There's more to Docklands the grime MCs, you know. Like this huge abandoned mill.
Docklands is a weird place. Considering today it’s just a load of boring roads, grey things, shit banking yuppies, ugly and synthetic 90s architecture, and—as you get further out—a few Costcutters and some grime MCs with bulldogs, it’s hard to imagine it was once the giant gnashing mouth that Imperial London used to chow down on the rest of its empire’s sprawling resources. I bet it was a lot cooler when it was the launchpad for Britain’s belligerent seafaring, the epicentre of its international trade and commerce, and the entry point for tea and dope dealers from as far off as Hong Kong. Today, by contrast, all it’s got is that rubbish ExCel center (which has been bought up by some blinged-out Emirate oil barons in Abu Dhabi), where old hairy dudes occasionally get together for group fretwanking sessions at Fender conventions. There are still a couple of architectural landmarks left that stand testament to the former economic and industrial powerhouse that the area once was, but they’re mostly all due for the chop. One such crumbling beauty is the Millennium Mills, a graceful giant once home to Spiller’s pet food and flour production plant. Very soon it’s going to be torn down and replaced with more lifeless "luxury" flats. I went down there with my friend to check it out before it goes for good.
The art deco-tinged monolith is down by the Royal Victoria Dock, right near London City Airport and the useful but surprisingly underwhelming Thames Barrier (its cod-expressionistic shape is like a chromosome-down version of the Sydney Opera House). It’s an interesting area—the docks opened up in the 1850s at the peak of industrialisation and just in time for the violent opium wars that British Maritime crews were waging on China (we taught them how to get high). Designed specifically to accommodate large steam ships, it was hooked up to a trainline and soon began providing the capital with 850,000 tonnes every year of whatever it needed.
After being massively smashed up during World War II and with the Western world having fully moved into a post-industrial age, Docklands’s industry fortunes dwindled. Its only real claim to fame in the second half of the last century was when Jean Michel Jarre held a massive 80s laser light and electro synth show on a floating platform on the water, using the Mills as its dramatic backdrop, making it briefly the most camply futuro-apocalyptic place on earth.
Today, the Millennium Mills whack your eyeballs like a slate of gritty Victorian doom as they come into vision from the DLR train carriage. Built in 1905, they once co-existed alongside a host of similarly foreboding production plants, but they’re the only ones to have survived until today. They’re heavily fenced off, constantly patrolled by security, and surrounded by plenty of London life willing to report you if you’re spotted trying to sneak in.
We circled the whole area twice before finding a way through the first set of fences. Luckily, someone better prepared had already been down with some wire cutters. Exiting through thick bushes we stood face to face with the mysteriously isolated D silo, where production grain would have been initially collected off incoming ships.
All across the terrain were these sensor post things. We couldn’t be sure, but we guessed they could have been there to pick up our movements if we crossed them, so we ended up taking a long back and forth stealth route so as not to risk setting off some massive air raid siren.
As we got closer we jumped over the fresh carcass of this fox, which on-site security had clearly laid out for us as some kind of sick pagan warning for those intent on interloping.
Once up close we checked out the truck depots on the south side of the complex, the final departure point of everything the mill produced.
Testament to the factory’s final days of operation during the 50s and 60s, we spotted signs written in central Asian script, which suggests that a reasonable amount of the work force would have been made up of Commonwealth immigrants recently arrived from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. (Having said that, I can’t read what it says, so it could just be telling us to fuck off.)
There were also more recent Chinese newspapers plastered to the walls.
I can read some Russian, and this was one of a handful of tags banging on about fascism. Turns out this little hotspot of abandonment has been harbouring quite a diverse little international community.
And of course the pre-requisite Mulder and Skully-worshipping crazies.
But then again, sucking up asbestos like its sherbet isn’t going to be doing a sane mind any favours in a hurry.
If you look closely you can see these doors leading out to nowhere. I like to think they were special joke doors to keep workers on their toes.
Getting deeper into the factory was nigh on impossible due to every entry point being concreted up top to bottom. With a bit of preparation (i.e. a ladder) you could easily get up through the open first floor windows and take the exploration to the next level. There are loads of good sets of photos out on the web of people who have managed to do this (you can go and search them out yourself).
Eventually, I did manage to get inside one part of the mill.
I found this sign giving instructions how to operate the on-site comfort woman (the olden days were well politically incorrect, innit.)
Meanwhile Winston, who was too big to sneak through the hole inside, spent some time making some ambient field recordings. He’s probably going to turn them into lo-fi electronica tunes now he’s back in his home city Osaka. The Japanese love to dance to the sound of air bouncing off a factory wall.
While we were doing this we got jumped by a security man in a white patrol car. For a few seconds we thought we’d get arrested, but he just wearily escorted us off the site and told us not to come back. Considering we didn’t plan it, our adventure went pretty well. Next time we’ll bring a ladder.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @alex_hoban
- Vice Blog