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Johnny Phillips: West Ham’s new home at heart of history and culture

By Johnny Phillips | Wolves | Published:

For Wolves fans visiting the capital today, there is a new ground to chalk off. But more than that, there is a great away day to experience.

General view of the stadium before the Premier League match at London Stadium.

West Ham’s move to The London Stadium has been shambolic from the perspective of the Hammers’ fans.

The unloved athletics site is unsuited to supporters’ identity with their football team and the locals deeply miss Upton Park’s history and intimacy.

For visiting fans, though, it is a far more enjoyable trip.

The 2012 Olympics venue has the atmosphere of a European ground or a cup final stadium – attending a match there feels like a big event.

The ground is also perfectly located for a wander around some of East London’s best bits if you avoid the most travelled paths.

Visiting fans usually alight at Stratford tube station and head across the sterile Westfield Shopping Centre to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

It ticks the boxes if you want to eat or drink at any number of the same chain bars and fast food outlets that dominate the country’s retail parks.

But if you head west from the ground and cross the River Lea Navigation there is a hive of independent activity.

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Fish Island is not an actual island, but an area of warehouses in tightly-lined streets – named after fish – set apart by the Hertford Union Canal and River Lea Navigation.

It has become a cultural hub with art and music venues aplenty in the shadow of the stadium.

There is some lively canal side drinking to be had on the outdoor terrace at Swan Wharf, a Victorian warehouse space on Dace Road.

It has been taken over this summer by Giant Steps, a travelling sound system hosting live music.

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A couple of streets further north, Stour Space on Roach Road has a great floating beer garden.

All the profits from its bar are reinvested in Stour Space’s many art events and studio projects.

And you can get fully waterborne further up the canal at Hackney Wick, with a number of barges converted into pop-up bars and music venues.

If you’re after something a bit more down to earth – some of the hipster crowd can be achingly self-aware – then a five-minute walk over to the other side of the A12 brings you to the Roman Road.

The bustling Saturday morning market closes the eastern stretch of the street to traffic.

Anything and everything can be bought here, with plenty of cafes and pubs dotted around the side streets too.

The Albert on the corner of St Stephen’s Road is never empty.

Head down towards Mile End (stopping off at The Coburn or Morgan Arms for a pint, both excellent pubs) and you will find the grand Tredegar Square with its fantastic Georgian buildings illustrating what other areas of the East End were like before the Blitz.

Another way to approach this away day is to get off at Mile End station itself – the stop before Stratford on the Central Line – and head up the Regents Canal, stopping first at The Palm Tree pub, an isolated building on the banks of the canal upstanding like an East End time warp.

It is very much a ‘take it as you find’ type of gaff that is a calling point for those who live on the canal boats.

It has not had a makeover in decades and is a cash-only bar. Don’t try and order a coffee.

A short walk further up the canal and across the busy Roman Road is London’s best park.

Victoria Park dates back to the mid-1800s and became known as ‘The People’s Park’ such was its importance to the locals of the east end who fell in love with its green spaces.

The magnificent boating lake has recently been restored, with a refurbished bridge over to the lake’s island pagoda. The Pavilion Café overlooking the water does as good a breakfast as you will find.

A never-ending parade of joggers circle the outer paths of the park, which has become host to some of London’s top music festivals including Lovebox and Field Day.

Unfortunately, the park’s huge lido closed in 1989. But if you do fancy a dip before the match, the London Fields lido is only a few streets further west from Viccy Park.

After lying derelict since the late 1980s, the outdoor swimming pool re-opened in 2006. It is heated too, so even in the bitter winter months it is worth a visit.

Of course, West Ham are just the latest in a long line of football teams to play in this part of the world.

Just across the road from the northern part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is the famous Hackney Marshes.

During its heyday in the 1950s there were around 120 football pitches here. Since then it has been whittled down to 82.

The 2012 Olympics was not an innocent bystander with 12 of the pitches depressingly ripped up to make way for a car park for the games.

It is a cultural melting pot on a Sunday morning with so many different nationalities represented across the teams who play their football here.

The changing rooms are divided between the north and south marshes but even so, finding your own team before kick-off is a challenge in itself.

Back in 1997 Nike filmed their famous ‘Parklife’ advert on these pitches, with Eric Cantona and Ian Wright among those gracing the famous turf.

If this is all reading a bit like a tourist brochure, well that is probably because it should.

Not enough column inches are devoted to this neck of the woods. It is a fantastic part of London and deserves to be celebrated.

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit, giving his thoughts on football across the country

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