London From The Air

Centuries of change

Centuries of change, building and rebuilding have shaped the East End, its buildings and the routes of its streets.

It’s a wealth of detail that we, at pavement level or behind the wheels of our cars, rarely get to see. Occasionally, circling for landing on a Heathrow-bound plane, we take an unplanned trip over the City and have fun picking out the sites, but all too briefly.

A fascinating book of photographs of London by day, by night but always from the air puts that right. And in the process it provides striking insights into the collision of old and new that is the East End.

London From The Air* does so by bringing together the superb aerial photographs of Jason Hawkes and a text by Felix Barker. Barker has written a host of books on London’s past, including London: 2000 Years of a City and its People and The History of London in Maps (both with Peter Jackson).

Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf

While Hawkes happily points his camera at whatever grabs him, Barker is left with the painstaking detective work of identifying historically interesting streets and buildings. “Much time has had to be spent with the magnifying glass and Ordnance Survey maps,” admits Barker.

“Local history libraries have been badgered to identify perplexing buildings. Anyone who prides himself on knowing his London can have a good game spotting some of the more obscure places.”

A spectacular panorama of the Isle of Dogs displays not just the massive developments of Canary Wharf, but how a surprisingly large part of the Island is made up of the greenery of Mudchute and Millwall Park.

Another picture peers down at a Canary Wharf lit by the orange glow of the sunset. This north part of the Isle of Dogs is revealed to be more water than land, and No 1 Canada Square seems to be floating in the middle of the flood.

A shot of Whitechapel draws the eye irresistibly to the bullseye-like helicopter landing pad of the London Hospital. And then the huge sprawl of the hospital itself becomes clear, dwarfing the buildings around it.

A picture from above Mile End looks back to London, revealing Mile End Road carving its way from Essex into the heart of the City. The main route in to town for two millennia, it is now bathed in a haze of petrol fumes.

The Tower of London is revealed not so much as London’s premier tourist attraction but as the great fortress it once was – the Tower’s immaculately preserved buildings squat behind the massive defending walls and moat.

At first the pictures appear more like patterns – beautiful jumbles of shape and colour as modern grid-like street systems butt up against ancient curving routes like the Highway. Then it becomes addictive to peer deeper into the pictures. What is that green space tucked away in Wapping? Is that line the route of a disused railway?

Students of London history won’t stop at the East End of course. Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, St Pauls, Westminster Abbey and many more are spectacularly shown from above.

But just as striking are the unexpected gems. The enormous Jewish cemetery at East Ham appears as thousand upon thousand of neatly arrayed playing cards. The endless terraces of Ilford are aligned with a military precision reflecting the Imperial street names of Khartoum, Madras and Bengal. And shots down the river, through the Thames Barrier, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and beyond into Essex, have a bleak and misty beauty.

• London From The Air (photographs by Jason Hawkes, text by Felix Barker). Ebury Press, hardback £25.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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