diamond geezer

 Monday, April 05, 2021

Easter postcards (from a random wander to Clerkenwell and back)

In search of an Easter-related London street I headed to Chicksand Street, borderline Whitechapel, borderline Spitalfields. It's a fairly ordinary-looking residential street, inasmuch as any street that ends at Brick Lane can be, but very much changed from when it was typical tightly-packed East End. These days it's lined by diverse blocks of mostly council housing of very mixed ages - a couple of blocks pre-1930s, others considerably more modern. The hand of Tower Hamlets housing department is everywhere, or Stepney borough before them, transforming one chunk at a time into flats for the local populace. One block still has balconies you could imagine Edwardians draping their laundry over, another is called Odeon Court in a typeface which confirms the site must have been a cinema. One end has street signs in Bengali because this is the heart of ‘Banglatown’. The other end, east of Greatorex Street, has been summarily built over by post-war development. Midway up the street is a large play area, giving the street an unlikely feeling of space. One shuttered corner shop looks like the very last thing it'd sell is an Easter egg, indeed there's nothing Easter-y here at all except the name and that's stretching it a bit. But it is London's only Chick-related street and there are no Eggs, so it'll have to do.

Time was when Spitalfields Market was rammed on a Sunday. I remember it first as a kind of arty-crafty car boot sale, somewhere to buy stripy knitwear, old records and mystic tat. But then Ballymore got their hands on the place and entirely revamped the interior, refocusing the offering on food and branded unnecessaries, and still the people came. I walked through late on Sunday morning and it was absolutely not rammed despite the presence of several noodle and burger merchants hoping to sell me brunch. Only one patron had taken advantage, settling at the adjacent table with his slow-roasted pulled pork, while a cleaner looked on in the hope he might leave some mess. Meanwhile facing one of the main entrances, surrounded by nobody, a Pink Grapefruit franchisee squished something purple-ish into a plastic cup because there's a decent mark-up on smoothies. I bet things were busier later, but catering to a walking-distance clientele isn't how modern Spitalfields was designed to function.

Many of the great and good are buried in Bunhill Fields, first dug in 1665 when Finsbury needed somewhere for its plague victims. John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake ended up in these nonconformist grounds, not to mention the mother of the famous preaching Wesleys. A sizeable fragment of the cemetery remains, not far from Old Street, mostly railinged off and preserved as a semi-wild garden. All the snowdrops have died and the daffodils are on their way out, but grape hyacinths and other spring flowers are putting on a fine show for the benefit of those walking through. The bulkiest memorial is to Dame Mary Page, whose unlikely inscription recalls how she had 240 gallons of water drained out of her body over 67 months. I was attempting to work out the backstory when a lady with a bulldog walked over and watched it release a stream of not-quite water against Dame Mary's stone flank. Mind where you sit, but it's a charming contemplative hideaway.

I'd never discovered Northampton Square before, a large post-Georgian residential quadrangle tucked away between the tower blocks of Goswell Road and St John Street. I don't have much to say about it, only to admire its ambience and proper bandstand, and to reflect on how even central London still has unexpected corners to reveal.

A little to the south, linking St John Street to Clerkenwell Green, we find Sekforde Street. An aspirational backstreet lined by townhouses worthy of a Sunday supplement, it was carved diagonally across the existing street pattern in the 1820s. There's even an eponymous pub which looks a proper historic local until you spot the brick extension bolted onto the side in 2018. The street's most striking building has a stuccoed Italianate facade, the former Finsbury Savings Bank where "tradesmen, mechanics, labourers, servants, and others" were encouraged to stash a penny at a time. Charles Dickens was once a customer, which is quite a boast. Branch closure came early to Sekforde Street, some time in the 1960s, and it's since been converted into a single very grand house (numbered 18 & A Half). Last time it changed hands in 2018 it sold for six and a half million pounds, which is more than one and a half billion of the pennies once saved within.

In common with many City churches, St Bartholomew-the-Great welcomed a congregation inside on Easter morning. It wasn't your typical Choral Eucharist, it was a Pre-Registration Essential Do Not Move The Chairs Also On YouTube Choral Eucharist, but by the looks of it just as joyful all the same. I passed elderly parishioners walking down Cloth Fair and young parishioners clustered in the churchyard, many clutching an order of service. I also got a whiff of incense through the side door which added a certain Easter frisson to the encounter. From the passage round the back I got a great view over the unexpectedly green sunken garden, and then I got very lost in some alleyways that were designed not to lead anywhere because not everything round here is Great.

I walked back via the Barbican, because who wouldn't prefer a elevated pedway weaving between stocky pillars to a ground level backstreet. The gardens splurged green, the pool glowed blue, the towers rose grey and the spring blossom dazzled in white and pink. I don't want to go on about it too much in case I'm back here for my next random ward exploration, but I couldn't miss the opportunity to show you blossom with concrete in case it's all dropped before I return.

And on the way home, through Bethnal Green, I noticed something strange about Coppermill Ltd for the first time. Their textile warehouse by the railway looks like it hasn't changed in decades, much as you'd expect from a 101-year old East End company. The main shutters up were revealing piles of wrapped linens, while a dummy in unflattering blue workwear had been propped up outside the entrance. According to ageing signs they also sell boiler suits, bath mats, towelling robes and duvet covers... all very useful stuff should anyone local be in need. But what really impressed me was the Royal Warrant hanging like a pub sign from the exterior - "By Royal Appointment to HM Queen Manufacturers of Industrial Cleaning Cloths". Her Maj has been sourcing her cleaning wipes from this classic rag trade company since 1984, not that I expect she wields them herself, but I wonder if her royal flush has its seat cleaned by Coppermill's finest.

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