I last visited Barcelona in 1993. There I am in my Ride t-shirt on the hill just above Park Guell. It was a peculiar trip for reasons to banal for a blog but I was staying with a Historian who showed us around some of the Civil War sites. I’d recently studied Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia so that was the my main interest in the city – that and visiting the Nou Camp.
23 years later here’s my eldest son in more or less the same spot (the roof of the house just above the white van can be seen to my left in the photo from 1993). After the trip in ’93 I was due to start an MA at Birkbeck. Upon return to London I deferred my place on the course and in the end used the money I’d saved to pay for my fees to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. I met my wife in Sydney about 18 months later. Our first son was born about 10 years after that trip to Barcelona.
It was my son’s idea to go to Barcelona during the Easter holiday – I just needed to get out of the country somewhere and wanted to take one of the kids with me. He asked for a hotel by the beach with wifi in the room. I didn’t hold out great hopes for extensive sightseeing so was glad when he suggested going to look for the ‘Gaudi Park’ – Park Guell.
We had to wait 6 hours to get into the Gaudi bit of the park so my son suggested climbing to the top of El Carmel Hill. As we got higher and higher with each view surpassing the previous one it occurred to me that I hadn’t been this high up when I’d visited all those years ago – I wonder why not. But back then you just strolled into Park Guell, no queues and very few people inside the park.
Despite his astonishing achievements as an architect it’s sad that Gaudi’s most prominent biographical note is that when he was run over and killed outside his great work of the Sagrada Familia none of the passers-by recognised the iconic shaper of their city. That’s a bit rough on Gaudi – how many architects today would get recognised lying dead in the street?
Watching the surfers at Bogatell Beach reminded me of Sydney – a real urban beach where people step out from their daily life to catch a wave or two or lie and soak up some rays.
Towards the end of our short stay I coaxed my son into a look at the Gothic Quarter – but he was knackered and wasn’t buying it. ‘This is just like London’, he said. I was stumped, this couldn’t be less like London I replied. We were sitting in a small square on a bench. ‘It’s buildings and people walking past, it’s basically the same’. Like Bloomsbury I asked. ‘Yes, just not as big’. And you could see his point. It wasn’t as distinct as the rocky trail up El Carmel Hill or the clear blue water at Bogatell Beach. We went back to the hotel and ordered room service.
Be guided by your feet – or a river, road or canal. With the rain lashing down crossing the footbridge over the Link Road the prospects for a stroll did not look good so I fell upon old territory, some of the first streets I walked when I arrived in London as a callow 18-year.
Then the sun broke out over Upper Leytonstone and I followed the old byways along the Leytonstone/Leyton border to Abbotts Park, past the new Exchange development to Leyton Cricket Ground where I imagined I was watching Essex play Australia in 1905. Squinting you can see back to the workers excavating the remains of a Roman villa in the grounds of Leyton Grange back in the 18th Century, until of course the cars come hooning round Church Road.
The 491 Gallery now lies in a pile of rubble between Grove Green Road and the M11 Link Road. It’s been sad to walk past and see it come down day-by-day – from the wooden hoardings going up a couple of months ago, watching the roof beams carried out and placed on a trailer, to the final bricks being knocked down on Tuesday.
I did Life Drawing classes on a Monday night in that room that hangs from the edge of the building in this photo. I bought two hand-built bird boxes that hang in my garden for a fiver there as well. Where there is a pile of bricks below I went to an all day gig where people watched the bands slouched on bean bags and cushions. The 491 was a very chilled out place in my experience.
For a ‘post-link road’ Leytonstoner such as myself, the 491 Gallery was a link to the spirit of former times. A vestige of the period when Leytonstone had the largest population of artists in Europe although it dates from after the road it is a legacy of it. The building had been used as a storage facility for the building of the Link Road. Previous to that it had been a factory that built safes. The demolition guys carrying out the heavy roof beams said to me there was still an enormous safe inside that they had to get out somehow.
