WALK LONDON Linked (the M11 Link Road)
Wanstead to Leyton (3 miles)
Now this is a brilliant idea. You head to East London. You collect a free black box receiver from a local museum or library. You plug in some headphones (provided). And then you go for a walk along a prescribed three mile route. Listen carefully, because 20 audio transmitters have been attached to various lampposts and buildings along the way. As you approach, these broadcast a series of memories and reminiscences from the people who used to live here. All the broadcasts are looped, so you can listen to as much or as little as you like. And by the time you get to the end of the walk you should have a much better understanding of what life here used to be like. It's called Linked, and it's a brilliant idea. What's less brilliant is that the idea was needed in the first place.
It was obvious, from the 1960s onwards, that a relief road was needed between the foot of the M11 and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Traffic often queued up through Wanstead, Leytonstone and Leyton, and the problem grew worse with every passing decade. So a link road was planned - a dual carriageway carving through the heart of east London - in an attempt to ease the pressure. But this six-lane highway required the demolition of 400 homes, the evacuation of hundreds of families and the sacrifice of a random linear neighbourhood. As local residents moved out the protesters moved in, and an intense long-term battle with the developers ensued. Many fiendish means of resistance were used to delay the inevitable, but the authorities (of course) eventually won. The new link road opened as the A12 in 1999, and traffic delays have been much reduced ever since. But of the communities that used to thrive here, only memories remain.
I think I looked a bit of a wally standing in the middle of a Wanstead footbridge wearing my municipal-issue headphones. I was trying desperately hard to listen to the first set of recorded voices, but struggling to hear anything coherent above the roar of the traffic below. Something about Anderson shelters, I thought, but there was no volume control on my little black box so it was impossible to tell. Ditto at the next transmitter (something unintelligible about a golf club, I think). Suddenly an audio artwork located along the edge of a busy main road didn't seem a terribly sensible idea after all.
But on the far side of George Green, beneath a cylindrical transmitter, I finally latched on to the full impact of the piece. Protesters (including Jean the lollipop lady) recounted their fight for the 250-year-oldsweet chestnut that used to stand here. Some chained themselves to the tree, some lived in a treehouse in the branches, while Jean was sacked from her job merely for encouraging others to surround it. Her audio ramblings brought a sense of pathos to the tree's ultimate destruction. The new link road soon carved through central Wanstead in a cut and cover tunnel, and the spot where the chestnut once stood is now part of an illusory platform of grass whose depth is clearly insufficient to support roots.
On to Leytonstone, learning along the way of demolished houses and long gone drill halls. I thought there'd be more transmitters along this stretch - maybe I missed some - but the installation didn't really spring to life until closer to the tube station. I wonder what people thought I was doing, hanging around beneath unwelcoming footbridges and lurking on drizzly street corners. I couldn't move too far or the transmissions would fade away, so my loitering must have looked very suspicious. Few local residents realise that this artwork even exists - indeed the library I visited had only hired out two other receivers since Easter.
The most evocative radio messages came at the Leyton end of the walk. The strongest resistance to the new dual carriageway erupted in Claremont Road, an ordinary terrace of ordinary houses running parallel to the Central line. Protesters moved in before compulsory purchase orders could be served, and filled the street with abandoned vehicles and immovable 'sculptures'. A community of resistance fighters was established, holding out longer than any other until eventually removed kicking and screaming from a final stronghold on the rooftops. The Linked transmitter chooses to tell the story of an earlier resident, remembering happier days before the agonies of moving out. The tale is all the sadder because Claremont Road(see photo) has now been reduced to a mere stump, with no houses of its own, ending abruptly at a brick barrier. There's no longer a community behind the wall, just the perpetual hum of traffic rumbling by. Standing listening to the past in a short cul-de-sac of parking bays really brought home the car's crushing victory.
Few people may be listening, but these transmitters continue to pump out memories of the past all day every day. The gardens described along Grove Green Road still exist electromagnetically, even though the tulips, barbecues and wallflowers have long been wrenched away. The violent acts of the evicting bailiffs, revelling in unnecessary destruction, are still witnessed once every five minutes above Colville Road. And drivers speeding happily along the A12 may not hear it on their radios, but this gaping tarmac chasm is permanently flooded by echoes of what was here before. Indeed, as one protagonist still repeatedly declares, "The house exists in my brain, the community exists in my heart." Do one day get hold of a receiver and bear witness yourself.