Somewhere pretty: A13 Artscape For Open House in 2005, I came to Barking & Dagenham to take a minibus tour along the A13. Nobody else turned up. No problem, I enjoyed a lengthy solo safari with the borough's Head of Arts Services who showed me the length of her pride and joy, the A13 Artscape project. We drove to subways, road junctions and roundabouts where the urban landscape had been upgraded by £4m of artistic intervention. At each stop we got out for a walk and talk so that she could explain the rationale and I could be duly impressed. But there wasn't any opportunity to take photos so I promised myself I'd come back, just as soon as Barking and Dagenham emerged from my jamjar. Seven years later, here I am, lens in hand. And I think I can say, no other London borough can boast anything like it. Here's a summary, from west to east...
Movers Lane: The A13 isn't pretty, not unless you're a lover of sweeping arterial carriageways [photo]. Drainage control boxes aren't usually much to see either, but "The Pump House" is different. It's a six metre high concrete lightbox, embedded with 512 acrylic rods linked to LEDs that illuminate in set patterns. Don't expect to see much in bright daylight, but it's rather more impressive after dark. Alongside are some geometric drumlins (non A Level geographers, look it up) created to provide replicative interest. So long as not everyone does what I did, scrambling up them to avoid defecating dogs, they should last for years. [map][photo] Charlton Crescent Subway: An important Pedestrian escape route from the Thames View Estate, this tunnel bored beneath the A13 is anything but ordinary. Entrance is by bridge across the Mayes Brook, or down bright green and yellow ironwork steps, or across an artificial pool of glass and resin. Meanwhile the interior is a tube of concentric painted rings, brightened by sequenced LED lighting bands with a slightly Christmassy feel [photo]. If all subways were like this, you'd be less likely to fear using them. [map][photo] Farr Avenue Parade: A small shopping precinct enhanced by granite seating, tree planting and candlestick lighting. [map][photo] Holding Pattern: Imagine 74 steel needles, each tipped with a blue airport taxiway light, arranged into criss-cross lines on an intersecting grid. Now stick those in the middle of a roundabout bisected by a creaky flyover. Try not to notice that some of the lights are broken and have been taped over. There, that should give you something nice to look at while you're waiting at the Lodge Avenue traffic lights. Again, more impressive (indeed, more noticeable) after dark. [map][photo] Goresbrook Park: Several improvements were planned over several years, including turf seating, wildflower bands and wooden decking. Alas all were mindlessly destroyed by vandals in the summer of 2003. Project suspended. Gale Street Subway: It's not quite so impressive as the previous subway, this, but municipal gardeners have gone to a lot of effort to created verdant shrubberies on the gentle incline down from A13 to subway level. Inside are ten holographic panels referencing the history of the area (pubs, coats of arms, maps, etc) which I bet were designed to be vandalproof. Alas their perspex covers haven't fared well, so the works beneath are now mostly obscured and illegible. [map][photos] Scrattons Farm: Rather than look at a brick viaduct wall all day, residents of Scrattons Terrace now look out across a lansdcaped slope, scattered with sabre-like lighting columns, and currently blessed by a riot of thick almond blossom. Twin Roundabouts: At the Goresbrook interchange, the most iconic of Artscape's installations. The two exit roundabouts each rise to a sharp elevated point, curved and conical, created from a skin of black tarmac. Officially they're named Scylla and Charybdis, but their shape has earned the nickname Madonna's Bra, or (sssh) Madonna's Tits. Whichever, the council has unintentionally given local youth a fantastic pair of sheer slopes on which to muck about. This weekend a hatch in the northern roundabout was wide open [photo], allowing me to peer inside down a short flight of steps. Inside was a pile of traffic cones and what looked like a pot of black paint, recently used to paint over scrawled graffiti. Every witch's hat hides a secret. [map][photo] by bus: 173, 287
