diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 31, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

Whitechapel Bell FoundryUp at the Aldgate end of High Street 2012, on the corner of Fieldgate Street, a converted pub houses Britain's oldest surviving manufacturing company. It's the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, purveyors of fine chiming metal ringers since 1570. Big Ben started out here, and the Liberty Bell, and quite possibly that bell that rings out the hour in the village where you grew up. The foundry's open five days a week, during which time tourists are permitted to peer inside at a small exhibition and take a look round the tiny shop. But to get any further you need to join a tour, and that's mighty difficult. Tours run roughly fortnightly on Saturdays, and they're currently fully booked for months if not years into the future. But I managed to slip onto a recent extra tour and see inside for myself, and it was everything I was (and wasn't) expecting.

First stop beyond the shop is the central courtyard, a tiny space used for bell storage - some new, some old, some damaged and back for repair [photo]. There's a big bell-tree on one wall which chimes the quarter hours and can also play Oranges and Lemons (well, what else?). Then through into the foundry proper, an L-shaped open plan workshop space, within which generations of bells have been cast [photo]. Mind the dust. They've used pretty much the same process here for centuries, which essentially involves forming a mould out of earthy clay and then filling it with molten bronze. Precise moulds are created by rotating a simple metal template, sort of coathanger shaped, generating both an outer and inner shape for the bell-to-be [photo]. That's stamped with any required inscription [photo], in reverse of course, and only then is the ready-mixed copper and tin poured in. It takes a weekend to cool down, which is good news if your tour's timed right. And then the bell's lugged (or craned) round the corner to be tuned. This is a bit more hi-tech, wired up to a machine with red flashing lights, but in the end it all comes down to the skill of the operator to carve out the right grooves and get the harmonics right.

old bells awaiting repairThe foundry also repairs old church bells, several of which are older than the business itself. The floor of the rear workshop is covered with them, some on the way in, some on the way out. At the top of the building is the carpentry workshop where all the woodwork needed to hang a bell in a church tower is created, including giant wheels which allow each bell in a peal to spin round. Oh, and they make handbells too. It's not quite such a lucrative business as ten thousand quid a time church bells, but it brings in the money all the same. And it requires just as skilled a process, from shaping the newly cast metal to adding the final flourish with a neat leather handle.

The tour lasted a very full two hours and our guide, the site foreman, brought the entire process alive. It was clear that the foundry is still home to some very specialised professionals. You can't find folk like this down at the job centre ("I'd like a trained clapper fitter please") and apprentices have to be trained up on site. And there are signs everywhere that this is a genuine place of everyday work. Health and safety notices by the furnace, pin-ups of scantily clad girls carefully sellotaped at eye-level, stickmen scrawled on the workshop kettle. I don't know if you'd feel comfortable allowing guided tours round your place of work at the weekend, but I'm glad I got the opportunity to poke my nose into one of Tower Hamlets' most fascinating businesses. Book now for, er, 2011?

Whitechapel Bell Foundry (tours & history)
Big Ben (150 years old this year)
Other visitors this month: photoset, podcast

• To read a fortnight of posts about High Street 2012, click here to jump down the page

 Saturday, August 30, 2008

London 2012: first signs of a stadium...

There are a lot of potentially boring hours between waking up and going to bed.
Here's a list of 100 unproductive activities some people do to occupy that time.

nap, watch Countdown, snack, look out of the window, stare out of the window at the falling rain, spend time on Facebook, tend a flower bed to make your rose bushes look really special, visit a nailbar, dust, sit on the comfy chairs at Starbucks and sip a latte, listen to the radio, watch a DVD, watch all the DVD extras, watch the DVD again with director's commentary, keep a pet, fill in a sudoku, wax your car, nibble an entire box of chocolates, daub your face with make up, worry, watch Big Brother, go on Big Brother, wiggle your Wii, read your horoscope, flirt, get your hair permed, hang around in the betting shop, sit on a bench in the park and ogle the passers by, support a football team, binge, go out for a picnic, keep a diary, make a cup of tea, worry about the price of your house, sunbathe, love a dog, go down the pub, flick through all the channels on Sky and end up watching a carpet cleaner infomercial because there's nothing better on, ring a friend, check the BBC News website to see if anything interesting has happened, Twitter, work slowly through a £40 box set of series 2 of some TV programme you forgot to watch at the time, moan and gripe, play (or watch) cricket, stare at tropical fish, read the free paper, repaint the bedroom, retile the bathroom, refit the kitchen, stroke a kitten, go for a walk, do a museum, sit on the sofa with your beloved and read different sections of the newspaper, slouch in a bus shelter smoking illicit fags, jog, lie in bed and hope the pain will go away, ride round the Circle line, tan, window shop, chat online, clockwatch, mooch around on the internet and look at things, invite friends round for a dinner party, take photographs, look at other people's photographs, do the crossword, snog, add comments to blogs, add botox, fume at the state of the world and politics and young people today and everything, work slowly through a book of word searches, go to the cinema, txt, listen to music, attempt to grow (and exhibit) a prize-winning vegetable, queue for the X Factor, gaze at the ceiling while wishing the day would hurry up and finish, play Super Mario, check your email, check your email again just in case, daydream, alphabetise your CDs, fix all the tags on your mp3s, lie in a slowly cooling bath, have sex (n.b. side effects may include keeping you busy for an additional 20 years), lock yourself away in the bathroom with a porn magazine, go to the Isle of Wight, gossip, open a bottle of wine, play a board game, go to a fancy dress party, wait, read a celebrity magazine, blog.

