Exploring London on Foot talk at Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society

exploring london on foot john rogers

It was an enormous honour to be invited to give a public talk by the Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society last week. I joined the Society shortly after moving to Leytonstone and still have a binder containing editions of their brilliant ‘Understone’ newsletter. It was however pointed out to me on the night that I allowed my membership to lapse some years ago.

John Rogers film screening Leytonstone

We had a full house in St. John’s Church Hall for my talk on ‘Exploring London on Foot’, which I’d deliberately left vague enough to allow me to talk about pretty much anything. So I ranged from The Situationists to Alfred Watkins as an introduction to my walks with Iain Sinclair. And I managed to stray along the A40 to talk about the Remapping High Wycombe project I did with my sister Cathy between 2004-05, where I first applied some of the ideas about walking that I’d been thinking about for a number of years.

Fringe of London Gordon S. Maxwell

It also gave me an opportunity to emphasise the influence of the inter-war topographical writers on my work, Gordon S. Maxwell’s The Fringe of London being one of the most significant in spelling out a credo to which I still adhere:

“The border-line between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
The former, in either case, is but a grander name for practically the same thing. I mean the outdoor part of topography, not the many hunts in the land of books that usually follows later.”

“The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.”

 – Gordon S. Maxwell – The Fringe of London, 1925

geographia london atlas 1955

It was great to be able to enthuse to an audience about the everyday wonders that await on our doorsteps – whole other worlds just around the street corner. As Pathfinder wrote in 1911, ‘Adventure begins at home’.

Walking in the Snow on Wanstead Flats

The overnight arrival of snow was announced early on Sunday morning by the excited screeching of my youngest son. I was initially less enthusiastic as I’d hope to head out on a long walk – perhaps even venture across the river, but a quick glance at the TfL website confirmed that a mere layer of snow had taken out several tube and train lines.

Snowman on Wanstead Flats

Just after midday, with my GoPro fully charged and the kids thawing out in front of the telly after a vicious backgarden snowball fight, I set out over Wanstead Flats. This has been my default location when it snows – the open expanses shielded by perimeter trees conducive to trapping in the snowfall – unlike the surrounding streets where it quickly turns into a grey sludge.

Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers Leytonstone

The football pitches on the Leytonstone side had the goal posts set out in anticipation of Sunday morning matches but the field was dominated by a squad of snowmen.

Louds squeals and hollers went up from a mound of the Alexandra Lake near Aldersbrook where families sledged down to the waters edge. Flocks of birds swooped in for whole slices of bread. Others took advantage of frozen pontoons to rest on the body of the lake.

Snow on Wanstead Flats

As the light faded towards the 3.50pm sunset the temperature dropped another degree or two so that the cold sought out those gaps around the edge of your clothing. I trudged over more snow cloaked football pitches and eventually to the path leading through Bush Wood from where I watched the twinkling lights of the distant city skyline foregrounded by Leytonstone’s iconic Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers.

Barrage balloon posts Wanstead Flats

WW2 Barrage balloon posts

Last night brought rain instead of snow. The kids didn’t get the hoped for day off school and as we made our way along the road this morning, we looked out for forlorn patches of the icy crystals that were the only remnants of winter wonderland of yesterday.

Alexandra Lake Wanstead Flats snow

Heathcote Arms Leytonstone triumphant rebirth as the Heathcote and Star

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

fantastic food, great local beer … and neon – the Heathcote is back!

I used to love the old Heathcote Arms like a trusted, loyal friend. It was who I could turn to when things were bad and celebrate with in the good times. But mostly it was a place I could slump in a corner with a pint, packet of crisps and a pile of books. Often I was so relaxed I’d be nearly horizontal with a belly elaborately embroidered with a mosaic of crisp fragments. It was where I did most of the research for my book, This Other London, in the corner room which was empty most nights by 10.30 when I’d arrive. You could spread out books and maps across two tables and let the creative juices be lubricated by cheap ale.

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

Selection of canned & bottled Beer at the Heathcote and Star

But then it closed 3 years ago, bought by property developers to be turned into flats and its fate looked sealed. A valiant and spirited campaign followed, it was listed as an Asset of Community Value, and now finally it is fully back in business (I’m skipping over the bit when the developers put in a manager for a limited time).

