Walk to the West End

I needed to pay a visit to Housmans to trawl for ‘research materials’, that was the excuse anyway. I had half an eye on a visit to Leather Lane to fish at the other end of the cultural spectrum at the stall of mass-market magazines at rock bottom prices. But as I started out towards the Lea Bridge Road to catch a No.55 something nagged at me, an urge, a need for a little something else to blow out the cobwebs and get the creative juices flowing. The urge to drift, in the general direction of Kings Cross but essentially “to be bound by no programme”.

I took the standard route to Leyton High Road. There was birdsong in Coronation Gardens, dark clouds over the Lea Valley, the geographical feature I had to cross one way or the other. I found verdant cottages in Dunedin Road where a side road had been blocked with piles of rubbish like Jeremy Deller had dropped by to do a re-enactment on a small scale of the Claremont Road protests. Roar of traffic on Ruckholt Road. The freshly mown pitches on Hackney Marshes whilst over the road is a knotweed wasteland framed by distant suicide tower blocks. The River Lea runs through beautiful somehow, eddying, banks overgrown with poppies and wildflowers. You could imagine the Mississippi ‘River Rat’ Kenny Sawney rhapsodising his way along catching fish and cooking them on a bankside campfire. No wonder otters have moved back in.

Along the Eastway, the eastern entrance to the City is still via woods and bandit country to be approach with trepidation after dark. On temporary metal fencing around overgrown land an ominous “London Development Agency (LDA) Compulsory Purchase Order under sections 12(2A) and 12(2A)(b) of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981″. Beside it is the “Notice of Hearing, To the Defendant, Persons Unknown, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court Claim No. 7EC03125″. These two important documents have been shoved inside plastic document wallets and loosely wedged in a fence half obscured by weeds on the side of a motorway flyover. The LDA are begrudgingly fulfilling their legal obligations. The law is a minor hurdle to these fellas, they’ve got an Olympics to stage and only £9billion to spend on it. I wonder whether Acquisition of Land Act 1981 is able to be subverted to reclaim and collectivise redundant factories as workers in Argentina have done to startling effect using that country’s compulsory purchase laws.

Over in Hackney Wick the art deco public baths with its separate entrances for Men and Women has been converted into a community centre. I duck into St. Mary of Eton with its great tower. I pick up a copy of ‘neighbourhood focus: hackney wick’ which announces that Hackney Wick is “the new Shoreditch” (that’ll account for the lower case lettering then). Heaven help them, in five years tops they’ll all be priced out by the ‘arts-led regeneration’, the community centre will be converted into loft apartments and the Costcutter will be a branch of ‘Fresh and Wild’ charging £3 for a thimble of pureed grass. If that doesn’t finish the area off, there are plans to drop the Olympic Media Centre in ‘The Wick’.

When I was living in a squat up the road in Well Street in the early nineties the idea of an Olympic Media Centre in Hackney Wick would have been too surreal a vision for even a die-hard space cadet like ‘Mad Martin’ (when he’d overdone the pharmacopia he gave the kids of the estate great entertainment by running over the rooftops of the 6-storey blocks of the estate. It was not unusual to find him on your balcony four floors up holding a geology hammer wanting to discuss the writings of William S Burroughs).

I find myself in Victoria Park. Sinclair country. Out of respect and humility I shall say little about crossing this park where I used to come of a kip and a few pages of Dirk Gently whilst on the Dole. Instead I recommend you read the early chapters of his seminal work ‘Lights Out for the Territory’. Although, I wonder how the plans to transform Victoria Park into a “21st Century Pleasure Garden” went on a water-logged Bank Holiday weekend.

‘The village’ of Victoria Park is all espresso bars, canopies, and yummy mummies pushing designer babies. It was on the way there in ‘92-’94 to be honest, aside from the shooting in the pub by the park gates in the middle of the afternoon one day.

I slope past The Albion where I got horribly drunk one night in a lock-in and ended up drinking with, by accident, the couple who had once lived in the council flat I was squatting. “Ere, he’s squatting in our old flat!” the lady gaffawed to all and sundry across the pub. They managed to wangle a nice little ground floor flat facing the Park so there were no hard feelings (for the intrepid, I wrote an article about this time in ‘Labour Left Briefing’ in 1993, ‘Sad Grads’. For film producers, I have a stonking screenplay based on some of the more colourful aspects of this era and the ‘unconventional’ approach of Hackney Housing department).