[sorry, that's only 94... I'm sure you can help me to finish off the list]

 Friday, August 29, 2008

IoW: along the Island Line
(continuing down the Isle of Wight's east coast railway)

Brading: Alight here for a bit of a walk to a Roman Villa. But I stayed on, as did almost everyone else on the train. Inside the station building I could see a special permanent Railway Heritage Exhibition and Visitor Centre, curated by the local town council, detailing the history of Railways on the Isle of Wight. I watched as an old lady volunteer stood alone in the centre of the room, shuffling some exhibits, waiting patiently for a non-existent visitor to come and look at posters or hire a bike or buy cakes. I almost felt like rushing off the train to make her bank holiday worthwhile, but my guilt abated and I left her to a lonely afternoon. Please, if any of you are ever passing through, do pop in and ease my conscience.

Sandown PierSandown: Not the Surrey park with the racecourse, but one of the Isle of Wight's three major southern resorts. Sunshine and shelter give this coastal strip one of the UK's finest microclimates, although the bank holiday weather I suffered was atypically grey, misty and damp. Not that the holidaymakers who'd decamped here for the week were going to let the underwhelming weather get them down. Admittedly absolutely nobody was hiring a deckchair or striped sunlounger, staying away from the beach in favour of chips on the promenade or a look round the shops. But many had found solace on the pier, firing money into the slots or wandering around the indoor "adventure" miniature golf course. I don't think I've ever walked through quite so many amusements prior to escaping out onto the boardwalk of a pier before (oh look, saucy postcards with cut-out faces, and dodgems, and yet more amusements). "Spare a pound, sir?" asked various helmeted members of the local lifeboat crew. They looked crestfallen when my donation slipped through my fingers and rolled across the pier's wooden slats, but then put on a magnificient rescue operation to retrieve the coin from a narrow crevice above the waves. Impressive rescue skills, guys.

Lake: Strange name for a station, especially when there isn't a lake in the vicinity. Lake is a quiet clifftop village, a carpet of bungalows with a glorious view across the sweeping curve of Sandown Bay. At least I think it's a glorious view - I couldn't see all the way round on Monday through the murk. Neither could I see the crumbling sandstone cliffs beneath my feet, nor the dinosaur bones scattered liberally amongst the unstable strata, nor the row of off-white beach huts way down below. But I did appreciate the lost grandeur of Battery Gardens. This clifftop expanse was once a thriving summer haunt with ice cream kiosk, tea rooms and extensive terraced flower beds, but on a grey bank holiday afternoon in 2008 I was the only visitor. It seems these well-tended municipal gardens are now too far from Sandown's commercial centre to make any impact, and I felt like the sole mourner at a funeral for the traditional English seaside holiday as I passed through.

Shanklin LiftShanklin: I immediately recognised the architectural style at this station [photo], with its wooden canopy and twirly monogrammed ironwork, as something very similar to that of Bromley-by-Bow much nearer home. Outside the station I had to trek down a couple of suburban backstreets before there were any clues that Shanklin was anything special. But once I reached the hill down the Old High Street, weaving between a handful of picturesque thatched cottages, the contrast with London E3 was extreme. Close by was the entrance to Shanklin Chine, a leafy river-cut ravine leading down to the beach. Publicity outside the entrance failed to convince me that £3.75 for entrance would be well spent, although looking back now (mmm, waterfall) I suspect I may have missed out. Instead I headed down the cliff via the cheap zig-zag route to explore the delights of the beach. Proper sand, more beach huts, and a whole additional street at almost-sea-level in the shelter of the sandstone escarpment. A bright orange land train waited to take lazy visitors up and down the Esplanade, from a starting point adjacent to where the pier used to be (until the great storm of 1987 blew it away). But I was most struck by the astonishing cliff lift, a sheer vertical shortcut between the town and its beach, standing tall like a freestanding white periscope. Shanklin's first hydraulic lift was installed in Victorian times - this is the 1960 replacement. But millions have crammed into the two tiny carriages over the years, and there's photographic evidence pinned up inside to prove that Frank Sinatra, Margaret Thatcher and David Beckham have all come along for the ride. [esplanade-y lift-y photo]

Ventnor: Alas, the Island Line doesn't go to Ventnor any more. It wasn't thought worthwhile to keep open the final bendy stretch of railway track through the chalk, so now the only way through to the island's premier resort is by road. I didn't trust the bank holiday bus service so I never got this far. But next time I return to the island, and there's still so much I didn't see, I'll leave the trains behind and explore by bus.

 Thursday, August 28, 2008

IoW: along the Island Line

I never meant to end up on the Isle of Wight - I was planning on spending Bank Holiday Monday in Portsmouth instead. But the weather was steadfastly overcast, wrecking the view from the top of the Spinnaker Tower, so I was easily diverted. And when I saw a sign for the Isle of Wight Ferry at the end of the station platform, sailing in 10 minutes, I thought what the hell. The IoW's diamond-shaped, you know, so it seemed more than appropriate to pay a visit. So I purchased my ticket to Ryde, and hopped onto a big yellow catamaran for the short trip across the Solent. I had nothing pre-planned, just a whistlestop tour down the east coast of England's largest island. By tube train...

