17-12-2021

Beckton Alps

Opened in 1870, Beckton Gas Works played a pivotal role in the industrialisation of Britain and its colonies. The huge site occupied 500 acres and had an internal railway running through it that stretched over 40 miles in length. By 1949 Beckton was the largest gas works in the world; over 4,500 people once worked at the site.

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At this point in history, coal was used to create coal gas through a method called coal carbonisation, which then passed on through a gas main to Central London. This process led to the creation of by-products such as ammonia and coal-tar which were initially sold to exterior manufacturers. It was not until 1879 that the company that owned the site established the Beckton Product Works to sell these by-products directly. 

Nationalisation and the shift towards extracting natural gases towards the end of the 1940s meant that sites like Beckton, once important industrial landmarks, were no longer needed. By 1969 Beckton was left to decay, like many other urban areas within the London Docklands. The switch to natural gas meant that the Beckton Product Works could no longer survive and was subsequently closed in 1970. Upon the closure of these sites, an issue arose as to what should be done with the large amounts of toxic ash left behind by the works. The solution decided upon was to pile the toxic waste into spoil heaps. The piles of material were so tall they resembled a mountain range, albeit a man-made one in the depths of East London.  

Once completed the 125 feet tall heaps of toxic ash would be the highest point in Newham, which led to Londoners affectionately naming them the ‘Beckton Alps’. Lacking the snow of the European namesake, in 1989 the largest spoil heap was modified into an artificial ski slope and opened to the public. Princess Diana was present for the unveiling and Austrian skier Franz Klammer, recipient of a gold medal in the 1976 winter Olympics in his home nation, was brought along to promote it. Its popularity was immediate, especially amongst school children, but unfortunately, as years passed this waned, and the bold scheme to recreate the Alps in London was ended. The artificial slope closed its doors in 2001. Further efforts were made to rejuvenate the area in 2003 with a more elaborate and high-tech ‘Snow World’. The proposed £35 million project was to be indoors with real snow, a stark contrast to the Dendix dry ski mats previously placed over the mounds. The plan failed to muster the support of the local council and community, resigning the site to an uncertain future; one of decay and blight.

The gasworks has been a popular destination for filmmakers since their abandonment in the mid-20th century. Perhaps the most famous use of the Alps was by director Stanley Kubrick, who turned the site into his vision of war-ravaged Vietnam in his 1987 film ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Unrecognisable was the wasteland site, as it was transformed into the South Vietnamese city of Huế. The use of dynamite and other pyrotechnics in the film, necessary to help visualise the damage and loss of life during the Battle of Huế, caused even greater damage to the Beckton Gas Works site. Filming at the site was challenging, with the asbestos-contaminated land posing health risks to actors and film crew. The scheduled demolition of the British Gas buildings on the site soon followed the conclusion of filming. 

Other work that features Beckton, a landscape that offers creatives a vision of dystopia, includes music videos by the Manchester bands Oasis and The Smiths. Visionary director and activist Derek Jarman shot promotional material around the site for the latter in a short film he released to accompany their 1986 release, The Queen is Dead. 

Beckton Alps as seen today. Copyright Oliver Endersby, 2021.

The Beckton Alps of today remain a toxic waste dump, with much of the site covered in signs and fencing warning the public of the potential dangers posed by entering the site. In recent years a tall steel palisade fence and gate, complete with a large padlock was erected to block urban explorers from gaining access to the summit. Many still manage to discover ways of circumventing fencing to set foot on the boardwalk platform and summit the Beckton Alps. The site is popular with explorers who want to uncover a forgotten part of London’s history and enjoy a view of the city’s skyline that is rarely seen. Some parts of the wider area, once covered by the gas works, have been turned into retail parks, housing, and office buildings; the industrial railway line has been recycled, consumed by the Docklands Light Railway. Opposite to where the ski slope once sat now faces out to the largest Lithuanian supermarket in London. A significant Eastern European community has settled in this pocket of London over the past 20 years. In 2013 an unknown individual or group climbed the alps to paint Lithuanian flags along with the sheets of corrugated iron that stand along the summit of the old ski slope. In reprisal to this, English locals (presumably from the area) decided to ‘reclaim’ the slopes and re-painted each metal sheet with the Saint George Cross. 

Remnants of the dry slope’s white Dendix covering can still be spotted in parts of the site. Brambles and nettles have reclaimed a vast proportion of the land. The site’s abandonment for over two decades has earned the area protected status as a ‘Site of Borough Importance for Nature’ as well as grade II listing under the ‘Sites of Importance to Nature Conservation’ (SINC), a designation awarded by local authorities. Despite the area’s decline following the closure of the gas and product works, and the subsequent demise of the site’s ill-fated ski slope, the Beckton Alps have become a haven for the area’s wildlife. Swathes of flora and fauna have been allowed to thrive and have afforded the site a new life, playing a crucial role in maintaining the area’s biodiversity.

Contribution

Words by Jared Phanco and accompanying images by Oliver Endersby. More of Oliver's work can be viewed here - https://cargocollective.com/oliverendersby

Ski Slopes: Beckton Alps – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hk2JSQAYz1I

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