diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Random borough (27): Newham (part 3)

Somewhere historic: Three Mills
Britain's oldest, and largest, tidal mill is in Newham. It's the House Mill, at Three Mills. Unfortunately it's not open on Saturdays, so I couldn't go then. Thankfully I live ten minutes walk away, so I broke all the "random borough" rules and went there on Sunday instead.

Three MillsThere are only two mills at Three Mills, although there used to be eight in medieval times. One survivor is the Clock Mill, so called it has a clock on the tower [photo], and the other is the House Mill, so called because the miller's house used to be nextdoor. The House Mill's the bigger, and dates back to 1776 in approximately its current form [photo]. It was built to grind grain not for flour but for the distillation of alcohol, most notably gin. All that came to an end one incendiary night during the Blitz, and it took sixty years for the mill to be rebuilt and restored. A fine upstanding body of volunteers maintain the site and open it up once a week (once a month in the winter) so that visitors can take a look around. It's busier than it could be, but not perhaps as busy as it should be.

Unlike most modern visitor attractions, the café and gift shop are located on the way in. You can have a sandwich or a toasted teacake while your tour guide gets ready, and maybe watch the introductory video (if you can hear the commentary above the hubbub of raucous diners). It's all endearingly amateur, even the unlikely second hand book stall in the corner, and all the better for it. Eventually you'll be heading off up the metal staircase which links together the old and the new parts of the mill. The miller's house turns out to be the wholly new part [photo], containing offices and a penthouse conference room, although from out the front it's a terribly convincing fake. Up top there's a fine view of the tidal river, and how it splits in half to feed the two different mills on the site. You also get some idea of the grand scale of the Three Mills film studios nextdoor, once all part of the same refinery complex, and apparently a former distribution centre for Bacardi.

But it's the old mill you'll be wanting to explore. This is a splendid building, on several storeys, lovingly assembled from pine beams beneath a steeply pitched roof. Some of those beams are English Heritage replacements, but others (the chunkier, woodwormier ones) date back over 200 years. Health and Safety dictates you can't climb right to the top, but you can look up to see the wheel which hoisted sacks of grain to the high level bins. A series of hoppers and chutes directed the grain back down, ensuring it ended up between the right millstones at the right time, ready for the clunking machinery to whirr into action and get grinding. You have to watch your head lest you hit some wooden or metal protuberance, and watch your step in case you dislodge some trapdoor and open up a direct route to the floor below.

Eventually the tour reaches ground level, which is where the milled grain ended up and where the four waterwheels are. They're in two pairs, and also from completely different generations. The largest is a metal Victorian contraption, while the oldest is wooden and so fragile that the trustees daren't even touch it. All are controlled by their own sluice gate, and exist in a dark netherworld of decay and pigeon feathers. If there's ever any money going for further restoration, it's hoped that at least one of these wheels might turn again, powered as before by the ebbing tide. Alas, given that Newham can no longer spare any money even for local schoolchildren to come visiting, further regeneration may be several years off.
by tube: Bromley-by-Bow

Somewhere random: Plaistow
BestMate lives in Plaistow, and I always joked that when Newham emerged from my random jamjar I'd visit his hometown and try to find something interesting there. And it did. So I went. And I failed.

Plaistow's part of the amorphous blob of housing that makes up the majority of central Newham. It merges seamlessly into its surrounding neighbourhoods, having no distinct identity, only a vague focus. The name's widely known only because of the tube station (now properly pronounced 'Plahstow' rather than "Playstow' on passing trains). Plaistow's been luckier in this respect than poor old Plashet up the road. Almost nobody's heard of that, not least because the District line skips from Upton Park to East Ham without stopping. Plashet's quite interesting - prison reformer Elizabeth Fry used to live there, and it has an award-winning millennial bridge linking two halves of a school across a main road [photo]. Ah, if BestMate lived in Plashet, the stories I could tell. Plaistow, however, is more of a challenge.

Wikipedia describes Plaistow as "a mainly hoodrat area, including several council estates", which is at least semi-accurate. It's not somewhere renowned for its shopping. The main street has an Iceland, a Job Centre and lots of those takeaways that fry stuff, as well as umpteen pound shops with brightly coloured plastic baskets stacked up outside [photo]. But there's also a dedicated dolls house emporium, and a couple of funeral directors, plus an unexpectedly high number of shops with the name 'Grace' in their title. BestMate and I sometimes hide away in the Abbey Restaurant, which sounds posh but in truth serves up all-day breakfasts and tea beneath a reverential photo of Princess Di.

In an attempt to find Plaistow interesting, I tried hunting down some of its more interesting architectural features and street art. Not a great success. I couldn't find most of the murals, and the Tudor 'Hidden House' tucked behind the doctor's surgery alas lived up to its name. I did discover a cul-de-sac called Routemaster Close, built on the site of the old tramway depot, but that didn't exactly inspire. One local boozer (the 'D k f Edinburgh') had a supposedly interesting sign, but on arrival I discovered the place was instead being gutted. I was more taken by the Black Lion. This low-timbered hostelry packs a characterful punch, and its courtyard was allegedly a haunt of Dick Turpin. On my visit, however, the place was packed out with raucous West Ham fans downing a swift pre-match lager while their kids kicked footballs up a sidestreet. As kick-off approached they marched east to join further beery gaggles assembling up the road in Upton Park. Plenty of heart and soul, Plaistow, but all the action's elsewhere.
by tube: Plaistow

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