J♦ Barking/Dagenham In 1965 the Municipal Borough of Barking and the Municipal Borough of Dagenham were combined to form the London borough of Barking. Residents of Dagenham were quite put out by their nominal omission, and cheered when the borough was renamed Barking and Dagenham in 1980. I've blogged about the place extensivelybefore, including an entire week of jamjar posts in 2012, but for this report I've chosen to go back as a tourist. Is it possible to have a grand day out in Barking and Dagenham? Absolutely.
Only one-third of London boroughs can boast a National Trust property, and Barking and Dagenham is one of the lucky few. You could drive around all day and never see it, though, unless you happened to be looking down the right sidestreet off Ripple Road and spotted the twisty chimneys. Clement Sisley's manor house on the Thames marshes is a wholly unexpected survivor from Tudor times, lingering on as a farmstead, then swallowed up four centuries later within a large housing estate. A square ring of tarmac was drawn around thehouse and its walled garden, and today prewar semis and parked cars hem it in on every side.
Always take up the offer of a tour if one's on offer, but the guide hadn't turned up on the day I visited, so I was left to my own devices to look around. Eastbury Manor House has three floors to explore, with the more interesting historical interpretations on the upper level, and wood panelled rooms ideal for weddings, functions and meetings downstairs. Only one of the original fireplaces remains, plus a couple of incomplete frescos, but you do get a sense of Eastbury's charm and function elsewhere, particularly in the creakier eaves. The most extraordinary feature is probably the Turret Stairs, a helix of wooden slats which climb to a small landing at almost chimney level, opening up panoramic views as far as Barking and Docklands.
The building's great, but the full experience is all down to its staff. Several were out keeping the garden in pristine condition, raking and trimming, while others readied themselves for service in the cafe. This isn't National Trust-run but is certainly up to scratch, with apple crumble crunch and squidgy dolloped cheesecake to enjoy along with a pot of tea, if not the local clientele to bring the place to life. Admission to Eastbury Manor House costs a mere £4, which is a total bargain, and only £3 if you can prove you're a B&D resident. Be aware that the house is only open on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at present, and closes from Christmas to Easter, but several craftsy classes and events take place throughout the year. For a full review of a proper visit to this hidden gem, check out my five-paragrapher from 2012.
Valence House is named after a 13th century granddaughter of King John, although the current manor house dates back no further than the 1400s. It has the look of a rambling farmhouse, with a ginkgo tree currently shedding gorgeous leaves above an old coal tax post planted outside. One gallery on the ground floor tells the story of the house, but the majority of the interior is given over to the history of the borough, which is unexpectedly fantastically diverse. One highlight is the Dagenham Idol, a naked humanoid in Scots pine (and one of the oldest wooden statues ever to be unearthed), but I was also impressed by chunks of stonework from the attraction I'd be visiting next.
How many of the borough's current residents realise that Barking was once one of England's most important fishing ports, while Dagenham was barely a medieval village? The BecontreeEstate turned everything around, the LCC's largest overspill project, and an armchair tableau depicts how the first residents of the nearby avenues would have lived. Ford workers get their space, as do the panoply of famous faces who grew up in the borough, and there's even a cabinet revealing the secrets of the Dagenham Girl Pipers. Watch some old Co-Op films, and see the giant tusks which gave their name to, and once stood over, Whalebone Lane. There always seems to be another room of stuff to explore, and another local nugget to uncover.
To find the cafe and the toilets, cross the courtyard and enter the modern lowrise building where the borough's Archives and Local Studies Centre is also housed. This cafe's a lot less cake trolley and a bit more soup and panini, but pitched better towards what most nearby residents actually want. It's also open five days a week (avoid Sundays and Mondays), and as free to enter as the museum, in case you're ever out this way. If your tourism limit is Zone 1 and maybe Greenwich and Richmond, open your eyes to the suburbs.
Barking, yes Barking, used to boast an abbey to compare to the finest in the land. It was founded in 666AD, razed by the Vikings and rebuilt as a nunnery. Once William the Conqueror gave it a royal charter its pre-eminence was assured - to be abbess at Barking was to hold one of the most important female roles in the country. Alas all of the abbey's land was lost at the Dissolution, and almost all of the buildings save the Curfew Tower and the parish church alongside, with the stone carted off to build palaces at Greenwich and Dartford.
The remains of the abbey were excavated around 100 years ago, and a series of paths laid out around a few surviving snaking walls. It's now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, a grassy dip that's locked at night, but during the day acts as a public park for skateboarding, spliffing or downing several cans of alcohol, depending. Find a bench and reflect on the religious significance of this unlikely spot by the ring road, then maybe afterwards pop down to the Town Quay on the River Roding and try to imagine the fishing fleet in port. Outer London is full of surprises.
This summer Sadiq Khan launched a competition to name a London Borough of Culture, one for 2019 and one for 2020. Most councils are trying to jump on the bandwagon, and Barking and Dagenham are right up there with them. What's more I can tell you all about their plans, because I turned up in the Town Square just as their bid was being launched. A group of local dignitaries had gathered on the raised podium, two stiltwalkers were waving coloured flags outside the library, several council staff had turned up to swell the numbers, and a few classes of schoolchildren had been invited along to make sure the gathering was of a decent size.
The leader of the council, whose name is Darren, was acting as MC and winding up the crowd, complete with a strand of tinsel wrapped around his neck. He introduced the local MP, that's Margaret Hodge, who gave a stirring speech confirming that B&D is definitely the best borough in London. Darren then cajoled the crowd to form a conga and to dance around the square, paying special attention to staying within the range of the camera on the balcony. The DJ in the tent played Black Lace until there was enough footage for a pinned tweet on social media, and suddenly the reason for inviting all those excitable children had become clear.
There was a serious bit, where Dazzer outlined all the wonderful things that a successful bid could mean for the borough, and then he rounded off by urging everyone to raise the banners they'd made and face the camera again. Not everyone was looking the right way when the glitter cannon exploded, so that image hasn't appeared quite so frequently on Twitter as the ubiquitous #CongaForCulture. The launch event was rounded off by some dancing, a prolonged period of gyration and bodypopping by some lads in trackies, which wouldn't have been what Bexley would have done, but the young audience lapped it up. Meanwhile Darren rushed around pressing flesh, smiling at journalists and grinning through a branded cardboard frame, before disappearing up the Town Hall steps before the dancers had finished.
I see Barking and Dagenham very much as the Hull of the competition, the wild card outlier, and a borough that very much believes it needs to win. They'd probably run a very different Year of Culture to most of the other applicants, more community based, more inclusive, and wholly unashamed to organise a conga if that's what its residents enjoy. We'll find out in February whether they've been successful, and in 2019 the rest of London may finally come and experience the cultural delights of the borough. In the meantime a National Trust house, a medieval manor and a 7th century abbey should be enough to be getting on with.