London is moving east

Date: 22 Feb 2012 - 23 Feb 2012

London’s east and the Olympic legacy were the focus of our latest Reader Club trip, taking in the undiscovered gems of the Royal Docks and Stratford. Rebekah Tailor reports.

In a city which boasts such a lively hub, complete with historic icons, architectural gems, Theatreland, and an extensive retail offering; visiting groups could be forgiven for having never ventured beyond its central nucleus. London’s east conjures up a variety of stereotypes, and in all likelihood it’s probably not top of the list for your next group excursion. You may just want to reconsider however, as Group Leisure’s latest Reader Club trip, hosted by London & Partners, cast a spotlight on the London Borough of Newham to reveal the exciting results of an ongoing regeneration project of the Royal Docks and Stratford.

An ideally-timed familiarisation at a time when London - and Stratford in particular - is attracting international attention with the impending 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, our party of 15 GTOs had the opportunity to view the Olympic Park and surrounding developments, and learn of the legacy which will no doubt entice group visits for years to come.

Our base for the overnight visit was the comfortable, modern Aloft London ExCeL Hotel. Situated at Royal Victoria Dock in close proximity to the ExCeL centre, and easily navigated on the DLR, the hotel is just five months old having opened in October last year, and its homely feel complemented by exceptionally friendly staff, offers a warm welcome for groups exploring London’s east.

“Seeing the Royal Docks was a bonus - I didn’t realise how close everything was to the O2. The Stratford Westfield site was brilliant, an absolutely fabulous shopping centre. The Olympic site was just tremendous, I’ve seen it gradually develop, but until you get an overview and you see it from the viewing points you can’t really gage how large the site is.” Gordon Hadden, B&B Group Leisure

It was here we were met by Stephen Hoier, partnership coordinator of strategic regeneration, planning and Olympic legacy for the London Borough of Newham, and a mine of information on the Royal Docks. Guiding the group on a bracing walking tour, pointing out key landmarks including the SS Robin and Spillers Millenium Mills, we learnt how the Royal Docks - once a boomtown of wharves, warehouses and cranes which made London the world’s major destination for merchant shipping - was closed in the early 80s after containerisation started its decline in the 60s.

Despite the grey skies, the view from the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge offered a fantastic vantage point - to the left, London City Airport, ExCeL, and the brownfield site to be recreated as a 21st century Victorian pleasure garden; to the right, the crystal structure of the new Siemens’ Urban Sustainability Centre, sprawling Canary Wharf, and the O2 Arena. A towering white pillar - an anomaly on the familiar cityscape - captured the attention of the group, and Steve explained it was part of the new London Cable Car currently under construction, with hopes to open prior to Olympic season. Running across the Thames from the Royal Docks to the Greenwich Peninsula, the cable car will offer a direct link between the O2 Arena, and the ExCeL centre and Siemens Crystal. A visitor attraction to rival the iconic London Eye, standing at a height of more than 50-metres above the Thames, it will also serve the practical purpose of ferrying up to 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction.

As Steve responded to the flurry of questions from the group, I couldn’t help feeling just a little ignorant - despite regular trips to the capital, I’d had no idea such exciting developments were under edifice, and I already couldn’t wait to see the results. Looking around at the intrigued faces around me, I clearly wasn’t alone, and this hot topic of conversation continued over lunch at the charming Nakhon Thai restaurant, located on the Dock’s waterfront.

“I come from west Somerset, and I found the trip very interesting, particularly the Olympic Park, which is an amazing development. I’d also like to bring a group back to see the docks - the cable car will be a fantastic draw. So, get the Olympics over, let everybody settle down again, and I’ll bring a group up to stay!” Sue Shapland, Exmoor Extroverts

A welcome respite after a gusty walking tour, we sat down to a delicious two-course lunch in the Thai eatery, which offers superb views across the Docks, and a great selection of dishes. Having also enjoyed an evening meal here in the past, the restaurant becomes even more atmospheric at dusk and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Continually popular with groups, the afternoon’s boat trip enabled our party to view the Royal Docks from an alternative perspective. This water-based tour onboard the River Princess took us closer to the sights on the opposite side of the dock, and gave a greater insight into its history. Catering for up to 75 passengers, with two indoor rooms, a saloon bar and outdoor upper viewing deck - if weather permits! - groups can choose to book a 45-minute tour of Victoria Dock or a 90-minute tour of Victoria and Albert Docks.

