diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 21, 2013

There's not been a cinema in E3 for decades. There's not been a mental hospital in E3 for seven years. But this summer the remains of the latter are transforming into the former, for the benefits of the population at large, courtesy of the St Clement's Social Club. This group of volunteers have taken over St Clement's Hospital on Bow Road during a temporary pause before the site is turned over to redevelopment, and are busy establishing a social venue inside. As of this weekend the front gates are open, the site is free to access and you can come and poke your nose inside. I've been wanting to do that for years. Achievement unlocked.

St Clement's started out as the City of London Union Workhouse in 1849, where those with nothing came to throw themselves upon the mercy of the benefactors. In 1874 it switched to being an infirmary for the assessment of the mental health of inmates at other institutions, and in 1912 a facility for the chronically ill. When the NHS was created it became a psychiatric hospital, and remained so until 2005 when services moved out and everything was boarded up. Normally in such circumstances the end result is bland flats, but events at St Clement's have led down a somewhat unusual path. The site was made London's first Community Land Trust, which means its freehold will be held by the local community rather than guzzled whole by a developer. There'll be considerably more affordable housing than usual, some of it newbuild, the rest created within the hospital's existing landmark buildings. But not quite yet, hence one last summer to celebrate.

The St Clement's Social Club are opening up the site for a month, starting this weekend, with aspirations to host a cafe and some gardens. It's going well. Hundreds of volunteers, including a team of bankers shipped in by Barclays, have been busy tidying, clearing and planting. It feels somewhat incongruous to see a wonky NHS sign (pointing to Occupational Therapy, the Specialist Drug Unit and the Mind Advocacy Project) rising from a bed of pot plants. It's no Kew Gardens, and the hot weather's not helped, but the site looks rather less rundown as a result. The 'cafe' is a converted fairground burger van, conversion still underway, but they do already appear to have Meantime beer on tap so priorities first. Alongside, by the planters, the Tower Hamlets Cycling Club have set up a bike workshop, because it's that sort of place. Meanwhile there's a bar at the rear of the site, or more of a window really, dispensing wine, gin & tonic or sangria for £3 (n.b. not always open).

During July's setting-up period, visitors are being allowed free rein to wander around approximately half of the site. Some realise this and have turned up deliberately. Others were passing and discovered the ever-closed gates open, including several bemused children on bikes with a new playground to explore. Yesterday a couple of the main buildings were unlocked and open, including the John Denham block overlooking Mile End Road. Warnings across the site warn that you're here at your own risk, but there is a certain thrill to entering gloomy institutional buildings formerly the realm only of the illegal urban adventurer. One external wall tells "The Story of St Clement's" in taped-up photos, one of which I recognised because I took it. It's a shot of the front of the hospital illuminated in red to celebrate the launch of the Trust last December, and I assume one of the volunteers nicked it off Flickr. Hello if that was you, you only had to ask, and obviously I'd have absolutely definitely have said yes.

These first few weeks are just a warm-up, until the Shuffle Festival kicks off on August 8th. This is an eleven-day film festival, curated by director and all-round supremo Danny Boyle who just happens to live across the road. He's selected a series of crowd-pleasing films, plus a few of his own, and will be gracing some of the presentations with a personal Q&A. The festival kicks off with Shallow Grave (pretty much sold out, I understand) and continues with sure-fire crowd pleasers like The Long Good Friday and Withnail & I. Trainspotting's on the list, obviously, along with Rosemary's Baby and Attack The Block. Sunday 11th has been given over to films relating to mental illness, appropriately, plus Ruby Wax will be doing a turn. Many of the evenings end up with after parties and DJs, for those who'd like to make a full summer's evening on it. And yes, there's a full screening of Danny's Olympic Opening Ceremony on Tuesday 13th, and that one's free.

There'll be two cinemas on site, or at least two spaces where films will be screened. One's the Wentworth Stanley Hall, formerly the main place of assembly for patients, which was open for wandering yesterday. As for the outdoor cinema, that's still being set up but appears to be a few chairs in a minor courtyard beneath the clocktower facing a white sheet. Tickets are on sale via the festival's website, most for £10 or £15, but a small number of cheaper tickets have been held back for those who can prove they're residents of E3. Keep an eye on Twitter to see when the 'booking desk' is staffed, and nip down in person with proof of address and a fiver. I'll see you there.

Further local event news: Tower Hamlets council is running a Cockney Heritage Festival, on a fairly major scale, from this weekend to next. There are parties and singalongs and guided walks, indeed a lot of stuff aimed at the borough's older residents, as well as film screenings, talks and special events. The Festival peaks in Bow next Saturday with a tea dance at the art gallery, a fair in the church and a procession of Pearlies from the Bow Bells pub. [programme]

Further local development news: Last summer I told you the tale of Cody Dock, the last link in the Lea Valley Walk preventing access along the river to Trinity Buoy Wharf. A group of volunteers have been trying to create a community hub and open up the riverbank, but funding has been stubbornly unforthcoming. Now at last the Mayor's Big Green Fund has thrown £240,000 to help kickstart the Lea River Park and "create a new connection between Cody Dock and Canning Town". This is marvellous and well-deserved news (and is potentially even better because that ghastly name, the "Fatwalk", appears nowhere in the press release).

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