This kind of squatted social space links back to the London I knew when I first came to live here in 1989 and is slowly fading away. There are groups that still operate social spaces, sometimes in conjunction with the property owners using meanwhile leases, but they are necessarily temporary without time to grow roots into the community. The 491 Gallery was a real presence in the Leytonstone community and it’s very sad to see it go to be replaced with yet another uniform block of flats.
Rest in Peace 491 Gallery may your spirit live on.
I’d just walked onto The Strand from Waterloo Bridge with Gerry King after recording a radio show for Resonance fm when we noticed something was afoot. No traffic was moving westwards. None. I was about to pontificate on how Canterbury Pilgrims used to stop and water their horses here at a stone trough when we heard the clatter of horses hooves on the road and a procession of mounted guardsmen rode past. That is an odd sight in 21st Century London. Odder still was that they were followed by soldiers in white transit vans one of which was sitting in the middle of the front seat holding a gleaming silver sword.
The only explanation I can find for this unscheduled show of 18th Century military might (and out-of-place transit vans) is that US President Barack Obama is visiting London on Friday and this somehow might impress him, as if we were a colonial backwater preparing for the visit of imperial functionary. Oh god, that does sound too accurate doesn’t it. Anyway the guards looked nice in their shiny armour and nice hats.
I’d toyed around for a while with the idea of walking the Central Line Loop that cleaves off after Leytonstone and skirts the Roding Valley through Redbridge. Initially I’d spoken to some fellow travelers about some kind of Redbridge modernist architecture walk before we realized that many of the buildings were either the Central Line stations or close by.
So on a cloudy day during the Easter School Holidays when I was looking for an excursion the idea re-presented itself and off I went. From previously taking random journeys to stations on the loop I’d noticed the different character to the areas along the line once you left Wanstead and headed through Redbridge – from there through to Hainault had a post-war feel, more working class than the old West Essex ambiences of Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Buckhurst Hill, Epping. The Central Line Loop feels like a displaced satellite of the East End as opposed to say Loughton or Theydon Bois which clearly have Essex in their DNA. But that’s just my projection, although Hainault was mostly built but the GLC after the war and Barkingside became home to a large section of London’s East End Jewish population – so there is some substance to this ‘vibe’ emanating from the redbrick.
When undertaking a set expedition with a designated beginning and end I nearly always leave home too late to complete the walk in daylight. This gave the walks in This Other London an added jeopardy as there was often a location that I needed light to see properly and document. And so it was again – although it only takes 26 minutes to travel round the Loop by Tube I estimated it was roughly 11 miles and with detours and time for photos etc could take me around 4 hours to walk.
Although I pass them every day the Hitchcock mosaics took on added significance when putting them into the context of this yomp – they are one of Leytonstone’s very few recognizable attractions, its almost solitary tribute to its famous son Alfred Hitchcock, but other than that you’ll find little else. I’ve made the point before that when I’ve told Americans about my home suburb’s claim to fame and how little is made of it they are astonished – were ‘Hitch’ from just about anywhere in the States they tell me, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 5 yards without ducking under animatronic Birds, every second window would sport Psycho silhouettes and there’d by jowl-faced masks and Hitchcock director’s chairs in just about every shop in the high street. The mosaics are beautiful though as is the mural on the building near the Jet garage that replaced the building on the High Road where he grew up.
At Wanstead I stop to admire not only the design of the station but have a gander at the crudely painted murals that I’ve never taken much notice of before – Make Art Not War one says.
The footbridge over the Eastern Avenue has great views of some of the terrain ahead, offering a vista across the Roding Valley, that river fast becoming my favourite of London’s watercourses (the submerged Fille Brook still has the edge but it’s neck and neck with the Lea).
Walking beside the A12 Eastern Avenue is brutal – a heavy metal assault upon body and soul, a full-frontal confrontation with autogeddon.
