Walk along (and off) Watling Street from Cricklewood to Oxford Circus

Cricklewood

After visiting a friend I decided to go for stroll in a sudden outbreak of September sun. Considering the options – my friend’s suggestion of walking to Horsenden Hill, or my vague pang to retrace old routes to Stonebridge Park in the name of nostalgia – I didn’t fancy the long tube ride home at the end. Eventually, my feet decided for me, as they often do, and drew me south along the A5, the old Watling Street, one of the most ancient roads in Britain.

Shoot-Up Hill

There’s an air of chaos on parts of this oldest of thoroughfares, things going down left-right-and-centre. ‘It’s crazy’, says the Scottish guy in the queue at Co-op check-out as I wait to pay for my discounted falafel wrap. One bloke seems to object to me admiring the architecture – or was he offering further information? It was hard to tell in that vibe.

Hillman CricklewoodAt various times I considered deviating from the route as I passed Brondesbury and Kilburn High Road stations but something kept me plodding on, like a well-drilled Roman Centurion returning to Londinium from a stint in the provinces.

Folkies Kilburn

State Cinema Kilburn

The glorious George Coles (of Leyton) designed Gaumont State Cinema played a big part in calling me along the road. It’s tower rising like a beacon above the Victorian/Edwardian shopping parade, apparently inspired by the Empire State Building.

Abbey Road tourists IMG_3022

My discipline waned when I realised that the famous Abbey Road ran parallel to Watling Street. Surely the Beatles were tapping into the psychogeographical resonances of the area when they went all mad and mystical. Abbey Road originally linked the 12th Century Kilburn Priory, sat on the banks of the Westbourne, with an area of woodland owned by the Priory of St. John in Clerkenwell, now simply called St. John’s Wood. The tourists queuing up to have their photograph taken on the zebra crossing were oblivious to all of this and were merely imitating the iconic Beatles Abbey Road album cover.

Chiltern Street

I avoid Lord’s Cricket Ground and pass down Baker Street with a nod to Chiltern Court before turning into Chiltern Street. Paul Weller poses for a photo with a couple of builders. The beginnings of sunset dance on the russet brickwork.

The seductive contours of Marylebone Lane encourage me to follow the flow of the submerged River Tyburn, a meander through smart-set hang-outs and catwalk pavements till I arrive within the gravitational vortex of Oxford Circus where I am sucked beneath the ground into the tube and projected back blissfully East.

 

The Shard at Portobello Film Festival

Portobello Film Festival 2018

Last night over to the Portobello Film Festival for the screening of In the Shadow of the Shard. Ladbroke Grove is unavoidably WEST London, hits straight you away the moment you leave the station. You expect to see Paul Simonon strolling down the street. London Calling bounces out of the pillars of the Hammersmith & City Line viaduct. The vibe is very particular, I feel a million miles away from the EAST. From here forests are to be found in Bavaria rather than Chingford.

I wait 20-minutes for grilled chicken at a joint near the station which seemed to be a hang-out for people on their way home and moped delivery drivers. I scoff the lot down in 6-minutes flat, it was tasty but not worth the wait. Then it’s off to the screening at Westway – my film coming at the end of a 4-hour programme titled, The Revolution Will Be Televised. I catch the final half-hour of Rupert Russell’s Freedom for the Wolf which looks well worth watching all the way through.

Portobello Film Festival 2018

After introducing the film I settled on a sofa and watched till the end – unusual at this stage of a film’s life when I would have seen it around twenty times before, the majority of them forensically checking for errors and corrections. But I enjoyed seeing it in this setting – away from the previous on-site events in Tenants Halls around Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. I wondered what the West London audience were making of it.

After hanging around for a bit chatting to audience members I took a night-time stroll down Ladbroke Grove past Performance terraces and into Portobello Road. Posh young things loitered chattering on street corners, the last diners huddled over tables at the rear of boutique restaurants. On the last stretch into Notting Hill I tried to imagine the grand houses in their fifties-sixties guise as the lodgings for arrivals from the Caribbean and Australian wanderers. It seems so distant, purely a scene in a period drama.

Old Swan Notting Hill

I’m not ready to head underground to re-emerge in a different reality back in Leytonstone so find a seat by the window of the Old Swan at the top of Kensington Church Street. There’s hardly anyone in the pub, although the few people seem intent on broadcasting their conversations to the world. It’s hard to concentrate on my book so I scribble in my notebook instead. Pint sunk I’m ready for the Tube and that transition through worlds across the city.

Picturing Forgotten London at the London Metropolitan Archives

Islington Spa engraving

Met the brilliant Dave Binns the other week for a look at the Picturing Forgotten London exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives. The mood was perfectly set by the walk up through the winding backstreets of Clerkenwell to the LMA by Spa Green Fields. After signing in at reception, then being directed to deposit our bags in a locker, we were free to go up to the exhibition with the instruction that all notes were to be made solely with a pencil and that our notebooks should be carried in a large transparent plastic bag (which was provided).

The exhibition starts on the staircase to the gallery – an ante-room to the main archive. The first image to grab my attention was an aerial photograph of Caledonian Market on Copenhagen Fields taken in 1930, a site I’ve been interested in for a number of years. It captures the full extent of the market grounds, some of which is now preserved as parkland along with the majestic clocktower.

In the gallery I was drawn to the glass display case dedicated to artist and writer Geoffrey Fletcher, presented as if containing holy relics. There was a photo of Fletcher sat on the ground sketching the Roman Temple of Mithras (recently relocated) along with a fine hardback edition of London Overlooked and a penguin paperback of The London Nobody Knows. A banner printed with a large photo of the Skylon at the 1951 Festival of Britain hangs nearby.

A collection of images show ‘The Devil’s Acre’, an area of poor housing just to the south of Westminster Abbey that was described by Charles Dickens in his magazine Household Words. A section on Housing includes an engraving from 1775 of The Norman Baynard’s Castle on a corner by the confluence of the Fleet and the Thames near a photo of a prefab on the back of a truck in 1962, and wooden cottages in East India Dock Road in 1860.

Layers upon layers of London are hanging on the walls at the Metropolitan Archives, whole other worlds within worlds. The exhibition runs until 31st October 2018 and is highly recommended.

Walking the London Loop – Elstree to Moor Park

I’ll be honest, in the past when I crossed paths with the London Loop signs on a walk I was slightly disdainful. ‘What’s the point’, I thought, of following this orbital trail around the edge of London when the capital is so rich with places to walk and explore. You didn’t need a pre-ordained, officially endorsed path to point the way. You could wander randomly anywhere in London and it would throw up a route as rich as any promoted by Transport for London, and I still believe that to be true. But now having walked 5 sections (well 4.5 really) of the London Loop I’ve been forced to revise my opinion of this 150-mile path.

London Loop 15-14 v.2.00_01_58_02.Still003

 

I did my first section – from Enfield to Cockfosters (Section 17) back in January when I needed to hit the road but lacked the energy or imagination to work out my own walk. The London Loop guided me through a territory largely unkown to me. A couple of weeks later I found myself heading back to Cockfosters to pick up the trail through to Elstree & Borehamwood (Section 16), although on this occasion I branched off on my own path for a large portion of the way to take in areas I wanted to explore that were off the London Loop.

At that point I thought I was done with the London Loop and it wasn’t until the beginning of July that I returned to Elstree to continue the path through to Hatch End (Section 15) carrying on to Moor Park (Section 14). It was a glorious walk across meadows and woodland, the inevitable golf courses, past lakes, and over hilltops offering incredible expansive views. It opens your eyes to the extent and beauty of London’s open spaces and farmland encircling the city – spaces that were often fought over to be saved for the people of the London and the surrounding suburbs, precious resources not to be taken for granted.

London Loop Section 14

Will, I return to continue my counter-clockwise walk on the London Loop? I’m still not sure. I did leave home to walk Section 13 to Uxbridge two weeks ago but instead meandered from Ruislip to Denham and beyond into Bucks. But this time when I passed the London Loop signs on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, instead of a dismissive glance I gave them a nod and a smile and a thanks for the magnificient walks.

