diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Walking Britain's B Roads: the B118
Old Ford Road
[Tower Hamlets]
[1.3 miles]

Just when you hoped they'd gone away the B Roads are back. I'm walking them in numerical order and so far I've managed the first eleven, totting up a grand total of twelve miles. In bad news the next ten are all in Tower Hamlets so all geographic variety has gone out the window, although in good news I'm going to find them terribly easy to get to. Indeed this one's impressively close to home as it connects Bethnal Green to Bow.

The B118 is an excellent example of how modern traffic calming has changed the classification of roads. My millennium-vintage London A-Z definitely shows it starting one mile further west in Shoreditch and following Columbia Road, Gossett Street and Old Bethnal Green Road. But a series of subsequent measures has made driving the route impossible aboard anything more advanced than a bike, hence this ragtag backroad is no longer worthy of B Road status.

» The first blockage (top left) is outside The Birdcage pub on Columbia Road where the Sunday flower market peaks. A brief chunk of Gossett Street has been pedestrianised forcing traffic to bend back on itself, and if you're in a car there's no way through.
» The second blockage (top right) is at Warner Place, previously blogged as part of the B108. A modal filter has been installed in the form of a planter and a hidden camera, this being Tower Hamlets' preferred cheap option, and if you're in a car there's no legal way through.
» The third blockage (bottom left) is either side of Mansford Street where the big school is. On one side the road's been made one-way westbound only and on the other side it's been made one-way eastbound only, so officially even on a bike there's no way through.
» The fourth blockage (bottom right) is alongside Middleton Green near the outdoor gym. Full-on Streetscape landscaping has converted the road to a weird public piazza surrounded by bike lanes and blocked by concrete benches, so if you're in a car there's no way through.

I've walked the dead half for completeness' sake but I won't subject you to it. Instead join me on Cambridge Heath Road by the petrol station for a walk along Old Ford Road.

The B118 now starts in what was once the heart of municipal Bethnal Green, back when it was a separate borough, not so far from the town hall (sorry, boutique hotel). First up on the left is York Hall, originally the public baths but since upgraded into a luxury spa, be it one where they still host major boxing matches upstairs. On the right is the V&A's toy-filled outpost, until recently known as the Museum of Childhood but reopening next year with a revamped youth slant in the hope that kids will enjoy it more than nostalgic parents. These are by far the most important buildings on Old Ford Road. We have peaked early.

This cultural nexus continues briefly thanks to St Margaret's House, a charitable hub "supporting creativity and wellbeing", which appears to involve running a lot of workshops, a long-running vegan cafe and an on-trend second hand clothes shop. It's hard to tell if the browbeaten corner shop at the end of the terrace has been closed for years or is merely shuttered for New Year. The Catholic church looming opposite has a faintly forbidding outlook. And then with a snap of the fingers Old Ford Road switches from Victorian to postwar flats, and will continue to swap as we proceed, indeed whatever sequence of photos I choose to show you beyond this point will not adequately sum up the road's repeatedly split personality.

I've chosen to skip the council blocks of the Cyprus Street Estate and show you instead the lovely homes along the subsequent stretch. They'd have been among the first to spring up along this former country lane and still scrub up well, indeed to the tune of a million. At this time of year the number of homes with wreaths on the door is always a good measure of middle class contentedness and these terraces display way above the Tower Hamlets average. For those who like to know which bus routes we're following it's the 309 and D3, both imminently terminating outside the Chest Hospital that's no longer a chest hospital.

Here are some of the flats I mentioned, the L-shaped block of Sidney House and the green-specked towers of the Cranbrook Estate. The latter estate is large enough that my next B Road runs along the other side. The local chippy is called Fish And Ships and has made the cardinal error of hanging a large permanent sign outside saying Open even though most of the time it isn't. At first glance the City of Paris looks like a one-storey 1960s pub, which indeed it once was before it morphed into a wine bar and more recently a (very inappropriately named) Indian restaurant. The Royal Cricketers closed a year earlier to become flats with a very nice view over the Regent's Canal, but had been well enough established in 1845 that one of Victoria Park's gates was named after it.

The B118's finest moment is the next quarter of a mile alongside the southern edge of Victoria Park. A vista of trees, grass and boating lake opens up through the railings, complete with looping promenade, pavilion cafe and a considerable number of birds. The lengthy terrace of tall villas opposite gets the best view - mostly as old as they look but one section had to be rebuilt by the Crown Estate in 1989. Victorian author Israel Zangwill lived in one of properly old ones, as a blue plaque at the top of his front steps confirms. Halfway down an actual roundabout intervenes (where Grove Road cuts across the park), but before long the really nice houses restart again. Expect the lack of properties on the northern side to have had a significant effect on house numbering by the time we reach the end of the road.

Up next is Skew Bridge, our second crossing of a canal, so called because it launches off at an angle. It's also quite narrow which is why it was closed to traffic during lockdown, and under Liveable Streets proposals the council intends to seal it off more permanently. Quite what that'll do to the long-term viability of the B118 it's not clear. Beyond the Hertford Canal all the housing reverts to modern flats with a single isolated leftover pub, The Lord Morpeth. Its striking mural commemorates Sylvia Pankhurst who used to live nextdoor at number 400, and the Suffragettes who may have popped in for a beverage between protests and charitable acts. The Gunmakers Arms where Sylvia opened a mother and baby clinic in 1915 is alas long gone beneath the concrete stairwell of Tait Court.

Old Ford Road's final burst is sub-inspirational. The Turkish restaurant has succumbed to market forces and become yet another pizza takeaway. Connaught Works is a warehouse conversion suitable for those who can't get into Bow Quarter. For those who like to know which bus route we're following it's now the 8 (alight three stops after Bus Stop M). Parnell Mini Market is not the first corner shop, and won't be the last, to misspell Stationary on its frontage. By the time Old Ford Road comes to an end the house numbers are in the 600s on one side but still in the 300s on the other, for reasons previously suggested. The road used to continue all the way to the Old Ford, the historic site where a Roman Road once crossed the River Lea, but the far end was lopped off by the A12 Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. The B118 stops one junction further back on Parnell Road because there's no point classifying a stunted dead end.

Spoiler: As just described, the B118 runs for just over a mile from Cambridge Heath Road to Parnell Road. So does my next B Road, the parallel B119, and the two are never more than 400m apart. You'll have heard of it.

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