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?
Posted in London on Sunday 8th September 2013 at 10:55pm
It has been a little while since we were in London. The fairly regular pattern of monthly visits was broken last month by some special visitors, which whisked us off around the West Country at this time of the month. So, feeling a little restless of foot, I was looking forward to being back in the city. In particular, as the summer has worn on I'm approaching a number of significant anniversaries - many of which centre on, or relate to London trips. There has barely been an entry here in the rather sparsely documented last twelve months which hasn't remarked rather incredulously at how much things have changed - but there is something interesting - if a little inevitable - about reviewing things mentally as the cycles complete and restart. A summer ago, the Olympic Games occupied my mind, the walks were almost frenzied, dogged by security and restriction. I was walking despite the city, rather than because of it. I'll say it again, how different things seem now...
We arrived via a sleepily pleasant trip to Paddington. We didn't have too much in the way of time restrictions, so we hopped on a bus to Liverpool Street which took in the West End. It was a little quieter and cooler than our last bus trip along Oxford Street, so we enjoyed sightseeing, and winced at the chances people took in dashing across the street between buses. Trafalgar Square was busy - as ever - but had a rather lazy weekend feel to it's bustle. Things felt optimistic and open, a world away from the locked-down city through which I was recalling walks. We dipped into the Fleet Valley at Ludgate Circus and climbed towards the white flank of St.Paul's, resolving to stop in soon as we skirted it and headed deeper into the City and our last stop. Liverpool Street station has become a joint favourite spot - busy and open, full of possibility, signifying a place to head out into the unknown but equally a marker on our way home. Today, we headed directly for a suburban train out of there, soon passing under Brick Lane and scurrying across the rooftops of Bethnal Green with the sun bursting irregularly from between ominous clouds. It felt good to be back.
As we descended the stairs into the rather noisome tunnel at Cambridge Heath I could detect disquiet. Why had I brought us to this strange, semi-derelict corner of the city? This didn't ease once we turned onto Mare Street with its mix of kebab shops, overstuffed convenience stores and tumbled together housing. We crossed the canal and turned west into Andrews Road - one of my earliest Hackney Walks took this route, the proud gasholders dominating the skyline while the modernist roofline of Ash Grove Bus Depot sneaks into view between blocks. Neither of these architectural highlights were doing much to ease the sense of being somewhere less than pleasant, but the first hints of hipster Hackney saved me - as a pop-up shop outside an industrial unit yielded treasures... 1950s 'atomic' themed curtain fabric, heritage boardgames - we chatted a little before heading on beside the canal and turning into the bustle of Broadway Market. I was of course instantly forgiven, the low brick shops flanked a busy street market, several live musicians competed for audience, the smells of bread, coffee, meet and painfully-hip moustache wax filled the Hackney morning air. We dived in...
After visiting a fascinating store where a local trader was selling her fabric crafts, we wandered into the market. Almost right away we found ourselves, almost involuntarily, in the line for a coffee stall. The small crew of guys running it weren't hurrying, but the long queue said it all. The facial hair quotient too, spoke volumes - and as the neighbouring music stall played Pink Floyd we shuffled towards our brew. And when we finally got it, it was wonderful. I was transported the 4700 miles or so to Stumptown Coffee and happy mornings watching the Seattle traffic. This was good coffee, perhaps the best I've had in the UK. We pressed on - bread, meet, knitwear, books - the stalls were all just a little better thought-out than the usual fare at markets. The crowds meandered between them, sampling, purchasing, gossiping. Clouds rolled overhead and I though of my picnic plans, already beginning to feel inadequate in picturing my home-baked, rather flat bread in comparison to the shiny, dark crusts on display. Eventually we found our way to London Fields, with a sudden shower passing swiftly enough to let us sit and eat while a toddler with stabilisers, pursued some impossibly cool BMX kids around a cycle track at amazing pace and with a look of serious dedication! Out on the path where we sat, the only cycles were of the vintage, home decorated kind - and we listened to them clattering by while we drank Ginger Beer. The sun edged out - it was time to press on.
