diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Allow me to continue to stalk architecture critic Ian Nairn across East London, revisiting the sites listed in his republished 1966 book Nairn's London (Chapter 8, Thames-Side East, North Side - pp186-189). Still to go, his five choices from Barking and Dagenham.

Nairn's London: Barking Church, Back Lane
"A happy rambling town church that has never been tidied up. One of everything, from a fragment of a Saxon cross onwards, you could have a good game of hide-and-seek around the four lines of arches. Two tombs make it worth a special visit..."

Just for a change, what's disappeared since 1966 isn't the building, it's the street. Back Lane's terraced slums have been swept away by open grass, opening up the area around St Margaret's Church to create a pleasant (if featureless) public space. Through a hedge are the sloping remains of the 7th century Abbey - for Barking was once ridiculously more important than today - now a pleasant place to rest or to exercise your turbulent Staffie. Most rush past the surviving medieval church on their way to the shops, rather than linger in the grounds, aided and abetted by railings that discourage the casual visitor. Outside service times the main door is locked, with access only via the trumped-up church hall, and at weekends essentially closed. So I wasn't able to get inside to view Sir Charles Montague "in a faery scene", nor the "wonderful attack and verve in the the ringlets of Mr Bennett's wig", these Nairn's twin treasured tombs. Sorry. moving on.

Nairn's London: Barking Station
"British Railways has recently rebuilt most of the stations on the Tilbury line. Most of them are small neat boxes, not worth a special visit. This one is much bigger, the size of a terminus in a country town, and one of the noblest new buildings in London..."

Barking station isn't somewhere I'd have picked in a list of the 450 finest spots in London, but then I'm not seeing the fresh open station building that Nairn experienced. The "tall luminous booking hall" remains, lit in fourteen glass bays beneath "a cranked concrete canopy". What's changed is the steady ingress of retail units, from jewellers to coffee shops, narrowing the width of the entrance and blocking one of the two ticket barrier openings beyond. The upper glazing is now largely obscured by advertising boards and information screens, thus artificial lighting has had to be increased to make up for the obstruction. Once through to the overbridge the atmosphere is more austere, funnelled down precipitous stairs to the platform where the eastern end lies in darkness. Barking station is now far more bustling than was ever anticipated, hence there are long-term masterplan ideals to open up the place and restore its original clarity. But I'd somehow previously missed the merits of the concrete beam architecture - Grade II listed, no less - so it's taken the writings of a long dead critic to open my eyes to the heavens.

Nairn's London: Eastbury Manor House, Eastbury Square, Barking
"When London's flood-tide flowed over the Essex marshes, a few old buildings were caught up in it... this grim red-brick manor house is the wildest possible contrast to the placid council houses neatly arranged around a square so as to leave a strip of lawn on its island. A real Bleak House, still fortified in spirit if not in fact."

I visited this Tudor outpost in 2012 as part of my final burst of Random Borough visits. If you can't be bothered to re-read that, let me simply strongly recommend that you visit some day. A Sunday from Easter to September would do nicely, or the place appears to be open most weekdays until Christmas.

Nairn's London: Dagenham Church
"Marvellous nonsense, the work of a man who had Gothic fantasy in his blood... Pure froth, without a care in the world; it is difficult to guess which Dagenham is the more alien to it: the original bleak village in the marshes, or the present chaotic spilling over of London's spare parts."

Poor Dagenham village. The church and half-timbered Crown Street should have been at the heart of the modern suburb, but in the 1920s the enveloping Becontree Estate tugged the heart of the community inexorably towards the new shopping centre on the Heathway. Any lingering nostalgia for a rural past disappeared in 1963 when the council announced its decision to demolish most of Crown Street to make way for 334 new homes. Cottages dating back to the early 14th century were summarily dismantled, rather than repaired, and by 1970 almost all of the medieval high street had swept away. Tower blocks were ruled out in favour of two-storey brick cuboids, allegedly with a "village atmosphere", but outrageously ordinary compared to what had been here before. All that survives today is one of the three pubs - the half-timbered Cross Keys - the vicarage and the parish church. Parts of this date back to the 13th century, but most has been rebuilt to within an inch of its life, most memorably in 1800 after the tower collapsed minutes before an Advent service. A tiny island of heritage in a sea of wilful functionality.

Nairn's London: The Merry Fiddlers, Dagenham
"From the outside, this is one of those neo-Georgian palaces which brewers put up in the 1930s to cover up the awful facts of drinking... The big, blank space has been divided into nooks and corners with beams and baulks made deliberately rough, a kind of packing-case bar... This wry, self conscious honesty matches the spirit of young Dagenham very well, and the place is a roaring success."

This is very much not the kind of building you normally find in a London guidebook. A cavernous estate pub serving pints rather than cocktails, the kind of ordinary boozer that Time Out would never feature in a million pop-up years. Ind Coope had redecorated the interior a few years before Nairn published his book, making something out of the "endlessly platitudinous space", and transformed by the bonhomie of the evening crowd. I was looking forward to seeing how it had fared...

...but instead discovered a large Morrisons (and its car park) covering the original location on Wood Lane. Alas The Merry Fiddlers was demolished in 1992, after an unsuccessful spell rebranded as The Hustlers, and exists now only as a nickname for the adjacent road junction amongst the older members of the community. As a supermarket the beers are cheaper these days, relatively speaking, but the atmosphere is dead, and the aisles are evacuated in the evening rather than providing somewhere to go. Instead the area's recreational needs are covered by the Becontree Heath Leisure Centre, a giant glass-fronted gym-pool combo, plus a holding area for kids to jump around within and then be fed sausage rolls afterwards. On the parade across the road is this year's “Best Fish and Chip Shop” in the South East of England, The Golden Fish, while the neighbouring Three Travellers boasts the title of “Barking and Dagenham's Pub of the year 2014”. But a sadder sign of alcoholic apocalypse is the boarded-up Ship & Anchor across the road, another of the original estate pubs recently extinguished, its gabled shell awaiting an inevitably lesser fate. Were Ian Nairn still with us, there'd be no reason for him to come back.

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