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

This isn’t merely a re-boot but a full-scale resurrection with Electric Star Pubs taking out a 20 year lease on the Heathcote and pumping buckets of cash into a total refurb. Last week’s packed and thumping launch party wasn’t the time to make a proper judgement, my first reaction being that it was a bit Nathan Barley, and thinking I’d title this post ‘The New Heathcote – it’s ‘Totally Mexico’. And it is ‘Totally Mexico’ but not in the sense of a Hoxditch boozer selling Dutch wine.

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

The Electric Star team are pulling out all the stops to make this a pub for everyone, no easy feat, a true community hub – a place where I could slouch in a corner planning suburban explorations and muttering to myself beside a table full of toddlers chucking mash potato around, while wannabe Instagrammers struggle to get the perfect food-porn shot. Or if you’re really square, a nice place to meet friends and neighbours for a drink.

Heathcote and Star We Serve Humans burgers

Mini sample burgers

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone food

Buffalo Chicken with strong kick of English Mustard

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone food

Heathcote and Star We Serve Humans burgers

The function room where we were presented with samples of the well-measured menu will be free of charge to community groups – which is a fantastic resource. There’s a games room out the back with pool and table-tennis. Live footy on the telly with big screen events planned. There’s a huge garden. The ale selection is spot on with beers from Leyton breweries Signature Brew and East London Brewery with Camden Hells Pale on keg. And bloody hell the food is great. The burgers by Paul Human are incredible, the Buttermilk Chicken is crispy and well seasoned, in fact the tucker is so tasty that the vegan option of Cowboy Beans even had me scraping the plate clean. And the staff are really friendly and helpful too, they look happy to be there.

Heathcote and Star Leytonstone food

Cowboy Beans (vegan)

Signature Brew at Heathcote and Star Leytonstone

I even found myself back in there Saturday night with the place packed again, punters arriving in taxis, bumping into neighbours at the bar, burgers flying out of the kitchen, post-mortem of the Arsenal match on the TV. It might even inspire me to crack on and finish my next book.

Leytonstone on BBC London Robert Elms Show ‘Round Your Manor’

BBC London Robert Elms John Rogers Leytonstone

It was a real pleasure to go on the Robert Elms Show on BBC London yesterday to talk about the wonders of Leytonstone as part of the ‘Round Your Manor’ feature. There was a great response from Leytonstonians online to Robert’s request for information about the area – he was particularly amused to hear that Fanny Craddock had lived in Leytonstone.

You can listen again to the show here on the BBC iPlayer (I come in at about 1hr 38mins)

The Heathcote Arms Leytonstone to re-open in October

Heathcote Arms Leytonstone

Great news at last regarding our beloved Heathcote Arms in Leytonstone. The Electric Star Group have taken out a 20-year lease on the pub and are investing £500,000 to get the pub open by the end of October.

It’s been grim walking past this sacred watering hole every day seeing it empty and neglected for the last 6 months but you knew that somebody would see the potential to restore this legendary boozer to, well I can’t honestly say its former glory but at least a pub once again.

Electric Star have a great roster of pubs in East London including the Leyton Star (shame they changed the name though from the King Harold removing a visible reminder of the last Anglo-Saxon king’s strong links to the area). Their other pubs include The Star of Bethnal Green, The Star by Hackney Downs, and The Last Days of Shoreditch. I believe the Heathcote will become the Heathcote-Star.

Last week Rob and Steve from Electric Star told a community meeting at the pub their plans for the Heathcote which include a function room, big screen sports, pool and arcade games, upstairs hotel accomodation, food, and locals discount scheme. It will also be kid and dog friendly. Other Star pubs have hosted live music so I guess this might be in the plans for their Leytonstone branch. There certainly used to be great live music and comedy nights at the Heathcote so it would be fantastic to see this return.

Heathcote Arms campaign

photo from the Waltham Forest Guardian

The re-opening of the Heathcote is another great example of what can happen when a community comes together. When it initially closed in 2014 after being sold by Stonegate to property developers many people assumed that it would simply be converted into flats like so many other pubs in London. But a wide cross-section of the community came together (some of whom had never even been in the pub) to launch a campaign and get the Heathcote listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). Local MP John Cryer gave his unwavering support, CAMRA (particularly James Watson) joined the cause, and Waltham Forest Council adopted a pub protection policy. And now we have our pub back.

Great work to everyone involved in making this happen. See you for a pint in the Heathcote Arms in October.