After a walk back through the market and a second visit to the coffee stall, we descended to the canal tow path. The sun seemed a little more likely to stay out now, so we started our walk east along the waterside. I recalled my last trek along here, and little had changed on the canal. Barges still doubled for cafes and market stalls, bicycles still careered stupidly along the edge of the path. The crowds seemed a little thinner - perhaps people really had resorted to this easier way of getting around last summer when it was busy? But the path remained well used as we curved south towards Old Ford Lock and crossed into Victoria Park. We found a spot beside the lake and watched the birds scudding into the water to land, routinely shaking their tail-feathers dry. Dogs hesitantly sniffed at the edge of the water, scared of the stately and surprisingly large swans. A brave little lad chased pigeons and occasionally bigger birds around, pursued by an amused parent. It was oddly idyllic - this strange corner of East London a near perfect spot this afternoon.
Our ride arrived and we headed off into Bow, sadly not heading for even more coffee at the Wick this visit. As we headed east to visit with our friends, the remnants of the Olympic Park loomed over the road. It seems strange how much time and effort I've spent walking in this patch of the city, and how there still seems so much uncharted territory. There will be future visits, more coffee, longer stays I hope. But I will always find myself comparing these jaunts to a hot, edgy summer which changed the city and certainly changed me beyond belief.
Posted in London on Sunday 7th July 2013 at 11:07pm
With only the loosest of plans we're heading east again. Having an Essex bolthole is proving hugely advantageous, but I'm out of practice at the advance booking game, and with Wimbledon reaching its inevitable conclusion this weekend, it was never going to be cheap. That said, we managed to use the unusually wonderful weather to our advantage - especially at our first destination which was Kew. After a minor altercation with a local who managed to get tangled in an ill-advised photo session some tourists were conducting, we headed for the village. It was calm and salubrious, a little market and a weirdly bad and expensive coffee shop, saved only by outdoor tables in a good location. Access to the gardens themselves was by expensive admission - even just to stalk the green spaces, so we picnicked on a village bench eating home made things happily and contemplating the weekend. The plan had been to hit the British Museum next, but we were sporting just too much luggage so we sought refuge from the heat in a Cafe Nero we'd visited once before. It was a welcome respite from the baking air outside.
The ascent from Bloomsbury by bus is slow and sure - less fragmented and hot than the crawl along Oxford Street but still at times it's a wonder we can nose through the crowds in Camden. The markets pour humanity onto the High Street. The heat reduces the pace to a crawl. It's almost a relief to begin the climb through docile suburban scenes to Hampstead. Once at the terminus though, the village is just as busy. Beer gardens overflow and people mill idly around enjoying the sunshine. We start the walk to Parliament Hill, encumbered by bags but undetered. The huge, stately villas of Hampstead impress not just with their order and beauty, but with their provenance - Orwell's name adorning the last in the row before the street gives way to a grassy rise. As we crest the hill, the slope falls away to reveal a knot of people basking in the sun, and beyond them a hazy, shimmering view over the city. I have completed another circle - returning here in entirely different circumstances. A whole new configuration.
Its even hotter when we head out the next morning, and we're drawn towards Westfield again. The manufactured streets throb with reflected pre-noon heat, and the unseen speakers leak terrible music. In the middle distance the dust bowl of the Olympic Stadium reflects heat upwards in a shimmering mirage. Everywhere there is publicity for the relaunch of the park and its environs. Names for new locales selected with only the most tenuous links with history, but with marketing blurb which uses them like they've always existed...we're asked to believe Sweetwater was always know as that because it's '...where they made Clarnico Mint Creams'. London's newest suburb in E20 - or a strange rebirth of the oldest village outside the city walls at Old Ford? It's a strange parting in the subway at Stratford station. A place I've spent disproportionate amounts of time lurking in the past, and which has featured oddly often in our visits to London recently too. It feels odd to be cut loose - a little groundless, lost and purposeless. But the walk is full of possibility and expectation - it's the hottest day of the year again and I wonder how I always manage to be shuffling around these dusty, empty pathways at this time of year? No hope of a designer coffee stall this side of the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. I have a vague notion of where I want to be - but no real thought of how to get there. This is how the best journeys all begin...
