No Zebras Here, Pan Up, Park (One)Upmanship (2/80)

Tuesday 1 January – Abbey Road, Acton Central, Acton Town

A bright blue sky, the first for what seems weeks and by 11.30 am Fran and I are at Forest Hill station for the first leg of the marathon. Three quarters of an hour later we arrive at our first stop: Abbey Road – no, not that Abbey Road! Not the one in St. John’s Wood. Not the one on The Beatles’ LP …

This is the one on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) between West Ham and Stratford, called after the site of the twelfth century Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary Stratford Langthorne.

What? Where's the zebra crossing? Shurely some mistake. (Ed)

What? Where’s the zebra crossing? Shurely some mistake. (Ed)

I’m always astounded at the East End townscape: it’s such a mess. There’s a cluster of tower-blocks, one or two tarted up in modern steel-and-glass sleek to welcome the young professional middle classes, there’s some low-rise social housing and there’s a hotch-potch of vast tin sheds, depots and warehouses. To the north is Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, an ungainly praying mantis made out of giant meccano with a high-level tin can restaurant. There’s the Olympic stadium and the ‘Ice Cream Cone’, a folly tower block apparently thrown up to give views of the Olympics from outside the Olympic Park. It’s a folly because it doesn’t have lifts. It could stand in for the rest of the motley crew of buildings – all built as cheaply as possible, all built singlemindedly in pursuit of profit, all dispensable, all waiting for the next get-quick-rich fashion. All that is except for Joseph Bazalgette’s magnificent Victorian Abbey Mills Pumping Station. (A different abbey, I think, to St Mary’s.) The next time you have tummy trouble say a word of thanks to Bazalgette, the chief engineer of London’s sewer system, one of Britain’s finest works of public health.

Fran and I take the main exit from station. There are no ghosts of The Beatles, no Japanese tourists. There isn’t even a pedestrian crossing. We double back and take the side exit straight to Abbey Gardens. A few of the footings of St Mary’s are still visible surrounded by hillocky green turf. I get a fugitive whiff of the machair by the abandoned church on Papa Westray in the Orkneys. It’s the whiff of emptiness and abandonment, of one of history’s cul-de-sacs. Most of the site is now what is described as ‘an open-access harvest garden’. It’s a kind of allotment with narrow raised beds, many flourishing with leeks, winter greens, cabbages, onions and herbs. Large orange lettering on the northern brick wall of the garden proclaims: What will the harvest be?

An open-access harvest garden: political correctness or neologism? Answers on the back on an email.

An open-access harvest garden: political correctness or neologism? Answers on the back on an email.

There’s a group in outdoor gear being given a guided tour. Charles, the tour-guide, a rangy elderly man in a knitted peaked cap is introduced to us. He’s a member of the voluntary organisation which runs the gardens. ‘There’s a meeting on Saturday,’ he says. ‘Come along.’ I must look doubtful because he adds. ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got a politbureau.’ I joke back, ‘Ahh good old democratic centralism.’ Whatever happened to that, I wonder. Another historical cul-de-sac.

Half-an-hour after arriving, we’re catching the next fairground ride to Stratford. The Overground to Richmond is leaving as we climb upto the platform. The next is twenty minutes away. We turn back and venture into the Westfield Centre. Fran needs the toilet. I pester a British Gas guy trying to sell remote control for your central heating. One of the joys of age is the free hand us oldies are given to pester others. Clearly we’re not seen as a threat to the natural order of society, to the pecking rights on the status scale. Perhaps we’re the modern equivalent of the court jester, licensed to tell truth to power. Or, perhaps and more likely, we’re a minor but unavoidable irritant.

An hour later we’re at Acton Central. The station boasts a couple of fine station houses, one now, inevitably, a bar, and suburban-style platforms with scalloped canopies. It’s also the point where Overground trains, going south, lower their pantographs, while their chums heading north raise theirs.

The first of, hopefully, many pantastic signs.

The first of, hopefully, many pantastic signs.

But Acton Central itself is, well, disappointing. It’s pleasant enough, but not much of a centre, more of a long shopping parade dating from Victorian times, more upmarket than Forest Hill but with the usual coffee shops, fast-food joints, hair parlours, betting shops, mini-cab offices, estate agents, random builder’s merchants and the ilk. But there’s a Londis, Costcutter and Sainsburys Local plus a real butcher and a coffee place called Laveli bakery which sells bread as well as coffees and cakes. And the Council has titivated it up with map stands, waste-bins, hanging baskets and other street furniture. I feel the hot flush of a paean to the hanging basket coming over me. Well, no, not a paean, more like a threnody.

