diamond geezer

 Friday, January 07, 2022

Walking Britain's B Roads: the B116
Balaam Street
[0.5 miles]

My apologies but I've had to go back and walk the B116. Originally I didn't think such a road existed but subsequent discussion has confirmed that the Ordnance Survey thinks it does, which means it does. Although originally designated the B166, at some point in the last 20 years the National Street Gazetteer has become convinced it's the B116, possibly through a data entry error, and therefore by definition it is now the B116. This means I now have to subject you to a mundane half mile through Plaistow. I hate to think what my horde of new followers is going to think.

The B116 is better known as Balaam Street and is one of the oldest roads in Plaistow. It's thought to be named after a Norman baron called Hugh de Balun, not the biblical bloke with the donkey, and was recorded as Balostret in 1371. It led from the centre of the village to the edge of the marshes, which in those days spread back well over a mile from the Thames, and was home to a number of prosperous folk who enjoyed the secluded rural surroundings. 'Village', 'prosperous' and 'secluded' are just some of the words nobody would use to describe Plaistow today.

Today a somewhat bespoiled Balaam Street starts at a T-junction in the shadow of a single tower block. The boarded-up pub on the corner was once the Coach and Horses but has been empty for over ten years because turning a damaged listed building into flats is expensive. The three-storey Victorian beauty nextdoor is The Laurels, a former Masonic Hall dressed in ragstone, and very much at odds with everything else we're about to pass. As for the clouds you can see rippling across the sky they're cirrocumulus ahead of a bank of altostratus - nomenclature which will prove significant as we proceed south.

If you've ever wanted to go to college in offices above a carpet warehouse, Balaam Street is the place for you. Its correct name has somehow escaped the notice of the owner of the Balam Food & Wine off licence, although given the number of times the road's changed its spelling over the years perhaps we should let him off. Ian Visits has the full backstory of Barbers Alley, the unnecessarily broad pedestrian thoroughfare which heads off to the left. But the world owes a lot more to the ambulance station on the right which marks the site of Chesterton House, former home of amateur meteorologist Luke Howard.

Luke moved to Plaistow in 1796 to manage his father-in-law's pharmaceutical business, and while living here started to make detailed observations of the cloud formations he saw above him. In 1803 he published a groundbreaking Essay on the Modification of Clouds which included the first attempt at their classification, thereby introducing a nomenclature we still use today.
(1) Cirrus.— Parallel, flexuous or diverging fibres, extensible in any or all directions.
(2) Cumulus.— Convex or conical heaps, increasing upward from a horizontal base.
(3) Stratus.— A widely-extended continuous horizontal sheet, increasing from below.
(4) Cirro-cumulus.— Small, well-defined, roundish masses, in close horizontal arrangement.
(5) Cirro-stratus.— Horizontal or slightly inclined masses, attenuated towards a part or the whole of their circumferences, bent downward, or undulated, separate or in groups consisting of small clouds having these characters.
(6) Cumulo-stratus.— The cirro-stratus blended with the cumulus, and either appearing intermixed with the heaps of the latter or superadding a widespread structure to its base.
(7) Cumulo-cirro-stratus, or nimbus.— The rain-cloud: a cloud or system of clouds from which rain is falling. It is a horizontal sheet, above which the cirrus spreads, while the cumulus enters it laterally and from beneath.
The Howards moved to Tottenham in 1813 so that's where his blue plaque is, but it's Plaistow which provided his blue sky thinking.

Opposite is Plaistow Park, formerly Balaam Street Recreation Ground. As parks go it's pretty bogstandard, having lost its bandstand and several other original features, but the ornamental garden (currently with frozen fountain and single flowering rose) remains intact. If it's food you want the Munchy Grill promises to take care of your peri peri needs while Kate's Anglo-Ghanaian cafe, A Taste of Honey, reopens today after a lengthy Christmas break. The modern mental health centre where the road bends was built on the site of the Invalid and Crippled Children's Hospital, a small unit which provided a few dozen beds for the chronically unwell between 1903 and 1976.

Which brings us to the Greenway, or rather the North London Outfall Sewer, here silently conveying the effluent of millions beneath the street and onward to Beckton. It doesn't generally whiff too badly either, before you ask. Off to one side is one of London's three Dongola Roads, while off to the other is the site of the demolished house where the Human League filmed their video for Keep Feeling Fascination. On Balaam Street we find a scrap of grass overlooked by a single bleak bench, a mobility scooter charging up on the pavement, a refuse bin painted with the flag of St George and a red car bumper lying at the foot of the tree it was smashed into.

At number 42 the Helping Hands charity is collecting pizzas, fruit and veg for local distribution, stacked neatly out front in naturally-chilled plastic trays. Three men are chatting intently outside So Nice Market, then step out into the road when they recognise the driver of a passing car. At Total Gadget Repair Ltd the shopkeeper peers out through the window oblivious to the long term misspelling of Phone Accerrories on the facade above his head. Uncle Jim's Fish Bar is BestMate's local chippy of choice and was once awarded a three star review by this very blog. For those who like to know which bus routes we're following it's been the 241 and 325 all the way.

Balaam Leisure Centre is an unwelcoming brick fortress built on the site of the much splendider Plaistow Baths (which were demolished exactly 50 years ago). Alas the centre's been closed for the last three years following the discovery of a serious water leak from the pool into the concrete slab above the gym, which is an unfortunate thing to happen immediately after a million pound refit, and there are fears it'll never reopen. I'm pleased to say that personalised printers Proclaim Enterprise have spelt Stationery correctly across their frontage, although they have then messed up with the strapline General Printing At It's Best.

Balaam Street draws to a close much where it did centuries ago, no longer on the edge of the marshes but on the busy Barking Road between branches of Iceland and Ladbrokes. What was once the most prosperous village in West Ham is now anything but, as a large pawnbrokers on the final parade attests. But times change, as do road classifications, along what ought to be the B166 but has somehow become the B116 instead.

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