In the end I plump for the DLR. I hop in and unexpectedly get the prime front seat. Pretending I'm driving for the short trip to West Ham is diverting - but I'm aware I'm annoying a bunch of young Spanish students who wanted to do the same. I wonder idly if they're the same bunch who taunted me on my Limehouse Cut walk a year back? Perhaps I'm being haunted? On the platform at West Ham it's quiet - but the heat whacks me in the face the moment I leave the shade of the canopy. I climb the stairs, and I'm momentarily unsettled by the echoing brick cavern of the station. It's oddly good to be out in the open after this, walking a dusty industrial route alongside the railway. A deleted bridge sparks my interest briefly before the Greenway steps, which I ascend - the wide gated approach built for Olympic sized crowds now purposeless. It's too hot to be out, so apart from a few hardy cyclists the Greenway is clear. The Orbit shimmers in the middle distance back at my starting point.
The dense air clamps around Abbey Creek as clouds of insects rise and whirl. The ghost of the Channelsea Ricer reflected in the office block windows - which are now equally unrequired and empty. The reek from the modern pumping station envelops the old temple of municipalism, Abbey Mills Pumping Station - a weirdly oriental presence in the searing afternoon heat. Another small group of cyclists pause for water, but sniffing with distaste they soon move on. I cross the creek, and walk northwards towards the thin blade of a tower block on Stratford High Street, an oddly overt bit of Olympic planning gain. It could be a year ago - with all the tension and possibility that this walk would have contained then - but things feel very different. The temporary bridge taking the Greenway over the street isn't there anymore. The route is deleted in every respect. So, I turn west into the little knot of Bow streets which snuggle between the river and the sewer. A curious little estate of streets which seem quiet and inconsequential now, just as they were last summer at the height of the area's fame. Picking my way around the heat-blasted streets I find Three Mills Wall River and edge south. The park is full of sunbathers and frolickers - but its proving too hot to be energetic, so people loll listlessly on the grass. I'm an odd presence - still shirted, walking determinedly.
I linger briefly on Three Mills Island, because it always feels like a rather special spot. The tide is high, and the mill buildings look superbly solid and familiar. It's easy to get caught up with comparison and reassessment here, but I press on along the narrow spit of land which divides the watercourses. Even the ever present cyclists have decided to stay at home, and I have an unusually trouble-free trip to Bow Locks, with none of the incessant and impertinent bell-dinging high speed swishes of metalwork. The water shimmers ominiously here - a long-haired latin model is posing for a photoshoot against the lock machinery in his billowing pirate shirt, otherwise the scene is deserted. I traverse the looping bridge with its curious steps which make my ankles ache, and head up the slope beside the Limehouse Cut which leads to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. Appearing just over the rows of gantry signs and low-rise, empty-windowed former industry is Balfron Tower which I'd visited a few weeks back. Slowly, surely, this corner of the city is beginning to make sense to me.
Deciding that a bus adventure needed a little more time, I slogged the final section of the walk through Bromley-by-Bow on tired, hot feet. The High Street was quiet, occasional whoops of joy penetrating the quiet from garden paddling pools. I cut through the back of a block and onto Bow Road to pick up a more direct bus back to the City and soon found myself on an overheating 25 which must have been the first for a while as it stopped almost everywhere. I'd meant to get an 8 and take a circuit of Bethnal Green, but this would do fine. It also meant a brief final walk from Aldgate to Liverpool Street, passing the entrance to Bevis Marks Synagogue which I'd mentioned very recently based on a memory of a visit. As I refreshed myself with reduced priced baked goods and fruit juice in the gardens of St.Botolph's Church, I reflected on a walk which I couldn't have made a year ago because of security checks, but which now was just as diverting and engaging as ever. Any thought that it was the grand Olympic project which drew me here dissipated - it certainly helped, but the pace of change is always in a strange parallax out East. I'll be back, because I need to see what happens next...