Somewhere sporting: Sporting Legends For a fairly small borough, Barking and Dagenham has bred more than its fair share of sporting legends. Martin Peters, England World Cup goal scorer. Terry Venables, Spurs and England manager. John Terry, the ill-behaved Chelsea and England captain. But they're not important enough to have been immortalised in silhouette above the A13 at Goresbrook. Four steel cut-outs rise from a mound on Castle Green, and if you drive by slowly enough you'll catch the names [photo]. First up Sir Alf Ramsey, our blessed World Cup manager, born in Dagenham. The man next to him holding the silver cup aloft is Bobby Moore, world-class hero, born in Barking. Alongside with the rugby ball is Jason Leonard, much-capped prop forward, born in Chadwell Heath. And completing the quartet is Beverley Gull, who I had to look up when I got home, although the gold medals and wheelchair were a big hint. She's a Paralympic champion, breaker of 13 world records in swimming, and is absolutely not the token woman and the token disabled person on this hill. Indeed she grew up in a house in the very street below, and was present (along with Jason, and Bobby's wife) at the grandunveiling in 2008. The sculpture also celebrates Barking And Dagenham's status as an Olympic Host Borough, even though not a single Games event will take place here, but that's the lickspittle nature of sporting politics for you. by tube: Becontree by bus: 173, 287
Somewhere else pretty: Eastbrookend Building the Becontree Estate used a lot of gravel, and for years the pits lay disfiguringly to the east. And then someone had the very good idea to turn the area into a country park, seeded with wild grassland and planted with small trees. Eastbrookend is really big, as you'll know if you've ever looked out of the window of a District line train between Dagenham East and Elm Park and wondered what that really big green space was. In the northwestern quadrant is The Chase Nature Reserve, with wooded byways and lakes for fishing, and in the middle of that the Millennium Centre[photo]. It's a pioneering example of sustainable development, complete with wind turbine, recycled aluminium roof and non-intrusive foundations. I was pleased to find the building open, then spooked out to be the only person within. The so-called "exhibition" was a few lacklustre panels, the viewing platform upstairs was almost reachable but locked, and every thick wooden door closed with a silent thud. The cafe appears to close at weekends, which is bad news if you're seeking probably the best value meal in London - a sandwich, crisps and any drink for £2. If you ever want to judge levels of affluence in London, cafe prices are a damned fine indicator, and the clientèle round here sure aren't affluent. Nevertheless the country park's a fine natural hideaway (Pete agrees), and springs to life for the annual Eastbrookend Country Fair on the first Saturday in June. by tube: Dagenham East by bus: 174
Somewhere random: Mark's Stone And finally (really, finally), let's go stand in a hedge. A hedge in the northern tip of the borough, near Mark's Gate, above the A12. Somewhere on the other side of this hedge used to be the Manor of Marks, one of the medieval manors of Dagenham, now subsumed beneath a quarry for extracting gravel. For centuries all this was royal forest - Hainault Forest - covering tens of thousands of Essex acres. The southern boundary was the old road from Ilford to Romford, and the northwestern boundary was the River Roding, but the eastern boundary needed to be set in stone. A number of boundary markers were erected so that people knew precisely where King James's side ended, and some of these still survive today. One (Warren's Stone) has been moved to the lawn outside Valence House, while another on the verge of the A118 (Havering Stone) still delimits today's borough boundary. I went in search of Mark's Stone, armed only with the knowledge that it was in a hedge to the east of Whalebone Lane North. It took a while to find - not in the cemetery, not in the cottage garden - until I spotted a gap littered with crisp packets, carrier bags and burger wrappers. There should have been two stones here, both Grade II listed, one from 1641, the other 1772. The younger marker's still there, entirely illegible, but the older appeared to have been snapped off over the last decade and only an embarrassed stump remained. Or more likely I was looking from the wrong side, and it's the older that's survived, with its inscription on the far side I never thought to check at the time. So let's leave it there, my random borough journey, standing in a hedge opposite a housing estate looking at the wrong side of a mostly-irrelevant vandalised monument [photo]. Seems a sort of fitting way to end. by bus: 62, 296, 362