**********

Update: November 2017

Read my review of the Heathcote and Star here

Waves of Disappearance: cinematic topographies of the North Eastern frontier

This is an article I wrote at the end of 2006 for University of East London’s Journal of East London Studies – Rising East 6. Tonight’s Ian Bourn programme at Close Up seems a good time to republish.

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“Geographically Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel, nor is it the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s like anything it is the urethra of London.”
—Lenny’s Documentary’, Ian Bourn (1978)

Leytonstone Houses

Not long after I moved to Leytonstone I found myself transfixed by the view from the small window in my bathroom. It was a fairly non-descript panorama of the red-tiled rooftops of terraced houses, chimney pots, and in the distance, poking out from behind a tree, a large slab-like tower block. At times I found myself gazing at it for long periods. It felt somehow both exotic and familiar at the same time. Eventually the penny dropped.
John Smith’s film The Black Tower charts a man’s mental collapse as he believes he is being pursued around his neighbourhood by an ominous black tower that seems to appear looming above the roof-line as he goes about his daily business. A detail in the landscape leads to an odyssey, an obsession, and ultimately oblivion. As his tries to escape we traverse the streets of workaday Leytonstone. The humorous, laconic narrative guides us through the man’s psyche whilst we see the seasons change on the street outside, hear ice-cream vans, kids ride tricycles along the pavement, tree surgeons lop a lime tree. Smith establishes a steady rhythm of locked-off shots, lush and perfectly framed. The tower ultimately consumes the narrator, trapped inside its black walls.

The film is a testament to the power that fine details in the landscape can have over the imagination. As a filmic dérive, it achieves the aim identified by Greil Marcus of revealing “the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience”. The Black Tower’ produces a mental topography of Leytonstone that colonises your imagination.

John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films Home Suite, a video love poem to his home of 12 years.

Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues Home Suite presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet, then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.

In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in Twickenham Road where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.

All that remains of the side of the street where Smith lived in Colville Road is a long brick wall half-heartedly buffering the deafening drone of the Link Road. At one end the motorway signboard showing the way out to Chelmsford, casts a shadow over a row of newly built hermetically sealed bungalows of the sort that would make John Prescott beam. Claremont Road exists only as a street sign where a large billboard above advertises the new Ford Ranger 4×4 as if to rub the road protestors’ noses in their defeat.

Colville Road Leytonstone

Colville Road Leytonstone

The dying days of Colville Road are also captured in a more formal piece of work, Blight. Still using the style of lushly composed static shots, Smith collaborated with composer and fellow Leytonstonian Jocelyn Pook to create a soundtrack of residents’ reminiscences. We watch the house next to Smith’s being carefully, almost gently demolished, as bricks are dislodged by hand, wooden beams lifted off, the house is forensically dismembered.

This act of disappearance offers a brief moment of revelation as exterior walls are removed to lay bare a private realm, an Exorcist mural revealed on a bedroom wall. The pile of rubble that is left is reminiscent of images of wartime bomb damage – this peacetime blitz accounts for more houses in Leytonstone than the Doodlebugs that landed here. With the mood music this film becomes an elegy for a dilapidated dwelling, a more meditative form of protest than the barricades and tree camps in Claremont Road round the corner.

John Smith’s films not only capture this uncelebrated landscape in loving detail but are also a product of the spirit that prevailed in Leytonstone at that time. Cornelia Parker met Smith in 1984:
“Leytonstone at that time was a great place to be. A thriving community of artists lived in dilapidated houses that were due to be demolished for the promised M11 Link Road…..The cheap rents and abundance of space created a fertile breeding ground for ideas. Cross-pollinations and collaborations abounded, ground-breaking works given birth to – creativity thrived under the threat of imminent eviction.”

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

The hub of this E11 avant-garde was The Northcote Arms on Grove Green Road. Whilst similar bare-knuckle boozers were the haunt of East End ‘faces’ and Saturday football firms, The Northcote played host to Smith, Parker, Graeme Millar and Ian Bourn.

