Silvertown, London: the lure of urban desolation

[By James Hobbs in London]

London’s Urban Sketchers were recently invited to draw Silvertown, a major £3.5 billion regeneration project in east London’s docklands that will turn the derelict post-industrial wasteland into what aims to be the city’s “new creative capital” with 3,000 new homes and 21,000 new jobs. Named after its 19th-century founder Samuel Winkworth Silver, it handled much of Britain’s exports and imports until the 1960s when containerisation and new docks downstream took over. What remains – monumental, crumbling, windswept, beautiful – is Millennium Mills, once home to big name flour millers, and a surviving grain silo. Set by the Thames in a wealth of concrete, graffiti, aircraft noise and wildlife-rich greenery, the site is one of the most exciting places I have ever drawn.

Yesterday was our first visit. Because work is underway at the 62-acre site – our high-visability jackets bore the logo of an asbestos removal company – numbers were limited to eight. Security is tight, and there are dogs on the site. But we will be returning as it develops over the years so more regular urban sketchers in London may get a chance to visit it to draw.

Silvertown has been a popular backdrop for films (such as Derek Jarman’s The Last of England), music videos (The Smiths, Arctic Monkeys, Dire Straits) and TV (Ashes to Ashes). Yet quite why something grim in so many ways is also so moving and awe-inspiring I’m struggling to understand. What is so alluring about urban desolation? London’s sights are visible in the distance: Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Dome, Canary Wharf and the cable car. But Silvertown is still a twinkle in the developer’s eye. Whatever it becomes, it can never be more lovely than it is now.

Our thanks to the Silvertown Partnership for inviting us. You can see more images by the other artists on the Urban Sketchers London blog.


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