Robin Hood Gardens and along Poplar High Street

I’d been meaning to go for a proper look around Robin Hood Gardens for a while (a journal entry from July 2008 notes the idea of making a documentary about the estate’s proposed demolition), the eventual visit made more urgent by news that its demolition had begun. An iconic council estate designed by lauded architects Alison + Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens was being demolished to make way for a new development called Blackwall Reach consisting of 1575 new homes of which 550 are said to be available for social rent. The Evening Standard, a paper not noted for its support of social housing campaigns in the past, reported in 2017 that flats in the new development were already being marketed to investors in the Far East.

Robin Hood Gardens Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Climbing the central mound in the open space designed by the Smithson’s as a ‘stress free zone, a calm pool’, you could see into the shattered shell of the western block, some of which is being preserved by the V&A. It’s odd to think of people visiting a museum to look at how people used to live in a brutalist council estate of the 1970’s in the way that we visit a reconstructed Iron Age Village. Is that where social housing is heading – a curiosity in a museum? I sincerely hope not.

Robin Hood Gardens demolition

Blackwall Reach development Poplar January 2018

Blackwall Reach development Poplar

Robin Hood Gardens

A kit of pigeons fly synchronised circuits of the interior space returning to their roosts on the upper ledges of the eastern block that still houses the last of the remaining inhabitants, although fewer in number than their feathered neighbours. What will the pigeons make of Blackwall Reach, I wonder?

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Poplar Town Hall / Lansbury Hotel

Moving along Poplar High Street we see how the old Poplar Town Hall has been converted into a boutique hotel named after Poplar’s Labour MP George Lansbury, although ironic, at least the conversion saved the town hall from a mooted demolition and joining Robin Hood Gardens in the annals of the disappeared.

St. Matthias Church Poplar

St. Matthias Church

Beside the East India Company’s Meridian House, built in 1806, lies a semi-hidden East End gem. St Matthias Old Church was built in 1642 by the East India Company, both as a company chapel and to serve the riverside parish of Poplar and Blackwall. Apparently churches built in the civil war period are a real rarity, a booklet published by the LDDC and English Heritage lists two others (in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Leicestershire). There appears to be a children’s playgroup inside, so I decide not to intrude with my camera and instead make a loop of the quiet churchyard.

The wind blowing down Poplar High Street is starting to bite, my circuit has returned to Poplar DLR station and a glide along the rails back to Stratford.

Sonic Perambulation: Chrisp Street Market to Stratford

It’s great to be back on the essential Resonance FM. “Sonic Perambulation: Chrisp Street Market to Stratford” – is a collaboration with sound recordist Joel Carr with the intention of capturing the shifting sounds experienced on a walk – along with my spontaneous narration. This walk starts at Chrisp Street Market in Poplar as the market traders packed up for the day. It’s one of London’s older street markets and is currently caught up in a regeneration project. We then walk through the streets to the Limehouse Cut and follow this to Stratford via the Lea Navigation. Recorded in July 2023.

Podcast recording with Joel Carr and John Rogers on the Limehouse Cut - Sonic Perambulation broadcast on Resonance FM 24th November 2023
Podcast recording with Joel Carr and John Rogers in Poplar - Sonic Perambulation broadcast on Resonance FM 24th November 2023
Podcast recording with Joel Carr and John Rogers on the Limehouse Cut - Sonic Perambulation broadcast on Resonance FM 24th November 2023

We hope to record more Sonic Perambulations in 2024.

A Stroll Around the Isle of Dogs

At the end of April, and still nursing a sore and swollen ankle from slipping down a wet grassy bank on Harmondsworth Moor in West London, I took a hobble around the Isle of Dogs. I needed to walk after two weeks with my foot up and had been invited to film the wonderful artist Maud Milton creating one of her great mosaic roundels for the London Overground at her studio in Trinity Buoy Wharf. So after the interview I set off from East India Dock Basin and made my way around the shoreline of the Isle of Dogs to Poplar Dock and Blackwall Basin. I then diverted briefly through the Canary Wharf Estate (No Filming!!) before turning through Cubbitt Town back to the Thames finishing at Island Gardens.

Isle of Dogs

London’s Lost Rivers – the Black Ditch with Tom Bolton

A Walker’s Guide to London’s Lost Rivers – Volume Two

Tom Bolton’s second volume of walks along London’s Lost Rivers traces the paths of eleven subterranean watercourses. Whereas Volume One mapped out the better known lost rivers of London such as the Fleet and the Tyburn – Volume Two is a guide to the more obscure buried streams and brooks that shape the city – the Bollo Brook, Cock and Pye Ditch, Counter’s Creek, Falcon Brook, Hackney Brook, Moselle, and Stamford Brook. Tom took me for a walk along the first river in Volume Two – The Black Ditch, rising somewhere in Stepney Green then wending its way through the East London streets of Stepney, Poplar and Limehouse before making its confluence with the Thames at Limekiln Wharf.

Black Ditch

“In it’s very name The Black Ditch reveals its status an unappreciated river. Despite its route, which runs through the heart of the East End, the Ditch is generally dismissed as no more than a sewer.” – Tom Bolton

Black Ditch

London’s Lost Rivers – A Walker’s Guide by Tom Bolton is published by Strange Attractor Press

London – City of the God of Light?

In his illuminating book, Ancient Paths, Graham Robb slips in this intriguing alternative source for the name of London while cycling along a ‘Druidic pathway’ in France unraveling the secrets of the Celtic world.

“The northernmost point of the meridian, five hundred kilometres from Chateaumeillant, lies at a place disconcertingly named  Loon Plage. The ‘beach’ is a desolate zone of wind-bent poplars and container trucks queuing for the cross-Channel ferry. In the late Iron Age, when sea levels were higher than they are today, Loon was an island called Lugdunum, which means ‘fortress of Lugh’, the Celtic god of light.

Lugdunum shared its name with several other important Celtic towns: Laon, Leiden, Loudun, Lyon and perhaps London.”

London not as old King Ludd’s hill, or the Llyn din from Welsh meaning ‘lake fort’, or the Londinium of the Romans, but the City of the God of Light. On those days when London lies snugly beneath a duvet of grey cloud I must say it’s hard to imagine but it deserves to be added to the list – who knows, maybe the Druids had a sense of humour.

The mystery of the missing chapters of The London Compendium

Bumped into author Ed Glinert at work the other day. I immediately congratulated him on his excellent book, The London Compendium, and told how it was invaluable to have in the bag on a London perambulation. But, I said, why the omission of the outer suburbs? Where’s the Lea Valley, Stonebridge Park, Crystal Palace, Haringey, Wanstead, Twickenham? They wouldn’t let me put them in he said, the publishers didn’t want them, I’ve got a whole book of stuff on those areas waiting to be published, he told me wearing a forlorn expression, his body language re-living the tussles with his editor at Penguin.

Even taking into account the large swathes of London left out of The London Compendium, it’s still far and away the best of the current crop of more literary London guidebooks.
But this blindness to the glories of the London suburbs wasn’t always the trend. Harold P. Clunn’s classic, The Face of London (1970), not only covers the more obvious central districts in fine detail and almost obsessive historical background, but also fits in the likes of Shadwell, Poplar, Canning Town, West Ham, Woolwich, Muswell Hill, Hornsey, Kilburn, Willesden, Cricklewood, and Hendon. The Ward Lock Red Guide (49th edition circa 1950’s) implores you to explore Barnet, Epping Forest, Kew, and Eltham.

Hopefully Glinert’s publishers, Penguin, will feel the spirit of the great London adventurers and have the good sense to publish those rejected chapters.