Silvertown is, without a doubt, one of London’s strangest districts. Walking through East Silvertown, you still feel the working-class roots bubbling beneath the surface of an otherwise increasingly gentrified capital, always with the odd odour from the Tate & Lyle sugar factory penetrating your nostrils, even though the area’s industry is becoming more dominated by the comparatively new City Airport.
Walk further West, and you will be greeted by the now closed-off section of what once was the disaster of the London Pleasure Gardens. Do you remember the hype, the advertisements, the hope it gave many an independent artist? Alas, it was not to be. Dreadful planning and an incompetent management forced it to shut down within a month of opening in 2012.
Other parts have been gentrified more successfully, for better or worse. Bordering on Canning Town to the north, the area around the Royal Docks greets the wanderer with a modern construction, consisting of the ExCel exhibition centre and the gorgeous Emirates Air Line, which can give you some of the most beautiful views over London you will ever see for little more than a tube fair. But only if you don’t dare to look further to the East.
For the view is dominated by the Millennium Mills, towering above all other buildings and putting them in its shadow. An uncanny silence surrounds the immediate area; apart from the occasional sound of a seagull or a plane approaching the airport, you will hear absolutely nothing. Not even reptiles make this almost soviet-looking ruin their home.
And yet a strange aura surrounds the rotting concrete walls and the frontage. Humans are drawn to it as though by a spell of sorts – and, consequently, it has been used many times in popular culture. TV show Ashes to Ashes frequently used the façade; it featured in The Last of England; Jean-Michel Jarre even had the building painted white to use it at his event Destination Docklands. Although you may not recognise its infusing grey, chances are you’ve seen it before, from the comfort of your own home, and without the dangers presented by the asbestos pervading the area.
Of course, so-called ruin gazing has been a phrase used for quite some time in cultural criticism – the act of imagining the end of one’s own culture by comparing it to the decline of an ancient empire (often Rome or Babylon). Enjoying looking at the last remains of a dead civilisation has been the inspiration for some of the most wonderful art.
But something about the Millennium Mills feels different. These are not the ruins of an ancient empire. The building is hardly one hundred years old; it only shut its gates after the closure of the Royal Docks in 1981. This is a recent ruin, and there are undeniably many people alive who still remember its active period when hundreds of tons of flour would be produced in it on a daily basis – produced by the hands of thousands of real people.
Are the Millennium Mills a reminder of the stampede that marks the end of industrialised Britain? Do they serve to reinforce the sense of the neighing end of times the West has been experiencing for centuries? Do they whisper the sounds of a forgotten age, provided we let ourselves slow down for a minute and take a deep breath? Perhaps the sentiment whimpered by the ruin is best captured by these lines from Lord Byron’s ‘Darkness’:
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light
The Millennium Mills teach us that not only perfect and pretty things can fascinate us and capture our attention. Why not seek beauty even in the unlikeliest of places?
Have you been to the Millennium Mills? Did your experience differ from mine? Then please leave a comment below. Otherwise, if you enjoyed reading this little piece, please share it on a social media platform of your choice by clicking on one of the tender buttons.