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River Lea: How Cody Dock’s new rolling bridge unlocks the project’s potential

Hand-cranked structure designed by Thomas Randall-Page allows the dock to be reflooded

The rolling bridge will transform Cody Dock
The rolling bridge will transform Cody Dock

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There can be few pieces of infrastructure in the world that so succinctly represent the story and future of a project in the way Cody Dock’s rolling bridge does.

Recently tested for the first time, it’s the culmination of years of work – an elegant, ground-breaking solution that’s at once simple, highly engineered and not insubstantially bonkers.

The Gasworks Dock Partnership (GDP) has, with the help of more than 11,000 volunteers, spent the last 13-and-a-half years working to clear and regenerate an unloved patch of industrial land on the River Lea – used for many years as a toxic tip. 

A major milestone in that project will be the re-flooding of the dock itself.

With the junk cleared and the polluted sludge beneath painstakingly removed, the GDP always knew it needed to sort out a solution to the crude dam that currently provides a bridge over the dock entrance, but also blocks access from the tidal waters of the river.

GDP co-founder and CEO Simon Myers had duly found an off-the-shelf rising bascule bridge from Holland that would do the job – bridging the gap and opening when necessary to let ships in.

Planning permission was applied for and granted. But then something happened.

Bridge designer Thomas Randall-Page
Bridge designer Thomas Randall-Page

“It always starts with a conversation in a pub, doesn’t it?” said Thomas Randall-Page, designer of Cody Dock’s rolling bridge.

“Somebody told me Simon was building a new bridge, that it was a product from Holland and that it wasn’t the most interesting thing.

“I didn’t have any work at the time – I’d just quit my job to set up my own practice and I approached Simon and asked if I could counter-propose something that people would come and visit rather than just walk across.

“He said that would be fine, because they already had planning permission for the other bridge and I was doing it for free.

“Then I went off to help my friend move her canal boat and spent two weeks going through locks and looking at all this amazing Victorian infrastructure – most of it counter-balanced and low energy.

“So I started to think about an opening bridge but one that worked in a way that had never been done before.”

The rolling bridge has now been finished and awaits its official launch
The rolling bridge has now been finished and awaits its official launch

The result was a model for a rolling bridge, produced in partnership with structural engineers Price & Myers.

Operated by a hand crank, the whole structure inverts on tracks, raising the footway high above any ships that want to gain access to the dock.

“In a way it’s the opposite of the bascule bridge, because that’s all hydraulic – like trying to lift something at arm’s length – so a lot of energy goes into it,” said Thomas.

“This one is a very balanced system with counterweights, so it’s going to be manual – you just turn a handle and wind it over.

“It will be quite slow, but people will be able to do it themselves and hopefully others will come to watch it open.”

While Simon and the GDP team were immediately attracted by Thomas’ proposal, they put it through a rigorous process of assessment to ensure it was something that would both work at scale and could be built within budget.

“We knew we were taking quite a big risk with something that’s untried – to our knowledge, this is the only bridge of its kind in the world,” said Simon.

“Thomas gave us what we needed to convince our board and we decided to re-apply for planning permission, although he had to wait five years for us to give him a call and say we’d found the money and were actually going to build it.

The bridge rolls on steam-bent oak, guided by metal teeth
The bridge rolls on steam-bent oak, guided by metal teeth

“That was about a year ago and he engaged Price & Myers to work on it, all knowing that there was a fixed budget that we simply couldn’t go over.

“From the outset, everyone was committed – there has been blood, sweat and tears poured into it, nobody has made any money but they all wanted to make it work. 

“That’s really humbling – it shows there’s a different economy at work, one where people do things because they are passionate and excited about them – when do you get the chance to roll a 12-tonne cube of steel by hand except on a project like this? 

“The bridge is the most significant structure here. The dock itself is important, but it’s no good if boats can’t get in and out – it’s a statement of intent that we are bold and ambitious here. 

“It’s our first really big commission, it puts a marker down and it raises our game – with 400 names of those involved in its construction engraved on it, it really is a bridge of the people.”

The structure rolls on a pair of tracks like a giant cog
The structure rolls on a pair of tracks like a giant cog

Thomas added: “I started designing the bridge seven years ago, so to finally see it in place is both surreal and great – really amazing,” said Thomas.

“It’s better than I’d hoped. Cake Industries, who fabricated it, have been really helpful. There’s been so much goodwill in the whole team – a really collaborative and open process.

“Everyone felt like this was a project we really have to get right. It’s something special.”

So there you have it – a £260,000 bridge that will officially open later this year and last for the next 125.