Sandwiched between the pollution caked houses at the roadside between Redbridge and Gants Hill I spot a tall red brick monolith radiating mystery. It’s just sat there between bow-windowed semis trying not to attract attention as if it must hide some secret project. I remark as much in the video I record. Just now I received a comment on the video on YouTube with a link to an excellent article on Ian Visits who researched the history of the building and another on Cambridge Avenue in Wanstead. During the Second World War this section of the Central Line was used as a secret munitions factory and the monolith was a goods lift and now functions as a ventilation shaft. Despite shedding its top secret status in 1945 it can’t leave behind the air of wartime secrecy like a spy who never came in from the cold.
By the time I reached Gants Hill the steady rain had hardened into hail stones that bounced off the paving slabs. Charles Holden’s tiled subterranean tunnels leading into and around the station beneath the roundabout provided shelter before I had to plough on in the storm. There is a strong similarity between the parades of shops at Gants Hill and the other Central Line station buried beneath a roundabout at Hanger Lane – its cousin out towards the western end of the Central Line – designed by a former employee of Holden’s studio.
I was wet and miserable by the time I took in the Ilford War Memorial Gardens and took shelter in another of the Loop’s architectural masterpieces – Newbury Park Bus Station which was honoured with a medal at the Festival of Britain in 1951. I pushed on regardless.
The bend of Oaks Lane was matched by a glorious rainbow rising behind Aldborough Hatch Farm, sunlight broke through the clouds. The A12 felt like a bad dream as I walked the country lane past barns and farm machinery – the walking gods rewarded my persistence through the rain and hail.
At Barkingside the Central Line hugs one side of Fairlop Waters Golf Course so I took the opportunity to stick with the green space. Bluebells nodding in the shade of the trees lining the fairway hiding stray golf balls.
The sun was starting to set as I came out on Forest Road near Fairlop Station – it would be dark by the time I reached Chigwell if not before.
I turned off the road past Ilford Wanderers Rugby Club coming out near Hainault Station. It was then into a grid of peddle-dashed streets where it is always Sunday. I rested in a bus shelter opposite open fields in the last of the light near Grange Hill Station.
The footpath running along Chigwell Cemetery looked like a good prospect on the map – a twilit holloway, but after 20 yards I was ankle deep in mud. The path skirted a farm field with a solitary tree on the brow of the hill, the purple sky invoking memories of the ends of childhood walks with my Dad.
I crossed the Central Line over a caged metal footbridge and into the Essex Golden Triangle bound for Chigwell and the last of the loop. That colourful moniker was foisted on the zone between Chigwell, Loughton and Buckhurst Hill in the 1980’s when the dominant cultural association was the popular sitcom Birds of Feather before TOWIE dragged the epicenter of Essex bling further East to Brentwood. The area worked its weirdness frying my navigational sense as I managed to turn back on myself and halfway to Hainault in the pitch black. It was a fortunate accident as I was presented with a spectacular view from a park on the edge of an estate looking Westwards across north London – the twinkling lights of the Lea Valley and beyond like the Los Angeles basin viewed from the Hollywood Hills.
The Chigwell mansions were inscrutable in the darkness save for the odd illuminated sweeping staircase. The station platform glowed sodium yellow from the bridge. It was apparent the walk was up. The route to Roding Valley wasn’t clear on the OS map – a truncated lane that could lead to an unmarked footpath but could equally become a dead end. The alternative was a huge detour by road that seemed to defeat the object of following the train line. One stop short (or two depending on whether you consider Woodford part of the Loop) seemed cruel, but sitting on the platform waiting 15 minutes for the next tube I thought of Bill Bryson quitting his 2000 mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike at the beginning of the last short leg in the 100-mile Wilderness. That blank portion of the OS map between Chigwell and Roding Valley was my 100-mile Wilderness.
The next morning I realized I had to go back and complete the walk – it should only take an hour I figured. Instead of returning to Chigwell by tube I walked from Hainault where the train terminated. The transition from Hainault’s postwar ‘Homes for Heroes’ to Chigwell’s ‘City Boy Bling Villas’ was more noticeable in daylight. Pensioners having a chat with the council workers mowing the grass verge gave way to locked gates and warnings that private security were on patrol. The same company seemed to be protecting all the houses in Chigwell and I noticed one of their vans slide past me as I took a photo of their sign embedded in a hedge.
