bygone age, a reminder of when people used to come to this little-known corner of East London to board ships to far-flung corners of the British Empire. It was built by the P&O Company and opened in 1883, three years after the opening of Prince Albert Dock by the London & St Katharine Dock Company to handle the ever-increasing size and volume of shipping in and out of London, at that time the world’s greatest seaport. It was designed by Vigers and Wagstaffe, and features a plaster frieze of nymphs by Edward Ruscoe Mullins. The hotel was intended for passengers departing and arriving on ocean-going liners from Prince Albert Dock, and included overnight accommodation. It also had a secret tunnel from the hotel to the liner moorings to spare the rich passengers the site of a working dock and its labourers.
The hotel even had its own railway line; the Dock Company built and operated a private line from Custom House, on the Great Eastern Railway’s North Woolwich Branch, along the north side of the Dock. In its heyday this line was well used, even seeing through trains for boat passengers from Liverpool Street. In the 20th Century however, the line suffered from competition from road transport and the decline in shipping generally. It closed after the mass bombing of the Docks on 7th September 1940 – the first day of the aerial bombardment of London during the Blitz, and a day still referred to locally as ‘Black Saturday’. No trace of the railway line exists today, although the Docklands Light Railway between Custom House and Cyprus stations follows its approximate course.
As I left the Royal Docks I turned to walk through the pleasantly laid out housing estates of Becton with plenty of green parks and open spaces – almost like a series of rural villages. Then came the massive and noisy A13, which I crossed by a footbridge. Leaving the A13 behind, I was now on The Greenway and walking west towards Plaistow. Much of the Greenway is built at house eaves level, so you get a good view of the surrounding neighbourhoods, and the vistas are often surprisingly ‘green’.
Walking through Plaistow I was reminded that many of my family used to live here and I could make out the old Victorian school building that I went to when it was used in the 1960s as an annex to West Ham technical college. More sadly, I also walked past Plaistow Cemetery where some of my older relatives are buried.
After leaving Plaistow, I walked past one of the most amazing edifices along the Greenway – the Abbey Mills Pumping Station situated at Mill Meads, Newham. Looking very much like a Moorish temple, it is in fact a sewage pumping station, designed by engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was built between 1865 and 1868, housing eight beam engines by Rothwell & Co. of Bolton. Two engines on each arm of a cruciform plan, with an elaborate Byzantine style, described as “The Cathedral of Sewage”. The pumps raised the sewage in the London sewerage system between the two Low Level Sewers and the Northern Outfall Sewer. Two Moorish styled chimneys – unused since steam power had been replaced by electric motors in 1933 – were demolished in 1941, as it was feared that they would act as a landmarks for a strike from German bombs. The building still houses electric pumps – to be used to assist the new sewage facility next door when required. The building is Grade II listed.
Still on the Greenway, I was cheered up by my approach to the Olympic Park, with the West Ham football stadium and the magnificent ‘Orbit’ sculpture designed by Turner-Prize winning artist Sir Anish Kapoor in my sights. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a 114.5-metre-high sculpture and observation tower in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, London. It is Britain’s largest piece of public art, and is intended to be a permanent lasting legacy of London’s hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, assisting in the post-Olympics regeneration of the Stratford area. Sited between the Olympic Stadium (now called London Stadium) and the Aquatics Centre, it allows visitors to view the whole Olympic Park from two observation platforms.
And now it was time to leave the Greenway and follow the Lea Navigation through to Hackney Marshes. My cross over point on the Navigation looked very rural and inviting.
The Lee Navigation runs from rural Hertfordshire into the heart of London, and a picturesque and unbroken walking and cycling route runs the entire length of the river. Although still cold, the sun was now shining and I looked forward to walking this section along the river and canal bank.
Alas, it was all too short along the delightful Lea Valley Walk, but I had to branch off north-east across the Hackney Marshes for the penultimate section of my walk. Hackney Marshes is an area of open space in London’s Lower Lea Valley, squeezed between the western bank of the River Lea and the canal navigation. It takes its name from its position on the eastern boundary of Hackney, and from its origin as an area of true marsh. The marshes were extensively drained from Medieval times onwards, and rubble was dumped here from buildings damaged by air raids during World War II, raising the level of the ground. Hackney Marsh is one of the largest areas of common land in Greater London, with 136.01 hectares (336.1 acres) of protected commons.
Hackney was where I was born, and the Marshes were where I played many times in my school’s football teams. I could see school teams playing this Saturday morning as I crossed the grounds and many happy memories came flooding back to me.
After a melancholy stroll through the Hackney Marshes I was now at Lea Bridge Road and on the final part of my journey. The road takes its name from Lea Bridge, which crosses the River Lea at Leyton Marshes. A bridge over the river at this point was built to replace a ferry, either in 1745 or sometime after 1757. The second road bridge opened circa 1890 and the present third Lea Bridge Road Bridge was opened in 1995. On my walk, the road was very busy with traffic, but not too unpleasant to walk along. I very soon turned off left to cut through the side streets of Leyton and Walthamstow, the roads being lined by fine Victorian houses.
ARRIVAL AT THE CONFERENCE
Finally, after nearly 15 miles of enjoyable walking I arrived at the Walthamstow Central Travelodge. Quickly dumping my bag, I rushed over to the Hackney Brewery and the start of the brewing conference.
Although not very interesting on the outside, the inside of the brewery was a marvellous sight to see with the towering stainless steel conical fermenters.
The other, adjoining venue of Wild Card Brewery also had a magnificent interior.
But now that I have arrived, what of the Brewing Conference itself? BrewCon was first started 5 years ago, but the pandemic meant that there was no event in 2019 and 2020. Although in the UK there are a large number of regional homebrew clubs, several great local competitions, and a strong online community, there is no national homebrew association similar to the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and, until BrewCon came along, no national homebrew conference. Now BrewCon is the largest gathering of amateur brewers in the UK and over 500 people attended on both days I was there this year.
As well as two fine brewery tap rooms, the conference offered a selection of leading brewing supplies retailers, maltsters, hop merchants, yeast wranglers, equipment manufacturers and more. There were also the ‘Brewtalks’- a curated schedule of presentations from industry leading experts, brewing ingredient producers and award-winning professional brewers. The Brewtalks were held in a large marquee on the Hackney brewery forecourt. Here’s a link to the many brewing topics covered: https://www.brew-con.co.uk/brewtalks.
The home brewing equipment on display was very tempting and I had to resist a strong desire to buy the whole lot.
A particularly nice display was laid on by The Malt Miller – one of my favourite suppliers of brewing equipment.
THE BREWING COMPETITION
As well as the brewing conference, there was the associated “World Series IV” brewing competition. In total there were 442 entries judged and 238 registered participants. The judging was done under the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines using the BJCP beer style categories and scoresheet. A beer is judged under five attributes: Aroma, Appearance, Flavour, Mouthfeel, and Overall Impression. Here is a sample scoresheet. In this particular beer competition there were 18 entry categories used and I submitted four different beers. Any score over thirty is considered ‘Very Good’ and I’m pleased to say all four of mine scored well. However, my St George Strong Bitter scored particularly high and I actually won 1st Prize – Gold – in the UK Ales category. I will be posting my winning recipe for St George on my beer blog in the near future.
All in all, my long walk, the beers, the conference and the competition made for a very enjoyable weekend. I shall certainly be going again next year and entering more of my beers in the completion. Oh, and before you ask, yes, I did manage to do my ‘pint per mile’ during the conference. In fact, over the two days it was more like two pints per mile!