After spending the day exploring what the Royal Docks had - and indeed will have - to offer returning groups, our party caught up with hosts Louisa Myers of London & Partners, and Alice Van Sertima and Anna Reade representing Newham council’s tourism team, at an evening drinks reception courtesy of the hotel. The general reaction of our GTOs was one of pleasant surprise, with many - like myself - just not appreciating how much the area potentially had to offer.

A short tube ride to Stratford would see a fun-filled evening of dinner and boutique bowling at All Star Lanes, based on the second floor of Westfield Stratford City. A complete contrast from the average local bowling alley with its ill-fitting shoes and chicken-in-a-basket; All Star Lanes takes bowling to another level, offering 14 lanes, a cocktail bar and American-style diner serving three-course meals. With varying packages and special offers, large groups are extremely well catered for.

“It’s just amazing how the area is changing. I can’t wait to come back later and see how it’s changed again after the Olympics. The reputation of the East End isn’t a very savoury one in most people’s opinion, but they’ve only got to come here and see what it’s like now and what it will be like in the future.” Betty Ford, Ferndown U3A

The 2012 Games Tour and visit to the Olympic Park Viewing Gallery on day two was arguably the most highly anticipated item on the itinerary. Led by Blue Badge Guide Sally Empson, clear skies and sunshine lent itself to superb views across Olympic Park from the View Tube Visitor Centre, as Sally pointed out the key sights of the Aquatics Centre, Olympic Stadium, and the 115-metre-high ArcelorMittal Orbit - Britain’s largest piece of public art designed by Anish Kapoor.

The vantage point from the Olympic Park Viewing Gallery at Holden Point, offered an entirely different - but equally impressive - perspective; the panoramic view showcasing the Athletes Village, the Basketball Arena, Velodrome, BMX Track, and Westfield Stratford City. The viewing gallery stands on the 22nd floor of residential building, Holden Point, and guide and gallery manager - the charismatic Jean Jeffrey - spoke with passion of the Olympic legacy which would transform the area for years to come.

Sampling the area’s cultural attractions, next stop was a tour of Theatre Royal Stratford East - an utterly charming and intimate venue opened in 1884, and the residence of theatre pioneer Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop Company from 1953 to 1979. Resident archivist Murray Melvin presented an animated insight to the theatre’s history and its vital work within the community. Located next to the Stratford Circus arts centre and Stratford Picturehouse, our brief visit to this cultural cluster demonstrated there’s more to Stratford than its Olympic offering.  

Groups visiting Theatre Royal Stratford East can enjoy a pre-show meal at Cafe Mondo, pizza, pasta and fish restaurant, located just around the corner; and it was here we sat down to a tasty two-course lunch of traditional antipasti and a choice of main dishes - including fish and chips for which the restaurant is renowned. A family-run business with a presence in Stratford for over 40 years, owner Tony Zeolle is incredibly welcoming, and offers a variety of catering options for group bookings.

The final stop on our whirlwind tour brought us back to Westfield Stratford City, for a behind-the-scenes tour of Europe’s largest urban shopping and leisure centre. Not one for retail therapy, even I was bowled over by the incredible mix of 300 brands, plus over 70 food and drink outlets, Great Eastern Food Market showcasing foods from across the world, 14-screen cinema, Aspers Casino, and of course, the All Star Lanes bowling alley. Continuing the Olympic theme, we also gained a third perspective of the Olympic Park from the John Lewis viewing gallery. The gateway to the Olympic Park and the epicentre of London’s east, Westfield Stratford City is a fantastic venue, with plenty of occupy your group. Even better, it’s amazingly accessible - and from here, it was just a seven-minute ride from Stratford International Station back to St Pancras via the Javelin service. Coach groups can take advantage of Westfield’s recently-launched coach service offer, with dedicated pick-up and drop-off bays, and a welcome by the friendly concierge team.

This two-day familiarisation of the Royal Docks and Stratford was truly an eye-opener, showcasing its existing appeal plus the many exciting developments taking place in London’s east. With the furore of the 2012 Games it’s easy to be put off by the thought of travelling to the capital at this busy time; yet with so much going on and an Olympic legacy to be proud of, a visit to this relatively undiscovered part of the nation’s first city should be top of the agenda for groups seeking an alternative London. Didn’t you know? “London is moving east”.

Useful contacts:

London & Partners:

London Borough of Newham:

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