Luxborough Lane crossed the brutal M11 – the road that broke the heart of Leytonstone. To walk out of London is to cross a series of arterial roads and motorways – the North Circular, the M11, the M25. London is encased in this halo of pollution that we live within. To finally break through this asphalt collar into open country is a liberating experience.
The lane was a classic edgeland landscape – water treatment works, waste disposal, some run-down old cottages forgotten by time and then the river Roding with the Central Line passing overhead on a majestic brick viaduct. This pattern is repeated all around the outskirts of London – motorway/A-Road, scrubland, public utilities, water, train tracks.
This point on the Roding has been the end and beginning of two previous walks along the river – my Huckleberry Finn riverbank. From here it’s across the Rugby pitch and up to Roding Valley Station – the station so slight and discrete it almost isn’t there. The last of the stations solely on the Central Line Loop – but not the end of the walk.
It’s a short distance to Woodford along a straight suburban street that would be nondescript if it weren’t for the fine views it afforded across the Roding Valley at every cross street and break between the houses.
It’s a sultry afternoon and I seemed to have been walking in the rain for the last couple of weeks so I decide to walk on home to Leytonstone turning the loop into a straight-sided ‘O’.
Although the character changes on this branch of the line it’s still marked with some modernist architectural gems – the Odeon Cinema at South Woodford and Hermitage Court near Snaresbrook. The tiling on the underpass beneath the North Circular Road not only matches that at Gants Hill but also out West at the Hanger Lane gyratory, some design features that knit the city together.
The old coaching inn – The Eagle is already filling up and a trickle of commuters are starting to dribble out of Snaresbrook Station. I pay homage to the High Stone marking the return to ‘Leyton-atte-Stone’ and slide back down through the passages beneath the Green Man Roundabout to a table at the Wetherspoons and a pint of pale ale from Leyton.
The other week Earls Court Area Action Group laid on a colourful Victorian themed to protest against the planned destruction of Empress Place and two adjacent pubs. Thankfully the Prince of Wales pub has been given ACV listing which should give it some protection but the architecturally and culturally important street of terraced housing in Empress Place is under serious threat. I went along with my camera to make a record of events and help spread the word.
What seemed like a gentle morning stroll turned into a minor epic. The plan was simple, meet Gerry King at Whitechapel at 11am and go for a wander round the area for a couple of hours. Maybe it was the initial shock of the transformation of Whitechapel High Street around the old station entrance – I was only there a couple of months ago but already the beautiful 1911 statue has been removed and the old entrance closed for works.
Stepney is one of the ancient districts of East London – the name is said to be of Saxon origin and is recorded in the Domesday Book. It was part of the huge tract of land owned by the Bishop of London that stretched from the City to the Lea. It became a place of manor houses in Elizabethan times then the country retreats of City merchants. There are still some grand houses around Stepney Green and also some fine social housing blocks – one of which Gerry speculated had the look of what was known as 4% housing.
Crossing the Mile End Road puts you in the zone of the river – descending into Thameside marshlands and traffic bound for tunnels and docklands.
We passed the site where Doctor Bernardo set up his first children’s home. Round the corner, just behind St. Dunstan’s, we stumbled upon a left-behind street of small Georgian terraced houses with some of the old shop fronts.
We passed through the site of the Stepney Gas Works demolished in 2004 with the feet of one of the Victorian gasometers left as a feature in the landscaping. This led us to the canal and a decision point – to head across Mile End park and on to Bow Back Rivers or follow the canal towards the river. We opted for the latter purely on the basis that it offered a more realistic prospect of food.
We had lunch in the Museum of London Docklands before Gerry had to head off. It started raining, we’d had a good walk and I could easily have made my way home. But with a free afternoon I felt duty bound to plough on.