FastCat approaching Portsmouth Harbour from RydeRyde Pier Head: The Fast Cat pulled in at the end of the pier, with the town of Ryde still about half a mile away across the water. The pier's the earliest (and fourth-longest) in the country, built to save ferrygoers a long trudge over wet sand to reach the coast. A brief trudge through the pavilion and I arrived almost immediately at the pier-head station, its central platform wide enough to hold an entire boatful of Victorian luggage. And yes, this might have been 70 miles from London, but that was indeed a genuine 1938-stock two-carriage tube train waiting to depart [station photo]. One short 8-mile stretch of the island's railway network managed to survive Beeching's axe in the 1960s, and tube trains are the only practical stock that can still negotiate the Ryde Tunnel. Each Island Line train still boasts its own guard who operates the doors manually, using big buttons at the end of the carriage, just like it used to be. And the doors still close with a slow satisfying mechanical clunk - there are no health and safety beeps here. Clunk. The train trundled off slowly along the rickety-looking wooden pier, the sea sploshing away beneath, and with passing traffic visible through the side windows along a parallel roadway. And you don't get that on the Bakerloo line.

Ryde Pier Head

Ryde Esplanade: On dry land at last, the train pulled in at a less than glorious single platform beside the hovercraft terminal [station photo]. A surprising number of people got off, given how short a distance we'd come, but a lot of them had suitcases. Ryde's the largest town on the island, no doubt because it's the most accessible from the mainland. Outside on the Esplanade I discovered a group of scooter riders showing off their beloved two-wheelers, here on the IoW for Ryde's annual bank holiday Scooter Rally. I think I missed the main event, but the town's pubs and cafes were still relatively full of parkas and helmets. I chose to explore the rising High Street rather than the windswept sandy beachfront, maybe a sightseeing error, but it gave me a flavour of what it's like to live here through a grockle-free winter (yeah, retail-ly bearable).

Ryde St John's Road: As the train rattled through a 400m tunnel beneath the town, it was easy to believe that the next station might be Swiss Cottage or St John's Wood. But no, this was St John's Road - the Island Line's depot station where locogeeks can hop out and peer at the spare trains. The fleet of six are brightly painted, some even bedecked with dinosaurs(!), but there are plans afoot to recoat them all in London Underground heritage red.

Smallbrook Junction (steam platform)Smallbrook Junction: A part-time halt in the middle of the countryside, completely inaccessible by road, at the point where the line to Newport used to branch off [station photo]. Now it's the eastern terminus of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, an august body which runs steam locos over the four miles between here and Wootton. Utterly useless for commuting, but quite charming to ride. None of the carriages they use was built more recently than 1924, so the travelling experience had a particularly authentic feel. On the up train I had the pleasure of sharing a compartment with a bouncy toddler urinating into a juice bottle, and on the down train I was trapped up against the window by a slobbering St Bernard too huge to turn itself around without assistance. A memorable trip, then. It being Bank Holiday weekend the IoW Steam Festival was in full flow beside the engine sheds at Havenstreet [station photo]. What a pleasure it was to stand in a drizzly field watching vintage traction engines, old green buses and damp families eating hotdogs. Well, it could have been, given better weather. Instead I queued for the ride back to Smallbrook and awaited the next tube train south.
[more tomorrow]

IoW: visiting, attractions, maps
IoW: nostalgia, natural beauty, ale
IoW: ferries, rail, steam, buses
IoW: news, festival, bestival

 Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Just another tube journey home, rattling steadily eastwards, and I'm slouching at the end of the carriage reading the paper. The train's not packed - it must be August - but otherwise it's an entirely unremarkable journey. At Bethnal Green the doors swish open and a few people storm off onto the platform, hurrying escalatorward. The train pauses, and those of us still aboard wait for the doors to close so that our journey can continue.
"Ladies and gentlemen..."
Hmm, that's not the normal platform announcement voice. He sounds somehow different, more posh, more precise. Normally we get to hear someone a bit chirpier, someone who sounds like a real human being you might meet in a pub and not just a stilted robot. Even the nannying lady who repeatedly nags you to take all your belongings with you has an air of the 21st century about her. This bloke could be straight out of a 1950s documentary, probably wearing a bowler hat. I wonder what he's going to say next.
"...because of a reported emergency it has become necessary to evacuate this station."
Ah. Hmmm. Ulp?

I look out onto the platform. There's no obvious sign of danger, no billowing clouds of smoke, no crack police team in gasmasks, not even a lonely looking rucksack. By now there's barely anybody left on the platform at all, just a silent tiled wall staring back at me. I wonder what the emergency could be. Is the world ending, is there a gunman on the loose, or is it just that the driver's radio is on the blink again?

It's not just me. Everybody else has stopped reading and is now looking up. Eyes dart nervously around the carriage in a flurry of reassuring communication. Some people smile weakly, others appear rather more nervous. We are all going to be alright, aren't we? Go on, tell us more.
"Please exit the station immediately."
Erm, how? Should we all rush off the train and head towards the escalator (not good if the unspoken emergency is up in the ticket hall)? Or should we all stay on the train and wait for the driver to zoom us out of here (not good if the unspoken emergency is in the tunnels)? There are no clues.

The automated message is not repeated. Mr Posh has no more information to impart. There's no obvious member of station staff around to ask, nor any human being speaking over the station's tannoy with specific evacuation information. Even the driver is staying mute, perhaps because he knows no more than we do. This might be a false alarm for all we know. Or there again it might not.

We sit, and stare at each other, and wait, and wonder whether anybody else in the carriage is going to react. Nobody does. The doors are still gaping open, tempting us to stand up and escape, but we ignore the opportunity. Come on driver, slam the doors shut and whisk us out of here. And quickly please.

It's strange, but even though the voice reading the announcement was firm and proper, everybody has ignored him. We've all heard far too many automated announcements on the underground recently and we've learnt to disregard them. Planned engineering works? Don't care. Take our belongings with us? Yeah yeah. Don't change trains at Bank? Not listening. So when a recorded announcement tells us to evacuate the station, we don't take a blind bit of notice.

