diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 24, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

Great Eastern Road to St John's church

Four miles from the City, at the eastern end of High Street 2012, we finally reach Stratford. Apologies, it's not the most uplifting end to a journey, is it? Unlike its upon-Avon counterpart, this Stratford is nowhere any tourist would ever dream of visiting. Its shops are absolutely nothing special, its attractions are limited and its amenities well buried. But in just four years time all this should have changed. The eyes of the world will be on the Olympic Park immediately to the west, and East London's shoppers will be flocking to the Stratford City development adjacent to the north. Can the traditional heart of Stratford survive the transformation?

Railway TreeThis striking spiky sculpture stands on a traffic island on the western edge of Stratford's inner ring road [photo]. It's called Railway Tree and, according to its creator, it "symbolises Stratford as a focal point of arrival and departure by featuring a dynamic series of curved steel beams that radiate and rise out of the ground to converge at a central point before reaching for the sky in all directions". Obviously. Stratford has considerable railway heritage, and indeed most of the 180 acres of Stratford City development is taking place across former railway marshalling yards. Look past the bus station and you can already see the first buildings climbing above the skyline. A new footbridge is due to connect the old to the new, and the old is going to need all the help it can get.

Onward into the traditional centre of town, along Stratford Broadway [photo]. The whole of Broadway's left flank dates from the mid 60s when the previous buildings were compulsorily purchased and replaced by Stratford Shopping Centre [photo]. And it shows. However state-of-the-art its design at the time, the echoing mall boasts little to attract today's discerning shopper. You'll search in vain for haute couture or an organic delicatessen because there's nothing here more sophisticated than Boots and Woolies. Most local shoppers are more at home in the artificial market near the pound shops, or in the warren of "accessibly-priced" retailers hidden away down an uninviting passage behind Wilkinson. Oh yes, Stratford has been credit-crunch-ready for years.

Religious tract frenzy outside Stratford Shopping CentreExit the shopping centre onto the Broadway, beside an unlikely Starbucks, and you'll more than likely be met by some evangelical leaflet-waver (although last time I was here a BBC journalist thrust a microphone under my nose and tried to ask me about the Olympics instead). There's a real multicultural mix out here, and usually a youthful vibe, although some might interpret the ambience as edgy and a little insecure. The far side of the street is usually a little quieter, at least away from the bus stops, maybe because that's where the older buildings are. You may not be able to see the Old Town Hall at the moment because it's shrouded in scaffolding, but the occasional rooftop statue still pokes out defiantly above the green sheeting. And if you want to go drinking in a pub with even a smidgeon of character then be sure not to stay in the 60s zone, be sure to cross the road.

Finally, on this long journey up High Street 2012, to St John's Church. It's 1834 vintage, built in the Early English style with a ornate southwestern spire. Outside is another tall stone spire - a Martyr's Monument commemorating the burning to death of thirteen Protestant souls on this spot (or hereabouts) in 1556 [photo]. A bit brutal, even by Stratford standards, especially given that two of their number were female and one of those was pregnant. Several thousand turned up to watch the unrepentant Essex zealots go up in flames, whereas nowadays the churchyard attracts considerably smaller crowds for its charismatic open air August services. In fact to most Stratford residents St John's is little more than a useful cut-through, or maybe a secluded spot to enjoy lunchtime sandwiches or an illicit bottle of White Lightning. As we've seen almost all the way along HS2012, the only constant on this street is change.

Samuel Curney's obeliskfour local sights
» Samuel Gurney Obelisk: Sam was a rich City banker who lived locally in Ham House (now West Ham Park). As a Quaker philanthropist he did much charitable work in the area of penal reform, along with his more well-known sister Elizabeth Fry. And I'm willing to bet that 99% of the people who walk past his obelisk don't know any of that. [photo]
» Ye Olde Black Bull: I'm not quite sure how a pub founded in 1892 dares to call itself "Ye Olde", but the "Black Bull" part evidently comes from a statuette lurking two storeys above the entrance.
» King Edward VII: Decent boozer and gastropub, serving guest beers and hand-cut chips. Originally called the "King of Prussia", which suited just fine until World War I broke out, at which point the locals promptly renamed it after our own dear just-departed monarch. Now more endearingly known as "King Eddie's". [photo]
» Gerard Manley Hopkins memorial: A memorial stone dumped on the pavement outside the library commemorates one of the Victorian era's greatest poets, born at 87 The Grove. Except, hang on, that's not part of High Street 2012 at all, I've gone slightly too far. Enough already.

Stratford's public art and monuments

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