diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 21, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

Fairfield Road to Flyover

I live in a medieval village. No anonymous housing estate on the site of a former field for me, oh no. The spot where I live has been part of a thriving settlement for many hundreds of years, a cluster of cottages astride the main East Road whose importance has slowly grown over the centuries. My home is built by the old village green, around which generations of bakers and blacksmiths and brewers have plied their trade. But today it's no longer easy to recognise Bow, heavily built up and choked by dual carriageway traffic, as a long-standing location. Only one obvious clue to our village history remains, and that's the church in the middle of the road.

St Mary's church, BowSt Mary's church dates back to 1311 when Edward III granted use of a patch of land "in the middle of the King's highway'. Neither the site nor the road have shifted since, although the building has taken a bit of a battering in its time. A storm in 1829 caused the top half of the medieval tower to collapse (cue rebuild 1). By the end of the century the entire building had become unsafe and was threatened with being pulled down to improve traffic flow (cue restoration campaign and rebuild 2). And then, on the very last night of the Blitz, a wayward bomb caused serious damage to the western half and the tower (cue restoration campaign and rebuild 3). The church we see today is a bit of a mishmash of styles [photo], but the lower half of the tower is still very 14th century and the font is even older.

St-Mary's-By-The-Flyover continues to minister to an indifferent parish, severed from the rest of the community on its isolated traffic island. But on the inside, with Bow's buzz and bustle blanked out, it's a delightful building. The roof has ancient oak rafters, the walls are littered with antique memorials and the stained glass window conceals a secret squirrel... as I discovered whilst attending the vicar's summer fete last weekend. Old ladies chatted on wooden chairs in the nave, sipping tea and nibbling cakes, while a second-hand bookstall dispensed Mills & Boon and Blue Peter annuals beneath the belltower. [No, these aren't the famous Bow Bells, because those are at St Mary-le-Bow in the City instead]. I may have failed abjectly to Splat The Rat in the churchyard, but I did manage to walk away from the tombola clutching a photo frame and two cans of Stella. Now that's my kind of church fete.

Bow Village (looking east)Bow Road divides in two to pass the church, with considerably older buildings along the northern slipstream. Look east past Mr Gladstone's statue and you'll see what I mean [photo]. The Roman Catholic church opposite the pedestrian crossing was once coupled with a Victorian convent, whose nuns specifically targeted this area in 1868 because they wanted to work "in the worst part of London". How quickly, and desperately, the village of Bow had been swallowed up by the sprawling city. One group who suffered were the matchgirls working at the Bryant and May factory round the corner in Fairfield Road (now Bow Quarter), and whose 1888 strike initiated one of the very first trade unions for women workers. The girls' impoverished lives were improved when their leader, the radical Annie Besant, established the East London Working Women's Club at number 193 (now Link House apartments).

Over on the southern side of the road, razed to create the Bow Bridge council estate in the 1930s, is a more famous location in the feminist struggle. It was at a former baker's shop, now long demolished, that campaigning suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst set up her campaign headquarters in 1912. She painted the words "Votes for women" in big gold letters above the door and set out to mobilise local support for George Lansbury's upcoming pro-suffrage by-election. George narrowly lost, and Sylvia & Co moved on to protest from cheaper premises on the Roman Road. But the issue wouldn't go away, and Bow Road was the scene of many an angry protest, and broken window, and arresting behaviour, before the vote was finally won.

Gladstone statue, Bow Roadfour local sights
» Gladstone statue: The respected Liberal Prime Minister gazes out across Bow Road from his lofty plinth, gazing down over a set of barricaded gents urinals that may one day be transformed into a mini subterranean art gallery. William's hands are covered with red paint, daubed by some anonymous protester in the early 90s. [photo]
» Co-Op beehive: Above the flagpole at my local Costcutter, formerly part of the Stratford Co-Operative, is an eye-catching stone carving of a beehive and associated buzzy insects. [photo]
» Bow Arts Trust: A community of over 100 artists, who splatter and carve and construct, and whose studios are open one weekend every June should you fancy a look inside. In the alleyway between the two buildings, optimistically named "Bow Arts Lane", a selection of brightly coloured fluorescent tubes dangle from the sky. [photo]
» Bow Baptist Church: Once a lofty rose-windowed chapel, then a squat post-war brick hall, then (a fortnight ago) completely bulldozed to the ground to make way for another block of tall shiny flats. But a block of flats with a small ground floor chapel, no less. [photo]

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