At last, after what's probably thirty seconds but feels much longer, the doors finally close. We set off into what we hope is the safety of the tunnel, keeping a close eye on any potential nightmare unfolding on the platform as we accelerate away. No sign. A brief perturbed smile from everyone in the carriage - what happened there? - and then back to reading the newspaper. No worries.
BETHNAL GREEN STATION. Closed due to a fire alert. All trains are not stopping.
Nothing dangerous this time, but in the event of a genuine "situation" we'd have been buggered. The general public appear to have no respect whatsoever for someone pressing a button to play the emergency tape, because familiarity has bred contempt. The unexpected, it seems, has to sound properly unexpected to be taken seriously. And one day, on some train in some platform somewhere, I fear passengers may not believe it's the real thing until it's too late.

 Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Five things I did over the last fortnight which I didn't tell you about at the time

1) I went rowing on the roof of the Hayward Gallery (like you do)
I was able to go paddling courtesy of the Psycho Buildings exhibition, celebrating the Gallery's 40th anniversary. One of the upper terraces had been deliberately flooded, and a handful of two-seater boats were moored up beside a makeshift pier. The queues for this particular attraction were usually discouragingly long, but by turning up on a Monday morning there was nigh no wait at all. It was indeed suitably surreal splashing around high above the South Bank, grinning and waving at ladies drinking coffee in the Royal Festival Hall nextdoor. A couple of inflatable water bottles kept the craft away from the concrete rim, but there was still plenty of artificial lake to explore. Even better, with virtually no queue waiting on the shore, there was plenty of time available to learn how to steer the boat properly-ish. And if you fancy a go, sorry, the exhibition closed yesterday. [rowing photo]

2) I stumbled across Noel Edmonds in a subway (like you do)
This wasn't deliberate, you understand. I tagged along on one of Hammersmith & Fulham's cultural walking tours (every weekend, variety of locations, free), in this case related to the 1908 Olympics. Our effervescent guide took us from Shepherd's Bush Green to the site of the White City Stadium, relating tales of Team GB's unlikely medal haul a century ago. Our walk finished up at the London 1908 finishing line, in the grounds of the BBC Media Centre, which meant I could take a proper photo at last without some security jobsworth wagging his prohibitive finger. And along the way, just past Dorando Close, we were led into a grotty subway beneath the Westway to inspect the murals. Some of these depicted the 1908 Olympics, and others portrayed key BBC personalities from a golden 1980s era. Basil and Sybil Fawlty, a dalek... and the entire Radio 1 Breakfast Show posse. Rarely have grinning teeth been quite so cheesy, and quite so unexpected. [R1 DJ photo]

3) I attended Olympic handover in Hackney (like you do)
Not for me the big raffle-ticket handover party in the Mall. An afternoon hemmed in behind barriers watching Katherine Jenkins and Will Young whilst waving a flag promoting a credit card company, not for me thanks. Instead I rattled off to the not quite so trendy end of Hoxton to a 1948-themed street party, part of the Shoreditch Festival. There were men in flat caps (nothing new for Hoxton) jitterbugging with brightly headscarved ladies, and there were boxers from the local club knocking ten bells out of one another in a ring in the middle of the street. Throw in a nice bit of Make Do And Mend, and an Empire Windrush Dance Hall, and the whole event had a genuine unforced appeal. The biggest smile came courtesy of a tank parked at the top of the street, owned by the infamous Space Hijackers. A placard on the side of the tank proclaimed "FREE HACKNEY", allegedly marking the symbolic handover of the "Free Tibet" campaign. At a nearby tea stall two pearly queens seemed unperturbed - more cake Doris? [pearly photo]

4) I discovered how London's oldest company makes bells (like you do)
But, erm, they're based on High Street 2012, and I don't think you're quite ready for another dose of Tower Hamlets history yet. So more later.

5) I went for a ride down a pier on a tube train (like you do)
Why spend a sunny bank holiday in London when you can take a day trip to seaside drizzle instead? Again, I'll tell you more soon, but not yet.

 Monday, August 25, 2008

OK world,
it's our turn next!

HS2012High Street 2012

It's been drawn to my attention that some of you may still have the wrong idea about what High Street 2012 actually is. My writing over the last fortnight may not have sufficiently highlighted key on-message information, and readers may therefore have jumped to incorrect conclusions about the nature of this Games-related project. Through my blog I could have inadvertently introduced unchallenged misinformation into our national consciousness, creating a negative feedback situation in which hard-won Olympic brand value awareness potential might be irrevocably diminished. Which would be awful.

So let's clear things up. High Street 2012 is a legacy project based around the historic road from Aldgate to Stratford. It's about aspirational public realm improvement, providing achievable and sustainable planning impetus along a historic urban corridor, acting as a catalyst for the further regeneration of East London. Sorry, that's really dull, isn't it? Maybe that's why some of you might not have read it properly last time, and just skipped to the words High Street 2012 instead. "Ooh," you might have thought, "some idiot committee is renaming all the roads." But they're not. I never said they were, but obviously some of you might be thick enough to assume the worst. And we can't have officialdom worrying about this sort of thing can we? So let me just say it again, really clearly...

No roads will be renamed High Street 2012. Whitechapel High Street will never be rebranded Olympic Boulevard. Nobody will ever have the address 680a High Street 2012. This is simply a major planning project attached to millions of pounds of funding for architectural improvement and community cohesion, all targeted at four miles of heritage roadway. Some very heritage roadway, as we've been discovering over the last two weeks, and greatly in need of a tidy-up. But not a renaming. Just so you know.

