Railway Walk Odyssey with World War 2 Bomb Gospel Oak to Perivale

To celebrate the re-opening of the Barking to Gospel Oak line (albeit with the original two carriage trains that were running on the line before its temporary closure last year for conversion to 4 carriage trains) I decided to hop on a train at Leyton Midland Road Station to Gospel Oak. The plan from there was to walk a section of the railway from Hampstead Heath to Willesden Junction that we somehow missed from the London Overground film I made with Iain Sinclair.

The nightwalk I filmed with Iain and Andrew Kotting ended for me at Hampstead Heath, having walked up from Haggerston. Iain and Andrew continued round the 33-mile circuit through the night finishing at 10 the next morning. The station is closed today. A 500lb World War Two German bomb had been discovered on a building site near the tracks and had closed the line from Camden Road to Willesden Junction.

Billy Fury Way Finchley

Between Hampstead Heath and Finchley Road and Frognal Stations the Overground runs through a tunnel bored through the heart of the hill. I pass the site of the great composer Edward Elgar’s house and at Finchley Road progress along Billy Fury Way – although unlike Elgar, the 1950’s Rock’n’Roller seems to have a tenuous connection to the area, from what I can find it amounts to occasionally recording at the nearby Decca Studios.

WW2 Bomb Brondesbury Willesden Lane

People mill around at West Hampstead and Brondesbury Stations, trying to plot alternative transport routes with the line still closed. Then at Willesden Lane and Winchester Avenue I come to the police tape closing off the road. The bomb is about 100 yards away beneath a crane of a building site. Everybody has been evacuated from a large area spanning from Brondesbury to Queens Park. Several schools have been closed. There are a group of around 5 or 6 people speaking to the solitary policeman asking when they might be able to go back to their homes. One old man stands stock still on the wrong side of the tape telling the police officer that he doesn’t have anywhere else to go and no family or friends to call. A lady from the Council arrives shortly and takes him off to a refuge Brent Council have set up for residents from the evacuated area. Cars pull up to the road block then turn round and head back down Willesden Lane. It is a surreal scene.

Willesden Junction

I move on through Paddington Old Cemetery and Queens Park, past Kensal Rise Station and arrive tired at Willesden Junction where the London Overground filming resumed with a walk around the area in the company of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit.

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I could end the walk here, neatly filling in a gap of my Overground circuit a year too late but can feel an extra couple of miles in my feet. I head up Harlesden High Street and then turn west into the Park Royal Industrial Estate – the largest in London. Picking up the A40, a pang of childhood nostalgia that is associated with this road wells up. I grew up within its acoustic footprint some 20+ miles away in Buckinghamshire and this western edge of London was our idea of the big city.

Hoover Building Perivale

The Hoover Building is getting another make-over, from a Tesco megastore to luxury flats. The light fades to black. Tail lights on the incessant thrum of passing cars sparkle like Christmas lights. Time to head up to Perivale station and head home.

Northern Heights – Highbury to Hornsey

Highbury Fields – one of my favourite places in London, yeah I know, I have a lot of favourite places in London. It was here that Londoners sought refuge during the Great Fire of 1666 and watched the city below burn down. It still feels like a place of retreat from the madness of Highbury Corner and Holloway Road.

Passing the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower I stop to admire Aubert Court, a fine modernist block of flats designed by E C P Monson, who also built Islington Town Hall and numerous other public buildings and social housing across London from around 1895 – 1940. The flats occupy land that was once home to Highbury College of Dissenters, opened in 1825. Alexander Aubert, who gives his name to Aubert Court and Aubert Road was a wealthy stockbroker who owned a mansion and grounds in Highbury and most notably built an enormous observatory on one wing of Highbury House.

Highbury Clocktower

It is odd now to be able to wander around the perimeter of the old Arsenal pitch at Highbury – now Highbury Stadium Square, diminished by conversion to flats built into the stands, hard to recall being in here with 40,000 chanting fans.

I move on through Gillespie Road Nature Reserve and across Finsbury Park, feeling fatigued and wondering where to head next. The high ground of the Northern Heights draws me on towards Hornsey and to the corner shop made famous by the great ZomCom Shaun of the Dead. When I came here for one of the chapters in my book This Other London, I studied the scene in the film where Shaun wakes up on the day of the Zombie outbreak and, heavily hungover, walks across to the shop for a can of Diet Coke and a Cornetto. I then attempted to recreate single tracking shot with my point and shoot camera.

I stopped shooting my weekly YouTube video at this point and wander onto Crouch End Broadway where I pick up a History of Highbury pamphlet I first bought 20 years ago and lost, a book on Prehistoric England, and a copy of the Tales of King Arthur that I used to read in my Primary School Library.

 

Pudding Mill Lane, Sugar House Lane & IKEA City

Pudding Mill Lane

I hadn’t been back to Pudding Mill Lane on the edge of Stratford for at least a year and the area around Sugar House Lane for around 2, so I was keen to see what was happening there now.

