London’s Lea Valley is strange, exciting, ugly, beautiful and unaccountably mysterious. It stretches down from the Chiltern Hills, near Luton, through east London, meeting the Thames opposite the Millennium Dome. Between the two, it’s an unplanned patchwork of nature reserves, social housing, yuppie apartments, small industries, scrap yards, football pitches, golf courses, cycle tracks, forgotten architecture and vast areas of nothing in particular. Threading it all together is the Lea (or Lee) River, and its canal. A green and wet world, close to the city. There are Londoners to who are drawn to its enigmatic allure, and Londoners who don’t even know it is there.
David and I began taking these photographs in 2004, the year we met. David only ever made pictures when he wasn’t writing. I was working on documentary projects for magazines and newspapers. Together we began to spend all our spare time in the Lea Valley. We explored mostly by bicycle with one camera, and one light meter between us. We followed the seasons. David liked landscapes with strange incidents. I was a portraitist. We both admired the best street photography. Somehow we combined all those elements, responding to light, space, colour and chance encounters. For long days we cycled and talked, looking, staring, watching, observing. Within a few months we were making the kinds of photographs neither of us would have made alone.
The Lea Valley is photogenic, no doubt about that. But how could we get the peculiar feeling of the place into pictures? And what about the social and economic contradictions? The ecological fragility? The endearingly haphazard character of it all? We just kept shooting, knowing one day we would look back at the mountain of photographs and make some sense of it.
Through the winter and spring of 2005, the mood along the Lea began to change. Parts of its southern end were to be the site of the 2012 Olympics. There was great concern the place would be destroyed. Often we found ourselves in the fields at the proposed site for the main stadium, close to Hackney Wick and Old Ford, where the Lea braids into several waterways. There was a beautiful Victorian metal footbridge, painted light blue. Someone had daubed on it: Fuck Seb Coe. Community groups were mobilizing to resist the Olympic Bid. Beyond the Lea there was little belief that London would be awarded the Games but, on July 6, it was. Nationally there was excitement. In east London feelings were mixed. On July 7, in another global context entirely, London was hit by coordinated suicide bomb attacks. It was a disconcerting time. We stopped making these photographs, got married and had two girls.
The Olympic Games came and went, and the lower Lea Valley began to come to terms with the legacy. Inevitably, we were lured back to see what had happened. Instead of pragmatic wilderness there were now landscaped parks, manicured greens, and the continuous sprouting of what property developers like to call ‘luxury apartments’. In the shadow of the looming stadium, the little blue bridge remains, the graffiti long erased.
Adventures in the Lea Valley was shown as a 150 image, 15 minute digital slideshow at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London as part of the programme London in Six Easy Steps, Summer 2005. It has been published in many places including ICON magazine, The Independent and The Guardian. This is an extract from the Guardian article in 2005:
“A beautiful photo essay, Adventures in the Valley filled one wall of the group show; it was the most powerful piece in the show. Polly Braden and David Campany spent a year in the Lea Valley, part of which is to become the 2012 Olympic Village. Part nature reserve, part post-industrial concrete wilderness, the valley has had the good fortune to have been ignored by developers; its extraordinary vistas, with Canary Wharf looming over its shoulder, are captured in the 100 or so shots that slow-dissolve into one another. Between the pylons, gasworks, abandoned depots, defunct electricity-generating station and acres of meadowland, the inhabitants of the valley have forged their own little city of allotments, play areas and small businesses (300 of which will be given notice to quit).
Braden and Campany describe this landscape as one of “intimate chaos”. Someone has spray-painted “fuck Seb Coe” on a metal bridge across one of the Lea tributaries, where wildfowl are flourishing. The centre of what will be the Olympic Stadium is currently a beautiful tangle of wild flowers and weeds, seen here in weak winter sunlight. The Lea Valley has been a local place for local people, but there is no angry Little Englandism about the photos, nor any sentimentality – just a pervasive melancholy.”
— Sarah Wise, The Guardian
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