Random Station: WOOD STREET
London Borough of Waltham Forest Overground, zone 4 Hinterland: 3.5km²
As generic station names go, Wood Street's nigh perfect - it could be anywhere. In fact it's one stop after Walthamstow Central on the way to Chingford, and one of onlyfourLondonstations to straddle the Greenwich Meridian. Its catchment area covers much of east-side Walthamstow, from Whipps Cross up to the North Circular, with the aforementioned 'Wood Street' at its heart.
Wood Street Wood Street's about three-quarters of a mile long, and has been here since the seventh century, although obviously you couldn't buy kebabs or get your nails polished back then. The oldest surviving building is a single storey 18th century weatherboarded butchers shop, heroically out of place amid an urban high street, and ironically now trading as an organic wholefoods emporium. Elsewhere the shops are a notch above generic chain fare, with the highlight very much the Wood Street Indoor Market, a quirky enclave of teensy tiny boutiquettes.
To enter from the main street, look out for two salmon-pink-painted buildings, each the portal to a narrow alley lined with mini-businesses, and linking up with each other round the back. The first shop inside is Martin's Toys and Memorabilia, a haven for 007 collectibles and boxed Corgis, while up the rear are racks of vinyl records, vintage Mod-style clothing and a football programme bazaar. Non-blokey options include handicrafts and handbaggery, salons and shutter shops, with none of the posh vibe you'd get if this were W11 instead of E17. It won my vote.
Closer to the station a modern attempt to create a new piazza, which might once have looked engaging on a planner's drawing boardhas unleashed an unyieldingly bleak space. Things might pick up now the new Co-Op's (just) opened, but that's only so they can knock the old one down, as well as the majority of the housing beyond. What's rising in its place is a generic estate of 400+ bricky flats, the usual mix of full-price and barely affordable, under the twee title Feature 17. The name is a nod to the presence of several silent movie studios which sprang up on Wood Street between 1914 and 1932, once a hub for the biggest stars of the day, now marked by a single blue plaque from the marketing budget.
A brighter aspect to Wood Street is the plethora of murals adorning its walls, slapped up by a community art project intent on raising the area's visual profile. Expect to see more of this kind of thing now Waltham Forest has filled the Mayor's inaugural slot as London Borough of Culture. The better art is to the north of the station, especially up near "Woo Street Library" (as an unfortunate dropped letter has it), but this useful map reveals plenty elsewhere. Oh, and look out for the Greenwich Meridian marker embedded in the pavement outside the deserted lockup opposite Wood Street Tabernacle, a welcome postwar leftover.
God's Own Junkyard
It can't be up here, I thought. A drab-looking industrial estate off Shernhall Street, not quite close enough to Walthamstow Village, with signs reading Private Property, MOT Testing Servicing & Repairs and Orange Badge Holders Will Be Clamped. But other signs thankfully hinted otherwise, so I ventured through the gates into a short cul-de-sac of warehouses. One was indeed a garage, but then came a microbrewery, and then the Mother's Ruin Gin Palace, or so the exterior claimed. These were shut, but right down the end were a painted Madonna, a cow wearing a green knitted scarf, and a rope to hold back crowds who thankfully hadn't yet arrived. This must be the place.
God's Own Junkyard is an Aladdin's Cave of works by neon artist Chris Bracey, with every surface covered by glowing tubes. Entering is like stepping into several Fifties diners simultaneously. Icons glow in pink, red and blue, words and phrases gleam at jaunty angles, and offbeat ephemera litters what's left of the floor. It's a dazzling combination. Chris had been making this stuff for over 30 years, but it's social media which has made his bolthole a must-visit, as Instagrammers flood in to see what the buzz is all about. Even on a Friday morning I found impeccably dressed Pacific Rim visitors lining up their smartphones for a golden shot. On a weekend afternoon it must be much harder to share without including a sea of bobbing heads.
There is of course a cafe attached, punningly named The Rolling Scones, who'll do you a slice of cake or a cream tea to make your trek out here more worthwhile. You don't get quite such a good view from in there, and if it's busy you'll never get a seat, but it could offer valuable downtime for selecting that perfectly-cropped profile-boosting image. Check before visiting in case the unit's closed for a private event, like a hen do or a Vogue cover shoot, and don't waste your time between Monday and Thursday, because neon heaven takes most of the week off. But God's Own Junkyard is as unique as all the media bluster suggests, so get here early, and #like #love #fave.
Walthamstow Town Hall
One flank of this magnificent 1930s behemoth is closer to Walthamstow Central, but everything from the central fountain eastwards is closer to Wood Street. I've been inside the main building before, courtesy of Open House, but had never taken time to admire the Assembly Hall to one side.
It's quite a sight, a lofty pillared Art Deco box with golden-framed windows rising all the way up. Across the top is written the inspirational phrase "Fellowship Is Life...", followed by the rather less upbeat "...And The Lack Of Fellowship Is Death." Only the first three words are in use as the Assembly Hall's motto, as part of a rebrand which will see the events venue become WAH17, because someone evidently thought that was better. Don't expect to get inside without a wedding, or a Malawi Arts Festival, to go to.
At the southern end of Wood Street, at the forest edge, Whipps Cross is dominated by a giant roundabout so should perhaps be called Whipp Round. There again, major works are currently underway to remove the circulation, and the end result by the middle of next year will be more like Whipped Tee. I ventured briefly onto the adjacent Leyton Flats, stepping carefully through the mud towards the central pond, and disturbed several giant rats from the undergrowth along the way. Winter is not these former gravel pits' finest season.
Meanwhile hidden across the road is Whipps CrossHospital, an NHS bulwark that's really showing its age. Built up over the years from an Edwardian infirmary, the site is a sprawling cluster of outbuildings, clinics and no-expense-wasted architecture. Walking around the exterior is awkward as the pavements keep giving out, and a couple of wings are fenced off awaiting unscheduled demolition. 15 years ago Whipps Cross was on the list for a futuristic PFI overhaul, but budgetary deficits meant the cash for redevelopment was never forthcoming, so staff continue to work miracles in distinctly unshiny surroundings.