The Secret Suburb – Higham Hill Walthamstow

This was a tip-off from a friend and the realisation that I had actually never been to Higham Hill, it had remained mythologised as the termination point of the W15 bus with the automated robot voice stating its identity as the ‘W15 to Higham Hill Cogan Avenue’. My mate had mentioned in a follow-up text that the area possessed some interesting industrial history, important developments printing and type, the site recently converted into housing with the blocks named after various fonts.

Higham Hill Walthamstow

Higham Hill was not merely a  suburb of Walthamstow, the latest feasting ground of ravenous estate agents. Higham Hill Road offered fantastic eastwards views towards Epping Forest and Claybury. There was indeed fantastic art deco industrial architecture, abundant allotments, and well-kept open space. I spent three hours wandering round as the sun bashed down burning out the last day of May and I found a beautiful Victorian book for sale for a couple of quid in the Post Office before jumping the bus back to Leytonstone.

By the Mulberry Tree at Charlton House with Iain Sinclair

John Rogers and Iain Sinclair in Charlton Park

The mirror by the Mulberry Tree at Charlton House made this shot impossible to resist. Being with Iain Sinclair by a Mulberry Tree made me think of the detailed description of the silk trade in WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, silk worms feed on mulberry leaves. I’ve just read the chapter in Iain’s forthcoming book The Last London where he retraces an East End perambulation from Austerlitz with Sebald’s friend, the poet Stephen Watts.

This black mulberry is believed to be around 400 years old, just marginally younger than Charlton House, built in 1607. But unlike the bricks and mortar of the grand Jacobean mansion the mulberry tree is a living being, arms reaching out into the park and the fine public convenience behind by the road.

We were passing through the park filming a thread coming off the Watling Street project, a tributary running off Shooters Hill, another film now taking shape to be presented in the autumn.

Parsloes Park to Valence House – utopia out east

Parsloes Park is a glorious tract of open space covering 58 hectares built on former market gardens in Dagenham created by the London County Council. Its opening in 1935 completed the great housing project of the Becontree Estate. It stared out at me from the map over morning coffee calling me East.

The first thing that strikes you about Parsloes Park is sheer size and the maturity of the trees that I figured must was have formed part of the original landscaping – although my knowledge of trees is so poor that this is pure speculation. The geese were making a racket on the lake. The bowls green was knee high with weeds. The pavilion was quite beautifully grafittied.

After posting the video above on YouTube one of the first comments pointed out that the park also features Second World War bomb craters by the children’s playground. The building of Becontree Station across the road revealed a stash of Neolithic flint tools. Police divers were spotted plunging into the last a couple of years ago searching for “items of interest”. This is an area of multiple layers.

Parsloes Park Becontree Parsloes Park Becontree

A short distance and a box of chips away is Valence House sat on the edge of Valence Park. I was impressed with the way that Valence F.C had added a shipping container to the roof of the changing rooms to create a grandstand effect. A shopping trolley lay partially submerged wheels up in the medieval moat. I can’t resist a museum and Valence House turned out to be a particularly good one.

Valence House Dagenham

The first thing you encounter in this ancient building is the Dagenham Idol – one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Greater London. Excavated on Rainham Marsh this human figure carved from Scots Pine stares back down the years from 2250BC. It was a great payoff for this speculative jaunt.

Dagenham Idol

A Walk in Victoria Park with Travis Elborough

It was the hottest day of the year (so far) when I joined author Travis Elborough for a stroll around the eastern half of Victoria Park in Hackney to talk about his book A Walk in the Park. The heat caused dogs to wallow in the Burdett-Coutts drinking fountain like furry urban hippos.

Travis is a wealth of information and the walk drew not just on the fascinating history of Victoria Park – London’s first purpose-built public park – but on the broader history of what Travis refers to as a “people’s institution”.

a walk in the park elborough

We visited the monkey puzzle tree which links back to Victorian plant hunting expeditions to South America, and the corner of the park once known as Botany Bay – apparently as it was the hideout of criminals. We dropped for a chat at the Bowling Club and baked in the English Garden and had to resist the temptation to jump into the Model Boating Lake.

Listening to Travis explain how modern parks had evolved from the fenced hunting enclosures of Norman barons to the public spaces of today – now under threat from government cuts – it seemed apt that our chat took place in the shadow of the large green fenced area of the park reserved for a series of musical festivals.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough – a fascinating stroll through the cultural history of these beloved open spaces that we all too often take for granted.

