diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 01, 2014

This week sees the inaugural Roman Road Festival in Bow, E3. It exists partly because Tower Hamlets Council gifted £10000 to every ward in the borough, and Bow West and Bow East ganged together to help create this. You'll be pleased to hear they also chose to fund youth football, timebanking and increased antisocial behaviour patrols, but this week's community celebration is the highest profile project. The festival aims to showcase heritage and entertainment from the area in conjunction with local businesses, bringing footfall and an increased sense of community to the Roman Road.

There are balloons. There's also a surprisingly packed programme of events, 44 in all, stretching from last Sunday to next. Meet-ups are taking place every weeknight this week, including an origami workshop tonight, a pop-up evening of short sci-films tomorrow, and an E3-based UnPub quiz on Friday. July 6th sees an all day street fair including craft stalls, street food and live music, which is the sort of thing you can organise on a Sunday when the famous market's closed. And everything kicked off a couple of days back with a day long programme of walks, tours and exhibitions, some based in cafes and laundrettes, others out on the street. Several of Sunday's events even survived without being decimated by the rain. I attended one of the intermediately damp ones.

At 3pm a small crowd gradually flickered into existence outside the front of Bow Idea Store. Some had turned up deliberately, but most were drawn in by the unusual sight of a red-robed queen and a man in a toga. A Live History Trail was imminent, as the drama group's spokeswoman explained, the intention being to act out a few key scenes from Bow's past and to walk up and down the Roman Road a bit in the process. And Bow has some pretty good history, all told, plenty enough for an amateur dramatic ensemble to get its teeth into.

The first playlet featured a Roman soldier, given that the old road from London to Colchester ran this way, although Roman Road didn't earn its name until a sarcophagus was uncovered close by in 1844. I always like it when a local event throws up some fact I never knew about my neighbourhood, so this afternoon's was already a winner. Bow's biggest brush with royalty came in the 12th century when Queen Matilda took a tumble while crossing the Lea at Old Ford. She ordered a stone bridge to be built to save future travellers from the same fate, a bow-shaped bridge that later gave the area its name. A charming vignette told the story, occasionally drowned out by a passing plane, or interrupted by some punter wandering through to change a library book.

The crowd was really quite mixed by this point. One mum who'd been passing stopped with a gasp when she saw a woman with a crown, clearly unfamiliar with the concept of real life drama, and hung on to watch the next bit. An old couple sitting outside Cafe Creme finished off their frothy coffee and chocolate cake and smiled at the playful patter. Three local lads, one with boxers showing, paused awhile to see what the man in the felt hat was doing (he was being Mr Samuel Pepys, erstwhile visitor to Bow). The performance certainly touched those who saw it, though few of the unintentional audience could be persuaded to follow the actors up the street when time came to move on.

Unusually, but pleasingly, Bow's history is rich in strong female characters. As well as the aforementioned Queen, we're famed for the matchgirls strike of 1888 and the campaigner Annie Besant who brought it to the public's attention. The Suffragettes also had a very strong local presence, hence our walk down the street was accompanied by a Votes For Woman placard and a bit of a singsong. The two lead actors also enjoyed booming down the Roman Road, am-dram style, and cajoling passers-by to join us. Alas the most likely-looking pair of new spectators weren't tempted by a short suffragette scene round the back of a carpet shop and slipped inside a pub to watch the World Cup instead.

And then came the unexpectedly poignant segment of the tour, with a visit to W.F. Arber & Co at number 459. This printshop opened in 1897 and has been a family concern ever since, with octogenarian Gary the third generation to man the presses. His grandfather printed handbills for Sylvia Pankhurst, and jobs are still completed on pre-war machinery using movable type. Or rather they were until May. Gary's livelihood has been thwarted by the twin prongs of increased business rates and CCTV-imposed parking fines - he's no fan of the current council. Retirement finally beckoned, a big CLOSED sign went up in the window, and various ancient printing presses were lugged off to Norfolk for safekeeping.

Sunday, it turned out, was the final day of clearing out the old workshop. Mr Arber appeared at the door with his wife, tired from clearing and chucking out, to regale our party with anecdotes from the past. He told us how George Lansbury used to pop in to get his printing done - George was the latest character in our history trail, and a surreal performance then played out in front of the knackered retiree. Gary wanted to get back to his pile of boxes, but graciously stayed and acknowledged the heartfelt cheers of the crowd, very much aware that they were present at the closing of a chapter. Yesterday was moving out day, and as of today there is no Victorian printshop on the Roman Road, the era has passed.
(the Gentle Author has chronicled Arber's in loving prose and photos for posterity, see 2010, 2010, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014) (or listen to a 14 minute interview with Gary here)

It had started to rain before we took our leave, and the downpour became more inclement as we approached the last stop on the journey, The Albert pub. Spectators took shelter by the coffee cart and pop-up bike repair tent to watch final performances recounting the Blitz and Bow's Olympic rebirth. There was a definite sense that some of Bow's more middle class residents had gathered to extol the area's heritage while the remainder of the community pushed buggies home, sped by on bikes or drank up in the pub. But as first days of inaugural festivals go, I think the organisers will have been well pleased by the turnout, and E3 is slightly richer as a result.

The Roman Road Festival (29 June - 6 July) @RomanRoadLDN

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