diamond geezer

 Friday, November 13, 2020

Most days I go on a three hour walk from home. I aim somewhere, then meander my way there and meander back so as to keep each ramble different. Yesterday I aimed for East Ham, the day before Hackney Downs, the day before North Woolwich, the day before Lea Bridge, you get the idea. And on the way I love it if I walk down a street and suddenly find myself somewhere I've never been before. It surprises me these places exist because I thought I was well travelled but no, there are always new places to discover. Here are a few serendipitous discoveries from the last couple of weeks.

Aiming for Shacklewell...

This is St Thomas's Long Burial Ground, a peculiarity because a) it's exceptionally oblong b) it's no longer a burial ground. It used to be a cemetery for a chapel-of-ease, but when a proper parish church was built on the other side of Well Street in 1846 it was no longer needed. Following the last burial it was agreed to turn the site into a civic garden with all headstones removed and only a scant handful of tombs left behind. Today it's one of Hackney's parks, or rather parklets, being approximately one football pitch long and not much more than ten metres wide. Seven plane trees provide the horticultural interest, the remainder being blank grass with a tarmac stripe down the middle. What delivers its character is being sandwiched between two contrasting flanks of housing, one a gorgeous Georgian terrace, the other 1930s council blocks. Reading the inscriptions won't take you long. And I'd somehow never wandered through here before.

Aiming for Haggerston...

This is the Regent Estate, E8, so named because it's one block back from the Regent's Canal. I stumbled upon it by walking west from the middle of Broadway Market. One minute organic grocers and patisseries, the next full-on end-Seventies housing estate. This block on Marlborough Avenue caught my eye, a wall of stepped brick terraces with a burst of satellite dishes on the end gable. Clever design means even upstairs properties get a garden, although the once-welcoming staircase now climbs to a security gate topped with metal spikes. The block looked impossible to penetrate, but up by the minimarket a brief passage cut underneath providing access to a lengthy pedestrianised corral for safe play and bike storage. You can almost hear the architects promising to build something dense and homely but still a little bit different. And I'd never wandered through here before because if you were only walking the towpath you'd completely miss it.

Aiming for the City...

This is 91 Ashfield Street, Whitechapel, a few blocks behind the Royal London Hospital. Medical outposts dominate the area (Pathology and Clinical Psychology are based close by) but a few throwback terraced streets linger on. Number 91 is the childhood home of Jacob Kohen, the son of Polish immigrants, better known as Jack Cohen the founder of Tesco. He used WW1 demob money to stock a market stall in Hackney which later grew into a wholesale business and then, in 1931, into the first Tesco grocery stores in Burnt Oak and Becontree. The blue plaque's only been here since 2009 and was unveiled by his daughter Dame Shirley Porter (of Westminster 'homes for votes' infamy). I can image Lord Sugar bringing his candidates here for a pep talk before sending them off to flog organic tea blends in Brick Lane. And I'd somehow never wandered through here before.

Aiming for Island Gardens...

This is the alleyway between Midland Place and Livingstone Place at the foot of the Isle of Dogs. It has one of the finest locations on the Thames, bang opposite Maritime Greenwich, so it's a surprise to find a lowly estate of pitched brick flats and weatherboarded maisonettes instead of something more prestigious. Heavy contamination made the site hard to develop, but a housing trust gave it a go in the early 1980s and gifted fifty tenants prime Cutty Sark views. It's an odd place, with tiny twee gardens, symmetrical angularity and several notices screaming Private. But the riverside footpath had to be accessible, short as it was, reached inauspiciously via a central alleyway or a car park at one end. And until one of you suggested it, I'd never thought to wander through here before.

Aiming for Plaistow...

This is Howards Road, E13, one of a handful of Newham roads whose streetsign has been augmented by the council with the addition of copious heritage information. In this case the famous person is Luke Howard, the 18th century pharmacist best known as the 'Namer of Clouds'. It was while living in Plaistow and observing the weather that he wrote his groundbreaking Essay on the Modification of Clouds, published in 1803, in which he first named cumulus, stratus, and cirrus. Plaistow was a village in the Thames marshes at the time and Howards Road didn't exist - Luke lived on neighbouring Balaam Road in a house with seven bay windows. This later became part of Plaistow Maternity Hospital but was demolished in 1960, which'll be why Luke's blue plaque is on his later more famous house in Tottenham. I was excited to discover that Plaistow has some proper genuine history, and all because I'd never thought to wander through here before.

Aiming for: East Ham...

This is Sri Murugan Temple in Manor Park, or more precisely Little Ilford (which isn't Ilford proper). I knew about Sri Mahalakshmi Temple on East Ham's High Street, because you can't miss that coming out of the tube station, but had never headed off grid into the backstreets to be confronted by this similarly glorious tower. It's 52 feet high and intricately carved with gods and pillars in traditional style, while inside the building is a black granite shrine belonging to Lord Muruga, one of the sons of Parvathi and Shiva. The temple was opened in 1984 to serve the Tamil community in London, and was built in the backyard of a former pub. Officially it's on Church Road, but the Hindu temple now dominates and quite puts 12th century St Mary's in the shade.

All of these places I discovered only because I wandered off piste, and properly understood only once I got home and researched them for today's post. The serendipity of local exploration has much to recommend it.

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