Posted in Highbridge on Thursday 31st October 2013 at 8:10am
It's possible on a brisk autumn evening, when the car headlamps sparkle in the dusk, to feel uncharitable about writing a piece on my current, but soon-to-be former hometown. There's a bustle of evening traffic, and a steady run of people trudging home from the railway station - bringing a little life to the place which isn't always evident here at all. But reflecting on eight years of living here, which have been for me relatively calm and stable, is a tale of depressing inevitability which won't betray many surprises. I've wanted for a long time to write a 'state of the town' speech - a single summation of how a place full of character and potential has been ground down into a dusty insignificance over time. It's never seemed right to do this from within, and I've never felt entitled to speak for such a disparate population, who can rarely speak with a single voice. But now, perhaps it's a little easier. A parting shot, with one hand on the door already, might seem cowardly - but it's long overdue.
I moved to Highbridge just little over eight years ago. It made sense for lots of reasons - I was living in a pretty unsatisfactory property elsewhere, and the family were all assembling here after a few difficult illnesses and a newly born child. We were coming together via an unspoken gravity which focused on my parents who lived away to the edge of the town in a quiet close near the Radio Station. My sister and her growing family overshot the southern boundary and ended up in the fringe hamlet of Alstone - a neat little family home with space to grow. But with my less pressing need for space and greater need for economy, I ended up here in the centre of things. Well, perhaps formerly the centre - because there are few businesses left on Church Street, save for hairdressers and take away food stores. My flat was perfect - a short walk to the station for my frequent escapes, a stone's throw from good beer at The Coopers Arms - it was just the bolthole I needed. In reality I'd spend little time here - edging around a triangle centred on home, supermarket and railway station on the whole, and making regular escapes to what many here would consider 'foreign parts' elsewhere in the country. But it wasn't possible to remain on the edge of the debates about the future of the town. Like always, I just had to get involved.
It's easy to be critical of Highbridge - alongside many hundreds of places across the country which haven't made an easy transition from their mid-twentieth century golden age to these more prosaic, straitened times. But in the case of Highbridge, its easy target status has set in train a descending spiral which feels almost impossible to stop. Industrial decline is a tough one to tackle in itself, but here successive waves of ill-planned development have bolted new problems onto the town while simultaneously stripping away its public infrastructure. Traditional industries - bricks, bacon, railway vehicles - have gone completely. Light industry is being pushed out of town by more lucrative housing plots, and the motorway hugging strip of vast aluminium distribution centres is big on space, but light on people. Where do people here go for work? Increasingly, they just don't. Highbridge tops the table in terms of unemployment and deprivation - serious statistics which are easily ignored in a world of numbers, but which here on the ground are self-evident in the faces of people sitting outside their homes in the middle of the day, watching the traffic thunder by. I've often asked myself why it ended up this way.
It's all too easy to be fatalistic too - and to suggest that the decline of towns like this is inevitable, and none of this can be remedied. However, there is a more self-evident reason in the case of Highbridge - and, while I know this will be controversial in some quarters, this has a lot to do with Burnham-on-Sea. Burnham is on the face of it a genteel, benign neighbour - a fading Victorian seaside spa which spans a stretch of muddy estuary but delights in big western skies and the views of a broad sweep of beautiful coastline from its windy esplanade. The secret here though, is that Burnham is dying too - just a lot slower than Highbridge. The Town Centre is seeing its retail core crumble away - not precipitated by de-industrialisation like Highbridge, but by apathy and inaction. Independent retailers turn into charity shops, which eventually close. The few national chains who are here offer a downgraded, second-string service. At 5 pm each day, the shutters come down abruptly - and for some shops, they never come up again. Business-folk spit inexplicable vitriol in the local press - blaming the internet, or the townsfolk for not caring - never looking to the economic reality or their own refusal to move from ancient business models. But as Burnham declines steadily and the Town and District Councils struggle to manage its retreat, they use Highbridge as a defence mechanism - an urban buffer zone that can absorb the mandated social housing and the necessary evils of badly planned supermarkets. There has always been a grim-faced bitterness about this here in the Town: "Highbridge is a dumping ground for people they don't want." It's not entirely untrue - it used to be an expression of hugely exaggerated class prejudice, but now it's just chillingly accurate demography. Interestingly, voicing this particular gripe - even when it perhaps wasn't entirely the case - opened the door for policy and practice to completely make it so. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the policymakers must have cocked a surprised eyebrow at just how easy it was in the end. It's almost like some people here in Highbridge wanted this to be the case perhaps?
