diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 26, 2009

Random borough (21): Waltham Forest (part 1)

Waltham Forest forms a vertical slice of northeast London between the River Lea and Epping Forest. In the south are the Victorian terraces of Leyton, in the centre the varied estates of Walthamstow, and in the north the leafy suburbs of Chingford. All residential aspirations duly provided for. I spent yesterday tracking round some of the borough's more interesting locations, which proved easier than I expected because there's actually quite a bit to see. Where better to start than in the middle, in medieval Wilcumestowe ("The Place of Welcome")?

Somewhere historic: William Morris Gallery
William Morris GallerySome men are great artists, some great thinkers, some great writers. William Morris managed to be all three, and several other character types besides. He's best known for his design work, especially his elegant nature-based wallpapers, and his wide-ranging creativity was key to kicking off the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century. He lived and worked in many outer London boroughs, but spent his childhood in the rural surroundings of pre-suburban Walthamstow. The family home was at Water House, a substantial Georgian building in the grounds of Lloyd Park, and now open to the public as a museum devoted to Morris's many talents.

The wood-panelled ground floor galleries run through the story of William's life as well as displaying some of his finest works. A spell working as an architect's apprentice diverted his career into interior design, and various floral and faunal wallpapers are amongst his earliest triumphs. A bit oppressive for modern tastes, perhaps, but a Morris-covered wall was usually more worthy of detailed study than any work of art hung on it. Tapestries and rugs also displayed his creative diversity, rich in colour and detail, and the Woodpecker tapestry illuminated on the far wall is a particularly fine example. Also on show are Arts-y Crafts-y works by many of Morris's protégés, including wicker furniture, a selection of ornate glazed tiles and some magnificent stained glass. Walking round the museum is like being in a Victorian version of Habitat, showcasing must-have designs for the budding domestic aesthete.

William MorrisIn later life, troubled by social inequality, William shifted his focus towards political activism and printing. His illustrated books are works of art in themselves, like modern monkish manuscripts, and several can be seen in the Gallery. But its his legacy of beautifully crafted homewares that continue to delight. If you're tempted to further your collection, a small shop in the hallway sells a small range of highbrow tat, including some rather lovely wrapping paper which your aunt would no doubt appreciate.

The local borough were once very proud of their famous son. Indeed Waltham Forest's motto - Fellowship Is Life - is a line lifted from Comrade Morris's politically motivated novel A Dream of John Ball. More modern times, however, have brought persistent threats to cut visiting hours or even sell off many of the house's contents to raise funds. I'd been delaying my trip to the Gallery until Waltham Forest emerged from my random jamjar, so it's been a nervous five-year wait in case the council shut the place down in the meantime. Thankfully not, and for the time being the museum remains open seven hours a day five days a week, admission free. A much better day out than a trip to IKEA, and far more likely to inspire.
by tube: Blackhorse Road   by bus: 123

Somewhere retail: Walthamstow Market
Walthamstow MarketIt's the longest daily street market in Europe. It's over a mile in length. It stretches almost the entire length of Walthamstow High Street. It's so long that there's a station at either end of it. It's an avenue of stalls lined by fairly downmarket shops from top to bottom. It's still the dominant retail presence in Walthamstow, despite the rather bricky modern mall shoehorned in beside it. It takes a lot longer than you'd expect to walk down, or back up, especially if you attempt to push your way through on a Saturday lunchtime. It's Walthamstow Market. And it really is very long indeed.

OK, the market's a little bit shorter than usual at the moment. There are some roadworks in front of the Cock Tavern so only a runty dribble of stalls ply their trade beyond the ploughed-up hiatus at the western end. But elsewhere there are vibrant stalls aplenty, and a stream of human traffic wandering by to peruse what's on offer. You want fruit in a bowl, there's a fruit-in-a-bowl seller every hundred yards or so. Goodness knows how the market supports quite so many identikit plastic greengrocery types, but I fear they may be the future at the expense of your more traditional "pahndabananaz" types. Some of Walthamstow's rag traders still yell out a never-ending volley of "best dresses in the market, only a fivahhh!", but these days most of the racket comes from youngsters hanging out nearby holding court with their mates.

The market's shoppers are a diverse bunch but most are women, bag (or trolley) in hand, picking through the stalls for a cut price bargain. Cheap shoes, a roll of cloth, some non-feather pillows - why pay more? Pensioners pick over the basics to help them through the week, while young parents snap up plastic toys for a quid - anything that might keep their toddler quiet without breaking the bank. Few, if any, of Walthamstow's patrons will be troubled by a 50% tax band. There are plenty of choices for lunch too, with the longest queues for sizzling spiced meats and Tubby Isaac's cockles. Also very popular is the chicken barbecue behind the (much-photographed) bus station, where unnaturally orange fowl roast on two rows of rotating spits. For three quid they'll slice half a bird into manageable strips and pile the dripping flesh into an over-sized polystyrene box. I'm afraid I chickened out and plumped for a hot dog with onions instead.
by tube: Walthamstow Central   by train: St James Street

Somewhere else retail: Walthamstow Village
Eat 17, E17Don't get the wrong idea about Walthamstow - some of it is gorgeous. The conservation area on the hill round the church stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding area, so more Waitrose-y types flock to live in the old village nucleus with its almshouses, hexagonal Victorian postboxes and half-timbered buildings. The shopping's very different too. A short stretch of Orford Road supports as many as three delicatessens in close proximity (three more than Walthamstow Market), along with middle class restaurants (tapas tonight darling?), an independent wine merchant and a designer boutique entitled Beautiful Interiors. It's only half a mile away, but I suspect that few market shoppers ever make it this far up the hill. I joined the queue in the wittily-named Eat 17 deli, waiting behind folk buying free-range sausage rolls and a week's supply of guacamole, to round off my Walthamstow lunch with a scrummy chocolate croissant. All tastes catered for.


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