I never feel comfortable around Canary Wharf – maybe because my long hair and beard, general dishevelled appearance brings me unwelcome attention amongst the massed ranks of uniform suits and uniform inscrutable faces. I prefer it on Sunday afternoons when the financial workers are back out in the commuter belt or passing through the neon lit skyline on the DLR at night. But I had a long mooch around the underground shopping mall waiting for the rain to ease, which it didn’t so I pushed on anyway.
I was shooting some video of the underside of the railway bridge with my pocket camera when I heard an inquisitive high-pitched, ‘Hello Sir, hello sir’, I tried to ignore it but it wouldn’t stop. I turned to see a smiling security guard looking at me, a member of the large private army patrolling the fiefdom of Canary Wharf. They seem to have chosen a uniform that is confusingly similar to a standard police uniform – bearing in mind that they could wear anything, why not take a lead from the world’s most famous private security force, the Vatican’s Swiss Guard and wear red velvet with great plumes of feathers sticking out of your head. But private security firms in London seem to have a penchant for imitating the legitimate force of law and order in London – the Metropolitan Police. Are these people who were too short of too flat footed to make the actual Force?
‘Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing?’
I told her
‘Do you mind if I have a look at your photos?’
I said that I did
‘Could I have a look anyway?’
‘You can but I’m not deleting anything’, I said
I deliberately scrolled back to the beginning of the walk in Whitechapel and talked her through each shot of the entire walk.
‘Oooo they’re nice photos’, she said
‘Why did you ask to look?’, I said
‘In case you’re taking pictures of the CCTV cameras and security arrangements’
‘And what if I was – you can’t make me delete them’. She didn’t answer. And off she went.
It feels like a form of low-level harassment – a gentle reminder that this is private property and that you’re being watched. What it actually makes me want to do is return with my big camera and photograph every CCTV camera in Canary Wharf.
I tried to shake it off and retreated from this citadel of corporatised global capital along the pulsing Limehouse Link Road, rain lashing down, slicing through clouds of pollution like hacking through mangrove swamp.
Eventually I stumbled into East India Dock Basin reclaimed as Salt Marsh – a fitting sorbet to wash away the nasty aftertaste of Docklands. The exit leads to Orchard Place and Trinity Buoy Wharf. Jem Finer’s Longplayer installation in the Lighthouse is closed, I mooch about a bit before standing over one of the most sacred spots in London – the confluence of the River Lea with the Thames.
In London on the Thames (1924), H. Ormsby puts forward the idea that there was a significant port at the mouth of the Lea that formed part of a communication route with Europe until the Romans built their port further up the river in what we today think of as a the heart of London – but in the Bronze and Iron Ages this site may well have been the centre of power in the nascent city.
You could possibly trace the current blitz of rapacious property development in London back to the flood of government cash poured into the Lower Lea Valley for the 2012 Olympics. Ken Livingstone openly admitted the motive for hosting the Olympics was to encourage foreign in investment into East London. From here, the bonanza of overseas money from pension funds, oligarchs, state investment funds, banks, gangsters, dictators, drug dealers, and hedge funds has spread out through the rest of London like a zombie virus. So in a way the Lower Lea Valley is once again the driving force in the changing nature of London.
The iconic pylons straddle the river near the flyover. The Lea Valley fans out from this spot. In the 10 years of living in Leytonstone I have only recently developed a regional identity attached to the Lea Valley. When I first moved out here Waltham Abbey seemed like a distant provincial outpost – Holborn and Islington where more my stomping grounds. Now my homing instincts draw me towards Waltham and beyond – into the forest that tops the valley.
I try to follow the river north but soon find myself having to weave in and out of the City Island construction site. The workers finishing their shift are wary of the camera and give me a wide birth shooting furtive glances back in my direction. It’s still pissing down and I’m wet through and tired but I can’t allow this to be the end of the walk – it would feel as if New London, this private corporate London, had won. I plough on.
Eventually I find a gap in the security fencing screening off the river and make my way down to the path. Here is the ending I was seeking – standing beside the Lea, tall reeds swaying in the acid wind, the river running free and proud and just waiting for its moment to rise and reclaim the land we have foolishly appropriated for ourselves.