Random Station: FAIRLOP
London Borough of Redbridge Underground, zone 4 Hinterland: 4.1km²
First off, Fairlop station is lovely. It wasn't originally part of the Underground, so bears the mark of the Great Eastern Railway in the bracketry, and its canopied platforms retain a proper rural Edwardian feel. Indeed Fairlop is the only tube station in London to be entirely surrounded by Green Belt land, hence much of its catchment area is undeveloped, and it's the least used station to have a Night Tube service. For my first random station visit I'm exploring a thin splinter of land sandwiched between Hainault and Barkingside, approximately defined by Fullwell Avenue and Forest Road. I may not have hit gold, but the environs of Fairlop station are definitely silver.
Fullwell Cross Library
I think this is my favourite public library anywhere in London. It squats beside the roundabout at Fullwell Cross, a lowrise rotunda topped off with a startling copper lantern. The outer section is finished off in concrete, with slit-like vertical windows in a semi-regular sequence. The central crown comprises sixteen folded curves, symmetrical like a seashell, above a ring of arched windows to channel illumination within. This alien book repository was designed in the 1960s by the great architect Frederick Gibberd, whose most famous building is the echoingly similar Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He also designed the swimming pool in the leisure centre nextdoor, which is twice the size, but nobody ever stands in awe of the swimming pool.
I'd passed by on several occasions and never gone inside, but on this occasion I remembered that libraries are public buildings so I'd be more than welcome. My opinion was not diminished. The heart of the building is the central circular space beneath the lantern, brightly lit, with an outer wheel of bookshelves and a second set of standalones curving within. A series of inspirational quotes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf et al, spin round the rim, and a particularly pleasing shade of light blue has been used for highlighting detail. A librarian oversees from a side desk, not necessarily in line of sight should you wish to grab a photo.
Various rooms lead off around the perimeter, some for staff, some for meetings and one the children's library. One deliberately large area now includes a bank of public computers, whose internet facilities were being particularly well used (for a weekday lunchtime) by students and silver surfers alike. One of these older gentlemen left the building at the same time as I did, and stopped for a chat when he saw me grabbing one last picture. "It was done by the same bloke who did Harlow," he said, "there's a plaque inside." We mutually appreciated the architecture, then progressed to wondering why the police were talking to a large group of boisterous teenagers assembled outside KFC, and then I moved on.
Also at Fullwell Cross... The New Fairlop Oak: The tree in the centre of the roundabout is modern replacement for the ancient oak which marked the site of a raucous July fair in Georgian times. For further info, see my previous post. The local Wetherspoons retains the name. The Ace-State Cinema: This Art Deco 'Cathedral of Motion Picture Arts', opened 1938, was part-transformed into Gala Bingo in 1984. John will tell you more in the comments. Byron: A quirky gents hairdressers, self-styled the The Demon Barber of Fencepiece, its window stacked with bygone curios, cutout moustaches and customer headshots. Kantor King Solomon High School: This modern Jewish orthodox secondary school, whose pupils sometimes lunch at KFC, includes an Amstrad Technology Wing paid for by former chair of governors Lord Sugar.
The suburb of Clayhall sits at the centre of the Hainault Loop, invisible to anyone whose view of outer London is coloured by the tube map. Where the houses eventually stop, and the land rises up towards Essex, are the extensive acres of Claybury Park. This is all that remains of the landscaped grounds of Claybury Hall, not that Humphrey Repton thought the area needed a lot of landscaping, and he seems to have received his salary for doing little more than hedge removal. Whatever, the park is a treasured combination of open heath, wooded slopes and ornamental water, not particularly at its best in January, but tons better than your average local rec.
I wandered the end of the park my quest allowed me to visit, skirting the adventure playground where some AWOL schoolkids were holding court by the sound mirrors. Instead I headed into the woods, impressed by the contours most of East London doesn't have. In appropriate months the undergrowth is amok with bluebells, wood anemone and the rare Forster's Woodrush, but I only have the nature trail leaflet's word on that. It is an excellent nature trail leaflet, however, and the number of mapboards scattered round the park makes it easier to follow than it should be.
The northern edge of the park rubs up against the former Claybury Hospital, a Victorian asylum metamorphosed into a plush gated development. Its residents can pop down into the park at certain points with the aid of a key, whereas mere plebs who want to head north are stuffed and have to go round the long way. Thwarted, I traipsed along muddy tracks to an open plain with views towards Kent, then discovered a better spot (near the orchard) where the skyline of central London was arrayed along the horizon. What a treat to have Claybury Park on your doorstep, as I suspect outer Redbridge's dogs know well.
Meanwhile along Forest Road... Redbridge Sports Centre: If you can't build on the land beside the railway, play sport. The RBC has filled the space to the west of the station embankment for over 40 years, with a broad mix of facilities and buildings named after not especially famous people. The gym and squash courts are in Norman Booth, badminton and netball in Jean Brown, astroturf and hardplay in Norman Clarke and refreshing cappuccinos in his wife Edna. The combination of 26 indoor and outdoor courts is why the Essex County Lawn Tennis Association is based here, despite this not actually being Essex. The whole complex is busy even on weekdays, as school minibuses and swinging kitbags attest. I was initially impressed that parking cost only £1 for three hours, but it had been free until a year ago, and regular users continue to be outraged.
In the 1930s the flat agricultural land of Fairlop Plain was deemed ideal for the construction of a new London Airport. Plans were drawn up for a "super-standard" facility with 2000-yard concrete runways, and Ilford Borough Council were more than keen. Then of course World War Two intruded, which means the runways got built but for bombers, and several Spitfire and Typhoon squadrons were based here. After the war Heathrow and then Gatwick took precedence, and the redundant RAF Fairlop was used for gravel extraction instead. More recently those unruly pits have been filled in to create lakes and a golf course, and the end result is Fairlop Waters Country Park.
It's got a bit of everything. Lovers of watersports will enjoy the rowing club and sailing club, while a huge climbing tower allows abseiling and high ropes action. Parents with toddlers deem one circuit of the main lake ideal for stretching littl'uns' legs, allowing regular stops to flail towards the ducks and geese on the waterside. Golfers have their own sideline empire, including driving range, and a clubhouse offering lager and Greek cuisine. And anybody teenage-spirited will appreciate the boulder park, the UK's largest, where nine gnarly concrete 'rocks' provide adequate challenge for experts and scramblers alike.
The all-weather path proved ideal for January, as my attempts to wander off-piste grew increasingly squelchy. Even the golf course had gained a few additional water features, so my attempt to yomp across to the nature reserve had to be abandoned. Instead I dropped by at the WW2 memorial, and wondered what some of the information boards had said before they were ripped off, and nodded in recognition to young couples and elderly ladies heading clockwise as I passed them for the second time. On departure I noticed that the letters of the Fairlop Waters sign are infilled with gravel, which is a nice touch. And hurrah, the station really isn't very far away.