diamond geezer

 Friday, August 01, 2003

Take a Bow

I live in the small leafy village of Bow, a tiny medieval settlement by the river Lea and one of the original Tower Hamlets. Well, that's what the place was once. However, if you've ever driven through East London you probably know Bow better as that concrete wasteland with a church in the middle of the road. This is rather closer to the truth today, but there's still plenty of evidence around here of the old village and what happened as it grew up to become absorbed into the largest city in Europe.

The old Roman Road from London to Colchester crossed the River Lea here, originally at a fast-flowing ford. A stone bridge was built as a replacement about 900 years ago, and its bow-shape provided the name for the new village of Bow that grew up around it. Close by was St Leonard's Priory, a Benedictine nunnery founded in the time of William the Conqueror, and mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in the prologue to his Canterbury Tales.

"Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse,
That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy.
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly
After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe"

That 'church in the middle of the road' was founded in 1311 and formed the centre of the medieval village. Bow was also home to a number of breweries and riverside flour mills and the village soon became the bakery of London. Fresh loaves were taken by cart into the City each morning and with this prosperity came further growth. Samuel Pepys was a regular visitor to the green fields and great houses of 17th-century Bow, often riding out from inner London to take the clear air.

"It being a mighty fine afternoon; and there we went the first time out of town with our coach and horses, and went as far as Bow, the spring beginning a little now to appear, though the way be dirty; and so, with great pleasure, with the fore-part of our coach up, we spent the afternoon." (diary, March 5th 1669)

Bow grew rapidly during Victorian times, from a population of two thousand in 1801 to more than forty thousand in 1901, as the village was swallowed whole by the ever-expanding city of London. Many fine terraces and squares were built to the north of the main road, but there was also terrible poverty. The railways came, the riverside became heavily industrialised and the whole area tipped slowly into slum conditions along with the rest of the East End. Charles Dickens saw fit to set part of Nicholas Nickleby here, although admittedly not the most exciting of chapters.

`And I think, my dear brother,' said Nicholas's first friend, `that we were to let them that little cottage at Bow which is empty, at something under the usual rent'
There surely never was such a week of discoveries and surprises as the first week of that cottage. Every night when Nicholas came home, something new had been found out. One day it was a grapevine, and another day it was a boiler, and another day it was the key of the front-parlour closet at the bottom of the water-butt.

The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bow's buildings and their occupants, quickening the rebirth of the area as the remaining slums were cleared in a ground-breaking redevelopment scheme. Much of the old village centre round the church was buried forever beneath ugly ill-thought-out concrete, but elsewhere many of the better Victorian terraces have survived. The gentrification of Bow is well underway, and any estate agent will tell you that the area definitely is on the up again. But alas, it's very hard to stand here now and picture rolling fields, lush pastures and Samuel Pepys riding by.

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