Urban Planning is an arcane art, and its exponents go largely without thanks for what appears on the surface at least, to be a boring, clerical function. Done well, of course, planning shouldn't feel obvious - but here it has become a weirdly public activity that excites unhealthy interest. In short, Highbridge is in thrall to two or three major developer/land-owners who vie for a finite amount of public funding. They do so by buying cheap brownfield land and proposing schemes that offer tenuous and untestable benefits in the future. They put planners in the impossible position of trying to anticipate future moves - a game of chess for which the prize is jam tomorrow. Of course, these schemes are always just beyond the electoral horizon too - so approving them holds no immediate fear for the politicians in most cases either. So, if you believe any one of these visions, we're due a marina, a cultural zone, a rejuvenated retail area. But the truth is that any crumbs that our largely indifferent District and County Councils might drop here have been theoretically spent over and over again. The Councils are complicit in these games too, buying ransom strips of land on silted riverbanks, knowing that if the grand schemes materialise their tiny investments will sit squarely where someone else needs to build. But just like chess players, no-one needs to make their move hastily. It can wait. Highbridge will still be there and will be a little more desperate the longer the horizon is pushed out. This stalemate is played out behind Olympic-blue fences, in burned-out hotel plots and in strips of scrubby land in otherwise developed parts of the town. Planning here isn't a distant and administrative process at all - you can see and feel it slowly eating away at the place.
Of course, the only defence is to object - and some in Highbridge do, often very loudly and with the support of some dedicated, informed local voices. But resistance in Highbridge is tribal and patchy - not nearly as slick and well-managed as the middle-class retirees of Burnham pull off again and again. Groups form here, and swiftly crash as a few dominant and depressingly resigned personalities bring them down. Associations form around bids and funding grabs and swiftly retreat into their own little territory. There is no coherence, no sense of a town wanting to work together to get out of the doldrums. There was, many years ago, a bid to separate the Town Council into two. It fell, among dire warnings that Burnham was propping up Highbridge, and that we couldn't live without the guiding hands of our betters. These patriarchal, conservative (in its truest sense) attitudes from the Burnham centred Town and District Councillors are bucked by a few voices of reason here in Highbridge - but they're barely heard over the roar of organised, directed anger when similar issues crop up in Burnham. Take a tale of two formal applications - planning for a petrol station on a crowded, ill-planned supermarket site in Highbridge, and licensing for a Convenience Store in Burnham Town Centre. Both raise serious traffic and environmental issues, both will impact other businesses in the area. The first is supported - it'll increase competition for fuel prices and the noise and traffic won't hurt too much. The other is contested vehemently - it'll increase competition on local businesses and the traffic will be unbearable. I'm fairly sure I know how this will pan out - and recent decisions about the Tucker's Garage site, which isn't so different to the Highbridge Hotel in some ways, go further to prove how skewed the decision-making is across the two towns.
I can't leave this rant without at least some glimmer of hope, can I? There's always a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, surely? Well - as it stands, no there simply isn't. While national policy turns the screws ever tighter on many of the people who make up the town's population, and while regional and local policy fails to recognise that it has taken all it can from the town, things are spinning out of control here on the ground. So what can be done?