It’s both a testament to the whole project’s collaborative nature and a gateway to a future that’s looking especially bright at present, with a the construction of a new visitors’ centre and a wash block already underway. 

With repair of the dock wall progressing and pilings in place at its far end too, GDP can now plan to re-flood the dock, creating residential moorings and a dry dock facility on-site.

Cody Dock is always looking for volunteers and companies to help it achieve its aims – you can find our more here.

When fully inverted, the bridge allows taller ships underneath
When fully inverted, the bridge allows taller ships underneath

Read more: Artist creates pieces for Pride Month across Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Bow: Why Cody Dock is determined to raise funds for next phase of its visitors centre

Gasworks Dock Partnership sets target of £250k plus VAT to complete transformational project

GDP CEO Simon Myers at Cody Dock
GDP CEO Simon Myers at Cody Dock – image Matt Grayson

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Cody Dock has been in a constant state of evolution since the Gasworks Dock Partnership (GDP) began its regeneration project there a decade ago.

Its rolling bridge scheme, an important piece of the puzzle that will ultimately enable the re-flooding and reopening of the dock itself, is due to start construction next year. Huge improvements seem tantalisingly close. 

Structured as a social enterprise, GDP has accomplished the remarkable clearance of the dock and site, both piled high with rubbish, rubble and industrial waste through the tireless labour and commitment of thousands of volunteers. 

Each of these participants has given their time and energy in pursuit of improving the site on the banks of the Lea to provide a lasting, sustainable legacy for both Newham residents and visitors to the area.

As work to repair the dock’s brickwork and to remove the polluted silt that’s built up over the years continues apace, permanent washblock and toilet facilities are set to arrive in the coming months to better service volunteers’ needs and allow the area to become a base for watersports alongside its burgeoning community of studio-based craftspeople.

But it’s the planned visitors centre that will really become the heart of the site.

This structure is set to be built in two phases and will, when completely finished, contain a multi-purpose hall, an information point, a shop, a dining space, a cafe and a kitchen.

With funding already secured from Veolia Environmental Trust for the first section, which will house the hall, fundraising for £250,000 has now begun in earnest to see the centre completed.

An artist’s impression of the Rolling Bridge

“The second phase will really be the engine for Cody Dock,” said Simon Myers, GDP CEO since its creation.

“It’s central to our plans as it will support activities in the main venue space and includes a large canteen and a home for a community cafe.

“The hall itself will have a capacity of about 150 seated but it’s multi-purpose, so it can be used as an intimate venue for theatre, for live performance or as a gallery or function space.

“It’s a single storey building but is triple height at the back, with a roof that’s perfectly angled for solar panels and we’ve just received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to install them to make the centre operationally carbon neutral.

“The reason phase two is important is that we have armies of volunteers here every day, so the canteen will give them protection from the elements when they’re having their lunch.

“It will be a place where people meet, whether they are tenants from our maker studios on-site, volunteers or just people who are visiting.

“Having that communal, social space is where conversations happen between people who don’t know each other. It will unlock the potential of the community that lives, works and visits here quite significantly.

“There will also be a reception area that will act as a staffed information point. We’re located halfway down The Line sculpture trail, so we have a lot of walkers coming through. We’re hoping this space will act as a visitor space for the Lea, especially the tidal section of the river, and it will be where a lot of our ecology activities take place.”

An artist’s impression of the new visitors centre

The second phase is also crucial in making Cody Dock financially sustainable in the longer term as it seeks to develop income streams that will fund its upkeep and ongoing operations.

“From the financial point of view, it’s what makes the venue – hopefully – self-sustaining, and that’s our goal,” said Simon.

“We have a five-year plan, which we’re nearly two years into, to make the whole Cody Dock project self-sustaining so that we’re not reliant on having to fundraise.

“We have always set ourselves up to be a social enterprise with that goal and the venue will be funded by the income from the cafe itself.

“The other thing about the building is, while there will be a wall between the two phases, we’ll be able to fold that back to open the space right up, all the way through to the cafe.

“It’s also creating jobs as there will be a reception position and space for a shop, which will be another income stream for us.”

For more information or to contact GDP about donating to the second phase of the visitors centre, go to codydock.org.uk

  • With a host of things to do and see there’s always a good reason to visit Cody Dock.

The latest is the arrival of the Story Of Water exhibition on November 25 featuring sculptural pieces made by pupils from seven local schools in response to humanity’s impact on the environment.

The project saw the schools partner with counterparts in Ghana with the aim of improving the curriculum in both countries and enriching children’s education.

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