I give a nod to the old estate which is getting a long-overdue make-over, note that the launderette that was the inspiration for my screenplay and where my mate Kate lived in a flat above, has made way for a Lidl, meaning either my script was strangely prophetic or I got it all wrong when I had it making way for an amusement arcade (‘Flashing Blips’).

Round London Fields where more yuppy hutches are being erected and down the hopelessly gentrified Broadway Market (I did debate with an imaginary ‘aspirational’ friend about whether the delis and gastro-pubs were an improvement or an example of middle-class colonisation of what was once and staunchly working-class area with a very strong, now nearly extinct, culture all of its own that had no use for olives and pomegranate juice).

I join the Regent Canal here and can’t let go, my metronomic step carrying my along past the slideshow of estates with orange boarded-up windows (quite attractive actually) and on the other side, yeah more ‘luxury’ developments. I’m not going to go on and on about this, take a look at the Islington Working Class Association website instead. By the time I reach Angel at 1.10 my hip joints are reminding me that I haven’t stopped walking since I left Leytonstone at 10.20am. I rest on a bench in Colebrooke Road gardens and remember two things: 1. That Douglas Adams lived here somewhere, 2. That the residents got very upset by people defecating in the bushes.

It’ll be easy enough to drop down to Housmans from here but I have a strong urge to push on westwards, to turn this into a ‘Sandwich Man’ style odyssey. I move on in search of lunch.
I get distracted by Borders. I hear that they’ll all be gone soon, these American book warehouses and replaced by branches of Starbucks selling books. Only capitalism could come up with an arrangement like that. I sit down with a copy of Mute magazine; I’m too tight to pay a fiver for a mag so I’ll just have read the good bits here. There’s an interesting article by Kate Rich on commons, about Amy Balkin’s ‘This is Public Domain’ and the Morningstar Ranch where Lou Gottlieb signed over the deeds to God when the State tried to evict him meaning that they had to indict ‘God’ in the legal proceedings.

Down Chapel Market in full swing and lunch in Alpino. I realise that it could appear that I’m stalking Iain Sinclair as he stops here on his Regent Canal stomps but really I’m just hungry and sentimental (I enjoyed 3 years living over the road till last year).

Past the estate and on to Housman’s for a good old rummage. I emerge about 40 minutes later with Tom Vague’s ‘London Pyschogeography, Rachman Riots and Rillington Place’, the Anarchist Federation’s free leaflet on ID cards, a copy of Labour Left Briefing, a Class War poster and two badges for a friend (‘Hated by the Daily Mail’ and ‘I Am Spartacus’). Good haul for a £5.50. Technically speaking my work is done and to be frank my legs are sore despite the bacon roll and apple pie at Alpino. But I have to go on, the ‘fugue’ is in control (ref: ‘London Orbital’).

Past Camden Town Hall, Judd Street, it’s a lovely day, justification enough for staying on the move. The Aquarium Gallery in Woburn Walk and the Indian Restaurant where I celebrated the birth of my first child alone with a top class curry complete with brandy after. Through to Fitzrovia, enigmatic area this – Patrick Hamilton country and parts still feel down at heel. The old Middlesex Hospital is all boarded up prior to the inevitable ‘mixed-use redevelopment’. A film crew is taking advantage of the deserted wards and operating theatres. Cleveland Residencies has the look of the kind of place where Hamilton’s young ladies of dubious morals boarded.

Wigmore Street leaves me more convinced than ever in the need for a Class War. Strange that, because turning into Marylebone High Street I don’t feel the same level of anger, more a kind of mystification. The designer Polo shirted couples spilling out of Waitrose and making for their Chelsea Tractors don’t come across so much as hateful but stupid, “you’ve been had” I think, “blowing all that money here, just because you’ve been told it’s the place to shop”.