Like Smith’s, Ian Bourn’s films are rooted in the psychogeography of Leytonstone. His first major work, Lenny’s Documentary, is an acerbic, drink-fuelled monologue on the nature of the area. The film opens with the caption: “11pm, Leytonstone…..” Lenny lines up a row of beer cans on his desk, cracks one open and slurs out: “Gateway to the East”. He abuses imaginary people off-screen. Captions read “5 minutes later…”, “2 minutes…..” Each time he appears progressively more drunk. He talks of taking pot-shots with an air-rifle at old ladies and arseholes from the top of his high-rise block. “This is where my friends and I have tolerated our existence for far too long. Where small changes have devastating effects”. Pre-empting Smith’s tale of E11-induced insanity, Lenny informs us: “…people here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”

Lenny finally escapes; we share his windscreen view as he drives up the High Road to the strains of Sinatra singing ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, and fades out at The Green Man Roundabout.

Eaton Park

Eaton Park 2006

The theme of change, decay, and disappearance is always with us. The next wave is on the way with the Olympic redevelopment just over the border in the Lower Lea Valley. The moment of calm before the storm is being captured by a new breed of topographical film-makers.

Following the success of their debut full length film, Finisterre, Paul Kelly and Bob Stanley set their follow-up in the Lower Lea Valley on the day after the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics. Kelly has described the film, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?’, as being like an obituary to the birthplace of the 20th Century. Stylistically it is similar to many of John Smith’s works, a style that influential born-again flaneur-film-maker Patrick Keiller has identified in the city films of the early years of cinema, “ – the single, long takes; static camera or the phantom ride – “.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? uses the fictional device of a paper boy doing his rounds who allows his sense of curiosity lead him on a journey through the ruination of an area that gave the world plastic and petrol. A radio news bulletin establishes the time and place, 7th July 2005, a day of national celebration and disaster. “The Lea Valley. A river runs through it. You can catch a Kingfisher if you’re lucky. Catch it while you can, it’s all gonna go”, narrates Canning Town’s David Essex.

Paul Kelly’s camerawork frames this blighted landscape in all its rusting glory. The wide skies calling to mind more epic landscapes of Russia and Outback Australia. Aerial shots of the Stratford skyline predicting the mini-City that is to come. A Geoffrey Fletcher-esque recording of small features such as letterboxes, drainpipes, and graffiti (Fletcher was fond of gas lighting and the fittings in public lavatories). Quick flashes of street signage – Pudding Mill Lane, Marshgate Lane Industrial Area. Derelict red-brick factories manage to look like the ruins of ancient Rome as Mervyn cycles past on his rounds; paperboys themselves being an anachronism.
Mervyn Day’ neither condemns the Olympic dream in the name of misguided nostalgia, nor does it bury the past.

As Mervyn gazes across the Thames at the Millennium Dome the warning is clear enough, but as the narration reminds us “The Lea Valley has always been about change”. In calling forth the memory of the Bryant and May Matchgirls’ strike that arguably gave birth to the Labour Party, it also reminds us that these brick and corrugated tin behemoths were engines of oppression as much as technological progress. Ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide whether London’s last wilderness would be better off without the Olympic circus.

These films are united in being subjective responses to the changing topography of the city. Sympathetic witnesses to banality and dereliction; almost dutiful in their logging of the endangered landscape and culture of this end of East London.

Another instalment in the cinematic topography of the north-eastern frontier is currently being created as the towers of the Beaumont Estate that I see from my bathroom window, are now the stars of their own film; captured 24 hours a day on webcam – a real-time documentary of decay into regeneration, as they too slowly join the catalogue of disappearance.

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

References
1. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit


2. John Smith: Film and Video Works 1971-2002, Cornelia Parker, A.L. Rees, Nicky Hamlyn

3. In short: a guide to short film-making in the digital age, John Smith p.77-86


4. John Smith at www.luxonline.org.uk


5. Ian Bourn at www.luxonline.org.uk


6. London Calling, Frieze.com, Brian Dillion


7. Hymn to the East End, Daily Telegraph 26.11.05, Sukhdev Sandhu
© John Rogers 2006

Leytonstone A12

Long Live The Heathcote Arms 


The Heathcote Arms on Grove Green Road, Leytonstone is closed once more, two years after it reopened following its initial closure in September 2014. The pub was bought by property developers Equity Estates whose plans to part-demolish and build Flats was thwarted by the pub’s status as an Asset of Community Value and Waltham Forest Council’s pub protection plan. I’ve been told by people in the industry that a number of pub operators offered to buy the Heathcote from Equity Estates but were quoted unrealistically inflated prices.

The Heathcote has the potential to be a great pub once more, Waltham Forest can ill afford to lose any more pubs. Let’s hope the Council continue their policy of opposing pub conversions and this building returns to the community as soon as possible.