If you were planning to go to the Post Office in Bromley-by-Bow today, you can't. The branch in Stroudley Walk closed yesterday, and won't ever be reopening. It was, to be fair, possibly the most horrible Post Office anywhere in London. The building was part of the postwar redevelopment project of Bromley High Street - some architect's idea of 1970s chic, a dysfunctional symphony in brown. In their benevolence Stroudley Walk was gifted a grim brick parade with flats on top, and an arched colonnade which inconveniently blocked sight of all the shops behind. It's no retail nirvana, indeed far from it.
The Post Office was situated nextdoor to a fish and chip shop of dubious origin, presenting a windowless façade to the windswept precinct outside. Entering for stamps, or more likely the cashing of some benefit payment, meant stepping back in time to austerity decor untroubled by refurbishment in several decades. A queue wiggled up the threadbare carpet and back, overwhelmed somewhat by the space, to a window behind which staff scuttled around in semi-darkness. More than one language was spoken, not always mine, and waiting for service was always somewhat purgatorial. The thought that I will never again have to queue in Stygian gloom has cheered me no end.
The official closing time was 5.30pm yesterday, but when I turned up at five the lights were already off and the brown doors were locked shut. No other potential customers seemed inconvenienced. "This Post Office Is Now Close!!!" read the message hastily marker-penned and blutacked to the glass panel, above the poster announcing the official Local Public Consultation Decision. That consultation took place last summer, when Branch 050002's demise had been pencilled in for November, but here we are now a full nine months later. And what this means is that if you want to post a parcel or pay your vehicle tax in Bromley-by-Bow today you can't, you'll have to travel a mile or more to one of the East End's other branches.
But tomorrow, woohoo, Bow's brand new Post Office opens. It's not in a new building, and it's not on Stroudley Walk, it's at the back of the existing Nisa supermarket on Bow Road. You'll know it if you're local as the shop with the Co-op beehive motif on the front, circa 1919, but it's been in the hands of more minor grocery chains for some time now. This is one of the Post Office's new-style modernisations, now rolling out across the country, the idea being to achieve symbiosis with an existing business rather that waste money on solo premises. Customers get longer opening hours and a nicer environment, and the Post Office gets a lot of old premises to flog off.
There are benefits too for Nisa's existing customers. All Post Offices must be fully accessible so money's been spent doubling up the access ramp at the front so it runs both ways. The front door is now electronic and swishes automatically, rather than us having to remember whether it pushes or pulls, and daily newspapers have been moved to a new rack so that wheelchairs don't immediately crash into the old one on entering. One particular aisle has been designated the official route to the rear and has red and white arrowed signs hung aloft. And right at the back of the store is the new Post Office area, just past the Häagen-Dazs and frozen food, allegedly an extension but more likely a converted bit of storeroom.
The new facilities aren't yet uncovered, but we're promised "one position screened counter and two open plan serving positions", in an environment surely more pleasant than before. There's also a further serving point located at the front of the shops by the till, the idea being that the majority of Post Office services will be available whenever the shop is open, so that's a win all round. The new postmistress is the supermarket manager's wife, who looks like she's raring to get the whole thing started. She's been doing the job over in Stroudley Walk for a while, and has a no-nonsense strength of character which would suit a primary school headteacher or a plum role in EastEnders.
But nobody's yet moved the Post Office's Royal Mail post box. That still sits in Stroudley Walk like it always has, which is now 650 metres (and two pedestrian crossings) from the new counter service. Another box exists outside the old Town Hall on Bow Road, but this isn't exactly conveniently located either if you're exiting the supermarket with a birthday card to post. I wonder if that's an oversight, or simply because the two halves of the GPO no longer need to talk to one another nor support each other's work.
Anyway, Bow's new Post Office opens for business at 1pm tomorrow, should this be of any interest to any of you. The new place will no doubt be bland and functional, but at least it won't the desolate cavern we locals have had to use for years. And that'll be another nail in the coffin for Stroudley Walk, never the retail hub its planners hoped, and now devoid of the one public service that brought additional commercial custom. And I can't see any business wanting to buy the old Post Office up, but then the neighbouring Rose and Crown pub has recently metamorphosed into a peri-peri espresso bar, so stranger things have happened.