I carry this slightly superior air past Daunt books which nearly makes me pass it by, luckily I caught a glimpse of the glass dome at the back. I would have regretted missing it’s galleried travel room at the back stacked with pamphlets and chapbooks. I even got a phone call from bookdealer Chris Berthoud by chance.

The walk is coming to an end, but still I stop off in Paddington Street Gardens where children play amongst the tombstones. I cross over to Mayfair and see the new defences around the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I was watching the footage of the violent, bloody 1968 anti-Vietnam War protests that happened here. The Golden Eagle hovering over the Embassy roof seems to be keeping a watchful eye over the troublesome London mob. I read a while ago that the Yanks have had enough of protestors and archaic tenancy agreements, they’re off out to the sticks to hide behind an even bigger perimeter fence. We’ll be able to have our square back.

It’s the final statement in this walk through the story of ‘property’ in London. The travellers’ site by the allotments, the LDA Compulsory Purchase Order, Hackney gentrification, Council Estates turned over to Housing Associations, flats condemned and boarded up to keep out squatters, Georgian and Victorian parks and squares, the hospital converted into executive apartments and exclusive (chain) retail outlets, the estate of the richest landowner in the realm, the foreign embassy with its fences erected to keep us out.

I make it to Oxford Circus by 6pm,a full working day spent on the move, and more accomplished than 8 hours at the desk gazing out the window looking for inspiration. Severe delays on the Central Line, I come crashing back to reality.

Another Lost Treasure of London

Once the tower blocks of the Beaumont Estate have finally been dismantled will they be recorded amongst the lost treasures of London like the Blitzed effigies in the Inner Temple Hall. Doubt it. Who’ll weep for the home of the notorious ‘Beaumont Boys’ who just last year beat a man to death over a drug debt of £1.50 (I think that was the balance to pay, not the whole amount — not to make light of the affair). How long till they are a question on The Robert Elms Show. Do they say more about our city than the effigies that would have only been seen by a select few ever could?

The Disappearance of Beaumont Estate


John Heron sent me these great pictures of the ongoing demolition of Beaumont Estate. John lives on the continent and I live about half-a-mile away from the estate, but I tend to content myself with the view from my bathroom window.
With the Iain Sinclair edited ‘London, City of Disappearances’ fresh on the shelves, people are busy flagging up the disappearing treasures of the metropolis. Among some of the endangered sites mentioned in Time Out recently were the Butterfly House (where there is a screening this Saturday of films on the theme of the book, including John Smith’s ‘Blight’ about the disappearance of half of Colville Road E11), The Stables Market in Camden, and Hackney Wick allotments (which may be moved to Marsh Lane Playing Fields meaning the disappearance of over a 1000 years of common land rights). Nowhere did I see a mention of Beaumont Estate.

Thanks for the pictures John.

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Sunday on the Leyton Lammas Lands


Down to Marsh Lane Playing Fields with H, Nick and the kids. I’m keen to see their reaction to the former Lammas Lands. It’s a perfect late summer’s day, walking weather, great for a 14-miler, but not with a 3 year-old and a pram.

We enter the fields via a council estate off Oliver Road and over a bridge across the Dagenham Brook. Nick points out Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) growing on the bank. A red dragonfly darts here and there. Starlings swoop across the sky gathering for migration (Nick reckons they’re bound for Siberia). Windswept long-grasses brush up against giant pylons which send black stripes across the brilliant blue sky. Nick and my 3 year-old look for caterpillars on the Marsh Ragwort. Purple-flowered wild peas. Great heavy bunches of elderberries.

Nick rubs some Yarrow in his fingers – “used for stanching bleeding” (it was also known as Soldier’s Wortweed). There’s Black horehound and Burdock. I’m looking out for the legions of foragers that Richard Mabey wrote about in yesterday’s Guardian. But the only other people around are a family on bikes and two joggers. The Leyton & Leytonstone Guardian reported last week that this is one of the least visited open spaces in the Borough. Even Nick, who the great Londoner writer Will Self claims knows London better than anyone he knows, has never heard of it. Will it remain so unspoilt as the Olympics take over the Lea Valley?

The 3 year-old fills his pockets with stones and chases Nick up Marsh Lane.

