Somewhere famous: Gidea Park Estate It's not famous now, obviously. But 100 years ago Romford Garden Suburb was the talk of the town, the place to visit, the most up and coming suburb of 1911. Originally there was only one home in the area - Gidea Hall. This large mansion started out in medieval times, was repeatedly rebuilt and redeveloped, until eventually in 1897 it fell into the hands of prospective MP Sir Herbert Raphael. He had plans for the estate, a mixture of philanthropy and business, and started off by donating the western flank to the people of Romford as a public park. The remainder was to be sold off residentially, so Sir Herbert came up with the idea of a housing exhibition in an attempt to drum up publicity. He invited the finest arts and crafts architects of the period to design and build a selection of 4-bedroom houses and 3-bedroom cottages, offering cash prizes for the finest creations. Altogether 140 homes were exhibited, laid out full-size along leafy avenues, with the entire housing stock costing only £60000. The Gidea Park Exhibition Estate opened to the public in June 1911, thrilled crowds throughout the summer and closed in September. Admission was free, but a printed guide titled "The Book of the Hundred Best Houses" cost a shilling. The promoters even built a special railway station to attract paying visitors out to the sticks, and to encourage some of them to buy property and commute back the other way. And you thought Gidea Park was just a nondescript halt beyond Romford? Not so.
Those 1911 homes still exist, are now in their centenary year, and are some of the most sought after properties in East London. I took a self-guided walking tour courtesy of the excellent Havering Council website*. I started in Main Road, beside an oak-timbered cottage used to promote Gidea Park at the White City exhibition of 1910 (since moved back here, now occupied by a firm of accountants). Heath Drive provided my first taste of the variety of the houses here [photo], no two buildings the same [photo]. Some are half-timbered, others brickier, some broad and symmetrical, others delightfully askew. Most have lush front gardens, often shielded by trees, so for the best view of the architecture it's best to come in the winter. The varied pattern continues round the corner in Elm Walk and Broadway, close to the point where Gidea Hall once stood. It was demolished in 1930, but the Grade II listedfront gates still stand along Heath Drive, and many lucky residents can boast the manor's two ornamental lakes at the bottom of their garden. The next road, Meadway, boasts a varied selection of delightful cottages [photo]. It's terribly Metroland, indeed you can easily imagine Sir John Betjeman walking past the high gables and privet hedges whilst speaking lyrically to camera [photo]. Ditto Parkway, and especially Reed Pond Walk, which boasts some of the highest property prices in Havering. Homes cost a lot more than £500 here today, hence the sprinkling of Bentleys and BMWs you'll see parked outside on the hardstanding. Primrose walls, pink pargeting and chunky chimneys... such a blessed relief from modern uniformity... it's easy to see why these properties retain desirability [photo]. A second "Modern Homes" exhibition was held slightly further north in 1934, which explains the change in tone approaching Brook Road. On the corner with Heath Drive is the most out-of-place property of all, a cream-paintedcuboid by Lubetkin [photo]. How exciting to live here in a modernist box, but my heart was still with the romantic luxury I'd seen and loved along the way. by train: Gidea Park by bus: 174, 347, 498, 499[the walk][centenary exhibition][6 homes]
* Apologies, but the Havering council website appears to have updated overnight. It's now a bland reflection of its former self, with umpteen interesting pages either missing or impenetrably concatenated. Some IT bod at the council is no doubt backslapping the upgrade team and praising the "clear clean design" and "focus on service delivery". But I'm glad I visited Havering while the old design was operational, because no future visitor will ever follow the deleted Gidea Park walk.
Somewhere retail: Romford Romford town centre has two economies, one by day and one by night. I didn't hang around to sample the strip of bars and clubs running down to the station - once is enough on that score. But I did wander around the various daytime retail nuclei, of which Romford has more than its fair share. » Romford Market: There's been a market in Romford for 750 years, but it no longer sells sheep (unless sliced). Three days a week the traders set up nearly a hundred stalls on the open space between Tollgate House and the Golden Lion Hotel [photo], selling all the usual market stuff to a non-upmarket audience. Net curtains, hen party goods, plastic flowers for your nan's grave - somehow not as tacky as they sound. Camouflage jackets, party dresses, West Ham pyjamas for a fiver - all the fashions the local clientèle needs [photo]. Fresh fish, dressed crab, pots of cockles to fork down the gullet [photo]. Buy something personal from John the Sign or Jim the Foam, or grab a proper Southend ice cream from the Rossi's van. Beats Walthamstow any day (so long as that day's Wednesday, Friday or Saturday). [photo] » Romford Shopping Hall: A rather dreary modern two-storey hall, packed with minor enterprises and offbeat concessions, plus a couple of those cafes where pensioners go to rest over a cup of tea. I so wanted to like it, I so couldn't get out quickly enough. » The Liberty: At the other end of the scale, this mall is where those with a little more cash come to splash out. The focus is on fashion and lifestyle, ideal for the bronzed Essex women who traipse round dangling oversized carrier bags (but there's also a pawnbrokers if you hunt carefully enough). » The Brewery: When Romford's huge Ind Coope brewery closed down in 1993, they took their time and they turned it into a shopping mall. A shopping mall plus huge car park, to be precise, with one 160ft chimney preserved at the centre of the spiral multi-storey down-ramp [photo]. From a warehouse-sized supermarket to a 24-lane bowling alley, this could be any anonymous out-of-town retail centre, except in town. » The Mercury: For goodness sake, how many more shopping malls does Romford need? Asda, Wilkinson, McDonald's, Blue Inc, Superdrug, Peacocks and bingo. You get the idea. » South Street: There's still a proper high street with proper high street shops, almost as if the only thing you can do in the town centre is go shopping. Nevertheless, at least until Westfield comes along, Romford's easily the best shopping centre to the east of London. by train: Romford
Sorry, but all my reports so far have been biased towards the northwestern corner of Havering. I would have gone to Upminster for the Windmill and the Tithe Barn Museum of Nostalgia, except they're closed alternate weekends and I missed. I did go to Hornchurch, in the expectation that there must surely be something interesting in a major urban centre, but was hugely underwhelmed. Instead I headed right down to the south, to Rainham, and I'll tell you all about that tomorrow, And I might bring you an extra report on Wednesday from the slice of Havering beyond the M25, unless you're all bored rigid by then.