diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sign here: Bow Road

I've been keeping an eye on the street signs down Bow Road for the last couple of months and, in particular, following the actions of the Tower Hamlets Pointless Streetsign Erection Committee. They've been busy ripping down some of E3's older street nameplates and replacing them with modern accessibility-compliant white rectangles.

This street sign at the end of Mornington Grove [photo] is their latest target... and about time too. It's stuck to an old wall opposite the local Magistrates Court, a few metres down from Bow Road tube station. The sign looks like an MDF offcut wedged inexpertly into a grimy brick frame, with a wafer-thin layer of white plastic slapped on top. The lettering wasn't so much designed as stencilled, with several of the characters rather too close together and others not quite properly aligned. The faded Tower Hamlets logo in the top left corner is now barely visible, and the surface is peeling in ugly random patches. The whole thing has the look of a temporary street sign which has somehow outlasted its expected shelf life. But no longer. The Tower Hamlets Pointless Streetsign Erection Committee has inspected this wall and found it wanting. The old sign didn't meet stringent inclusivity guidelines and has therefore been removed, to be replaced by one of the council's ultra-new 21st century designs. The new lettering's a bit spindly, and the gleaming white background probably won't survive a winter of lager abuse without creaming up a bit, but it's a big improvement on the old 70s atrocity.

And this signage upgrade has had a rather wonderful side-effect. An original mid 19th century street sign has been magically revealed from its hiding place, and it's a bit of a masterpiece [photo]. Look at that expert chisel work - every character chipped to perfection and not a letter out of place. The surrounding brickwork may now be cracking up, but there's still more craftsmanship on display here than on all the other street signs down Bow Road put together. A shame then that the 150-year-old sign has had to be painted black in an attempt to obscure its heritage features from the eyes of passers-by, because time has moved on since this wall was first erected. Mornington Road has somehow become Mornington Grove, a name change probably enforced by the Tower Hamlets Post-war Street Renaming Committee. The new name hints at a rural lane between orchards and smallholdings, which is what the road used to be, and not a poky backwater street where locals now dump unwanted sofas. The old carved sign may be lovely, but post-war street renaming means it's also outdated, misleading and extinct. I bet it won't be too long before some officious workman comes along and boards over it again, blocking it from view, because councils have "an obligation" not to mislead the travelling public. Which would be a great shame, because this is a rare streetscape jewel in an age of increasingly bland conformity.

My Bow Road street sign gallery [now 14 different styles along half a mile]
• Mornington Road 1830 (still fields); 1862 (new build); 1872 (up and coming); 1885 (urban sprawl); Mornington Grove 2006 (dead ordinary)

If you fancy digging back into London's past yourself, here are four absolutely marvellous websites packed with old maps of the capital:
Old London Maps (I'd not seen this before - it's fantastic)
Hipkiss' scanned maps of old London
Motco map database
London Ancestor maps


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