None of this is easy - and perhaps writing it down in this way is a little glib and self-serving? Maybe so. But I can't leave this place without hoping that somehow people will find their voices, form their opposition and fight their battles. I tried for my part, and didn't get very far - but there are brighter and more dedicated people than me in Highbridge for sure. Good luck everyone, and don't let the developers win!
Posted in London on Monday 7th October 2013 at 10:10pm
How do you know when a journey is over?
The weekend has been long, strange and unexpectedly surreal. We set out rather later than usual on Saturday, having spent the morning at a tiny village hall in Somerset. The contrast was both curious and a little disorienting, as we arrived at Paddington and plunged headlong into a tube journey eastwards. Our regular visits to the city in recent months have fallen into a pattern - we meet with friends, enjoy company and include some of our wanderings. It's a settled, easy way of enjoying the city - it tempers the more overwhelming qualities which can surface, and it satisfies my need to wander. We've made a few plans for the weekend, and as I have an extra day off work we're in no hurry to be anywhere - the plan is for a fairly relaxing weekend before we both plunge into complicated work-related weeks. However it's pretty clear on our arrival that all is not well. We don't want to intrude on private life, and it feels like the only thing we can reasonably do is find somewhere else to be - so we make plans for a hotel stay the next night and quietly retire. It's not an easy decision for a number of reasons, but it feels right.
Sunday starts earlier than usual. We've a couple of targets in mind, and we take our leave swiftly and head for the tube to Stratford. A quick change to the Overground and we arrive at Hackney Wick. The morning has turned out improbably bright and we walk under clear blue skies towards The Hackney Pearl. It's just opening up, and the friendly Texan barista is happy to chat while she makes us fantastic coffee. We sit and discuss the events of the trip so far in the quiet morning, watching the Wick wake up. Hipsters emerge, pale and red-eyed for their coffee fix, while families with cute little soon-to-be-hipster kids totter and wheel about the place, heading for the station and perhaps somewhat guiltily to the magnetic retail mecca of Westfield? It's quiet, an occasional car passes and the Overground trains screech as they negotiate the curve of the line towards Stratford. The sun is high and bright when we reach the meeting point for the walk. Simon, our guide appears on his bike and suddenly our group begins to assemble. We're a truly cosmopolitan bunch - USA, Germany, Italy, Canada and of course the UK all represented. We meander around Hackney Wick and Fish Island, exploring a world of changing priorities and shifting politics. Genuine innovation - petrol, plastic, oxygen - sits alongside artifice and artistry. Street art, legal and otherwise, is significant here. Not just territorial markings but statements of purpose. The ideas of living space and industrial space are conflated - much to the local council's chagrin - and the Wick is home as much as it is work nowadays, a new role for this island of industry in some senses. Over all of this, the shadow of the Olympics lurks. I guess if you'd done this tour in 2006 it would have been very different. A tale of resistance and objection which never really disappeared, but was somehow edged out of the mainstream and into the churn and bluster of the British Left. Simon calls the issues "complex", and with a year of clear hindsight he's right - there's good stuff to be found... New bridges link Fish Island with the park, infrastructure will improve, arts funding is at a counter-economic peak here. Meanwhile, the same artists face a pricing-out of the housing and workspace market. As leases mature on these hulking, previously largely worthless industrial shells, they will be re-let at post-Olympic prices. There's already talk of Poplar and Canning Town as the new edgelands.
