diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Random borough (33): Barking and Dagenham (part 3)

Let's do Barking, then let's do Dagenham. One's a town that twice came to national pre-eminence, the other's a village that vanished. Compare and contrast.

BARKING - Somewhere historic: Barking Abbey
Forget Westminster. Barking used to boast the most important abbey round these parts, indeed one of the most important in Britain. It was founded in 666AD, which it has to be said is an especially inauspicious date, and perhaps hinted at devilish turmoil to come. The Vikings sailed in and razed the place, only for it to be rebuilt bigger and better (and considerably richer). In Norman times, to be abbess at Barking was to have the top female job in England, none less so than when Henry I's queen Maud took the role. The Abbey's wealth and influence endured for centuries, but even royal connections couldn't save it from Henry VIII's dissolution. Only two gatehouse towers survived demolition, of which only the Curfew Tower remains [photo]. It's still used as the gateway into the grounds of St Margaret's Church (which is also medieval, and whose biggest claim to fame is hosting Captain Cook's wedding) [photo]. Step through the churchyard, however, and the remains of the abbey are still present. They were excavated 100 years ago, around the same time that town planners ran a road through the edge of the site. You won't see much, only the remains of a few snaking walls, but the extent of the abbey building is still striking. It's possible to stand where the high altar used to be and look out down the nave below... or it's possible to sit on a bench in the cloister and smoke marijuana, your choice [photo]. Whatever, it's a surprisingly peaceful place to be, and I suspect most of the residents lugging their shopping across the neighbouring open space don't even realise it's there.

BARKING - Somewhere else historic: Barking Town Quay
It's hard to believe, but Barking was once the busiest fishing port in Britain. Not for long, admittedly, but the town's position on the River Roding has always attracted men in boats. A short row to the Thames, and a quick trip to market in London, made Barking's Town Quay the ideal spot to unload a catch. The biggest growth spurt happened around 1850, when Samuel Hewett devised a method of packing fresh-caught fish in ice. Dozens of smacks sailed the North Sea for up to six months at a time, their valuable cargo regularly transferred back to Barking in a fleet of ice-enabled cutters. The railways proved Hewett's downfall, as proximity to market became less important and larger ports along the east coast began to thrive. In the 1860s his fleet relocated to Gorleston in Norfolk, and Barking turned itself over to manufacturing industries instead. The Town Quay's still there today, but a shadow of its former self. Almost the only building to survive is a four-storey gabled granary overlooking the Mill Pool. This is the HQ of Lesley's Barking Cards, which conjures up images of dogs or lunatics on folded cardboard, but turns out to be a distribution hub for celebratory greetings. Look downstream and dozens of boats line the quayside between warehouses and some almost tasteful homes [photo]. Look upstream, however, and there are penthouse flats, a Carpetright and a huge Tesco. It's left to a windblown sculpture on a town centre roundabout - The Catch - to remind townsfolk how important the local fishing industry used to be. [photo]

BARKING - Somewhere retail: Barking Market
Barking's is one London's bigger street markets. Spilling along London Road and down East Street, it buzzes three days a week (and leaves an empty hole on the others). All the usual market stuff is here - shoes, sportswear and scourers, carpets, cauliflowers and cleaning fluids - for the discerning shopper in need of a bargain. A quick wander gives lie to the myth that Barking and Dagenham is some kind of monoculture. The sounds of reggae drift across the pavement, and there are queues for some very reasonably priced goat curry. In prime position in the central piazza is Julie's Fast Food Bar, serving burgers and pork rolls and (more recently) cappuccino. The flags of Spurs, West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool flutter from her roof, which ought to keep almost all of her punters happy. Plans are afoot to squeeze in a new public square partway down East Street, to bring the market a little more upmarket, which has many of the existing traders worried. Some will have to move temporarily during the landscaping works, while others fear shoppers will no longer walk past the square as far as their pitches. You only have to look in the neighbouring piazza to see which way Barking's going. Three extremely modern blocks have sprung up, clad in as many coordinating colours as the planners could get away with [photo]. One's a library (sorry, Learning Centre), while down at the end is the residential Lemonade Building. Catch the afternoon light, or the golden hour before sunset, and it's a photographer's dream [photo] [photo]. But this nugget of modernity is in sharp contrast to the brick Town Hall on the fourth side [photo], or the ramshackle wall alongside (it's a modern folly, complete with sculpted ram on top) [photo]. Barking's trying to drag itself screaming into a new commercial age, to attract outsiders in, leaving insiders out.

DAGENHAM - Somewhere pretty: Old Dagenham Village
Dagenham, by contrast, was never historically important. A village on the Wantz Stream, rather than a fishing port, and with a small parish church, rather than an abbey. By 1653 it was still a single road, Crown Street, with cottages, almshouses and a proper Essex pub along the north side. Even as the village grew, many of these timber-framed properties lingered on, until (and you'll be expecting this by now) the Becontree Estate was built. In 1921 the population of Dagenham parish was 9000, but by 1931 (astonishingly) it was ten times greater. The heart of the community inexorably shifted from its old village nucleus to the new shopping centre on the Heathway. Any lingering nostalgia for a rural past disappeared in the mid-1960s when the council chose to demolish most of Crown Street to make way for new homes. Cottages dating back to the 14th century were summarily dismantled, rather than repaired, and almost all of the medieval high street was swept away. All that remains today is the church, the (not especially well-tended) vicarage and one of the three pubs. The Cross Keys is a splendid half-timbered building [photo], frequented by ale-quaffing old boys, and if you line it up across the faux village green the view might even make you believe you were in the country [photo]. But the eastern end of the street has disappeared beneath a hideously functional estate, all two-storey brick cuboids, much better for living in but vacuously grim. The borough museum at Valence House has a 10ft scale model of what Crown Street used to looked like before the developers came. See it and weep.
by train: Dagenham East   by bus: 145

DAGENHAM - Somewhere sporty: Dagenham and Redbridge FC
I've visited many a football ground on these random borough trips, but only on a few have I hit the jackpot of turning up on the day of a home match. I struck lucky with Dagenham and Redbridge, stalwarts of League Division Two, playing their penultimate home game of the season against promotion-chasing Crawley Town. Unfortunately I did less well with my timing on the day, arriving too late to snoop around the exterior unnoticed, and too early to listen to the match over the fence. I turned down the cul-de-sac of Victoria Road, past ordinary homes whose residents pray this lot never make the big time, an awkward two hours before kick-off. Volunteers had just emerged to oversee the main entrance, waving traffic through into the private members car park as players or staff or whoever arrived. I thought it best not to proceed further, as I had no intention of buying a ticket or a replica shirt, so had to make do with a brief peer. The buildings beyond the gate looked like a classroom block and a warehouse, as somehow befits the non-Abramovitch end of the Football League. I got a slightly better view from the end of Bury Road, towards the stand where the white seats (amid red) spell out "DAGGERS". The intercom crackled to life, welcoming any supremely premature spectators to "The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium". You know your footballing brand isn't quite top flight when your main sponsors are the local council and the local funeral directors. Back in Victoria Road I passed Holty and The Merse dressed in red tops and grey sweat pants making their way towards the big game [photo]. A one-all draw, as it transpired, with that home goal sufficient to lift D&R out of relegation danger for the rest of the season. All credit to the supporters who pile into the stadium every fortnight, preferring Daggers to Hammers, and forever keeping the faith.
by train: Dagenham East   by bus: 103

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