Maybe someone will email me next and ask me to point out that 2012 is a year, and not shortly before quarter past eight. But nobody's that stupid, surely?
OK, quick, before I haemmorrhage even more readers than I've lost over the last fortnight, let's move on...

 Sunday, August 24, 2008

High Street 2012

www.flickr.com: my High Street 2012 photos
(That's the lot - 96 photos altogether - I've posted six a day)

Read all my High Street 2012 posts on one page, in the right order (with embedded comments)
Follow High Street 2012 on a Google Map
London Daily Photo has posted a week of HS2012 pics

HS2012High Street 2012

Great Eastern Road to St John's church

Four miles from the City, at the eastern end of High Street 2012, we finally reach Stratford. Apologies, it's not the most uplifting end to a journey, is it? Unlike its upon-Avon counterpart, this Stratford is nowhere any tourist would ever dream of visiting. Its shops are absolutely nothing special, its attractions are limited and its amenities well buried. But in just four years time all this should have changed. The eyes of the world will be on the Olympic Park immediately to the west, and East London's shoppers will be flocking to the Stratford City development adjacent to the north. Can the traditional heart of Stratford survive the transformation?

Railway TreeThis striking spiky sculpture stands on a traffic island on the western edge of Stratford's inner ring road [photo]. It's called Railway Tree and, according to its creator, it "symbolises Stratford as a focal point of arrival and departure by featuring a dynamic series of curved steel beams that radiate and rise out of the ground to converge at a central point before reaching for the sky in all directions". Obviously. Stratford has considerable railway heritage, and indeed most of the 180 acres of Stratford City development is taking place across former railway marshalling yards. Look past the bus station and you can already see the first buildings climbing above the skyline. A new footbridge is due to connect the old to the new, and the old is going to need all the help it can get.

Onward into the traditional centre of town, along Stratford Broadway [photo]. The whole of Broadway's left flank dates from the mid 60s when the previous buildings were compulsorily purchased and replaced by Stratford Shopping Centre [photo]. And it shows. However state-of-the-art its design at the time, the echoing mall boasts little to attract today's discerning shopper. You'll search in vain for haute couture or an organic delicatessen because there's nothing here more sophisticated than Boots and Woolies. Most local shoppers are more at home in the artificial market near the pound shops, or in the warren of "accessibly-priced" retailers hidden away down an uninviting passage behind Wilkinson. Oh yes, Stratford has been credit-crunch-ready for years.

Religious tract frenzy outside Stratford Shopping CentreExit the shopping centre onto the Broadway, beside an unlikely Starbucks, and you'll more than likely be met by some evangelical leaflet-waver (although last time I was here a BBC journalist thrust a microphone under my nose and tried to ask me about the Olympics instead). There's a real multicultural mix out here, and usually a youthful vibe, although some might interpret the ambience as edgy and a little insecure. The far side of the street is usually a little quieter, at least away from the bus stops, maybe because that's where the older buildings are. You may not be able to see the Old Town Hall at the moment because it's shrouded in scaffolding, but the occasional rooftop statue still pokes out defiantly above the green sheeting. And if you want to go drinking in a pub with even a smidgeon of character then be sure not to stay in the 60s zone, be sure to cross the road.

Finally, on this long journey up High Street 2012, to St John's Church. It's 1834 vintage, built in the Early English style with a ornate southwestern spire. Outside is another tall stone spire - a Martyr's Monument commemorating the burning to death of thirteen Protestant souls on this spot (or hereabouts) in 1556 [photo]. A bit brutal, even by Stratford standards, especially given that two of their number were female and one of those was pregnant. Several thousand turned up to watch the unrepentant Essex zealots go up in flames, whereas nowadays the churchyard attracts considerably smaller crowds for its charismatic open air August services. In fact to most Stratford residents St John's is little more than a useful cut-through, or maybe a secluded spot to enjoy lunchtime sandwiches or an illicit bottle of White Lightning. As we've seen almost all the way along HS2012, the only constant on this street is change.

Samuel Curney's obeliskfour local sights
» Samuel Gurney Obelisk: Sam was a rich City banker who lived locally in Ham House (now West Ham Park). As a Quaker philanthropist he did much charitable work in the area of penal reform, along with his more well-known sister Elizabeth Fry. And I'm willing to bet that 99% of the people who walk past his obelisk don't know any of that. [photo]
» Ye Olde Black Bull: I'm not quite sure how a pub founded in 1892 dares to call itself "Ye Olde", but the "Black Bull" part evidently comes from a statuette lurking two storeys above the entrance.
» King Edward VII: Decent boozer and gastropub, serving guest beers and hand-cut chips. Originally called the "King of Prussia", which suited just fine until World War I broke out, at which point the locals promptly renamed it after our own dear just-departed monarch. Now more endearingly known as "King Eddie's". [photo]
» Gerard Manley Hopkins memorial: A memorial stone dumped on the pavement outside the library commemorates one of the Victorian era's greatest poets, born at 87 The Grove. Except, hang on, that's not part of High Street 2012 at all, I've gone slightly too far. Enough already.

Stratford's public art and monuments

 Saturday, August 23, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

Greenway to Great Eastern Road

Is there a less High Street-y High Street in the country than Stratford's? No department stores, not a single high street chain, in fact barely even a shop in sight. You might just be able to buy a Mars Bar or get your hair cut, but don't count on much more than that. Instead Stratford High Street is little more than a fast track east, an ex-industrial thoroughfare, a road in transition. Few hang around to find out more.