Mayesbrook Park, Barking and Dagenham

One sultry Friday morning the other week I jumped on the first bus that swung through Leytonstone Station with the aim of just riding it to the end of the line. But I didn’t make it to the terminus of the 145 at Dagenham Asda as I was so beguiled by the autumnal colours lining Longbridge Road that I spontaneously disembarked without a clue where I was. It was a fortuitous decision because within 10 minutes I wandered through the gates of Mayesbrook Park, where the Mayes Brook gently trundles through the mile long parkland on its way to meet the River Roding at Barking.

Exploring the park left me starving, so I headed for Upney Station to make my way home. I passed Upney Fish Bar that had a sign boasting of being voted best Fish and Chip Shop in London one year. I’m normally skeptical of such claims but was prepared to wait 10 minutes for my fish to be freshly fried. I took the steaming hot parcel back to the park and cracked it open on a bench by the lake surrounded by eager geese. My god, the batter was so crispy each bite scattered the birds from the trees, and the chips were just the right side of perfect. So that boast turned out to be relatively modest.

The old psychogeographical trick of taking random bus journeys delivered in spades.

Medieval Leytonstone – Langthorne Park and Hospital

It wasn’t till I entered Langthorne Park just off Leytonstone High Road that I realised I’d only ever been here once – and that was in my early Leytonstone years. The park occupies part of the site of the old Langthorne Hospital which started life as the West Ham Union Workhouse before becoming a geriatric hospital.

The land was originally owned by Langthorne Abbey in Stratford, established in the 12th Century by Cistercian monks. The name Langthorne apparently derives from the hedges of ‘long thorns’ that were grown around the abbey.

 

Newbury Park – an unexpected adventure

Newbury Park Bus Station

I can think of fewer fine introductions to a place than the bus station that greets you outside Newbury Park Tube. This vaulted modernist masterpiece designed by Oliver Hill and opened in 1949 illuminates an otherwise unpromising stretch of the Eastern Avenue with its green cooper-covered roof.

Ilford War Memorial Park
Once I’d finished marveling at Hill’s bus temple I wandered into the peaceful haven of Ilford War Memorial Gardens serenaded by lusty choruses of birdsong from the bare boughs of small-leafed Lime trees that flank the pathways around the garden’s edge. Robins, Blackbirds and Blue Tits make their homes in the trees here which also support clumps of Mistletoe (apparently a rarity in London these days) and bats are known to forage among Lime trees.

Ilford War Memorial Hall
The information board says that the gardens form a ‘Connectivity’ with nearby green spaces at Fairlop Plain, Fairlop Waters, and Valentines Park – providing a stop-over for migrating species.

The Memorial Gardens opened in 1922 and the fine hexagonal Grade II Listed Ilford War Memorial Hall followed in 1927 with its slightly Masonic vibe going on in the brickwork and corner carvings.

Bilbo Baggins action figure

I’m not entirely sure what drew me in to the enormous Toys ‘R’ Us behind the McDonalds on the crossroads but I came away with a Bilbo Baggins action figure for 96p – to inspire future ‘Unexpected Journeys’ such as this one.
Fags and Mags

I pass a trophy shop and a newsagent called Fags and Mags on Ley Street and come to an inscrutable Local Government facility ominously named ‘Redbridge Resource Centre’. It sits opposite a grand monolithic electricity generator humming away. With the Ley Street Depot just along the road this is clearly an important part of the civic infrastructure of the London Borough of Redbridge, soon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary since being formed from the amalgamation of the Municipal Boroughs of Ilford, Wanstead, and Woodford, while absorbing Hog Hill from Dagenham and Hainault from Chigwell.

It’s leaden grey and chilly by the time I walk through a side gate of Valentines Park. For some reason I think of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films  – perhaps it’s the birdsong which is even more sonorous here than in the Memorial Park. I lurk beneath some trees and attempt to make a recording on my phone.

Pavilion Cafe Valentines Park Ilford

The Pavilion Park Café deserves a Grade II listing of its own with its formica tables and plastic bucket seated school chairs. There’s a photo of the café from 1910 which means it might have provided refreshment for Thomas Burke when he visited the Park in 1921 and declared it, “the most beautiful of London’s natural parks”. I’m the only customer as I tuck into my bacon roll and cappuccino, Bilbo Baggins on the table beside me. This is the perfect place to stop and stare out at the world for a bit. To the extent that I don’t notice the café filling up and by the time I leave there’s a decent smattering of parents with young children ordering plates of chips and babycinos.

Gants Hill Tube Station
Every passage through the glory of Charles Holden’s majestic Gants Hill tube station is a treat to savour. Holden designed the station as a tribute to his work on the Moscow Metro. Here beneath the golden Valhalla-like curved ceiling you happily dwell as trains pass through, a place more to pass the time rather than a point of transit. Lingering here you realize Hope resides in the Eastern suburbs.