Somewhere historic: Valence House Much of the history of Barking and (in this case) Dagenham is about survival. So it is with Valence House - the only one of the former five manors of Dagenham to survive the onslaught of the Becontree Estate. Town planners thought these old buildings anachronistic, replacing Parsloes with a park and Frizlands with housing. Valence survived only because the council realised they'd need an existing building amid the construction sites in which to hold meetings, and because they hadn't finished building their new art deco Civic Centre yet [photo]. Parts of the timber-framed building date back to the 1400s, although it's named after Agnes de Valence, the original noble-tenant from 1291. There used to be a moat, some of which remains as a draw to local anglers, and some of which you'd mistake for a 20th century drainage ditch if you didn't know better. A white-painted manor house really isn't what you'd expect to find hidden round the back of a library on the edge of a recreation ground, but Valence House's current heritage role has helped it endure. [photo]
Surprisingly few London boroughs bother to have a museum, let alone a good one. Westminster, Camden and Tower Hamlets have nothing. Harrow and Wandsworth's are disappointingly thin. Croydon and Islington's are too earnestly modern. But Barking and Dagenham's at Valence House, I'm pleased to report, is one of the best. The old building helps, but more importantly the way they've taken what heritage the borough has and presented it well, without resorting to the usual rooms of "local fossils" and "Victorian stuff". The history of the house makes its mark, including a restored parlour and a scale model of how it used to look. There's a proper skeleton, in a Roman sarcophagus dug up during construction along Ripple Road. Currently on long-term temporary loan is the Dagenham Idol, which is a rare Neolithic pinewood sculpture (and not a TV talent show won by local girl Stacey Solomon). One room is filled by two giant whalebones, formerly sited over a tollgate in Chadwell Heath to form an arch.
More up to date are a mock-up of two rooms from the original Becontree Estate [photo], and screenings from the defunct Dagenham Co-operative Film Society, and a cabinet of R Whites fizzy drink memorabilia (they were from Barking, you know). One area's given over to famouspeople from the borough, of whom there are impressively many, including a recent Archbishop of Canterbury, and Billy Bragg, and Dudley Moore, and many more. The displays were all recently updated, and it shows, with the right mix of text, objects and (not too much) interactivity. The staff are knowledgeable without being intrusive, so do stop and have a chat. And the upstairs toilet contains by far the most wasteful automatic tap I have ever used, which refuses to cut out until you've washed and dried and left and are halfway down the adjacent corridor. Just saying.
Outside is a restored herb garden complete with pergola and rosebeds, behind which the Essex Beekeepers have a four-hive outpost. Further on, at a safe distance, is a slightly odd-looking bronze sculpture of a Ford Capri [photo]. And alongside is the borough's Archives and Local Studies Centre, which opened a couple of years back in a squat modern building. If you have family tree issues in the local area, this is where you come. Or if you just want a nice cup of tea, that too, in a café which appears wildly optimistic for its potential footfall. So look, if you fancy an atypical day out, or if you're local to East London and haven't been, I'll recommend Eastbury Manor House and Valence House with a number 62 bus inbetween. You won't be knocked sideways, but you'll gently enjoy, and I can guarantee you won't have to queue. by train: Chadwell Heath by bus: 62
Someone famous: St George They take St George seriously in Barking and Dagenham. Red crosses flutter from far more houses than average, some giant, and you're more likely to see an England shirt than the claret and blue of West Ham. So it's no surprise that one of the council's annual tax-funded shindigs is a celebration of the great St George himself. The festival, which is heavily plugged on poster sites all around the borough, takes place in the grounds of Valence House. I wasn't quite sure what I'd find, maybe a jousting tournament, maybe an EDL rally, but the reality was less overwhelming than either. For entertainment someone had hired several knights, a band of archers and some falconers - as if to redefine Englishness to mean merely "medieval". I got to enjoy the knights, if enjoy is the right word, as a bunch of middle-aged enthusiasts thwacked swords in a choreographed recreation of the Arthurian legend. They lip-synched the words via a distorted soundtrack, and any attempt at plot was entirely concealed, but the assembled crowd didn't mind. Sir Lancelot doesn't normally pop down to the backwaters of Becontree, so they gawped, and cheered, and recorded the spectacle on their mobiles. [photo]
Many of the children on site were carrying cardboard swords and tinfoil shields, knocked up in a special workshop at the neighbouring library. Whether any of them stopped to renew a book while they were there, I somehow doubt. I was pleased to see a Punch and Judy show holding kids rapt, including several I'd bet who've never once seen the seaside. Shaven-headed dads raised daughters to their shoulders, while mums in trackies kept an eye on the family hound. A few livewire grans led their clans around the site, but there wasn't too much to see. The only high culture hereabouts was the chance to look around the museum, or to buy a raffle ticket off one of the Friends of Valence House. All the usual junkfood vendors had turned up (mini donuts, fish and chips, pick'n-mix), as well as a lady with a tableful of aloe vera products who looked like she wished she hadn't bothered. At 50p for an England flag, and £1.50 for face-painting, this was an entirely recession-proof day out. It'll never compete with the do in Trafalgar Square, indeed it felt as if most of the few hundred on site had come no more than walking distance. Neither would this weak-focused event ever inspire attendees to embrace fervent nationalism, as certain local BNP activists had hoped. But as an insight into the true heart of Barking and Dagenham, this St George's Day event summed things up perfectly. [photo] by train: Chadwell Heath by bus: 62
Somewhere random: the number 368 bus The Harts Lane Estate will never win any prizes for architecture. Several families wait for the bus into Barking town centre, too lazy or too unwilling to walk the half mile into town. The driver takes a convoluted route round the town centre, displaced from the traffic-less main street where only the EastLondonTransit may pass. One unfortunate bloke who just missed the bus outside the station catches up with it puffing and panting three zigzag stops later. Few seats remain. A man with a tattooed wristband and pig-themed baseball cap stands texting in the pushchair space. He moves when displaced by a small seated child, with both parents in suspiciously market-sourced Superdry jackets. A can of Stella rolls down the bus and spills across the floor. The driver fails to notice an old lady pressing the bell at Stamford Road. She dings in vain, holding uncertainly by the door for an unfortunate extra half mile to the next stop where she climbs down, muttering angrily. In Mayesbrook Park, the new SportHouse leisure centre looks like a mosaic of Bendicks wafer mints stuck to an aircraft hangar. The girl with "Gramps" tattooed across the back of her neck taps the screen of her mobile phone with long pink nails. Taylor pauses from testing his sister on the four times table, exhorting all his young friends to turn and watch the surveillance footage "on the television". He'll run back on board later to retrieve the Disney princess umbrella his sister left behind. Two kids sharing a bike wave from the pavement. I'm joined on the back seat by an adventurous toddler, probably two years old, with a Bench-branded woolly hat pulled down over his head. Mum sits in front, engrossed in her phone call, oblivious to her son's crescendoed pleadings. "Look at me!" he repeats, as he crawls up into the far corner of the seat with a grin on his face. "Mum!" doesn't work either, not even on the tenth attempt, until Green Lane arrives and she turns merely to demand his disembarkation. Blossom tumbles behind steamed-up windows. Few stay aboard until Chadwell Heath, where the lights flash, and the lady in a care-home tabard and I take the hint and alight. by bus: 368 by bus: Barking, Chadwell Heath