It takes seven hours to fly to London from the world’s most rapidly changing urban landscape, Dubai. The contrast is truly startling. A grey spring Bank Holiday gave opportunity to meet with family, seldom seen, in London’s East End. The projected 45-minute journey from London’s Cromwell Road to Hackney’s centre required one simple change: Tube to Holborn, alight, walk, board bus, arrive. Simple really!
Nothing in travel ever is quite that simple. Despite the Transport for London App directing me with to-the-minute-precision to find the nearby Bus stand H at Procter Street in Holborn, a twenty-minute wait indicated that the 242 bus was defintely not running to its once-every-8-minutes timetable. It failed to appear. Instead of technology we turned to the assured guidance of an Irish local, also standing in line – I’ll call him ‘Patrick’. He seemed like a Patrick. Sadly I failed to get his actual name. He took such enthusiastic pleasure in directing various potential passengers to their required bus. We made his day. He made ours.
“Yur know, those roadworks op ahead. Dayre de problem.”
I didn’t know.
“Yep. Dat’ll be de problem. No bosses dare. You’ll be needing de nomber 55. Jost walk op thair awhile. Every copple of minutes day com. Dat’ll be yur won, fur shore!”
Of course he was right. A 2-minute walk and 3 minutes later we were on our way
Meandering by bus through the East End route took us first along Gray’s Inn Road. My father had inauspiciously opened a new trading business in a fine office there in June 1939! Evacuation followed within a year. The fine old church, St. Lukes, now the St. Lukes Music Education Centre showed the repurposing of places of worship for a now largely non-Christian populace. Then the imposing Shoreditch Fire Station, and finally to our destination, Amherst Road in Hackney.
It’s a mixture of public/private housing, supposedly breaking down the have’s and the have-nots, changed by Thatcher-era capitalist aspiration. In the seventies reams of investigative journalism from the Sunday Times Insight team explored the social degradation of nearby Tower Hamlets life and the folly of breaking down long-established low-rise communities. Occasional words of English float across the air. Today Middle class capitalists own next door to Public housing, as London’s mixing pot renews the recipe.
Today it’s to be a pub lunch. We walk slowly, watching people grasp at the occasional shard of sunlight through otherwise thick cloud. Occupational Safety and Health it certainly is not. Agricultural enterprise is alive!
We pass the surprisingly verdant London Fields. There’s a brilliance to English spring trees. That certain yellowy-green announces new growth. It is a wonderful metaphor for the environment already greeting me.
The Cat And Mutton is an old pub on Broadway Market. It is full of young and a few old. They rejoice in a variety of local ales and fine traditional food; Fish and Chips with mushy peas, Hearty Steak Sandwich and chips, Fresh salad… and chips. A pile of well-worn Games boxes is stacked up on the counter, encouraging people to stay awhile to challenge their friends to yet another defeat in Scrabble or some other obscure board game. A group of six enthusiastically settles next to us at one of several communal tables.
Duly fortified by a fine Goose Island Pale Ale, we walk down Broadway Market past little boutiques, filled with trinkets, antiques and items of such specialised interest even a pop-up lease suggests improbable success. But it all seems to be working, and working well.
We cross the packed Regents Canal that will eventually meander its way to trendy Camden Lock to the West. The now defunct gasometer to the east of The Cat & Mutton Bridge, recalls a past era, where the canals brought coal for gas conversion for London’s industry. Such gasometers also featured near London’s Oval cricket ground in my youth, often noted in the dulcet commentary of John Arlott, the 1960’s voice of cricket. I am struck by some formidable street art and a quizzical pair of senior citizens confused and apparently confronted by what is before them.
On we progress, through a well-signposted City Walk past Hagerstown Park, packed with boisterous children and their families enjoying a Bank Holiday. We pass the Hackney City Farm. More surprisingly next to that is a fully contoured high-speed mountain bike trail. Of course shooting a picture of any adventurous under-age youth would no doubt have me immediately clapped in irons as yet another sixty-something Paedophile.
What ever happened to the freedom to marvel and rejoice at the exploits of youth and occasionally record them for posterity? Discretion sometimes has to be the better part of valour. You’ll have to imagine that 10-foot leap of one courageous youngster! But you don’t have to imagine the extraordinary street mosaic of the Columbia Primary School, assembled defiantly in 1986-’87, nearly thirty years ago, that each Sunday forms the backdrop to a flower market. A remarkable testament to rebuilding. Not a drop of graffiti anywhere near it. In fact there is precious little graffiti by urban standards.
Our final stop for a sobering coffee at Hoi Polloi, in the now up-market Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. On one side batteries of students all connected to free WiFi in the modern day equivalent of shared library tables of my university days, consuming their sustaining mandatory soy latté, working at their MacBook computers. Across the hallway, baristas serve organic fair-trade coffee, or dispense to a few perhaps too-early starters from a distillery of fine single malts, quality vodkas and other intriguing beverages.
East London seems to be thriving, to have a new energy. Stratford and the London Olympic site is just 10 minutes away by a shiny new underground and multiple public transport bus services, leading to Westfield’s magnificent shopping mecca. It is changing what it means to be a Londoner. Maybe it’s because, by birth, I AM a Londoner. A new spirit is alive. Beautiful and manicured it is not; in many places it’s still run down and tatty. But slowly and very surely, community is once again forming in the East End. It’s different to The Good Old Days. But the that is what change is about.
All text and pictures © Copyright John Swainston, 2015.