Yardley factory (and the Athena building rising behindThe nicest building along here is the Yardley factory, a creamy lido-style Art Deco structure, blessed by an attractive "Lavender Girls" mural on the wall above the entrance [photo]. Its location by the Greenway seems a strange place to base a perfumier - beside a none too fragrant river and a stinky sewer - but back in 1903 it made perfect scents. Your great gran no doubt daubed herself with the company's finest flowery essence, once produced and packed herein (until Yardley moved out to new premises beside the Wickford bypass in the 1960s). The old building looks like being a rare survivor of Stratford's pre-Olympic goldrush, its shell now standing alone in a sea of high-rise development (good grief! blimey!). A few metres further west and the Lavender Girls would have been absorbed by the 2012 security frisking zone, but instead their smiling Cockney faces should remind international visitors that not everything round here is shiny and fresh.

The area seems as yet undecided whether it's serving the old community or the new. There are still sufficient grease-covered workers to support a greasy spoon or two, plus the obligatory betting shop and fried chicken dispensary. Giuseppe's barbers shop struggles on, though judging by the photo of a moustached model in the window this hairdresser hasn't trimmed any locks since the Seventies [photo]. Local ladies can sometimes be seen puffing and gossiping outside the entrance to the Gala Bingo Hall, before vanishing swiftly back inside for another eyes down. But facilities are thinning out - there's just the one garage now and only a single pub - as the street's upmarket transformation begins to plays out. The Labour Party have seemingly given up, as a half-vanished sign in front of their former West Ham HQ bears witness.

Rex Cinema, and Stratford Market stationAs Stratford nears, the older buildings stand firm against the modern onslaught. Stratford Market station hasn't seen a train for 50 years but the southern pavement still diverts beneath its litter-strewn urine-stained Victorian portal. The closed down nightclub opposite is the Stratford Rex, born as a three-thousand seat Theatre and Opera House (opera in Stratford! How things change!) before metamorphosing into an Art Deco cinema. And some architect had fun decorating the front of Essex House [photo], topped off with three rampant griffins, not that anybody ever thinks to look up and notice. Yes, those really are palm trees down the centre of the road [photo], plus a few shiny metal sculptures for good measure to celebrate the area's inherent Newham-ness. But there's still nowhere to buy bread, furniture or shoes. Keep walking, genuine High Street approaching.

four local sights
» Holiday Inn Express: It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to stay here, on Stratford High Street, no matter how "vibrant" the website claims the area is. This identikit hostel may be ideally situated for the Olympic Park, but I can't believe local construction workers get paid enough to stay overnight.
» Pie Crust Cafe: One of my readers recommends checking out the Pie Crust. "It's a place that I love very much. A small run down looking cafe serving Thai dishes alongside the usual bacon and eggs. Run by friendly Thais the place is decorated with golfing trophies, colourful Thai pictures and a British Rail clock. Nothing beats a hot plate of chilli beef and onions with rice on a damp and cold Saturday morning. Funnily enough it does not seem to serve many pies. Kind of opposite the Holiday Inn, it is quite easy to miss. It is mostly frequented by local builders and is by far the best place to eat in Stratford." [photo]
» Log Cabin: Former coaching inn, now a forlorn semi-boarded-up pub with drooping green and gold sunshades [photo]. Wholly inappropriate black and white photos of grinning Cockneyfolk fill each first floor window.
» Greenwich meridian: There's a plaque in the pavement on Stratford bridge, above the Jubilee line, marking passage from the western to the eastern hemisphere. There's no such plaque on the Bingo Hall on the opposite side of the street (they don't do zero, obviously).

 Friday, August 22, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

Bow Flyover to Greenway

Bow Flyover (from the Bow side)The Bow Flyover is a point of transition. Previously High Street 2012 has been a bit old-fashioned, a bit retail/residential, a bit compact. And suddenly all that's wiped away. The rest of the road up to Stratford is a bit new-fangled, a bit light industrial, and a bit wide-open. Oh, and just marginally Olympic. All change please.

It's actually the River Lea that marks the boundary proper, the traditional dividing line between Middlesex and Essex. It's been a barrier to east-west travel for millennia, but it wasn't until Queen Matilda nearly drowned trying to get across in the 12th century that a bridge was first built. Its unusual shape resembled the curve of a longbow, and so the area became known as Stratford atte Bowe. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about the place, you know, which is probably more than can be said for the suburb where you live.

There's still an arched bridge here crossing the Lea [photo], but it's now a 1960s concrete road on stilts [photo]. The Bow Flyover is part of a destructive post-war motorway scheme designed to speed up road traffic around the edge of inner London. Great for through traffic, but curtains for carved-out communities and farewell to any character this river valley might ever have had. Beneath the flyover the replacement ground level bridge is depressingly mundane. A flat concrete slab crosses the low-ceilinged waterway, beneath which the occasional narrowboat disappears into darkness between a Calor Gas dealer and a closed-down graffitied caravan park [photo]. Meanwhile walkers and cyclists are forced up from the towpath and have to dash across the busy main road where no safe crossing is provided. It's not the Lea's finest moment.

Stratford highriseHigh Street 2012 continues eastwards along the old Stratford Causeway, threading its way through the braided waterways of the Lower Lea. The road used to be lined by marshes, mills and factories, the most famous of which was the Bow China Works. In the mid 1700s it churned out world-class porcelain, both "useful and ornamental", specialising in glazed figurines and blue and white chinaware. The factory site is now covered by a cluster of newly-constructed apartment blocks [photo], part of a series of opportunistic developments along Stratford High Street. Some were planned before the Olympics were announced, even more have started springing up since, capitalising on the readily-available easily-knocked-down post-industrial landscape. The dominant architectural style appears to be "shiny and colourful", and anyone buying a penthouse flat will have an excellent view of the adjacent Olympic Park come 2012.

