diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Walking Britain's B Roads: the B119
Roman Road
[Tower Hamlets]
[1.3 miles]

The B119 runs parallel to the B118, never more than 400m away, and starts and finishes on exactly the same roads. Roman Road is utterly different in character, a broadly commercial entity lined by hundreds of shops and businesses. It's well known for its market which is a long-term East End staple, although rumours it was once a Roman road are entirely untrue. To do it justice would take at least a week so what follows is very much a summary. I've chosen to start at the eastern end because this offers the perfect scene-setting photo.

Welcome to Roman Road at the heart of Bow. 200 years ago it was a footpath through open fields called the Drift Way, then the Victorians built a suburb to the south of Victoria Park, unearthed some Roman remains nearby and Roman Road was born. Come on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday and the first quarter of a mile is completely blocked by market traders, come any other day of the week and it's a narrow one-way street, which means it's not much cop as a B Road either way. The first shop on the right used to be Percy Ingle bakery and is now the Sweet Talkers dessert parlour, so is even worse for your waistline. The first shop on the left is Roman Food and Wine, the first of seven shops we'll pass with Roman in the name. Roman Tackle, an anglers' haunt, trades a few doors down.

The nature of Roman Road means there's a significant risk that this post descends into me listing the names of shops. The chippy is called the Saucy Kipper, the pizzeria is Flavas and the Indian takeaway Moguls Kitchen. Altone's shopfront opens up to reveal a bazaarful of laminate flooring. The queue at the Post Office is out of the door now that the last bank and building society have closed their doors. The two largest stores are an Iceland and a Poundland, because that's the underlying demographic, although incomers are also catered for via a smattering of artisan bakery infill. The counter at G Kelly continues to serve noted eels and pies. The Passmore Edwards library, now an Idea Store, boasts a decorative plaque laid by the great man himself in 1900. Further 'Roman' shops include Roman Pound Plus Ltd, Roman's Bargain Store and the specialist bathroom store Roman Baths.

First thing on a market morning the road is full of white vans unloading. Out come the stalls and awnings, out come the metal rails and trestle tables and out come the blouses, puffa jackets, long rolls of material and whatever. Some rails are labelled with a price so low that either the quality must be poor or the provenance must be dodgy. One man's laying out his extensive stock of thermal long johns, another a selection of 100% Egyptian drapes and another a questionable array of jewellery. A full-length mirror has been propped up against the base of a security camera to allow customers to view potential purchases. If the traders are lucky Bow's womenfolk will be along to peruse and pick over the considerable array of bargains on offer, and if they're unlucky a downpour of rain will force everything underneath plastic sheeting, concealing it from almost nobody's view.

Beyond St Stephen's Road the traffic's back and footfall drops, and it becomes harder to work out which shops are permanently shuttered and which are merely opening later. One grimy wood-fronted unit hosts the Young Prince, a "Traditional Pub in Bow Village", whose weekly diet of big screen Footy is scrawled on four sheets of paper slipped into plastic pockets in the window. Roman Road used to be best known for its fashion shops and boutiques but few remain, unless what you're looking for is children's shoes or oversized men's jeans. Gina's Closet is still selling bijou bric a brac ten years after Mary Portas gave her a leg up. Zealand is a rare long-term success on the hipster refreshment front, whereas the failed Magus Coffee Shop is currently being refitted as "the UK's first vegan fine dining supper club". One gorgeous Victorian terrace survives, that's from 386 to 410, but its neighbours are unprepossessing postwar flats. For those who like to know which bus route we're following, the next photo should make clear it's the 8.

The big crossroads by St Barnabas's church marks the halfway point. Here Roman Road takes a breath as Mile End Park sweeps through, its green canalside stripe half-hidden behind iron railings. The slight upward gradient is to take the road over the Regent's Canal by way of the delightfully named Twig Folly Bridge. I've found one account of the name's origin which spins a tale involving baskets, guns and a prison sentence but alas no corroborating evidence. Beyond this point the road was originally known as Green Street but in the 1930s the council decided to extend the Roman nomenclature all the way to Bethnal Green, thereby knocking Roman Road's house numbers all the way up to the 600s.

It's flats to the left and flats to the right from here on, one side drab and nondescript, the other the dazzling Cranbrook Estate. Designed by Lubetkin in the late 1950s it features six green-panelled tower blocks, various crescents of low rise housing (including bungalows) and a bespoke figure-of-eight service road. Each tower was named after one of Bethnal Green's twin towns and their six coats of arms are now displayed along the roadside, just in front of Elisabeth Frink's bronze sculpture of the Blind Beggar and His Dog. Across the road The Beehive pub was converted to residential use so long ago that its inn sign has faded to an unrecognisable blur.

Globe Town Square looks like the kind of windswept piazza where Mary, Mungo and Midge might have done their grocery shopping. The sole midweek trader in the central market is Leslie Herbert, self-proclaimed purveyor of the East End's Finest Fruit & Veg, whose stock spreads forth across seven rows of upturned crates. Hereabouts we also find the street's second Post Office, second Greggs and second City View Hotel, as well as Roman Road News and Roman Grocery, the last of the septet of Roman shops. Albert Jacobs House is an overbearingly grim council office block that only the borough's least fortunate citizens are forced to visit. You can tell we've switched postcodes because the stickers in shop windows now say Rediscover Roman Road E2 rather than E3.

If you were wondering why the London Buddhist Centre looks like an old fire station, that's because it used to be one. Its 1969 replacement, a Brutalist shell better suited to non-horse-drawn vehicles, is just up the road at number 11. Evidence of inexorable gentrification comes from a deli called Green Truffle, a coffee joint called Quarantacinque and a cafe called Sazzy & Fran. When I saw the latter was serving "Turmeric & Veg Dahl from 11.30", I very much hoped this was a time rather than a price. The imminent end of the road is signalled by St John's church, the Stairway to Heaven memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens and the inevitable queue of vehicles at the traffic lights. That trio alone are worthy of a full post, but instead I've skated over them as I have the entirety of Roman Road.

Thankfully the B120 is a lot shorter so will be more manageable, and in a narrative twist is one of the turn-offs we've just passed along the B119.

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