Arty and edgy: east London's 'forgotten' neighbourhood and coolest new address

Stratford's edgy neighbour, Fish Island, has finally jumped on the Olympic Games band wagon and is a key component of an ambitious master plan for the wider Hackney Wick area...

Fish Island may be an unlikely and unpromising candidate, but this 50-acre triangular tract of industrial land with a small colony of creatives and small businesses next to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford has ambitions to become the latest cool neighbourhood in the east — another London Fields.

Bounded on two sides by canals and on the third side by a roaring dual carriageway, this semi-derelict backwater is not for the faint-hearted. It was once part of a thriving industrial suburb. Here, in 1865, the Gas Light & Coke Company  built a small factory town, now a conservation area. Streets were given names of freshwater fish, and Fish Island was born.

The Blitz knocked the stuffing out of it and post-war urban planners finished the job, cutting it adrift from the historic heartland of Homerton. 
However, a revival of sorts started in the Eighties and quietly gathered pace, spurred by an influx of small creative businesses. It is where renowned artist Bridget Riley worked. 

Today, 600 artists’ studios and workshops are clustered in the area, alongside enterprises such as smoked salmon producer Forman & Son, whose showpiece new premises doubles as a restaurant, gallery and exhibition space. Here, too, housed in a former sofa factory, is Fish Island Labs, a Barbican Centre-backed initiative offering low-rent space to techno creatives.


Another Olympic winner
Had it not been for London hosting the 2012 Olympics, Fish Island would have remained a cut-off creative colony largely ignored. It is the staggering regeneration of neighbouring Stratford that has altered its fortunes. 

Not only is Fish Island a beneficiary of all the new infrastructure and local amenities, it is a key component of an ambitious master plan for the wider Hackney Wick area, one that is bringing a new Overground station and up to 5,500 new homes. Crucially, London Legacy Development Corporation, which owns a lot of the land, has taken control as the planning authority and is fast-tracking change.

Smokers welcome: Lance Forman, of smoked salmon producer Forman & Son

New homes a rarity
All this physical change has transformed public perceptions of Fish Island as a place to live and work as well as propelling the value of land and buildings, many of which are empty or under-utilised. Currently, homes for sale are scarce. Omega Works, a pioneering apartment scheme built in the Nineties, had a troubled start after the developer got into difficulties, but the block is now extremely sought-after.

“Two-bedroom flats cost £400,000 to £500,000, but rarely come up  for sale or rent,” says Gavin Ridding, a civil engineer and planning consultant whose association with the area goes back 30 years. Today  he is chairman of the local business forum group and owner of estate agent Fish Island Properties, selling mainly commercial premises.

Iron Works is another canalside apartment complex, adjacent to Greenway, a new pedestrian and cycle route built above sewers designed by Joseph Bazalgette, the great Victorian engineer.

What was a virtual no-go zone for home buyers is now a promising new frontier, with eager developers swooping to snap up sites and estate agents plotting the future. Peabody’s Neptune Wharf will provide  578 homes. L&Q, another housing association developer, is poised to unveil a scheme of canalside homes on Stour Road, while developer Aitch Group is moving into this territory and is progressing four schemes with up to 250 homes.

Chasing The London Fields Effect
The area has all the ingredients to become another London Fields,  the trendy Hackney district of  east London centred around the eponymous park and enlivened  by boutique-strewn Broadway Market, according to estate agent Currell, which is extending its  reach by setting up a “resource centre” covering Fish Island and Hackney Wick.

Initially this will be a pop-up showroom with a 3D model of the area and a digital database of land ownership, transport proposals, cultural and community initiatives, development opportunities and apartments coming up for sale and rent.

“London Fields’ rise has been dramatic during the past decade  and there are strong parallels between the two places: pockets of gentrification alongside pockets of deprivation, some fabulous yet decaying industrial buildings, and a pleasant open green space on the doorstep,” says owner Anne Currell. Fish Island has the advantage of being plugged into the mini city that is Stratford, where the former Media Centre built for London 2012 has become Here East, a new digital quarter expected to bring 7,500 jobs.

“We believe the area will attract buyers, mainly young professionals working in Shoreditch and the City, who would never choose to live in the new-build villages on the Olympic Park. They’ll enjoy being part of ‘a work in progress’, finding it exciting and cool to be part of the area’s transformation,” adds Currell.

You need faith. Despite being close to the Olympic Park’s splendid meadows, accessible via a ramshackle footbridge, currently Fish Island is corralled by a semi-derelict waterfront, while the  15-minute walk to the nearest train stations — Puddle Dock, Bow Road and Hackney Wick — is through a gritty and formidable urban landscape. Hackney Wick train station is getting a major facelift, with a new entrance and a parade of shops creating a new hub.

£1.27 million: for a striking penthouse in the listed tower at The Mission, next to St Mary of Eton Church in Hackney Wick

Getting the right balance
This patch needs a boost. Post-industrial decline brought a return to the deprivation that led Eton College in 1880 to establish an outreach mission for the poor. Ironically, the church of St Mary of Eton, where the mission was set up, is at the centre of an ambitious community-based regeneration project called The Mission. It has brought 25 new homes, including a fabulous penthouse in the listed tower. The latter, just released, is on the market for £1.127 million through estate agent Fyfe McDade. Call 020 7613 4044.

Loft-style apartments with up to four bedrooms and patio-style terraces have been carved from the double-height, tall-windowed mission hall, while a new vicarage has been built alongside and a café created in the cobbled courtyard. Planners want to protect the best of the area’s industrial architecture and ensure this new neighbourhood is “balanced”, with a tenure mix of owners and renters, and that its rooted community of small businesses and creatives is not dislodged by fashionistas.


'I like the rawness of Hackney Wick'
Natalie Hall, 36, a marketing director who works in Shoreditch, bought one of the new flats at The Mission. She has lived in the Hackney borough for 13 years, moving from Hoxton to Dalston to London Fields and now to Hackney Wick.

“I suppose I’ve followed the wave of gentrification as it has spread out from Shoreditch. Often areas become victims of their own success. I like the rawness of Hackney Wick, but it has a special quality and I hope this is not lost with the planned regeneration.”


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