The road rises slightly to cross Joseph Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer. Flush a north London toilet and your effluent will eventually pass this point powered by gravity through giant Victorian pipes. The sewer-top is now a long distance footpath called the Greenway [photo] ('Brownway' would surely be more appropriate), which will be appropriated in 2012 to transfer thousands of Olympic visitors from West Ham station to the Olympic stadium. It's a very long walk - I hope they don't mind the smell.

Staff Wantedfour local sights
» J Bulman & Sons Ltd: A not-so-old carpet factory by the flyover, very plain and bricky, and typical of scores closed down and boarded up over the past few years. The "Staff Wanted" sign pictured here hangs jobless from the wall in Cooks Road (although you can't see it any more because some insensitive security firm has nailed their own "keep out, under surveillance" notice over the top).
» The Dane Group of Companies: A rare pocket of surviving industry at the top of Sugar House Lane, established by James Dane in 1853 as a manufacturer of printing inks. Their day-glo doggy logo really brightens up the street. [photo]
» Porsche showroom: I laughed when I saw Porsche building a showroom on Stratford High Street a few years ago. Now, surrounded by emerging high-rise affluence, the choice doesn't seem quite so stupid.
» City Mill Lock: This gated water-step on the Three Mills River at Groves Bridge never really took off as a beauty spot. The council have kindly provided a semi-circle of off-road metal benches overlooking the large tidal basin here, but I've never seen anyone (sober) sit here.

 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]

 Wednesday, August 20, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

Bow Road tube station to Fairfield Road

A century ago, this next stretch of road would have been the part of Bow everybody visited. Here was the municipal hub of a growing suburb, the civic centre, the social heart. It doesn't feel quite so must-see today.

100-ish years back: Come, let us traverse eastwards from the brand new Metropolitan District Railway station. Here is Tredegar House where many hundreds of nurses have been been trained, including no lesser angel than the formidable Miss Edith Cavell. How splendid is the new police station with its capacious stables at the rear. One wonders many tiresome suffragettes have spent the night within its gloomy lock-ups before crossing the street to be tried in Bow Court House!
Thames Magistrates CourtToday: Oi, let's walk down to the takeaway. Do stop to pick up a free newspaper from the racks outside the tube station, there's bound to be one in your language [photo]. I see there are flats for sale in Tredegar House for 300K. I bet the Police Station will be turned into flats too soon - the front desk's only open 35 hours a week [photo]. Oops, mind that dollop of steaming horseshit. Hey, isn't that wotsisname, the drug-addled pop star, stumbling down the steps in front of the Thames Magistrates Court surrounded by paparazzi?

100-ish years back: Hark, a locomotive of the London & Blackwall is belching smoke across the railway bridge before halting at the elevated Bow Road station. To which of the two cinemas immediately beyond shall we give our custom? I must say I rather fancy viewing the jolly electrographic spectacle of The Count of Monte Cristo. A pint of finest milk stout in the Little Driver will slip down a treat for thruppence, and then perchance a crumpet or two for tea.
Today: Hardly any trains ever cross the off-network Ferodo Bridge, which must be how that intrusive spraypaint sketchin got daubed up there [photo]. I need to punt a fiver in the betting shop (it's the old station's ticket office you know), and then I thought we'd grab a DVD from the Somerfield on the garage forecourt. Dunno about you but I'd kill for a greasy breakfast from the tiny Mighty Bite caff. And then let's join the gang in the Little Driver beer garden and get rat-arsed on real ale.

100-ish years back: Bow station boasts a mighty edifice, does it not, with four platforms beneath road level and a bustling tram stop directly outside the main entrance. Up above are the rooms of the Bow and Bromley Institute, where I need to pay my subscription to Henry the secretary. I'm certain that the tellers at the Aid in Thrift Mutual Benefit Building Society on the second floor will provide. And thence to my piano lesson with Mistress Mumford at number 147, such sweet music shall we make!
Bow Church DLRToday: Watch out for dem bastard pickpockets beneath the windswept canopy of Bow Church DLR. Jeez, the ticket inspectors are everywhere, I think I'll hop on the free bendy bus to Whitechapel instead. But first I need to get a packet of fags from the bloke in the lock-up kiosk, so long as the Barclays cash machine nextdoor isn't buggered again. Those bleeding kids in the playground at Bow School ain't half making a racket, but they'll be off down the kebab shop soon enough.

100-ish years back: Let us away to the Bromley Vestry Hall for an evening of light flirtatiousness and merry dance. It is a far better use of land, is it not, than the humble almshouses which once stood upon this very spot. And then we shall partake of another pint or three in the Bow Bells, until the landlord ejects us out onto the gas-lit street to stumble home. I trust that Doctor Lightburne, in his surgery on the corner of Fairfield Road, will have the patience to patch us up in the morning.
Today: Mind out, there's a tattooed wedding party blocking the pavement outside the Registry Office. They'll probably end up in the bright orange boozer nextdoor, watching some unconvincing Elvis impersonator and vomiting in the urinals, before crossing to the sliproad outside the old Town Hall and piling into their pink stretch limo back to Plaistow. Nice 'ere, innit? [photo]