Pudding Mill Lane Station is all slick and new, seemingly fully completed and you can now exit without walking through a tight tunnel of plastic fencing, although construction around the station appears to be still at an early stage of development.

 Marshgate Lane Stratford P1040006

The Lost River

Marshgate Business Centre is still intact – a final reminder of the old industrial Stratford. Digging out copies of ‘Your Park’ from 2007 & 2008, the glossy pamphlets that were dropped through our doors in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, there is an update in September 2007 about the relocation of newts from the Pudding Mill River before the river can be drained. It was ultimately filled in and I believe the Olympic Stadium was built on the site.

City Mill River

It is also curious to note that on a ‘Walk the Olympic Park’ map published in July 2007 the section of the City Mill River where it crosses Marshgate Lane is marked as the St Thomas Creek. The most detailed description I’ve found of the network of rivers that branch off from the River Lea once it passes through Leyton, is in a 1936 publication celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Borough of West Ham. ‘Fifty Years a Borough’ published by the County Borough Council West Ham, makes no mention of the St Thomas Creek, so it raises the question of where the Olympic Park cartographers got the name from.

 Danes Yard Stratford

The Ikea City

Crossing Stratford High Street I pass down Sugar House Lane into a vast building site. The former light industrial zone has been flattened to the ground. Diggers move back and forth flattening the muddy earth creating a blank slate from which the property development arm of flatpack furniture retail giant IKEA can build what has been dubbed as ‘IKEA City’. So far the only visible sign of what’s to come is a peculiar wicker-looking sculpture rising into the sky from Danes Yard. The rest of Strand East will consist of 1,200 new homes, workspaces and a designer hotel. Insert your own jokes here about allen keys and flatpack construction nightmares. One of the many security guards on site told me the ground preparation work will continue for another year before a 3 year building period.

Strand East Stratford London P1040102

Three Mills

I cross an iron bridge onto Three Mills Island where the Bow Creek, River Lea and Three Mills Wall River meet – an auspicious spot. Three Mills Studios continues to form a vital function in the London production sector and over recent years has been the location for Tim Burton animations, Big Brother, 28 Days Later, among others. In the week that London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to make London the most film-friendly city in the world the future of Three Mills must surely look bright.

Three Mills Island London P1040162

The Prescott Channel

The sunset attempts to crack through the hard cloud shell and signals that it’s time to head home. The path along the edge of Three Mills Green gives a final cross-section view of the Strand East site, the only two standing structures a late Victorian brick building and a tall chimney on the West of Sugar House Lane. The Prescott Channel branches off from the Three Mills Wall River at the far end of Three Mills Green and what appear to be geese make a noisy crash landing on the waterway startling a bunch of gently drifting ducks.

 

Somers Town – around Chalton Street

Churchway Somers Town NW1

After mid-morning coffee with a friend in Fitzrovia and a mooch in Park Cameras my feet led me to Somers Town, that uncanny zone between Euston and St. Pancras at the heart of the old Ossulstone Hundred.

“I will not declare that those who have not visited Somers Town have missed much. … At every street door women stand gossiping with each other, and others talk out of the windows; while others yet wheel perambulators along the pavements. There is much waste paper and other refuse in the roadway”

A Londoner’s Own London, Charles G. Harper

Written in 1927 Charles G. Harper was clearly not impressed with Somers Town, and neither was James Bone who described the area in his 1925 book The London Perambulator as a “debatable land”.

Churchway Somers Town NW1There were no ‘gossiping street door women’ on Friday lunchtime and I was drawn further into Somers Town by this beguiling remnant of former times, Churchway, that led to the front door of one of the area’s more well-known establishments, The Coffee House on Chalton St.

Somers Town Coffee House

In the 18th Century The Coffee House had been a popular meeting place for French refugees fleeing religious persecution:

“At this time the coffee-house was a popular place of resort, much frequented by the foreigners of the neighbourhood as well as by the pleasure-seeking cockney from the distant city. There were near at hand other public-houses and places of entertainment, but the speciality of this establishment was its coffee. As the traffic increased, it became a posting-house, uniting the business of an inn with the profits of a tea-garden. Gradually the demand for coffee fell off, and that for malt and spirituous liquors increased. At present the gardens are all built over, and the old gateway forms part of the modern bar; but there are in the neighbourhood aged persons who remember Sunday-school excursions to this place, and pic-nic parties from the crowded city, making merry here in the grounds.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878

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Chalton Street Market is in a post-Christmas slumber. The fabric trader I talk to says January is very quiet. Even so he has his full range of embroidered and sequined shawls and throws on display. I buy one that has been reduced to £2.