As we cross the Hertford Union Canal and enter Fish Island, the sun is high and inescapable. Headaches descend and we blink into the stark white of another new art space. This one is determined to survive, using the Localism Act to delay sale long enough to potentially raise the absurd amount of cash required. In some ways, it's faintly depressing - worthy, if a little textbook perhaps - but ultimately doomed to collapse into a round of squatting and frantic money-raising. It will be a news story, briefly and locally, then a sale. We pass the multi-story stable block and cross the narrow walkway over the gates of Old Ford Lock. In the distance, the old Big Breakfast TV studio cottage is dwarfed by the Olympic Stadium. I took some pictures here before the games, but never turned back to see this view once I'd crossed the Cut. It didn't seem right. Surely I was the one being watched back then? We edge along the water, finally ascending to the Greenway. At last this stretch is open again and I can complete a bit of undone business, but the sun beats even harder on the flat open expanse of pathway above the sewer. Finally we arrive at The View Tube. The Orbit towers pointlessly over us, and occasionally vehicles flit about the park. It's busy here, a little chaotic even as the barista and cashier skitters between transactions, pausing mid-sentence to weave into the cafe with plates and cups. We settle in to recover from the walk, chatting briefly to Simon before he disappears for his next assignment in Stoke Newington. I feel like I've closed a book - or at least ended a chapter. My more scattered wanders condensed into a single walk. Simon has achieved what I failed repeatedly to do - focus on the place. Eventually we head off - to Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, enclosed within the same sinister blue fencing which used to mark out the borders of the Olympic Project, now bequeathed to the ponderously slow but largely hidden Crossrail project. Briefly on our journey we pass through Westfield - busy, oddly populated by young women dressed to be out for a night rather than perched on traffic bollards outside a retail complex. We buy provisions and disappear into a taxi which takes us to Baker's Arms, and our strange, idiosyncratic hotel for the night. I still have a journey to make - into the Roding Valley via Epping Forest on a tiny bus to collect our belongings. Lea Bridge Road pulses with life even this late, but the suburbs are dark and a little uninviting - strangely more sinister than the babble of foreign voices and bustle of unfamiliarity on the main streets. The bus curls around Whipps Cross Hospital, a massive site almost entirely obscured by trees - inside Victorian asylum buildings vie with horrible modern utility blocks. There's little sense or order. Signs point to various departments based on body parts, but they're all out of place - the Chest Department sitting weirdly close to Podiatry. I'm not sorry to find myself in the anodyne, faceless suburbia once again.
I wake early, my back aching from a night on a hard bed. The change of plans feels like it has cursed us. This extra day here was meant to be an extended adventure, but now it feels like an imposition. We set out on the No.55 towards Hackney. Progress is slow, the sun radiates in, headaches are re-calibrated and start to pulse in concert with the bus engine. We pass over Lea Bridge and the brief stripe of green which separates the bleak, collapsing kebab shops of Walthamstow from the organic vendors of Clapton. The urge to walk the valley south towards the city is strong, but there is coffee at stake here. Once free of the snarl-up of Hackney Central we're swiftly onto Mare Street and soon walking towards Broadway Market again. At Climpson and Sons we find wonderful coffee as ever, and spend some time people-watching - not least observing the seemingly endless train of employees disappearing into the basement, each a little more hipster than the last. We linger over coffee and food, the tiny store fills and empties over and again. Business seems good - no surprise with coffee this well done. We finally head out into the cool of London Fields to regroup. There's no plan and too much time - almost the worst possible situation. We're tired, tired of London almost, and disappointment is brewing into anger. In the midst of this I decide to do something which I'd never normally countenance. I head west...
We end the day at dusk in St. James's Park. The gliding Pelicans looking sinister against the backdrop of greenery, Buckingham Palace floating through the slight evening mist. It's a beautiful, crisp afternoon. The sun is almost gone as we head for Bressenden Place, realising an entire street of buildings has disappeared leaving us disoriented. We arrive back at Paddington in darkness, thankful to be back and contemplating a cosy, restful journey. The last stragglers of the evening peak scan the board and dash for trains. We collapse onto ours and settle in for the ride - the tension and threat of London left behind as we speed west towards home. I never thought I'd feel quite so relieved, so thankful to be leaving - and I wonder about what this might mean for my future engagement with a city which has absorbed hours of my time and occupied much of my imagination. Again I sense a book closing, a work complete - but I have nothing much to show for years of trudging concrete, absorbing facts and developing allegiances.
For now, at least, my focus needs to lie to the west - and for the first time in years I find myself wondering when, and in what context I'll return here?
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.