Oxy-acetylene welder sculpted on the front of Poplar Town Hallfour local sights
» Mornington Grove: Still bears the original stone street name of Mornington Road, carved into a wall, punctuated with a totally unnecessary full stop. [photos of local street signs]
» Kitcat Terrace: Not a row of chocolate townhouses, but a cul-de-sac named after the Reverend Henry J Kitkat, Rector of St Mary's Church between 1904 and 1921.
» Enterprise Rent-A-Car: A small forecourt dispensing temporary wheels to weekend drivers, doing business on the site of the Kray Brothers' first club - the Double R.
» Poplar Town Hall: Between 1938 and 1965 the London borough of Poplar was governed from a tall triangular wedge of a building resembling a slice of multi-layered chocolate cake [photo]. Industrious Thames-side activities are depicted in a colourful mosaic map on the underside of the Members Entrance porch [photo]. Meanwhile five carvings of generic labourers grace the sharp curve above Fairfield Road - an architect, a stonemason, a navvy, a carpenter and (of course) an oxy-acetylene welder. Now that Poplar has been consumed into Tower Hamlets, the building lives on as the Bow Business Centre.

A photographic walk from Mile End to Bow, then and now
Bow's public art and monuments

 Tuesday, August 19, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012
11) BOW

Mile End tube to Bow Road tube

Morgan TerraceBeyond Mile End station, High Street 2012 changes somewhat. Up until now this has been a mostly retail street, with shops on either one side or the other almost all of the way along. No longer. From here onwards there's only the occasional parade of shops, and HS2012 has evolved instead into a neighbourhood where people live. You'd be hard pushed to spot a semi or anything detached - it's all flats, terraces, and terraces divided up into flats. But some of the terraces on the northern side of the road are rather splendid - all uniform Georgian with arched sash windows and parallel chimneypots [photo]. It's a bit of a hint that round the corner lies Tredegar Square, an impressively well-preserved white stucco quadrangle where E3's most well-to-do still reside. Welcome to leafy Bow.

St Clement's HospitalThe official changeover between Mile End Road and Bow Road comes in front of St Clement's Hospital (there's still a plaque on the wall proclaiming the edge of the Borough of Poplar, 1900). St Clement's started out as a workhouse 150 years ago before evolving into Bow Infirmary, then Bow Institution, and eventually a wholly psychiatric hospital. So full of depressed patients was the area that Mile End station had to have a Samaritans hotline installed on the westbound platform, at the "jumping" end closest to the oncoming trains. That telephone remains, if you know where to look, but the hospital closed down a couple of years ago. It's since been locked away to await redevelopment, and now a series of eerie empty towers loom through a screen of forbidding trees. Whatever the umpteen-acre site's fate (undoubtedly flats, it's always flats), I trust that the hospital's classical entrance and whitewashed front walls (with green and red shield insignia) will long remain. [photo]

Across at 39 Bow Road lived an unassuming man of the people, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in the early 1930s, the Right Honourable George Lansbury MP. A lifelong campaigner for social justice, he fought tirelessly for pacifism, the suffragette movement and the rights of the working man. In 1921, as Mayor of London's most poverty-stricken borough, he led the Poplar Rates Revolt by diverting local taxes to the local poor. Thirty councillors were sent to prison for defying the courts, and council business had to be conducted from inside Brixton prison. One of those imprisoned was George's daughter-in-law Minnie, who died shortly afterwards from pneumonia. Bowler-hatted George became Labour leader almost by default, after the party's rout in the 1931 General Election had left no credible alternative. But his pacifist nature was at odds with the growing threat from Germany, and after four years he was replaced by his younger deputy Clement Attlee. Lansbury remained a popular and principled elder statesman right up to his death in 1940. Germany, alas, responded by flattening the family home a few months later.

George Lansbury Memorial plaque, 39 Bow RoadAt number 39 today there's a rather ordinary block of council housing, and a plaque, and a small stone memorial, and quite possibly a couple of spliff-smoking winos on the bench outside [photo]. George would no doubt approve, at least of the former. Daughter-in-law Minnie is remembered up the road at Electric House, where a recently restored memorial clock gleams proudly above a betting shop [photo]. But you're probably most aware of Mr Lansbury's legacy through his grand-daughter Angela, the internationally renowned actress. Sadly (or perhaps thankfully) CBS decided to locate Jessica Fletcher's murder capital far from her childhood home in Bow, and so E3's innocent gangsta hoodies remain unchampioned.

four local sights
» The Milestone: A Mile End pub that can't make up its mind what it's called. Over the last decade or so it's been the Cornucopia, Horn of Plenty, Flautist and Firkin, Matter of Time, Virtue, and (as of a couple of months ago) The Milestone. No desperate rebranding would encourage me to venture inside, however.
» Spratts: Until a few months ago Tower Hamlets Planning team hung out at 47 Bow Road in what was once the sales office of the world's first dog biscuit company (founded by an electrician from Ohio).
» Milepost: A rusty black and white metal mileage marker outside Electric House declares "Whitechapel Church 2", "Stratford 1½". This 200-year-old relic is best seen from a vantage point in the middle of the road, should you dare to risk standing in the path of an oncoming stagecoach to photograph it. [photo]
» Bow Road station: "This simple brick and timber building, set above the railway cutting, is typical of an Edwardian station. The platforms, situated where the railway emerges from the 'below street' tunnel to the surface, is notable for the brick retaining walls and the massive cast iron columns, set along the curved platforms, that support the roof structure with their brick lined 'jack arches' above the tracks." So says the newly installed heritage plaque in the ticket hall, brilliantly positioned in a corner where nobody will ever stop to read it. [photo]

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peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards