Posted in London on Saturday 28th June 2014 at 10:06pm
It's been a while since I got to travel to London - and certainly it's a long time since I found myself alone there. In fact, it's become so usual to be part of a pair, visiting and revisiting haunts, that I'd forgotten some of the associations which Paddington has accumulated in recent years. As well as being the launchpad for many a wander and the welcome first sight of the way home, it's become associated with separation and loss - and I chewed this over a little on my journey east. Today would unravel some of that in a sense - I was here alone, but I'd be travelling back to my wife and my new home later. It was a remarkably cheering - and still weirdly novel - prospect, and after an unexpectedly bright journey up I greeted the vaulted roof of the station with the warm familiarity gained only by enduring both happy and melancholy moments together - Paddington is an old friend who I don't see nearly as often as I'd like.
Taking advantage of the early arrival I hopped directly onto a 205 bus. The city was busy - as ever I'd utterly failed to predict events, and there were various goings-on which were adding to the traffic - not least Wimbledon. We made slow but steady progress around the arc of the Euston Road. It was good to see the familiar, solid sights as we edged forward. I'd repeated this trip so many times, eastward with hope and expectation and westward with satisfaction, tired feet and a checklist of new prospects to investigate - the city slowly revealing itself by being walked. The Crossrail works were still affecting the ever-excavated Moorgate, so we zigzagged into Shoreditch, approaching Liverpool Street from the east and north. A few confused passengers scrambled off in surprise and we pressed on, the bus almost empty now. It still hadn't started to rain, despite an ominous cloud, so I bailed early, finding myself on the dry pavement near Whitechapel Road Market. I had a loose itinerary, as ever fanning out eastwards from the city edge - and this time based on a reading of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. This tangled, dense web of prose had provided much food for thought, but most immediately it had opened my thoughts to the array of tiny Jewish burial grounds scattered through the eastern edges of London. I had worked out a very rough route which led to several of them - including the Ashkenazi burial ground on Alderney Road which had initially sparked this walk. Opened in 1697, the site is enclosed by the houses fronting Mile End Road and a high wall facing a tired but interesting square of homes. It was quiet and rather humid, voices carried from a nearby playground and a large St.George flag flapped from an upstairs window. The door in the wall was closed, and a chink of light through a letterbox jammed with circulars unwanted by the dead revealed little. I skirted the site which connects to the Velho - the oldest of these sites, and entirely enclosed by the properties. No amount of trespass was going to get me a view inside, so I set off across the quiet square towards Bancroft Road. Here, almost in the precincts of the weird ziggurat of Mile End Hospital, there is more to see. The cemetary is now a quiet green space, most of the stones lying flat on the ground. Beyond, a shallow viaduct carries the line from Liverpool Street, little hope of eternal peace with trains to Chingford and Cambridge shaking the graves. After following my instincts into a dead end near the hospital grounds, I retraced my steps. The old men sitting outside a polish cafe seemed amused to see me re-emerging from the little network of streets. I wandered back to the main road, a little footsore given how long it had been since I walked.
Having been mostly thwarted in my primary purpose I needed to decide how to proceed. The answer of course lay eastwards - it had been too long since I'd walked this way, and I needed to feel familiar pavement underfoot. I set out along the endless corridor of Mile End Road as it turned into a valley between cliffs of new-built student dwellings, occasionally punctuated by heritage buildings now featuring gourmet burger joints. The traffic was incessant, hypnotic even. The clouds rolled forward - already there was a haze towards the river, and rain threatened. As I reached the Green Bridge near the Regent's Canal, it began. A heavy downpour of the type which cannot ever sustain itself long. I dived into the cafe I'd often spotted under the bridge. A young, smiling woman broke off her cleaning to make my latte. A sole other customer sat nearby, staring at us as we conducted the transaction. I sat near the window, pulled out a map, regrouped and watched the rain slow to a trickle. The cafe owner arrived with friends, dripping gold and sarcasm. He clasped his friends necks like a cartoon Mafiosi and chortled unpleasantly, leering at the cafe girl. "Your boyfriend here?" he glared at the other customer, whilst addressing her. She coloured up, looked away and he pointed out the purple stain of a bite on her neck to his friends who snorted and gurgled. The boy scrambled for the exit in shame and horror. The girl's smile faded. I left too - the vague sense of despair hanging over the place was too much to bear. It was still raining a little but the pavement was preferable. I pressed on east, and let the rain soak into my sweater - it began to feel a little too wet as I approached Bow Road station so I sheltered at a bus stop, exchanged messages home, and waited...
Finally I decided I needed to move on. There was nothing to lose by getting wet, and I had plenty of time to dry off later. I edged carefully around Bow Roundabout and descended the steps to the towpath. A favourite spot - even drenched and still feeling oddly dispirited by the cafe, this was somewhere I felt at ease. As the canal surface sparkled with rainfall, I trudged the wet grit of the path, bumping into only the very occasional cyclist coming towards me. To my right, the heft of the Olympic Stadium bulked out the view. It was in the process of being dismantled and reinvented for its next incarnation. After passing the junction with the Hertford Union Canal I had a choice to make. I'd meant to head for White Post Lane, but the slope up to the Greenway was tempting . In the end I let instinct win and I found myself once again topping the Northern Outfall Sewer, striking out towards the View Tube where I knew coffee and shelter were available. Soon I was seated, steaming in the warm cafe and sipping an excellent coffee. As the mist evaporated from the windows, I found myself looking out at the Olympic Park and realised that it was now possible for me to walk in unmolested. Years of being excluded from the site were over at last, and here I was idly passing my precious day of walking in this makeshift cafeteria on the edge of the park. Finishing my coffee and packing away my notebook, I set out to break new ground...
I thought first of Tellytubbies. That strange, hyper-real green sward which the odd humanoids danced and capered on was before me. The park undulated, bursts of colourful flora floated above it. Ranks of lighting columns marked the footpaths, and they led down - to the City Mill River. To that stretch of river which had been an impossible goal until now. I scrambled down the steps two and three at a time, and at the foot I found a junction. Southwards lay a fenced off path under the railway, not yet ready for me. Northwards, the river curved around the foot of the stadium. I followed the curve, a vast green bank to my right as the river edged the huge bowl. I had been close to the stadium before, but never this close. The bridges arced overhead, approaching the entrances - and I calculated with a look at careful notes I'd made exactly where the stockpile of low-level waste was stashed. I touched the aggregate pile which turned the horrible cargo into a simple bridge abutment and felt connected back to years of reading and writing about the Olympics. It had passed, things had moved on, but here was tangible evidence of all that had been expressed. I moved on, finding myself almost emotional at the thought of being inside the fence at last. So much change seemed to hinge on that period, personally, nationally even. It was a moment to take stock and move forward... and I did, towards the monolithic Orbit - less a sculpture and more a watchtower close-up. I wander around it, gazing up, trying to capture in a photograph the dizzying sense of queasy instability that it's odd curves elicit. It's still a very silly, unpleasant structure, a balancing lump of concrete sitting atop a twisted tower of steel. Without meaning or merit, neither beautiful nor sublime. The pathways radiating out from it took me towards another waterway, and I traced this to it's junction with the River Lea under a rather pleasant copper faced bridge, which reflected the water and it's pathways. It was hot and humid again, with dark clouds tumbling towards us from the south. I skirted the river, crossed it and emerged on the eastern side. Small concession stands selling overpriced snacks lined this route. Families and park employees wandered around yet I still felt like a trespasser. The pathway ended at a road crossing - across the street the park continued, and a stream of young people dressed in white t-shirts with coloured facepaint were streaming towards a makeshift stage. Wardens directed them as they trollied their cargo of lager towards the site. The Holi Festival of Colours sounded like a spiritual event, but appears to be a heavily marketed appropriation of an authentic Indian festival. People turn up colourless and leave scattered with paint dust and optimism. I turned aside and wandered along Loop Road which leads to White Post Lane. Territory became familiar. The rooftops and graffiti of Hackney Wick appeared overhead. It was odd and rather disorienting to see them from this angle. I wasn't ready for this conclusion so I turned back towards the stadium and edged along the River Lea, descending briefly into a wonderful nursery garden behind tiny wicket gates. It felt unreal and strange, under this ominous sky beside the sweep of the stadium. Unseen from this angle, the cranes removing the top layer of the stands hummed and clanked. I found myself following a makeshift pathway which wound towards the Navigation and deposited me on the towpath again, not too far from where I'd entered the park. The heavens opened. I sheltered under a bridge for what seemed like an age.
The break allowed me to gather my thoughts a little. I realised I'd been wandering aimlessly and letting the strange emotional twist of finally entering this site of exclusion and alienation getting the better of me. I needed to regain control of my walk, and I did so by following the towpath to White Post Lane, and ascending to the street. This was the sentry post - even a year ago blocked and caged still. But now it was simply a road between the forlorn edge of the Wick and the weird sheen of the park. Still a gateway, but unmanned and unacknowledged by officialdom now. I explored the bridge, walking back and forth over it, half expecting to be hindered by a passing security guard. It didn't happen so I renetered the park, and turned left onto a curving road called Clarnico Lane - a nod to the past which took me up to Waterden Road. The Lea continued into the North Park, but would have to wait for a day when it wasn't busy with revellers. I walked back to Stratford, battling against the tide of youngsters, bright eyed, expectant. More girls than boys, the odd strange older woman yelping and whooping among them. A strange mix. An odd idea. Such is the future of this biggest of public parks. I found coffee and electricity in the whirl of Westfield and made notes.
My route back east took my back along the same route by bus - looping into an as yet unused bus station near the press centre, soon to be a new media outpost at the east of the city. Then I was onto the familiar roads around Victoria Park. This had been the edge, but now it was just a stop along the way. I had new paths to tread, the possibility of completing my navigation by river in the area - and oddly I found I didn't entirely dislike what had become of the Olympic Zone. I missed it's oddness, its ragged rurality, the strange emptiness of the wilderness that used to be here - but the sweeps of green, the views that opened, the sense of being in a valley between swathes of the city was new and intriguing. I allowed myself to dry off as I headed homewards, unsure when I'd be heading back this way. The storm had broken, and my old ideas about this part of the city had been washed away. But there were new layers of exposed earth to sift...
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.