(plant identification courtesey of Nick. He gifted me his copy of ‘Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers’ by McClintock and Fitter, 1956 at the end of the day so hopefully I’ll be able to bring a greater appreciation of the local flora to the blog in future).

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Beating the Bounds on the Lammas Lands

Went out beating the bounds on the Lammas Lands of Leyton Marshes Sunday after seeing an article about it in the Leyton & Leytonstone Guardian. It rained all day but still at least 20 hardy souls turned out to enact this ancient ritual led by local activist Katy Andrews of the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and Rev Dr Meic Phillips.

My interest in the practice of Beating the Bounds comes from the Remapping High Wycombe project when I did my own symbolic circuit of the town’s boundary. I was intrigued to see it done for real though, particularly as here on Leyton Marshes it wasn’t just a quaint re-enactment of an old custom whereby the devil was beat out of the locality and youngsters where shown the parish limits, it carried a real political message.

The idea of Lammas Lands is based on the Celtic system of cattle grazing. Parishioners had common rights to graze cattle on these lands from Lammas Day (1st August) till the old Celtic New Year’s Day of 25th March. People stopped grazing cattle here some time ago, after the railways carved up the area, but in 1905 a determined group of local people got together and fought for the of the Lammas Lands to be “devoted to the purpose of an open space in perpetuity.” This still stands and the right to free access to the land and for it not to be fenced in is an important local right, especially at a time was more and more of London is being taken out of circulation by developers. But with the 2012 Olympics on its way, the London Development Agency have their hungry eyes on all the spare land they can grab, and without a word to anyone, they’ve decided that a chunk of the Lammas Lands would be a good place to relocate allotments from Hackney that are going to end up as a Badminton Court or something else equally useful.

Leyton Marshes are a great expanse of land, the like of which you just don’t expect to see in London. Horses grazing, some tethered to the great electricity pylons that straddle the Lea Valley. Into it we plunged with our willow wands bedecked with ribbons. I missed the first “child sacrifice” because I got lost on the pitch and put. I was slightly surprised that this bumping of a child would be carried out, however traditional, the idea of Druids carrying out child sacrifice is now thought to have been Christian propaganda aimed at undermining the influence of pagan practices.

Rev Dr Meic Phillips boomed out snippets of local history and oddities of English law, such as the way that footpaths are established (by carrying a coffin between a dwelling and a church – and you can still do it if you can find a dead person). I struck up conversation with the vicar of the Parish of Clapton and it dawned on me how this distinctly pagan ritual is being appropriated by the church, but not in a christianised form but a blatantly pagan one. Looking and listening to Rev Dr Phillips, I could see that he was just a Druid in disguise, and I started to wonder whether the Druids hadn’t died out but they’d just entered the fledgling Church of England and quietly subverted it.

Opposite the River Lea Navigation Katy pointed out the former site of James Latham’s timber yards, currently been turned into the sort of Legoland housing estate that John Prescott plans to have spreading throughout southern England like an outbreak of measles. This was the place my Dad had told me to look out for. He used to drive up from Wycombe to pick the timber up from Latham’s wharfs, back in Wycombe it would be turned into veneered panels. The Lea Bridge Road is my old man’s only point of reference in this neck of the woods.

Through a ditch and up a muddy bank, the rain lashes down, people going down left right and centre, I fall head first into a patch of stinging nettles. This is the stuff, there won’t be a riot like there was in 1905, but we’ll at least get some mud under our nails.

On we go around the marshes, with references to how the calendar change of 1752 divided the grazing practices of the parishes Leyton and Walthamstow who had peacefully co-existed for thousands of years (well a couple of thousand at least). It meant that the people of Leyton who had adopted the new calendar had to take their cattle off the Lammas Lands eleven days before those of Walthamstow who had stuck with the old system. Caused a bit of a row back then apparently.

All along the way there were reminders that our common land rights are under greater threat than ever. There was a real mood of protest and defiance, however twee we must have looked with our ribbons fluttering in the wind.

At the end of the walk, drenched, we cast our willow wands into the Dagenham Brook, a symbolic act of returning the willows to water. The next symbolic act was the adjournment to the Hare and Hounds for a pint, where it all started back in 1905.