How a toxic industrial landscape became a leisure complex for 1980s Londoners
In the late 1980s a dry ski slope known colloquially as the Beckton Alps loomed over the flat estuarine landscape of Beckton in East London. I saw it frequently as a child, from the back of our family’s Ford Cortina as we drove along the A13, the road that travels through Essex linking London to Southend-on-Sea. Whenever we passed by I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the tiny figures gliding down its slopes. The ski slope and its visitors intrigued me, for I’d never skied before. Still haven’t. To my mind skiing was an exotic pursuit, the preserve of the affluent kids at school, who swaggered about in Kappa ski jackets and went on school-organised skiing trips to Switzerland during half-term.
The dry ski slope closed in the early 2000s but the Beckton Alps remain. They’re clearly visible as an irregularly shaped wedge of green on Google satellite images of East London. They are also memorialised on nearby street signs, as the name of the junction where the A13 intersects the A1020 that connects the Docklands to East Ham. My mental image of the dry ski slope remains as well, frozen in time, an uncanny image of something so deeply embedded in the past, that it would be possible to think that I’d only ever seen it in a dream.
May 2019. A chill and overcast morning sliding along the Docklands Light Railway from Tower Gateway to Beckton. Monochrome skies undisturbed by a cool breeze from the east. Water like mercury in the old docks. Beckton lies at the end of the easternmost branch of the DLR, and the route seems to me to be less a railway journey than an amusement park ride through an architectural chamber of horrors featuring nineties PoMo, bad Bauhaus pastiches, lego-brick university campuses, corporate glass boxes, and forests of cheaply made residential towers, little of which will likely endure longer than the working dockyards they have replaced.
The scene at the end of the line was smaller in scale, more mundane; a familiar post-industrial landscape comprising supermarket, retail park, budget hotel, and chain pub. The Beckton Alps lay a short walk away from the station. I wanted to get as close to them as I could, to compare memory to present-day reality, and to see what, if anything, remained of the ski slope and its facilities. I had no expectations of getting onto the hill itself, let alone reaching the top to admire the vista across East London. My preparatory online research suggested that the hill was off limits to the public.
From afar the summit of the Beckton Alps was visible, but the closer I got, the more it disappeared behind the dense thickets of trees that had grown up on its lower slopes. Standing at the foot of the Alps on an access road into the adjacent retail park, appropriately named Alpine Way, it was hard not to notice the eight-foot high metal fencing that enclosed the site. Affixed to the fence was a notice:
The Beckton Alps are dangerous, hazardous. They are a slag heap, and all that’s left of the Beckton Gas Works. This site produced gas from Welsh coal, fuelling and lighting up London for a hundred years. The Beckton Alps are a toxic reminder of a Victorian London lit by gas and blighted by smog.
In 1868 the Gas Light and Coke Company purchased a large swathe of land on the banks of the Thames in Essex. Its prospects weren’t enticing. This was a flat, marshy and aguish place, bounded along its northern edge by the embankment of Joseph Bazalgette’s new Northern Outfall Sewer, which deposited London’s waste into the Thames close to Barking Creek. To the south lay the warehouses and steel cranes of the Royal Albert Docks. The new site was named after the Gas Light and Coke Company’s chairman, Simon Adams Beck. The production of gas commenced on the site in 1870, and as the demand for gas rose in the rapidly expanding metropolis, the Beckton gasworks expanded to increase its supply. In 1878 a reporter from the Illustrated London News visited Beckton.1 He wrote that the ‘aspect of Beckton [is] very striking’, describing the works, which already employed 2,000 labourers, as:
Vast piles of building, with stately monumental clock-tower in the spacious front lawn, and with seven or eight immense gasholders (cylindrical iron structures painted a bright red, supported lofty iron pillars), rise near the water’s edge. Wharves and timber jetties, with a branch line of railway, serve for the accommodation of a large private traffic. […] Beckton is a remarkable creation of industrial enterprise, capital, and labour, which has more imposing appearance to the visitor from its lonely situation.2
A sense of the scale of operations at Beckton can be gleaned from an 1890 Ordnance Survey map of the area, which indicates numerous gasometers as circles, and a series of long rectangular buildings housing the coal retorts, where coal was heated to extract gas. On the Thames riverbank, several protruding piers and jetties were used for unloading coal from barges.
At its peak in the early decades of the twentieth century, the gasworks occupied 300 acres of marshland between Rainham Creek and the Dagenham Ford Works, and was capable of supplying gas to 4.5 million people in the East End and Essex suburbs. By the mid-twentieth century the site was criss-crossed by 77 miles of rail-track that could support 38 locomotives and 740 wagons.3
The Beckton Alps were not the direct result of the gas works per se, but of the Tar & Liquor Works which stood at the western end of the site. From 1879 the Tar & Liquor works manufactured a myriad materials from the byproducts of the gas production process. In the 1930s the factory was producing: tar for use on roads; sulphate of ammonia for use as an agricultural fertiliser; printers’ ink; insecticides for use on the coffee plantations of colonial Kenya; and such quantities of dyes, that it produced sixty qualities and shades of Prussian Blue alone.4
What was it like to work at ‘this busy if not altogether lovely colony’ in the late nineteenth century?5 Of the 2,000 labourers on the site in 1878, most worked at the coal retorts, a hot, loud and dirty business. Illness was common, as was discontent. A strike by workers in 1872, just two years after gasworks had started production, caused large parts of London to be cloaked in darkness for several nights. The strike prompted important changes in government law that led in turn to the decriminalisation of the trade unions.6
The late 1960s saw a sharp reduction in the volumes of coal being processed at Beckton, in the wake of the discovery of oil and gas reserves under the North Sea. By the end of the decade Beckton Gas Works had closed, leaving a sprawling industrial site to fall into decay. In the seventies and eighties the derelict site was used as a set for numerous television programmes, music videos, and films, most notably Full Metal Jacket. Today, very little remains of the Beckton Gas Works, bar some fine-looking Victorian workers’ houses that line one side of Winsor Terrace, and the closed site gates at the end of the same road.