You can see more pictures from the walk here. As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue line is the walking route.
Posted in London on Sunday 23rd June 2013 at 10:47pm
This trip had caught me somewhat unawares, coming at the end of a month which had been pretty eventful and as a result, fairly expensive. So, it was London on a shoestring - something I'd done plenty of times before. Indeed London is a city where it's very easy to do lots and spend little - and while its always easier to do the opposite, there is a kind of purity in keeping it simple. An added complication was the demise of my Oyster Card. I've had the card for years - and despite a few issues which have always been refunded, it's worked fine. But now, TFL have decided to take issue about a payment which was due during my debit card switch over period. I could just pay - but they've decided to cancel the entire account instead. So this felt like a very odd trip in some ways - London without the traditional means of getting around, and with very little planned. A blank canvas?
First stop once at Paddington was to get a new card and load on some credit. From here we made the eastward run to the place we were staying with friends once again. We arrived on a blustery but clear evening - the longest of the year - and relaxed. It was good to kick back after a fairly tough week or so, and the prospect of a day of exploration in areas I hadn't visited for a while was a fine one. With a fairly late start the next day, we set off on foot to Snaresbrook station. The terrain out here is always surprising. Once out of the Lea Valley and over the ridge into the Roding, the change in tone and situation is evident immediately. A little vestige of Epping Forest on the corner is testament to this being a much more salubrious neck of the woods. But just a stop or two down the line and we're in Leyton - closer to my usual wandering zones - comfortable with my discomfort. We press on to Mile End and make the cross-platform leap to the District Line and straight to South Kensington. Exit is by the Museum Tunnel - the second time I've used this - and it's still an impressively engineered, fiercely practical way of moving dry, happy people around this vast complex of knowledge.
After a pleasant morning coffee in the quadrant, surrounded by the fine buildings of the V&A, we perused the South Asian and Indian collections before regrouping in the stunningly tiled refreshment room. Our next plan was to wander up the grand Exhibition Road and find the Albert Memorial. I hadn't walked this way for a very long time, but the geography was quickly recovered - the long, straight planned sweep up to Hyde Park, the huge bulk of the Royal Albert Hall oddly hidden until up really close, the suddenly a flash of gold in the otherwise grey skies as the first glimpse of the memorial appears. We spent a while here, interpreting the text below the figures of great artists and examining the corner groupings which represent each continent - aside of course from examining the gleaming golden man himself, set in a starry-ceilinged booth. It was both spectacularly overdone and deeply touching in once. Seeing it thus, through new eyes after long years, it seemed both fresh and surprisingly real, standing against the wind. Return was a meandering trek - a top-deck bus ride along Oxford Street, a shopping trip on the Caledonian Road, then the Underground back to base.
Another lazy Sunday start led us onto the train, alighting at Stratford and heading to get coffee in Westfield. I remain intrigued by this place - it's odd mixture of public life and private function, and especially the rather zealous security guards who prowl, only an armband and a walkie-talkie between them and real trouble. We whiled away an hour or so, before heading out to press our noses against the fence of "London's most exciting new suburb". The site was quiet and empty, and felt odd. We made a run to John Lewis and headed for the bus back west along Whitechapel Road, switching near the Bell Foundry for the direct bus back to Paddington.
We packed quite a bit into a couple of short lazy days this visit, and a tired but happy run home confirmed this. London opens new doors each time I visit, and even more opportunities arise each time I visit in company. The contrast between the treasures and wonders we saw in South Kensington, and the skeletal pointlessness of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit couldn't be greater - but I still love the eastern fringes much better somehow...
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.