We could walk on further up Churchfield Road and in five minutes we’d be at Acton Town but that, of course, would be cheating. So we turn round and walk east of the station to Acton Park. This is a fine, if at present water-logged, park, a good example of the municipal Victorian park with a rather splendid 1930s bowling club pavilion and park café. It’s busy today with families and youngsters. The sun is still up and we’re all pretending to saunter – all except the young kids who don’t notice the cold – but there’s a scurry to our step and inside our overcoats our shoulders are hunched.

January in England: the pampas grass is swaying, the parakeets (out-of-shot) are screeching.

January in England: the pampas grass is swaying, the parakeets (out-of-shot) are screeching.

We board the Overground south to Gunnersbury where we will cross over to the District line going east. Except, of course, we forget our plan and stumble out of Gunnersbury station. Best not to say anything about this little escapade or about Gunnersbury station – that’ll await its day. We go back into the station and after heading east one stop on the District line and then heading west two stops on the District line west to Ealing Broadway we get off at Acton Town.

Sixtastic! Six columns of windows, each divided into six sections, each section sub-divided into six panes!

Sixtastic! Six columns of windows, each divided into six sections, each section sub-divided into six panes!

The station itself is a splendid example of beween-the-wars tube architecture: red-bricked, flat-roofed, squarish, flat-fronted with tall crittall windows. But Acton Town itself disappoints. It’s not a town, it’s not even much of a centre. It’s another suburban shopping parade but with less in the way of useful shops than Acton Central. Still, it’s got a Sainsbury’s local.

We walk west along Gunnersbury Lane. This is between-the-wars London: semi-detacheds with red tiled roofs, bay windows with red shingles over, painted brick or pebbledash fronts and small front gardens. Five minutes later we are at the A406 dual carriageway. Currently there is a queue of traffic stretching south towards the M4. Day One and we’ve come upon one of the sights of London: the suburban traffic crawl. We cross and head into Gunnersbury Park. This is a vast Victorian park and its landscape is Grade 2* listed. Deservedly so with its lovely ancient trees and groves, its mid-18th century Temple, its Orangery, its ruins, its Italian garden. Many of London’s parks were originally private estates with grand mansions owned by dukes or gentry or upstart City magnates or financiers – in this case, the Rothschilds. But Gunnersbury Park has two mansions – the ‘small’ and the ‘large’. The ‘small’ is big enough to house the whole Tory front bench to the standard they’re accustomed to – if you’ll excuse the dangling preposition.

Unfortunately, both mansions are decaying. The two local councils (Hounslow and Ealing) who run the park are trying their best. They’ve got English Heritage funding and there are patches in the park which have been lavished with this largesse  and look the part. But mostly it’s a mixture of decaying grandeur and the normal everyday.

Park (One)Upmanship: Gunnersbury Park has two mansions - this is 'The Small Mansion'.

Park (One)Upmanship: Gunnersbury Park has two mansions – this is ‘The Small Mansion’.

There’s the mittel-European lady, turned out in her Sunday best, walking her dogs. ‘They’re playing football over there,’ she says to me. I think she’s being helpful. There’s the bright chattering batch of teenage girls in their blonde hair and Ugg boots clutching their coffees in their corrugated cardboard cups. There are two young children scootering down the steep path from the mansions. They’re all enjoying themselves. Even the kids’ mother. OK, she looks terrified. OK, she comments, ‘My heart is in my mouth.’ But from the depths of my wisdom I can see that she’s enjoying herself. I think. Or is that a parental rite of passage? Definitely the stacks of people in the park café tucking into their chips and burgers and cakes and coffees and fizzy drinks  are enjoying themselves. The misted-over windows and the volume of noise from the café are dead giveaways that something like enjoyment is taking place. Hmph! goes The Inner Curmudgeon, ‘Hardening their arteries with sugar and fat. If we call that enjoyment we should get our heads seen to!’

We return to Acton Town station. There is a queue of traffic heading north on the dual carriageway. It takes us an hour and a quarter to get back to Forest Hill. The Piccadilly train is packed. The Jubilee train is packed. There is room to breathe on the Overground. It’s New Year’s Day and Londoners are out enjoying themselves. Or, at least, coming back from holiday or shopping.

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