After the closure of the gasworks, the Beckton Alps became an abandoned, industrial waste ground. Their toxicity was attested to in a report published in New Scientist in 1973, which reported that the spoil heap consisted ‘primarily of lime and oxides left over from the purification of town gas, [and] sulphuric acid and tar added later’. An adviser for the Greater London Council noted that ‘grass and trees may well survive on part of the site […] but they are likely to be killed in areas of tar deposit.’ The advisor’s solution to the problem was to cover the slopes with 450mm of top soil.7
Newham Council’s planning archives offer fragmented insights into the Beckton Alp’s recent history. Parts of the Alps were removed and landscaped in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s the Council gave planning permission for the reclamation of the Alps through buttressing and augmentation of the slopes. Soil taken from the construction of the basement levels of the British Library’s new building at St Pancras was used to cover the toxic waste heap, reminding us that every subterranean construction or clearance project must have its obverse. That each of the basement swimming pools and home cinemas that have been built underneath the multi-million pound mansions of Kensington and Chelsea, must be transforming the landscape in an upward sense elsewhere.
In May 1986 the Council granted permission to a company called Mountaintop Limited to construct a floodlit dry ski slope, restaurant, bar and shop on Beckton Alps.8 The Princess of Wales attended the official opening of the ski slope on 7 December 1988. In 2000 permission was sought by a new site owner, London Snowdome Limited, to replace the existing facilities with a new, enclosed slope that would use real snow. Restaurants, a ski shop, creche facilities, a travel agent, and additional car parking were also listed in the application. The Beckton ski slope closed in 2001 for redevelopment, with a view to reopening in the summer of 2003. In the meantime, large swathes of the site’s western slopes were designated a Site of Nature Conservation Interest. However, London Snowdome’s plans never materialised, and the fate of the Beckton Alps has remained in limbo ever since. Reasons as to why the plans for an indoor skiing complex aren’t clear. An archived webpage published by Snowboard Club UK, containing a compilation of excerpts from local newspaper The Newham Recorder, and quotes from anonymous sources close to the Snowdome project, suggests that escalating costs associated with the clean-up of the toxic site led to the project’s abandonment.9
From Alpine Way I endeavoured to walk the perimeter of the Alps, to better understand the extent and nature of the site. On Whitings Way, past a FedEx depot and a furniture store outlet, the metal fencing enclosing the site unexpectedly changed course, offering an access point into the green interior of the Alps. I walked on through a tree tunnel that wound upwards, following the contours of the hill. Dense carpets of ivy covered the slopes, amongst which foraged thrushes and blackbirds, their song backgrounded by the incessant traffic hum of the A13. The path continued upwards, zigzagging back and forth.
Continuing upwards the trees gave way to grassland, and now I could see the summit, marked out by a series of graffiti-covered pillars. Now the metal fencing reappeared, running alongside the path and denying me access to the open grass. At the next chicane the path turned but the fencing did not, barring my way and preventing my further progress. Through the metal rails I could see, tantalisingly, how the path continued upwards, just another ten metres or so to the summit.
Only on my descent did I appreciate that the tarmac paths were those laid down in the 1980s to allow skiers to reach the top of the Beckon Alps. Cut into the hill, they were bound on one side by low brick walls and on the other by wooden fencing. Now everything was in decay. The thirty-year-old paths are being cleaved apart by gravity, evidence that the entire hill is very gradually sliding southwards. On the footpaths that remain accessible, the remnants of the wooden fences are scattered about in the undergrowth, and at each chicane there is a profusion of empty beer cans, broken bottles, nitrous oxide canisters, plastic bags and dog ends.
For now, the Beckton Alps will continue to exist in a state of limbo. A green space that is not a green space, chiefly inhabited by the marginalised and disenfranchised, who congregate on its paths after dusk, their well-established desire lines cutting straight, neat swathes through the undergrowth that covers the slopes.
- The reporter went primarily to interview the gasworks’ manager, who had helped pull many of the survivors of the Princess Alice disaster from the putrid waters of the Thames on the evening of 3 September 1878. 650 Londoners died when the Princess Alice was sliced in two by a massive collier, close by to Barking Creek. Many of 130 survivors that were pulled from sewage-filled water in the wake of the disaster later succumbed to disease.
- “The Beckton Gasworks” Illustrated London News, Saturday 2 November 1878.
- ‘Beckton Railway’ in Co-Partners Magazine’ Vol.30, Nr.1, January 1949, 14-17. BFI film footage dated 1926 also shows the extent of the works: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-beckton-coke-works-1926-online
- Alfred Stokes, East Ham (Wilson & Whitworth, 1933 ), 262-66.
- James Thorne, Handbook to the Environs of London, vol 1 (London: John Murray, 1876), 161.
- A Maurice Low, “The British conspiracy and Protection of Property Act and its operation”, in Bulletin of the Department of Labor no.33, March 1903, 308-09.
- ‘Poison, piles and people movers in London’s Docklands’ New Scientist, 15 March 1973.
- ‘Skiing and Carol Singing in Newham’ an archive video available to view on the BFI’s website: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-skiing-and-carol-singing-in-newham-1988-online
- https://web.archive.org/web/20110720030344/http://www.snowboardclub.co.uk/news-beckton.html [accessed 22 May 2019]