In the Shadow of the Shard – watch the full documentary

I started making this film around a year ago, with a shoot walking around the Canada Estate with the brilliant Barry Ducket. Straight away I knew we had a film right there. The aim was to make a documentary celebrating the work of Tenants and Residents Associations in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. We wanted to tell a positive story about the communities based on the area’s council estates. This is a community with a proud working class heritage, borne of its relationship to the docks, the tanneries, and other industries that flourished along this section of the Thames. But it’s an area, like the rest of London, that is experiencing enormous change, most obviously symbolised by the building of the Shard. However, perhaps an even more potent symbol is the construction of a block of 100% council flats by Leathermarket CBS on the Kipling Estate, right in the shadow of the Shard. And that story of hope sits at the heart of this film. If they can build council flats there, we can build genuinely affordable socially owned council homes anywhere.

 

Wanstead Flats after the fire

Wanstead Flats fire damage

Walked across Wanstead Flats this morning for the first time since the enormous fire on Sunday that engulfed a large section of the grass and scrub land between Lake House Road and Centre Road, with some damage along the edge of the section towards Aldersbrook Road. The BBC reported that more than 220 firefighters were called to tackle the blaze, that was still smoldering on Tuesday. Today you can make your way along the paths that seemed to have largely escaped serious fire damage.

Wanstead Flats map showing the burnt area - from OpenStreetMap

map showing the burnt area – from OpenStreetMap

Fire damage on Wanstead Flats

the path running parallel to Centre Road

Wanstead Flats fire damage

note the patch of pink flowers on the right that escaped fire damage

path leading from Centre Road to Aldersbrook Road

path leading from Centre Road to Aldersbrook Road

IMG_5800

Worringly, there had been further fires overnight by the Empress Avenue allotments in Aldersbrook. One of the fires was started just outside the Aldersbrook Riding School which was being investigated by the Police as a possible act of arson. There were dark burnt patches all around the area. The mound of dung and manure beside the allotments had been set alight and was still smoldering.

Aldersbrook fire

Fires had scorched the dry grass and weeds off the end of the lane near the old sewage works and the pylons. One local suggested that the sporadic nature of the fires indicated they’d been started deliberately. It was interesting to note how some plants in heavily burnt areas had escaped damage – you’ll see it in the thistles here and on Wanstead Flats there was a cluster of tall pink flowers (purple loosestrife?) surrounded by blackened earth at what had been the heart of the inferno.

 

Looking for Leytonstone’s Lost Lido at Whipps Cross

One boiling hot morning last week I returned to an overgrown patch of land on the far side of the Hollow Ponds in search of remnants of Leytonstone’s lost Lido. The Whipps Cross Lido was built in 1905 and closed in 1982. It was demolished the following year and the land left to be reclaimed by the forest. I’d gone looking for remains originally with my friend Andrew Stevens, a few years ago on a muddy winter afternoon. That day we mostly found thick undergrowth festooned with used condoms like a plantation of perverted Christmas trees. The location of the Lido had evidently found a new use.

What we hadn’t realised at the time was that the site is quite clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map, and on this occasion I was able to properly scope the site out. Initially all I found were half lumps of concrete buried in the banks of bushes. Not conclusive enough. But soon I unearthed broken sections of clay pipes, and then large pieces of wire-mesh reinforced glass. Finally the smoking gun of a long length of metal pipe running along a high bank overlooking a large hollowed out area matching the size of the footprint of the pool.

Leytonstone Lido

Stood in the deep end being feasted upon by mosquitos I tried to imagine the scene on a boiling hot summer’s day such as this. The kids racing around the poolside and dive-bombing into the water to the rebukes of the life guards. People have told me of the odour of TCP that pervaded one corner, and of entire days spent here at the Whipps Cross Lido, the queue to get in stretching back to Snaresbrook Road.

The London Lidos that have survived are now treasured assets, with some such as Tooting, drawing in swimmers all year round. Brockwell and London Fields Lidos are ‘places to be seen’. If only Leytonstone’s Whipps Cross Lido could have weathered those dark recession years of the early 80’s – you can imagine how popular it would be today.