Charlton Street Market

Children’s clothes hanging from a metal rail flutter in the wind, a table is laid out with a mound of assorted clothes priced at 50p, loud reggae blares from the Crepe stall. In the 18th and 19th Centuries it had become a centre of small trades:

“At the end of the last century this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho. It may be added that, as the neighbourhood of Manchester and Portman Squares formed the head-quarters of the emigrés of the wealthier class who were thrown on our shores by the waves of the first French Revolution, so the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself. Of this church, which is dedicated to St. Aloysius, we shall have more to say presently.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

Breathless Latex Euston

I turn off Chalton Street into Phoenix Road past Breathless Latex Couture and on into Brill Place. The great antiquarian William Stukeley, famous for his surveys of Avebury and Stonehenge, believed that the name Brill was derived from the Saxon name Burgh meaning high ground or hill, an idea slightly undermined by the fact that the area is relatively flat compared to the nearby high ground of Islington. Stukeley also placed Caesar’s Camp in the area.

Brill Place is all that remains of an area that had been known simply as ‘The Brill’ and had a thriving Sunday market that is said to have drawn thousands of people from the surrounding area. Curiously, there is a reference in Old and New London (1878) to ‘barrows’ on the Brill that  ‘were swept away during the formation of the Midland Railway Terminus.’ If this is a reference to ‘barrow’ as in ‘burial mound’, does that mean there are perhaps Saxon and/or prehistoric burial sites under St. Pancras International? The thought is tantilising, after all what drew Stukeley to the site in the 18th Century aside from St Pancras Old Church and the River Fleet.

According to Wikipedia, author Gillian Tindall “has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the centre of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.” All we can do now is speculate on this intriguing aspect of the history of Somers Town.

Paradigm - sculpture by Conrad Shawcross at the Francis Crick Institute

Paradigm – sculpture by Conrad Shawcross at the Francis Crick Institute

But whether you are seeking out romantic legends, the former stomping grounds of French emigres, a latex suit, or just some pretty fabrics, it is well worth your time sliding along the side of Euston Station for a wander around Somers Town. After all, this is where William Blake saw Jerusalem’s pillars of gold stretching all the way to Marleybone.


 

Have a listen to this episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography recorded in November 2009, where we explore the area ‘North O’ Euston’ inspired by James Bone’s book The London Perambulator.

Save the Heart of London – the destruction of St. Giles

A return to Denmark Street to further survey the radical reshaping of this vital centre of Britain’s musical heritage. The pavements from Holborn through St. Giles are littered with cranes and tipper trucks clustered around new buildings wrapped in plastic.

Holborn New Building

I first came here to film in January 2015 with Save Soho Campaigner Tim Arnold. We stood outside the 12 Bar Club on the day it closed and watched the equipment carried out into removal vans. Carlo, one of the co-owners of the club, was philosophical seeing the closure of the 12 Bar as part of the ‘revamping’ of the area.

I came back later that week when the club was occupied by various musicians and bohemians in a brief last burst of musical life before the venue closed for good waiting to be transformed into a chic hotel and restaurant.

Earlier this year I surveyed the street once again with Save Tin Pan Alley’s Henry Scott-Irvine, who valiantly campaigns for the street to be given the same heritage protection as nearby Hatton Garden’s jewellery trade.

The other week it was good to see the guitar shops still trading while the cement mixers trundle past. The Save Denmark Street Campaign/Save TPA fight on and have managed to get Grade II Listed building status for 6 and 7 Denmark Street where the Sex Pistols rehearsed and their graffiti still adorns the walls.

Denmark Place development

The development closes in all around – the back of Denmark Place is now a blank slate for the developers to fill with some kind of new concept shopping mall. Crossrail is smashing its way through and has already claimed the iconic Astoria Theatre and is threatening to swallow up Curzon Soho. The core of London is being rebuilt before our eyes, go and see it while you can.

The Earl’s Court Monkey

  
Annette and Desi with their stuffed monkey at the Earl’s Court Fringe Film Night organised by the Save Earl’s Court Campaign. 

No Home

No Job

Not Swell 

It says on the monkey’s chest.

After showing a clip from London Overground where Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit walk past a row of Victorian Railway workers’ cottages near Old Oak Common I mention to the audience that they are under threat. A lady raises her hand and tells us that they were demolished 3 days ago.

London Overground on London Live and Earls Court

So I ended up talking about my London Overground film with Iain Sinclair on London Live 1 0’clock news the other Sunday. The screening at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema the following Wednesday saw the biggest turn-out we’ve ever had at the film club in the 8 years we’ve been doing it. It was a nice homecoming for the film and there was an interesting Q&A afterwards.

 

John Rogers Leytonstone

Tonight I’ll be showing some clips from the film at the Earl’s Court Fringe Film Night with an extended cut of the footage shot in Brompton Cemetery with Andrew Kotting dressed as the Straw Bear and Iain Sinclair talking about some peculiar associations mostly notably Williams Boroughs sitting atop the tombstones making strange recordings of the dead.

earls-court-halloween_orig

The next screening of the full-length film will be at the Swedenborg Film Festival in Bloomsbury on Saturday 26th November alongside Andrew Kotting’s new film Edith Walks.